Hartley’s continued F1 bow throws quick curveball to Indy silly season

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Yesterday’s confirmation that Brendon Hartley would be in the second Scuderia Toro Rosso race seat for at least the next Formula 1 race in Mexico this weekend does build the case that his eventual switch into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 isn’t yet solidified.

Although no one from Chip Ganassi Racing has confirmed it publicly, there’s been enough chatter among IndyCar insiders within the paddock that Hartley is destined for that team’s second seat next season alongside four-time champion Scott Dixon, in what would be an all-Kiwi lineup to counter Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ all-Canadian pairing and Andretti Autosport’s all-American quartet.

However, such a confirmation appears delayed because of the now greater possibility that Hartley’s F1 career could continue past this brief 2017 cameo.

If it did, there would be ripple effects to come, and suddenly a guy who hasn’t made his IndyCar debut is the domino that triggers what’s left of IndyCar silly season.

Essentially there’s two scenarios at play, so let’s forecast them here:

HARTLEY COMES TO INDYCAR, AND DOESN’T GET F1 SEAT

If Hartley is confirmed at Ganassi, it lessens the likelihood of significant movement in the other remaining seats. Beyond the No. 10 Honda, there are three “official” seats and anywhere from two to three “unofficial” seats still standing for 2018.

Those remaining “official” seats are the three cars that raced in 2017 but whose 2018 plans aren’t solidified: the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, No. 4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet and No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet for road and street courses. The two or three “unofficial” seats would be one or two at Carlin, provided Trevor Carlin’s team makes a step up from Indy Lights (although they weren’t present at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and perhaps a second seat at Harding Racing, which has been rumored in recent weeks.

Incumbents Ed Jones and Conor Daly are rumored to be favorites at the Coyne and Foyt seats at this juncture, while Carpenter’s road and street course seat is a wild card. Carlos Munoz has said he’s out of Foyt, leaving the team in a Daly-or-bust situation if it’s to retain one of its two 2017 drivers.

Among others, RC Enerson is believed to be exploring his options to make a comeback into the series after his impressive three-race cameo the end of 2016.

Carlin is earmarked for Max Chilton in at least one seat but whether Charlie Kimball would come along with him seems a question mark based on what NBC Sports is hearing about the amount of potential budget he could bring to a program.

Or…

IF HARTLEY GETS 2018 F1 SEAT, SUDDENLY IT ALL CHANGES

Hartley signs for fans in Austin. Photo: Getty Images

So beyond Mexico there’s two more Formula 1 races – and for that matter two more FIA World Endurance Championship races – for Hartley to complete this year.

After Mexico, he’ll go to China for the FIA WEC penultimate round of the season on November 5, and then in succession if he got the F1 slot for the final two races he’d come back to the Americas with the Brazilian Grand Prix on November 12, then complete a Middle East double dip with the Bahrain FIA WEC finale on November 18, and then the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix November 26.

It’d be a grueling stretch but one Toro Rosso may well opt for him to do so as to stop its rotating driver lineup, with Daniil Kvyat all but dismissed again following this past weekend’s United States Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s management will have a greater sample size to judge Hartley’s potential on with at least two Grands Prix, if not four, by this stage of the season. And after Mexico this week, they’ll have their first look at a direct head-to-head matchup between Hartley and Pierre Gasly, two young drivers with a combined 3 Grand Prix starts between them entering the weekend, but two young drivers who are more in the mold of what you’d expect a Toro Rosso lineup to be.

Provided Hartley can be extricated from his potential IndyCar bow at Ganassi, if such an arrangement has already been agreed upon between the two parties, it opens up a couple intriguing possibilities with both this seat and others in the series.

One such option sees Coyne moving back to its status of “TBA” despite it wanting to keep both Jones and Sebastien Bourdais for another season.

Both Coyne and Jones said at Sonoma they hoped to reach a deal within “a couple weeks” of the Sonoma season finale but as we near the end of October, that hasn’t been done – and Coyne’s team is back to having one standing TBA driver in its lineup.

Could Jones and/or Enerson be in the frame for the Ganassi seat if it becomes available? And what then would follow at Coyne, in terms of who could line up alongside Bourdais if Jones isn’t there for a second successive season? Enerson would be a natural choice and his former Indy Lights teammate, Santiago Urrutia, is also believed to have sniffed around that team’s situation.

THE WAITING GAME

IndyCar silly season has stalled out of late, with expected confirmations coming at Schmidt Peterson and Foyt – but not at Ganassi or Carlin – in the last few weeks since the season ended at Sonoma.

The delay now sees IndyCar waiting on an F1 driver’s fate, over what is a crazy travel stretch of racing over several countries and continents.

It goes back to our pre-United States Grand Prix look at Hartley’s stunning 2017 rise, in that a guy who’s never as much even sat in IndyCar before suddenly holds the keys to the remainder of IndyCar’s 2017-2018 silly season.

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).