PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, Laguna Seca edition

PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, Laguna Seca edition

Is David Malukas headed to Chip Ganassi Racing? Will Takuma Sato retire at the end of the year? Where will Felix Rosenqvist end up? And how about Colton Herta and Formula 1?

I feel like I’ve said this more than once in previous updates, but there’s more going on right now with IndyCar’s silly season than at any other time I can recall which, like everything else about 2022, makes absolutely no sense.

Let’s start with Herta. RACER’s Chris Medland has confirmed everything both on and off the record with Red Bull’s plans to go racing with Herta next season in an AlphaTauri if he’s granted a Super License. But thanks to F1’s inflexible points-based licensing system, this could prove to be nothing more than a high-profile dead end for the Californian.

Granted, as Medland outlined in a podcast we did this week, there is a pathway for Herta to earn the eight points needed to get him to 40 where receiving a Super License becomes possible. To do this, he’d need to hop on a plane soon after Sunday’s checkered flag and dedicate the rest of the year to living in Europe and focus all of his attention on F1.

Herta still has a path to a Super License, but it’s a narrow one. Michael Levitt / Motorsport Images

If he holds onto eighth place in the current IndyCar championship, three more points would be earned, taking him to 35. And if Red Bull/AlphaTauri are really serious about getting him to 40, five FP1 appearances over the six remaining F1 races would leave Herta with 40 and open the door to an AlphaTauri seat if they want to go that route with licensing.

It’s also important to note that when the first wave of Herta-to-F1 talk was happening, I’d heard there were senior and influential people within F1 who were keen to help Herta clear the licensing hurdle. With the known points shortage, sympathies were held to get the IndyCar front-runner onto the F1 grid. Those sympathies, based on comments from F1 boss Stefano Domenicali, have disappeared. Few expect the requested Super License exemption for Herta to tip in his favor, so provided that fast-tracking method is denied, he’d need to get busy on FP1 Fridays starting on Oct. 2 in Singapore.

At least within his current team, they’re preparing for the Californian to finish out his IndyCar contract which runs through next year. Speaking this week with Andretti Autosport COO Rob Edwards about whether the team has a replacement lined up for Herta in the No. 26 Honda if he uses the F1 exit clause in his contract, he said, “I don’t think it’s gonna look any different next year than it looks this year.”

Could that change? Of course. But it’s not on Andretti’s radar right now.

Let’s move next to the Malukas situation. He’s signed to a two-year deal with Dale Coyne Racing. On a related note, Henry Malukas — whose Henry Malukas Drivers (HMD) trucking business is the financial engine behind HMD Motorsports’ 57-car Indy Lights team and serves as the primary sponsor on his son’s No. 18 DCR with HMD Honda entry — is also in the first of a two-year co-entry agreement with Coyne. That’s two two-year contracts and Coyne’s history with drivers wanting to leave early has been one-sided; he doesn’t let them go.

Now, if we’re looking to 2024, I’d expect all the top competitors to fight over Malukas, but as for today, it’s hard to see Ganassi getting himself entangled in a lawsuit with Coyne over Malukas’s services…while trying to resolve the current lawsuit over Alex Palou’s services. If Malukas is driving anywhere other than DCR in 2023, it will be a big surprise.

Takuma Sato has been the subject of many rumors over the last six weeks or so. I’ve heard he’s continuing in the No. 51 Coyne Honda. I’ve heard he’s retiring from full-time IndyCar racing, and I’ve heard he’s set for an Indy 500-only role with DCR and Rick Ware Racing. About two weeks ago, I was convinced he’ll back for one more season, but as of last weekend, more uncertainty was cast on Taku’s future plans.

Progress could be made this weekend in Monterey on what the 45-year-old’s next season might look like. The No. 51 DCR w RWR Honda has been a rocket on the ovals, but elsewhere, Sato’s competitiveness — as his current 19th place in the drivers’ standings shows — has been a fluctuating thing. Coming off of finishing 11th with RLL last year, I do wonder if a proud two-time Indy 500 winner nearing the end of his time in IndyCar would want to give it another full-season go without promises of more speed and consistency. Whatever he and Coyne come up with for next year is being watched by all of the drivers searching for a way into the series.

Will Takuma Sato return? Will it be full-time? And might it be with a different team? Stay tuned… Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

If any more proof was needed about 2022 serving as the craziest silly season on record, I heard a rumor about Andretti Autosport pitching a MLB-style player swap where it would send Devlin DeFrancesco to DCR in exchange for Sato, who won the 2017 Indy 500 for Andretti. Thinking the rumor was too insane to be true, I asked someone who knew the answer and was shocked to learn the trade was actually proposed. Andretti and DeFrancesco eventually chose to continue and complete the second year of their contract in 2023, but yes, an actual driver-for-driver trade was floated.

Why would Andretti want to bring Sato back to the team? While the efforts to replace DeFrancesco were in motion, I kept hearing of a desire to have an Indy 500 winner or champion on its roster — knowing it was losing Alexander Rossi — to help with promotions and the entertaining of sponsors and B2B partners. As the team looks ahead to next season, Only one of its four drivers (Herta) has won an IndyCar race.

On one final DCR-related note, we know the team, through its partners at HMD, is interested in bringing its presumptive Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist into the IndyCar Series. Lundqvist is also drawing new interest from outside DCR, and if the ladder system works as it’s meant to, he’ll be on the grid next year with a full-time seat. If Sato steps back or away altogether — outside of the Indy 500, I assume — that would solve DCR w/ HMD’s Lundqvist problem.

But there’s another Lundqvist angle to consider that I’ve confirmed. If he’s unable to find a proper seat in IndyCar, he could be headed to the Japanese Super Formula series for a year to bide his time and wait for the large number of IndyCar drives that will become available in 2024. RACER understands Honda Japan is ready to fund Lundqvist, if necessary, for a one-year detour. And if he can land with a DCR or another IndyCar team, I’ve heard Matt Brabham is open to taking the Super Formula opportunity.

As I’ve heard it explained, at least two teams have reached out to Daniel Ricciardo to inquire about his interest in driving their cars, and the contact has been one way, from the paddock to the Australian. I’ve also heard of one team with a similar outreach to Sebastian Vettel, but the enthusiasm was held by the team, and not the driver, on the prospect of sampling IndyCar.

The fate of Felix Rosenqvist remains a compelling thread to follow, and we’ll close here. The Swede continues to wait to see if McLaren Racing will take up his option to stay with the team — a real signing, not the fake one it presented to the world in June — to stay in the No. 7 AMSP Chevy.

Any notion that Rosenqvist is still a possibility for Formula E and a return to Europe has been put to rest as many of those same sources confirmed he’s in the midst of completing the purchase of a house in the greater Indianapolis area, all while the questions of whether Alex Palou will take his seat have been circulating. Where McLaren was his lifeline a year ago and was likely the only team that wanted him after a dreadful 2021 season, that power dynamic has drastically shifted this year and there are multiple teams I’ve spoken with who are ready to sign him if he becomes a free agent.

Timing is also an important factor here with Rosenqvist, Palou, and McLaren. Those sources all pointed the IndyCar option McLaren holds on Rosenqvist — a team-based option where McLaren alone holds the power to enable it for 2023 — expired as of midnight on Sept. 30. Why is that important? Rosenqvist has been McLaren’s fallback position if it can’t get Palou through mediation or a federal court.

I’ve heard the second round of mediation might be going nowhere fast, and if that’s true, and the Palou contract continues into October, McLaren could lose its Plan B with Rosenqvist and, depending on how a judge might rule, lose Palou as well. Unless the Palou situation gets untangled before Sept. 30 in McLaren’s favor, would the team opt to pull the trigger on Rosenqvist’s option on Sept. 29, or similar, if it feels like it might lose Palou?

Would Andretti, Juncos Hollinger, RLL and others who need a driver, might need a driver, or might want to make an upgrade, break out their checkbooks on October 1 to secure Rosenqvist’s talents with a lucrative contract? I bet they would.

There’s more silly season stuff going on, as always, like Andretti being rumored to test its Formula E front-runner Jake Dennis in October at Sebring, but we’ll wait until the championship closes before doing our next update.