Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Offseason Questions Still Needing Answers

The 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season has reached its end. Alex Palou laid down a dominating performance that locked the title down at the second-to-last race, a feat not seen since 2005 – or 2007, if you count CART into the equation. While teams and drivers head home for a few weeks of rest before focusing attention on the 2024 season, one that will include a new engine formula with hybrid power, there remains a list of unknowns still hovering over various aspects of the series concerning driver moves, team decisions and an unannounced schedule.

All that means it’s officially offseason time.

Lets jump into the various items that will be addressed in the coming months.

Driver Decisions

Multiple drivers from this recently-concluded season are heading into their offseason satisfied that they have jobs next year. If you are Marcus Ericsson, David Malukas, and Felix Rosenqvist, vacations to a warm climate to relax and reset are even more enjoyable as each has a future locked in. Partial schedule drivers such as 2023 Rookie of the Year Marcus Armstrong, Linus Lundqvist and Tom Blomqvist can focus on preparing for their first full-time foray in America’s top open-wheel series. 

Across the paddock though, other peers of theirs are looking around and figuring out what opportunities remain and if they will get a shot to continue their IndyCar careers. 

First on the list is Romain Grosjean. The former Formula 1 driver, with a similar career as Ericsson in the top international series, has unfortunately not replicated the success in IndyCar. After two years at Andretti Autosport, he is looking for a new home, and it’s not guaranteed if it will be Stateside to further his open-wheel career. Fellow Andretti driver Devlin DeFrancesco won’t return either, so his financial backing is available for any owner willing to take a chance on him. 

Graham Rahal has driven for his dad’s team since 2013, and while there is little expectation he will grab his helmet bag and go find another seat, his contract to return hasn’t been announced yet. So he’s still one to watch. Former teammate Jack Harvey, released after the Gallagher Grand Prix, was at Gateway and Laguna Seca walking the paddock trying to stay in owners’ minds and can only hope a third driving tour will pop up. 

See also
The Pit Straight: Reflections on the 2023 IndyCar Season

Reports from Racer Magazine have former rookie Sting Ray Robb with a budget but no official announcement yet on a ride. His 2023 campaign didn’t start well, but it did improve after the Indianapolis 500. While he only finished three times outside in the top 20, he cut down on his DNFs, only failing to complete one further race, which was Iowa Race 2 where he was disqualified. 

The personable Conor Daly is still hoping to augment his fill-in, super-sub duties after he was fired from Ed Carpenter Racing after the Detroit Grand Prix, with a full-season job. While he continues to follow the series closely for his podcast duties and try other motorsports ventures – hats off for doing Rallycross, it looks insanely fun – few silly season reports have him linked anywhere right now. 

Finally, the man who the entire racing community hope is doing well and will get back in a race car sooner than later, 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud. Since his wreck at Mid-Ohio that forced him to the sidelines to recover from a concussion, not much has been heard of from the 2019 Indy 500 champ. His experience and technical skills for car setup will be great for a team to have, but first he is making the right call to focus on his health.

Team Decisions

IndyCar had 27 full-time cars on the grid this year, while also adding one at each oval for Ed Carpenter (and of course 33 at Indianapolis). A big field is a great example of the health of the sport and the success teams have found in lining up sponsors and personnel to man the horses, so to speak. Hopefully that continues, though Mark Miles recently spoke of the series hitting the possible max in full-time seats. Still, there are chances the grid might shrink based on owner decisions.

The two teams that are in the category of possibly downsizing are Andretti Autosport and Juncos Hollinger Racing. Michael Andretti’s team has run four cars since 2016, after absorbing Bryan Herta Autosport. For the majority of its existence in IndyCar, it has commonly ran at least four cars with the goal of increasing technical and engineering knowledge sharing to benefit the whole versus the parts. Unfortunately, the team hasn’t achieved equal success for every car. The last time Andretti had wins spread out over three or more of their teams was 2011. With the recent announcement that long-time sponsor DHL is leaving, and nothing linked with Ericsson’s signing, the team may not have the backing to stay at four for next year. 

For JHR, this has been a big step forward for the previously known “Little Team That Could.” They earned their first top fives in IndyCar racing and expanded to a two-car effort, tying rookie Agustin Canapino with owner and fellow Argentinian Ricardo Juncos’ operation. However, there hasn’t been any announcements on their future. Do they plan to stay at two cars? Will Canapino return for a second season? Is a budget available to give him that additional year, or does the team have to step back to a single-car outfit again?

If a future Argentina exhibition race is held as part of the series season expansion, then Canapino will be a critical component to making that successful. It’s clear the team’s lead driver Callum Illot is a keeper, but the Brit hasn’t spoken on his 2024 plans so the IndyCar world has to wait. Then there was the incident between teammates at Monterrey, and frustration voiced by Juncos to South American media outlets. There might be something brewing here, or it just might be end-of-season emotions that the offseason will smooth out before St. Pete in March.

As for the teams that still have decisions to make on their current lineups, first up is Super Tex. A.J. Foyt’s No. 14 and No. 55 group performed well on the biggest stage at the Indianapolis 500, with Santino Ferrucci finishing third. That was their only top ten the rest of the year. Ferrucci appeared to have a good finish lined up at the finale, but got caught up on a restart mess that relegated him to 17th. Looking at the results though, it wasn’t that bad for the longtime operation, as he did garner seven finishes of 18th or better. If the team hopes to gather more momentum, sticking with the lightning rod in Ferrucci might be the direction to take. Their other driver Benjamin Pedersen hasn’t been in reports by other outlets linked to any further opportunities, so his future appears tied to Foyt Racing’s management decisions.

Other teams with seats open are Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, and the habitual silly season participant, Dale Coyne Racing. The No. 30 car at RLLR might be the best opportunity left in the paddock, depending on Andretti’s decision for their fourth car. As mentioned in the Pit Straight podcast, the team has quite the young talent in Christian Lundgaard to carry the team into the future. Whoever gets the shot at the No. 30 car will get to race alongside a young race winner to push them to get results. Juri Vips drove the car the last two races and could be an option.

Carpenter is facing a long offseason. His team didn’t meet expectations and surprisingly found itself as a backmarker at several events, to include ovals which was unheard of several years ago. Bringing in the veteran driver Ryan Hunter-Reay to run the No. 20 car Daly previously manned was a good move, but if he doesn’t return that might sell the idea that what hinders their performance may take a lengthy effort. Still, the team is a player at the Indy 500, and there are only so many rides in IndyCar, someone will want to jump in, just will have to see who that is over the next few months. 

For DCR, they usually wrap up their drivers before spring testing begins. There is no rush to fill their seats and one of the drivers, Robb, could return if the budget is healthy enough. For sure there will be a new face behind the No. 18 car as Malukas is taking his talents to Arrow McLaren. With the impending departure of the HMD relationship as well, it’s going to be interesting to see who comes in to takes over Malukas’s seat. 

Schedule News

The lack of a 2024 schedule announcement at Laguna Seca wasn’t a bad thing for the series, as leadership openly spoke about civic requirements needing done still for one of their street courses. Several outlets have touched on what the schedule will possibly look like, with a couple new additions that might make this offseason grow with anticipation.

First, one race that was publicly confirmed, to the surprise of many (good job IndyCar keeping this a secret) was the exhibition race at the Thermal Club. For the series, this is the first event built around an all-star type race since CART ran the Marlboro Challenge at Michigan in the 80s. Hats off to the series for trying something new, and regardless of the opinions of some fans, this is a positive effort Penske Corporation is taking to add a new event.

One big positive coming from this news is this is IndyCar’s attempt to fill the schedule void in the beginning of the year. After the opening round at St. Petersburg, there was a month gap to the next race. IndyCar has scheduled the Thermal Club exhibition on March 22-23, which will put it between rounds one and two if the early season calendar is the same in 2024. Yes, it will be restricted for fans in attendance, but it will be on network television and help maintain the momentum at the beginning of the year. Some details on this event were announced, to include the $1 million prize, but there will be more components to be clarified later so keep a sharp eye out.

Other races that need further information on are the rumored Milwaukee return, the new date for Laguna Seca, and what the required hiatus will be for IndyCar due to NBC’s Summer Olympics coverage. With the games scheduled from Friday, July 26 to Sunday, Aug. 11, 2024 the series will be on a summer break for three weeks (great, another schedule void. Cheeky buggers.). Compared to the 2023 schedule, that would effect the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (moved to the season finale for 2024) and the second Indianapolis road course event, which is expected to be dropped due to the forthcoming return of the NASCAR Brickyard 400 on the Indianapolis oval. Expect a schedule with a tight summer stretch to get the necessary events in while offsetting the mandatory break.

Speaking of NASCAR, there are likely no doubleheaders between the top two levels of American motorsports returning for 2024. Which is bogus. Lets table that topic though for a later date after the official schedule announcement. More commentary to follow on that. Promise.

See also
Tony Kanaan Learning, Finding Happiness in New Role for Arrow McLaren

Hybrid Engine Testing

One of the biggest changes to the series for 2024 will be the new hybrid engine component. Both manufacturers have recently tested their version, with Scott Dixon running Honda’s and Will Power for Chevrolet. Early reports are suggesting that the system, which will generate energy under braking that is then stored for drivers to use much like push to pass, will be a valuable tool at the hands of IndyCar’s stars. 

What is not known is how much power it will give a driver and what those rules for application will be. Harkening back to the days when there was annual offseason testing for the incoming ‘new hotness’ of chassis and engines in the 90s, the series has a robust testing schedule planned. This will help with further refinement of the technology and will be a great story to follow.

Finally, Lets Talk About Palou

The two-time champion Palou has a great skill. He can get himself in headlines for both good and bad reasons, and is continually accomplishing that at the same time. For other mortals on this planet, if a situation is bad, it only gets worse. In his case, the Spaniard has been able to perform and maintain high-caliber driving, winning, and results while dealing with personal distractions. Kind of unreal.

This offseason, he will have to dive back into the legal world with his contract litigation situation with Arrow Mclaren Racing. Unfortunately, Palou’s business decisions have wrapped him into another battle that will be played out in the courts and in the public eye. Its a shame really, as the 26-year-old is a rising star in the IndyCar series. 

That’s also another topic to watch with him. His commitment to the series could be seen as in question as he has tried in vain to line up racing in Europe, specifically Formula 1. The fact that he has embroiled himself, whether with intent or not, in legal trouble twice is possible evidence he will do anything that will improve his opportunities to race on the global stage.

For IndyCar, that would be a disappointment – if he ever were to leave. He’s clearly on a meteoric rise, with his stats over his first 64 races coming out on top when compared to similar timelines of the top-five all-time IndyCar winners in Andretti, Dixon, and Power, but trailing the two kings of American open-wheel, Foyt and Mario Andretti. With a second title in just four years, a great team around him, and possibly the end of any shot at F1, after all, 26 is getting on the grandpa-in-rocking-chair side for a rookie there, hopefully he puts roots down in IndyCar and realizes that he has (and is) the future of the series. 

Hang In There

At this time of year, melancholy seeps in as IndyCar wraps up its season while NASCAR has two months left and F1’s Max Verstappen show continues. There are a little over five months until the next IndyCar season kicks off, with a lot of stories to follow. With drivers still searching for rides, teams figuring out whether a car will be fielded or not, and owners searching desperately for that extra tenth of speed and effort, there’s still a lot to be settled.

The season might be done, but the offseason is just beginning.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar contributor at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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