What IndyCar's driver market silly season could have been - The Race
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What IndyCar’s driver market silly season could have been

Dec 24 2021
By Jack Benyon

Some people predicted that 2022’s IndyCar driver market silly season was going to be unexciting, but that was not the case.

An influx of young juniors from Europe, two respective Indy 500 winners and IndyCar champions, seats at Andretti, Penske and Rahal were all on the market and of course Romain Grosjean’s future was a long-running saga.

WIth the benefit of hindsight – and trying to be realistic about the options out there – The Race has gone back and redrafted the 2022 silly season.

Let us know your line-ups in the comments and where our writer went right or wrong.

Penske’s fourth car

Our driver: Rinus VeeKay

Rinus Veekay Firestone Grand Prix Of Monterey M48192

In this alternate reality, Penske is the first domino to fall as it’s a team any driver would be silly not to want to drive for and its record speaks for itself.

Scott McLaughlin was a revelation in 2021 given his lack of open-wheel experience, but pre-season predictions he’d win a race were off. McLaughlin will get there, but in season two – 2022 – Penske has lost a champion and Indy 500 winner in Simon Pagenaud and not replaced him as it reduces to three cars.

McLaughlin might be a long-term gain but Pagenaud’s a short term loss.

It might re-focus a team that never really wants to expand to four cars but it might also be a huge mistake in terms of its IndyCar results.

The Penske/Pagenaud relationship had run its course, so advocating for re-signing him isn’t realistic.

Given the options on the market, it’s tempting to go part-time and bring Takuma Sato into the team as Penske’s Indianapolis 500 form has been woeful since the introduction of the aeroscreen in 2020, a year in which Sato won the race.

However, a part-time car isn’t ideal for Penske, and Sato is wedded to Honda, so the next best option for Chevrolet-powered Penske is to sign the best young driver on the market and that might well have been 2021 race winner Rinus VeeKay.

OK, he’s been hugely inconsistent, but he’s unlocked a tricky to drive Ed Carpenter car like no one else and would surely be a regular threat in Penske’s battle with Ganassi.

The last time Penske took a gamble by signing a young Ed Carpenter driver, it worked out pretty well with Josef Newgarden. VeeKay isn’t the same package as he was at this stage of his career, but he’s young and full of potential.

Arrow McLaren SP’s third car

Our driver: Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud Honda Indy 200 At Mid Ohio M44287

This is a tricky one as for the basis of this feature we’re giving Arrow McLaren SP its third car for 2022, which in the real-world it hasn’t managed to do.

However, it could have done had it found the right driver.

And who better to drive than Pagenaud? He knows some of the team’s personnel from his time at the squad previously, and with a new car coming in 2023, who better to help develop things than Pagenaud? He’s engineering-minded and has so much experience.

He might not be the long-term option AMSP has been looking for, but it has that in Pato O’Ward. Felix Rosenqvist still has time to make this a lasting home, too.

Grab Pagenaud while he’s on the market and you add someone who’s won a championship and a 500. That’s what this team is currently missing with two drivers light on IndyCar experience. Signing someone like Stoffel Vandoorne would only add to that.

Andretti Autosport’s third and fourth cars

Our drivers: Romain Grosjean, Kyle Kirkwood

9, 2021 Kodak Colorplus 200 Canon Ae 1 Nikon F100

No need to alter the Grosjean signing, it’s a great one. If he steps up his performance from the modest resources at Dale Coyne then he’s a championship-calibre prospect. If he struggles to adapt for any reason, he still brings a wealth of experience which at the very least would help this Andretti team become a respected contender once again. Not just with Colton Herta.

The deal to sign Devlin DeFrancesco has been in the works for a while and, having covered DeFrancesco for a long time, I know there’s potential there.

Nov 24 : Your IndyCar questions answered!

However, in this alternate universe, Andretti has taken the correct decision that Kirkwood is a one-time chance for a future American hero. The Floridian is well presented and has the best junior open-wheel CV America has ever seen.

If he’s not an IndyCar-ready prospect I don’t know what is, and no team should have passed on him.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan second and third cars

Our drivers: Christian Lundgaard, Santino Ferrucci

8/15/2021

Christian Lundgaard’s performance at Indianapolis this year made him an obvious choice for Rahal and his potential means there’s no need to alter that decision. It’s a good one.

In this scenario, Rahal has gone in a slightly different direction and signed Santino Ferrucci for its new third car though.

His record in the team’s car this year speaks for itself with the fifth best average finish in the series for drivers who did more than one race.

Admittedly one of the team’s flaws has been its qualifying performance and that’s probably Ferrucci’s weakest attribute, but Rahal aren’t suddenly going to qualify miles better after signing Jack Harvey in real life.

That’s to take nothing away from Harvey, but clearly, qualifying is an area that needs to be focused on throughout the team.

With Sato gone, the team has no Indy 500 winners, one driver who hasn’t done it yet and another with a best finish of ninth.

Ferrucci is an upgrade there. Give him a year to make good on the promise shown in 2021, and if that doesn’t work, go for one of the big names in a stacked 2023 driver market silly season instead. It’s the perfect stop-gap.

Meyer Shank Racing two cars

Our drivers: Helio Castroneves, Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey Meyer Shank IndyCar

No change from 2021 in our alternate universe, although obviously in real-life Harvey leaving paved the way for Pagenaud to join.

The team loved Harvey, it has an adjoining sportscar programme with lofty ambitions of returning to Le Mans, and he’d just started to work with the best Indy 500 driver of this generation in Helio Castroneves.

Rahal might be trending forward, building a new factory and running BMW’s sportscar effort in the States, but it didn’t win a race in 2021 and neither did Harvey. There’s certainly positives to staying with MSR.

Ed Carpenter Racing two cars

Our drivers: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Oscar Piastri/Jack Aitken/Ed Carpenter

Oscar Piastri Alpine F1 junior F2

Alright, admittedly readers, if you want to get angry in the comments this might be the place to start with. It’s a bit bonkers, but with its talisman VeeKay heading for Penske at the top of this article we’ve had to get creative.

Hunter-Reay might have had a woeful year at Andretti but that’s not all his fault. Clearly the team has a very inconsistent car on road/street courses. Someone with more experience than VeeKay and Conor Daly may be able to help the team work through that and Hunter-Reay is a champion and Indy 500 winner to boot.

There’s plenty of frustration out there that Oscar Piastri isn’t on the Formula 1 grid in 2022 despite his prodigious talent. Therefore who better to bring to IndyCar?

With what VeeKay has been able to do with the car on occasion, you could persuade Piastri in for a part programme, although he will of course be busy in his F1 reserve duties.

Piastri could do five races without missing any in F1, and given Alpine were happy to let Lundgaard go over – albeit not as its reserve driver – there could be potential for more.

In this scenario it would be great have Sebastien Bourdais to fill in and do the other races – I still can’t believe a top team hasn’t gone for him – but he’s doing full-time sportscars with Ganassi. So let’s go for the real-world option of Jack Aitken who is discussing a part or full-time deal with the team at the moment.

If Piastri isn’t available, give the job to Aitken. He’s known for his development skills and would surely help the team’s road course performance, although he doesn’t necessarily fulfil the team’s criteria of being an Indy 500 win-threat.

It wheels out a third car for Indy anyway – so Aitken can rock up and learn – and is always a contender there, so it could persuade a big hitter to come in and do a job. Bourdais is the guy for that, too.

Dale Coyne’s two cars

Our drivers: David Malukas, Takuma Sato

Takuma Sato Indy 500 2020

No need to change either decision here. Coyne simply isn’t going to compete for an IndyCar title with a field this stacked, so why not try the next best thing and go for the 500?

Sato was the best driver on the market for that, strengthening the team’s bond with Honda and gives it a fighting chance to make good on a car that has had the potential to be very good at the 500.

Nov 01 : Our top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2021

With Malukas it welcomes strong backing and brings in a really exciting American talent with a lot of potential. It’s another opportunity for Coyne to continue its stellar record of cultivating young talent.

AJ Foyt Enterprises two cars

Our drivers: Devlin DeFrancesco, Linus Lundqvist

Devlin Defrancesco Evaluation Test With Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport At Barber Motorsports Park M50024

We’ve already got Kirkwood at Andretti and believe Dalton Kellett isn’t of the standard to help push this Foyt team up the grid, as nice as Dalton is.

With DeFrancesco harnessing some potential and good backing, we’ve slotted him into this more low-key debut at Foyt than the one he’ll get in real life at Andretti.

In the real world if he struggles to adapt immediately he’s going to be criticised and so is Andretti for not signing Kirkwood. Here DeFrancesco gets an under-the-radar IndyCar start and can earn that step up in the future.

Lundqvist might be a season too soon for promotion after he finished third in the Indy Lights championship. However, the underlying potential is there.

If Foyt really is interested in having young drivers instead of its recent form of going for mostly veterans, then this line-up would be high risk – which is necessary because of the team’s poor results – but potentially high reward.

Juncos Hollinger Racing one car

Our driver: Callum Ilott

Ilott Juncos

Teams on the IndyCar grid clearly didn’t know Ilott was available for 2022 and hadn’t considered him, which is why he fell to a team making its IndyCar return and its first full season.

However, this is a good match for both sides. Ilott has the chance to use the skills he’s garnered from developing Ferrari F1 cars to push Juncos forward and give himself two options. Be part of Juncos becoming a contender or impress one of the big teams for a drive.

Juncos knows what it has in Ilott and even if it only has him for a year or two there’s only positives. The only question is whether it can put the right people around him to make this a quick success.

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