One of Indy car racing's most popular drivers is facing a major turning point in his career.
RACER has confirmed 2011 Indy 500 polesitter Alex Tagliani has been asked to relinquish his full-time seat with the Barracuda Racing team to allow the Bryan Herta- and Steve Newey-owned team to evaluate at least two young drivers during the final six races in the championship.
Coming off an impressive 2012 season that included a pole at Texas, two starts inside the Firestone Fast Six and eight top 10 finishes, Tagliani was expected to carry that impressive form into 2013, but his hold on the Barracuda seat has looked tenuous throughout the year.
A pair of 10th-place finishes through 13 races has been the high point so far for the Honda-powered No. 98 entry, with numerous crashes, spins and unrepresentative results leaving the passionate French-Canadian 21st in drivers' points and the team sitting in a rather precarious 23rd in the entrants' standings.
With its championship aspirations long forgotten, the need to move the team inside the top 20 to guarantee the continuation of its million-dollar Leader's Circle stipend, and a chance to get an early start on its 2014 lineup, the call was made for the 39-year-old to step aside prior to next week's race at Mid-Ohio.
It's believed the CART, Champ Car and IndyCar Series veteran will remain with the team for the rest of the season, and could possibly drive the No. 98 if needed, but is also free to pursue other opportunities in the series if and when they are presented.
A limited pool of available proven winners and past champions has sent Herta and Newey in an interesting direction with the drivers that are expected to share the No. 98 through Fontana.
Herta has professed his interest in 2011 GP2 runner-up Luca Filippi to this writer on more than one occasion, and has always held a desire to work with former Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand, and will now get the chance to assess the two over the next few months.
Hildebrand was a candidate for a seat at Bryan Herta Autosport prior to his signing with Panther, and has maintained close ties with the team during his time in the series. Filippi, who inked a deal to drive for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team in 2012 but saw it fall through due to a lack of sponsorship, returned home to Italy and won an additional GP2 round at Monza last year.
The personable Filippi has been relatively inactive since then, which could limit his initial performances in a physically demanding car like the high-downforce Dallara DW12 while in road and street course trim. The 27-year-old's fitness level will be revealed when he tests for Barracuda Racing at Mid-Ohio next week and contests his first IndyCar Series event for the team, and it's likely he'll alternate with Hildebrand over the next few rounds.
Hildebrand, a 25-year-old native of the San Francisco Bay Area, is a perfect fit to drive the No. 98 at Sonoma Raceway. Raised just 15 minutes away from his home track, Hildebrand's circuit knowledge and regional link to the team's Silicon Valley-based sponsor makes him the obvious choice to entertain the large contingent from Barracuda Networks that will attend the event.
The next two rounds, held on street courses in Baltimore and Houston, could go to either driver, while Hildebrand, who led convincingly on the 2.0-mile Fontana oval last year, would give the team its best chance to end the year on a high note.
With the Herta team making the business-first decision to scrap its immediate plans in favor of rebuilding for the future, Tagliani finds himself with a similar opportunity.
It's unlikely the 14-year Indy car veteran will be offered another top-tier drive in the IndyCar Series – at least on a full-time basis with so few funded seats available – but with a number of loyal supporters in Canada to draw from, everything from forming a team (something he did in 2010) to signing with one of the teams looking for a funded veteran to fill a second entry is possible.
Tagliani's expertise at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should make him a valued commodity during the month of May for years to come, and a move into sports car racing could also be of interest.
If Tagliani has proven one thing on a continual basis throughout his career, it's that he not particularly adept at accepting defeat. The chapter may have closed on him at Barracuda Racing, but based on his history, he'll manage to find a way back into the IndyCar Series.