In the coming days, AutoRacing1.com will be putting the impressive career of recently retired IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti into historical perspective. Franchitti, of course, suffered multiple injuries in a wicked accident last month on the final lap of the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. While many believed Franchitti would do the necessary rehabilitation to his broken back and return in time for next year’s IndyCar opener, apparently the lingering effects of the concussion he also suffered caused greater concern.
Thus, the career of Dario Franchitti came to an abrupt end last week with 31 race wins, 3 Indianapolis 500 victories, and four series championships. And when it comes to the all-time greats of the sport, Franchitti is undoubtedly in the discussion, something AR1 will soon explore.
For now, Franchitti’s sudden retirement has created a rare opening for one of the sport’s iconic cars. Exactly who fill Franchitti’s seat in the #10 Target machine, following in the footsteps of Vasser, Zanardi, Montoya, Dixon, Wheldon, and now Franchitti, is the source of great speculation.
Of course, there is a strong possibility Team Ganassi may shift recently-signed Tony Kanaan to the #10 Target machine, and pursue another driver to fill Kanaan's seat in the #8 NTT Data machine. So, as a general rule, this article will not focus so much on who will be in the #10, rather who will fill the vacant spot at Team Ganassi.
And Team Ganassi is keeping its cards pretty close to the vest. Also, the situation is further muddled by the fact there is no real precedent, if you will, and no obvious candidate. The only real definitive information coming out of the Ganassi camp was that the team does not want to break in a youngster without top-level experience. What that means essentially is we will not be seeing a young upstart like Conor Daly, of whom I've made my opinion known, or Alexander Rossi.
So, what will Ganassi do? Will he look to buyout a proven talent such as James Hinchcliffe or Sebastien Bourdais? Will he look to one the many established, professional veteran drivers looking for work that would come very cheap. While we don’t know what The Chipster will ultimately decide, we can speculate.
Below, we will work through the candidates to fill one of the coveted seats with IndyCar's championship team.
I mentioned above that Ganassi might buy out a driver with a current team. I view this as an unlikely scenario, making drivers such as Bourdais and Hinchcliffe likely to stay with their current teams. Both were free agents about a month ago, and probably would have been good candidates. However, both are now signed to their 2014 teams, and are unlikely to be picked up by Ganassi now. Other unlikely buyout candidates would include…..
Wilson is as good a candidate as anyone and something of a fan favorite, as he has spent most of his career with smaller teams chasing the Ganassis, Penskes, and Andrettis of the world. The question with Wilson is not whether he is qualified, but what exactly his situation with Dale Coyne Racing is.
Coyne, of course, is known to have an option on Wilson’s services for 2014. It is unknown whether Coyne has exercised that option yet, but we can all assume, he is no rush to tell us.
Presuming, Wilson in under contract to some degree with Coyne, one has to imagine Coyne is not going to simply let Wilson walk. Sure, Coyne has been cooperative in such situations before. Remember, he allowed Oriol Servia to go to Newman/Haas midway through 2005, and Cristiano da Matta to do the same with RuSPORT in 2006. But these are very different times for Dale Coyne Racing.
The team, of course, is coming off its best Indy Car season to date, and Coyne has a bona-fide #1 driver in Wilson. DCR is looking to take the next step as a team, and Wilson is very much a part of those plans.
Also, throw in the fact that Honda, although not confirmed, is still presumably going to be with DCR. And anyone who presumes Honda will be cooperative about one of its best drivers moving to Ganassi after the less than amicable split this season between the two, doesn't know anything about Honda.
Conclusion: Wilson stays with DCR.
The 2011 Indy Lights champ took the step forward everyone was hoping he would in 2013. He is under contract with the growing Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for 2014, and many IndyCar fans would love to see what the 2011 Indy Lights Champion could do with a top team.
Of course, that will have to be worked out with young Josef's doting owner. Fisher and partner Wink Hartman have invested heavily in Josef (reportedly a lot of Hartman's personal fortune), and are probably unwilling to separate with the face of their young team unless the compensation is formidable.
Conclusion: Newgarden would be a great choice. However, the only way I see Fisher and Hartman letting him go is through major compensation. Of course, Fisher stated last month she was none too thrilled with her Honda engine deal, and Ganassi just signed with Chevrolet but……
The Solid Veterans
Ganassi could go the route of hiring a dependable veteran for one year. A solid "place-holder" for 2014, would then allow Ganassi to pursue a long-term replacement for 2015. Ryan Hunter-Reay, for example, signed a two-year extension with Andretti Autosport after the 2012 season, and would theoretically be a good fit at Ganassi. And if you want to maybe think a little more long-term Mazda Road to Indy phenom Matthew Brabham is on schedule for a move to the "big cars" in 2015, and would be a very intriguing possibility at Ganassi. The following drivers would indicate such a scenario.
The Aussie ran for Ganassi in a fourth entry this year at Indianapolis and for the team in 2005. He is known to be close with Dixon, as well, plus has a proven resume with 8 IndyCar wins and 12 poles to his credit. Also, there have been reports that Briscoe is signed with Panther Racing should the team secure the National Guard backing for 2014.
The downside of Briscoe is evidence exists that he has seen his best days. After nearly winning the series title in 2009, Briscoe captured only two wins in his remaining three years (2010-2012) with Team Penske, as the arrival of Will Power seemed to marginalize Briscoe within the team.
At Ganassi, Briscoe would be part of a four-car effort, with a clear number one driver in Dixon. And he showed in his final years with Penske that such a scenario may not be the right fit.
Conclusion: Briscoe offers the intrigue of a talented driver available at a discount price. But I don’t see Briscoe being a good fit, as he has shown with both Ganassi previously and at Penske, he does not seem to thrive being second fiddle.
Tagliani, of course, replaced Franchitti at the Fontana finale, and may have gotten the head start on the field if you will. Although seemingly a little snake-bitten, he is, experienced, great with sponsors, hungry, available, and very close with current series champion Scott Dixon.
In short, Tags is not necessarily a huge upside play, but he is a decent fit in terms of the team and 2014. He won’t upset the status quo, yet will relish the opportunity to drive an iconic car for an iconic team.
Conclusion: At 40, Tags is not the long-term solution. But he could be a decent short-term one, and would fit nicely were Ganassi to opt for the “gap year," solution.
Servia is probably a longer shot than Briscoe or Tags. But should he be?
One thing we know with Servia is that he will complement a championship effort as he did with Sebastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas. He also keeps the car out of the wall and regularly come home in points paying positions.
Conclusion: I think I'm in the minority, but I rate Servia ahead of Tagliani, and see him as a better option for this particular situation than Briscoe. Unlike Tags, he’s a sure bet to bring the car home on a regular basis, and unlike Briscoe he has proven the ability to play a complementary role in a more celebrated teammate's championship effort. The question is whether team Ganassi views it that way.
Plenty of drivers have come from F1 to Indy Cars through the years, and gotten up to speed very quickly. Of course, there was Nigel Mansell, who came over as reigning world champion. However, even mid-pack F1 drivers such as Danny Sullivan, Alex Zanardi, Max Papis, Christian Fittipaldi and others have been able to adapt to Indy Cars quickly. And there are currently two intriguing possibilities available.
The first preference of the recent McLaren cast-off is to secure a 2014 seat in F1. However, with nearly all the top drives accounted for, Perez may think twice about an IndyCar seat with Ganassi.
As we know, Ganassi is well-connected to Perez' financial backer Carlos Slim through Ganassi's association with Telmex in sports cars. Also, with races in Houston, Fontana, Fort Worth, and possibly Austin in 2015, Perez would be a huge coup for IndyCar.
Conclusion: Not sure if Ganassi wants to go with someone without experience in the DW12. However, Perez has shown flashes of brilliance in F1, and there is no one on this list, who would move the needle more than the likable Mexican.
Paul di Resta:
There is undoubtedly a sentimental element attached to the possibility of Franchitti's cousin replacing him. Also, judging from his F1 form, the diminutive Scot, seems to race better than he qualifies, an asset that a move to IndyCar may highlight. Also, like Perez, di Resta has shown talent in F1, and may be intrigued by the possibility of joining IndyCar's best team in recent years.
Conclusion: di Resta has talent, but at the end of the day, remains a total wild-card. If Ganassi is going to go the F1 route, you have to think Perez is the more appealing candidate.
The likable Italian GP2 veteran has been unable to break into Formula One despite an impressive junior career. He is also seen as the leading candidate to fill #98 Barracuda Racing seat, where he made 4 IndyCar starts late this season in place of Tagliani and was more than impressive.
Conclusion: Filippi seemed to take well to IndyCar in limited action in 2013. The results were nothing to get excited about, but the speed was there. While Filippi has never been on an oval, the talent is there. However, Fillipi will drive the #98 in 2014.
A Few Quick Things:
Speaking with Tony DiZinno of MotorSportsTalk at this weekend's United States Grand Prix, Mario Andretti said next year's five-month IndyCar schedule was "not plausible." Of course, the series opener will be March 30th, 2014 in St. Petersburg, with the season concluding August 30th at Fontana. According to Andretti, IndyCar "can't be taken seriously," relative to F1 and NASCAR with such a schedule.
I don't know about you, but I interpret depth and quality of the current field d Andretti's words as a not so subtle message to Hulman & Co., CEO Mark Miles. Miles, of course, has stated that 2014 would be a "transition year," and that we could expect a stronger schedule in 2015. I get the sense one Mario Andretti has taken him at his word.
No-brainer decision by Ed Carpenter Racing to hire Mike Conway for road and street circuits in the #20 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet for 2014, adding another quality driver to the field. Yes, IndyCar has its problems, but the quality of the current field is not one of them.
Brian Carroccio is a Columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com