Monday, August 25, 2014

Musings From the Weekend: The Red Bull Day Care System

Hard racing was the theme of the weekend. From the high banks of Bristol to the rolling hills of Wine Country, the German tarmac to the slippery conditions outside of Sydney, Eau Rouge to Oak Tree. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

What if You Couldn't Race Until You Had a Driver's License?
Motorsports has seen an influx of younger drivers in the last fifteen years. From Kyle Busch, Casey Atwood and Joey Logano in NASCAR; A.J. Foyt IV, Marco Andretti, Nelson Philippe and Graham Rahal in IndyCar; Sebastian Vettel, Danill Kvyat, Jaime Alguersuari, Jenson Button and now we can add Max Verstappen to that list. Verstappen is currently 16 years old and will turn 17 on September 30th.

Whether Verstappen is ready for Formula One or not has been a highly debated topic in the past week but I have always wondered what motorsports would look like if a driver couldn't do major circuit racing until they received their actual driver's license, meaning a driver couldn't do full car racing until they obtained the full, unrestricted road license. Karting and I guess quarter-midgets would still be allowed but running Formula Ford, Formula Three, Late Model Stock Car or breaking into a series such as NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One, etc. could not happen until licensed for the everyday roadways.

Would we see more drivers competing in karting? Would it be cheaper to go racing? Would their be a more structured ladder system from karting to junior formula racing? Or would guys just be getting these rides in top series a year or two later? We'll never know but I've always wondered.

Of course the age for obtaining a full unrestricted driver's license varies from country to country and state to state, which would put certain individuals at a disadvantage and would make this rule difficult to enforce.

Verstappen appears to be a very talented driver but there is no need to rush the kid into a car. He is in his first season of car racing and while he sits second in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship, that doesn't mean he is the next Kimi Räikkönen. The Finn and current Ferrari driver was given a seat at Sauber after just under two dozen car races, all in the British Formula Renault Championship but every impressive teenager in junior formulas isn't Räikkönen.

Red Bull has this tendency to take the newest driver on the scene and throw them in the deep end but they have done it while ignoring all their other young drivers. While Verstappen is slated for a seat at Toro Rosso, they are jumping Carlos Sainz, Jr. and Pierre Gasly, who are first and third respectively in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series and Alex Lynn, who leads the GP3 Series standings, the same series Daniil Kvyat won last year that ultimately got him his STR ride. Let's not forget drivers developed by Red Bull such as António Félix da Costa, who finished third in GP3 and FR 3.5, couldn't get a sniff at Formula One and is now in DTM and Mercedes DTM driver Robert Wickens, who finished second in Formula Two and GP3 and who won the FR 3.5 title over current lame duck Toro Rosso driver Jean-Éric Vergne and current Red Bull Racing stud Daniel Ricciardo.

Then there are the drivers Red Bull rushed through the system. Sébastien Buemi debuted at 20 years, 149 days old and was out of F1 at 23 years, 28 days old. Jaime Alguersuari became the youngest driver to start a Grand Prix at 19 years, 125 days old when he started the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix in place of Sébastien Bourdais. He was 21 years, 8 months and 5 days old when he last started a Grand Prix. While Buemi has found success in Toyota's World Endurance Championship efforts, Alguersauri has not raced anything since his final Grand Prix in 2011 and has his first job since leaving STR three years ago in Formula E driving for Virgin Racing. Buemi will also be on the Formula E grid driving for e.dams Renault.

Of all the Red Bull development drivers, the only ones in Formula One are currently driving for Red Bull owned teams. Vettel has won four championships, Ricciardo has won three times this year and is third in the championship but outside of those two there has been no staying power for the drivers that have come through STR. Vitantonio Liuzzi did have a few opportunities with Force India and the now defunct HRT team after STR but is now out of F1. Scott Speed was gone in a flash and let's add to the list Robert Doornbos and Christian Klien of Red Bull developed drivers on the sidelines.

To be fair, Liuzzi is now making a living running Super GT and Super Formula in Japan, Doornbos did find success in Champ Car and Klien has found a solid home in European Le Mans Series while Scott Speed slouched around in NASCAR before finding a home in rallycross. All were respectable drivers but were far from the next great thing.

Verstappen to STR gives us a look at the hard reality of racing. While Verstappen will make his debut after a year in Formula Three, fellow Dutchman Robin Frijns has won three junior formula titles including the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 championship ahead of current F1 drivers Jules Bianchi and Kevin Magnussen but all he can get is a reserve role with Caterham. Fabio Leimer won the GP2 title last year and never was on Formula One's radar and is now with Rebellion Racing in the World Endurance Championship. Other successful young drivers still hoping for a shot at Formula One are Sam Bird and Davide Valsecchi, the former finished at the top of both FR 3.5 and GP2 and the latter was a GP2 champion.

With how developed the ladder system is in Europe, you'd think it would be possible, the same way most European soccer leagues have promotion/relegation, for a driver who has won titles at the lower levels to eventually find a way into Formula One. Unfortunately, that system isn't in place yet and probably never will be.

Verstappen sits at the fork that is Vettel-Ricciardo Way and Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Hindsight says the Dutch kid is more likely to head toward the Boulevard than follow in the footsteps of the German and Australian. The question is if he is 20 and out of Formula One, where does he go? Because everything else is down hill for the youngest driver to ever start a Formula One race.

Lotterer Debuts and Rossi Denied
André Lotterer made his Formula One debut this weekend at Spa driving for Caterham. The 32-year old, three-time Le Masns winner. To think twelve years ago, two days prior to his 21st birthday, Lotterer scored on his CART debut driving for Dale Coyne Racing at Mexico City against former Formula One drivers Tora Takagi, Shinji Nakano, Christian Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti and then-future Toyota F1 driver Cristiano da Matta.

Lotterer has made a fine career for himself. Along with the three Le Mans victories, he has an LMP1 World Championship, two Super GT titles and a Super Formula championship. This year alone for Lotterer has to be a dream year for a Formula One driver who are barely allow to ride bicycles, let alone race in another discipline. The German won Le Mans, is running Super Formula and is still in the title fight despite missing this past weekend at Motegi and got to race the Spa 24 Hours. His debut lasted only one lap but he out qualified his teammate Marcus Ericsson and hopefully he gets another opportunity with Caterham.

At Marussia, it appeared American Alexander Rossi was going to make his Formula One debut at Spa only to be denied after first practice by Max Chilton retaking the seat. When it was announced Rossi was going to replace Chilton I felt bad for Chilton because he had finished all but one race in his career. He might not be the fastest guy out there but he has been reliably bring the car home and I think that is worth something. However, I was gut wrenched when Rossi had the ride taken away from him after one practice.

The same way I hope and pray the United States wins a FIFA Men's World Cup in my lifetime, I hope and pray that someday I get to see an American competing at the front of the Formula One grid. The only American to race Formula One in my lifetime is Scott Speed and that was disappointing. I was young and got my hopes up when Speed was going toe-to-toe with Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovalainen and thinking that was our new hope to finally get The Star-Spangled Banner playing on the podium for the first time since Mario Andretti. It was a painful reality when he not only lost his Formula One ride but when he completely abandoned the European scene and followed the Red Bull money to NASCAR.

Each American that heads across the pond I have prayed will catch a break. Whether it be Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly, Michael Lewis, Gustavo Menezes or Santino Ferrucci, I pray they catch the eye of someone in Europe and it all falls into line for them. More and more though I wonder if they are making the best decision. Newgarden did well in Europe driving Formula Ford but came home and has done well in IndyCar. Lewis won a few Formula Three races and nearly won the Italian Formula Three title but is now driving IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup USA. Menezes and Ferrucci are in European Formula Three and each have had a few good races but nothing to turn heads like Verstappen.

Rossi and Daly are on the fringe of Formula One. Rossi won the Formula BMW World Final, has won in GP3, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 and has jumped around trying to get to Formula One. He left the Caterham development program for Marussia and it nearly paid off this past weekend. Daly won in the American ladder system, he has won races in GP3, scored on his debut GP2 weekend last year but has struggled in GP2 this year and is currently being outscored by his teammate Nathanaël Berthon 16-2. Daly's struggles finding funding has also been very public.

The more I think about Rossi or Daly breaking into Formula One, I wonder if it is even worth it? Is that drive for Marussia really heading anywhere? And if that doesn't work out is Sauber, Force India, Lotus or Williams going to give them a second shot, or really will Rossi or Daly have to funding to get a Sauber, Force India, Lotus or Williams seat? Haas Formula is still supposedly two years away from getting on the grid but if that were to even happen, what is the likelihood of that being a competitive team in it's first season or second season or fifth season? Look at Marussia and Caterham. Both have been on the grid for five years and Marussia got their first points at Monaco and Caterham is no closer to scoring.

I just got to stay positive. I got to believe it is going to work out for Rossi or Daly or Menezes or Ferrucci or someone else looking toward Europe. It's eventually going to work out. I think Rossi will be in the car for United States Grand Prix but that might be it for the Californian.

Random Thoughts
Through five oval races for IndyCar there have been 17 cautions for 127 of 1198 laps. Maybe IndyCar should turn up the boost on ovals to road/street course levels on ovals to make it a little more challenging. The current boost level on ovals is 140 kPa and on road/street courses it is 150 kPa. With the Honda and Chevrolet engines going into their fourth year, I think (at least I hope) they have developed enough that they could handle the extra boost on ovals.

The weekend at Sonoma will go down as one of the craziest across the board. The second Pro Mazda race might be the race of the year. Each race saw a comeback, a championship leader in trouble as well as a finish to the IndyCar race that had an old school Formula One vibe. Cars falling short on fuel, cars running out a corner or two after the checkered flag. All we needed was someone trying to push their car across the line like Nigel Mansell in Dallas and collapsing.

I had this thought the other night when I was watching the NFL Network at a restaurant. Kurt Warner is to the NFL what Arie Luyendyk was to IndyCar. Both were great on the biggest stage but will never be considered an all-time great on what they did outside of the bright lights and there is nothing wrong with that.

Reading From the Week
A few stories I thought were really good this weekend.

R.J. O'Connell defended Luca Badoer from his label as one of the worst drivers in Formula One history.

Will Buxton on how the new Indy Lights car could revive the series.

Will Power might have finished tenth this weekend but's David Malsher wrote about how he gave a teenage boy the thrill of a lifetime at Sonoma.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon, Daniel Ricciardo, Jack Harvey, Kyle Kaiser, Jose Gutierrez, R.C. Enerson and Florian Latorre but did you know...

Joey Logano won the NASCAR race at Bristol.

Mike Skeen and Anthony Lazzaro split Pirelli World Challenge weekend. Jack Baldwin and Lawson Aschenbach split the GTS class. Johnny O'Connell leads the GT championship by 42 points over Skeen. Lazzaro is 160 points back, Andy Pilgrim trails his teammate by 218 points and Andrew Palmer rounds out the top five, 252 back. Mark Wilkins leads Aschenbach by 80 points in GTS, Jack Baldwin is 194 back, Dean Martin is 307 back and rounding out the top five is Nic Jönsson, trailing his Kia teammate by 320 points. The final round for Pirelli World Challenge will be at Miller Motorsports Park on September Friday September 12th and Saturday September 13th.

Raffaele Marciello and Felipe Nasr split the GP2 weekend at Spa. Dean Stoneman and Alex Lynn split the GP3 weekend.

Thierry Neuville won Rallye Deutscheland, Hyundai's first World Rally victory. Neuville won after Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke all had to retire while at the front of the field.

Dominik Baumann and Thomas Jäger won the Blancpain Sprint Series at Slovakia Ring. Laurens Vanthoor and César Ramos won the qualifying race.

Shane van Gisbergen won the first two races of the V8 Supercars weekend at Sydney Motorsport Park. Scott McLaughlin won the third race.

Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer won the GTLM race at VIR, their second consecutive victory. Dane Cameron and Markus Palttala won in GTD, their second consecutive victory and third of the season. Luis Díaz and Sean Rayhall won in PC.

João Paulo de Oliveria won the Super Formula race at Motegi.

Ryan Blaney won the Nationwide Series race at Bristol and Brad Keselowski won the Truck race becoming the 25th driver to win in all three NASCAR national touring divisions.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar season finale at Fontana.
MotoGP is at Silverstone.
NASCAR is at Atlanta.
Asian Le Mans Series is at Fuji.
The NASCAR Truck Series is going to Mosport.
Super GT will run the 1000km Suzuka.
Stock Car Brasil heads to Curitiba.