Briscoe (center) will be joining Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay at Indy after all. (Marshall Pruett photo)
Watching the IZOD IndyCar Series put its first two rounds in the books without his name on one of the cars has been odd for former Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe, but with a new contract in place to drive for Chip Ganassi at the Indianapolis 500, the Australian is now able to focus on what he has instead of what's been missing.
As the defending polesitter for the Indy 500, Briscoe has garnered plenty of interest from IndyCar teams, narrowing down his choices to Ganassi, whose team won the 2012 race with Dario Franchitti, or perennial Brickyard performers Panther Racing. And with the need to rekindle his IndyCar career serving as the 31-year-old's greatest motivation, he told RACER the choice to sign with Ganassi and new sponsor NTT DATA was made with an eye on the future.
“It was so nice to have options going into this deal,” he said. “We were talking to [Panther owner] John Barnes but he was still working on budgets a little bit. It's a great team at Panther and they do well at Indy every year. There's no negatives there, but when you get a ready offer from Chip to do the Indy 500, it's kind of hard to not take him up on that. It's a great deal and it's a huge opportunity.
“But you can't get too far ahead of yourself. I think the best shot for me to get back into IndyCar full-time is to go out and win Indy 500, so you can't try and pick your Indy 500 ride just on where you might think the best chance of a full-time job might come from. When Chip makes the call, it's something you don't turn down. I think winning Indy, instead of trying to arrange who you win it for, is most important.”
As much as Briscoe would like to parlay his Ganassi drive at Indy into a full-time ride for the rest of the season, his pre-existing sports car commitments with the Level 5 ALMS P2 team will take precedence over his free weekend in 2013.
Briscoe, along with Level 5 team owner Scott Tucker and 2010 ALMS P1 champion Marino Franchitti, won the season-opening ALMS race at the 12 Hours of Sebring in P2 (RIGHT), and Briscoe will be back in the car at Long Beach. More races are also likely with the Honda-powered team, pushing his IndyCar plans to 2014.
“For this year I've got a reasonably full plate and I think the most important thing rather than trying to just do random IndyCar races to finish out the year, I need to work on something that's full time for 2014,” he noted. “If I can help a team this year, that could be a great opportunity, but it's definitely the right move to focus on next year and going for an IndyCar championship.”
Returning to drive for Ganassi – after his first season with the team in 2005 was cut short by a fiery crash at Chicagoland (LEFT) – has been a topic of discussion between Briscoe and the veteran team owner since he departed Team Penske.
“We'd been in touch and we got to a point where we were talking with Chip he just thought it was the right move to bring me on board,” he explained. “And the only reason they did that is to have another shot of winning the 500 and adding me to the drivers they already have that are proven and fully capable of winning. So, that's what made this deal even so much more exciting – it wasn't about just filling a seat, it wasn't about money or anything like that, it's 100% purely about winning the race, and that's what racing should be about and that is what's most appealing about this deal to me.”
Briscoe will drive the Honda-powered No. 8 entry for Ganassi, and will have the esteemed engineer Andy Brown overseeing his car. It's likely Tim Keene and other members of Ganassi's Grand-Am team will run the program, as they've done many times before.
Without knowing where he'll be driving next year, or with which engine manufacturer, Briscoe says he'll make the most of what HPD has to offer, but won't be a fountain of information about what he learned with Chevy power at Team Penske.
"I don't think there is a whole lot of drivability feedback to give at Indy; it's not like on a road course where you're feathering throttle and feeding it in and having the turbo boost come in and all that kind of stuff, which is more where driver input comes into play,” he remarked.
“Indy's going to be more about horsepower and all that, but I think I'll go there and I'm going to give my feedback with what I can do and try to help out the team and see what happens. I don't know what the future holds, all I can say is Chevrolet, [GM's] Jim Campbell, Mark Kent, and everyone there has been a huge supporter and they've been an unbelievable team to work with over the past year and a half.
“Honda has been great as well, so I think it's a great rivalry between the two companies and it's great for the sport and certainly when I'm driving a Honda, I'm going to do my best to improve their game and go out there and try to win the race, but you have to be professional and be honorable when you're dealing with things like this.”
With Sebring in the bank, the Indy 500 on his schedule in May, possibly the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June and a return to the Bathurst 1000 in October, Briscoe has a chance to reel off an unprecedented string of victories in 2013. He already has the big trophy from Sebring, and admits he's on the hunt for more impressive hardware before the end of the season.
“I believe in momentum and I'm going to try to keep it going,” he said. “We'll just go one race at a time; I've got Long Beach next weekend and hopefully we come out of that at the front with another win and on to Laguna Seca and then it's going to be Indy, which as we all know, it's a totally different ballgame when we go to Indy, but yeah, we'll try to keep that batting average up there.”