What I'm watching in 2023: Early silly season movement, 2nd-year leaps, engine testing

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s March. We finally got the grid for 2023 set a month ago. Why am I seeing 'silly season’ again?” I get it. I wish it wasn’t the case, too. But as we learned a year ago – when all the talk after the St. Pete opener was about Pato O’Ward’s unhappiness with his contract with Arrow McLaren and who held the power over where he could or couldn’t race in 2023 – silly season never sleeps.

Ganassi vs. Arrow McLaren

There’s perhaps no better place to start than last year’s courtroom drama: Chip Ganassi Racing vs. Arrow McLaren. As IndyStar reported, Alex Palou cannot sign a deal for 2024 outside Ganassi until early-September. Palou announced he’d signed a 2023 deal with McLaren Racing last July but remained with Ganassi after the arbitration process allowed him to test in F1 with McLaren. Many in the paddock believe Palou is signed-sealed-delivered to Arrow McLaren for 2024.

Such a move would leave Felix Rosenqvist in jeopardy. The Swede looked ready to head back to Formula E with McLaren last summer, until a change of heart drew him back toward IndyCar. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has hinted that the team could expand to a four-car lineup full-time, which would absorb Palou while keeping Rosenqvist. Without Rosenqvist challenging for a championship, however, that seems far-fetched.

Could a Rosenqvist-Ganassi reunion then be in the works? Fences would need to be mended after the Swedish driver darted unexpectedly from his first IndyCar home at the end of the 2020 season. What would be more likely is Rosenqvist hitting the open market, which would put pressure on three Honda-packed teams to take a long look at their driver lineups and decide whether they could use a refresh.

After it looked as if he'd likely be off to compete in Formula E, Felix Rosenqvist found a way to keep his IndyCar ride with Arrow McLaren SP for 2023.

What Rosenqvist being on the market would mean

Rosenqvist, an IndyCar race-winner, finished in the top-10 in 10 of the last 13 races in 2022 and would deserve a car where he could do the same, with a team that wouldn’t require bringing budget. The most obvious spot would be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where rumors swirled late last year that Jack Harvey, who signed a multi-year deal with the team in the summer of 2021, could be dropped after a single season where he finished 22nd in points. Back for Year No. 2, the British driver was shifted to RLL’s lower-profile No. 30 and out of the primary backing from major sponsor Hy-Vee that has gone to Christian Lundgaard. Unless he can engineer a turnaround, his IndyCar career could face serious questions.

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Rosenqvist could also look toward Meyer Shank Racing, which brings back its two-veteran lineup of Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves. Outside Long Beach (9th), Mid-Ohio (8th) and the 500 (7th), the soon-to-be 48-year-old Castroneves was well outside the conversation come race day. Mike Shank has said his sponsors love the bubbly Brazilian, but there will come a time when those same backers will demand progress on-track. MSR’s star IMSA driver Tom Blomqvist, who already picked up his first IndyCar test with the team this offseason, should be considered a serious candidate for this seat, too.

With only one full-time driver who was racing for the team just two years ago, Andretti Autosport leadership could look toward additional changes in next season’s driver lineup if 2022 additions Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco don’t show progress. Having finished 23rd in points with only one result inside the top-half of the field in 2022, DeFrancesco faces a much taller task to reach the expectations of an Andretti driver. Despite bringing the budget that funds his car and being targeted by Michael Andretti well before he reached IndyCar, DeFrancesco weathered rumors late last year that he was on thin ice.

Romain Grosjean looks on from his pit box at Mid-Ohio.

Grosjean logged seven top-10s and a trio of top-5s in his first year in the No. 28, but expectations were certainly higher than 13th in points after his breakout partial season with Coyne. Holding onto primary sponsor DHL is of high importance for Andretti. As was the case during Ryan Hunter-Reay’s tenure in the seat, DHL will expect to see that car up near the front – and occasionally winning. Grosjean need not seriously challenge for the championship, but in the final year of his two-year deal, he’ll need to be a factor more often.

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Who would replace Palou with Ganassi?

Ganassi has begun searching to fill what will likely be two full-time seats for 2024. Rookie Marcus Armstrong, who will race road and street courses in the No. 11 in 2023, is an obvious first choice if sponsors can be found to make ends meet. That would leave an eventual replacement for Palou, and CGR has already tested Ferrari F1 reserve driver Robert Shwartzman in January, with Formula E veteran Nick Cassidy waiting in the wings.

Inside the IndyCar paddock, Coyne second-year driver David Malukas is likely to remain a popular name after admitting the two sides held conversations about such a switch last year. Referencing what would likely be an option that Coyne held on the rookie for a second season, Malukas added that he was pretty certain he’d be returning for Year No. 2, but whether that would be the case for Year No. 3 remains to be seen.

Other names to keep an eye on:

Conor Daly watches qualifying for an IndyCar Series auto race, Saturday, July 23, 2022, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.

Conor Daly: The Noblesville native secured his current multiyear deal with Ed Carpenter Racing with the help of sponsor BitNile, which is now plastered on all three of the team’s cars. But Daly will want to keep closer to teammate Rinus VeeKay, who beat him on-track in seven of the last nine races in 2022.

Callum Ilott: The young British driver inked what Juncos Hollinger Racing called a “long-term deal” last summer, though the terms of this new contract are not known. Even with a much smaller team, Ilott’s speed and car control are well-recognized. Should there be any mechanism to make him available to a team like Ganassi or Andretti for 2024, he would be highly coveted.

Santino Ferrucci: The one-time NASCAR Cup hopeful finds himself back full-time in IndyCar for the first time since 2020 on a one-year deal with AJ Foyt Racing. Expected to carry the mantle for the team with a rookie with very low expectations, Ferrucci enters 2023 on a one-year deal. Expect him to return in 2024, though, so long as the match seems strong and the funding can be found to keep the partnership together.

Sep 11, 2022; Salinas, California, USA; Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) of Spain and Team Penske driver Will Power (12) of Australia celebrate their podium finishes following the Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

A serious title challenger for Penske and Ganassi

We talk about how much more competitive IndyCar is than Formula 1 – and for race wins, it’s not even a conversation. There’s nearly a full paddock of F1 drivers with barely a chance to win a race. The list in F1 is, maybe, nine. But when it comes to serious championship battles, if the talk out of Bahrain is correct, F1 fans could finally have a three-team fight.

It’s high time we end up with more than a Penske-Ganassi battle coming into Laguna Seca. Yes, Andretti and this latest iteration of Arrow McLaren have found themselves with outside shots in the last five years, but it’s never amounted to anything.

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The seriousness of title bids from Andretti Autosport (in all likelihood, Colton Herta), as well as Arrow McLaren, will be readily apparent by the time we get to May and the 500. Herta, Rossi and O’Ward, in particular, all are capable of winning the number of races it takes to contend for a title. What we don’t know is if they and their teams can avoid more than a couple finishes outside the top-10.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Jack Harvey (45) sits in his pit box Friday, July 29, 2022, during qualifying for the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Rebounds and leaps in Year No. 2

Who’s going to make the famous second-year leap in 2023? In need to save his IndyCar career, Rosenqvist proved that his 21st-place finish in 2021 could be chalked up to growing pains. In such a deep IndyCar field, needing a season to get one's bearings is considered reasonable, but by Year 2, teams are expecting results.

Palou remains the shining example of this, winning his 2021 title in his second IndyCar season – and his first year at Ganassi, no less. Though last year’s crop of rookies (Kyle Kirkwood, Malukas, DeFrancesco, Lundgaard and Ilott) aren’t expected to produce that type of magic, their abilities to become routine competitors in 2023 will say a lot about their ceilings. Young talents like O’Ward, Herta and Palou wasted little time becoming central figures in the sport.

In the second year in their respective homes, Grosjean and Harvey will be expected to prove they deserve more time to continue building a foundation.

Agustin Canapino of Juncos Hollinger Racing rounds turn 14 followed by Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske during day two of NTT IndyCar Series open testing at The Thermal Club in Thermal, Calif., Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

Progress at Juncos Hollinger Racing

Though no one will continue to expect much out of the team, I will have my eye on whether JHR will see meaningful benefits from adding a second full-time driver – one with virtually no open-wheel experience. Ilott’s second full-time season should deliver better results, but if Agustin Canapino can be anywhere other than a second behind the field’s second-slowest car in practices, JHR can begin to build a library of data that can help better-tune Ilott’s No. 77 Chevy.

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Without that, the team will have wasted a year it has with Ilott under contract while just getting Canapino up to speed. Against veteran-filled two-, three- and four-car teams, there’s only so much JHR and Ilott can achieve on a regular basis without help.

History of the wrong kind

Josef Newgarden stands on the precipice of IndyCar history – and not the kind he wants. The Team Penske veteran, who quipped a year ago he believes a 10-win season is there for the taking and who won five times in 2022, risks becoming the first driver in IndyCar’s 100-plus-year history to finish runner-up in the championship in four consecutive seasons.

Newgarden became just the fourth driver to do so in three consecutive years last September, joining teammate Will Power (2010-12), Bruno Junqueira (2002-04) and Johnny Rutherford (1974-76). Newgarden’s far-and-away been the best driver over this stretch, winning 11 times – more than double all but Scott Dixon (7) – but unless he and his No. 2 crew can better limit the yo-yo effect from his off weekends, the trend could continue.

Testing, testing...1, 2, 3

Honda and Chevy continue to be relatively mum about their progress, but intrigue will only continue to ramp up for their first engine formula switch since 2012. In December, IndyCar and its two OEMs opted to hold onto the 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 power units for the future, rather than the previously-planned 2.4-liter models, and pair them with an energy recovery system that will help horsepower reach 900 in the near future.

The change came after development and production of the ERS units had been far slower than planned – an issue that first delayed the new formula’s deployment for 2023. In staying with the familiar 2.2s, the sides ensured focus could be honed in on the ERS unit’s development and pairing it with the power unit, rather than also having to develop a new engine in concert – risking the entire product’s readiness for the 2024 season.

Honda is believed to have been the first of the two OEMs to make it on-track with the ERS unit and 2.2-liter engine paired, during a largely successful test in January. Chevy, on the other hand, turned a limited number of laps across two days at Sebring two weeks ago, leaving one to wonder if Honda has a serious early jump in putting together its new system. Several more tests will take place in the coming months, with the results of five years of talk, several delays and now just a couple track days finally coming to fruition.