The fight for IndyCar’s ‘worst’ seat has taken another controversial turn as a driver who expected to race for the team in 2024 has been ousted.
Despite claiming he would be driving for AJ Foyt Racing in a statement last month, Benjamin Pedersen has been dropped in favour of Santino Ferrucci returning to the team to join new signing Sting Ray Robb.
Ferrucci was announced on Tuesday by the Foyt team, which added, “Ferrucci will be joined by sophomore driver Sting Ray Robb who was signed last month to drive the No. 41 Chevrolet. The team is not planning to field a third car for the season.”
It’s the latest instalment in the long-running saga for the car that finished last in the standings of IndyCar’s full-time entries last year.
How has Robb ended up replacing Pedersen?
Robb was announced on December 15 and when he was, team president Larry Foyt was asked if Pedersen would return and he said "not sure about that, we’re sorting all that out”.
Understandably, Pedersen felt compelled to issue a statement, which claimed he was still a part of the team and was looking forward to pre-season testing.
Rumours have been rife over how much budget Robb - who finished 22nd in his rookie IndyCar campaign last year, second to last and only ahead of Pedersen among the full-time drivers - would bring and where he'd take it after leaving Dale Coyne Racing at the end of last year.
Robb will drive the Indianapolis-based Foyt entry, with Ferrucci continuing to drive the car operated out of Texas which he used to finish third in the Indianapolis 500 last year.
How has Foyt got to this point?
It was rumoured in the paddock before last season had even finished that Foyt was testing the water to see if it could move on from Pedersen and the multi-year deal the two parties signed entering 2023.
Pedersen himself is believed to have brought significant budget to the Foyt team, but it’s believed the structure of the deal was the main reason Foyt was not happy, alongside the results of the team which finished 27th in the points and behind four part-time drivers.
It appears it has now got its wish, although it’s unclear exactly how it has managed to do this. We’ll be keeping an eye out for a Pedersen statement in the aftermath of this news breaking.
The story may well just be getting started, as opposed to this move marking the end of the discussion.
Will Robb be an upgrade on Pedersen?
In the deal's purest terms, Robb will be an upgrade on Pedersen because he is believed to bring more budget.
Good for @AJFoytRacing to have @SantinoFerrucci back in the seat of #14. Excited to get to work together. I’ll be taking notes from the driving experience and what hair products to use 😂 https://t.co/GbwHtbdzwg— Sting Ray Robb (@sting_ray_robb) January 9, 2024
On track, looking at their junior careers, Robb was an Indy Pro 2000 champion and runner-up to Linus Lundqvist in Indy Lights. Pedersen’s resume is a bit more convoluted with a spell in England and Europe, but a fourth then a fifth in Indy Lights, driving for the team that won the championship in the second year, gives Robb the upper hand.
However, in IndyCar, there was little to choose between the two. Both were some way adrift of their team-mates and did little to show a moment of true excellence, Pedersen probably coming closest with 12th in qualifying at the 500 - although Ferrucci was fourth.
Robb did finish ahead of all but one part-time driver - rookie of the year Marcus Armstrong at Ganassi - but had a more consistent car than Pedersen. Robb and Pedersen finished 118 and 85 points behind their team-mates respectively
Ultimately, unless Robb rekindles some of the title-contending form he showed in junior racing, the difference between the two drivers would probably be negligible.
The power is in Robb’s hands to prove he deserves his spot on the grid.
What can we expect of Ferrucci this year?
A podium in the Indy 500 showed what Ferrucci is capable of.
Despite making his IndyCar debut in 2019, 2023 was only his third full season of IndyCar racing and at his best, he’s been an exciting and scintillating prospect on ovals. It’s hard to criticise any lack of consistency given he’s either been doing part-programmes or racing for teams towards the back of the grid.
The 500 result last year was boosted by the team’s decision to sign Michael Cannon as technical director from Ganassi last year, and the feeling is that with more time to focus on the rest of the year coupled with a tie-up with Team Penske, the team can kick on from just the Indy 500 result and do better than Ferrucci’s 19th place in the championship.
If Robb brings as big a budget as people say he does, finances for this team - which has been cash-strapped on many occasions - shouldn’t be as much of an issue as before and it has a big chance to leap up the grid.
"I’m very happy to have Santino back,” said team president, Larry Foyt. “We worked well together, and he brings a good energy to the team.
“Obviously, we have our eyes set on the Indy 500, but we also had some good pace in other races but didn’t get the results. Together we are focused on moving up in the championship standings and I believe we can achieve that."
Ferrucci added: “It’s really good to start building some continuity with everybody and I think it’s going to improve our results.
“My expectations for the year are to come out of the gate a lot more prepared than we were last year; working with Penske things are hopefully going to be a lot smoother and I'm looking forward to being back at the Indy 500 again."
It's January and all the seats aren't filled
Robb's old team Dale Coyne Racing is yet to announce a single driver, the final two full-time seats on the grid.
David Malukas has left to join McLaren, while Robb's Foyt move gives Coyne the potential for a fresh start.
Ex-Andretti driver Devlin DeFrancesco has been linked to the team since last May while INDY NXT driver Danial Frost has been a potential option for even longer.
The team could move for a driver outside IndyCar currently, too.
Why this is a missed opportunity
Foyt’s Penske links and the signing of Cannon hint at a new era for a team that has struggled for so, so long in IndyCar racing.
To bag an Indy 500 podium is a massive achievement all by itself - after over 20 years without one - and that was done with Cannon in place for just a couple of months. With a longer lead time to plan for the whole season, there’s plenty to be excited about here.
That’s before you consider many of the other midfield-to-back-of-the-pack teams are going through transitions with inexperienced drivers, inconsistent, unproven, completely new or simply flawed line-ups of their own.
To think that Foyt could have had a line-up resembling something like Callum Ilott and Simon Pagenaud if he was cleared to race this year, makes the jostling between Robb and Pedersen disappointing for the neutral wanting to see the best possible driver line-ups in the series.
Perhaps the budget brought by both drivers is just too crucial at this time for Foyt to go in a different direction, and Ferrucci is a top, top oval driver capable of putting big results on the board, so at this stage of the team’s development, he’s a solid choice.
As for the second car, it just feels a bit ‘what might have been’ given the opportunity here.