The championship with a $1 million fight for last place - The Race
IndyCar

The championship with a $1 million fight for last place

Oct 16 2020
By Jack Benyon

“If you ain’t first, you’re last”, or so the ballad of Ricky Bobby goes. But next weekend in IndyCar the fight for first in the championship between Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden is likely to be just as fierce as the battle for 22nd thanks to the series’ structure.

Each regular season entry that finished in the top 22 the previous season qualifies for the Leaders Circle, the IndyCar programme which, among other things, awards each team in it around a $1 million bonus for completing the races providing that car does the full season. If you’re an F1 fan, think of it kind of like the Concorde Agreement.

IndyCar defines the Leader Circle thusly: “The program whereby IndyCar provides benefits to Leaders Circle participants in exchange for their participation in all of the races.

“Leaders Circle participants must enter into an agreement with IndyCar, remain in good standing and be uniquely identified by a tax identification number, car number and driver.

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“Leaders Circle designations may not be transferred, and/or otherwise assigned without prior written permission by IndyCar.

“IndyCar may limit the number of Leaders Circle participants as it deems appropriate.”

IndyCar does not discuss the particulars of the Leaders Circle publicly. The Race understands it is still at 22 cars and intends to be next season, and that each entry is still awarded around $1 million despite the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the series – which had to cut its Indianapolis 500 purse earlier this year despite announcing it would be bigger, before the coronavirus pandemic.

Teams inside the Leaders Circle are also eligible for bonuses depending on individual races and so on, but what we’re interested in here is the 22nd position in the championship, and the fight for the overall $1 million.

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However, it’s a complicated one. You may have been surprised to see a number of driver swaps for the penultimate round – a double-header at Indianapolis earlier this month – but one of the reasons for that may have been to provide a boost in the battle for 22nd, with 23 cars vying for it.

The 22 Leader Circle teams are divided by car number, not team or driver individually. So it doesn’t matter if 10 drivers race the #1 car during a season for example, the number of points the #1 accrues over the course of the season decides where it finishes in the owners points and thus if it makes the top 22 included in the Leaders Circle.

Here are the points standings for the drivers in the fight for Leaders Circle spots heading into St Petersburg next weekend, in order of each car’s owner points position.

The fight for 22nd

Owner points position Car number St Pete driver Points total Points needed to secure 22nd
17 55 Alex Palou 220 1
18 7 TBC 200 20
19 26 James Hinchcliffe 199 21
20 4 Charlie Kimball 194 26
21 20 Conor Daly 179 46
22 14 Sebastien Bourdais 173 47
23 98 Marco Andretti 166 n/a

Regardless of the number of starters in St Pete, all drivers will score at least five points provided they start the race. That immediately means a pole or just starting the race will propel rookie Alex Palou to a guaranteed top 22 spot.

The drivers behind work out their guaranteed safety based on Marco Andretti – the driver in 23rd and the only one who can move from outside to in the Leaders Circle – taking pole, winning the race, leading a lap, and the most laps for the maximum 54 points available. In reality, that’s nigh on impossible to happen.

Andretti is regularly lauded as one of the nicest drivers in the paddock and is certainly capable of speed, but the son of his team owner Michael faces the prospect of a fourth finish outside of the top 10 in points in five years.

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He’s encountered a number of car gremlins this year, but even at his strongest points – like scoring pole for the Indianapolis 500 (above) – he’s failed to deliver, taking 13th in that race. His last top-five came at the end of 2018. His best finish this year, 10th, means that all the drivers he is fighting would win on a tie break by virtue of scoring a better race result that Andretti at some stage of the season.

No one needs to tell him that it’s not really good enough, you get the feeling that Marco holds himself to higher standards than anyone else could. This year has been particularly hard on him as Andretti Autosport has really struggled. Only a run of four consecutive podiums has lifted his regular title contending team-mate Alexander Rossi from 18th in the standings, while the team’s number #26 is also in this Leaders Circle fight for 22nd.

The good news for Marco fans is that he’s finished in the top 10 three of the last five races at St Pete and finished on the podium in 2013 too. So he has scored good results in Florida in the past. A 54-point maximum just isn’t going to happen though.

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If it did, a 10th-place finish would guarantee the #7 Arrow McLaren SP car safety, ninth for Hinchcliffe and seventh for Charlie Kimball, all providing Andretti nets the maximum. But all three of these teams are very likely to be safe from this battle.

All three have had tricky seasons with Oliver Askew suffering with concussion, handing the car to an out of practice Helio Castroneves for Indianapolis. The driver of that car is to be decided but will be Askew if he’s passed fit.

That has an interesting sub-plot, as Felix Rosenqvist is set to take over that car next year and for a growing team like AMSP, that million dollars will be crucial. Askew could well be racing to help out the team that is ditching him and the driver that is set to replace him!

Knowing he would be out of the #26 car next season, Zach Veach stepped aside and allowed his part-season Andretti team-mate James Hinchcliffe to take over at the previous round at Indianapolis. However, Hinch failed to better Veach’s result on the same track earlier in the season. Kimball only has one top 10 for this year and needs seventh to ensure safety, but can afford to lose 28 points to Andretti.

That leaves – unless something catastrophic happens for one of the above – Conor Daly (below), Sebastien Bourdais and Andretti the likely ones really fighting for the last Leaders Circle spot.

With a budget of around $5-8 million to run a car for the year, the Leaders Circle money can make a lot of difference, especially in the face of a pandemic.

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The man teetering on the precipice at the moment is series returnee, Bourdais. He is 22nd at the moment, and seven points clear of Andretti.

While it wasn’t mentioned when his return was announced, having him back early ahead of 2021 can only be a good thing for the #14 AJ Foyt car’s chances of reaching the Leaders Circle.

Bourdais won at St Pete in 2017 and 2018 (below). The only question is likely to be, can his team give him a car capable of winning.

The squad hasn’t finished in the top 10 at St Pete since 2016 with Takuma Sato, and only has two IndyCar podiums anywhere in the last six seasons. It has regularly finished in the top 22 but 2020 is both unpredictable and an extremely strong year in terms of driving talent, especially with the late-season additions.

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Bourdais’ return for the last three races started with a broken push to pass system at Indianapolis and then a tricky race mired in the pack hindered progress. Ultimately he couldn’t get heat in the tyres and he scored a 21st and an 18th respectively.

It looks like there’s going to be 24 or 25 cars present at the St Petersburg round next weekend, so Bourdais will be hopeful the team has made progress from where it was at Indy.

“It was a really tough weekend,” Bourdais told The Race. “We can come up with all sorts of strategies, if you don’t have the pace, you don’t have the pace.

“There’s definitely gonna be some analysis because obviously, also, we tried a bunch of stuff.

“So we’re gonna go through and re-render the weekend, see what we learned, and once they’ve had time to analyse things and try and correlate the feel and the data.

“St Pete, it’s going to be a whole different animal. It’s actually one that we had a little bit of preparation for going in, because we had that Sebring test. And then, we did a simulator day back in February at the Chevy simulator.

“Nothing’s changed, nobody’s run the street course set-ups since. So I hope what we think we learned over there is still going to be valid and we have a better weekend.”

IndyCar lost all of its street course races this season apart from St Pete, which was due to open the season but was cancelled and then reorganised to end the season. It means if there’s any one hope for Bourdais, it’s that he is less likely to be playing catchup, as no one has raced a street course round yet this year.

It’s also where he lives, so he knows the area well and is desperate to get next season started on the right footing, grounded in 2020.

Daly is an interesting prospect as a rival for this event.

His season is difficult to decipher in many ways. He’s contested the oval events (apart from the Indy 500) with Carlin and the road courses with Ed Carpenter. His oval form with Carlin has been extremely impressive, leading their development with “radical” ideas. Gains in the damper department specifically have made a big difference and unlocked the team’s first IndyCar pole – at Iowa.

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The road courses have been a bit more difficult for Daly and the Ed Carpenter team though, and it’s the number #20 car that faces the threat from behind at St Pete.

It is at least the best placed car of the lot in the points heading in – 13 points clear of Andretti. But arguably the one facing the trickiest challenge. Daly hasn’t raced at St Pete since 2016 (above) and 2017, where he finished 13th and 15th respectively. His street outings have been few and far between recently and only the weekend of St Pete will point to whether that shows.

Bourdais has the most unfamiliarity despite being the best of the three at this track. Daly has visited street circuits infrequently and faces constant car/team swaps creating volatile momentum, and Andretti has the best car of the trio but the poorest form.

It’s set to be a fantastic battle for what may normally be a forgotten position in the order, and could even make or break next season for these teams and drivers too.

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