What a wild week it’s been for the IZOD IndyCar Series! From surprise driver announcements to engines testing on track to possible schedule news, the offseason has heated up to a near-fever pitch. Our INDYCAR Nation contributors sat down for another roundtable discussion on the week that was:
What was the most exciting or surprising news for you in INDYCAR from this past week?
Chris Estrada, ICN Contributor: You figured that Dragon Racing would be involved in some form or another during the 2012 championship, but as a full-time, two-car operation with one of American open-wheel racing’s best drivers in Sebastien Bourdais? This definitely qualifies as a surprise and Jay Penske deserves praise for getting his team back into shape after its partnership with Gil de Ferran fell apart last offseason. But perhaps the biggest winner in this scenario is Katherine Legge, Bourdais’ new teammate. She won’t be given high expectations as she has been in sports cars for the last few seasons, but that will make an easier environment for her while learning valuable knowledge from her French counterpart.
Kyle Lavigne, ICN Contributor: For my money, nothing came as more of a shock than learning that Dragon Racing is set to return as with Sebastian Bourdais and Katherine Legge as drivers. Bourdais and Legge securing deals isn't much of a shock (Bourdais is among the hottest commodities out there and Legge's return has been widely speculating for some time), but Dragon Racing as a two-car effort is a major shock. The fact that they ran ANY races at all 2011 after "shuttering" their doors was a feat in and of itself, and news of Jay Penske running a multi-car outfit only a year later seemed to come straight out of left field. They finally made it official this week and it will be great to see the Jay Penske-led group back on the track.
Steph Wallcraft, MoreFrontWing.com: The most exciting news to my mind by far was James Hinchcliffe's signing to the GoDaddy car at Andretti Autosport. Even setting aside my Canadian bias for a moment, the many positives here are blatantly obvious. His affable personality and penchant for self-deprecating humor will be a great fit for GoDaddy's marketing style. Plus, as a driver, James underwent a deep transformation in 2011 -- he sucked up Oriol Servia's tutelage like a sponge, and by the end of the season he had developed his skills enough to take home the Rookie of the Year title after missing the first race of the season. He'll do great things in the GoDaddy car (provided Chevy delivers a competitive engine, of course). I've even developed some confidence in his ability to handle the pressure that comes with the role, which is something I might not have said a year ago. The future looks very bright indeed for the young Canuck, and it's a beautiful thing for the sport.
Zachary Houghton, IndyCarAdvocate.com: I think the surprise of a resurgent Dragon Racing took just about everyone except by Marshall Pruett by surprise. This was a team was considered most likely an also-ran in 2012, if they really competed at all. After signing Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge and networking with a number of California-base tech sponsors, Dragon Racing is now one of the most interesting stories of the new season.
James Hinchcliffe's news at Andretti Autosport is exciting (as well as long-anticipated), but how about the Lotus engine getting some genuine track time in this past weekend? It's nice to see the third engine manufacturer roar to life--and in a sharp, classic test livery to boot. The engine fight for 2012 is becoming a reality and heating up!
Paul Dalbey, MoreFrontWing.com: From my standpoint, the most surprising news had to be the announcement of Legge and Bourdais to Dragon Racing. As much as I hoped for good things from this team last year, Indianapolis was a complete disaster and the rest of their races were only considered better because they actually took the green flag. I had mostly written this team off so to have them come out swinging with the likes of these two drivers is astonishing. Rumblings were that Bourdais was headed back to Europe full time after things didn't fall into place with Coyne, so just the fact that with 4-time CCWS champion will get to duke it out again with the big boys brings even more depth to the field.
After making James Hinchcliffe's signing to the Go Daddy ride official this week, Michael Andretti said chances were "60-70 percent" on adding a fourth car at Andretti Autosport this year. Which free agent driver do you see as the best fit at Andretti?
Chris: With the signings of Bourdais, Legge, James Hinchcliffe, and now Oriol Servia, a lot of the “prize” free agents have been snapped up. Justin Wilson’s technically still available, but he’s been linked to Dale Coyne Racing (although the team has denied signing him). That would appear to leave Paul Tracy as the sole big name left, but there are others on the market such as veterans like Vitor Meira and Alex Lloyd, and Martin Plowman, a former Andretti driver in Indy Lights. Michael Andretti’s been tight-lipped about which drivers he’s targeting, which makes it tough to say who’d be the best fit for this drive if it materializes. But a Tracy/Andretti alliance would be like a dream come true for some fans.
Kyle: Though there are a number of free agent drivers still out there, my personal opinion is that Andretti Autosport should scale back and run three cars instead of four. Yes, it was once a four-car dynamo in 2004 and 2005, but in recent years, it almost seems that running so many teams has stretched the operations resources.
I'll use NASCAR's Richard Childress Racing to help illustrate my point. In 2007 and 2008, all of Childress' three cars made The Chase. In 2009, the team added a fourth car; no one made the Chase that year. Sponsorship issues forced them to cut back to three cars 2010; all three again made The Chase. Last year, back as a four-car outfit, only one of Childress' entries made The Chase.
Yes, there are still good drivers who remain unsigned, and it is probably likely that Andretti Autosport will sign of them as its fourth driver. But, I believe they'd be better as a three-car team in 2012.
Steph: This is a tough one. Keeping in mind that we have a twisty-heavy season ahead of us -- and thinking of who would be the best fit with the team as a whole -- I'm inclined to pick James Davison. He's rumored to be connected with the seat, and it would make some sense to me if he got it. (It's a shame that Adam Carroll seems to have disappeared since he showed some promise with AA a couple of years ago.)
Zachary: I understand if Andretti ends up focusing on their current lineup, but Michael has always been pretty clear that he wants a four-car program. If they're going to go with a non-rookie, I'd like to see Bertrand Baguette get a shot. He's well-respected, showed well at Indy last year, and has the right attitude and talent to make it in INDYCAR, but by all accounts he'd need some real funding to make it happen. If not Baguette, it would be great to see Alex Lloyd back full-time. I could see him as a really good fit on that team, as well.
Paul: With the stout lineup already in place at Andretti, I think this could be a great ride for a driver that has shown well in the past with limited time and/or equipment and is waiting for that big break. In my opinion, this is the perfect spot for a driver like Wade Cunningham. I thought he showed very well for himself last season at Kentucky and Las Vegas, and he has done all any team owner could ever ask of a young driver (except bring a very large check, of course). This could also be a great landing spot for Alex Lloyd if things don't materials for him at Coyne. And just to put the name out there, I wouldn't be surprised if Martin Plowman gets some consideration here as well, especially given his history running with the team in Firestone Indy Lights competition.
It sounds like everyone involved wants the historic Milwaukee Mile back on the schedule for 2012. If it does come back, what are the biggest steps those involved should take to ensure its success?
Chris: Milwaukee is a great track for drivers and fans alike, so it was very discouraging to see the attendance as poor as it was last summer. In order to come back strong in 2012, the Mile needs solid promotion (preferably with the help of a title sponsor). Another point: Last year’s event at Milwaukee proved to be one of multiple examples involving ovals that were deemed essential to have by the public, but didn’t have a good box office on race days. INDYCAR can’t have that happen again.
Kyle: A title sponsor and effective promotion would be a major boost for the Milwaukee Mile, but I think it also needs its race date moved to the weekend following the Indianapolis 500. The Mile thrived in that place on the calendar, using momentum from Indianapolis, and always seemed to draw a nice sized crowd. Putting the race back into that time frame looks like it would give it a nice push.
Steph: This event is suffering from catch-22 syndrome -- The Mile has so little seating that it needs corporate sponsorship to survive, but it's difficult to drum up corporate support if there aren't any butts in the seats to advertise at. If INDYCAR is serious about developing a market for its oval races, it might need to take this one on itself and pump some serious resources into it -- and be prepared to take a serious hit for a couple of years -- to educate Midwest race fans on the new date, offer affordable tickets to get them to show up, and put on an exciting race in front of packed stands to gather some corporate attention. Another important point: self-promotion allows INDYCAR to treat the fans like people, not cattle. The poor treatment folks received on Saturday last year prevented many of them from returning on race day. When ridiculous rules are enforced (like suddenly implementing a no-coolers rule at the track for the first time in many years) and communication is nearly non-existent, it doesn't matter who's fault it is -- it looks bad on INDYCAR. Changing that perception should be a high priority.
Zachary: The promoter efforts in 2011 were catastrophically lacking. Disorganization and poor outreach really hurt the event. This is hallowed ground to American racing; it needs a competent promoter and a good, regular date to bring it back to its rightful place on the schedule. Obviously, a title sponsor would be huge as well, but in the end, fans clamoring for ovals need to go to ovals. It will help if those ovals are set up for maximum value--make the event an experience, with a full day of racing and on-track action. An earlier start time wouldn't hurt, either.
Paul: If Milwaukee is to be a success, both the owner/promoter of the Milwaukee Mile and INDYCAR are going to have to agree upfront to a multi-year deal. This event can't be expected to magically transform over night, especially considering that the proposed race date is only six months from now. The odds of the 2012 being a great success with this late start date are slim. It has to be a deal that can use 2012 as a starting point towards bigger and better things in 2013. To make this race work, the promoters are going to have to do a much better job of tapping into the Chicago market and getting their message out. Last year, the race had ZERO tangible promotion in the Chicagoland area, and from what I hear, it only had slightly more in the Milwaukee area. The race doesn't have the luxury of having people just show up at the track the Sunday after the Indianapolis 500 anymore. Promoters are going to have to promote and get their message out to the masses.
Sèbastien Bourdais signed with a revived Dragon Racing, Oriol Servia is now confirmed at Dreyer and Reinbold, Justin Wilson is rumored at Dale Coyne Racing, and Paul Tracy is making a lot of noise on Twitter. Outside of those veterans, which currently unsigned INDYCAR driver would be the biggest "get" for the Series, and why?
Chris: It’s been a little perplexing to see Tomas Scheckter have to go without a full-time ride since 2007. The South African has proven time and again to be an exciting presence on the track and at 31 years old, he’s still got some time left in the racing game. Perhaps some team owners do not believe he can be a long-term solution (he’s run with eight teams in his ten-year career), or that he’s simply become typecast as a “super sub.” Either way, it’d be interesting to see if Scheckter still has the ability to be dependable over a full season of work instead of having to always adapt to new teams on short notice.
Kyle: It always surprised me that more teams didn't go after Buddy Rice. This is a former Indy 500 winner and an underrated road racer who enjoyed some solid success in his two-year stint with Dreyer and Reinbold (fourth at Watkins Glen in 2008 was their best result together). He also has a Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona victory in his resume. Last year, he put Panther Racing's second entry in the top 9 pole shootout at Indianapolis and then finished ninth later in the year at Kentucky. A driver of his caliber would be a nice addition to any team.
Steph: I'd like to see Pippa Mann land somewhere. Let's be honest: Pippa still has a lot to learn, and she's not likely to find herself on the podium were she to land a full-time ride in 2012. But I feel she still has potential to be realized, and it would be nice to see her get a shot. Where she's miles and miles ahead of most of her competitors, though, is that Pippa understand fan engagement like very few others. A big part of the draw to auto racing for many of its fans is a desire to relate to the experience of driving ridiculously fast, and Pippa has a unique knack for sharing her point of view and making observers of the sport feel more deeply involved. Provided this is fully harnessed, Pippa's ability to attract a more dedicated fan base could easily become one of INDYCAR's greatest assets.
Zachary: While I agree Buddy Rice would be a fine addition to the Series, I would make the case for Tomas Scheckter. He's opinionated, fast, and isn't afraid to try the tough passes. With maturing, he's lost a little bit of the kamikaze reputation that used to plague him, and I think we'd be seeing a more considerate, seasoned Scheckter take the track in 2012. Anyone who has seen him go three-wide at Indy knows that sort of excitement and fearlessness can add to any race. Outside of TScheck, I think the social media-savvy presence of Pippa Mann would be a welcome addition to the Series from a fan outreach point of view.
Paul: I'm always intrigued by this question because they are so many ways to interpret it. From the standpoint of who is the most talented driver that doesn't currently have a ride, I think you have to look at drivers like Paul Tracy, Tomas Scheckter, Wade Cunningham, Vitor Meira, Buddy Rice, and Alex Lloyd. The other angle, of course, is which unsigned driver can best connect with and help expand INDYCAR's fanbase. From that standpoint, drivers like Pippa Mann and Bryan Clauson become very attractive and important to the conversation. However, if I had one sponsored seat to fill at Dalbey Racing, I think I'd have Townsend Bell behind the wheel.