The Silliest Of Silly Seasons
The first practice for the IZOD IndyCar Series season-opening race is a little more than three weeks away, and we’ve already seen one of the craziest off-seasons that I can remember. I don’t keep stats of driver changes from season to season, so there may actually be one on record that has featured more changes than this one – but if there has, it’s been a while.
At last year’s season-opening race in Brazil, there were twenty-three cars that were slated to be full-time rides. Nine of those cars have either been confirmed to have different drivers sitting in them at St. Petersburg or are strongly rumored to. Dale Coyne Racing and Conquest represent three of those cars (Bertrand Baguette didn’t run the second car for Conquest until Barber last season). Mario Romancini was out of the No. 34 entry for Conquest before year’s end. Milka Duno is likely not returning at Coyne and Alex Lloyd’s return is questionable at best.
We know that Hideki Mutoh is out at Newman/Haas. Although James Hinchcliffe looked to be close to signing a few weeks back, the latest rumors have Oriol Servia returning for another stint at Newman/Haas. It also looks as if Mario Moraes drew the short straw at KV Racing Technology – Lotus. Of course, he didn’t land his seat last year until the eleventh hour prior to Brazil, so we’ll see what happens there.
J.R. Hildebrand replaces Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon at Panther. Wheldon has the best resume of any of the current free agents out there but brings little cash to the table. I still think he would be a good fit at KV, but it all depends on sponsorship. Paul Tracy thinks he should be slated for a third seat at KV. If that seat goes to Wheldon, who has less cash than Tracy, don’t look for Tracy and Jimmy Vasser to exchange Christmas cards next off-season.
Of course, the biggest move of the off-season was Tony Kanaan being cut loose from Andretti Autosport – that is until his latest ride at de Ferran Dragon Racing fell apart when they shut their doors last week. It now sounds as if Kanaan’s leaving AA wasn’t just about dollars and cents. Apparently, there was some tension mounting between Kanaan and the team. If he had become hard to work with, I still think Kanaan’s absence will leave a huge void at Andretti’s team. Who else will set up all of the team’s cars at Indy this year – Danica? Mike Conway moves to the fourth car at Andretti. Conway has shown potential in his one and a half years in the series, but he falls way short of Kanaan on experience.
Just what happened with Gil de Ferran’s team? It’s funny how this used to be called Jay Penske’s team. When it was changed to de Ferran Dragon Racing, was Steve Luczo still involved? Just before this all happened, I noticed on the IndyCar website that they had changed their number from the No. 2 that Rafa Matos ran for the last two years to Kanaan’s familiar No. 11. The No. 11 had been synonymous with Tony Kanaan since 2003. I have no idea where No. 2 goes. Matos appears to be on the outside looking in. I don’t hear his name mentioned in any discussions.
So what happens to Kanaan? Does he go to a third seat at KV? How about a second car at Panther? When we first learned in October that TK was on the market, I thought Panther would be a good fit. Does he move even further down the food chain and snag an available seat at Dale Coyne’s team? Tony Kanaan has a full slate for the next three weeks.
Just yesterday, we learned that Sam Schmidt has invested/merged with FAZZT Racing. This is good news on a couple of fronts. Like de Ferran Dragon, we were hearing rumblings that FAZZT was in financial trouble. This keeps another team on the grid and a good driver in Alex Tagliani in the car. This was especially important because this team showed so much promise in their first season last year. This is also positive because it moves Sam Schmidt into the IZOD IndyCar Series on a full-time basis rather than the Indy-only program he had been doing in conjunction with his very successful Firestone Indy Lights team.
Of course, Chip Ganassi has expanded his operation by adding two new satellite teams. Graham Rahal will drive the No. 38 Service Central car, while rookie Charlie Kimball will pilot the No. 83 Novo Nordisk sponsored Dallara. Added to the mix is Ed Carpenter replacing the retired Sarah Fisher in a part-time ride at Sarah Fisher Racing.
Then there are the same team and driver combinations that have taken on new sponsors. Simona de Silvestro will have a completely different look from her orange and black look from last year. Her car now assumes a wild looking white and green livery to reflect her new sponsor Entergy. The Team Penske cars of Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe may have a different look every week as their sponsorships will rotate throughout the season. Gone are the days when you saw an orange day-glo chevron, you knew it was a Penske car. Some sponsors haven’t been announced yet.
Some seats remain unfilled. Aside from the aforementioned rides at Coyne, Conquest and Newman/Haas; there’s still a vacant seat at Dreyer & Reinbold now that Mike Conway has departed. Maybe Kanaan makes it an even swap as he takes Conway’s old seat after Conway took his at AA.
New teams, new sponsors, new liveries and new car numbers will make it hard for even a die-hard to know who’s who at St. Petersburg. But that’s part of the lure for this time of year. New looks in the paddock bring new attitudes. Even a nine year-old Dallara can be given new life with a new driver and fresh paint scheme. Practice starts for St. Petersburg three weeks from this Friday. I can’t wait. If there is this much excitement for this season, imagine what next season will bring with new cars, engines and aero kits.
Look back at how far things have evolved since this time just two years ago. As the 2009 season was about to kick off, the excitement of the unification with Champ Car had worn off. Many teams had become victims of the economy and fallen by the wayside. Tony George was in charge. Things had stagnated and appeared to be rudderless. Now things are headed in the right direction (assuming Mr. George stays off of the IMS board) and are only going to get better. There is still a lot of work to do and they’re not there yet, but I’m as optimistic right now about open-wheel racing as I have been in seventeen years.
It’s been a crazy silly season. I can’t wait for the real season to get going. It’s going to be a long three weeks.