Monday, November 9, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: Who is the Best American Driver Today?

There were many thrilling races this weekend in the world of motorsports and three champions crowned. Reliable beat speed in Putrajaya in what is arguably one of the races of the year. Valentino Rossi made a gallant effort in Valencia. Heavy rain fell in Suzuka. There were a lot of tire failures at Texas. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Who is the Best American Driver?
Ryan Hunter-Reay will compete in his third consecutive Race of Champions on November 20-21st at London's Olympic Stadium. In the press release from Race of Champions, it is noted that Hunter-Reay is "the most successful American driver currently racing in open-wheel competition in the world today"with more victories than any other active American in open-wheel competition. Hunter-Reay has an IndyCar championship, he has a Indianapolis 500 victory and is sixth amongst active IndyCar drivers in victories and tied for 27th all-time with Dan Wheldon on 16 victories.

But is Ryan Hunter-Reay the best American driver today?

When people ask what the pinnacle of motorsports the majority is going to say Formula One and that is a very valid answer. Alexander Rossi is the lone American on the Formula One grid. If Formula One were the pinnacle of motorsports and if Alexander Rossi is the lone American on the grid, then wouldn't he be considered the best American driver today?

Despite Rossi's success in GP2 and respectable results in the handful of Formula One starts he has made, I don't think many would consider him the best American driver as we speak.

It's a tough question for the American motorsports community as it is a very divided and territorial. IndyCar fans are going to shoot down any NASCAR driver. NASCAR fans believe there drivers are hands down the best in the world. Sports car fans will make their arguments for any one of a dozen drivers. Dirt track fans will rally that there is nothing more difficult than riding the cushion.

I don't think there is a more diverse talent pool then that of American motorsport. While other countries may have an easier time selecting who the best driver is, many talented drivers will be forgotten. For the United Kingdom, it's pretty obvious that Lewis Hamilton would be considered it's best driver. Same for Germany and Sebastian Vettel and Spain with Fernando Alonso. But think about André Lotterer, who has won many races in sports cars and Super Formula. If Felipe Massa is considered the best Brazilian just because he was in Formula One, the likes of Lucas di Grassi, Hélio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Cacá Bueno would be left out and they all have valid arguments for being considered.

The United States isn't the only country that would have a difficult time selecting its best driver. What about Australia? Mark Webber has won in Formula One and is in position for a world championship in FIA WEC but Will Power has had a very respectable career in the United States and Jamie Whincup has more V8 Supercars championships and second most victories in the series. Craig Lowndes broke the century mark in V8SC race victories earlier this year and won his sixth Bathurst 1000 last month. What about Belgium? Stoffel Vandoorne has clinched the GP2 title and everyone believes he should be in Formula One next year but in the GT ranks, Laurens Vanthoor has won a few titles and is constant threat for victory in any race he enters.

To get back on point, who is the best American driver? There is no right answer. Last year, Robby Gordon ran Race of Champions and defeated Tom Kristensen. No one would consider Robby Gordon the best American driver today or better than Kristensen but it just goes to show that many drivers could be in the discussion, including those we infrequently mention.

Now who will partner with Ryan Hunter-Reay this year at Race of Champions? It would be cool to see Hunter-Reay pair with his brother-in-law, Robby Gordon. I suggested Matt Kenseth skip the final NASCAR race and get some much needed rest and relaxation and spend the week in London instead of having to deal with a million questions at Homestead. I wouldn't mind if Alexander Rossi did it though. He has had a great 2015 and it would be a nice reward for him, although he just said goodbye to London so either he hasn't been asked yet or declined the invitation. We will have to wait and see.

From Japan
Speaking of Stoffel Vandoorne, the GP2 champion will be testing a Super Formula car later this month and the McLaren development driver is rumored to run in the Japanese-based series in 2016 as McLaren will retain both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button for the 2016 Formula One season.

While the Belgian says he thinks Super Formula would prepare him the best for the high downforce of Formula One, this potential move should have IndyCar questioning themselves and their place in the motorsports landscape. It wasn't that long along that the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Bruno Junqueira and Sébastien Bourdais were coming over to the United States fresh off International Formula 3000 championships, which was the predecessor to GP2. Heck, Timo Glock came over and ran a season in Champ Car before heading back to Europe and winning the GP2 crown and getting a ride with Toyota.

I admire Super Formula and I hope someday Super Formula and IndyCar can form a beautiful Pan-Pacific open-wheel relationship that sees a shared chassis and engine formula with teams and drivers coming over from Japan to attempt the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar teams and drivers returning the favor and returning to the Land of the Rising Sun. But what should really make IndyCar perk up their ears is that Vandoorne isn't just choosing Super Formula. Rather he is being directed there. His move to Super Formula is because of Honda. What does that say about how Honda views their racing properties? What does that say about the state of IndyCar?

While Honda may view Super Formula as more important than IndyCar, let's not forget that IndyCar isn't the easiest series to deal with and with teams struggle to make the grid each year, it might more hassle than it should be to try and get Vandoorne in a ride. With Super Formula, it appears to be easier for Honda to put Vandoorne in a ride than putting him in an IndyCar ride. While Vandoorne seems ready to run Super Formula next year, let's point out that Honda's track record in Super Formula is worse than their track record in IndyCar. Honda has struggled to keep up with Toyota in Super Formula. Honda won one of eight races in Super Formula this season and that victory was the final race of the season. Last year, Honda won one of nine Super Formula races and in 2013 Honda won two of seven. If anything, IndyCar should be higher on Honda's depth chart than Super Formula considering it's the series they are more competitive in.

I would love to see the Belgian in IndyCar and who knows? Maybe Honda can negotiate a test for him with Andretti. Andretti was working on a fourth car for Justin Wilson in 2016 and that would be Vandoorne's best option if he were to come to IndyCar. However, I think Vandoorne will be competing in Japan next year. Unless the Formula One regulations change and allow for teams to run a third car; then I expect him to be partnered with Alonso and Button.

More From Japan
1. Super Formula gets me. The first race at Suzuka started at 10:00 a.m. local time in Suzuka. That is a prime brunch hour. And for those on the East Coast of the United States, that was an 8:00 p.m. ET start. Who says American series can't race in Japan? They just need to take advantage of Japanese brunch time.

2. Quick sidebar: Do people in Japan have brunch? If so, what is it like? Is it just like American brunch where it's a mix of waffles and pancakes with sides of pork loin?

3. I am offering Super Formula $50 for the television and streaming rights to the series in the United States. I couldn't even find a "questionable" feed for the races this weekend. There are a lot of talented drivers in that series, the equipment is pretty good and I would like to bring it to the eyes and ears of the American people.

4. Yokohama is replacing Bridgestone as the tire supplier in Super Formula starting next season. I find that interesting. Bridgestone has pulled out of Formula One, this was the company's last season in MotoGP, is isn't involved in sports cars beyond Super GT in the GT500 class. What is the future of Bridgestone in motorsports and what does it mean for Firestone in IndyCar? Remember, Firestone wasn't keen on returning to IndyCar not that long ago and has pulled out of Indy Lights. It is just something for you to think about on this Monday.

Champions From the Weekend
Jorge Lorenzo won his third MotoGP championship with his victory at Valencia.

Hiroaki Ishiura won the Super Formula championship with a second to André Lotterer in race one from Suzuka and fourth in race two while Naoki Yamamoto won the race.

Danny Kent won the Moto3 championship with a ninth at Valencia while his championship rival Miguel Oliveira took the race victory.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lucas di Grassi, Jorge Lorenzo, Miguel Oliveira and what happened at Suzuka but did you know...

Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Cup race from Texas, meaning at least two drivers will qualify for the final race on points.

Jamie Whincup and David Reynolds split the Saturday V8 Supercar races from Pukekohe Park Raceway. Whincup won the Sunday race as well.

The #8 Race Performance Oreca-Judd of Nicolas Leutwiler and Shinji Nakano won the Asian Le Mans Series race from Sepang. The #3 Clearwater Racing McLaren 650S GT3 of Weng Sun Mok, Rob Bell and Keita Sawa won in GT. The #21 Avelon Formula Wolf Racing GB08 of Denis Lian and Giorgio Maggi won in CN. The #1 DC Racing Ligier JSP3-Nissan of David Cheng, Ho-Pin Tung and Thomas Laurent won in LMP3.

Esteve Rabat won the Moto2 race from Valencia in his return after missing the Asia-Pacific swing due to an injury in practice at Motegi. Moto2 champion Johann Zarco finished seventh.

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Grand National Series race at Texas. Erik Jones won the Truck race.

Coming Up This Weekend
The penultimate round of the Formula One season: The Brazilian Grand Prix.
The penultimate round of the NASCAR season: Phoenix.
The season finale for the Super GT season: Motegi.
The season finale for World Rally Championship: Wales Rally GB.