More Questions Than Answers

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For the second time in less than two weeks, I have had a nice topic in mind to write about, only to have it blown up by some major IndyCar news. The topic originally planned for today will now be shifted to Wednesday, since I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the news that McLaren is coming to the NTT IndyCar Series full-time in 2020.

Unless you’ve been stranded on another planet that had no internet access for the past few days, you know that the official announcement came down early Friday morning. I was backing out of my driveway on my way to work when I saw it on my phone. All I knew was that it was official that McLaren would partner with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Because I don’t like the idea of reading articles while driving down the interstate, I called my friend Paul Dalbey (Fieldof33.com) and he filled me in on the particulars.

The new alliance will officially be known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP, which I’m sure will quickly morph into being referred to in everyday conversations as simply “McLaren”. I’m not sure if this is an alliance, a partnership, a merger or a takeover. Being cynical as I can sometimes be – it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if five years from now, if it was simply called McLaren and Sam Schmidt may go the way that Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman did when they merged their team with Ed Carpenter to become CHF Racing. It didn’t take long for the team to go back to being called Ed Carpenter Racing.

My first question to Paul on the phone was how they resolved the differences between Honda and McLaren, since Arrow SPM was a longtime Honda team. His answer was simple…they didn’t. Honda would be releasing Arrow SPM from the one year remaining on the contract, and they will become a Chevy team. My next question was “What about Hinch?” That’s where things get really murky.

If you’ve watched IndyCar races live on NBCSN without blipping through the commercials on a DVR, you’ve undoubtedly seen James Hinchcliffe doing Honda commercials. Last week, the Honda I drive needed maintenance. When I walked into the dealership, I saw a stand-up cutout of Hinchcliffe and several pictures of him and/or his Indy car in different promotional displays. James Hinchcliffe has deep ties to Honda and I’m not sure that driving a Chevy-powered car for Arrow McLaren Racing SP is in his immediate future.

By this time, I had arrived at work and was about to tear into the e-mails and news stories before my work-day started. It’s a good thing I was early to work on Friday. The cynic in me began to wonder why everyone was excited about two teams that had missed the last two Indianapolis 500s getting together. But what do I know?

Early on, I thought Jim Ayello with The Indianapolis Star had the best take. He said (paraphrasing) that Friday was a good day for IndyCar, but the way it happened stinks.

Just last week, I wrote about this potential partnership and how Honda was adamant that they would not ever work with McLaren again, after the nastiness of their Formula One divorce a few years ago. I mistakenly predicted that Honda would eventually forgive and forget and mend their relationship – as happens many times in racing. But I underestimated the will of the Japanese culture. Apparently, Honda of Japan holds a grudge longer than Honda Performance Development of Santa Clarita, California – who designs and builds the Honda IndyCar engines.

The mandate from Honda Motor Company, Ltd. was clear – no Honda team in any racing series will ever work with McLaren. Michael Andretti tried his best for the better part of two years to repair the severed relationship between McLaren, who partnered with Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Indianapolis 500, and Honda, who supplies engines to Michael Andretti’s team. Honda would have none of it – but Sam Schmidt would.

Schmidt chose to ignore the edict from Honda and forged a partnership with McLaren, even though he and his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team had a year remaining on their current contract with Honda. Sam Schmidt and his team have had a longstanding relationship with Honda. According to Trackside Online, the last time a Schmidt car had any other type of engine in an IndyCar race was when Richie Hearn drove a one-off Chevy-powered Schmidt entry in the 2005 Indianapolis 500. If you count the current relationship with Meyer-Shank Racing, Honda and Sam Schmidt’s team will have had over three-hundred consecutive IndyCar starts by the end of this season. That will come to an end next month at Laguna Seca.

By choosing to ignore Honda’s wishes, Schmidt backed Honda into a corner. He would either be calling their bluff and force Honda to work with a team they completely despised; or they would force Honda to terminate their existing contract one year early. Honda chose the latter option.

Sam Schmidt has always been justifiably praised for overcoming life-threatening injuries suffered in a crash while testing on January 6, 2000 at Walt Disney World Speedway, that left him a quadriplegic. He has worked tirelessly for his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation to help find a cure for paralysis. It is both fortunate and ironic that Robert Wickens was driving for Schmidt when he suffered his own paralysis in a crash at Pocono one year ago this coming weekend. Wickens has been the beneficiary of having a car owner with the same experience, and a sponsor like Arrow; who is a pioneer in several technologies to aid those with similar injuries.

But with all the goodwill that Sam Schmidt has brought to the table in this area; for years I’ve heard whispers about how Schmidt is not someone to do business with. Rumors have persisted that he can be ruthless and cutthroat in business dealings with drivers, sponsors and suppliers. Reading between the lines of all the news that has broken on this story since Friday morning – it certainly sounds like those adjectives describing Schmidt could be applied here.

From where I sit on the outside, it certainly looks like Schmidt didn’t care about his relationship with Honda. If he wanted to sever that longtime partnership between his team and Honda, that’s his prerogative. But there are others involved.

I’ve mentioned James Hinchcliffe and his own personal relationship with Honda. In a news conference Friday morning, Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press asked McLaren CEO Zak Brown if he expected James Hinchcliffe to drive for the new team next season. His answer was one syllable – Yes.

He did elaborate later saying that Hinch is still under contract through 2020 and would be very happy to have Hinchcliffe continue driving for them.

You know that Hinchcliffe has known about this for a while. Late in the morning on Friday, he released the following statement on social media.

Hinch Statement

Different people had different reactions to Hinch’s statement. Some said it sure sounded like he was staying at Arrow McLaren Racing SP. Personally, I think it was a carefully crafted statement drawn up by lawyers and approved by both sides. My opinion is that James Hinchcliffe will be driving a Honda-powered car somewhere else in 2020. I could be wrong, but that is my take.

When I have said that to others, the last sentence in the statement was pointed out to me, where he says he looks forward to rekindling his relationship with General Motors in 2020. Although Honda is being publicly classy in saying how they are sorry to end their relationship with Schmidt; I hear that privately, they are furious at how this all transpired. My personal opinion is that Honda will move mountains to pry Hinchcliffe from this deal.

Where would he go? I don’t know. Colton Herta is most likely going to a fifth Andretti car, probably with some backing from George Steinbrenner IV. I don’t think Andretti could jump to six full-time cars. Would McLaren go after Scott Dixon again, making room for Hinchcliffe at Ganassi? It’s possible, but I don’t see that happening. If Dixon was twenty-nine instead of thirty-nine, I could see it. At this point in his career, I think Dixon is set at Ganassi. But…he does have a third child on the way, and money does talk.

Some have suggested he could land at a third car at Rahal, while others have suggested a third car at Coyne or booting Ferucci out of the second seat at Coyne. I don’t see a third Ganassi car for Hinchcliffe. What about Harding? If Steinbrenner moves to Andretti with Herta, does Harding Racing cease to exist? Right now there are more questions than answers.

And then there is this. Meyer Shank Racing is expanding to full-time status in 2020. For the past two seasons, they have had a technical alliance with Sam Schmidt’s team. Michael Shank has close ties to Honda and runs the Acura brand in his sports car program. All signs point to him staying with Honda.

I had always heard that by the time Meyer Shank Racing went full-time, that they wanted to be a stand-alone team. However, Friday’s news has people speculating that they may form a technical alliance with Rahal, while others say they may partner with Andretti. Regardless of where they go, or if they are a stand-alone team – would Meyer Shank Racing be in a position to run two cars for Hinchcliffe and Jack Harvey with strong backing from Honda? Who knows? Again – there are more questions than answers at this point.

Lost in all of this is the future of Arrow SPM driver Marcus Ericsson. Although he has had some decent runs in the latter part of the season, I don’t think any of this is good new for him. Unfortunately for Ericsson, I think when the music stops for filling seats for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series – he will be the one left standing without a chair.

When Alexander Rossi resigned with Andretti Autosport a couple of weeks ago, we thought that put an end to any potentially major moves among teams. We were wrong. Let the dominos fall! Its going to be a fun offseason to watch.

George Phillips

19 Responses to “More Questions Than Answers”

  1. Again rumour has a 3rd car for Alonso just for the 500…

  2. I’d be more excited if Indycar was actually adding a new team and new ownership instead of just merging with an existing team. But the game of musical chairs will be interesting.

  3. B Philbrick Says:

    Ho,………..,, Hum….

    The “Silly Season” has begun………………

  4. It was a head-scratcher of a day, seemed to leave more questions than answers. I would love if the result of this is Honda getting together with Shank and making MSR a solid team with Harvey and Hinch as their drivers. It will be interesting to watch the knock-on effects of this announcement over the next 6-8 months.

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    ….. And Robert Wickens ? ?

  6. Bruce Waine Says:

    …. And Robert Wickens ? ?

  7. No matter what, Sam just screwed Hinch out of a sweet sponsorship contract. I’m sure he was getting paid good money for those commercials.

  8. Maybe the summer heat has fried my brain but I’m not seeing as many questions here. Hinch’s Message reads pretty clear….he’s staying with Arrow. I also think they’ll make an offer to Colton Herta. Zak Brown can offer him a lot more money than Michael can. Plus, if Andretti Autosport was planning on adding a 5th car for Herta next year, why are they taking a closer look at Daly and running him at Laguna? Sort of feels like that’s the preview for the 5th AA program next year. Would like to see Mike Shank find a new partner in Bobby Rahal.

    • Hinch’s statement is clear on a few things: He currently has a contract, he watched F1 as a kid, he thanked the sponsors, he will talk to Honda, and he intends to honour that contract.

      Arrow has said they still consider him under contract.

      The dog that isn’t barking: Arrow/McLaren hasn’t said he is definitely driving for them next year and, most glaringly, did not make him part of the announcement. That silence speaks volumes.

      Hinch put out the statement to show he takes the contract seriously and won’t be the party that breaches it. If you want an example of why you want to be this very clear, see what happened to PT in 1997 to Penske.

      I’d love for him to drive for McLaren/Arrow, but I think he’s going to Rahal.

      • Wouldn’t Arrow have to buy him out, if it wants to go with another driver? I hope James lands with RLL, if AMSP is out of the question.

      • Excellent point. Just because Hinch says he’s going racing with McLaren, it doesn’t mean anything until we hear McLaren confirm that. Interesting you bring up PT, because in addition to what you referenced I think this sort of happened to him a decade later during unification too. I remember hearing him in an interview talking about getting ready for the new season in Indycar, unfortunately Gerry Forsythe had other plans.

  9. Mark Wick Says:

    George, I just moved and did not have regular internet available for more than a week, no TV access, and no radio, so I did not get this news until late last night after getting internet service.
    This was/is a big surprise.
    It is good news for the series. It will be interesting to watch all the pieces settle.
    Let the speculation continue.

  10. was that a Haiku by B Philbrick?

  11. Bruce Waine Says:

    From Robin Miller. Released about noontime today. Interesting comments based upon what he is able to release today.

    Portions from Robin’s article:

    The McLaren marriage to Arrow Schmidt Peterson has thrown open the doors to a silly season that many of us thought it was pretty much over when Alexander Rossi re-upped with Michael Andretti.

    But from Colton Herta, to James Hinchcliffe, to Marcus Ericsson, to Conor Daly, to Santino Ferrucci, to Pato O’Ward, to Spencer Pigot, to Ed Jones, to Tony Kanaan, to Matheus Leist, to Oliver Askew, to Rinus Veekay, to Felipe Nasr, to Nicholas Latifi, to Fernando Alonso, it’s a smorgasbord of scenarios, rumors and theories for IndyCar fans, bloggers, journos and some of us ink-stained wretches who now inhabit the internet.

    So let’s look at what we know, what we think we know, and what might happen in the next few weeks as the NTT IndyCar Series winds down.

    COLTON HERTA: It’s good to be 19 and on everyone’s wanted list, and that’s exactly the position this second-generation phenom finds himself in as his rookie year hits the home stretch.

    Here’s what I know: He has a contract with Mike Harding and a contract with Michael Andretti, which supersedes everything. My understanding is that Andretti has a three-year option on Herta, and he can take him at the end of any of these next three years.

    When asked about his son’s future a few weeks ago at Mid-Ohio, the original Hertamania said: “Mike Harding has given Colton a massive opportunity, and that put him on the radar for a lot of other teams. He’s still under contract to Harding and we’ve talked to Mike [and] told him, as long as he can demonstrate there is a way to continue next year with Colton we’re bound to do that. But if he can’t, I’m sure he wouldn’t hold him back from something else. But Colton is very happy with this team.”

    Of course, we all know the financial uncertainly of the Harding Steinbrenner team, but who’s not to say that Hank and George Michael Steinbrenner can’t score a sponsor in the off-season to help keep this team afloat? The GESS sponsorship isn’t the answer and Capstone has been a godsend lately, and I’m told Hank Steinbrenner has put in more than his fair share in 2019.

    Little Herta grew up in the Andretti compound, starred in Indy Lights for his dad’s best friend and has benefited greatly from their technical partnership and engineer Nathan O’Rourke.

    If Harding Steinbrenner can’t continue, the obvious move would be to put Colton in an Andretti car for 2020 – except that all four drivers are already set. Of course it’s all but the fifth Andretti car right now, so maybe the Harding Steinbrenner partnership takes the funding it can raise and morphs into the official fifth car in 2020.

    In the event Andretti can’t run or place Colton, then he becomes a free agent.

    But that’s not going to happen. Colton will be an Andretti driver until he’s no longer carded at bars, which could be 10 years. And maybe Honda (which is getting a check for allowing Arrow McLaren SP to bail on its contract with one year remaining) can throw in some engines to help the cause, because it’s big on little Hertamania as well.

    JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: The Mayor has one year left on his contract with Arrow SPM and everyone on both sides of the new merger is saying all the right things about how great it is, and the contract will be honored, and all that rah-rah stuff.

    Yet I didn’t see anything about how happy everyone was to have this veteran winner leading this new effort in 2020, and we’ve heard all season that this relationship is no longer warm and fuzzy.

    Now, it remains to be seen whether Gil de Ferran, Zak Brown, Sam Schmidt or Ric Peterson make the call on the lineup for 2020, but I’m betting Hinch won’t be around for what would likely be a lame duck season. He’s the PR face of Honda (Canada and the USA) on national commercials and personal services, so that’s a nice supplement to his income.

    Where would the popular 32-year-old Canadian go?

    How about RLL’s third car? Be a perfect fit.

    PATO O’WARD: Zak Brown took Pato to breakfast back at Long Beach to talk about next year, and, depending on his Red Bull options, he’s exactly what McLaren and de Ferran covet. They want young and fast.

    FELIPE NASR: The ex-Formula 1 regular and IMSA champion tested for Arrow SPM at Mid-Ohio and evidently has the eye of the McLaren principals.

    NICHOLAS LATIFI: The 24-year-old Canadian is currently a test driver for Williams in F1 and stands second in the Formula 2 standings.

    And, drum roll please, his father is an investor in McLaren.

    FERNANDO ALONSO: We all want to see Fred back at Indy in a competitive car, but watching him at Road America or Long Beach or Iowa would be an added pleasure. Who knows? He might want to run a half-dozen IndyCar races. And I’ll buy his Sloppy Joes at Iowa.

  12. No mention of Robert Wickens in George’s article. ?????

    • “…It is both fortunate and ironic that Robert Wickens was driving for Schmidt when he suffered his own paralysis in a crash at Pocono one year ago this coming weekend. Wickens has been the beneficiary of having a car owner with the same experience, and a sponsor like Arrow; who is a pioneer in several technologies to aid those with similar injuries.”

      I think that’s more than a mention. I thought it would be tasteless to speculate on his future ride promised to him once he’s able to drive. But that is another question. – GP

  13. […] was already skeptical of this new arrangement as soon as it was announced. At the time I wrote that within five years, this team will simply be known as McLaren or possibly Arrow McLaren and […]

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