Analysis: The IndyCar season has just started but free agency is in full swing after only 2 races

IndyCar, after just two races, is suddenly rife with rumors about driver free agency with its biggest month coming up. Blame it on a mountain bike trail out West and a mistake by David Malukas back in February.

The Arrow McLaren driver dislocated his wrist and tore tendons in a mountain biking crash a month before the IndyCar season opener that was supposed to be his debut race with his new team. At the time, McLaren officials thought he would miss the first two races of the season.

Unfortunately not. When the 22-year-old Malukas misses Sunday’s race at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabam, he will have been out of the car for six outings that includes an exhibition race and an Indianapolis 500 test.

McLaren has no idea if he will remain part of the team’s future. The team announced Tuesday that reigning F2 champion Theo Pourchaire will race this weekend at Barber after finishing 11th in his IndyCar debut at Long Beach.

“The team has been very supportive of David, but what’s more unfortunate is his injury is much more serious than we thought initially,” McLaren team principal Gavin Ward said over the weekend.

“A big part of our focus has been trying to help him in every way in his recovery, but we’ve also been spending an awful lot of time to make sure we have competitive drivers in the No. 6 car. Unfortunately, it’s just a lot of uncertainty right now,” Ward said. “And we’re having to make difficult decisions. We’re doing our best to try and take care of him, but at the end of the day, we also have to look after the performance of the team.”

They aren’t alone. Contract talks among all teams will be in full swing by the time the Indy 500 rolls around next month.

Two-time IndyCar champion and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden is in a contract year with Team Penske. He is the most accomplished free agent of the group and if winning is all that matters, then Newgarden would be nuts to leave. Still, he may have noticed the multimillion-dollar pay raises recently given to Colton Herta at Andretti Global and Pato O’Ward at McLaren. Newgarden — who statistically outranks both — likely wants to be in the same pay bracket.

“I do not discuss contracts in public,” Newgarden said at Long Beach. “What matters to me is winning races. That is the genuine answer. Everything else follows from that.”

Can he win outside of Team Penske?

“You’d be hard-pressed to look outside,” he said.

2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi of McLaren is also in a contract year, too. He won the 500 as a rookie and has seven victories since, but none since 2022 in what was his final season with Andretti. And that victory followed two winless seasons.

In desperate need of a change of scenery, he found it at McLaren, but the success has not come. He had just one podium finish and led just 12 laps last year. He opened this season eighth at St. Petersburg and rallied to a 10th-place finish Sunday at Long Beach after teammate O’Ward ran into him early.

He acknowledged that “contract conversations always start before they probably should” but he doesn’t feel like he needs to show some exceptional performances over the next few weeks to keep his seat at McLaren.

“I feel like we’re kind of in that zone where you just live and die by your race results,” Rossi said. “You try to build currency. So that’s the state I’m in and just trying to win races. The sport is stressful if you have a 10-year deal or a 10-day deal and you are only as good as your last race.”

With Rossi’s status uncertain and a looming decision on Malukas, McLaren with possibly two seats to fill is in the thick of things.

“It is kind of weird that it’s two races into the season and I don’t have 18 drivers signed,” quipped McLaren CEO Zak Brown, who ended up with Malukas when reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou walked away from a deal to join McLaren this year.

Callum Ilott, who has twice filled in for Malukas and ran the Indy 500 open test for McLaren, also wants back into the series.

The biggest prize in free agency just might be Christian Lundgaard, a 22-year-old Danish driver brought over from F2 by Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Although he has just one win in 37 career starts, teams think he has a ton of potential and is one of the fastest young drivers in the field.

RLL doesn’t routinely compete for wins and all four of its cars struggled to make the Indy 500 last year. Lundgaard, in a contract year, said he is looking beyond weekly results as he evaluates the market.

“I think that the plan stays the same — you do the best you can with the material that you have underneath,” he said. “I’m not at all worried that what we have at the moment is good enough to win. We just have to put the puzzles of the pieces of the puzzle together really.”

Graham Rahal believes Lundgaard would be foolish to leave the organization, particularly since sponsor Hy-Vee is invested in the young driver.

“Guys got to make their own decisions. Everybody provides something different,” Rahal said. “But Christian needs to make his own decisions. I stand by it — in my opinion, it would be a mistake to look elsewhere. Because really, where is he going to go? If he goes to McLaren is he going to get favorable treatment over Pato? No. I would just say that I think he’s in a pretty damn good spot.”

Rinus VeeKay is up for renewal at Ed Carpenter Racing, The Dutchman has one win in 65 starts driving for Carpenter, which isn’t a team that consistently challenges for victory.

VeeKay has spent his entire IndyCar career with ECR and, although he has shown promise and speed, he has yet to really put together a full season. Plus, a mistake he made in 2021 crashing into Palou at Gateway could have cost Palou his first championship; his crash with Palou on pit road at last year’s Indy 500 did cost Palou that victory.

VeeKay said he does not have a non-compete clause prohibiting him from talking with other teams, but it is his goal to return to ECR on an extended contract.


AP IndyCar:

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top