Going into the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener a few years ago, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, we had a tongue-in-cheek post looking at Dale Coyne Racing’s TBA options for its No. 18 Honda.
Ultimately, Colombian Carlos Huertas was the team’s choice, and his shock win at Houston race one stood as the team’s most recent race victory until Sebastien Bourdais opened the 2017 season on top this year.
However the rapid movement of Brendon Hartley away from Chip Ganassi Racing has seen Ganassi pry Ed Jones from Coyne’s grasp for 2018.
Hartley was projected for the Ganassi seat but received a Formula 1 chance from Scuderia Toro Rosso starting at last week’s United States Grand Prix.
Bourdais and Jones’ early confirmation last year seemed to project a brave, TBA-less world at Coyne, but now – like midseason after Bourdais’ injury in Indianapolis – TBA is back at Coyne with a vengeance.
It now means the No. 19 Honda alongside Bourdais for 2018 is open, and there’s any number of candidates who could fit.
Here’s a list of potential options:
RECENT COYNE DRIVERS
Coyne’s rotation of drivers in its Nos. 18 and 19 cars throughout the last three years has been plentiful, and features this list of drivers not currently signed for 2018: Esteban Gutierrez, James Davison, Tristan Vautier, RC Enerson, Conor Daly, Luca Filippi, Pippa Mann, Huertas, Rodolfo Gonzalez, Francesco Dracone and Rocky Moran Jr.
That crop of 11 drivers features a couple proper standouts, a large number of drivers with mid-range potential and two or three drivers who are best left forgotten in IndyCar lore.
Of that group, Daly, Enerson and Gutierrez would seem to have the best chances… hypothetically.
Daly overachieved results-wise in 2016 but largely achieved those finishes thanks to excellent strategy from Coyne, who Daly called a “wizard.” But he’s now out at Foyt. Enerson’s three-race cameo at the end of 2016 impressed many in the IndyCar paddock, but his miss at the seat for the 2017 season seems to loom large.
Gutierrez is in a position where he desires a full-time seat and Mexico desires a full-time race, but would Coyne want to keep him for another season after a respectable but not outstanding series of fill-in drives for Bourdais this year? That’s a bigger question mark.
Knowing Coyne’s propensity to take chances on young drivers, it might be worth looking instead at the next crop of kids.
INDY LIGHTS GRADUATES-IN-WAITING
As Coyne struck pay dirt with both Jones and Enerson in the last two years, it’s worth looking at the number of Indy Lights drivers poised to make the step up to a greater IndyCar role in 2018.
Jack Harvey, the Englishman, has a budget to float with support from AutoNation and SiriusXM. His three-race stint this year between Andretti Autosport with Michael Shank Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was decent, but he didn’t have the best set of circumstances at his disposal in either opportunity.
Zachary Claman DeMelo, the teenaged Canadian, is another driver who would seem to fit here. The Montreal native made his debut at Sonoma with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and excelled on race pace for those looking deeper than just the pure results. With support from Paysafe, “ZCD” might be the three-letter acronym that replaces “TBA” at DCR.
Santiago Urrutia has talked openly of being “close” to an IndyCar seat and is known to have had conversations with Coyne before. The Uruguayan has a wealth of speed to burn and talent at his disposal, but he’s not had the best relationship with some of his team members in his two years in Indy Lights, save for engineer Tim Neff who he excelled with.
Matthew Brabham seems forgotten by the IndyCar world but the Australian American is an affable young kid with a lot of talent at his disposal. Budget has always been his biggest hurdle to clear though.
Others such as Colton Herta, Aaron Telitz and Nico Jamin, who all tested at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test last weekend, all are likely a year away or more from their IndyCar bows. Jamin, of these three, is the most IndyCar-ready while Telitz impressed in a big way with his win in the rain at the Watkins Glen finale.
Past Indy Lights drivers Dean Stoneman and Felix Serralles headed to sports car racing in 2017. Meanwhile Felix Rosenqvist has a Formula E contract for the 2017-2018 season, so the speedy Swede is unavailable, and half the reason the Jones-to-Ganassi thing happened in the first place was due to the contract block as Rosenqvist is highly regarded by Ganassi and was the leading candidate for the No. 10 car if he was available.
THE REMAINING INDYCAR 2017 LEFTOVERS… NOT LIKELY
Knowing Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and JR Hildebrand all raced full-time in 2017, they could be available, but given budget isn’t a strong suit for any of these three – Kimball would probably have the most to offer – it’s highly doubtful any of these three would be in the frame for the seat. Kimball has raced only for Ganassi while both Munoz and Hildebrand have now bounced around multiple teams in the paddock. Kimball has been linked to Carlin’s potential bow with Max Chilton as its lead driver, but isn’t confirmed there.
Similar Sebastian Saavedra has been teammates with Bourdais twice previously at Dragon Racing and KV/AFS Racing. He’ll have some budget on offer but seems less likely as well.
Honda Dallara 2018 UAK test driver Oriol Servia would be an excellent choice here and achieved his best success in IndyCar with Bourdais as his teammate in 2005, at Newman/Haas Racing. But the chance of Coyne having two veteran drivers here are slim at best.
A EUROPEAN OR LEFT FIELD OPTION?
Knowing there’s been occasional out-of-left-field choices in the past, there could well be interest from drivers whose F1 hopes have faded or upcoming drivers who might not be able to graduate into F1 from Formula 2 who could enter the frame. Similarly, there’s drivers in the sports car world who may have interest here too.
SO HOW DOES ONE PICK THE TBA?
Picking the answer to a Coyne TBA choice requires finding the best answer to a hypothetical math equation, which is: Talent + Budget / Realistic Hopes of Succeeding in a Low-Pressure Environment.
The drivers listed above boast varying degrees of talent and budget and realistically, a younger driver with less than a full year’s experience in IndyCar will be more well attuned to the opportunity here, than a more experienced driver.
It makes one of the Indy Lights drivers the more likely pick at this juncture ahead of most of the recent Coyne leftovers, as the combination of an eager-to-please young gun with a budget in hand means they’d be entering in with lower expectations, and would look to emulate an Enerson or a Jones in wowing the paddock depending on how they progress.
It’s also worth noting whoever the pick is will have an excellent engineering team at their disposal to work with.
This is Dale Coyne though, and Daly’s “wizard” term is accurate here.
Something of a magician to have kept his small-budget team going for 30-plus years, Coyne’s known for surprises.
Faced with the unexpected vacancy to fill, how Coyne moves forward is now the next big question mark of the goofy 2017-2018 IndyCar silly season.