With the view of the 2018 IndyCar field becoming clearer after the somewhat unexpected announcement that 2017 Rookie of the Year Ed Jones would fill the seat at Chip Ganassi Racing – vacated by Tony Kanaan, who Ganassi announced would not be returning after a lackluster 2017 campaign – one of the biggest questions regarding the field is who will join Kanaan at A.J. Foyt Racing. Foyt announced on October 25th that neither of its drivers, Conor Daly nor Carlos Munoz, would be back in the ABC Supply machines for 2018. Joining Kanaan at A.J. Foyt Racing will be his longtime race engineer, Eric Cowdin, bringing a sense of familiarity as the 42-year-old embarks on what could be the final chapter of his storied career. However, his potential teammate could have a large impact on what exactly this curtain call of sorts holds for TK.
One driver heavily rumored to be joining A.J. Foyt Racing alongside Kanaan is fellow Brazilian, rookie Matheus Leist. After winning the BRDC British Formula 3 Championship in 2016 with 4 wins and 11 podiums, Leist produced 3 wins and 4 podiums this past season which included victory in the Freedom 100 at the Brickyard driving for top junior team Carlin. Still just 20 years old, Leist is somewhat of an unknown in the worldwide junior categories despite usually finding his way to the front of the field of each series he has competed in. What we know about Matheus Leist is that he is very quick, holding multiple victories in every single-seater category he has competed in. The argument can be made that Leist deserves a seat in IndyCar on merit and talent alone. In today’s motorsports universe, however, merit and talent are all too often not enough.
Funding and sponsorship also play a large role in whether or not a driver, regardless of talent, gets the privilege of climbing into a cockpit at the highest levels of open-wheel competition. Leist carries the support of Brazilian television networks aiming to find the next Brazilian talent to follow in the footsteps of none other than Foyt driver Kanaan. Investing in Leist provides the chance to pair an exciting young rookie with a legendary veteran in what would have to be considered one of the most intriguing driver lineups of 2018. Perhaps Foyt envisions a chance to surround Tony Kanaan with more familiarity and create comfort and consistency for TK – which was clearly lacking at the pressure cooker which is Chip Ganassi Racing. It is a possibility that A.J. Foyt sees the value in Brazil and, being around racing at all levels for as long as he has, sees what the country brings to international motorsport on both sides of the crash fence. Undoubtedly, Matheus Leist offers a chance for Foyt to develop an exciting rookie right alongside an Indy 500 champion to generate international buzz around what was an otherwise unremarkable team in 2017.
But what about the plethora of established drivers still left hunting for a seat as this round of musical chairs that is the 2018 IndyCar lineup grinds to a halt? Drivers like longtime series veteran and fan favorite, J.R. Hildebrand, are likely to be on the outside looking in. Hildebrand, perhaps the most famous 2nd place finisher in the history of the Indy 500, is absolutely deserving of a full time IndyCar ride having proven himself to be particularly adept on ovals and at least adequate on road and street courses. Despite a popular personality and Indy 500 prowess, IndyCar team owners just do not seem to be enamored with the 29-year-old from California. That’s right, JR is still just 29! With one of the last available possibilities for a full-time 2018 drive being the number 4 Foyt machine, Hildebrand could be left out once again as he puts together another Indy 500 assault that will likely include at least one additional race at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as some Indy 500 drives typically do.
Other usual suspects who would no doubt love a chance to pilot the number 4 would have to include series regulars Oriol Servia and Sebastian Saavedra. Both drivers regularly secure seats for the 500, but each struggle to be anything more than well-traveled backmarkers at most circuits. Following six top-5 finishes in 2011 with Newman/Haas Racing, Servia achieved four top-5 finishes with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2012. Servia’s last top-10 finish was in 2014 for Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing and he has seen limited action since. In the eyes of many, Servia (43) is merely a part-time seat filler and full-time Honda two-seater pilot at this stage of his career. But as someone who is well respected in the paddock, perhaps he could earn one last shot at glory alongside Tony Kanaan at Foyt. Sebastien Saavedra has four top-10 finishes to his name spread across eight seasons, including just two full-time seasons in 2011 and 2012. He has never reached the top 5. At just 27 years of age, however, Saavedra offers a nice mix of experience and youth that could help solidify the Foyt lineup in years to come as the team looks to develop younger drivers.
Shakeups at Renault and Toro Rosso in the Formula One world that have left Jolyon Palmer and Daniil Kvyat, respectively, without rides at the moment. Additionally, the rapid dismantling of Porsche’s LMP1 program has also left many talented drivers with top-level experience adrift in the vast ocean that is motorsports free agency. It is unlikely, however, that any of these drivers will wind up at Foyt. While Palmer is well funded, he does not seem content to leave Europe quite yet and may pursue a reserve role with an F1 team over an IndyCar drive. Kvyat, an F1 podium finisher who is rumored to have backing from Russian businessmen, could yet still find himself in Formula One in 2018 as he has been linked to the open seat at Williams. He will surely have offers from LMP2 teams in the World Endurance Championship as well. Finally, Porsche LMP1 drivers Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy, and Timo Bernhard have limited open-wheel experience and remain Porsche property. Le Mans ace Andre Lotterer seems set on staying in the World Endurance Championship with an LMP1 privateer team or perhaps returning to Super Formula in Japan. Of course, Brendon Hartley – who was as good as signed with Chip Ganassi Racing to pilot the number 10 – now looks set to contest the 2018 season in Formula One with the Toro Rosso team and Neel Jani will be Porsche’s guinea pig at Jay Penske owned Dragon Racing as the brand looks to enter the electric world of Formula E in 2019.
The bottom line is that while there is a whole host of talented and perhaps deserving drivers with and without experience in IndyCar, the choice for Foyt will likely come down to a young, up and coming driver in Matheus Leist who could inspire an aging Tony Kanaan to one last Indy 500 victory or an established fan favorite whose oval prowess may just be enough to entice A.J. to give him a go in the number 4 car. Whatever the decision, the message has been sent that last year’s efforts from Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz were not enough and Mr. Foyt will be expecting more from his drivers in 2018.