Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wednesday Wrap-Up: A.J. Foyt Racing's 2014 Season

This is the second of eleven reviews of the teams that participated in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

We move to A.J. Foyt Racing. The team came out of the gate with a surprise pole position at St. Petersburg and it appeared Takuma Sato was finally going to reign in his recklessness ways and become a top tier driver. His 2013 season featured a fairy tale start with his first career IndyCar victory and first victory in anything in over a decade and was leading the championship by 13 points entering the Indianapolis 500. However, the team picked up only one top ten in the final fifteen races and seven finishes outside the top twenty. Sato was in contention for the victory at St. Petersburg, leading 33 laps from pole position but finished seventh after losing time on pit stops. The first race was promising but 2014 turned out to be just like all the others in Sato's professional career.

Takuma Sato
After the top ten in Florida, Sato's season took the predictable nose dive we have all come to know. He had a decent run at Long Beach but was caught up in the Josef Newgarden-Ryan Hunter-Reay accident. He beached his car on lap one in the wet conditions at Barber but recovered for a thirteenth place finish. He managed a ninth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and ran in the middle of the pack in the Indianapolis 500 all day, finishing 19th after starting 23rd.

Once the month of June began, things started going down hill and fast. A pair of 18th place finishes at Belle Isle, the second after stuffing it into the turn five tires late in the race. He did pick up his second pole position of 2014 for Belle Isle 2. Another 18th place at Texas made it tic-tac-toe three in a row, this time the engine went up in flames on him with only seven laps to go. Houston would not be a great homecoming for the team. Sato led laps early in race one but got caught in an accident with the lapped car of Mikhail Aleshin, ending his Saturday just past the 1/3 mark. He would retire again on Sunday, this time in the turn eight barrier all by himself.

Electrical gremlins ended his day after 25 laps at Pocono, another accident with Aleshin ended his night at Iowa and damage from a first lap accident in Toronto 1 led to three consecutive races where Sato was the first driver to retire from the race. Toronto 2 was a complete turn around for A.J. Foyt Racing, from 22nd on the grid to a top five, the team's first since finishing second at São Paulo last season. Sato got in another first lap accident at Mid-Ohio but this time he was able to continue however he could only manage an 18th place finish.

Sato was a non-factor at Milwaukee finishing fifteenth but the final two weekends in California were amazing high notes for Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing (Sidebar: Ironically, as I type this I am listening to U2's "California (There Is No End to Love)" and that wasn't planned at all. What a coincidence. Moving on). Just like in Toronto 2, strategy played into Sato's favor as he went from 20th to fourth at Sonoma. At Fontana, Sato qualified fourth and finished sixth, running toward the front all night in the season finale and the sixth place finish elevated Sato from 20th in the championship to 18th ahead of Graham Rahal and Houston 1 winner Carlos Huertas.

Takuma Sato's 2014 Statistics
Championship Positions: 18th (350 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 66
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 12.176 (13th in IndyCar)
Average Finish: 15.444 (21th)

Before the season began I thought Foyt would fire Sato midseason but he stuck with him. Can Foyt afford to keep the Japanese on for another year? Success is sporadic for Sato. He has never scored three consecutive top ten finishes in his IndyCar career and he hasn't scored three consecutive top ten finishes in any series since the final three races of the 2004 Formula One season where he finished sixth, fourth and sixth at China, Japan and Brazil respectively.

Sato is turning 38 this January. Is it worth keeping him on for a flash in the pan every eighth race? A.J. Foyt Racing has shown to have the equipment to compete at a top level but it should be obvious Sato is not the guy who can make Foyt a threat week in and week out. We all know he has the speed but he doesn't have the consistency. He's hasn't had the consistency since winning the British Formula Three championship in 2001 (By the way, looking over the 2001 British Formula Three championship. Damn, what a driver line-up: Sato, Anthony Davidson, James Courtney, Gianmaria Bruni, Andy Priaulx, André Lotterer, Mark Taylor, Ryan Dalziel, Alex Gurney, Robbie Kerr and Robert Doornbos).

If Foyt were to expand to two cars with Jack Hawksworth, keeping Sato makes sense as he provides veteran leadership for Hawksworth to lean. Other than that scenario though, it doesn't make sense to have Sato if you are a single car team.



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pagenaud to Penske, Another Weapon in Chevrolet's Arsenal

For the second consecutive offseason, Roger Penske has stolen the show. Last year it was Juan Pablo Montoya. This year it was Simon Pagenaud as the Frenchman has signed to drive the #22 Team Penske Chevrolet for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

In three seasons driving for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports, Pagenaud finished in the top five in the championship each year, winning four races including the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and final Grand Prix of Baltimore and Grand Prix of Houston. The Frenchman now becomes a record-setting fourth full-time driver for Team Penske and the team's first full-time European driver.

Roger Penske is putting all the eggs in his basket as The Captain now employees the drivers who finished first, second, fourth and fifth from the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings. With so much talent it's only a matter of time before someone doesn't get enough attention and becomes upset. Penske has had power teams before. Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy finished 1-2-3 in the 1994 championship but Tracy was gone the following season, only to return and score less success in 1996 and 1997.

How long will this team be able to hold together? We know Will Power and Pagenaud's history, Juan Pablo Montoya doesn't play second fiddle to anyone and Hélio Castroneves isn't getting any younger as he still hunts his first title and fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. Power is the defending champion. Penske won't fire him but if tension boils over at any point, I would not be surprised if Power's temper forces him to walk away. Castroneves will never be fired. After Al Unser and Rick Mears won their fourth Indianapolis 500s, Penske knows that if he let Castroneves go and he won his fourth elsewhere, it would haunt him the rest of his life. Montoya could retire but I don't think he's going to stop racing anytime soon and I don't see Pagenaud as a here today, gone tomorrow Penske driver. He is 30 and is at the right team for job security. How long can Penske and Tim Cindric keep all these personalities happy? That will be the teams biggest tasks as winning races shouldn't be a problem.

Beyond the scope of Team Penske there is the Real Madrid-esque, Chevrolet driver line-up (yes I realize Chevrolet sponsors Manchester United but they aren't doing too hot right now). If the 2014 driver line-ups from this point going forward are retained for 2015, Chevrolet's thirteen drivers combine for 168 IndyCar victories. The ten Honda drivers would combine for 29 IndyCar victories, 14 at the hands of Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Chevrolet's top two drivers all have more victories than the ten Honda drivers combine for (Dixon 35, Bourdais 32) and Castroneves is on equal terms at 29. Chevrolet could add three more wins to their total if KV Racing is able to sign James Hinchcliffe, who could also stay with Honda and fill Pagenaud's shoes at Schmidt Peterson.

With Pagenaud gone, the only Honda drivers with victories from 2014 are Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Huertas. No offense but Honda can have all their hopes and expectations on the 2012 IndyCar champion and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Hunter-Reay and while Huertas proved competency in 2014, I wouldn't put all my chips on the Colombian winning again in 2015. Hinchcliffe won three times in 2013 before going winless this past year despite having the third best average starting position. Carlos Muñoz and Marco Andretti both finished in the top ten in the 2014 championship but were winless. Justin Wilson had one top five in 2014, Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth each got on the podium in Houston 2 but nether scored another top five finish in the other 17 races while Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal have rarely found success the last two seasons.

Honda is in trouble. They have become Leeds United (minus the relegation to Pro Mazda and deep, deep financial issues). Hunter-Reay is pulling the boat all by himself, by his teeth. No other Honda driver has proven to be a consistent winner as Hunter-Reay. Honda ended 2014 on a six race winless streak, their longest losing streak since 2003 when they failed to win once in the final eight IRL races that season.

Honda needs a splash. While there are no factory teams in IndyCar, Honda has to step on their support of their floundering IndyCar teams. But who could hire? They aren't signing Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sébastien Bourdais or Power away from their Chevrolet teams. They lost Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and their rising star Josef Newgarden. Bryan Herta Autosport is hanging on by a thread as Jack Hawksworth appears to be heading to AJ Foyt Racing to become the Texan's second driver.

There are plenty of drivers on the market. Gabby Chaves just won the Indy Lights title, Conor Daly is all-in on IndyCar for 2015 and Stefan Wilson is trying to make the jump to IndyCar with Fan Force United. Would enticing Sam Hornish, Jr. to return to IndyCar be a saving grace for Honda? Oriol Servià, Luca Filippi, Martin Plowman, JR Hildebrand and Katherine Legge are all other free agents but do any of them have the capability to take the fight to the Chevrolet juggernaut? To me, no.

Take a shot on someone. Daniel Ricciardo is being paid about $1 million to be Red Bull's second driver. He's earned himself a raise but if you're Honda, put $5 million on the table and create a bidding war with Red Bull. We know they have the funding to pay Ricciardo but with Vettel linked to McLaren and Ferrari, all the money might be put on the German instead of the Australian. Kevin Magnussen is being paid just a little more than Ricciardo and he could be one-and-done with the team from Woking like Sergio Pérez last year. Jean-Éric Vergne is losing his Scuderia Toro Rosso seat but I doubt he can be one to help turn the Honda train around. Maybe Honda looks to the ladder series GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5. Jolyon Palmer, Mitch Evans and Richie Stanaway are promising while Daniel Abt is going to test with Andretti Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing next month. What's the worst thing that could happen with any of these drivers above? They say no? Contacting them, making an offer and being rejected at least looks better than appearing to be sitting in the corner, twiddling your thumbs as your rival bulks up their arsenal.

Looking at the current advantage Chevrolet has you really have to wonder how committed Honda is to IndyCar. Something has to change to show the Japanese manufacture is remotely interested in trying to compete with the defending triple manufactures' champions. Other than Andretti Autosport, Honda is in desperate need of building their teams into powerhouses, with their second and third teams matching the might of Chevrolet's second and third teams, Ganassi and CFH Racing.

Honda needs to spend now on talent or face the possibility of being run out of IndyCar in the next three years. Entering 2015 after losing half a dozen races to end 2014 was bad enough but with Hunter-Reay as their only hope, 2015 could be an even more difficult year for Honda, the manufacture that ran every competitor out of the series less than a decade ago.



Monday, September 29, 2014

Musings From the Weekend: All Things Must Pass

What I learned this weekend: No good news ever breaks on Friday night but that's another story. MotoGP proved once again that they will put on a good show anywhere in any conditions. NASCAR artificially eliminated some drivers and I struggled with geoblocking for another week. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Scheduling Nightmare
I have hit the end of my rope when it comes to IndyCar scheduling.

The series is trying to squeeze all these races into a finite amount of time and not taking into consideration the tracks as they try to put on the best event possible. Houston should have never taken place in June and Fontana should have never taken place Labor Day weekend. Houston is now gone and Fontana wants to move to June when I guess the heat is more bearable than late-August/early-September. Let's not forget Pocono, which is looking for a new date after struggling this year on 4th of July weekend; Toronto, which for one year and one year only needs a new date due to the Pan American Games being hosted in the city in mid-July; Texas, whose attendance continues to fall despite remaining consistently in early-June since 1997 and Iowa, which was in July this year with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series but the Truck have already announced their race will be in June in 2015 so it looks like the IndyCar date will shift once again.

Ratings were up this year with the condensed schedule but I believe the condensing had nothing to do with the increase, rather the consistency in racing practically every week during this past summer. IndyCar raced on seven of nine weekends between the months of July and August this year. In 2013, IndyCar raced on four of eight weekends between the months of July and August and each month had a two week break between races. Let's not forget the month off from Baltimore Labor Day weekend to Houston at the beginning of October.

IndyCar couldn't afford to take a month off during their season, so instead of filling the gap that was the month of September, they moved everything up, creating a non-stop sprint of a season for the teams from the end of March to the end of August, ending in time for the start of the football season. But now here we stand, trying to take the dozen and a half race weekends are trying to shift them around the two dozen possibly weekends IndyCar has allowed for themselves.

While ratings were up, attendance was down at Fontana and the Fontana rating was down and that race is now on life support. It would be one thing if IndyCar owned Fontana and was swallowing the loss but that's not the case. As much as IndyCar thinks ending before the start of football was the cause for the ratings increase, it wasn't and it is tying the hands of promoters behind their backs. You can't expect Fontana to break even and be happy about losing money when it feels like the race is taking place on the face of the sun and everyone is staying home. IndyCar is not in a position to twist arms to get tracks to do what they want. There isn't a line of tracks lining up to host IndyCar races when Fontana drops off because they can't get a realistic date to host the race on. The obsession to end by Labor Day is making it a matter of when tracks drop IndyCar, not if. When Fontana drops IndyCar and when Texas drops IndyCar and when Pocono drops IndyCar and when Toronto drops IndyCar, no one will be waiting to take their places.

Instead of playing hardball, IndyCar needs to realize consistently running week in and week out from early-March to mid-October will produce the same results as cramming everything in six months. Finding races is easier said than done but there has to be places willing to deal. If you can't find places wanting to host a September race in North America, look to Europe after the Italian Grand Prix. A quarter of the grid is European. There has to be someone who is interested in making a deal. My dream European road trip would include a doubleheader with DTM at EuroSpeedway Lausitz with IndyCar on the oval and the touring cars on the road course. Then a second European race could go anywhere. Head to Le Mans and run the Bugatti Circuit, head to anyone of Italy's fine circuits (Imola or Mugello), with three Brits the United Kingdom would seem like a safe bet.

But IndyCar won't change their mind. It's made it's bed and the increase in ratings supports their decision but what happens when they start shedding races like a Siberian Husky shedding it's coat?

If You're Going to Do It
I don't like the Chase. I think it's worn out it's welcome and I don't think NASCAR believes in the Chase either but are just going along with it. Think about. If NASCAR believed in the Chase, why wouldn't use it in all their series? When things worked in other series, they adopted it across the board. Green-white-checkered finishes, the lucky dog, double-file restarts, the points system, all adopted across the board but the Chase has yet to trickle it's way down. But I digress.

NASCAR wanted to have the championship come down to the final race and it's done that for it's first ten editions. That wasn't good enough though for the NASCAR hierarchy even though it set out to do what it was meant to do. They changed the Chase to guarantee four drivers will have a shot at the title in the final race and whoever finishes better is the champion, even if the four contenders finish 25th, 29th, 35th and 40th (an extreme example, I know but not at all impossible).

With the second round of the Chase set, I don't understand how after awarding three points for each victory in the regular season, victories in the Chase, NASCAR's playoff, are now worth nothing and all twelve remaining drivers sit equally on 3,000 points. This system was suppose to reward winning even more but A. you can still win the championship with out winning a race and B. the likes of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon win in the first round and are seen as equal as those who did not win. I understand the victory in the Chase locks a driver into the next round but I think each victory should provide a driver with some type of cover.

Give out 15 points for each victory in the Chase. A victory would now provide a driver with a little bit of a security blanket in the next round and give those you advanced on points a challenge to overcome if they want to advance. Plus, it gives a driver a great reason to try and sweep a round. They could have a 45-point cushion entering the next round, almost insuring their spot in the following round.

I've always felt the championship leader after the first 26 races should get rewarded. Jeff Gordon deserved more for his first 13/18th's of the season. NASCAR might be trying to put consistency by the wayside but it has to be acknowledged and if NASCAR is trying to copy every other American sport, rewarding the championship leader after the first 26 races with a "first round-bye" is the most logical decision they can make. Don't give the driver a guaranteed spot in the next round but give them a 50-point bonus on top of the bonus points they get for their victories to make it difficult for them to be knocked out it round one.

Anyway, one round of knock outs down. No surprises, A.J. Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola are done. Seven races to go. Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega comprise round two.

Random Thoughts
What a MotoGP race from Aragón! Late rain provided everyone with a thrilling finish. The Hondas of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa both fell due to wet conditions and it handed the victory to Jorge Lorenzo while Aleix Espargaró scored his first career premier class podium and Cal Crutchlow took a surprise third place finish. This was possibly the race of the year.

Unlike in Formula One where the engineers tell the drivers how to drive, in MotoGP it's all on the rider and Márquez's and Pedrosa's decision to try and brave the elements, pushing the dry weather bikes beyond their capability as the track turned into a slip and slide was hair raising and mind-boggling. If I was in charge of the Honda pit board I would have put out a message saying, "Pit You Idiot!" Márquez has built such a great margin of error in the championship but imagine if he had got hurt in that accident. He could have committed championship suicide. I want competitors to take risks but after Pedrosa went down going into turn one, he should have dived into the pit lane immediately. Let's mark that as a lesson learned.

There should be one Dover race and it should be 300 laps. I never got to see a Dover race when it was 500 laps but 400 is still too many. What track do I think should get that vacated Dover date? Iowa or actually save Rockingham with a Cup date.

Why does NASCAR still run the Vegas Truck race in September? They aren't paired with IndyCar anymore and for a series that has a two, one-month gaps early in their schedule, wouldn't it make sense to just tack it on the Cup weekend in March?

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jorge Lorenzo and Jeff Gordon but did you know...

Tomoki Nojiri won his first career Super Formula race at Sportsland SUGO. It was Honda's first win of the season. Kazuki Nakajima finish second and took the championship lead. Loïc Duval finished third.

Mattias Ekström won the DTM race at Zandvoort. It was Audi's first of the season.

Maverick Viñales won the Moto2 race from Aragón. Romano Fenati won in Moto3.

Thiago Camillo won race one and Raphael Matos won race two at Santa Cruz do Sul. It was Matos' first career Stock Car Brasil victory.

Kyle Busch won the Nationwide race at Dover. Erik Jones won the Truck race at Las Vegas.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One heads to Suzuka.
IMSA closes out it's first reunified season with Petit Le Mans.
NASCAR returns to Kansas.
WRC is in France for Rallye de Alsace.
After two months off, WTCC returns to race at the Goldenport Park Circuit in Beijing, China.
Super GT runs their penultimate race from the Buriram United International Circuit in Thailand.
World Superbike heads to Magny-Cours for their penultimate round of 2014.




Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Five: SUGO, Zandvoort, Santa Cruz do Sul, Aragón and Dover

Two series head into their penultimate races, one championship is already decided while the other is still anyone's championship. Three other major series will be on track this weekend to close out the month of September. Let's start in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Anyone's Ballgame in Super Formula
With 29 points points still available in the final two rounds of the 2014 Super Formula season, everyone (even you and me) are still mathematically eligible for the championship. Brazilian João Paulo de Oliveira leads the championship with 29 points from two victories, a second, third and a seventh from the first six races. He leads 2014 throwback driver of the year André Lotterer by 2.5 points. The busy German has split his 2014 season between Super Formula, winning Le Mans and competing as an Audi factory driver in the FIA World Endurance Championship while finding the time to make his debut in Formula One at the Belgian Grand Prix for Caterham. Lotterer has two Super Formula victories but missed the Motegi round to drive at Spa-Francorchamps.

Four points behind de Oliveira is Lotterer's teammate, current Toyota factory driver and former Williams F1 driver and this year's winner of the Suzuka 1000km Kazuki Nakajima. He won at Fuji Speedway in July. Loïc Duval is 8.5 points behind de Oliveira and won the season opener at Suzuka.

Other notable names competing in Super Formula are former Super Aguri and Honda F1 test driver and Nakajima's co-winner in this year's Suzuka 1000km James Rossiter, who is seventh in the championship with 15.5 points. João Paulo de Oliveira's teammate is former Formula One driver and NASCAR Truck Series driver Narain Karthikeyan. The Indian has scored 4.5 points. Former Indy Lights winner and 2008 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Hideki Mutoh has scored four points this season. Former Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Vitantonio Liuzzi has scored 1.5 points this season.

Super Formula heads to Sportsland SUGO which is one of de Oliveira's worst tracks. In six starts, his best finish is sixth and has failed to score points on four appearance. Duval has three wins, six podiums and has scored in all seven starts at SUGO. Lotterer has made 11 starts with one win and five podiums at the track and was the sight of his first Super Formula pole in 2003. Nakajima has only made three starts at SUGO with finishes of third and fifth and retired from the race last year.

Just for Fun at Zandvoort
Marco Wittmann has locked up the 2014 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship, as the other drivers fight to better there championship position in the final two rounds at Zandvoort and Hockenheim.

Oschersleben winner Christian Vietoris is second in the championship with 59 points, three ahead of Audi drivers Mattias Ekström and Edoardo Mortara. Last year's champions Mike Rockenfeller is two points behind his fellow Audi drivers. Audi is still looking for their first victory in 2014. Bruno Spengler is sixth in the championship and is still looking for his first victory in 2014. The Canadian has not gone winless in a season since 2009. Pascal Wehrlein jumped to seventh in the championship after winning at Lausitz two weeks ago. With 40 points, Wehrlein is two behind Spengler and one ahead of Moscow winner Maxime Martin and last year's championship runner-up and defending Zandvoort race winner Augusto Farfus. Norisring winner Robert Wickens is tenth in the championship, three behind Wehrlein and one ahead of Adrien Tambay.

In thirteen Zandvoort races, Audi has seven victories, Mercedes five and Farfus' victory last year was BMW's first at the Dutch track in DTM. Ekström and Gary Pafffet lead all drivers with three Zandvoort victories apiece. Ekström's last came in 2008 while Paffett won back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010. Paffett has scored four points this season, matching the 2003 as a personal low.

Anyone's Ball Game in Stock Car Brasil
One hundred and sixty-five points remain on the table with four rounds, seven races left in the 2014 Stock Car Brasil season. Átila Abreu leads the championship with only 145.5 points but, just like Super Formula, everyone is still mathematically eligible for the championship. Abreu's lone victory this season came at Brasilia, a future destination for IndyCar and he scored only his fourth podium from fourteen races at Velopark a fortnight ago.

Second in the championship, trailing by 6.5 points is Rubens Barrichello. Rubinho has two victories and four podiums this season. Five-time Stock Car Brasil champion Cacá Bueno is 18.5 points behind Abreu but Bueno is still winless in 2014. Sérgio Jimenez is fourth, 24.5 points back with two-time race winner this season Thiago Camilo rounding out the top five of the championship, trailing Abreu by 39. Defending champion Ricardo Maurício is sixth in the championship after winning two of the last three races, 44 points back.

When the series first visited Santa Cruz do Sul on Palm Sunday earlier this year, Valdeno Brito and former Formula One and IndyCar driver Antônio Pizzonia splitting the weekend. There have been ten different winners from fourteen races so far this Stock Car Brasil season.

And Then There Were Four
With five races remaining, only four riders are mathematically eligible for 2014 world championship but Marc Márquez has a stranglehold in his title defense. Seventy-four points clear of his Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, Márquez has won eleven from thirteen and is the defending winner at Aragón. Coming off his victory at Misano, Valentino Rossi is seventy-five points behind Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo is the final driver with a shot of dethroning Márquez, 112 points back.

Márquez can't clinch the title in his homeland but he can come within one point of a second consecutive world title with a win and some misfortune to Pedrosa and Rossi. If Márquez wins, Pedrosa fails to score and Rossi scores one point or less at Aragón, the Catalan rider will have a 99-point lead with a maximum of 100 points to possibly be scored. Pedrosa and Rossi have yet to retire from a race this year but Pedrosa did retire at Aragón last year after high siding on lap six. Lorenzo has finished runner-up in the last four races and has finished runner-up at Aragón the last two years.

First Round of Eliminations from Dover
Team Penske has guaranteed both their drivers will move on to the second round of the Chase with Joey Logano winning at New Hampshire a week after Brad Keselowski won at Chicagoland.

Kevin Harvick is all but locked into the next round as he sits 41 points ahead of thirteenth. Jimmie Johnson is 31 points clear. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch are both 28 points to the good and Jeff Gordon is 21 points ahead of thirteenth.

Twelve points cover 8th to 16th in the championship. Carl Edwards and his former and future teammate Matt Kenseth are eight points ahead of thirteenth. A.J. Allmendinger is seven ahead and Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne occupy the final two spots, both six ahead of Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle who are tied for thirteenth. Kurt Busch is eight points out of a the top twelve and Aric Almirola trails twelfth by ten points.

Of the fourteen drivers not guaranteed to advance, eight have won at Dover before (Johnson, Kenseth, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Earnhardt, Jr, Gordon, Newman and Biffle). A non-Chase driver has never won the Chase race at Dover.

Coverage
MotoGP coverage for the Aragón Grand Prix begins at 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday on Fox Sports 1 with the lights going out at 8:00 a.m. ET.

ESPN's coverage of the Dover race will begin at 2:00 p.m. ET Sunday.

Over/Under

1. Over or Under: 1.5 Japanese drivers on the Sportsland SUGO podium? At least one Japanese driver has finished on the podium of every Super Formula race so far this season with Fuji featuring an all-Japanese podium.
2. Over or Under: 1.5 Audi drivers on the Zandvoort podium? In the last ten races from the Dutch track, Audi has averaged 2.1 drivers on the podium.
3. Over or Under: 0.5 drivers getting their first win of the Stock Car Brasil season at Santa Cruz do Sul?
4. Over or Under:1.5 Ducatis finishing in the top five?
5. Over or Under: 52.5 laps being the length of the average green flag run at Dover? In the last ten Dover races, the average green flag run has been 52.9 laps.

Last Week's Over/Unders
1. Under: There were only 2 manufactures on the overall 1000km Nürburgring (Audi and Mercedes).
2. Under: Dane Cameron leads GTD by 4 points over Leh Keen and Cooper MacNeil.
3. Over: The GTM-Am winning #98 Aston Martin ran 87.89% of the total amount of laps.
4. Over: There were four lead changes at Singapore.
5. Over: Corey Lajoie ran 201 laps on his Cup series debut.

Predictions
1. There will be a new Super Formula championship leader after Sportsland SUGO.
2. Second time is the charm, Audi gets their first DTM victory of 2014 at Zandvoort.
3. Someone whose first name begins with the letter "R" will win a race at Santa Cruz do Sul.
4. Nicky Hayden scores a top ten finish on his MotoGP return from wrist surgery.
5. Greg Biffle advances to round two of the Chase.

Last Week's Predictions
1. Of the three class winners, two will feature first time winners in 2014 at the 1000km Nürburgring. (Wrong. Only one first time winner at Nürburgring, the Gentlemen Trophy winning #22 Audi of Team Parker Racing with drivers Ian Loggie and Julian Westwood).
2. Bruno Junqueira and Duncan Ende win in PC. (Massively wrong. They were the first team to retire after eight laps).
3. An American will be a part of a winning team in the 6 Hours at Circuit of the Americas. (Wrong. Best finishing American in class was Scott Sharp and Ed Brown with Ryan Dalziel finishing 3rd in LMP2).
4. Felipe Massa gets back-to-back podium finishes for the first time since the 2010 Australian and Malaysian Grand Prix. (Wrong. Massa finished 5th in Singapore).
5. Three non-Chase drivers will finish in the top ten at Loudon. (Correct! Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Brian Vickers all finished in the top ten). 
Overall: 1/5. Running Tally: 3.5/10


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wednesday Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2014 Season

For the next eleven Wednesdays, we will look back on how each team faired in 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season starting with the bottom of the championship, working our way to the top.

We start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The team began 2014 with a gust of wind behind their sails, landing the National Guard sponsorship and over $12 million in funding for the #15 Honda driven by Graham Rahal. RLLR looked to be a taking step in the right direction with the National Guard deal and landing two of the best engineers from Dale Coyne Racing in Bill Pappas and John Dick. Expanding to two cars seemed very possible as Oriol Servià secured four of the first five races with hopes of expanding his role in the #16 Honda. However, 2014 proved to go very little in the direction RLLR had planned it.

Graham Rahal
The first day of the season was promising for Rahal. Ninth in the first practice and second in the second was a great start but when the rains came on Saturday, it was just the first sign that 2014 would be like going upstream without a paddle for the Ohio-based team. By causing a red flag in the first round, Rahal lost his best two lap times, relegating him to the last row on the grid for the race and fighting the first of many uphill battles in 2014. He would manage to pick up seven positions from twenty-first on the grid for a fourteenth place finish, a norm for him throughout the season.

Rahal ended with an average finish of 15th in 2014 with top tens being a rare occurrence for the 25-year old. He limbed into the practice for Indianapolis 500 with his best finish being a thirteenth at Long Beach, his best start being twelfth at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis which ended prematurely due to an accident on a restart with Juan Pablo Montoya.

When practice for the "500" began, Rahal was never faster than 20th in any of the sessions while his teammate Servià was quicker than him on four of six days and ended up out qualifying Rahal by starting on the outside of row six and Rahal ended up in the middle of row seven. While the man to Rahal's inside on the grid would go on to win the Indianapolis 500, Rahal would be the first man to retire from the 98th running of the race after 44 laps because of an electrical issue.

Heading into June, Rahal sat 24th in the championship, nine points behind Servià who missed St. Petersburg and was out of ride and a point behind Kurt Busch who had just completed his first (and maybe only) IndyCar race. At Belle Isle, Rahal was in the top ten in each session leading up to race one and picked up his first top ten start of the season in ninth. He and his team worked pit strategy into their favor, led 10 laps on the day and were challenging Will Power for the victory, only to fall 0.331 seconds short, the second closest finish in 2014. The momentum from that podium would be squashed almost immediately in race two as Rahal was caught up in the first lap incident that Power caused after getting into Josef Newgarden, leaving Rahal and Justin Wilson as collateral damage. Rahal would finish 21st and complete only 43 laps.

The state of Texas wasn't anymore kind to Rahal. A twelfth place finish after starting twenty-first at Texas, followed by what could have been a podium, if not a race win at Houston 1, only for a lapse of judgement coming to the final restart cost not only Rahal but Tony Kanaan. In race two he could not take advantage of a fourth place starting position and finished 16th. He caused the only caution at Pocono after tapping the wall exiting turn two, finishing 19th.

He benefited from taking tires prior to the final restart at Iowa to finish seventh and picked up a sixth place finish in Toronto 1 but his gearbox let him down in Toronto 2. He made his 125th career start at his home track, Mid-Ohio and gave the his fellow Ohioans a great showing, starting seventh, running in the top ten all day and finishing fifth. He started and finished fourteenth at Milwaukee but had a promising day at Sonoma. Like Belle Isle 1, he worked strategy to his favor and appeared to have a shot of victory if he could save enough fuel. Unfortunately, he fell three laps shy and had a pit lane violation exiting drop him to 20th, despite leading 18 laps on the day.

He started tenth in the season finale at Fontana but faded to nineteenth, five laps down.

Graham Rahal's 2014 Statistics
Championship Positions: 19th (345 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 4
Laps Led: 37
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 14.352 (18th in IndyCar)
Average Finish: 15 (20th)

Having regressed each season since 2010, when he finished 9th in the championship, 2014 can only go down as another head scratching year for Rahal. The glorious National Guard funding is now gone as they have pulled all funding from motorsports and he and his father's team are back at square one. In the eight races Rahal had a teammate, he was out qualified on four occasions while Toronto 2 was set by entrant points. Servià finished seventh at Long Beach and was leading the Grand Prix of Indianapolis late before needing to stop for fuel. He finished eleventh in the "500," the team's best finish at Indianapolis since Bertrand Baguette finished seventh in 2011. Luca Filippi ran at Houston and Toronto and despite averaging a 7.666 starting position in those four races, the Italian's retired from two races with his best finish being fifteenth.

While some are writing Rahal off as another next generation let down, let's remember he is 25 years old and will only be 26 when the 2015 season gets underway. To compare him to some of his counterparts, when Ryan Hunter-Reay turned 26 years old, he had been out of racing for a year, having been unemployed the entire 2006 season outside of a few Grand-Am races. He had only two IndyCar victories to his name and his best championship finish was ninth. When Will Power turned 26, he was still over a month away from his first IndyCar victory and his best championship finish was sixth.

While teenage competitors are becoming normal in motorsports around the world, championship success comes more often when drivers are closer to 30. In IndyCar, only 16 times has the champion been younger than 28 years old. Since reunification, the only time the champion under the age of 30 was Scott Dixon in 2008 and he was 28 years old.

If Rahal ever wins another race, he will break Johnny Rutherford's record for most starts between victories (Rahal has made 113 starts since his victory at St. Petersburg, the record is 97). There is plenty of time left for Rahal to turn his career around but he will have to get the funding to keep his career going for the near future first.

I hate to think that all of RLLR's struggle have coincided with the passing of long time team executive Scott Roembke. The team made a successful comeback to IndyCar in 2012 with Takuma Sato. Despite finishing fourteenth in the championship, Sato had two podiums while coming close at victories at Long Beach, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Fontana and the team appeared ready to take the next step and return to their status of an elite team. Roembke passed away just five days prior to the 2012 season finale and ever since then, full-time RLLR teams have only managed 18th, 19th and 19th in the championship with three podiums combined and are still looking for a victory. The major additions in 2014, Pappas and Dick are gone as is Mitch Davis as the once-Indianapolis 500 winning team can only go up after finishing in the cellar in 2015.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Musings From the Weekend: The End of Summer

Championships were turned on their ears this weekend, from under the lights at Singapore and Austin to the damp Eifel forest. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Lack of Thoughts
I really didn't have much on my mind this weekend. A few things but nothing that expanded into a thought experiment which this blog isn't afraid to explore.

Overall, I am a little somber as that was the final weekend of summer. I love autumn but I feel bad for it because some live and die for days at the beach, days that seem to never end and grilling on a Sunday afternoon. When autumn rolls in and I walk out to a brisk morning I wonder what it was like at Watkins Glen when it hosted the United States Grand Prix around this time of year. This is a great time of the year for a race. The weather isn't too hot, nor is it too cold. Unfortunately, here in the States, IndyCar is over, sports cars has one race left and NASCAR has eight weeks left. The United States Grand Prix is back in autumn but Austin isn't the same as Watkins Glen. It's legacy is still growing and we will talk more about Austin more in a minute.

With only nine days left in September, the focus changes to October then seeing my family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And with motorsports, championships coming to an end, major races such as Bathurst, the Gulf 12 Hours and then a New Year and a new chapter to be written.

Just a house keeping note: Starting this Wednesday will be the first of eleven weekly team-by-team reviews from the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Stay tuned.

How Many Hours of Motorsports Do I Watch A Year?
This question came to me Saturday, halfway through the WEC race from Austin. I had already watched two hours and forty-five minutes of IMSA action, not to mention watched the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race simultaneously with IMSA and an hour of Formula One qualifying. And believe it or not, that seemed like a light day. 

I remember coming in from a run this past January, turning the Dubai 24 Hour on at 6:00 a.m. ET and leaving it on until I went to bed at midnight. The Bathurst 12 Hour I had on when it started at 2:00 p.m. ET and left it on until the finish but passed out with just under two hours to go and woke up about a half hour after the race had ended to find out the results and shut down my laptop after doing it's own 12 hour stint. 

The only Formula One races I've missed this year was Silverstone because I was attending the Pocono IndyCar race. Other than the early part of the first Belle Isle race, I didn't miss a beat of IndyCar action. The only bit of the MotoGP season I have missed was the closing laps at Assen. Through four World Endurance Championship races, I've missed about six hours total and that was to catch some sleep during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I even watched a little bit of the Suzuka 1000km because the IndyCar season finale went so late, I was already up and thought, "why not?" I haven't religiously watched NASCAR for sometime but can honestly say I thoroughly invested in at least a dozen Cup races this year including the last three. 

Ever since CBSSN got the television rights to DTM and the Blancpain GT Series I followed those series on live timing and scoring because their online coverage has been geo-blocked. Thankfully no one has bought European Le Mans Series rights because I caught three of four races, only missing Imola. I caught majority of the Pirelli World Challenge season and watched a handful of hours of the Spa 24 Hours online. 

What's the point of all this?  Do I have a problem? Here is how I am going to argue against it not being a problem: It has not affected my work. It has not affected my health or personal life. It pretty much all happens on the weekends and I could have plenty or worse habits. 

Motorsports are something that I enjoy following. There are plenty of other sports I follow closely and spend hours watching but while it's common to hear about people you spend entire Saturdays and Sundays watching college football and the National Football League or those who never miss one of their Major League Baseball teams' 162 games or the 82 games in the National Hockey League or National Basketball Association, who many people spending hours watching motorsports? 

Next year, I plan on devoutly tracking my motorsports viewing habits because I am genuinely curious. 

Disconnection
During every Formula One race, NBCSN plugs the United States Grand Prix from Circuit of the Americas and promote buying tickets and that's great. We need a race in this country and that consistent reminder hopefully draws people to Austin for Halloween and the first two days of November. I've wanted to go to Austin each year but haven't. One, because I still hold out hope of the Grand Prix of Americas takes place in my home state of New Jersey, that way I avoid the costs of air travel and hotels. New Jersey may never host a race, I realize that but part of me always holds out hope. 

I decided to look into tickets for this year's race. While the past two years I have been busy with work and the race weekend doesn't fall at a good time of the year for me, I think about carpe diem. I'm not going to live forever and seeing as I am still young with no responsibilities other than keeping myself alive, I should take advantage of every opportunity I get now because there is no guarantee they will be there when I get older and if I ever have a family, all hopes and dreams I have will be sacrificed to the back burner for sometime. 

Right after Leigh Diffey made the plug during the Singapore Grand Prix, I went to COTA's website and all plans to make this year the year for the Austin pilgrimage were thrown into the trash can. Race day general admission: $151.02. Want a grandstand seat? It will cost you $263.62. I know I brought up carpe diem but I can't shell out that type of money just to get through the gate! At least not at this point in my life. I would still need to get a flight and room for a night and those are going to easily combine for over $500. 

I know Bernie Ecclestone is basically performing financial sodomy on pretty much every track with outrageous sanctioning fees and they have to make up the deficit somehow but with attendance down at traditional Formula One stalwarts such as Germany and the television ratings going down in many countries, gouging wallets isn't going to bring fans back or draw new ones in. If someone who loves motorsports and Formula One as much as me isn't going to drop over $150 to go to the races, what makes you think someone who is curious about giving Formula One a shot but knows very little about it will? 

There is a reason (mostly likely of my age) I am not in charge of anything but doesn't it make more sense to have a reasonable general admission price, say $40 and hope to draw more people? If general admission was $40, I'd be at Austin in a heartbeat and I am sure those who are interested in giving Formula One a shot would because it's practical. 

If tracks are struggling to make a profit, maybe they should negotiate with Ecclestone, as tough as that may be, for a slice of the ginormous television revenue pie or lower sanctioning fees; not try and drain the well that is the fan base. 

Champions From the Weekend
Laurens Vanthoor won the Blancpain Endurance Series PRO Cup as his #1 Beligan Audi Club Team WRT R8 LMS Ultra won the 1000km Nürburgring with co-drivers César Ramos and Christopher Mies. Vanthoor ends 2014 with back-to-back victory after winning the 2014 Spa 24 Hours in July.

Andrea Rizzoli and Stefano Gai won the PRO-AM Cup with a third place finish in class. The #12 TDS Racing BMW Z4 GT3 of Henry Hassid and Nick Catsburg won the PRO-AM class at the Nürburgring, their second victory of the season. 

Peter Mann and Francisco Guedas held on to win the Gentlemen Trophy despite a seventh place finish in class. The #22 Team Parker Racing Audi R8 LMS of Ian Loggie and Julien Westwood won the Gentlemen Trophy class at the Nürburgring, their first victory of the season.

With a second place finish in the Prototype Challenge class at Austin, the #54 CORE Autosport pairing of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett locked up the PC championship with a race to go. Sean Rayhall and Luiz Díaz won their second consecutive PC race in the #25 8Star Motorsports entry.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened from the Nürburgring and in the PC class from Austin but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Singapore Grand Prix and took over the World Drivers' Championship lead by three points over teammate Nico Rosberg after the German retired due to electrical issues.

Joey Logano won the NASCAR race at New Hampshire and joins his Penske teammate Brad Keselowski as the only two drivers locked into the second round of the Chase.

The #2 Audi of André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler won at Austin their second consecutive race of the WEC season and closed the gap to the #8 Toyota of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre to 11 points. Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke won in GTE-Pro, Aston Martin's first GTE-Pro win in 2014. Matthew Howson, Richard Bradley and Tsugio Matsuda and the #47 KCMG Oreca-Nissan won in LMP2. The #98 Aston Martin of Christoffer Nygaard, Pedro Lamy and Paul Dalla Lana won in GTE-Am. 

Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won in IMSA at Austin, there third win of the season. The #93 Viper of Jonathan Bomarito and Kuno Wittmer won in GTLM, their second victory of the season and will take a 7-point championship lead to Road Atlanta over Antonio García. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating made it a Viper-sweep of the GT classes as their #33 Viper GT3-R won their second race of the season. 

Brendan Gaughan won the Nationwide race at Kentucky, his second of the season. Cole Custer became the youngest winner in a NASCAR national touring series by winning the Truck race from Loudon at 16 years, 7 months and 28 days old.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP at Aragón.
NASCAR at Dover.
Super Formula has their penultimate round from Sportsland SUGO.
DTM has their penultimate race of their lame duck season from Zandvoort.
Stock Car Brasil heads to Santa Cruz do Sul.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Qualifying Two Step From Austin

The United SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship both completed qualifying this evening for their doubleheader tomorrow at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Alex Brundle won pole position in the #42 OAK Racing Ligier JS P2-Nissan with a lap of 1:57.809. It is OAK Racing's second pole of the season and their first since Watkins Glen. Ricky Taylor will start second after the #10 Corvette DP came 0.834 seconds back. Memo Rojas qualified third in the #01 Ford-Riley, over a second back of Brundle. Championship leader Chrisitan Fittipaldi put the #5 Action Express Corvette DP fourth on the grid. Johannes van Overbeek rounded out the top five in the #2 HPD ARX 03b of Extreme Speed Motorsports.

Sean Rayhall won pole position for the PC class with a lap at 2:00.528. The #25 8Star Motorsports driver is coming off a win at VIR last month and was over a half a second quicker than the PC championship leader Colin Braun in the #54 CORE Autosport Oreca. RSR Racing driver Bruno Junqueira qualified third followed by the Starworks drivers John Martin and Renger van der Zande.

Porsche's Austin all-star pairing of Patrick Pilet and Frédéric Makowiecki had won GTLM pole in the #910 Porsche RSR with a lap of 2:03.302 but after missing a camera pod on the roof, the #910 Porsche will lose their pole position. . Second in the GTLM championship, the #93 Viper driver Jonathan Bomarito will inherit pole position. The #911 and #912 Porsche move to second and third with Nick Tandy and Patrick Long behind the wheel. Marc Goossens rounded out the top four in the #91 Viper.

The #56 Rahal Letterman Lanigan BMW of John Edwards qualified fifth followed by his teammate Andy Priaulx in the #55 BMW Z4 GTE. The #3 Corvette of championship lead Antonio García will start seventh after Jan Magnussen qualified the car. Wolf Henzler qualified eighth in the #17 Team Falken Tire Porsche with the #4 Corvette of Oliver Gavin in ninth. The winner of the last two races, Pierre Kaffer and the #62 Risi Competizione starts tenth in GTLM.

James Davison put the #007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage on GTD pole with a time of 2:08.502. Jeroen Bleekmolen qualified second in the Viper GT3-R, 0.312 seconds behind the Australian. One of the three GTD championship co-leaders, Dane Cameron and the #300 Turner Motorsport BMW Z4 starts third. Runner-up in the 2014 Pirelli World Challenge GT championship, Mike Skeen qualified fourth in the #71 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT America. Kuba Giermaziak rounded out the top five in the #30 NGT Motorsport Porsche. The other co-GTD championship leaders Townsend Bell in the #555 AIM Autosport Ferrari 458 Italia and Leh Keen in the #22 Alex Job Racing Porsche will start fifteenth and sixteenth respectively in class.


The World Championship leading #8 Toyota TS040 Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre won their first pole position of the 2014 season for the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas. They put together a four-lap average of 1:49.093, over a second quicker than their nearest competitor. The #14 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb and the #20 Porsche of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley will start second and third respectively. Le Mans winners, the #2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer will start fourth ahead of the #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Alexander Wurz and Stéphane Sarrazin. The #1 Audi of Lucas di Grassi, Tom Kristensen and Loïc Duval will start sixth.

The #26 Ligier JS P2-Nissan of G-Drive Racing won LMP2 pole with a four-lap average of 1:56.075 with drivers Olivier Pla, Julien Canal and Romain Rusinov. The Oreca 03R-Nissan of KCMG will start second in class with drivers Richard Bradley, Matthew Howson and Tsugio Matsuda. The #30 HPD ARX 03b of Ryan Dalziel, Scott Sharp and Ed Brown qualified third in class ahead of the SMP Racing Orecas. The #27 of LMP2 championship leader Sergey Zlobin, Nicolas Minassian and Maurizo Mediani start fourth and the #37 of Anton Ladygin, Kirll Ladygin and Viktor Shaitar round out the class.

The GT World Championship leaders of Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander won pole position in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia, their third consecutive GTE-Pro pole. They won with a four-lap average of 2:06.456. Stefan Mücke and Darren Turner will start second in the #97 Aston Martin Vantage V8. The #91 Porsche 911 RSR of Frédéric Makowiecki and Patrick Pilet will start third with their teammates, the #92 Porsche of Jörg Bergmeister and Nick Tandy joining them on row two. The #99 Aston Martin of Alex MacDowall, Fernando Rees and Darryl O'Young rounded out the GTE-Pro top five. The #71 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Davide Rigon starts sixth with the #65 Corvette of Tommy Milner, Ricky and Jordan Taylor starting last in GTE-Pro.

The #75 Prospeed Competition Porsche of Emmanuel Collard, Matthieu Vaxiviére and François Perrodo won a surprise pole position in GTE-Am with a four-lap of average 2:08.271. It is the first time this season a AF Corse Ferrari is not on GTE-Am pole. The GTE-Am championship leading #95 Aston Martin of David Heinemeier Hansson, Kristian Poulsen and Richie Stanaway qualified second. The #61 AF Corse Ferrari of Mirko Venturi, Marco Cioci and Luís Pérez Companc start third with the #90 8Star Motorsports Ferrari of Jeff Segal, Gianluca Roda and Paolo Ruberti starting fourth. The #81 AF Corse made it three Ferraris in the top five with Andrea Bertolini, Michelo Rugolo and Stephan Wyatt behind the wheel.

The IMSA Lone Star Le Mans will be at 12:30 p.m. ET tomorrow with the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas at 6:00 p.m. ET. Both races can be seen live on Fox Sports 2.