Vasser-Sullivan considering “all options” to escape IndyCar slump

The Jimmy Vasser-James Sullivan partnership is considering several ways to boost its fortunes in 2022, which could possibly include a split from Dale Coyne Racing and signing a new driver.

Vasser-Sullivan considering “all options” to escape IndyCar slump

Last week Dale Coyne told Autosport: “So long as they continue to be in IndyCar, I think ‘Sulli’ and Jimmy will remain partners with us. They’re not going to go out on their own, and I don’t think other teams can give them what we give them.”

However, Sullivan has painted a different picture of VSR’s short-term future, saying that he and Vasser are considering alternative partnerships for 2022.

Sullivan formed SH Racing in 2010 to compete in motocross and rallycross, before hooking up with Kevin Kalkhoven’s and Vasser’s IndyCar team KV Racing at the end of 2013 to form KVSH Racing. However, despite Sebastien Bourdais scoring four wins over the course of the next three seasons, the team was dissolved in early 2017.

The following year, Vasser and Sullivan reunited to become co-entrants of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing entry, raced by Bourdais, and the combo scored on its race debut in St. Petersburg – an event they would win again the following year.

While Bourdais was released at the end of ’19, and the team lost both technical director Craig Hampson (to Arrow McLaren SP) and race engineer Michael Cannon (to Chip Ganassi Racing), Vasser and Sullivan kept faith with Coyne, running Santino Ferrucci in 2020. The highlight was fourth place in the Indianapolis 500.

This year, however, Ed Jones in the #18 DCR with Vasser Sullivan entry has been largely anonymous, not helped by mechanical issues restricting lap time in practice, several poor pitstops and unfortunate strategies, so that the #18 car currently sits 22nd in entrant points. The 2016 Indy Lights champion’s issues have left him in the shadows, particularly when compared with the frequently sparkling performances of ex-Formula 1 driver and IndyCar rookie Romain Grosjean in the sister car, the #51 entry co-owned by Coyne and Rick Ware and engineered by the #18 car’s former engineer, Olivier Boisson.

The result is that Sullivan says he and Vasser believe something of an upheaval will be necessary in the offseason.

The partnership of James

The partnership of James "Sulli" Sullivan and Dale Coyne may not continue beyond this season.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Sullivan explained to Autosport: “Our commercial relationships are solid, but we’ve got to deliver on the track. Off-track, we do what I’d consider an above-average job, but next year we have to deliver as-good if not better than we did in ’18, ’19 and ’20 and that obviously will have to involve change from what we’re doing in 2021.

“What change that form will take, we haven’t completely decided, but we all know that things have to look different next season.”

Regarding the driver of the #18, Sullivan commented: “Ed’s desire and goal for 2021 was to prove that he could still do this after a year off [following his release by Ed Carpenter Racing at the end of 2019], and I’ll say there have been multiple events this season where he has driven extremely well and quite frankly we didn’t give him the car or opportunity to succeed. But there have also been multiple events where Ed could have done something differently, or perhaps been a little more aggressive.

“So I don’t think there’s one problem that you could pin this on. It’s a mix of this arrangement that has not borne fruit in the way we hoped it would. We have definitely had some bad pitstops, we have certainly had events where we have not given him a good enough car, and there have been events where I think even Ed would agree he could have done things a little differently.

“But at the end of the season, Jimmy and I need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and realize that it doesn’t matter where the fault comes from: the responsibility is on us to deliver. And that’s only going to happen with the right mix of driver, engineering, crew and partner.

“The net result is that the team is going to have to look a little different next year, and it’s too early to go on record and say what form those changes will take, but the fact is that we’re committed to this sport and we are not satisfied with simply being part of the scene.

“It could be that we continue with Dale Coyne Racing, or it could be that it’s a different partnership. We are listening to others, checking out ideas that have been presented to us for new partnerships.”

One half of Coyne’s assessment – that Vasser and Sullivan are not yet ready to form a freestanding entity in IndyCar – is correct however.

“Jimmy and I do ultimately want to do that – going out on our own, and having the IndyCar and IMSA operations working out of our Charlotte shop,” said Sullivan. “We’ve discussed that, and we decided that 2022 will not be the year that happens.”

IMSA prospects looking brighter after first win of ’21

 

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

The Vasser Sullivan Lexus team has been far from anonymous in the 2021 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship, VSR’s first season without being in partnership with AIM Autosport. However, results have been tough to come by, given that the GT Daytona class – thanks to IMSA’s largely masterful handling of its arguably regrettable Balance of Performance system – has resulted in amazingly close competition between the marques.

But after scoring four wins last year and seeing Aaron Telitz and Jack Hawksworth finishing third and fourth in the championship, it’s little wonder that Sullivan has been frustrated by so far landing just one win – and five other top-five finishes – in the after seven of 12 rounds in 2021.

“Yeah, it’s been difficult,” he said. “But first let me say that the Lexus program is running better than ever. It’s something we’re awfully proud of: having the raceshop in Charlotte has been a big plus for us.

“But this season has been challenging for us for different reasons in IMSA than in IndyCar. Up until the Watkins Glen sprint [2hr40min] race, we had been quick but hadn’t been able to close the deal and get the win. You pound your head against the wall wishing there was one central problem that needed to be solved to fulfill our potential there, because then we’d just solve it!

“But in the first five events, we had five incredibly isolated different reasons for not winning or not being on the podium. And the issues weren’t down to lack of pace or a flaw in the driver line-up, and they weren’t down to the crew for the most part. For example, in the Watkins Glen Six Hours, we showed that the people that we’ve got and the cars that we’ve got are all strong, but what can you do about a caution flag that falls at the wrong time and turns the order of the top eight or 10 cars back to front so late in the race? That’s just one of those situations that you can’t control, but Jack and Aaron salvaged a sixth place there.

“Then in the Glen sprint race the following week, we rebounded really strongly and got a 1-2 which means the guys got their emotional tanks refilled! There’s a lot of value in that. And last week at Lime Rock, a track which historically has not been kind to our cars, we showed up stronger than we’ve ever been there and we got a podium. That was like a win for us, so we’ve got wind in our sails now.”

And looking at the GT program for the short- and medium-term future?

“Jimmy and I don’t have anything formal to announce yet regarding Lexus but we’re getting pretty close,” said Sullivan. “Everyone’s desire and intent is there to continue in GT racing, so look out for an announcement soon.”

Sullivan added that there’s nothing on the horizon to distract Vasser Sullivan Racing, such as him returning to his SH Racing roots.

“I still love rallycross, I love the electrification of rallycross and don’t be surprised if some ways down the road we announce a return,” he said. “But that would not be a responsible move right now.

“We’re fiercely focused on getting back on the podium in IndyCar and winning a championship in IMSA GTD and on. Like I say, we’re not in either series just to be there, so going rallycross, adding a third spoke to our wheel, is not something we’re immediately considering. We have unfinished business with what we’re doing already.”

Aaron Telitz, Jack Hawksworth, Zach Veach and Frankie Montecalvo celebrate the Vasser Sullivan Lexus 1-2 in Watkins Glen's 2hr40 race.

Aaron Telitz, Jack Hawksworth, Zach Veach and Frankie Montecalvo celebrate the Vasser Sullivan Lexus 1-2 in Watkins Glen's 2hr40 race.

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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