Monday, June 29, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: Driving That Train, High On Cocaine

California was busy hosting both IndyCar and NASCAR. Two of the United States' premier road courses hosted sports cars and it rained heavily at one of them. Valentino Rossi beat Marc Márquez in arguably one of the best races of 2015. The inaugural Formula E championship came to a close. Mercedes continued their domination but it wasn't in Formula One. France had a good weekend in WTCC. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Driving That Train, High On Cocaine
There is a phrase that is used in IndyCar circles that is vilely incorrect and I need to address it. Anytime someone mentions IndyCar possibly returning to Phoenix, Michigan, Road America, Laguna Seca, Richmond, wherever, the line "you better buy a ticket" is thrown out like a parent giving their child an ultimatum about dessert depending on their vegetable consumption.

It's not realistic to expect every IndyCar fan to buy a ticket to every race they want to see and I have mentioned this before. If you are like me and live on the east coast, it's not like Phoenix and Laguna Seca are 20-minute car rides away. The same can be said for fans in the Pacific Time Zone with Michigan, Richmond and Road America. IndyCar fans aren't genies who can snap their fingers and be at every race they want and then just snap their fingers and return home.

It's illogical to expect the microscopically small fan base that IndyCar has to follow the series around like it's the Grateful Dead and have every race be guaranteed at least 10,000 fans because you have convoys of people driving cross-country following IndyCar wherever the series goes. The fate of races cannot be put on the shoulders of the common fan. The multi-million dollar racetracks and IndyCar need to do a better job of drawing new people through the gates, not expecting the current lot of people to be good enough.

Don't get me wrong, Fontana was screwed on their date after having a perfect spot in October but the track and series has to do something entirely different to draw people out into 90º F heat. People attend events in that type heat all the time, the only problem is if they aren't getting enough bang for their buck, such as Fontana, then they won't go out because it won't be worth.

When I say, "do something entirely different," I don't mean create ticket packages with free food and memorabilia, I mean do something that isn't associated with motorsports. I have always commented that races with Ferris wheels are normally highly attended. Rent one and a few other carnival rides. The Snake Pit at the Indianapolis 500 is popular and perhaps it's something that could be done at other tracks. The series doesn't have enough money to have Steve Aoki be at each race but a second Snake Pit at Fontana may have drawn more people, as it would have been a show followed by a race. Stadium Super Trucks would have been a nice inclusion and I wish they were going to be at Pocono because if none of the Road to Indy series are going to be with IndyCar at a race then some type of support series needs to help fill the bill. Have some type of festival (barbecue, wine, cheese, whatever) tied into the event. Have a flea market be apart of the event if you have to. Look outside the box and look for ways to get new people to the races and this goes for all races, not just Fontana.

It should not be on the shoulders of the current fans to attend seven races a year to prop the series up. If you can't get to a race, that's not a problem. Not everyone can afford to go to a race and it doesn't make you less of a fan. If you can get to race, then great but don't feel like you make cross-country trips multiple times a year. IndyCar doesn't give out a prize for most races attended. Go to the races you can and don't feel bad if you can't get to one. It's not a fan's job to attend all the races. It is the track owners and series job to draw as many people, diehards and curious first-timers, out regardless of the weather. If they aren't happy with the amount of people in the stands then it is on them, not you.

Formula E Year One Review
The inaugural Formula E championship wrapped up and Nelson Piquet, Jr. became it's Nino Farina, taking the title by one-point over Sébastien Buemi, despite the Swiss driving winning the Saturday race from London and holding off a second title challenger in Lucas di Grassi. It's eerie how the inaugural Formula One season in 1950 and the inaugural Formula E season 65 years later came down to the final race with three drivers fighting for the title. Is it a sign of what the future has in store? I don't know but Formula E happened and all those who didn't believe this series would even get started, let alone complete a full year and crown a champion can suck it.

Formula E isn't a perfect after year one. Like any series, it is constantly evolving and Formula E will probably look much different in the next few seasons. The car swapping will probably be replaced in a year or two. Will the technology to quickly swap out a battery be developed and used? Will cars be able to go a full 45 minutes on a single-charge? That remains to be seen. Will the series run permanent circuits? I hope so and it might happen next year at Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City but I doubt they would run the full, 2.680-mile course considering the longest track Formula E raced on this year was the first race at Beijing's 2.14-mile Olympic Green Circuit. I'd love to see Formula E run a short oval such as Phoenix, Richmond, Loudon or Indianapolis Raceway Park because I think it would be a good test of longevity with the cars spending more time on the throttle and lifting in the corners.

The races weren't all that fast but neither were the first automobile races at the turn of the 20th century and then speed of races will increase and it did over the course of the season. The opening race in Beijing had an average speed of 61.2 MPH (98.492 KPH) while the season finale in London was the fastest race of the season with an average speed of 69.029 MPH (111.093 KPH). It's not setting the world on fire but next year, after some testing over the summer, perhaps the opening race will average at 75 MPH and at this time next year we could be seeing average speeds close to 90 MPH for a race. Once again, it's not mind-boggling speed but you can't look at Formula E with a mindset of over a century of development. Formula E is in its infancy stage and these are the baby steps it will make.

The one concern I have is where is this series going to race next year? Reportedly 180 cities are interested in hosting Formula E and the schedule is set to expand from ten to 12 cities but how many races return? It seems like Beijing was a success and will be the season opener again. London went well. Long Beach wasn't bad but it didn't help that it was Easter weekend. Can Formula E afford to have seven new venues while only returning to five? Perhaps Formula E is starting at the right time and has the right strategy. It feels like it doesn't matter where Formula E takes places. It feels like a 21st century series where television ratings matter more than amount of spectators and it doesn't matter where a race occurs because 100 million people from around the globe will be watching on TV. It sounds like Bernie Ecclestone's dream series.

I actually think Formula E is looking at attendance the right way. Most races only had 15-20,000 attendees but think about most sports leagues. A crowd of 15-20,000 is what most NBA and NHL teams get a night. Most soccer leagues from around globe get crowds slightly larger than that but not by much. I think most motorsports (NASCAR, IndyCar) series have been too focused on getting six-figure crowds that crowds of even 60,000 people aren't good enough but the only sports league in the world that averages over 60,000 is the NFL. I think most motorsports series (NASCAR, IndyCar) need perspective on average attendance and realize that averaging 40-50,000 actually isn't a bad thing.

Back to Formula E. The one thing I worried about Formula E was what was going to happen when it entered the traditional motorsports season in the spring? The season started in September but nearly a third of the rounds took place in November-January when they had no competition. During that time, drivers are eager to race and would love to escape the frozen Northern Hemisphere with the sunshine and beaches of Uruguay and Argentina. There was a lot of buzz but it did seem to taper off. Some of these drivers were moonlighting in Formula E and when winter turned into spring there was a feeling that drivers saw it as the end of a vacation and time to get back to their real jobs.

However, the series still had a lot of talented drivers run majority of the season and actually gained one or two for the second half. Buemi won the FIA WEC title and ran all the races. Di Grassi ran all the races. Both are with top-tier LMP1 programs and they made it work. Loïc Duval joined the series halfway through and did great. It did seem the back half of the grid was getting desperate toward the end of the season in filling seats. Aguri had Sakon Yamamoto, yes that Sakon Yamamoto who has 21 Formula One starts but hasn't won a race in a decade in Super GT and hadn't raced anything since 2010, in their car. TrulliGP put GP3's Alex Fontana in their car for the final round. Even Andretti Autosport had a revolving door in their #28 car.

Despite a few rotating seats, there was some good racing. Was it the greatest ever? No but it was respectable. Piquet, Jr., Buemi and di Grassi were the best three drivers. Sam Bird had a really good season as he picked up his second victory of the season in the season finale on home soil. E.dams was the top team but I got to give a shout out to Dragon Racing. They finished second in Teams' Championship, they had cars finish in the points 18 of a possible 22 times, the best success rate of any team and Jérôme d'Ambrosio was the surprise of the series. I liked him in GP2, his only Formula One experience was with Marussia but he showed he could hang with some of the best. I was sad to see Oriol Servià step out of the second Dragon entry after finishing the first four races in the points but, as I said before, Loïc Duval did great. It's still early but look for Dragon to challenge for the title in 2015-16.

First year of Formula E is now in the history books. The second chapter will be upon us this fall.

In case you are wondering, here is what the Formula E Championship would have looked like if they used the 9-6-4-3-2-1 points system:

2014-15 Formula E Drivers'
Sébastien Buemi- 42
Nelson Piquet, Jr.- 39
Lucas di Grassi- 39
Jérôme d'Ambrosio- 30
Sam Bird- 26
Nicolas Prost- 19
Jean-Éric Vergne- 14
António Félix da Costa- 10
Bruno Senna- 8
Loïc Duval- 8
Franck Montagny- 6
Scott Speed- 6
Daniel Abt- 6
Nick Heidfeld- 6
Jamie Alguersuari- 5
Charles Pic- 3
Jarno Trulli- 3
Karun Chandhok- 3
Stéphane Sarrazin- 1
Salvador Durán- 1

2014-15 Formula E Teams'
e.dams Renault- 61
Audi Sport ABT- 45
China Racing- 39
Dragon- 38
Virgin Racing- 31
Andretti Autosport- 29
Aguri- 11
Mahindra- 11
Venturi GP- 7
TrulliGP- 3

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Graham Rahal, Nelson Piquet, Jr.'s title, Sébastien Buemi, Sam Bird and Valentino Rossi but did you know...

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma in his fifth start of the season.

Pascal Wehrlein and Robert Wickens split the DTM races from the Norisring but they extended Mercedes' streak of victories on the Nürnberg street circuit to 11 of the last 12.

Johann Zarco won his second consecutive Moto2 race and third of the season at Assen. Miguel Oliveira won in Moto3.

Tomáš Enge, Chris Dyson and James Davison split the Pirelli World Challenge GT races from Road America. There was a third race at Road America after the second Belle Isle race was cancelled due to rain. In GTS, Lou Gigliotti and Andrew Aquilante each picked up a victory.

Michael Valiante and Richard Westbrook won a very wet 6 Hours of the Glen in the #90 Spirit of Daytona Corvette DP. The #8 Starworks Oreca of Renger van der Zande, Mike Hedlund and Alex Popow won in PC. It was the second consecutive victory for the #8 Starworks entry. The #17 Team Falken Tires Porsche of Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers won in GTLM. Al Carter, Cameron Lawrence and Marc Goossens won in GTD in the #93 Viper.

Citroën swept their home WTCC races at Circuit Paul Ricard with Sébastien Loeb and José María López taking the victories.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One will run the British Grand Prix.
NASCAR takes their annual Fourth of July weekend trek back to Daytona.
World Rally will be in Poland.
Blancpain Sprint Series will be right next door to WRC in Russia at Moscow Raceway.