McLaren, Hinch, and other musings

Before we get to the exciting and interesting news of the past few days, let’s get to some less glamorous and scintillating news.  You may have seen late last week that George Phillips of Oilpressure.com and I recorded another episode of “Two Sites Unite,” the video blog that he and I have posted a handful of times over the past several months.

It’s been since the Indianapolis 500 that we posted one, but that doesn’t mean it’s been that long since we recorded one.  We actually recorded an episode back in early July, but we both suffered from very poor internet connection at the time, and the video was unsuitable to post.  As a result, we had to scrap the episode and it is lost to the ages.  Maybe pieces of it will live on in a later blooper reel, but now there is a fresh video for you to enjoy.

In this nearly-40 minute video, we look back at the last couple races, the shifting momentum of a couple Penske drivers, and attempt to forecast how the last four races of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series will play out.  You can pretty much assume all my predictions will be false, so if anyone is holding out hope that Sebastien Bourdais or Zach Veach could steal this championship, there is still hope.

Unfortunately, we recorded this episode last Thursday night.  About 12 hours later, some fairly substantial IndyCar news broke. You may have heard by now that McLaren is officially returning full time to the IndyCar racing.  With news that the legendary Formula 1 team will be making its return to top-level North American open-wheel racing after an absence of 30 years, the tables may have completed turned for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series.

Or maybe they haven’t.

Rumors had been rampant over the past several weeks that McLaren would return to the series by forming a technical partnership with an existing IndyCar team.  The most logical scenario saw McLaren resurrecting their very successful 2017 relationship with Andretti Autosport, which saw Fernando Alonso lead 39 laps of the 2017 Indianapolis 500 and be in solid position to win the race in his rookie year before his Honda engine would expire within 50 miles of the checkered flag.

Unfortunately, the very messy divorce of McLaren’s F1 team and Honda Japan and the acrimonious words that followed have not been smoothed over within the Japanese headquarters.  As such, it was made well known that Honda’s IndyCar program and teams were to have no association with McLaren, regardless of the fact that Honda’s IndyCar program is an American-based effort through Honda Performance Development of Santa Clarita, California, and the McLaren IndyCar effort is entirely separate from their F1 program.  With Andretti Autosport recently having secured a multi-year extension with Honda as their IndyCar engine supplier, that road was a dead end.

The only Chevrolet teams currently supported by Chevrolet are Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing, AJ Foyt Enterprises, and Carlin.  Penske doesn’t need the distraction or quite honestly the technical and commercial expertise of McLaren.  The whole Carlin thing went south in a big way this past May, and Ed Carpenter’s team really wasn’t in the market to bring McLaren on board.  But…

This past spring, McLaren F1 announced a partnership with Arrow Electronics, the title sponsor of Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson’s IndyCar team.  The pairing of these ASPM and McLaren seems like a natural fit except for that minor issue of ASPM being a long-time Honda effort.  Furthermore, their primary driver – James Hinchcliffe – has a very lucrative personal sponsorship with American Honda and Honda Canada, appearing in a plethora of TV commercials throughout the US and Canada during all programming, not just during IndyCar races.  There’s no way Schmidt and Hinchcliffe would walk away from their associations with Honda, right? Wrong!

When the news was released on Friday of the ASPM/McLaren engagement, about the only piece of actual confirmed news was that the team would be powered by Chevrolet engines.  There was no mention whatsoever of drivers though both Sam Schmidt and Zak Brown indicated that Hinch was under contract through 2020 and that they intend to honor that contract.

Needless to say, this is quite the tangled web.

Speculation immediately ran rampant on social media about Hinch’s future. Would he break his Schmidt contract or his personal Honda deal?  After a few hours, Hinch released a statement through his various social media platforms giving every indication that he intends to honor his current contract with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing, saying, “I’ve worked with General Motors in the past and look forward to rekindling that relationship in 2020.”

That pretty much settles that, right?  This means Hinch’s paycheck from Sam Schmidt is much bigger than Hinch’s paycheck from Honda.  But what if this doesn’t really settle everything.

Though they won’t come out and say it and even put out a nice release saying all the right things, no one should believe for one second that Honda is not livid about this development.  Even if American Honda/HPD and Big Honda are officially separate entities, this move will send ripples under the entire Honda umbrella, and Honda will not take this sitting down.  I’m not sure “embarrassment” is the right word, but having what has essentially become Honda’s US spokesman defecting to Chevrolet – nevermind that it’s with the team with which Honda still holds very hard feelings – will undoubtedly be seen as a slap in the face.

So what if Honda pushes another stack of chips onto the table and comes out guns a-blazin’?

There is a possibility that Honda simply offers Hinch a new personal contract with an obscene amount of money to break his ASPM contract and stay with Honda.  Honda keeps its spokesman and thumbs its nose back at McLaren.  Sure, it costs Honda more money, but Big Honda isn’t exactly hurting.  They could pay Hinch $5 million per year and that wouldn’t even start touch their hospitality budget in F1.  They’re fine.

So let’s say for a moment that Honda makes an offer Hinch can’t pass up. What then?  From the Arrow McLaren Racing SP side (good grief that’s a long team name with no good acronym), they would now be looking for two drivers whom they believe can elevate their team to “Big Three” status.  The team’s current other driver – Marcus Ericsson – only has a one-year contract and consensus seems to be that he will likely not be retained for 2020.  (Of course that was before this announcement so a lot has changed already.)

One name that keeps getting tossed around for at least one of the seats is Pato O’Ward.  Pato had a solid start to the 2020 season with Carlin, but seemed to hit a bump after COTA, ultimately failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and then departing for the Japanese Super Formula Championship as part of his new role on the Red Bull Junior Team.  Of course, being in Japan puts him right under the nose of Big Honda so they may well have already seen something they really like in him.  Just for the sake of argument, let’s tentatively pencil him into one of the rides.

Though O’Ward has an immense amount of potential, the team will still need a much more experienced veteran to help O’Ward along and push the team forward.  Of course, Hinch is currently said to be filling that roles, but that doesn’t make “what-if” scenarios much fun.  So who else could fill the role?

The obvious choice would be to see Ericsson return to his #7 seat for a sophomore season.  Ericsson hasn’t exactly set the world on fire this season though he’s had a couple nice runs.  But McLaren would be familiar with him from his years in Formula 1 so that’s a check in his box.  However, 13 races into his first years, Ericsson has only three top-10 finishes to go with five finishes of 20th or worse, leading to a mediocre 15th position in the current championship standings.  He doesn’t exactly come with loads of IndyCar experience that would be desirable for taking the “new” team to the next level.

For the better part of two years now, Scott Dixon’s name has been constantly swirling around McLaren rumors.  However, with the acrimony that is sure to ensue with Honda and Schmidt’s breakup, I can’t imagine any scenario where Honda would possibly allow Dixon to leave Ganassi to move to a Chevrolet team.  He was an early contender in my mind, but the Chevrolet power for the new Arrow McLaren Racing SP team makes that discussion a non-starter.  Honda simply will not allow that to happen.

So what Honda drivers could move into the McLaren spots?  What about Sebastien Bourdais?  When Vasser-Sullivan Racing announced their multi-year association with Dale Coyne Racing in January, they specifically mentioned Bourdais would be returning to the team in 2019, making no indication that Bourdais himself had a multi-year deal with Dale Coyne or Vasser-Sullivan Racing.  I think Bourdais has shown time and again recently that he still has the chops to compete at the highest level and would an excellent choice to lead the new Arrow McLaren Racing SP team.  He has been a great mentor to young Santino Ferrucci this year and would do likewise paired with Pato O’Ward.

Of course, Bourdais moving to McLaren (I’m tired of typing out that full team name already) would leave a quality Honda seat open that Hinch could slide right into, so more pieces of that puzzle fit together should Hinch ultimately decide to continue his long-time relationship with Honda.

Another seat Hinch could fit into would be a strongly-rumored third seat at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.  Bobby Rahal was recently quoted as saying that team is as close as they’ve ever been to getting a third car on the grid.  Could that go to Hinch?

Maybe, but the another piece of the fallout puzzle from Schmidt’s decision is the fate of Michael Shank and Jim Meyer’s team, a team that has enjoyed a technical alliance with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing for the last two seasons.  MSR, however, is very closely aligned with Honda, being a factory Acura team in IMSA.  Let’s assume MSR won’t be going to Chevrolet with Schmidt, so is RLLR a potential landing spot for MSR?  Both Michael Shank and Bobby Rahal are native and proud Ohioans, and both teams are located in the Columbus area.  Though Michael Shank has said his ultimate goal is to have a stand alone, full-time IndyCar team, they may not quite be ready yet, so an alliance with RLLR could get them one step closer to that dream and satisfy Rahal’s itch for a third car.

Ultimately, I think Hinch will stay with Arrow McLaren Racing SP and the rest of the conversation will be moot, at least for 2020.  Hinch knows it is best to not burn bridges, especially when walking away from one of the few paying rides in the NTT IndyCar Series.  Plus, I believe Hinch still feels a debt of gratitude to Sam Schmidt for sticking by him after his near-fatal 2015 Indianapolis 500 crash.  Sam never once wavered in his supported of James, and those things are not easily forgotten.  It will be tough for Hinch to separate from Honda, especially considering all they have invested in him, but his ultimate job is to be a race car driver, not a spokesman and commercial actor.

One thing is, as AJ Foyt would say, for “certain sure.”  The dull silly season we were expecting after Alexander Rossi re-signed with Andretti Autosport just got another lease on life and will be interesting to watch over the coming months.

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