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'IndyCar 2014: Silly Season Speculation' by Frank Santoroski

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As we head toward the final stretch of the 2013 Izod IndyCar season, we have a tremendous title-fight shaping up.  At the same time, we have a number of drivers in a contract year who have yet to finalize plans for the 2014 campaign.

At the center of the rumor mill, the names James Hinchliffe, Ryan Briscoe, and Tony Kanaan are being thrown around the most.  The most intriguing open seat seat is at Chip Ganassi Racing where they seem intent on expanding back to a four-car operation.  Panther Racing, having released J.R. Hilderbrand earlier this season, has a seat up for grabs as well.   They may indeed have two open seats as they speculate on expanding to a two car team.  Bryan Herta’s Barracuda Racing operation has asked Alex Tagliani to step aside for the remainder of the season so that they may evaluate younger drivers.  This leaves the seat open for 2014, while Tagliani seems destined to join the Vitor Meiras of the world whose career results didn’t quite live up to their potential.

If any of the top drivers choose to jump ship to pursue another opportunity, it could create a domino effect that may change the face on IndyCar next season.

I’ll try to break it all down for you here, and lend you my perspective on what may actually happen.

dariowillhelioLet’s start with who will stay put.  At Team Penske, Helio Castroneves is in a contract year, but there is no reason to assume that his contract won’t be renewed particularly considering his performance this year.  Will Power will return to the operation as well.  A third car does not appear to be in Penske’s immediate future unless a high-dollar sponsor can be found.

Expect to see Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti in their familiar red and white Target livery at Chip Ganassi racing.  Charlie Kimball is expected to return in the third Ganassi car as well.

Takuma Sato’s season has had tremendous contrast with high and low points.  Nontheless, A.J. Foyt Racing has gone on record saying that they would like to retain Sato’s services for 2014.

Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier will return with Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, and Josef Newgarden is safe at Fisher Hartman racing.  Graham Rahal will be back with Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan.  Rahal’s teammate, James Jakes, is in a contract year, but he doesn’t appear to be on anybody else’s radar, so expect him to stay with the team along with sponsor, Acorn Chairlifts.  The only owner/driver in the series, Ed Carpenter, will be back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car in 2014 as well.

Dragon Racing is looking to keep its driver lineup intact with Sebastian Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra.  Bourdais in on the cusp of bringing the team its first win, and is in a contract year.  While Bourdais’ name has been floated around the paddock a bit, it seems likely that he will be able to reach a deal with Dragon Racing for 2014.

111320xAt Andretti Autosport, Ryan Hunter-Reay is in the middle of a multi-year contract and Marco Andretti’s seat is safe as well.  E.J. Viso is in a contract year, but for some reason Michael Andretti has faith in this guy, so expect him to return as well.  A fifth full-time car for Carlos Munoz appears to be a done deal.

Of the teams running multiple cars, Andretti Autosport has been the most successful.  This would be a primary reason for James Hinchcliffe, a free agent for 2014, to stay put.  However, Chip Ganassi would like to see Hinch in his fourth car.  Target has expanded its operations into Canada and having the Toronto native on the team would play well.  Problem is, that fourth car won’t be sponsored by Target.

This would be a lucrative deal for Hinchcliffe and for Target if, and only if, it were a long term agreement that guaranteed putting Hinch into the #10 car at some point in the future.  Dario Franchitti, the current driver of that car, is the oldest driver in the series having turned 40 in May.  He has shown no signs of slowing down, and the word retirement hasn’t come into conversation.  So, where would this leave Hinch in the immediate future? Waiting in the wings like Conan O’ Brien to replace Jay Leno, only to have that blow up in his face.

TKIndy_3_4The smart money says Hinchcliffe re-signs with Andretti Autosport.  Should he leave the team, however, that opens up a prime seat and it is being rumored that Tony Kanaan may return to that team.  KV Racing would like to retain Kanaan, but is struggling to find funding.  Should Kanaan leave, this could be devastating to KV racing, being that 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan is their main selling point to potential sponsors.  In the second KV Racing car, expect Simona de Silvestro and her sponsors to return.

Kanaan’s name is also being mentioned in conjunction with the fourth Ganassi car.  Chip Ganassi has attempted to sign Kanaan at least twice in the past, and he would fit in well with Franchitti and Dixon, as well as being a fine mentor for ever-improving Charlie Kimball.  To me, it seems that Kanaan ending up in that car is a long shot at best.

BriscoeAnother likely candidate for that Ganassi seat is  Ryan Briscoe.  Briscoe is a proven winner on the circuit and a free agent.  The Australian driver ran the fourth Ganassi entry at Indianapolis this year and finished 12th.  He also drove for Chip Ganassi back  in 2005.

Briscoe has driven in five races for Panther Racing this year and is the leading candidate for that seat. For Briscoe, it is a choice between being a fourth wheel at Ganassi, or the number one driver at Panther.  Briscoe has gotten on well with the team, but a broken wrist took him out of the car at Toronto.  Should Panther be unable to sign Briscoe, the other name being mentioned is Oriol Servia.  Panther would like to expand to a two-car operation, provided that they can fund it.  The most likely scenario there would be Briscoe and Servia as teammates.

At Barracuda racing, things are little clearer than mud, other than the fact that Tagliani is out.  Luca Filippi and J.R. Hildebrand will fill the seat for the remainder of the season with Hildebrand running at Sonoma and Fontana, while Fillipi takes the seat at Baltimore and Houston.  With decent results, either of these drivers could earn that seat, or the team may go another direction entirely.  Oriol Servia’s name has come up, as has Sebastian Bourdais’ and Justin Wilson’s.

Wilson-At-IMS-StdDale Coyne Racing has an option on Justin Wilson for 2014, but nothing has been signed as of yet.  While Wilson’s name is being tossed around the paddock for a number of rides, I would suspect that Wilson would return with DCR.  Coyne’s second car will likely be filled by a number of different funded drivers throughout the course of the season.  If he can finance a full season, James Davison could possibly fill this seat full-time.   Davison ran the car at Mid-Ohio and finished 15th. 19 year old Japanese Formula 3 champion, Ryo Hirakawa, tested with the team at Sonoma earlier this week, and  could possibly bring along funds for a 2014 ride.

Also looking to add a second car to their stable is Fisher Hartman Racing.  The team recently tested Lucas Luhr at Sonoma.  The 34 year old German driver has found great success in the ALMS series, but has never driven an IndyCar. Sarah Fisher confirmed that they will enter a car for Luhr at Sonoma later this month.  How well he performs in the event will factor into the team’s 2014 plans.

PippaOf course there will be a number of teams and drivers looking to put together one-off rides for Indianapolis and perhaps other events.  You can expect names like Pippa Mann, Conor Daly, Katherine Legge, Townsend Bell, Wade Cunningham, Ana Beatriz and perhaps, Alex Tagliani to factor in here, but the bigger story will be whether or not NASCAR’s Kurt Busch can put together a deal to run the 500 with Andretti Autosport.

The driver lineup for 2014 looks to hinge on what James Hinchcliffe decides to do.  He will have a lot to consider, and it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

Watch the Izod IndyCars in action on August 25th for the GoPro Grand Prix in Sonoma.