PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, October edition

PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, October edition

IndyCar’s silliest season on record is finally slowing to a more reasonable pace as the few remaining seats in the series are starting to fill.

With Santino Ferrucci’s return to full-time racing in the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevy, we’re down to Chip Ganassi Racing’s fourth Honda-powered entry, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Honda and the new No. 78 Chevy from Juncos Hollinger Racing to resolve on the driver front.

The CGR situation is an interesting one that’s filled with all kinds of layers and angles. Earlier in the month a few outlets ran stories saying 2007 Formula 1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen is destined for the car formerly driven by Jimmie Johnson, with the Finn taking the road and street courses while Johnson, possibly, returns for the ovals.

Common sense seemed to get lost on that one; the price tag for the seat is steep and Raikkonen isn’t a driver who pays. Let’s overstate the obvious: This scenario isn’t happening. Johnson is expected to be in CGR’s fifth entry for the Indianapolis 500, but that’s all.

As I’ve been told on multiple occasions since Johnson announced he was stepping away from full-time racing, the best thing to understand with the vacant fourth car is the team is only focused on signing a single, full-time driver who will complete the 17-race calendar. That fact alone should make it easy to dispel rumors about ride-sharing teammates.

As I mentioned two weeks ago on my podcast, current (and soon to be former) Williams Formula 1 driver Nicholas Latifi is known to be on CGR’s radar. The seat remains open, and Latifi isn’t the only one in contention to join Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, and Marcus Ericsson next year. But he is the perfect fit for the opportunity as the Canadian has plenty of skill, the necessary funding and a need to find a new home.

Is IndyCar on the horizon for Latifi? Motorsport Images

I understand Latifi was meant to test with CGR during the recent break between the Japanese Grand Prix and this weekend’s visit to Circuit of The Americas, but it was postponed. I’ve also heard outreaches from Latifi’s camp were made to Andretti Autosport, but there’s no room for him there as all four entries are taken. With F1 in town, I’d imagine more than a few drivers, including some Formula 2 talent, will be exploring their options to join the defending Indy 500 winners.

While there’s some urgency to identify the next driver of the fourth CGR entry, there’s a matching need to find the future driver for the No. 10 Honda that Alex Palou will race for one more year. Per his contract, Palou is barred from signing with any other team until late next year, but once the non-negotiation period is over, he will be off to Arrow McLaren SP. CGR is under no illusions as to where Palou is headed, which makes surveying the driver market now and lining up candidates to test/replace the Spaniard in 2024 a priority as well.

A rumor that’s been constant for a few months is the expectation for longtime CGR sponsor NTT Data to move from the No. 10 car driven by Alex Palou to Arrow McLaren SP. Both teams aren’t interested in talking about it. As multiple sources have told me, the plan was for NTT to move to AMSP with Palou, and despite the driver side of that deal being nixed, the commercial side went forward: I’ve heard NTT will reunite with Rosenqvist, its former driver at CGR, for approximately one-third of the season as multiple sponsors rotate as the primary on the car in 2023.

The next situation to work through is the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda.

Like CGR’s empty seat, I’m told there’s nothing set or signed, but there is a strong belief that two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato will be back in a modified role. From our last silly season update, we mentioned all options were on the table for Taku — full-time, part-time, and Indy-only — and the latest I’ve heard suggests he’ll head into the new season as an oval driver and it will be his last multi-race season in IndyCar. I know he wants to do one more yearlong IndyCar run, so that’s a possibility, but it’s a scenario that has steepening odds.

I’ve also heard Sato could branch out into sports car racing to fill some free weekends, but there’s nothing fully confirmed in either area. Provided Sato isn’t driving for DCR w RWR on the road and street courses, we’d be looking at another CGR-like situation where the team wants to place a single driver in the No. 51 for the entire season.

There are lots of different scenarios in play for Sato. Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

In an oval-only program, Sato would move to a third DCR w/ RWR entry — possibly the No. 19 Honda — for those five races.

That would leave the No. 51 wide open for a new driver to pair with David Malukas, and prior to last week’s evaluation tests at Sebring, I had New Zealand’s Marcus Armstrong as the top candidate to step into the 51 car next year. Then Danial Frost did impressive things in the same car the following day and gave DCR w/ RWR some serious things to think about.

Coyne, to his credit, is never short on up-and-coming drivers to slot into his team, so I’m always prepared for a name to pop up that we weren’t expecting. Nonetheless, between Sato, Armstrong, Frost, and any others lurking in the shadows, the team wants to continue its very recent trend of having its drivers locked in before the end of the year, so on the current trajectory, it sounds like we won’t be waiting until January or February to learn who’s piloting the No. 51.

The last full-time seat to fill belongs to JHR as it expands to two cars. Compared to CGR and DCR w RWR, I don’t think we’re going to see this entry resolved on a faster timeline. I’ve heard Armstrong was a top candidate — he’s close friends with JHR’s Callum Ilott — but that didn’t progress.

Indy Lights driver Sting Ray Robb is said to be armed with a decent budget — he was hoping to join Ed Carpenter Racing in a third entry, but that won’t materialize — and would seemingly fit the team’s need for funding to put the No. 78 Chevy in motion, the split between JHR and Robb after a disappointing 2021 Lights season might have left some rough edges to smooth over if a reunion in IndyCar were to happen. JHR is in no rush to name a driver, so among the three teams with full-time driver contracts to execute, it might be the last to confirm its plans.

There are a few other nuggets out there right now, including one significant driver adjustment that’s in the works, and we’ll save that and the rest of the developing items for our next installment.