IndyCar will miss its ‘super teams’

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.

Sam Hornish Jnr Panther Racing IndyCar Indy Racing League Champion 2002
Sam Hornish Jnr was the last driver to win the championship for a team other than Penske, Ganassi or Andretti.

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.

Helio Castroneves IndyCar Team Penske Chevrolet
2017 could well be Helio Castroneves’ last full IndyCar season as Team Penske downsizes. (Image: Owens/IndyCar)

Related article: does Helio want to leave IndyCar for IMSA?

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.

Alexander Rossi Andretti Autosport IndyCar Honda Mid Ohio
Alexander Rossi taking his shot at IndyCar with Andretti Autosport (Image: Kelley/IndyCar)

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?

Scott Dixon IndyCar Ganassi Honda
With only 3 races to go in 2017, the 9 car of Scott Dixon still runs with no primary sponsor.

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.

Roger Penske – here with Juan Pablo Montoya – is not a man to make poor business decisions.

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.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Douglas Viall says:

    Much of what is written here is true however the so called super team domination is not new. Back in the supposedly “good old Cart days” before the “bad” IRL split, when the crowds and sponsors were admittedly bigger, the competition was not. Then the super teams and manufacturers dominated by withholding the best racing technology from the have-nots, doling out just enough to them to keep them in the field. And they wrote the Cart rules to perpetuate their power. That was one of the big reasons for the split in the first place. One can see some of the same things creeping into the current IndyCar. The more the cars are standardized, improving on the margin becomes more expensive, not less. So as an example, Penske develops special shocks, and only sells inferior stuff to the rest of the pack this makes everyone’s expenses go up and reduces competitiveness. The original IRL idea was to allow everyone access to everything and allow the most clever teams and best drivers to win. That doesn’t mean just one package for everyone it just means anyone can get anything.

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    1. Thanks for your comments Douglas. Really interesting to consider those comparisons.

      Like

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