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.
Graham Rahal's relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing appears to be drawing to a close, having never quite gelled in the way everyone involved had hoped and expected. The so-called G2 operation doesn't seem any closer to the Target cars in terms of results than it was last year, and while Rahal is often on the pace of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, there are days when it's not like that at all – qualifying at Mid-Ohio and Toronto are the most recent examples.
Yet, a year ago, he frequently was one of Power's strongest threats, and only this year Rahal battled hard but safe with Castroneves for third at Barber, with Power for third at Edmonton, emulated Tagliani's impressive through-the-field drive at Detroit, and almost won the Texas race. Those kinds of performances are noted by Penske – as is the fact that Graham owned up to the error that cost him the victory at Fort Worth.
What Rahal does not bring to the table is Service Central sponsorship – that company's affiliation with Valvoline and Penske's relationship with Shell kills that idea. But that shouldn't have an effect: Roger prides himself on not asking drivers to pay for a ride. What he does demand, aside from talent, endeavor and teamwork, is that a driver works well with the team sponsors, and Rahal has long had that side of the business handled superbly well, which is why it's hard to believe he's not even 24 yet.
There's no question that Rahal would jump at the chance to join Team Penske. It's also worth remembering that Graham used to beat Pagenaud more often than not in their Atlantic days, even though it was the Frenchman who ultimately took the crown, and with the cautionary note that that was six years ago and both have done quite a bit of learning since then, it does at least show the potential of Rahal.
This sounds unlikely and yet I don't know why. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Alex Tagliani turns 40 in November, but he's driving better than ever in 2012, and that's a fact. He's the only driver to have reached the Firestone Fast Six for every race post-Indy, and from the moment Bryan Herta Autosport got the Honda engines, Tag has been in the mix, fighting with the highly rated Simon Pagenaud, who replaced him at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, for the status of best of the rest.
But it's more than that: count up the number of Ganassi, Penske and Andretti cars Tagliani has outqualified this year. Then think of his drive at Detroit, where his car faltered on the warm-up lap so he couldn't take his rightful (third) place on the grid. Once he got going, he put on a clinic that demonstrated it is very possible to pull off passing maneuvers around the Belle Isle circuit. Then think of his pole at Texas, all those laps led at Edmonton…. Then throw in his major car-sorting abilities, his race smarts, his excellent relationship with Power, and the fact that in two or three years, he would make the perfect candidate to drive for Penske in sports cars. Or NASCAR. Tagliani would be a surprising choice, but certainly a logical one.
There's also something very logical about signing Sebastien Bourdais, who has done great things with the Dragon Racing entry this year, even when it had the recalcitrant Lotus engine. Since gaining a Chevrolet, he has frequently mixed with the top runners, consistently enough that you know he'd be a winner in a Team Penske car. Attitude-wise, it would be interesting to see how he fitted in with Penske, especially if he failed to restrain some of his brilliantly outspoken comments which we've all come to relish. But… he could adapt and he has the experience of working with big teams, too; that is important because 1) you know he wouldn't be overwhelmed with the sense of responsibility that comes with working for Penske, 2) he'd be able to exploit all the facilities and resources that Team Penske offers, and 3) he knows how to win and won't get overawed by any sense of occasion.
Seabass can come across as quite a cold fish, but in fact he was genuinely loved, not just respected, by Newman/Haas Racing when they were dominating the final years of Champ Car. And you know he'd be held in high regard by Team Penske if, every time the No. 2 car was put away in the truck, the crew felt its potential had been maximized. They rarely get that feeling these days.
A winner waiting to happen, everyone sees that. Simon Pagenaud has more than raw driving skills in his favor; he has a good technical understanding, an ability to adapt to changing track conditions and handling characteristics and he works well with his engineers. Put alongside top-class teammates, as opposed to his current situation where he has no teammate, there's no question he could flourish.
However, his long and strong affiliation with Honda may preclude him from even considering an offer from Roger and so the more likely scenario is that Pagenaud will stay where he is at Schmidt Hamilton or go to the Service Central Ganassi car, before ultimately winding up in car No. 10 when Franchitti retires.
There's a strong case to be made for Justin Wilson because… well, because he's one of IndyCar's super talents who's proven he can shine on all types of track. But his availability is slightly questionable because he's been making noises about his long-term commitment to turning Dale Coyne Racing into a regular winner. Mind you, the fact that few doubt his ability to do that says a lot about his quality, so there should be no doubt that Penske and Wilson would do great things for each other. That's why Wilson was on Penske's shortlist four years ago.
One man whose demeanor has “Penske” written all over it is JR Hildebrand. A fine ambassador for anyone he represents, possessing great car control, a very studious approach to racing, and a readiness to learn at every opportunity, JR has had a bit of a slow-burn in IndyCar so far. But this is just his second year and he's only had a teammate to pool information with for the past eight races. And whatever anyone may try and tell you, the relationship between Panther Racing and its partners at Dreyer & Reinbold could never be as strong or as transparent as that between the three Team Penske drivers. Hildebrand would learn swiftly alongside Castroneves and Power and with one of the very best cars at his disposal, he'd have the conviction to become a truly formidable driver.
Hildebrand's current teammate, Oriol Servia, is another who appears as strong as ever, and possesses one of the brightest engineering brains of any driver in the IndyCar paddock. He has worked well with Power in the past and they remain firm friends, he is excellent at fan/media/sponsor interaction, and he remains one of the real gritty racers who never seems to give up or flake. And he never throws his team under the bus, either. He puts up, shuts up and mans up.
A lot of people have thrown Josef Newgarden's name into the ring as a driver who Penske should sign. But it's surely not going to happen yet. RP has traditionally shown little interest in grooming drivers so soon after their graduation from the junior ranks, and though Newgarden has a Brad Keselowski-like swagger about him – something that clearly appeals to Roger – BK has the results to back that up because he's matured so quickly in the past couple of seasons of NASCAR Sprint Cup. Newgarden will be on Penske's radar, but The Captain will want to see how he develops over the next two or three years. Right now, the 21-year-old needs race results that match the fine promise he keeps showing in qualifying.
OK, this final one's a little “out there,” but it shouldn't be. Simona de Silvestro is a driver of considerable talent and great application who wins over everyone she deals with, be it media, sponsors or fans. And yet somehow she sidesteps all the nonsense that goes with being a racecar driver, a female racecar driver and a female racecar driver who everyone sympathizes with because she catches fire or because she has a lame engine. She just keeps her head down and drives hard. And that sounds like someone who would fit into a Penske environment.
And so Roger Penske is in an enviable position: he has an array of excellent drivers available to him if he wishes to continue running a third car. But that is one big “If” that involves extra expenses and must take great consideration every year. The other “if” surrounds the No. 2 car's current incumbent. If The Captain thinks Ryan Briscoe can rediscover the form that put him in title contention three years ago, or has a lateral move planned for him, then he'll surely keep him on the books. But in IndyCar terms, for the past three years, we've only seen fleeting glimpses of Briscoe at his best and, for what its worth, I'm convinced that for both team and driver to reach their full potential, they need to go their separate ways.
David Malsher is the editor of RACER magazine