By Josh Farmer, Journalist
Nearing the end of a somewhat quiet offseason for the Verizon IndyCar Series, the merger of Andretti Autosport and Bryan Herta Autosport has given us the most exciting silly season news to come all winter.
Alexander Rossi is now the prime candidate to take over the #98 ride after not getting a ride with Manor F1 which went to Rio Haryanto. Rossi drove for Manor F1 in the five of the last seven races of the 2015 Formula One season, becoming the first American to compete in F1 since Scott Speed in 2007.
He was also in the fold to potentially drive for Hass F1, which would have made an All-American driver/team lineup for the first time in Formula One since Mark Donohue and Penkse Racing in 1975. The ride eventually went to Romain Grojean and subsequently Esteban Gutierrez.
While driving for Manor, Rossi outpaced teammate Will Stevens and finished ahead of several other drivers and came close to scoring a point in his third race – the United States Grand Prix.
On top of his stint with Manor F1, he won three races on the way to finishing second in the GP2 championship to Stoffel Vandoorne.
The question is how long would he want to stay in IndyCar. He has made it clear that Formula 1 is where he wants to be. That is not to say that moving to IndyCar for a season is a bad strategy for him. He gets to drive a racecar for a good competitive team in IndyCar rather than be a test/reserve driver in F1 and if an opportunity for 2017 in F1 comes up, he can take it.
Rossi nearly came to IndyCar to drive for Dale Coyne Racing for 2015 before his opportunities in GP2 and Formula One came up.
With that in mind, is Andretti Autosport, a committed IndyCar team, going to want to take the risk on a driver that might only stick around for one season?
The other American driver in the fold for the ride is American JR Hildebrand. Hildebrand has not raced full time in IndyCar since 2013, when he was let go by Panther Racing before running the two races in California for Bryan Herta Autosport (Sonoma Raceway, Auto Club Speedway).
Where Hildebrand has an upper hand over Rossi is obviously his experience in IndyCar. While his numbers might not be astounding, it is a safe bet to say that Hildebrand’s full potential has not been fully recognized yet. Panther Racing was on its last legs when Hildebrand drove for them and the team was never really that great on road and street circuits either with any driver.
Contrast that with Hildebrand’s stats in the Atlantic Championship as well as Indy Lights, where much of his success came on road and street circuits which propelled him to the 2009 Indy Lights championship with Andretti Autosport, no less.
Ovals where Hildebrand and Panther’s strength, notably where he came within one corner of winning the Indianapolis 500 when he hit the wall while trying to pass a lapped car. He also led much of the first 100 miles of the 2012 editon of the MavTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
He made the most of a May only deal with Ed Carpenter Racing last year. He ran inside the top five at the Grand Prix of Indinapolis until mechanical woes relegated him to a 21st place finish. He followed that up with an 8th place finish in the Indianapolis 500 after finishing 10th in 2014 for ECR.
With two talented American drivers suddenly on the market, Andretti Autosport has a tough choice to choose from with Hildebrand and Rossi. Both have the talent and the will to race for wins and championships.