Drivers have been calling relentlessly in pursuit of a ride since the announcement of a merger between McLaren Racing and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, team principals said Monday during a media teleconference.
Details of the merger came into sharper focus during the teleconference featuring McLaren Racing's Zak Brown and Arrow SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt. With plans to run two cars for the entire season and indications that James Hinchcliffe will fill one of the seats, the question of a second full-time driver has moved to the fore.
And more than a few established racers have expressed interest.
“The phone has definitely been active since we announced,” Brown said.
Schmidt said the decision regarding a driver will come down to McLaren, Arrow, himself and co-owner Ric Peterson.
“There are a lot of great ones with years of experience,” Schmidt said. “The first goal was to get through the announcement last week, then see how the phones light up, then make that list and reconvene later this week and make some of those decisions and offers and what-not. It’s kind of like stay tuned. It will be a few weeks before we make any announcements.”
Fernando Alonso, who failed to make the field for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in May, isn’t thought to be interested in the fulltime seat, Brown said, but a one-off with Arrow McLaren Racing SP for the 104th Indy 500 is possible.
“He's well aware of everything that's going on with our IndyCar activities and has been for some time,” said Brown, who plans to meet with Alonso next month during the Italian Grand Prix. “I don't think his desire to win the Indy 500 has diminished at all. He has not shown an interest -- yet, I should say -- in a full season of IndyCar. He's coming off of 20 years of lots of racing and I think he wanted to take the second half of this year off to see what he wants to do in the future.
“I think he would be an outstanding talent in IndyCar. I personally think, knowing him as well as I do, and his driving style, he'd be immensely successful and welcomed and would enjoy it. But Fernando is the type of individual that you put the opportunity in front of him and let him make his decision. So I'll be picking that up with him in about a month's time, but I would not anticipate in 2020 him having a desire to do a full season.”
Among other details about the merger revealed Monday: The team will be headquartered in Arrow SPM’s current shop in Indianapolis. SPM’s affiliation with Meyer Shank Racing, which fields the No. 60 car for Jack Harvey, is likely to come to an end with the 2019 IndyCar season, and Gil de Ferran, McLaren Racing's sporting director, will be in charge of the new NTT IndyCar Series effort.
“His primary responsibility is IndyCar,” Brown said. “That was always part of the plan when I brought him in last year was to help me transition the Formula One team into new leadership. … Definitely his primary focus will be IndyCar but also because he has very good knowledge of our Formula One team, he'll see where there are areas in which the two racing programs can benefit from each other. But his primary focus will definitely be IndyCar.”
Schmidt also reiterated his desire to keep Hinchcliffe, driver of SPM’s No. 5 Honda since 2015 who's under contract with the team for 2020, on board in spite of the new team’s switch from Honda to Chevrolet. Hinchcliffe serves as a commercial spokesman for Honda in the U.S. and Canada.
“James has been a great asset to the team for the last five years,” Schmidt said. “He's a brilliant ambassador for all of our partners. It's one of those unfortunate things when you do what's best for the team. But the relationship with Honda Canada and America was direct between James and them, and so we don't even know -- we don't even know what those details were, what those obligations were. We don't anticipate it having an effect on the final year of his contract as far as we're concerned.”
Shortly after Friday’s announcement, Hinchcliffe tweeted that he intends to stay with Schmidt as it makes the merger and transition to Chevrolet.
“It is rather unfortunate what this means for our relationship with Honda,” Hinchcliffe wrote. “They are another company that has done so much for me and when the time is right a discussion to what that means for my partnership with them and Honda Canada will need to occur but that is secondary right now to this exciting news. I’ve worked with General Motors in the past and look forward to rekindling that relationship in 2020.”
For Schmidt, leaving Honda is one of the most difficult aspects of the merger. He’s been partnered with Honda since he first transitioned from Indy Lights to the IndyCar Series in 2009.
“There is that loyalty,” Schmidt said. “There is that length of time and a lot of success, and at the end of the day, they are a great motorsports and (original equipment manufacturer) operator. When they aren't winning, they do everything possible to win, so we wanted to stay in that camp. When you draw the line down the center of the paper and you put your pros and cons on each side, that was definitely a big negative to doing this deal. On the other side of the page, there were so many positives that it really was, you know, a no-brainer.”
With the merger comes the possibility that doors to F1 will open for promising IndyCar drivers.
“If we feel that one of our IndyCar drivers has a credible chance in Formula One, then for sure, we would look to put that driver in for some rookie testing,” Brown said. “I think that's one of the exciting things about a combined Formula One and IndyCar effort is it will create opportunities for drivers (and) engineers, especially as we look into the budget cap and Formula One will start to change. There will be different ways to deploy our resources. But specifically on drivers, the answer is yes for the right one.”
For Schmidt, the merger is the culmination of effort and a lifelong dream. It also comes with pressure.
“It's the ultimate, and now we have to perform,” Schmidt said. “It's a be careful what you wish for situation. … This is all about winning, and winning the Indy 500 and being a realistic competitor for the championship, and we couldn't do it without these resources and without these technical capabilities.”