Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Series Enthusiasm Rankings

I normally don't do rankings because they are a waste of time and are a lowbrow way to get views to a website/blog. Plus, they are very subjective and are many times agenda driven. However, with the 24 Hours of Daytona less than a week away and lots of testing going on, some public, some under the cover of secrecy, there are many series I can't wait to get on track this year.

The premise is I am going to rank the ten series I am most enthusiastic for in 2015. I am only going to do ten but let me point out that just because it is number ten doesn't mean it's the series I care about the least or the series that I think will be the most boring. I am genuinely looking forward to all these series. This is just for fun. Some series didn't make the list but that doesn't mean I am not looking forward to them.

Honorable mentions to World Superbike and Supersport, European Le Mans, IMSA, DTM, World Rally, World Touring Car Championship, GP2, GP3, the NASCAR Truck Series and Super GT.

10. Formula E
Technically the Formula E season is already in session but with two months before the second half of the season begins, it will be interesting to see how the inaugural championship plays out. Lucas di Grassi has been stout with only a suspension failure at Buenos Aires keeping him from perfect attendance on the podium. The e.dams with drivers Sébastien Buemi and Nicolas Prost lead the Teams' Championship but both drivers have let victories slip from their grasp. Sam Bird and António Félix da Costa each have victories to their name and Nelson Piquet, Jr. has finished on the podium in back-to-back race. All five drivers are within maximum points from one race (30) of di Grassi heading into the second half. If anyone outside that margin want a shot at the title, they are going to have to dominate.

I am looking forward to how the races go in Miami and Long Beach as well as how the series holds up momentum as the established championships get underway. This worked great in October, December and January when they had no competition but what attention will the series get in May and June when Formula One, FIA WEC, IndyCar and many other series are in action?

9. Blancpain GT Series
This goes for both the Endurance and the Sprint Series. I want to see if Bentley can take the fight to Audi and Mercedes in their sophomore season. I want to see if the new McLaren 650S GT3 can compete for victories and I want to see if the races will still be geo-blocked online in the United States and Canada because CBS Sports Network believes keeping the races from those who want to see them live will draw them in for a tape-delayed version many hours later.

8. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Despite how much I despise the Chase, I do like NASCAR. I enjoyed many races last year and I can't wait for the Daytona 500. Can Toyota bounce back after winning only two races all of 2014? Can someone who has no shot at the championship win a race and cause NBC to go bananas even though we all know they likely won't make it past round one? Will Ryan Newman continue not to win races but remain eligible for the title? How long before Brad Keselowski does something to land on probation?

I want to see if last year's crop of rookies take a step forward. Everyone is projecting Kyle Larson to get a victory but can he do more than that? Larson scored the eighth most points in 2014 (he finished 17th because of the Chase), 13 points more than Jimmie Johnson and more than the likes of Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and both Busch brothers. Despite winning pole for last year's Daytona 500, Austin Dillon was average all of 2014, scoring only four top tens in 36 races. Newman showed that Richard Childress Racing has the equipment to run at the front, can Dillon build off what he learned in 2014? By the way, after an impressive rookie class in 2014, as of today, Trevor Bayne is the only rookie of the year candidate for 2015 and that is a little misleading considering he has already made 58 Cup starts over five seasons but 57 of those starts came after the 2010 season, when drivers could only be declared eligible for one of NASCAR's three national touring series championships.

7. Formula One
The question in Formula One for 2015 isn't if Mercedes will win, it's just how much closer will their competition be? I think the other Mercedes-powered teams such as Williams will reel them in but still not be a threat to knock off the factory team for the championship. Red Bull will be entering a new era as Sebastian Vettel has moved to Ferrari and Honda reunites with McLaren. The really intriguing parts of the 2015 Formula One season won't happen on the track but off as the manufactures fight for the right to develop their engines during the season and the back half of the grid fight to get a bigger slice of the pie.

6. MotoGP
It's as simple as this: Marc Márquez vs. Valentino Rossi vs. Jorge Lorenzo. It will be a three-way fight for the title and everyone else will be competing for fourth, which should got to Dani Pedrosa but maybe someone can beat the Honda rider. Andrea Dovizioso has been consistent on the factory Ducati and his new teammate Andrea Iannone had some really good runs on the Pramac Ducati in 2014. Aleix Espargaró was the top "Open" entries last season and it landed him a factory ride with the returning Suzuki outfit. Will he make a step forward in 2015? Speaking of "Open" entries, can anyone match the success of Aleix Espargaró? Finally, 2015 could mark the final season for Nicky Hayden, possibly the last American on the grid for quite sometime.

5. Super Formula
Fast cars and a gird that appears to be getting deeper. Kazuki Nakajima, João Paulo de Oliveira, André Lotterer, Loïc Duval, James Rossiter, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan were on the grid in 2014. Kamui Kobayashi, Bertrand Baguette, Fabio Leimer and Jann Mardenborough all ran at Super Formula's end-of-year test and all would be great additions to the Super Formula grid. If only there was an easier way to get the races in the United States.

4. IndyCar
Everyone is talking about aero kit. Almost everyone agrees that one manufacture is going to have a massive leg up on the other. No one thinks when the aero kits debut at the mid-March Barber test and St. Petersburg at the end of the month that Chevrolet and Honda will be nearly equal. Honda was shellacked at the end of 2014 as Chevrolet won the final six races and won final eight pole positions. Aero kits might be Honda's only hope to dethrone Chevrolet as the American make has won every  manufactures' championships since returning in 2012.

The IndyCar grid will see a shake up in the final two months before the season opener. We already had a massive dominos fall in Simon Pagenaud to Penske and James Hinchcliffe to Schmidt Peterson but we are just getting started. Justin Wilson could be heading to Andretti and Andretti could have five cars with the fifth being split by Zach Veach and Jean-Éric Vergne. Sage Karam is the leading candidate for the fourth seat at Ganassi. We don't know who will be sharing the #20 with Ed Carpenter but all signs point to J.R. Hildebrand. Alexander Rossi has been hanging around Dale Coyne. KV and Schmidt each have a second seat open and with a list of drivers such as Stefano Coletti, Davide Valsecchi, Conor Daly, Daniel Abt, Ryan Briscoe, Dean Stoneman and Gabby Chaves all free agents, they have their work cut out for them.

The grid only appears to be getting deeper for IndyCar and the technical side of things could cause headaches for a few while being a godsend to others.

3. FIA World Endurance Championship
Nissan joins Toyota, Audi and Porsche in LMP1. LMP2 is growing. Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin look to continue there battle in GTE. FIA WEC arguably has the deepest field of drivers on any grid in the world. Drivers that have been overlooked by Formula One have found new life in WEC and we have seen great battles in all four classes with these drivers.

Let's not forget to mention the technological sophistication of LMP1 and the anticipation in the reveal  of Nissan's GT-R LM NISMO and Nissan's driver line-up. Can Audi take the fight back to Toyota? Can Porsche build off of a successful return season in 2014 that ended in victory? Will Nissan struggle or will they be able to battle with the three other LMP1 manufactures? Will Ferrari be dethroned in GTE?

The rumors of a Ferrari return to prototypes has died down but that doesn't mean it is dead in the water. Finally, we wait to hear if Corvette, Ford with their newly revealed Ford GT set for a 2016 release and/or Acura with their new NSX consider joining the GTE ranks in a few seasons. FIA WEC has a lot going for them as they also look to expand from eight rounds in the next few seasons.

2. Pirelli World Challenge
As with the Blancpain GT Series, Pirelli World Challenge is a showcase of the best GT3 has to offer and it's only getting better. Cadillac will be debuting the ATS-V.R GT3 as Johnny O'Connell looks for his fourth consecutive title. CRP Racing gave Cadillac a fight until the final race with Mike Skeen in the Audi R8. Bentley Team Dyson Racing will return with two cars after joining the series midseason in 2014 and winning their first race at the final round of 2014 with Guy Smith at Miller Motorsports Park.

Turner Motosport, Scuderia Corsa and Flying Lizard Motorsports, who are partnering with K-Pax Racing, are all joining PWC in 2015 while the addition of the GT Cup class will provide another dozen entries to each round. There is still the possibility of Nissan supporting a full-time effort with Andretti Autosport running the operation. Reiter Engineering could run a Lamborghini Gallardo Extenso R-EX full-time.

The GT teams will have added incentive to do well in 2015 as the top three will head to the Bake World Challenge, the final round of the Blancpain Sprint Series season from the capital of Azerbaijan.

In GTS, Blackdog Speed Shop's Lawson Aschenbach goes for his third consecutive title with the Chevrolet team and fourth career. He will have stiff competition from Jack Baldwin and the GTSport Racing Porsche and the Kia Racing Optimas of Mark Wilkins and Nic Jönsson. Dean Martin, Nick Esayian and Jack Roush, Jr. will look to put the Ford Mustang Boss 302 on top. Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing returns to competition after having their 2014 season end after one race due to Memo Gidley's massive accident in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Jon Fogarty with pilot a Hyundai Genesis Coupe for his long-time team owner.

1. Indy Lights
This series was as good as dead for the past three seasons. Grids struggling to break double figures, talented drivers not getting the best development possible. It wasn't good and it appeared Indy Lights was going to vanish.

The introduction of the Dallara IL-15 breathed life into the series and has attracted many eyes, including a few from Europe. You will have all the usually names. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will have four cars. Andretti Autosport should have two. Defending champions Belardi Auto Racing are looking to have two entries as should Team Moore. Joining them is the big fish from the United Kingdom, Carlin. Having produced champions in British Formula Three, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP3, they have expanded their operation to North America and will run two cars. Juncos Racing will graduate from Pro Mazda to Indy Lights and run two cars.  IMSA regulars 8Star Motorsports has a car and should be on the grid while Conquest Racing, Fan Force United, Bryan Herta Autosport and a few others could still join the grid.

As for drivers, last year's runner-up Jack Harvey returns to Schmidt and he will be joined by 2014 U.S. F2000 runner-up R.C. Enerson, Road to Indy veteran Scott Anderson and one-time GP3 driver Ethan Ringel. Pro Mazda champion Spencer Pigot and Kyle Kaiser have both be promoted and will remain teammates at Juncos. Shelby Blackstock will be at Andretti Autosport. Belardi and Carlin will each bring drivers over who have been compete in Europe in recent seasons. Puerto Rican Félix Serrallés leaves Formula Three to join Belardi and Emirati Ed Jones will also leave Formula Three to join Carlin.

Scott Hargrove has tested for 8Star and appears to be in line for that seat. I hope the Canadian Hargrove gets it as he and Pigot had a budding rivalry last year in Pro Mazda and it is the type of rivalry IndyCar needs to foster. I hope Matthew Brabham returns for another season with Andretti as he should be a championship contender if he is on the grid. Other drivers from 2014 who have not announced intention to return in 2015 are Zach Veach, Alexandre Baron, Luiz Razia, Juan Pablo García, Juan Piedranhita and Zack Meyer.

The last time Indy Lights had a grid with more than 15 starters since the 2012 Freedom 100 when 18 cars started and a 19th (Andres Krohn) had a gearbox let him down on pace laps. I think Indy Lights will average around 15 entries per race and are setting up for a season to remember.