The Grass is Not Always Greener

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Although it has yet to be officially announced, it looks pretty certain that Felix Rosenqvist will be leaving Chip Ganassi Racing to replace the recently fired Oliver Askew at Arrow McLaren SP for 2021. This leaves Ganassi in somewhat of a pickle. Word has it that he had every intention of extending the second-year IndyCar driver for 2021 and beyond.

The team was almost set regarding their driver lineup. Of course, Scott Dixon will return for his twentieth season with Ganassi in the No. 9 PNC Bank car, while Marcus Ericsson is expected to return in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate car. I think it’s a safe assumption that sponsorship will be found to fund Jimmie Johnson’s venture into IndyCar on the road courses but I’m nor sure what the plans were for his car on the ovals. The No. 10 NTT Data Car seemed solid for 2021 with Rosenqvist as the driver…until it wasn’t.

As far as I can remember, this is new territory for Chip Ganassi. He is used to dumping drivers, not getting dumped by them. I don’t know that I can recall too many drivers that left Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar program on their own. Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya left to pursue their dreams in Formula One, while Michael Andretti went back to his old team at Newman/Haas. Graham Rahal left to join his father’s team in 2013. Other than those, most were shown the exit door by Ganassi.

The list of those that have gotten the boot from Ganassi is long and has some impressive names on it, and some that have been long forgotten. You can decide which category some of these names belong in, but those that have been canned by Chip Ganassi include Eddie Cheever, Arie Luyendyk, Mauricio Gugelmin, Bryan Herta, Jimmy Vasser, Nick Minassian, Bruno Junqueira, Kenny Bräck, Tomas Scheckter, Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe, Dan Wheldon, Charlie Kimball, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton, Sage Karam and Ed Jones. Many of those names went on to greatness after their stint at Ganassi. Others fell into obscurity.

Now Chip Ganassi is in scramble mode for possibly the first time ever. Some have suggested that Oliver Askew should be a no-brainer to go into that seat, thereby making it an easy driver-swap. I don’t see it that way. For whatever reason, Chip Ganassi has never been one to hire young drivers coming out of Indy Lights. When he gives a chance to young drivers that few have heard of, they have all come from across the pond. The last driver he hired that was not too far removed from Indy Lights was Bryan Herta, after he drove for Foyt in his rookie season in 1994. Herta and Ganassi did not click at all in 1995, and Herta was driving for Bobby Rahal by the beginning of the 1996 season.

Ganassi is a tough boss. Like Sam Schmidt, he has a history of not treating all of his drivers that well. Even Scott Dixon has been known to refer to him as "Cheap Ganassi". But he has put together an excellent program over the years, so he is doing something right.

Keep in mind, this is one of the top teams in the sport. When we talk about the Big Three, the general consensus is that those three are Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. Since all three teams rejoined the series in 2003; no other team has won the championship besides those three. The tally since then has been Andretti – 5, Penske – 5 and Ganassi – 8. Three of those eight championships for Ganassi were Dario Franchitti (who also won another one with Andretti), the others were from Scott Dixon.

To be honest, I’m not sure who makes sense for the seat vacated by Rosenqvist. Would Sébastien Bourdais turn his back on an already secured ride at Foyt? It would be tempting. He would go from a team that is considered lower tier, at best; to a team that is very familiar with championship dinners. We’ve seen that contracts are easily broken without many consequences. Bourdais would be looked at as a driver who did not keep his word, but he would have the best ride of his IndyCar career since he was with Newman/Haas, when he won his four championships. I’d be very tempted to make that jump if it became available to him.

Would it make sense for Simon Pagenaud to leave Penske and go be teammates with Scott Dixon. Few people willingly leave Team Penske and go on to success. If I was Pagenaud, I think I would stay put.

I’m not sure what the status is of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s contract, but would a change of scenery revive his career that seems to be stuck in neutral? How about Takuma Sato? Could Ganassi put up with the repair bills from another driver in his early forties (along with Dixon) for the occasional win?

These are drivers that have either a championship or at least one Indianapolis 500 win on their resumes. That’s who Ganassi tends to sign.

But there is one complaint that many drivers have had about driving for Ganassi. There is a constant complaint from several drivers that Ganassi takes the sponsorship money from all the other Ganassi drivers and pours it all into Dixon’s car to make sure he can bring home another championship. I think all teams do that to some extent, but I’ve heard that Ganassi takes the practice to another level.

I think drivers not named Scott Dixon are expected to help Dixon win races and score maximum points in a weekend. I don’t necessarily think Dixon has anything to do with this, but the directive comes from the top. A young driver like Rosenqvist may get more than a little frustrated with that practice after a while.

Still, I think Rosenqvist has made a career mistake here. How much longer will Scott Dixon go? Two years? Five years? I might have played the good soldier and bided my time at Ganassi. Sometimes it’s better to deal with the devil you know, versus the devil you don’t know. It may not have been a bed of roses at Ganassi, but they put up with a lot of crashes from Rosenqvist last season and were still on the verge of extending his contract. I’ve not seen anything from Arrow McLaren SP to make me think Rosenqvist will be on a long leash.

There is an adjustment period when a driver switches teams. Rosenqvist will be looked upon as the seasoned veteran on the team. He has two full seasons under his belt and a race win. There is a lot of pressure that comes with that role. I’m not sure AMSP will be very patient to wait on Rosenqvist to go through the adjustment period with his new team.

I hope I’m wrong, but this looks like a bad move for all involved. Ganassi has to find a good driver late in the silly season. Rosenqvist has jumped to what looks like a greener pasture. Most of the time, that green grass is a mirage. This may not end well for him. If it doesn’t, then Arrow McLaren SP will be going through another driver change in another couple of years…or sooner.

Change is Bad!

George Phillips

5 Responses to “The Grass is Not Always Greener”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Odd and unexpected move, to be sure. McLaren has allegedly whipped out out the checkbook and attempted to land Pagenaud and even Dixon himself in the recent past, perhaps Rosenquist is the biggest fish that they were finally able to get to bite.

  2. I’m not sure Chip is looking to replace Felix. This situation may just simplify Chip’s roster next year. Instead of seeking sponsorship and hiring a crew for Jimmie, now he can just slide Johnson into the #10 NTT Data car and hire TK, Helio, RHR, whoever….to run the ovals.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…how can you say this is late in the silly season, we still have one race left?

  4. Scott St. Clair Says:

    George, If Dario won three Championships with Ganassi and Dixon five, how is it that Ganassi is pouring all of the money into the 9 car? If anything, nobody has performed in the 10-car since Dario. Sounds like sour grapes from a few of the drivers Ganassi has kicked to the curb.

  5. Suddenly, an interesting seat opens that could be an option for a retiring F1 driver who is nterested in racing in the US. Ganassi might get lucky if he can get Sergio Perez for the #10. The other option is of course not upgrading to 4 cars and having Johnson drive the #10 on everything but ovals. Now what if Johnson suddenly finds himself in the championship lead in that car ahead of the Texas race next year? In the #10, that might well be possible. Would Ganassi rather hire a more unknown oval ringer for 3 weekends who might step aside for a possible championship run for Johnson or rather a proven veteran who has no intention of ever doing that.
    There aren’t many available oval specialists in this sport anymore.

    The 2nd Schmidt Peterson car had only one successful year and that was when Robert Wickens drove it. Here’s hoping that Rosenqvist can turn it into a regular contender. I wouldn’t be too sure he would be the team leader because Pato O’Ward is fast, currently has that role and will want to keep it. Lookng at his results from this year, he likely will.

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