Those On The Outside Looking In

With the exception of the possibility that funding may not come through for Mikhail Aleshin; it appears that the full-time grid is now set for the Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 season. When Spencer Pigot was confirmed for the non-oval portion for Ed Carpenter’s No.20 car, the last available seat was filled.

While some will debate which of the confirmed drivers were worthy or not worthy of a full-time ride, they’re in. For better or worse, they’re in their respective seats until circumstances (lack of results, funding falls through, injury, etc.) dictate otherwise.

But I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the more prominent names of drivers who tried to get a ride and failed, or they went elsewhere for employment. I focused on younger drivers or drivers in their prime. I did not dwell on the Ryan Briscoe’s of the world who may or may not drive again, but probably have their better days behind them.

There is no particular order to this. I’ll describe a driver as they come to me. If I leave anyone out, please feel free to add them to the comment section.

Simona de Silvestro: While it is possible that Simona may never drive in IndyCar ever again, I personally think that would be IndyCar’s loss. She drove fulltime in the series from 2010 to 2013 – three seasons with the woefully underfunded HVM Racing and one with the woefully underachieving KV Racing, as Tony Kanaan’s teammate. KV’s defenders will point out that Kanaan won the Indianapolis 500 the year Simona was his teammate, but that was Kanaan’s only win in his three seasons at KV. Simona did score a podium finish at Houston late in the 2013 season.

After failing to find a ride for 2014, de Silvestro signed with Sauber in Formula One as an “affiliate driver”. This would give her a year of development with the eventual goal of driving in F1 for 2015. As is sometimes the case with these type of deals, the goal never materialized and Simona was a free-agent. She drove in Formula E in late 2014 and 2015 with mostly disappointing results. Three IndyCar races in 2015 with Andretti Autosport produced a fourth place finish at NOLA, along with two sub-par finishes at St, Petersburg and the Indianapolis 500 – her last time in an Indy car. For 2017, she has signed to run Australian Supercars.

Her detractors will say that she lost her edge in IndyCar after a frightening and painful practice crash at Indianapolis in 2011 that saw her car flip upside down and catch fire with her in it. Others say that she never had an edge to begin with as she has always been a backmarker. I am more inclined to agree with those that say she has never been given a fair shake and was either in old equipment or bad situations.

At age twenty-eight, Simona’s IndyCar window may be beginning to close. I would like to see a decent team take a chance on her to see what she can do in decent equipment.

Gabby Chaves: After winning the 2014 Indy Lights championship, Gabby Chaves signed with Bryan Herta Autosport to replace the departed Jack Hawksworth, who had shown flashes of speed in his one year with the team. While Chaves may have been unspectacular as a rookie, he brought the car home in one piece while showing glimpses of the talent that won him the Indy Lights title the year before. He assumed the lead at Pocono after Sage Karam crashed out of the lead in the incident that took the life of Justin Wilson. With six laps to go, Chaves was passed for the lead by eventual race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. With only three laps to go, his Honda engine expired leaving him with his only DNF of his Rookie of the Year season where he finished fifteenth.

Last season, Chaves had been expected to return to Herta’s team before they announced a last-minute alliance with Andretti Autosport. Before you knew it, Gabby Chaves was out and newcomer Alexander Rossi was in. While we all know what happened at Indianapolis with Rossi and Herta, the rest of Rossi’s rookie campaign in IndyCar was not as spectacular – especially in the first half of the season, and that was with the added resources of Andretti Autosport.

While I do think that Rossi was a substantial upgrade over Gabby Chaves, that doesn’t mean that Chaves should have been kicked to the curb. He drove seven races last season for Dale Coyne, with an average finish of sixteenth. Chaves was left without a chair when the music stopped this season. He is supposedly working on something for the Indianapolis 500 with a new team that he won’t identify. But other than that, it appears that gabby Chaves will not be in a car at all this season. That’s a shame.

Luca Filippi: After spot duty in a handful of IndyCar races beginning in 2013, Filippi landed the gig with Ed Carpenter racing in 2015 that Spencer Pigot has for the upcoming season. He earned a second place finish at Toronto along with three other Top-Ten results in the ten races he started. He ran the first four races of the 2016 season with Dale Coyne before being unceremoniously dumped, just heading into the Month of May. He did return for one more start in the summer for Toronto. Filippi’s results for 2016 were unspectacular, with an average finish of 17.8. But 2016 was not a banner year for Dale Coyne Racing.

Luca Filippi is a capable driver who, like so many, could shine in the right situation. I’m hoping we haven’t seen the last of him in an Indy car.

Sage Karam: Love him or hate him, and there are plenty in both camps, there is no denying that Sage Karam is fast and brave – sometimes to his own detriment. He incurred the wrath of many drivers throughout the 2015 season when he was splitting time in the No.8 car of Chip Ganassi Racing with Sebastian Saavedra. He is brash and cocky both in an out of the car, causing some fans to love him while others despise him.

While I’m personally not a fan of Karam’s, I’ll freely admit the kid has a lot of talent. I also think it is good for the series to have a villain for fans to cheer against, while others embrace him. For those two reasons, I hope that we’ll see Sage Karam in the Verizon IndyCar Series on a permanent basis at some point in the near future.

Sebastian Saavedra: While I’m not a fan of Karam’s I do acknowledge that he belongs in the series fulltime. I cannot say the same for the driver who split time in the N0.8 car two seasons ago – Sebastian Saavedra. In three fulltime seasons with Conquest, Dragon and KV – Saavedra’s best finish in points was twenty-first. Granted two of those teams were bottom-dwellers, but I think that’s where he belongs.

One of my favorite moments was at Indianapolis 500 qualifying in 2011. He was in a fulltime ride with Conquest, while Pippa Mann was in a one-off Conquest car for the “500” as a rookie. Saavedra failed to qualify, but Pippa made the field.

Why do I dislike Saavedra so much? He left Bryan Herta in a lurch in Indy lights with two races to go I the 2010 Indy Lights season. Saavedra contended at the time that Herta’s cars were unsafe and unfit to drive. He came across as a prima donna who felt Herta wasn’t worthy to have him as a driver. At the time, I wrote that Saavedra would never get another IndyCar ride, but I was wrong. Still, the way he bailed on Herta and then publicly trashed him as an owner rubbed me the wrong way.

Call me petty, but it is my personal hope that Sebastian Saavedra has driven his last Indy car.

RC Enerson: Speaking of bailing out early on a car owner, RC Enerson drove for Sam Schmidt in Indy Lights in 2015 and part of 2016. In 2015, Enerson finished fourth and was turning heads. But a twelfth place at St. Petersburg and a fifteenth at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis got his 2016 campaign off to a disappointing start. After an eleventh place finish in the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis, Enerson made the decision to leave Schmidt and take the remainder of his budget to pursue an IndyCar ride.

Although his selfish and controversial decision left Sam Schmidt steaming, it paid off in the short-term because it led to three races with Dale Coyne, where Enerson showed tremendous speed, promise and poise – even though the results of nineteenth, ninth and nineteenth don’t show it.

But did Enerson short-change himself for the long run? Owners plan around a full season. He probably didn’t do himself any favors in the court of public opinion among the owners. However, speed usually trumps everything else. If you can go fast, contend and win – many other things are totally forgotten. But I’ll also notice that the name of RC Enerson has hardly been mentioned for any openings this offseason.

RC Enerson is young – very young. He is still nineteen and will turn twenty in March. He is a very well-spoken American who can wheel a car quickly. His time will come. If Mikhail Aleshin’s deal falls through, perhaps Sam Schmidt can bury the hatchet and run him in the No.7 car. Stranger things have happened.

Stefan Wilson: The little brother of the late Justin Wilson has driven in a total of two IndyCar races between 2013 and 2016. He finished sixteenth in Baltimore in 2013 and twenty-eighth. While I appreciate him wanting to honor his brother and following in his footsteps, I’m not sure two races in four seasons makes you a serious candidate for any full-time rides. At twenty-seven, I’m not sure how many opportunities for experience he is going to get. It’s a shame, because it is a tragic story and he is an extremely nice guy.

Matthew Brabham: The grandson of Sir Jack Brabham is a complete product of the Mazda Road to Indy. He won the 2012 US F2000 championship by winning four races and finishing second in five more. The following year, he moved up to Pro Mazda.

Out of sixteen races in the Pro Mazda Series, Brabham won thirteen, finished third two more times and ninth in the other one. Rarely has any driver ever dominated a series like Brabham did in 2013.

In Indy Lights, Brabham proved to be somewhat mortal. In 2014, he won only one race and finished second two other times. Still, it was good enough for fourth in the final standings. Starting in 2015, Brabham began running off-road racing; which he continued to do in 2016.

Brabham made his IndyCar debut at Indianapolis; first in the Grand Prix where he finished sixteenth, then in the Indianapolis 500 where he finished twenty-second. While Brabham was seen with many different IndyCar drivers at the Race of Champions in Miami this past weekend, I have no idea what his plans are for 2017.

These are just some of the drivers who are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Of those listed, I think that Sage Karam is most likely to get a full-time ride at some point. He is just too talented to be sitting on the sidelines, despite his abrasive personality. Other than Wilson and Brabham, I think most that I mentioned were interested in pursuing full-time IndyCar rides. Time will tell if any or all of them will reach their goal.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Those On The Outside Looking In”

  1. Good article, I was wondering when you might hit on the Aleshin news.

    Simona had a ton of promise to be honest. I think she was a few years late and unfortunately not American, or she could have been Danica Patrick. She is prettier (not in the way an American would say so though) and better behind the wheel honestly. Speaking of the D word, looks like her sponsorship is faling apart, but that is a different topic for a different day.

    Gabby Chaves was good, most promise of anyone on this list.

    I don’t really care either way about Luca.

    Sage Karam showed a great deal of talent and was quite a personality, the series misses him greatly. Unfortunately, people I know at least remember him for “killing Justin Wilson” which I think is unfair. But that driving style tore up a lot of cars and unfortunately constributed to that loss….

    Saavedra, I could never see him again in a car and not lose a bit of sleep but he has cash so I see him back in the series at some point.

    Enerson was fast, I could see him back in the future.

    Stefan Wilson, umm, honestly I never really thought much of him, seems nice but I really think he only got a shot because of the story with Justin.

    Brabham, Same as Luca, no real opinion.

    Indycar is tough, there are plenty of Alex Lloyd and Wade Cunningham types who had a small shot and that was it. Still better than I will ever have, but maybe a missed talent, we will never know. Guys and girls like this though, don’t shock me as much as drivers like Buddy Rice, winners, who even end up on a list like this!

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Simona’s 2011 Indy qualifying run was probably one of the last great qualifying stories the Speedway has had, one Donald Davidson’s head in a jar will be telling 50 years from now. After the practice crash, flip, and fire… after seeing her bandaged hands… after learning that she would have to go to her backup car, the aging and road course-optimized “Porkchop”… practically no one thought she would make the field. Then she did. In fact, she didn’t even have run on bump day, as a Penske, two Ganassi, and three Andretti cars did.

    I’d like to see all of these drivers in a car again, even Saavedra and his Rufio haircut. Simona would be at the top of my list, though.

  3. Simona lost the Nuclear Clean Air sponsorship after she took them along on the failed Formula 1 experiment. They threw away a few million and got basicly nothing in return. I’ll never understand why her manager got her in that situation when he didn’t have enough money to make it happen. She’s been trying to get her career back on track ever since. She wanted to come back to IndyCar but her opportunity with Andretti never really got off the ground due to sponsorship. The Supercars reached out to her with full sponsorship in place, but she had to commit to 3 years with them. That probably means her IndyCar days are over. Unfortunate because I believe she would rather be here.

  4. Simona and Karam are the only two drivers on this list I really care about. The merciful collapse of Saadavera’s Indycar career is something to be proud of. For as much success as Ganassi has had in Indycar, and for how well he has brought up Kyle Larson in NASCAR, being in the Ganassi development program really is not a good place to be. Every team has drivers that get screwed in development programs (Justin Aligier at Penske, Landon Cassil at Hendrick) but Ganassi has really chewed up young drivers at an impressive rate. Graham Rahal and Ganassi never really clicked, and Charlie Kimball has survived because of sponsorship but also has not thrived. Simona had a pretty strong 2013 season; remember she was only 2 spots in the championship behind TK and KV is a crapshoot.

    Will either return? I think Karam is going to have a better shot because he is in the country and racing in sports cars. Simona is so far away it is hard to see how she will get back here.

  5. Of all the above, the return of Simona to the series is the scenario I most wish for. Not only because I think she is a gritty, talented driver, but also because IMO the series badly needs a woman driver. I clearly recall seeing many, many young girls clustered around Danica Patrick at the Milwaukee mile. Danica was very polite to those young fans and spent as much time with them as she was able.

    Simona and Justin Wilson are two examples of very talented and very likeable drivers missing out on good rides because they were not able to bring a suitcase of cash with their helmuts.

  6. Simona is probably done with IndyCar as she’s got a paid contract to drive for several years in Australia. To get back to this series, she would have to shake off some rust. And the question remains how she would cope with the increase in downforce that IndyCars have achieved since she last raced one.

    Sage Karam is doing the Indy 500 this year for D&R. He needs to learn how to drive to the front and finish races instead of driving to the front and then crashing. He is very likely to improve his racecraft in that area whilst racing sports cars whilst being a part-timer in IndyCar. There are fans of IndyCar who like his personality and he will most likely return in the future, achieving better results in the process than last time around. However, having D&R back as a full-time team would also be nice.

    Gabby Chaves is a very talented guy and probably #1 on most team owners list in case a replacement driver is needed. If he can get another full-season deal and more experience, he can become a great allrounder and spark interest from the big teams.
    Otherwise, he’ll do the same in sports cars.

    RC Enerson was indeed impressive during his few races with Dale Coyne’s team. Even if he were to run in Lights again this year, he’s already made enough of an impression for owners to have him on the list, once an opening occurs. Sponsorship is another matter altogether, though.

    Luca Filippi is seen by most as a road course specialist. Apart from Ed Carpenter’s team, who needs an additional road course specialist? He is most likely to move to sports cars, too. His 2nd place in Toronto for CFH Racing was very impressive.

    It’s nice to see that neither JR Hildebrand nor Conor Daly are on this list because they have gotten full season rides this time around. Here’s wishing them all the best.

  7. Ed Emmitt Says:

    The votes are in and Sage Karam is the run away winner.

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