The field in this year's IndyCar Series championship may be trimmed to just 22 entries in 2014, following recent announcements over funding and sponsorship.
Last week the series announced the beneficiaries of funding incentives under its Leaders Circle program, which assures each recipient a minimum of $1m in funding for the 18-race season provided the entrant successfully qualifies for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
The money goes to the top 20 teams - based on their 2013 performance and who have announced that they are returning for a full season in 2014. That means that three of the four Ganassi cars (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and Charlie Kimball) are included, as are all four Andretti Autosport entries (Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz)) and the trio of Team Penske drivers (Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, the latter in a deal whereby he receives funding that would otherwise have gone to Dragon Racing.)
Other recipients of the incentives are Sam Schmidt Motorsports (Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin), KV Racing Technology (Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Graham Rahal), Dale Coyne Racing (Justin Wilson and a still-to-be-confirmed team mate), Ed Carpenter Racing (the #20 car to be shared by Mike Conway on road courses and Carpenter himself on ovals), AJ Foyt Racing (Takuma Sato) and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (Josef Newgarden).
Also securing funding this year is Bryan Herta Autosport, which is yet to make an announcement about who will be driving for them in 2014, while not included in the Leaders Circle program but nonetheless confirmed for a full season at Ganassi with sponsorship from NTT Data is Ryan Briscoe. Among last year's drivers not returning in 2014 are rookie of the year Tristan Vautier, sole remaining full-time female driver Simona de Silvestro (who has now become an affiliated driver at Sauber F1), and former series and Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti who has retired from the sport after being injured in the penultimate race of 2013 at Houston.
Notable absentees from the list of Leaders Circle recipients are Dragon Racing and Panther Racing. The former has decided to withdraw from IndyCar and focus on its campaign in the inaugural Formula E all-electric championship in the autumn, while Panther is currently also reeling from the loss of the valuable US Army National Guard sponsorship to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing announced earlier in February - and which it now appears is the subject of a legal dispute.
American motorsports site RACER
reported on Tuesday that the team had filed a civil suit in Indiana's Marion County against RLL, the IndyCar Series itself and also the commercial company responsible for handling the National Guard's sporting sponsorships, Document and Packaging Brokers, Inc. Also named in the suit is John Metzler, a member of the Army National Guard Bureau said to have been one of those original responsible for helping Panther get the National Guard sponsorship in 2008 but who is now said to have been a "backdoor facilitator" of RLL's successful move to take over the lucrative backing in 2014.
Panther had already filed and lost an appeal to the US Government over the loss of the sponsorship, and now team owner John Barnes has decided to up the ante and move his complaint to the next judicial level.
"As a company policy, we do not comment on pending litigation," said a statement from the team. "However, as we have for more than 15 years, Panther Racing is committed to always acting with integrity and conducting business in an ethical and legal manner.
"We remain active members of the Indianapolis community and will continue to support U.S. servicemen and women through our work with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the White House's Joining Forces initiative, Fisher House and the USO, among others."
The team insisted that it would be taking part in the upcoming season. despite the twin setbacks on funding: "Panther Racing is a proud member of the IndyCar series and looks forward to a successful 2014 season," said the statement. "Our singular focus remains on fielding a strong IndyCar race team on the track and being a responsible corporate citizen off of it."
"It is unfortunate that it is now a matter being litigated," said Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar's parent business Hulman & Company. "We are pleased that the National Guard has decided to continue its involvement in IndyCar racing."
Panther doesn't have long to secure the necessary new sponsorship funding before the first race of the year at St. Petersburg in Florida in just over a month's time. If they're unable to and if no more entries are confirmed such as a second driver at RLL, then the grid could potentially be reduced to just 22 cars in 2014. That's compared with 25 last year and 26 in 2012, which was the first season of competition with new chassis and engine regulations.
Some teams will add additional one-off entries for the Indianapolis 500, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports announcing Wednesday that former race champion Jacques Villeneuve will race for them in May, and AJ Foyt Racing having already confirmed an entry for Martin Plowman at both the Indy 500 and the inaugural road race at the Indianapolis Motorspeedway earlier in the month.
Jimmy Vasser has also spoken about adding a third car to the KV Racing Technology line-up at Indy alongside regular drivers Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra. However it still seems unlikely at this stage that a full 33-car grid will be lining up to start the 98th Indianapolis 500 in May.
IndyCar officials had spoken earlier this month about the possibility of adding an experimental 'Garage 34' entry in future along the lines of the 'Garage 56' entry seen in Le Mans which in recent years has included the maiden race appearance of the DeltaWing, but it's unlikely that anything will be in place in time for this year's Indy 500.
"I do know that there has been some talk among the folks at IndyCar about the potential of [something along the same lines as] Garage 56, that type of concept," said Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles. "But at this point in time we haven't had a conversation."
Standing start for Long Beach
After the successful introduction of standing starts at double header weekend events in 2013, the series has decided that the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April will also feature a standing start this year.
It's the first time that a stand-alone race will have featured a standing start in the IndyCar Series. The last standing start at Long Beach was in 2008 when it was part of the Champ Car World Series.
"It's a great location and I think the fans will like it," said said Derrick Walker, IndyCar's president of competition and operations. "Long Beach has a history of standing starts, and in its 40th anniversary race this ties in with that tradition."