2018 is likely to mark the end of an IndyCar quirk: the ‘super team’. For several seasons Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport have fielded 4 full time cars each in the Verizon IndyCar series. Expanding further for one-off races and the Indy 500.
The super teams – as they were christened – regularly provided over half the IndyCar field. On track they have dominated the championship. Off track they wielded significant influence over the series that left IndyCar’s management feeling decidedly jittery.
The end of the super teams: a cause for celebration?
All 3 super teams are expected to downsize in 2018. Given that we need to go all the way back to 2002 for the last championship win outside the trio, it would seem like a cause for celebration.
The series will automatically become less reliant upon a few influential team owners. Their dominance of the series should in theory wane and there will be spare engines going to potential new entrants like Trevor Carlin and Harding Racing.
But despite these advantages, we might just come to miss the super teams when they are gone.
From 4 cars to 3 and perhaps even just 2…
For the 2018 IndyCar season the super teams are not going to seem so super anymore.
For starters, defending champions Penske are expected to downsize to 3 cars as Helio Castroneves moves on to their Acura IMSA DPi programme.
Over at Chip Ganassi paddock talk suggests both Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball could take their sponsors to a new two-car entry by Carlin Racing. A slot might be found for James Hinchcliffe or Alexander Rossi but that is likely to be at the expense of 2018 free-agent Tony Kanaan.
The likely (but not confirmed) switch by Andretti Autosport from Honda to Chevrolet should see Honda favorites Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi depart. Leaving Andretti to run Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and (again) possibly James Hinchcliffe.
Why we might come to miss the super teams
Rossi’s potential departure is a good segue in to one of the reasons the end of the super teams is not cause for a party. Rossi – like many other drivers – got his opportunity in IndyCar because of the super teams.
Without drives at Ganassi, Andretti and Penske the likes of Dan Wheldon, Carlos Munoz, Will Power, Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam, Jack Harvey and Gabby Chaves would have struggled to make it on to the grid.
Who gives the next generation their chance now?
In this regard IndyCar is something of an exception to the motorsport rule. Typically it is the smaller teams that take a gamble on a promising rookie. Instead it has been the super teams giving new talent opportunities.
With fewer opportunities at the top 3 and until the economic fortunes of the series improve markedly, we should still expect smaller teams to run drivers with more cash than talent. And that is a problem for the long term sustainability and status of the series.
Keeping the IndyCar engine running
During the difficult years following the IRL/ChampCar merger the steadfast support of the super teams propped up IndyCar. While the likes of Panther Racing, Newman-Haas and Forsythe shut up shop, the super teams continued to field multiple entries.
We go into the 2018 in buoyant mood and probably no longer in need of multi-car entries from any of the super teams. Yet the dangerous thing about any business – and IndyCar is a business – is that down turns are never that far behind the up turns.
Would they come to IndyCar’s rescue once more?
Were IndyCar to enter another turbulent period is it wise to assume Andretti, Penske and Ganassi would simply step up once more? When we consider that Ganassi continues to struggle to find Scott Dixon a title sponsor and the Andretti cars are increasingly bereft of commercial backing, could they even do it?
Sending out the right message
A cynic might suggest that multiple entries by Andretti and Ganassi sent out the message that IndyCar was struggling. This was true but only up to a point.
The super teams were needed to help the series through difficult times. However their existence also sent out positive messages about IndyCar and more importantly, about its future.
The fact shrewd businessmen like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were running multiple cars demonstrated a confidence in IndyCar. Their investment was a stamp of approval for the series. Confirming that times were tough but the product was one worth supporting and re-building.
A fond farewell
Despite their domination, the super teams have played a vital role in keeping IndyCar alive and shaping the series we enjoy today. The hope must be that new entrants can fill any void left by downsizing at the top 3 teams.
Until the series attracts bigger audiences and thus higher revenues, in the short term at least, the chance of that are slim. In the medium to longer term continued growth should in time mean that the need for super teams will never arise again.