Monday, June 22, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

Summer is here. A nice bow has been placed on Spring 2015 and now it is summer's turn to take center stage. Someone hit the century mark this weekend. There was another endurance race in France. It was a great weekend for Nissan after an abysmal weekend at Le Mans. NASCAR keeps getting rained on and their top series was off. A certain Belgian keeps on winning. Nico Rosberg won the Austrian Grand Prix with Lewis Hamilton making it a Mercedes 1-2 and Felipe Massa rounding out the podium. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't
Last Tuesday, the story broke that IndyCar could be on the verge of returning to Road America. When I first saw it I thought, "Didn't we just do this with Cleveland? Didn't we just have a story that Cleveland was on the verge of returning and that all turned out to be as good as ocean front property in Arizona?"

I am skeptical. I want Road America to return. Many people want Road America to return. Then there was the kicker: Road America's return would likely come at the cost of Milwaukee. IndyCar can't lose Milwaukee. The problem for Milwaukee is it has had three different dates the last three years. Of course the crowd size is going to fluctuate with that kind of inconsistency. Not to mention that this year's race will begin at 4:00 p.m. local time on a Sunday. Could they have picked a worse time for that race to start? The answer is no. Milwaukee needs one date and start at a reasonable time of day (perhaps brunch time). One date that would forever be known as Milwaukee weekend.

Milwaukee had that. It was the week after the Indianapolis 500. It needs that weekend back. NASCAR did the right thing this year after a decade of stupidly running the Southern 500 on a weekend that wasn't Labor Day weekend. IndyCar needs to put Milwaukee back to the week after the Indianapolis 500.

I know Belle Isle has claimed that weekend but deep down we all know Belle Isle could be any weekend from the middle of June to Labor Day weekend in terms of climate and draw the same type of crowd. Chevrolet wants it the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 and with Roger Penske in charge of the Belle Isle weekend he probably likes that it's the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 as well.

However, what if it's for the better of IndyCar to have Belle Isle be a weekend other than the weekend after Indianapolis? We have seen the schedule from hell the teams were up against this year. It was non-stop from May through the middle of June and the Belle Isle weekend was the midway point. Perhaps it would be better for the teams, both physically in terms of the human bodies that comprise race teams and in terms of equipment that Belle Isle move to another date in the summer.

IndyCar needs to release the vice grip that is currently on the IndyCar schedule. It is benefitting no one. It would have been one thing if IndyCar condensed the schedule to end by Labor Day if IndyCar was making billions of dollars a year, team members were making on average $85,000 a year and there were sixteen races on the schedule with an additional two dozen race tracks from around the globe lining-up to host an IndyCar race but IndyCar isn't making billions of dollars a year, team members aren't making on average $85,000 a year and tracks aren't lining up to bring IndyCar to town.

It is time for IndyCar and the bigwigs led by Mark Miles to realize they are not as powerful as they think they are and it is time to do what works for the best everybody, from the crew members who work on the cars to the track owners around the country to the drivers and teams owners.

Here is my proposed schedule for next year and this isn't a wild, nostalgia-glazed schedule. This is a realistic schedule.

March 20: St. Petersburg
April 3: NOLA
April 17: Long Beach
April 24: Barber
May 14: Grand Prix of Indianapolis
May 21-22: Indianapolis 500 qualifying
May 29: 100th Indianapolis 500
June 4: Milwaukee
June 11: Texas
July 2-3: Belle Isle
July 10: Toronto
July 16: Iowa
August 7: Mid-Ohio
August 21: Pocono
August: 28: Sonoma
September 4: Boston
September 17: Road America
October 1: Fontana

This is a schedule I think makes more sense than the abominations IndyCar produced the last two seasons. The first four races would take place over six weeks. We might need to find a replacement for NOLA. Perhaps Phoenix? Or Laguna Seca? Or Austin? We can worry about that later. There would be two weeks off before heading into the Indianapolis races. I put Milwaukee on a Saturday so it doesn't fall on Le Mans test day and it would allow the drivers to get to Le Mans if they needed to seeing as IndyCar would be off for the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 18-19.

There would be a five-week stretch from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to Texas but there would be two weeks off after that. Belle Isle would be 4th of July weekend and be apart of a three-week stretch of races but that would be followed by two weeks off. After Mid-Ohio would be an off-week before a three-week stretch from Pocono to Sonoma to Boston. After Boston would be a week off.

Then would come Road America. While the people in charge of IndyCar are deathly and I mean DEATHLY and irrationally afraid of racing during American football season, all I can say to them is suck it up. For the better of the series, they have to do it. Now racing in football-loving Wisconsin isn't ideal, but racing on a Saturday made more sense than Sunday. First, you can't possibly go head-to-head with a Green Bay Packers game. That makes no sense. The Wisconsin Badgers are very popular but they are scheduled to play Georgia State on September 17, 2016. I think a race could have a chance against a non-conference game, especially if it's an IndyCar-Pirelli World Challenge doubleheader with it being the PWC season finale. Plus, with IndyCar and NASCAR both being on NBCSN, the IndyCar race could lead-in to a NASCAR Grand National Series race.

Slightly off-topic but IndyCar has to race in September and it would probably be smart if IndyCar raced somewhere that isn't football crazy in September. The first place that comes to mind is Portland, Oregon. Would a return to Portland be successful in September? I don't know but it's what came to mind and it's a city where IndyCar could be the premier event and not have to worry about having a college or professional football game hogging up the spotlight. To be fair, the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer are huge in the city and if they had a match it would take away from the race but perhaps IndyCar and the Timbers could work together to make sure the race occurs when the Timbers are on the road. But I digress. IndyCar isn't returning to Portland anytime soon even if it makes sense to.

Back on-topic. After a week off following Road America, the season would end the first weekend in October, a Saturday night race at Fontana. And this race can't begin at 10:00 p.m. ET. The race would have to begin no later than 8:00 p.m. ET and buy the drivers sunglasses to deal with the setting sun. Hell, Sunglass Hut could sponsor the damn race. The only problem with this weekend would be it possibly falling the same night as Petit Le Mans, the final race of the IMSA season. Hopefully, the two series would be able to work something out so the two season finales don't go head-to-head, like they did in 2013.

The benefits of this schedule would be IndyCar does something popular and moves Milwaukee back to the week after the Indianapolis 500, Milwaukee and Road America would both be on the schedule and there would be enough spacing between the two races, there would be more off weeks during the season and the season would end in October at Fontana, a date Fontana has wanted.

IndyCar might want to end by Labor Day but the series can't end by Labor Day. It has strained the teams too much and has forced tracks to dates they never wanted. IndyCar needs to focus on being a racing series. IndyCar needs to accept that racing in September and October are what is best for the series even if it's not what the suits really want.

Fratelli d'Italia
While IndyCar has the prospect of choosing between either Milwaukee or Road America, Bernie Ecclestone is creating a similar situation in the Formula One world with the great motorsports nation of Italy.

The Formula One money czar is looking to have Imola return to the Formula One schedule but it may come at the cost of Monza. The 84-year old Brit is suggesting the two-famed circuits share the Italian Grand Prix on a rotating basis, similar to how the Nürburgring and Hockenheim shared the German Grand Prix up to this year. Imola hosted 27 Formula One Grands Prix but has not been on the Formula One calendar since 2006. Monza has hosted 64 of 65 Italian Grands Prix since 1950. The only year Monza did not host the Italian Grand Prix in that time frame was in 1980 when Imola hosted the famed race.

Just like IndyCar with Milwaukee and Road America, why doesn't Formula One go to both? Revive the San Marino Grand Prix and have Imola kick off the European portion of the Formula One season like it did for so many years. Instead of heading to Azerbaijan, a country with human rights records worse than Indiana Hoosiers football, have a second race in a country that is already Formula One crazy.

The talk about "money lacking" to save the Italian Grand Prix from Ecclestone is complete and utter crap. Formula One isn't hurting for money. Formula One isn't IndyCar where it lives and dies on sanctioning fees. It hasn't been that way for nearly two decades. Formula One, just like the NFL and the Premier League, lives on television revenue. Television revenue covers everything for Formula One. Sanctioning fees are just lining the pockets, the icing on the cake, the refrigerator, washer and dryer that come with your new home. Formula One doesn't need to worry about sanctioning fees and there is no reason why sanctioning fees increase every year. Formula One should work with tracks for the best deal for both sides; deals where both sides can make money and be happy or is that just too logical to actually happen?

What a World We Live In
After writing the two sections above, I find myself once again baffled at how all these major motorsports series from around the globe are in the same place: They aren't happy with themselves and others aren't happy with them.

As much as IndyCar needs to go to Milwaukee, Formula One needs to go to Monza and yet both are willing to rip each out and leave a hole in their respective quilts. NASCAR is having issues with aero packages. IMSA is in a state of uncertainty. The honeymoon ended at Long Beach for Pirelli World Challenge. World Rally teams are upset with the length of their events. Is anyone happy?

And yet we are coming off the greatest story of the last decade, perhaps two decades, in all of motorsports and that's Nico Hülkenberg, a full-time Formula One driver, bucking the trend of specialization in motorsports, running the 24 Hours of Le Mans and winning it with Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy. Hülkenberg's victory has created sparks, making people realize what once made motorsports great: Drivers bouncing around the globe, driving anything and everything and letting their talents shine on many different stages. Whether Hülkenberg's sparks ignite a fire of the top drivers globetrotting and getting behind the wheel of everything imaginable remains to be seen.

As much as I want to type that the FIA World Endurance Championship is the one major series in the world where everything is positive, we have the potential debacle that could be the 2017 LMP2 regulations close to becoming reality. And yet, despite the LMP2 issues, I am still going to say FIA WEC is the one major series where everything is going right. I look at FIA WEC and you manufactures allowed to be manufactures. The competition we've seen in LMP1 has been as close as it has ever been in the premiere prototype class and it is all coming with the three leading manufactures running producing three entirely different engine packages and the competition in GTE has been just good as in LMP1. To me, the strength of WEC is that the series is worried about being a motorsports series first. They aren't worried about television ratings. They let the manufactures be manufactures.

I think we as fans lose sight of why these series exist and why all sports leagues exists. These leagues and organizations were created for people to compete; for people of a certain skill set to go head-to-head. They weren't created to make billions of dollars in television revenue and millions of dollars off tickets and hot dogs. Over time though, people chose to watch these people compete in these many different sports and all of a sudden organizers found another way to make a few dollars. These organized professional leagues across many different sports weren't created to entertain us fans; we chose to watch. Now, however, it has become too much about the fans. We have lost sight of why these leagues exist. They are not to entertain, they are to allow for competition, whether people chose to watch is up to them but many chose to watch. However, more and more series are focusing on the "wow factor" and worried about getting attention while ignoring competition.

Instead of series trying to be something they are not, they should focus on who they are. Motorsports series should stop pandering, stop jumping up and down saying, "look over here! Look at me! Watch this!" and just be themselves. Do your own thing and people might start noticing a series' originality instead of trying to be another fish going with the flow.

Going to end on European Formula Three and it has been a terrible last two rounds for the championship.

Let's go back to Monza on the final weekend of May where two of the three races ended under a red flag. The second race of the Monza weekend ended after multiple safety car periods. The first major incident occurring on lap four as Canadian Lance Stoll forced Italian Antonio Giovinazzi to the edge of the race track and caused contact. The incident flipped the Canadian multiple times. Both would get out of their cars under their own power. The incident that would end the race involved Michele Beretta, who clipped the back of another car on lap thirteen and it sent him into a barrel roll. He would also walk away and the race was called after 14 laps.

The first incident in the third race was on the start and involved American Ryan Tveter ran into the back of Fabian Schiller. On lap four, Canadian Lance Stroll proved exactly why paving over the exit of the Parabolica was a mistake as he drove himself and Dane Mikkel Jansen off course. Heading into turn one the following lap, Jansen clipped the back of Stroll, ending his race. The race was so bad that the stewards actually put the entire race under investigation and put up a graphic saying exactly that. Think about that. The stewards actually had to conduct an investigation into whether it was a good idea to be running that race at all and they called it after eight laps.

Fast forward to this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps. In race two of the weekend; Stroll and Jansen were involved in another accident. This time on lap six. As the Canadian was leading the Dane heading down the Kemmel straight when Jansen made a move to the outside of Stroll and Stroll's teammate, Felix Rosenqvist in third made a look to the outside of Jansen. Stroll drove into the Dane, forcing Jansen into Rosenqvist and ending all three of their races.

That wasn't all. On lap ten, American Gustavo Menezes had a massive accident after being blocked heading down the Kemmel straightaway by Frenchman Brendan Maïsano. The Frenchman forced Menezes to track limits and Menezes clipped the back of Maïsano. Menaces race was over, Maïsano ended up finishing fourth.

The good news is penalties were finally handed down. Stroll was banned from taking part in race three and Maïsano was handed a three-grid spot penalty for race three. They both should have been banned for race three and Stroll should have to sit out at least the next round at Norisring in a week's time and Zandvoort in the middle of July. These poor driving standards isn't just a Formula Three issue, it is a general problem around all junior series around the globe. See Indy Lights at Toronto. Drivers have no problem forcing another car to the edge of racetrack or trying to slam the door on another driver entering a corner. The current generation of drivers has grown up at a time where their first taste of motorsports was likely on a video game where you can wreck a thousand times a day with no consequences whatsoever. Guess what? In the real world, you can't just hit restart when you have an accident. Someone is going to get hurt or worse if this quality of driving continues.

This is a very serious issue. You might be thinking, "it's just a Formula Three race, what's the big deal?" The big deal is that someday in the very near future these drivers will be in Formula One or IndyCar or DTM or FIA WEC or Blancpain GT or Pirelli World Challenge or IMSA. These drivers will enter the professional ranks and if they aren't punished for making moronic driving decisions now, they will continue to make them as they move up.

While you were probably thinking, "well these drivers causing the accidents are just the bottom of the barrel and won't make it to a professional series," you're wrong. Stroll and Maïsano are apart or were of the Ferrari Driver Academy.  They are top prospects and they have shown it on the track. Stroll and Maïsano finished first and second in the Toyota Racing Series this past January and February and Stroll won the 2014 Italian Formula 4 championship. They have talent but they need to hone in their skills.

I notice in these junior series that drivers don't realize how long a race is. Sure, these races are only a half hour or 45 minutes in length and compared to a Formula One or IndyCar race, which are close to two hours in length, they are shorter but that doesn't mean it's not a long race. There is a lot of time in a junior series race and drivers aren't making sure they at least bring the car home. They are driving as if every single lap is the final lap and that is a terrible strategy. It sounds great on paper but it's horrible. That's like if a quarterback acted like every pass was the final one of the game and it had to be a Hail Mary to the end zone. That quarterback would not make it very long playing like that and the same can be said for these drivers.

In junior series, the key thing is getting track time and these drivers won't get that if they keep running into each other four laps into a race. Drivers need to be sidelined if they are reckless and sidelined for a significant period of time to get that point across. I don't care that Lance Stroll's daddy is a billionaire. His son is driving like a dangerous idiot and he needs sometime away from the car to get the message that if he keeps driving like that, he will not be a racecar driver very long.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Nico Rosberg but did you know...

The #23 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 of Alex Buncombe, Katsumasa Chiyo and Wolfgang Reip won the Blancpain Endurance Series 1000km at Circuit Paul Ricard.

Stoffel Vandoorne continues his streak of winning GP2 feature races as the Belgian won his fourth consecutive of 2015 at the Red Bull Ring. Rio Haryanto won the sprint race. American Alexander Rossi finished sixth and eighth in the two races.

Luca Ghiotto and Óscar Tunjo split the GP3 races in Austria and Ghiotto took the championship lead with his victory and a fourth.

Chaz Mostert won the first V8 Supercars race at Hidden Valley Racing. Craig Lowndes won the second race and that was Lowndes' 100th V8SC victory. David Reynolds won the Sunday race. It was Reynolds' second career V8SC race victory. Mostert now has three career race victories.

Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea split the World Superbike races at Misano. Jules Cluzel won his second consecutive World Supersport race. P.J. Jacobsen finished second to Cluzel in WSS.

The #46 MOLA Nissan GT-R of Satoshi Motoyama and Masataka Yanagida won the Super GT race in Thailand. The #3 NDDP Racing with B-MAX Nissan GT-R GT3 of Kazuki Hoshino and Mitsunori Takaboshi won in GT300.

Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb split the WTCC races in Slovakia.

Erik Jones won the NASCAR Truck race at Iowa on Friday night. The Grand National Series race at Chicagoland was postponed due to rain to Sunday and Erik Jones won that race as well.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar heads to Fontana for 500 miles.
NASCAR is also in the Golden State except further north at Sonoma.
Formula E ends their inaugural season with a doubleheader in London.
MotoGP will run the Dutch TT.
DTM head to the Norisring.
Speaking of Road America, Pirelli World Challenge will be in Elkhart Lake this weekend.
IMSA will run the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen.
Paul Ricard is busy for a second consecutive week as WTCC heads to the track in southern France.