PRUETT: The state of the IndyCar pre-season

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Talk about a shot through the bow of IndyCar’s most successful team to start the new season. I love times like last week when a big, aggressive move – the confirmation of Gavin Ward’s signing at Arrow McLaren SP – sends a signal to the whole paddock that a team on the cusp of something big great don’t mess around.

Most of the exciting silly season news revolves around drivers moving from one team to another, but on rare occasions it’s a personnel change with the signing or loss of a key member of the team. crew making waves. That’s precisely what we have with Ward’s decision to leave Josef Newgarden’s Penske schedule for a career upgrade at AMSP.

There is considerable power and potential within AMSP’s expanded engineering group, and in Ward the team has acquired someone with a ton of Formula 1 experience from his years at Red Bull, without talk about the championship-winning IndyCar pedigree of the title he won with Newgarden in 2019. In addition, AMSP has also recruited someone who is at the point in his career where he is ready to move from race engineering and apply his knowledge in a greater capacity – to an entire team – as a technical director.

The timing is also perfect for AMSP’s Craig Hampson who, having worked as the team’s TD since joining in 2020, is said to have longed for a return to the timing pit. Together, AMSP has two of IndyCar’s top engineers, one wanting to take care of all-around performance, and the other yearning for the challenge of getting AMSP’s second car into the win column. Together they got what they wanted, and that’s where this game of AMSP could become a nightmare for its rivals.

With Hampson in the driver’s seat of his #7 Chevy, Felix Rosenqvist’s chances of getting back on the winning track have been greatly increased. In fact, I believe that every driver Hampson has worked with for a full season, maybe except one, has won an IndyCar race. And with Will Anderson continuing to be Pato O’Ward’s race-winning engineer in the #5 Chevy, the Taylor Kiel-led operation looks like a bona fide title contender.

AMSP went quite far last year in this regard with O’Ward, but it was really a one-car team supporting the best multi-car campaigns as Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Team Penske had to offer, and the size of the challenge became untenable as the #5 effort faltered a bit on the home stretch. With O’Ward set to return to action, a rejuvenated effort for Rosenqvist and all of the expected contributions from Hampson and Ward in their new positions, plus the return of Juan Pablo Montoya for the month of May, AMSP fans have all the reason to feel optimistic about the rise of the entire organization in the coming season.

Looking back over decades of news related to Team Penske with its drivers and major staff, you’ll find that the vast majority of stories involve the most successful team in IndyCar history hiring stars. rising or established. On rare occasions, like we did with Ward, the story is quite different with one of the series’ most valuable assets heading for the door to try and help a less accomplished team overtake his former employer. Strange times.

As I mentioned in Penske’s tech update earlier in the week, the team isn’t ready to announce its driver and race engineer pairings, but I can say Eric Leichtle is coming. to the program with nothing but positive endorsements of his skills and efforts. with Pratt & Miller Engineering as IndyCar project manager.

There will be a new face alongside Newgarden on booth #2 this year. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Pictures

The loss of Ward and the hiring of Leichtle is a fascinating subject as far as Penske’s immediate future is concerned. If Leichtle is set up with Newgarden, the two-time champion will travel to the season opener in St. Petersburg with a new race engineer who will build an IndyCar for the first time in motor racing.

Luckily for the Penske team, there is recent history of doing this with the #2 Chevy, so the process for onboarding new IndyCar engineers is well defined. Not too long ago, Penske took Brian Campe, a veteran engineer within its NASCAR program, and transferred him to IndyCar with Montoya. Campe was able to spend time learning from senior engineers on the open-wheel side before being thrust into the role, and considering the 2015 Indy 500 victory and championship tie with Scott Dixon ( who won the title on the back of more wins) that he facilitated with JPM, it is entirely possible for Leichtle, who spent last season helping strategy on Simon Pagenaud’s car, to find success similar.

Ward also spent a lot of time shadowing Penske engineers before getting started with Newgarden, but the question here is whether Leichtle will have enough time to do that before he goes racing Feb. 27 at St. Pete. It has also been suggested that he could work with Will Power and Power’s longtime race engineer David Faustino could move on to Newgarden’s No. 2 entry.

Which Penske driver is most likely to make the best championship bid, which driver has the longest track ahead of the team and which would be the smartest driver/engineer pairing to achieve their short and long term goals? I don’t envy the people who are responsible for providing these answers.

The only change I can say is that a deal made involves Ben Bretzman being attached to second Penske student Scott McLaughlin. I love this movement. McLaughlin had a good rookie season with race engineer Jonathan Diuguid in charge, but with Diuguid’s promotion to head Penske’s new Porsche IMSA/WEC program I was worried about the New Zealander’s future. . There have been a few highlights produced in 2021, mostly on the ovals, but few notable performances elsewhere on the calendar. To get from a good season to what Penske expects of its drivers, consistency and stability to build on is what McLaughlin needed most in his second season.

Losing Diuguid certainly didn’t help, but with Simon Pagenaud leaving the team, Bretzman’s new availability should be a blessing for the Kiwi. Bretzman is more than a numbers guy; he does his job as a race engineer as a coach, mentor, friend and security blanket. For what McLaughlin needs to go from racing just outside the top 10 to most races to regular top 10 appearances, he couldn’t ask for a better person than Bretzman to continue what Diuguid started.

So whatever Penske ends up doing with the other two driver and race engineer assignments, we know that significant change and learning and adaptation will be involved, and that’s not something I have used to see to this degree with the program. Most years, it feels like Penske is a juggernaut, rolling from season to season with all the answers to all the questions. The first months of the 2022 championship will tell us if this will continue.

Looking ahead, a footnote in our story about RLL’s engineering changes sparked a flurry of texts regarding former technical director Tom German’s move to a factory role at Toyota. RacingDevelopment. Most of those texts said something like, “I guess that answers the question of whether Toyota is seriously watching IndyCar.”

Given German’s vast experience at Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and RLL, and his undeniable success with Indy 500 and championship wins, it would indeed be foolish to think that TRD acquired German and then limited its reach to improving its NASCAR and short track programs.

Go beyond engineering moves, and there was plenty of action in the background. As we wrote in RACER’s latest silly update regarding the last major grid seat to be filled with Ed Carpenter Racing’s #20 Chevy, “Englander Jack Aitken recently tested with the team , after Ryan Hunter-Reay’s test, and if either has the sponsorship to deliver to ECR, I guess a deal would have been announced. It makes me wonder if Conor Daly might end up staying in the car with a new group of supporters in tow.

Is Daly back at the front of the line for ECR issue 20? Richard Dole/Motorsport Pictures

I texted Jack last week, who said he was unable to raise funds and was out of the picture at ECR, but hopes to find another entry point into IndyCar with ECR or another team in the future. Daly mentioned having something in the works last week on his podcast, and I keep hearing about his name as a strong candidate to get back to the #20 Chevy. If it ain’t Daly and a new package sponsorship for road and street courses (plus the Indy 500), I don’t know where ECR will find a driver with millions in hand to step in and claim the seat on short notice.

To my knowledge, RHR doesn’t have millions to offer – if he did, he would have been announced as Carpenter’s teammate – so if it’s not him, Daly or Aitken, ECR will be under pressure to find anyone else, as we are now only 45 days away from green flag in St. Pete.

Cusick Motorsports continues to find itself in the strange scenario of having a large budget to offer and being unable to find an IndyCar team to field an entry for Stefan Wilson at the Indy 500 and a handful of other rounds. Would Cusick/Wilson be a good fit for the ECR vacancy?

Sad to hear that the Juncos Hollinger Racing team has canceled plans to compete in the Indy Lights series this year. JHR raced Sting Ray Robb and Toby Sowery/Rasmus Lindh last season, seemed to have a full car and had inquiries for the second, but Juncos tells me he will only focus on IndyCar this season and will look to get back to Indy Lights in 2023.

Many questions continue to arise about Carlin Racing and whether it will be on the IndyCar grid as an independent team or in some form of collaboration with JHR. I should be able to provide an answer within the next week; it’s not that I don’t know the answer, but rather, the timing of this answer is best saved for later in the month.

The penultimate note before we go is about the brutal return of COVID-19 with the Omicron variant and how it’s sweeping teams through like it’s 2020. From teams in the workshop to two IndyCar crew chiefs that I know, there has been a constant influx of people mentioning that they have been affected by the virus. It’s too early to tell if the upcoming season will be affected in any way, but after speaking to a number of people who own or run some of our favorite racing series over the past week, it’s is an important concern.

Finally, I got a message from former Force Indy USF2000 driver Myles Rowe who thanked all the kind people who donated to his GoFundMe account. Myles said that while they’re only halfway to meeting his budget needs to continue in USF2000, it looks like he’ll be able to start his second season on the road to Indy while still continuing to seek the necessary sponsorship. to end the year.

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