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EMBURY’S OUTLOOK: Schmidt’s Russia Experiment Over?

Things may be in alteration mode at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports looking towards the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

While the future of the popular Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe appears set, events last weekend before the Honda Indy Toronto have created question marks about who may drive the second entry next year.

Based on the success enjoyed in the second half of 2016, including a pole position and near victory at the Pocono 500, the future appeared to be a lock regarding the services of third-year Russian pilot Mikhail Aleshin. Things though, look to have changed as the 2017 campaign has rolled on.

After earning four top-six finishes last season, the 30-year old from Moscow has only one this year, coming in the first race at Detroit. Adding to that is concerns regarding sponsorship cropping up this past week. After finishing 21st at Iowa Speedway, Aleshin was replaced in the No. 7 SPM Honda for Toronto by Colombian Sebastian Saavedra.

Funding is believed to be the primary cause for the driver change. For the Russian, this is not the first time money has a red flag concerning main backer SMP. Problems related to the supporter prevented Aleshin from competing in the 2015 season, up until the season finale at Sonoma, California. So the question in this edition of Embury’s Outlook is now where does team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson proceed from here?

Assuming the funding malady can be cured, the team could elect to continue with Aleshin, yet performance numbers indicate an increasingly downward trend since his rookie effort in 2014. In year one, the Moscow-native earned seven top-tens. Following his absence in 2015, that number slipped to only four such placements in 2016, and is down again to only three in 11 appearances this season.

If the down arrow is too much of a deterrent, there are other options such as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires regular Santiago Urrutia. Reportedly, the current Belardi Racing driver was considered by SPM for a possible third entry for 2017; however, the deal never came about. The 20-year old competed for SPM’s former Indy Lights operation in 2016, winning four races and finishing second in the final championship standings. While the Uruguayan has failed to win an event this season, he has earned four runner-up efforts to date. Also in his corner, the ex-GP3 pilot is backed by Arrow Electronics, who sponsor Hinchcliffe in IndyCar.

Another possible is Saavedra, who has bounced around several different teams since making his IndyCar debut in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. While the Colombian came home with an 11th-place effort last Sunday in Toronto, the veteran has only amassed four top-tens in 60 starts, a resume plagued by DNFs.

Several other relatively new prospects in IndyCar mentioned last week in Embury’s Outlook, including Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones, could also be in the mix if indeed Aleshin does not return. No matter the direction SPM goes in, the team needs to change its fortunes. Despite winning earlier this year at Long Beach, Hinchcliffe ranks tenth on the current points table, while Aleshin was in 16th before Toronto.

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By Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory.

Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.