Barracuda Racing owners Bryan Herta and Steve Newey find themselves in the enviable position of having an IndyCar Series ride to offer and plenty of time to decide on which driver to nominate for the seat.
After parting ways with Alex Tagliani prior to the Mid-Ohio round in August, Herta and Newey commenced an ongoing evaluation process – on that would take place of the six remaining races on the calendar – to choose Tagliani's successor. In a RACER exclusive, Herta chronicled the process his team is using to pick between Italian IndyCar rookie Luca Filippi, who raced at Mid-Ohio, Baltimore and is slated to drive again next week at Houston, and JR Hildebrand, who piloted the No. 98 Barracuda Networks Honda at Sonoma and will close the season in the car at Auto Club Speedway.
“If you look at the beginning of the process, the hardest decision was earlier in the year related to Alex Tagliani,” said Herta. “Once the hard decision was made, the easier one has been deciding what was going to be the most productive use of the rest of our season. We had a short list of drivers and diligently worked through a series of their strengths and weaknesses and quickly narrowed it down to two guys that we really liked. That was obviously JR and Luca.
“They are very different guys, have different backgrounds, and bring different things to the party. We looked at the schedule and tried to be smart about dividing it up between Luca and JR. JR being a local guy made sense for Sonoma and then for the Fontana oval, and then Luca with his road and street background on those tracks, and from that, we just wanted to get to know them really well.”
Herta, a former Indy car driver, indicated that raw speed won't be the only determining factor in who the team signs for 2014.
“They can both, clearly, drive a racecar,” he added. “We know they're both fast; that wasn't the question. It was a question of how they'd work within our structure, how they work with our engineers, how they work with our sponsors – how they measure up there. I don't need to tell you how important that is. It's all been about gaining as much information for ourselves as possible.
“If we're able to, we'd love to not have to make a decision. If we're able to run two cars next year, which we continue to work on, we could run both guys, which would be our preference. If we're only able to run one, then we have a lot of information to make an educated decision.”
With a litany of data channels and plenty of analysis tools to use, Herta can easily quantify the speed and performance capabilities of Filippi and Hildebrand, but says he prefers to look for the intangibles that will end up separating the two candidates.
“That part's more important to me,” Herta continued. “The numbers are the easy thing to go back to, but a team is a living, breathing organism. Everybody has a role, and chemistry is what matters. It's when the driver comes into the pits and before he's even come to a stop, the engineer can look in his eyes and know what he's going to say. And the crew guys want to work until two in the morning to make sure the car is perfect because they don't want to let the driver down…that's the stuff that's harder to find. That's the stuff you can't define through data.”
Although Filippi and Hildebrand are in a prime position to earn a contract, the driver market has a few tantalizing options for Barracuda Racing to consider. Despite the six-race evaluation process, it's possible Herta and Newey could sign someone else to represent the team next year.
“Right now, we're not limiting ourselves in any way,” Herta confirmed. “There's a particular affinity for the two guys we're working with, and continuity is important. In a perfect world, we like one or both of these guys, but that doesn't mean other guys wouldn't be considered. There are guys potentially on the market like Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson you're going to have to think about, too…”