IndyCar's “Who goes where” silly season has been brought forward in 2012, with Rubens Barrichello wishing to remain in the IZOD IndyCar Series but suggesting broadly that he wants to switch teams
and with Graham Rahal on the market since he and Chip Ganassi Racing let their option lapse at the start of this month. Even championship contender Ryan Hunter-Reay isn't yet confirmed with Andretti Autosport and is therefore available…for now.
Not unconnected with this is the speculation around the No. 2 car, the Team Penske seat currently occupied by Ryan Briscoe whose current contract ends in a month's time. With Will Power and Helio Castroneves already in The Captain's fleet, and Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon seemingly right on target with Chip Ganassi Racing, Penske's third car is the hot ticket. Scenarios that Roger Penske may be considering are as follows:
TRIM THE TRIO
Maybe only RP himself can tell you whether it makes economic sense to run three cars instead of two, when two of them don't have full-time sponsorship. It's a gimme that Castroneves will be retained – winning the Indianapolis 500 three times for The Captain virtually ensures your seat for as long as you want to race. And Power is a virtual necessity considering he's scored 14 of the team's past 20 wins and he also cements Penske's strong bond with Verizon.
But what about the car that carries a variety of liveries through the year, including Penske Truck Rental, IZOD, PPG and Hitachi? Could those deals not be made to work with Castroneves' car in the races where he's not carrying the Shell or AAA color schemes? The charismatic Brazilian has a connection with the fans and the TV cameras that few other IndyCar drivers can match so he guarantees media attention even on his bad weekends.
If Mr. Penske is considering getting back into the American Le Mans Series or, more ambitiously, entering the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche or Toyota, Briscoe would be an obvious candidate to be part of the driver lineup. He knows many of the tracks outside of the IndyCar Series thanks to his varied résumé, he was very impressive in the LMP2 Porsche RS Spyder (he thrives on high downforce) and he'd be an anchorman who can rise to the occasion. If a Penske sports car project happens – and RP has admitted he's very interested – then keeping Briscoe in IndyCar for another season to maintain his edge, ready for a category switch in 2014, could make sense.
Briscoe, who finished third in the 2009 IndyCar Series, is coming to the end of his fifth season working with Roger's team in IndyCar and, it has to be said, the last three years have been disappointing. Actually, just one win in almost three seasons is quite alarming, considering Power has scored 14 wins in the same time span. Since he became full time with Team Penske at the start of 2010, Power's scorching pace has lit a fire under Castroneves but appears to have burned Briscoe. Certainly it's obvious that a change of engineers this year hasn't helped his consistency in producing strong qualifying pace nor in improving his race day results, and yet reportedly, Briscoe's technical feedback is good.
What must frustrate the team and Ryan himself is that his talent is clearly still intact. Forget the pole at Indy, which remains a mystery to everyone, given Penske's pace up until his final run. Look instead at Long Beach this year, where it was Power who made a small but crucial error on his final flying lap and Briscoe who took pole – although with engine penalties, the pair would start 11th and 12th. But it was that same event that encapsulated the difference between the Aussie teammates for the majority of the past three years. For the second race in succession, the pair started the race mid-pack, yet went in opposite directions on race day. At both Barber and Long Beach, Power came through to win, while Briscoe was 14th and seventh respectively.
For Briscoe himself, it may appear that staying at Penske is his best option, but you do wonder if being the main man, even in a lesser team, would be the psychological boost he needed to produce his best work on a more consistent basis.
Ryan Hunter-Reay has proven that he can be a regular contender on all types of racetrack and therefore contend for the IndyCar championship. Super-fast on many street tracks, brave and skilful on short ovals, smart and fast on road courses, it's getting pretty difficult to find RHR's weak spots. He's also a good ambassador for his team and the sport.
All those qualities combined must be appealing to Penske – who interviewed Hunter-Reay, as well as Justin Wilson and Power, when Castroneves was having his legal problems in the winter of 2008/'09. Power got the gig, of course, but Will himself has always rated RHR's driving talent and it's easy to imagine them working well together.
From Hunter-Reay's perspective, why would someone who's played such a crucial role in Andretti Autosport's resurgence and has always stressed the importance of continuity in order to build a championship campaign be enticed by a switch to Penske? Well, for one thing, Ryan dreamed of driving for Penske when he was growing up. Secondly, he probably figures that Penske is one of only two teams that you could plug into and immediately be successful. Thirdly, opportunities at Penske come along only every four or five years, because RP really does invest in drivers and, like Hunter-Reay, he rates continuity very highly. In other words, there probably won't be a vacancy at Penske again until Castroneves decides to call it quits. Heck, there may not be one right now.
You'd assume Andretti Autosport, SunDrop and DHL will make a compelling financial case for Hunter-Reay to stay right where he is. But still, if Roger came a-knockin', Ryan would surely consider it.