Friday, December 4, 2020

Breathing Easier After Grosjean's Accident

The collective heart rate is returning to normal after Romain Grosjean's accident on the opening lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday. After the terrifying flash of fire when Grosjean's Haas VF-20 collided with the barrier and television's long delay of returning to the scene or showing a replay, we held our breath before catching a glimpse of the Frenchman sitting in the medical car, fully conscious and communicating with the medics on the scene. 

Only moments later did we fully realize what the 34-year-old, veteran of 179 grand prix starts had experienced. 

The impact with the barrier tore the car in two, leaving Grosjean in the cockpit but on the other side of the barrier, as the front portion had split the Armco. In the twisted web of metal, while engulfed in flames, Grosjean spent nearly half a minute racing to save himself, undoing his belt and putting his hands into the searing heat, before finally emerging from the inferno and being helped to the medical car. 

Once the fire was extinguished, the full picture of the accident was clear, and we were all left wondering how Grosjean survived, let alone only having burns on his hands and ankles and no eyebrows. 

At any other point in Formula One history that accident would have resulted in a fatality. The halo device is credited with protecting Grosjean's head and likely saving his life. Armco barrier failures were notorious for the fatal accidents that took the lives of François Cevert and Helmut Koinigg. Without the halo, Grosjean would have likely died instantly and the fire would not have mattered. 

Spending five days thinking about the incident, watching the replays, listening to Grosjean share his experience, it is remarkable he survived and how in such a horrific scene we can point to many things that went right, from the halo to the cockpit structure to the response of the medical car and marshals at that location and so on. 

We have wondered how much worse it would have been had Grosjean lost consciousness at any point, but after seeing the claustrophobic situation he found himself in, one has to wonder if Grosjean had been a tad larger if he would have been unable to make it out. 

We have been describing this as a miracle and this miracle required every factor, Grosjean's height and weight included, to be just right for it to occur. 

After every large accident, we have this discussion over how it is covered. There is always a pushback against showing a big accident. There has been a generally accepted protocol not to show a replay until it is confirmed all drivers involved are ok. With the Grosjean accident, all replays were delayed until well after it was confirmed Grosjean was alive and conscious. The broadcast showed him sitting and of sound mind and then we got to fully dissect what had happened. 

During an 80-minute delay, the replay was shown multiple times, but it came with outstanding analysis from Karun Chandhok, Martin Brundle and Paul di Resta. These replays were the start of crash analysis, looking not only at how Grosjean survived, but how the Armco barrier had split the car, at how the safety team on the scene responded to the accident, despite a very difficult situation. When the medical car stopped at the site of the accident, Dr. Ian Roberts and Alan van der Merwe emerged without any clear sight of where Grosjean was located in the fire. They had one chance to make a first step battling the flames and save Grosjean. It was also a chance to note where improvements could be made in the future.

All motorsports have to face a difficult balance when it comes to accidents. We cannot act like they do not exist and never show them. We have to acknowledge they occur. Painting a picture otherwise would be a lie and wrong. After Grosjean's accident, Daniel Ricciardo spoke out in disgust about the number of replays that were shown. Formula One and even Haas team principal Guenther Steiner defended the coverage of the accident with Steiner stating showing the replays would help people understand what happened. 

When it comes to the broadcast, people are always coming and going. A broadcast is not a plane, where you have to be there at a certain time and once you are there you are there for the duration. This race started at 9:10 a.m. ET. If a person turned it on at 10:10 a.m. ET and saw cars stationary in the pit lane, under a red flag because of an accident, those people should see the reason why the race is not going on. Hence, a replay must be shown again even if those who had been there for the full hour have already seen it five or six times. 

I know we live in a world of social media and there is an expectation that if someone wants to see the reason why then they can look it up on his or her own accord but passing the buck to the viewer is not responsible broadcasting. In fact, it is the last thing a broadcast would want to do. A broadcast does not want to send eyeballs elsewhere. A broadcast wants the attention and people are going to stick around for the replay.

It was also an 80-minute delay. You cannot just show static images of the track or crew members talking or drivers sitting on folding chairs drinking water for the entire time. Yes, what happened is difficult to watch, it is shocking, but it would be irresponsible to ignore it. 

This accident will remain in our psyches for a long time. We haven't had an accident that looked like this for a long time. It will be a watershed accident, one that will be used to highlight the safety advancements made but also the work that has to be done to prevent such an accident from happening again. 

We cannot stress enough how many advancements have been made and the fact is Grosjean likely would not have walked away from that accident three years ago. It is a reminder motorsports are dangerous and as much as we do to limit these kinds of accidents, they will happen. There will be fire. There will be destruction. There will be the rush to aid a driver in a precarious situation. That will never be completely eliminated from motorsports. Fortunately, such things have become uncommon. We do not have the yearly devastating accident. We do not have a handful of fatal accidents a season. We have come a long way, but we will never be completely safe. 

Despite that, the experts will continue to work and improve on car design and safety innovations. They will study Grosjean's accident and improvements will be made. This problem is in good hands and we can rest easy. That next big accident will occur, and those improvements will be tested. The last 25 years gives us encouragement that the outcome will be in the favor of the driver no matter how bad the scene of the accident looks. Though, we should be encouraged, we should always remember another horrific accident will occur. There is no preventing it.



Wednesday, December 2, 2020

2020 NASCAR Predictions: Revisited

It is now December and the NASCAR season has been over for a month. With us settled into these final days of autumn, let's go over predictions made nearly a year ago about this 2020 season that none of us saw coming. Similar to IndyCar, we will look at each prediction and we will ask if the pandemic affected these predictions in one way or another. 

1. Kyle Busch Will Not Have a Winless Drought Greater Than 12 Races
Wrong! Busch went 33 races before he won his first, and only, race of the 2020 season at Texas. That victory wasn't even a smooth sailing day. He had to stretch it on fuel and hold off teammate Martin Truex, Jr. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
Possibly. 

The easiest way this prediction would be fulfilled would be to win the 13th and 24th races, meaning at worst he would have a 12-race drought at the beginning and ending of the season. Races five through 25 were out of order with additional races at Darlington and Charlotte, races mixed about and doubleheaders at Michigan and Dover. 

Let's also not forget to mention this season had no practice after the pandemic, and it is believed the lack of practice hurt Busch the most. 

How close was Busch to preventing this prediction from being false? 

He was second and third at Fontana and Phoenix respectively before the pandemic. In the second Darlington race, he was second when the rain fell while the race was under caution. After that, he was fourth at Bristol with 100 laps led and second at Atlanta, a speck in Kevin Harvick's rear mirror. 

Those were five good opportunities. Let's not forget he was in contention for Daytona 500 victory before his engine expired with less than 20 laps to go. 

In the second half of the regular season, he was taken out while running strong in the second Pocono race, dropped to 11th at Kansas after starting well and winning a stage and had a slew of problems at the Daytona road course kept him from ever being a factor. 

In the final ten races, he had another strong Bristol race in September before Kevin Harvick beat him late. 

I don't think Busch would have won five or six races this season if everything had gone as planned, but I bet he would have gotten another one or two. 

2. There Will be at Least Two Different Drivers in the Championship 4
Correct! 

Denny Hamlin was the one hold over from 2019. Busch, Truex and Harvick were out and Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski came in. Busch, Truex and Harvick had all made the final four in the previous three seasons. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
If I think the pandemic is a cause of Busch winning fewer races, then I guess I have to think the pandemic slightly affected who made the final four. 

With all the races shook up, races added that never were supposed to exist and races that were supposed to be there not taking place, we could have been looking at different number of playoff points, different winners and potential different playoff drivers. 

We will never know. Yes, it could have been different, but we will have no way of knowing how different. 

3. Jimmie Johnson is Not the Worst Finishing Hendrick Motorsports Driver in the Championship
Wrong! 

Johnson missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season while his three Hendrick Motorsports' teammates all made it. That meant the best Johnson could be was 17th and the worst his three teammates could have done was 16th. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
Like the first two, possibly. 

We don't know how this season would have gone if Johnson had practice and if all the original races were featured. 

Johnson came close to making it and it all fell apart in the 26th race at Daytona. He was ranked 15th in points, but with Austin Dillon winning a race and Cole Custer winning a race, it moved the cutline to 14th and Johnson was out.

Actually, on second thought, yes, the pandemic affected this prediction because Johnson missed the Brickyard 400 due to a positive COVID-19 test. No pandemic, no positive test, no race missed, and Johnson was only six points behind Matt DiBenedetto for the final playoff spot. If Johnson is at Indianapolis, he likely scores more than six points, he likely makes the playoffs and he has a chance to finish ahead of one of his teammates. 

4. Christopher Bell Will Finish Ahead of Matt DiBenedetto in the Championship
Wrong!

Bell was 20th in the championship while DiBenedetto was in the playoffs and ended up 13th ahead of William Byron, Aric Almirola and Cole Custer. 

It wasn't as close as it might appear on paper. DiBenedetto ended the season with three top five finishes and 11 top ten finishes, while Bell had two top five finishes and seven top ten finishes, but at the end of the regular season DiBenedetto had two top fives and seven top ten finishes and Bell's only top ten finish in the final ten races was third at Texas. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
Maybe, because if Johnson was healthy, runs Indianapolis and scores seven points, then DiBenedetto misses the playoffs and Bell could have finished ahead of him, but Bell's results left a lot to be desired. 

5. At Least Three Rookies Finish Better than 25th in the Championship
Correct!

Custer made the playoffs with his victory at Kentucky and finished 16th, Tyler Reddick was 19th in the championship and Bell was 20th. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
The only way the pandemic affected this prediction is if the pandemic doesn't happen, I am not sure Custer has the Kentucky race fall into his lap and gift him rookie of the year honors. I still think Custer ends up in the top 25 even if he doesn't win Kentucky, but he likely isn't rookie of the year. 
 
6. Chris Buescher Will Set a Personal Best for Laps Led in a Season
Correct! 

I was tracking this all season and there were times when I thought it wasn't going to happen. 

Buescher just had to lead 14 laps to fulfill this prediction. He led one lap in the first Phoenix race. That's fine, 13 more to go with 32 races remaining. 

The biggest hope was a restrictor plate race. It seems like 25 drivers end up leading a lap in those and if you are lucky, you could end up at the front for a six-lap string and that could really bolster the laps led total. Buescher only led four laps at the first Talladega race, but it got me over a third of the way there with him now on five. 

Surprisingly, he led three laps at Pocono during a pit cycle late in that race. Those were three laps I was not counting on, so now I was at eight laps led, just needing six more and there were still 21 races to go. 

And then I had to wait... and wait... and wait...

I didn't have any hope he would lead at Indianapolis, Kentucky, Texas, Loudon or Michigan. He is not a road course wonder, so the Daytona road course was out. He wasn't going to lead at Dover. That brought us to Daytona for its second plate race. If he matched his Talladega performance, then I would just need one lap led in the final ten races.

Bad news, he didn't lead at Daytona, and this was when I thought it might not happen. There was still the second Talladega race, but that felt like the last hope. 

However, out of nowhere Buescher led 10 laps at Las Vegas during a pit cycle. Prediction met, as he had led 18 laps through the second Las Vegas race. But then it got better, and he led 15 laps at Talladega! That gave him 33 laps led in the season. Prior to 2020, Buescher had led a grand total of 31 laps in his previous four Cup seasons. 

Not only was this prediction met with a personal best season, Buescher exceeded his career laps led in one season. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
Nope. 
 
7. Quin Houff Completes Less Than 12,000 Miles
Wrong!

Houff completed 12,097.1 miles.

I followed this one closely over the final ten races. I knew it was going to be close and I knew it was going to require an early retirement in a longer race. Amazingly, Houff kept running at the end of races, albeit many, many laps down. He ran 357 of 367 laps in the Southern 500, 487.662 miles. He completed 259 of 268 laps at Las Vegas, 388.5 miles. 

Houff was on the lead lap at Talladega, which went 12 laps over the scheduled distance and 200 laps at Talladega gave him an additional 32 miles. He was also on the lead lap at the Charlotte roval, so that was another 248.5 miles. 

I needed big help at Kansas and Texas. He was nine laps down and 18 laps down in those races respectively. Heading into the finale, Houff had been running at the finish of 17 consecutive races and had completed 11,948.1 miles.

Houff had to complete 51 laps or fewer at Phoenix for this prediction to be correct and he completed 149 laps before he retired because of handling issues! It was only his sixth retirement of the season. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
No, but green-white-checkered finishes helped.  

He got 12 extra laps at Talladega, five extra laps in the first Michigan race, five extra laps in the Coca-Cola 600, four extra laps for the second Daytona race, three extra laps in the first Talladega race, an extra lap at the Brickyard 400 and an extra lap at the second Las Vegas race. 

That adds up to 71.48 additional miles. To be fair, the 500-kilometer Darlington race was shortened by 20 laps due to rain, and Houff was only a lap down when that race was called. If it had gone the distance, he would have completed another 27.32 miles.

Take away 71.48 miles, add back 27.32 miles and Houff still ends up with 12,052.94 miles. Maybe he was always going to eek it out. Damn it was close! 

8. At Least Three Championship-Ineligible Drivers win a Grand National Series Race
Wrong!

The only championship-ineligible driver to win a Grand National Series race was Kyle Busch. 

The only other Cup drivers to run Grand National Series races were Brad Keselowski, who did one race, and Denny Hamlin, who did one race. 

Hamlin nearly pulled out victory at Darlington, but even if he did, we were going to fall one winner short of meeting this prediction's criteria.
 
Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
It probably did. 

We have been seeing fewer Cup drivers participating in this series over the last few seasons, but Team Penske only ran the #12 Ford at the Phoenix race prior to the pandemic with Keselowski. I bet he, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney were going to run about a dozen races combined before the pandemic came in.

With practice being eliminated from majority of the Cup races in 2021, I wonder if we will see more Cup drivers running in the lower divisions to get seat time. It will be interesting to see if this trend is reversed next year.  

9. JR Motorsports at Least Doubles Its Number of Victories While Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing Each Has at Least a 25% Decrease in Victories
Correct!

JR Motorsports went from two victories to five. 

Joe Gibbs Racing dropped from 13 victories to eight, a 38.46% decrease. 

Richard Childress Racing went from five victories to zero, a 500% decrease. 

I am surprised JR Motorsports barely fulfilled this prediction and I am surprised Gibbs won as many races as it did. 

Justin Allgaier won three times and Noah Gragson won twice, but five victories still seems low for one of the top three teams in this series. In the Gibbs camp, Brandon Jones outperformed expectations this season with three victories while Harrison Burton picked up four victories and then there was Kyle Busch's one victory. Busch almost had two, but his car failed technical inspection post-race at the July Texas race, and that was one victory lost.

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
I don't think so.
 
10. The Truck Series Regular Season Champion Has at Least One Victory
Correct!

Austin Hill had a victory in the first Kansas race, the ninth race of the season, and he took the regular season title. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
I guess you could argue it did because there wasn't supposed to be a Kansas doubleheader in July, but I bet Hill would have won somewhere in the regular season had the pandemic not happened.

11. At Least Four Drivers That Started a Truck Race But Did Not Win in 2019 Get a Victory in 2020
Correct!

Sheldon Creed won five races this season on his way to the championship after he picked up zero victories in 2019. 

Matt Crafton won the second Kansas race after he picked up zero victories on his way to taking the championship in 2019. 

Ben Rhodes won at Darlington after not having a victory in 2019. 

Raphaël Lassard won at Talladega after he did not win in any of his five starts in 2019.

Sam Meyer won at Bristol after he did not win in any of his three starts in 2019.

Brandon Jones won at Pocono after not winning any of his five Truck starts in 2019. 

Six drivers fulfilled this prediction and it does not include Zane Smith, because Smith did not run a Truck race in 2019 nor Chase Elliott because Elliott did not run a Truck race in 2019. That means there were eight new winners this year in Trucks and there were 12 total winners! Two-thirds of the winners were new. 

The bad news was Tyler Ankrum, Todd Gilliland, Johnny Sauter, Stewart Friesen, Spencer Boyd, Ross Chastain and Greg Biffle all did not pick up a victory in 2020 after winning in 2019. 

Who were the only drivers to win in the last two seasons?

Kyle Busch, Brett Moffitt and Austin Hill.

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
No. 

12. There Will Be Fewer Than Two Different Tracks on the 2021 Cup Schedule
Wrong! 

There were three different tracks added and I am not sure anyone saw all three happening back in January. 

The Nashville SuperSpeedway gets its first NASCAR Cup race, and first NASCAR national series race weekend since 2011. Circuit of the Americas in Austin gets its first NASCAR Cup race and first NASCAR weekend period. Road America gets its first NASCAR Cup race in 65 years. 

Road America was somewhat on the radar at the start of 2020, but the only other serious option being thrown around was the Nashville Fairgrounds, which was going to require a lot of renovations to be up to standard.

I figured Road America could be added and NASCAR would finally be smart enough to give Iowa a date. I was half right and sadly Iowa is basically closed down, unless you think one ARCA race is going to be the breadwinner. 

I never thought Austin would happen because Eddie Gossage would dig his feet in to prevent it from happening and I never considered Nashville SuperSpeedway because no one has mentioned the 1.333-mile concrete oval in the last nine years. 

Dover Motorsports, Inc. still owns the 1.333-mile oval and with the Fairgrounds not being a likely option for 2021, Dover swept in and gave NASCAR its Nashville date, just not at the track first thought. 

Austin will be a lease of the first Texas date, and it is only a one-year deal. Road America is a similar lease deal with Chicagoland, which falls off the Cup schedule, as does Kentucky. 

Did the pandemic affect this prediction?
Yes, because I don't believe the 2021 schedule we got would have happened if it wasn't for the pandemic. 

NASCAR had announced at the start of the year it planned to release the 2021 schedule by the start of April. 

If the pandemic does not happened and NASCAR was on time with releasing the schedule in early April, I doubt it would have included Road America AND Austin AND Nashville AND a second Atlanta race AND a second Darlington race AND a Bristol dirt race AND I am not sure the Brickyard 400 would have been moved to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Perhaps Road America and Nashville would have been there, but I have a feeling without the pandemic the 2021 season would have looked pretty similar to the 2020 season.

Six out of 12. In this year, I will take half.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Wrapping My Head Around Lewis Hamilton's Positive Test

If we needed another reminder we are never in the clear during this pandemic, we received it Tuesday morning when Mercedes-AMG announced Lewis Hamilton had tested positive for COVID-19 and will be forced to miss the Sakhir Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the 2020 season. 

Looking at the big picture, Hamilton's absence does not matter that much. Hamilton has already clinched the World Drivers' Championship. Mercedes has already clinched the World Constructors' Championship. While this is far from desired and we all hope Hamilton can recover, it does not affect the final outcome of the 2020 Formula One season. 

You would have thought we were good with two races remaining, especially with the penultimate round taking place at the same track as the prior race in Bahrain. Formula One has done an exceptional job when it comes to its protocol to protect drivers, teams, broadcasters and everyone else necessary to be on the ground for a grand prix. Perfection was asking a lot, and there was likely going to be a few people to contract the virus. A few notable people have been forced to miss races, from those in the back of the garage to those behind the wheel.

Hamilton is the third driver to miss a round due to illness. Racing Point drivers Sergio Pérez and Lance Stroll both missed races. Plenty of series have encounter the virus and seen altered entry lists. The entire fleet of Porsche factory drivers were quarantined after the 24 Hours of Le Mans, forcing the German manufacture to withdraw from the IMSA race at Mid-Ohio the following weekend and it completely reshuffled Porsche's lineup for the 24 Hours Nürburgring. Valentino Rossi and Jimmie Johnson each got it. Felipe Nasr was forced to miss a race.

Were some championships altered because of the pandemic? Sure. 

Was it significant? Only time will tell, but we have gotten through this year mostly unharmed and no season has been scarred due to excessive number of competitors forced into isolation. More importantly, no one has taken seriously ill or perished due to contracting the virus at an event. 

Hamilton stepped into a brighter spotlight this season. He was already the best driver on the Formula One grid, but he took on a greater role in 2020 speaking out for equality around the globe and diversity within the Formula One paddock. On top of his on-track success, Hamilton's off-track exploits have garnered him more respect from people around the globe, especially from those who had no prior interest in motorsports.

His legacy is solidly intact, and Hamilton will receive knighthood at the end of the year, but with Hamilton's 2020 season possibly ending prematurely, there are a host of historic things we will not get to see.

For starters, Hamilton's record of most consecutive starts will end at 265 starts, dating back to his debut in the 2007 Australian Grand Prix. He could have won the two remaining pole positions in 2020 and ended the season with 100 career pole positions. He had won the last five races and could have ended the season with seven consecutive victories, putting Hamilton in prime position at the start of the 2021 season of breaking Sebastian Vettel's record of nine consecutive victories. 

If Hamilton had won the final two races of 2020, he would have tied the record for most victories in a season with 13, which Michael Schumacher originally set in 2004 and Vettel matched in 2013. If Hamilton had won 13 of 17 races, he would have broken Alberto Ascari's record for highest winning percentage in a season, which has stood since 1952, the third season of Formula One. 

Hamilton's streak of 48 consecutive points finishes will come to an end. He is only 13 laps away from becoming the all-time leader in laps led, surpassing Schumacher's record of 5,111. If he had won the final two races from pole position, he would have broken another record having won ten races from pole position in a season. 

Though so much had been accomplished this year, more was available for Hamilton, much of it will still be possible in 2021. He will waste no time hitting the century mark in pole positions and victories. The laps led record will be his in a blink. He has already broken his consecutive points streak once. He very well could do it again. 

There will a few opportunities lost. What are the odds of him coming this close to winning 13 races in a season again or winning over 75% of the races? He had only won five consecutive races, but ten felt like a real possibility with how this season was ending and how we expect next year to play out. 

We are all hopeful Hamilton does to suffer a great setback due to contracting the virus. I am sure he will be just fine and recover. In a strange way, Hamilton's absence gives many what they had always hoped for. 

The Sakhir Grand Prix will be a chance to see how much the cars comes into play in Formula One versus the driver. Many drivers have had their success diminished due to the automobile they sit behind. Hamilton is no different from Michael Schumacher in that vain. This is a chance for the ultimate test. One driver thrown into the Mercedes, the best car on the grid, and we get to see if any old respectable driver can just hop in and win or at least be respectfully competitive. 

Truth be told, there is more than the car at play. Hamilton after all does have a 131-point advantage over his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who has the same car. Hamilton also pulled out an impressive victory at Turkey that was strictly down to pace in changing conditions where a fluky safety car did not flip the running order. While Hamilton was incredible in Istanbul, Bottas spun a half-dozen times and scored zero points. 

The Mercedes might be the best car, but Hamilton is the best driver, and doesn't it make sense for the builders of the best car to put the best driver behind the wheel? Doesn't it make sense for the best driver to pilot the best car? 

Whether Stoffel Vandoorne or Nico Hülkenberg or George Russell is put in the Mercedes for the Sakhir Grand Prix, we are going to have a baseline, even if it is a flawed one. None of those three drivers have been in the Mercedes. Hülkenberg and Russell have at least driven a Formula One car this year. They will be competing against Bottas, who has exclusively been in the Mercedes all year and Max Verstappen, who has exclusively been in the Red Bull all year and who is only 12 points behind Bottas in the championship. There will also be 18 other drivers on the grid who have spent the last five months mastering the machinery underneath them. 

In all likelihood, it will not be as easy as someone stepping into the Mercedes, immediately shooting to the top spot and leaving with the biggest piece of silverware on Sunday night. We will get an idea of what a certain driver can do in his first outing in that car, a car that has been the class of the field all season. Draw conclusions at your own risk. 

For the clumsy and quirky nature of 2020, the World Drivers' Champion missing a race and possibly being unable to contest the final two rounds due to contracting the virus is the laziest storyline a group of scriptwriters could have come up with. But in a year that has been so different, from doubleheader weekends to new tracks to returning tracks, this final plot twist, removing of the best driver from the grid, might be the most fitting way to end the season.



Monday, November 30, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Period of Redemption

Romain Grosjean survived one of the worst accidents we have ever seen. Lance Stroll flipped. Sergio Pérez caught on fire while running third. The Formula Two championship will go down to the wire. Super GT closed its season with a championship coming down to the final corner and the last drop of fuel. Elsewhere, Kevin Magnussen is on the verge of joining Chip Ganassi Racing's IMSA program. The LMP2 grid continues to grow for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Marc Márquez's recovery is taking longer than expected. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Period of Redemption
There is something I have noticed in the North American sports world over the last handful of years, and that is it appears we are living in a period of redemption. Notable champions have come after crushing heartbreak. 

The notable ones have been in college basketball. First, it was North Carolina, who lost the 2016 national championship game on a buzzer-beater to Villanova, returning to the final the year after and defeating Gonzaga. In 2018, Virginia became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County won by 20 points. Virginia returned to the tournament in 2019, as a 1-seed, and won the championship in overtime over Texas Tech. 

This year saw the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup, one season after Tampa Bay became the first Presidents' Trophy winners, given to the team with the best regular season record, to be swept in the first round. In 2019, Columbus eliminated Tampa Bay in four games. One year later, Tampa Bay was facing Columbus again in the first round and it started with a five-overtime, six-hour epic that Tampa Bay pulled out. Despite this marathon to start its Stanley Cup push, Tampa Bay had enough fire to last two months playing behind closed doors away from their families and earn its second Stanley Cup in franchise history.

After losing the World Series in 2017 and 2018 to two teams who pushed the rules and arguably cheated, the Los Angeles Dodgers earned its first championship in 32 years with pitcher Clayton Kershaw putting his postseason demons to rest. A few years ago, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series a year after losing in seven games to the San Francisco Giants and ending a 30-year championship drought. We also had the Chicago Cubs end its 108-year World Series drought not that long ago. 

Even the New England Patriots bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 to win its sixth championship over the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. 

Redemption has not been held to just the United States. France lost the UEFA Euro 2016 Final on home soil to Portugal in extra time despite Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo exiting the match in the 25th minute. Two years later, France won its second World Cup. 

Liverpool ended its 30-year championship drought this past August, but this championship came one season after Liverpool put up 97 points, at the time the third most points a club had ever earned and lost the championship to Manchester City. How did Liverpool follow up such a painstaking title loss? With a 99-point season and clinching the title with seven games remaining, the earliest a Premier League championship has been claimed. 

Let's also not forget to mention that after Liverpool lost the UEFA Champions League Final to Real Madrid in 2018, it returned to the final in 2019 and defeated Tottenham Hotspur.

When looking at how many recent redemption stories in other sports, it got me wondering of whether we have seen any in motorsports of late. 

We had Hélio Castroneves earn his first championship a few weeks ago in IMSA, and while that was not a straight up story of redemption from one year to another, it was a fulfillment of a career. 

Nick Cassidy lost the Super Formula championship on the final day of the 2018 season when Naoki Yamamoto won the finale at Suzuka and Cassidy finished second. One year later, second would be enough for Cassidy in the finale and he took the title after entering trailing Yamamoto by a point. 

IndyCar has hit a period of Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden trading championships, but before that we had a few redemption stories. Simon Pagenaud's 2016 title came after a disappointing first season with Team Penske in 2015, not a horrible season but not a good one either. Will Power's championship in 2014 came after years of heartbreak, including losing the championship after leading entering the finale in three consecutive seasons. In 2012, Ryan Hunter-Reay won the championship after failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 the year before.

Kyle Busch won his first NASCAR Cup championship after breaking his leg and missing the first 11 races in 2015. 

The truth is these redemption stories do not feel the same as other sports. 

It is not that redemption is not possible in motorsports. It doesn't quite match what is seen in team sports. The heartbreak isn't the same. In motorsports, the finale doesn't always decide the championship and it isn't always a case of it coming down to two drivers battling for one spot to decide it all on the final lap. In other sports, you can boil it down to one moment, North Carolina losing on a buzzer-beater, Virginia losing to a 16-seed, Tampa Bay being swept. In motorsports, while you can look at one moment, an entire season makes up a lost championship. 

Taking Cassidy's lost 2018 championship as example, yes, he could have finished ahead of Yamamoto in the Suzuka finale, but he could have earned two more points in any one of three other races. Cassidy was seventh in the Suzuka season opener. A fifth-place finish would have given him two more points and earned him the championship. The Okayama race was rain-shortened, and half points were awarded. Cassidy was fifth at Okayama and instead of getting four points, he only got two. That is another place where those two points could have gone in Cassidy's favor.

We are also in a period of dominance across the motorsports world. In Formula One, it is Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes cleaning up every year. Unless you want to consider Nico Rosberg beating Hamilton for the title in 2016 a story of redemption, it really hasn't happened since Jenson Button and Brawn GP stunned the world in 2009.

Marc Márquez was injured this year, but MotoGP has seen Márquez control the championship pretty much since he arrived in 2013. The exits of Porsche and Audi from LMP1 racing left the championships Toyota's for the taking. While I listed three IndyCar championships above, the last four years have been two drivers trading the title. 

There is also the case where not every champion is a redemption story. Most aren't. That is the case most of the time in NASCAR. Chase Elliott's championship this year was not some sort of redemption. The same can be said of Kyle Busch last year and Joey Logano the year before that. Martin Truex, Jr.'s championship in 2017 could fit the mold, as his was more a career achievement after having periods of poor results and it was a Cinderella story with Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing winning a title. Before that, we Jimmie Johnson wrapping up seven championships in 11 seasons. 

There will be possible redemption stories in 2021. 

In NASCAR, the main one will be Denny Hamlin getting his first championship after two seasons making the final four and coming short. Kevin Harvick will be another possibility after he won nine races in 2020 only not to make the final four and not have a shot at the championship in the finale. 

Alexander Rossi will look to bounce back and get his first IndyCar championship after 2020 saw him go winless for the first time in his career. The same will go for Rossi in the Indianapolis 500 after he was taken out of contention due to a penalty in this year's race.

Marc Márquez's absence due to injury has created a redemption story after he missed nearly the entire 2020 season. It wouldn't be the most shocking result if Márquez won the title, but it would make up for a season lost. 

Formula One is the one place redemption doesn't seem possible next year. With Hamilton's dominance, no one has been hard done. If 2021 were to be Valtteri Bottas' year, it wouldn't really be redemption. It would be Bottas getting his share of success. If Red Bull were to breakthrough, it would be a breakthrough, not really redemption. 

Sebastian Vettel could be looking for redemption after his disastrous end with Ferrari. If Vettel were to win the world championship in his first season with Aston Martin, that would be a redemption story. Vettel doesn't even have to win the world championship to earn redemption. He just has to be competitive. Other than Vettel, most are looking to rock the boat, not to make up for something lost. 

Next year might not bring the redemption stories that feel kind of regular, but everyone will be gunning to be better. We could see the familiar faces remain on top or perhaps someone will earn a championship that means just a little more than if someone else won it.

Champions From the Weekend

The #100 Team Kunimitsu Honda of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino clinched the Super GT GT500 championship with a victory at Fuji. Yamamoto overtook the #37 Team KeePer'sOM's Toyota of Ryō Hirakawa exiting the final corner when Hirakawa ran out of fuel. Hirakawa would have won the championship had he held on to win the race.

The #56 Kondō Racing Nissan of João Paulo de Oliveira and Kiyoto Fujinami clinched the Super GT GT300 championship with a runner-up finish at Fuji.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino, but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Bahrain Grand Prix, his 11th victory of 2020. 

Felipe Drugovich and Robert Shwartzman split the Formula Two races from Bahrain. 

The #52 Saitama Toyopet Green Brave Toyota of Kohta Kawaai and Hiroki Yoshida won in the GT300 class in the Super GT race from Fuji. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One remains in Bahrain but will run the perimeter circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Super Formula has a doubleheader at Suzuka for its penultimate round of 2020.
Rally Monza closes out the World Rally Championship season.


Friday, November 27, 2020

Best of the Month: November 2020

Thanksgiving has just ended, and we are entering the Christmas season. While preparing for the holidays, purchasing presents, putting up lights and other decorations, there are a lot of races still on the schedule. However, many seasons have come to a close. There have been numerous of championships awarded this month, some on schedule, a few later than planned. There were plenty of good stories to pick from.

Castroneves' Championship
In one of the less ideal situations, Hélio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor clinched the 2020 Daytona Prototype international championship with a last place finish at the 12 Hours of Sebring. This wasn't one of those cases where all Castroneves and Taylor had to do was start the race in the #7 Acura. Honestly, last place was the last thing this team needed to win a championship. 

Castroneves and Taylor opened the season with two consecutive last place finishes. Most years in IMSA that is season over right then and there. With the way the point system is set up, it does not allow much forgiveness to poor results, especially in a class that only features eight cars. 

Somehow, in this crazy 2020 season, three last-place finishes and a second-to-last finish did not prevent the #7 Acura from winning the championship, but Castroneves and Taylor needed all four victories and the one runner-up finish it got in the other five races. It needed team orders and the last lap position swap with the #6 Acura at Laguna Seca to win the championship. 

Nothing wrong with that, as it is a team sport, and after the #6 Acura won the title in 2019, Team Penske did all it could to secure its second consecutive title and it was successful by the skin of its teeth with every break going its way between the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac needing repairs after contact with the #77 Mazda and the #31 Action Express Racing Cadillac spinning off and being penalized for contact with the #6 Acura. 

After the #7 Acura appeared to have lost the title when the team went back to the garage due to intercooler issues in the first hour, there was a great relief when the checkered flag waved and Castroneves and Taylor came out on top by one point. 

Castroneves could exhale after 20 years of frustration. At 45 years old, his final season with Team Penske, he won the first championship in his career. After many titles lost in IndyCar and close calls in junior formula, this IMSA season was going to be his last great shot at a championship and if there was anyone who deserved a lifetime achievement championship, it was Castroneves. 

It felt fitting for him to get this championship and I am trying to remember the last time we had a champion like this in motorsports. 

Most drivers don't have to wait an entire career for their first championship. Looking over the IndyCar champions, most got their first title with plenty of time left in their careers. Dario Franchitti's first title in 2007 felt like a long-time coming, but he was only 34 years old at the time, 11 years younger than Castroneves now and Franchitti ended up having five more years in IndyCar. Paul Tracy's championship in 2003 fits the criteria somewhat. Johnny Rutherford's only IndyCar championship was in 1980, the year of his third Indianapolis 500 victory, in his 19th season, and at the age of 42.

It almost never happens in Formula One. I guess Jenson Button's championship came after a long and unusual path, but Button was 29 years old. For Button, it was more about finally living up to the expectations the British public set when he broke in at 20 years old. Before that, you have to look back to Nigel Mansell's championship in 1992 at 39 years old after 13 years trying and a handful of years where a title slipped through his grasp.

In NASCAR, we had Jimmie Johnson collect seven titles, but all the champions in-between over the last 15 years have been in the prime of their careers and none of them made up for a career of futility. If Denny Hamlin were to win a championship, he would fit the mold, but it has been a while since NASCAR had that champion. Mark Martin was notable for five runner-up championship finishes and never earning that long-awaited championship. I think NASCAR really hasn't had that type of champion since Bobby Allison in 1983, when he won the title at 44 years old in his 20th season. 

The closest recent example I can think of was when Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loïc Duval won the 2013 World Endurance Drivers' Championship. For Kristensen and McNish, becoming world champions was a bow on their illustrious careers. However, it was only the second FIA World Endurance Championship season and there had not been a world sports car championship for almost the entirety of their careers. McNish had won three American Le Mans Series championships. Kristensen won Formula Three championships in Germany and Japan. Neither driver needed that WEC champion to complete their careers, but with all of their success at Le Mans and Sebring and in the world of endurance racing, it made sense if those two could call themselves world champions. 

Castroneves' title is to motorsports almost what Ray Bourque's Stanley Cup victory in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche was to hockey. Bourque had been one of the best defensemen for two decades, but the Stanley Cup remained the one item missing from his résumé. Castroneves had three Indianapolis 500s, 30 IndyCar victories, four vice-championships and been in the top five of the championship 14 times. 

Yes, Castroneves' championship came in sports cars, the second act of his career, but his form never dropped after the switch. His stint in sports car has ended with a hard-earned championship against a slew of talented drivers, maybe against some of the strongest driver combinations North American sports car racing has ever seen. It was the final touch to an already stellar career.

Gavin's Goodbye
While Castroneves' career is not over after his championship success, one driver is taking a significant step back after the 12 Hours of Sebring. 

Oliver Gavin announced prior to the 2020 IMSA finale he would be stepping out of the full-time seat at Corvette Racing, a place he had held since 2002.

Gavin was one of a handful of drivers who will be remembered for donning the Corvette yellow. In a similar image as Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Ron Fellows, it felt like Gavin would never leave the American team. Every silly season, when you used pencil to draft every other entry, you could write down Gavin next to Corvette in pen. 

Five is the magic number for Gavin's career. He had five Le Mans class victories, five Sebring class victories and between ALMS and the post-merger IMSA, five class championships. 

He had accomplished it all in sports car racing, and though the 2020 season was not going to have the same championship ending as Castroneves, Gavin was going out on top having been a part of Corvette's resurgence in the debut season for the mid-engine Corvette C8.R. 

We were getting to the point where Gavin would eventually walk away from competition. He is 48 years old. Magnussen was let go after 2019 and he is a year younger than Gavin. Fellows was 49 years old in his final year with Corvette. O'Connell was 48. Corvette has been fair to all its drivers. It has given many lengthy careers and they have all succeeded. Based on the past, Gavin went the distance. He accomplished everything Corvette could have asked and then some. 

It will be sad seeing Gavin not on the grid full-time. Hopefully, he gets a few endurance race opportunities, but we are onto the next wave of Corvette drivers. Antonio García and Tommy Milner will continue to be around. Jordan Taylor has what it takes to carry the next generation of Corvette drivers and all signs point to Nick Tandy replacing Gavin. Tandy is already one of the best in the world and Corvette has made another smart hire. 

Castroneves and Gavin were rivals in the 1995 British Formula Three championship. Gavin took the title while Castroneves was third. Twenty-five years later, Castroneves won his first championship while Gavin ended the GT Le Mans season third in that championship.

More 2020 Tidbits
With another month coming to a close, many championships have concluded and there are some notes from around the world worth sharing. 

A driver that finished last place three of the four IMSA class championships won a championship somewhere else this year. 

Mike Conway was last place in the Daytona Prototype international championship and Conway won the World Endurance Drivers' Championship. 

Alessandro Pier Guidi shared last place in the GT Le Mans championship with James Calado, Daniel Serra and Davide Rigon. Pier Guidi won the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Championship. 

Nicki Thiim shared last place in the GT Daytona championship with Alex Riberas and Thiim won the World Endurance GTE Championship. 

Joan Mir won the MotoGP championship with one victory. That is the fewest victory for a premier class grand prix motorcycle champion ever. 

Mir also became only the second premier class champion not to have a pole position in a championship season joining Wayne Rainey who did it in 1992.

Austin Cindric won NASCAR Grand National Series championship with six victories, while Chase Briscoe had the most victories in the season with nine. The last time the NASCAR Grand National Series champion had the most victories was in 2009 with Kyle Busch.

René Rast won his third Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship in the last four seasons. Rast has won seven races in the last three seasons. He has 24 career DTM victories, which puts him fourth all-time, one behind Mattias Ekström and one ahead of Gary Paffett. Rast is 13 victories behind Klaus Ludwig in second and 22 victories behind Bernd Schneider's all-time record.

December Preview
Formula One season ends after a six-month sprint to complete 17 rounds. 

After this week's Bahrain Grand Prix, the teams will remain at the Bahrain International Circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix, which will take place on the perimeter circuit. It will be the third different configuration of the Bahrain International Circuit to host a Formula One grand prix. The 2.202-mile perimeter circuit will be the fifth shortest to host a Formula One round behind Zeltweg, Long Beach, Monaco and Jarama. It will be an 87-lap race.

A week after the second Bahrain round, the season will conclude from Abu Dhabi. 

Lewis Hamilton could end up with 97 career victories. Hamilton has three Bahrain Grand Prix victories and one more would tie him with Sebastian Vettel for the most in event history. A victory in the Sakhir Grand Prix would be his 29th different grand prix won. Hamilton already has five victories at Abu Dhabi, and it could become the sixth different grand prix Hamilton has won at least six times. 

Valterri Bottas is 27 points ahead of Max Verstappen for second in the championship. Sergio Pérez is now fourth in the championship on 100 points after his podium finish in Turkey. Charles Leclerc is three points behind Pérez and Daniel Ricciardo is four points back.

Carlos Sainz, Jr. sits on 75 points, one point ahead of his McLaren teammate Lando Norris and Alexander Albon is four points back. 

Pierre Gasly sits in tenth on 63 points, four points ahead of Lance Stroll and 23 points ahead of Esteban Ocon. Sebastian Vettel finds himself on 33 points after his third-place finish in Turkey. Daniil Kvyat is on 26 points with unattached Nico Hülkenberg on ten points. Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi are tied on four points. Romain Grosjean has two points, one more than Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen. Williams teammates Nicholas Latifi and George Russell are both scoreless.

Mercedes has clinched the World Constructors' Championship on 504 points. Red Bull is solidly in second on 240 points. Racing Point is third on 154 points, five ahead of McLaren. Renault has 136 points, six ahead of Ferrari. AlphaTauri has settled into seventh on 89 points. Alfa Romeo has eight points; Haas has three and Williams is on zero.

Other events of note in December:
Super Formula has three races left, a doubleheader at Suzuka and the finale at Fuji.
The Kyalami 9 Hours might take place.
Rally Monza closes out the World Rally Championship season. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Chip Ganassi Racing's 2020 Season

We have made it to the final IndyCar Wrap-Up and it is the championship winning Chip Ganassi Racing. While Scott Dixon led the way, his two teammates held their own and for the first time since 2014, Ganassi had multiple drivers picked up a victory. After this 2020 season, Chip Ganassi Racing has 13 IndyCar championships and 113 IndyCar victories.

Make that six championships for Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon
In what was already going to be a historic season off the track because of the pandemic, Scott Dixon made sure it would be a historic season on the track as well. Dixon opened with three consecutive victories, something he had never done before. He picked up his 50th victory, becoming only the third driver to reach that milestone. He led the championship wire-to-wire and he became one of four drivers to complete every lap in a season. 

What objectively was his best race?
Dixon picked up four victories, including the first three races of the season at Texas, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the first Road America race. The fourth was at Gateway and it was Dixon's 50th career victory.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is actually a race he didn't win. It is the Indianapolis 500. 

Dixon was the best car all race, and in a season where Dixon had already won three races, finished in the top five for five of the six races and already had a 49-point lead, an Indianapolis 500 victory felt par for the course for him. We knew we were watching a historic season and an Indianapolis 500 victory would have been the cherry to top it off. 

Dixon led 111 laps from second on the grid and it was a tremendous day for him. Late in the race, Takuma Sato leapfrogged ahead of him and Dixon put together a valiant challenge to re-take the lead. Sato foiled each attempt and the late caution for Spencer Pigot's accident ended Dixon's hopes for a late overtake and for he to be the one celebrating his second Indianapolis 500 victory.

It is rare for Dixon to be the best driver in a race and not it. He had the strongest car at Texas and won and he had the strongest car in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and won by a country mile. After Alexander Rossi fell out of contention with his penalty, it felt like Dixon was set for his second Indianapolis 500 victory, but Sato stepped up to the task and took control late. 

In the way Dixon drove, Indianapolis was his best race, but because of the result, you could consider it his worst as well. He has come close to a second Indianapolis 500 victory many times. He is now third all-time in Indianapolis 500 laps led behind only Al Unser and Ralph DePalma. He has eight top five finishes in the race. Already anointed champion before the start of August, it felt like this was Dixon's year for Indianapolis glory, but he will have to wait a little longer.

What objectively was his worst race?
Dixon's worst finish of 2020 was 12th in the second Road America race. Dixon stalled on two pit stops and that dropped him from a certain top ten finish.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Though he was outside of the top ten in only one race, there was a four-race stretch between the Mid-Ohio doubleheader and the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader where Dixon lost significant ground and he wasn't running that poorly. 

He was in the top ten in all four of those races, but his championship lead went from 96 points to 32 points. In all four of those races, qualifying didn't go his way. He was either caught out when a red flag fell or was stuck in traffic. Dixon spun out from fourth in the second Mid-Ohio race after simply clipping the grass. It could have been a day where he secured his championship lead, instead he had to fight back to slow the bleeding and his hard charge from 17th to tenth ultimately saved him seven points.

In the Harvest Grand Prix races, Dixon struggled with tires in the closing stint and fell from fifth to ninth, something uncharacteristic for him. His floor was damaged at the start of the second race and it cost him spots early on, but he rebounded to finish eighth. 

Once again, finishes of tenth, tenth, ninth and eighth were bad days for Dixon. If only we could all be so lucky.

Scott Dixon's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 1st (537 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 13
Laps Led: 340
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 9.142
Average Finish: 5.0

A promising start did not go as planned for Felix Rosenqvist

Felix Rosenqvist
For every good day Rosenqvist had in 2020, there was a bad day to cancel it out. While he did get his first career victory, there were too many days where a minor mechanical issue cost him or days where he just didn't have the pace of the top drivers. It wasn't a horrible season, but after his strong rookie outing, it definitely fell flat.

What objectively was his best race?
His first career victory! In a race that would come down to tire strategy, the second Road America race saw Rosenqvist overcome a four-second gap to Patricio O'Ward in the final stint and he made the pass for the victory with a little over a lap and a half to go.

What subjectively was his best race?
That last stint at Road America deserves praise because Rosenqvist had a few opportunities to take the lead early in the race and fell short. However, he kept showing better pace at the end of stints compared to O'Ward and that is when he would make up his time. If he could remain within four or five seconds of O'Ward after that final round of pit stops, he was always going to be a challenger for the victory.

Rosenqvist had to put together a near-flawless 15-lap string of laps to win that race. O'Ward also caught traffic at favorable times for Rosenqvist, but when push came to shove, Rosenqvist was able to take the lead and he earned that victory.

What objectively was his worst race?
Rosenqvist was collateral damage when Santino Ferrucci went off at the start of the second Mid-Ohio race and Ferrucci's return to the circuit in the middle of turn five led to contact with Palou and Rosenqvist. Ferrucci continued but Rosenqvist's day was done and he was classified in 22nd.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There were more down days in 2020 than I think Rosenqvist would have hoped for, but the worst was Texas because it should have been a second-place finish. He was coming alive late in that race and was closing in on Dixon for the lead. I don't think he would have won the race, but he should have finished second. 

He made a risky move on the outside of the lapped car of James Hinchcliffe, got into the stained portion of the race because of the PJ1 traction compound put down for the NASCAR races, which had significantly less grip, and he spun out with ten laps to go. 

It kind of set the tone for his season. Yes, Rosenqvist won three races later, but he was 20th in the first race instead of second. Six of his first seven finishes were outside the top ten. Not all those results were because of the driver, but the number of podium finishes and top five finishes were disappointing. This season was a bit of a sophomore slump when many expected Rosenqvist would backup his seventh-place championship finish from his rookie season.

Felix Rosenqvist's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 11th (306 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 24
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 9.571
Average Finish: 12.285

Marcus Ericsson's stock is rising after 2020

Marcus Ericsson
The best surprise of the 2020 season might be Ericsson. After stunning many moving to Ganassi after a wonky rookie season, Ericsson showed Ganassi knew what it was doing and improved mightily across the board. While he did not challenge the likes of Dixon, he was equal to his fellow Swede Rosenqvist.

What objectively was his best race?
It was fourth in the second Road America race.

What subjectively was his best race?
This is difficult because Ericsson had a lot of strong days, many of which were him going from the back of the grid to the front.

He used a three-stop strategy to go from 14th to sixth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. 

He made his way from 16th to fourth in the second Road America race. 

In the first Gateway race, he started fourth, stayed in the top ten all race and finished fifth. 

At the second Mid-Ohio race, he went from 15th to fifth after great pit stops and he had better pace late to get into the top five. 

This was an encouraging year for Ericsson. He needs to improve on his qualifying form, but that didn't stop him from driving to the front. He also didn't get into many accidents, really only one.

What objectively was his worst race?
Ericsson's only accident happened 24 laps into the Indianapolis 500 and that classified him in 32nd, only ahead of James Davison, whose wheel assembly caught fire a handful of laps into the 500-mile affair.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There are two results that do not truly show how well Ericsson ran:

He was 19th at Texas after a fuel probe issue didn't get the car full on what was supposed to be his final pit stop and led him to pit an extra time, dropping him from a top ten finish. 

In the second Gateway race, he had a loose rear wing force him to make a late stop and instead of finishing again in the top ten and possibly in the top five, he finished 23rd, dead last, ten laps down.

Marcus Ericsson's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 12th (291 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 9
Laps Led: 4
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 13.071
Average Finish: 12.071

An Early Look Ahead
Normally, a championship winning team does not shake things up much the following season, but Chip Ganassi Racing has been a bit of a circus. 

With Rosenqvist leaving to join the Arrow McLaren SP outfit, Ganassi has brought in Álex Palou. The team will also expand to four cars as an accommodation for Jimmie Johnson's IndyCar rookie season of road and street course races only. Tony Kanaan will fill the oval portion.

All that shuffling alone is out of the norm for Ganassi, and yet I don't think it will hamper the team all that much. Dixon will continue to be Dixon, even though he is now 40 years old. He will continue to be his consistent self and likely finish in the top three or four of the championship with a handful of victories under his belt. 

However, the one issue that has long followed Ganassi will continue into 2021 and that is Dixon carries much, if not all the weight. The hope that Rosenqvist would be the heir apparent is gone, and it was not because Rosenqvist underperformed, but rather Rosenqvist got poached. Normally, Ganassi does not have to worry about losing drivers. 

That leaves Ericsson, who did well in his sophomore season, but has yet to show the pace of a race winner. Palou is only 23 years old and his rookie season was not that dissimilar from Ericsson's rookie season, but no one is expecting Palou to immediately be a race winner. I think there is still some developing he has to do. The Spaniard could make the same leap as Ericsson did. The two drivers had very similar rookie seasons. Ericsson made a large gain joining Ganassi for his sophomore season. Palou could be poised to do the same.

Johnson is there for fun. He wants results and to be competitive, but ultimately this is a side project. There is no long-term IndyCar commitment, and nor should you expect one from a 45-year-old rookie. This is a two-year experiment and Kanaan is getting a great opportunity for victories late in his career. It is a duo that makes sense and it is another veteran driver around Johnson. 

Think about this: Johnson will have a six-time champion in Dixon, a four-time champion in Dario Franchitti and a one-time champion in Kanaan to debrief with. Add to it the great technical minds of Mike Hull, Mike Cannon and Chris Simmons, and Johnson has surrounded himself with all the right people.

With Kanaan roped into the oval for the #48 Honda, Ganassi can head into the holiday season with all its drivers known and it can firmly focus on the 2021 season. 

As long as the team has Dixon, it will be fine, but a day will soon come where Dixon will not be there and the last seven or eight years have shown us Ganassi lacks that second driver ready to step up when the top driver has an off day. Penske regularly has that and typically has three drivers ready to go. Andretti Autosport has regularly had a good one-two combo. I would say Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is even in a good position, and yet Ganassi continues to struggle to find a second driver to match with Dixon. 

It doesn't hurt now but in the near future the team could be feeling it. 


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2020 Season

This is the penultimate IndyCar Wrap-Up and it will be Team Penske. Unable to retain the title, Team Penske put up a strong effort and won its fair share of races in a series that Roger Penske now owns. It again showed from top to bottom it is the best team on the grid, even if it did not take home all the hardware, and the notable pieces went to other entities this season. 

Josef Newgarden's season was close to splendid

Josef Newgarden
After picking up his second championship in 2019, Newgarden looked to make it three titles in four seasons, and while he fell short, Newgarden took the championship defense to the wire, even after it appeared it was settled before the summer came to a close.

What objectively was his best race?
Newgarden won four races this season, the second Iowa race, the second Gateway race, the first Harvest Grand Prix race and the St. Petersburg season finale. 

What subjectively was his best race?
Somebody is going to be sad that Iowa is not on the schedule in 2021 because Newgarden led 214 laps on his way to victory from pole position this year. In his last eight Iowa races, his finishes were second, second, first, sixth, fourth, first, fifth and first. In four races, he led over 200 laps. In another he led over 100 laps and he led 1,150 laps, the all-time Iowa leader. 

At Gateway, he stayed at the front and when he could pounce during the final pit cycle, he did and leapfrogged ahead of Patricio O'Ward. Tire strategy played into his favor in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and he pulled away to victory. In the finale, Newgarden took advantage of the Alexander Rossi's spin, Colton Herta's faulty car and pulled out a victory when he needed a victory, even if he didn't have the best car. Unfortunately for him, Scott Dixon did not falter.

What objectively was his worst race?
Fourteenth in the first Road America race and it should have been his first victory of the season. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
How did Road America go wrong? 

Newgarden was running away with the race. He led 25 of the first 27 laps before he stalled on his second pit stop. He dropped out of the contention for the victory but had a shot at the top five and then he locked up on the tires on a restart. This forced an extra pit stop and what was a certain victory turned into a 14th-place finish. 

It is the only blemish on his season. He was 12th in the first Gateway race, in what was an off race where he was only going to be a top ten car and was caught out after he made a pit stop before the caution for a brief drizzle. Newgarden did not do much wrong this season. 

Unfortunately, one mistake is all it takes to lose a championship. If Newgarden pulled off a podium finish instead of 14th, picked up 39 points instead of 20, he would be champion. One race. That is all it takes and even when you are virtually spotless in the other 13 events, one race can be enough to keep the Astor Cup out of your grasp.

Josef Newgarden's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 2nd (521 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 6
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 455
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 5.5
Average Finish: 5.214

It was tough to gauge Will Power's season at times

Will Power
No driver showed more visible and verbal frustration than Power this season. At times, it came off as a driver unapologetically angry even on his best days, breaking the Team Penske mold we were accustomed of seeing. While misfortunate events cost Power a few results, he had more good days than most and again showed why he is one of the best of his generation.

What objectively was his best race?
Power had two victories, the first Mid-Ohio race and the second Harvest Grand Prix race.

What subjectively was his best race?
When you lead every lap from pole position that is your best race and Power did just that in the second Harvest Grand Prix race. Kudos though to his first Mid-Ohio race, where he led 66 of 75 laps and no one came close to challenging him for victory.

What objectively was his worst race?
Power's season ended with a 24th-place finish at St. Petersburg after slapping the wall exiting turn three. That race had already started poorly when downshifting issues caused him to lose a few spots in the opening laps.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There is a common trend to Power's poor races. 

Start at the front, run competitively, have an obscure mechanical failure or mistake take him out of the running. 

St. Petersburg fits that criteria. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis fits that criteria, where Power started on pole position, he was caught out when Oliver Askew had his accident, he fought back into podium contention and then stalled on his final pit stop. 

He spun out of the first Iowa race, suffered a tire puncture in the first Gateway race after he had led a great chunk early on and he was an afterthought in the Indianapolis 500. 

Ever since his championship season in 2014, Power cannot avoid a handful of bad finishes, especially in races where he is highly competitive. It feels like every season he has two or three victories slip through his grasp and this year was no different. He could have another title if it weren't for these unavoidable strings of results each season. 

Will Power's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 5th (396 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 5
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 292
Poles: 5
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 5.357
Average Finish: 10.142

Simon Pagenaud was good, but good is underperforming at Penske

Simon Pagenaud
Known for his consistency and brilliance, Pagenaud was somewhat off his game this season. It started strong and suggested that he could be a championship contender, but qualifying difficulties plagued his season. He quickly fell out of championship contention and out of the top five in the championship altogether. It ended up being a slightly disappointing season in what would otherwise be a respectable year for any other non-Penske driver on the grid.

What objectively was his best race?
Pagenaud's only victory was from 23rd on the grid in the first Iowa race after he was unable to qualify due to fuel pressure issues. Credit to Ben Bretzman for nailing the strategy to put Pagenaud in the top ten and then caught a caution before making his second pit stop. He also caught a break when the only caution of the night was extended after Rinus VeeKay and Colton Herta got together when the initial attempt was waved off. This allowed Pagenaud to stretch his fuel and pull out a victory.

What subjectively was his best race?
The first Iowa race was special, as was the second Iowa race, because he had to start 23rd in that race as well and finished fourth, but I think his best race was the Grand Prix of Indianapolis 

Pagenaud started 20th, committed early to the three-stop strategy and made up significant ground while a few teams stuck to a two-stop race and others went longer on that first stint. The only caution came at the right time after his second stop and he made up some more ground, finding himself fighting for a podium position and he got third.

What objectively was his worst race?
This team did not have speed at the Indianapolis 500 and he was 22nd purely on speed. Nothing went wrong. Pagenaud didn't have it in his Indianapolis 500 defense.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Indianapolis was bad because it is the race Roger Penske cares about most and when one of his cars is completely uncompetitive that will not be tolerated. Penske will make adjustments when necessary, and Pagenaud's qualifying pace was dreadful this season. 

He started outside the top twenty in five races and outside the top fifteen in eight of 14 races. His prior worst average starting position in a full season was 11.6. He was 4.3 positions worse than that in 2020. While he could overcome that setback in a few races, there were plenty of cases where he could not do better than average. 

Pagenaud was run over in the first Gateway race at the start and that ruined the entire weekend. He spun early into race one at Mid-Ohio and ruined a top ten start and he was completely anonymous in the two Harvest Grand Prix races.

Simon Pagenaud's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 8th (339 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 97
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 15.928
Average Finish: 10.571

An Early Look Ahead
All three drivers will return, and Team Penske will expand back to four cars with three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin making the full-time switch to IndyCar after making his debut at St. Petersburg in October. 

Penske will be fine. The team won seven races this year, half the races, and I am sure the team considers 2020 a disappointment. No Indianapolis 500 victory and the championship went to Scott Dixon, but Penske won half the races, no other team won more than four races, and no other Chevrolet team reached the top step of the podium. 

All three of the returning drivers are still championship contenders. Newgarden has been close to flawless since joining Team Penske with two championships, a second and a fourth. Newgarden is already one championship behind Rick Mears for most IndyCar titles in the history of the Penske organization. Next year will only be his fifth season with the team. He is not going anywhere anytime soon. Power and Pagenaud will continue to be a threat for two to six victories a season. However, only one driver can come out on top in the championship.   

For most teams, two drivers in the top five of the championship and three drivers in the top ten would be a monumental result, but at Team Penske, you could be demoted after finishing fourth place in the championship. Juan Pablo Montoya lost his full-time ride after finishing eighth in the championship. Hélio Castroneves had six consecutive seasons finishing in the top five of the championship and he had been in the top five in nine of ten seasons when he was moved out of the IndyCar program to Penske's IMSA program with Acura. 

The results have to come at a consistent rate and then they have to be better than that. 

I don't think any of the three are in danger, and yet there seems to always be pressure. Newgarden is the safest of all. He doesn't have the harsh luck of Power and he is more consistent than Pagenaud, and Pagenaud is one of the most consistent drivers out there. On top of that, I am not sure there are many other drivers in IndyCar that Team Penske can poach as upgrades over Power and Pagenaud. Scott Dixon isn't going anywhere. Alexander Rossi is early into his contract with Andretti Autosport. Colton Herta has familial ties to Andretti Autosport. Graham Rahal has familial ties to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Patricio O'Ward is still young. Outside of those drivers, I don't think there are any other sensible options on the grid for Team Penske. 

McLaughlin will have some learning to do. He has been good each time he was in an IndyCar. He was impressively quick in testing at Austin in February and after eight months on the sideline, he stepped into the car at St. Petersburg and immediately blended into the field. Though his first few outings were promising, he will make mistakes or find greater difficulty than first expected. He will be presented with scenarios he has never experienced behind the wheel of a race car before and he will be doing it at 13 tracks he has never visited before. We will have to wait and see how this experiment goes. 

Team Penske is out of Supercars. If this does not work out, McLaughlin does not have a fallback plan within the organization. 

Next year will be the same as all the other seasons for Team Penske. It is going to win a lot and it will have multiple drivers in the championship picture. That does not guarantee 2021 will be a successful year for the outfit, but no other IndyCar team can have such a high minimum standard and meet it each season.