Monday, December 14, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: IndyCar Needs to Exploit Gaps in European System

This is the final Musings From the Weekend of 2015. I know. I am sad to. But there will be plenty posted over the final two weeks of the year. Keep an eye out for some fun stuff over the next two weeks as you put up Christmas decorations, wait for Stars War to be released and order Chinese food. However, this weekend featured a few red flags and some rain. Stéphane Ratel makes it difficult to be a GT3 fan in the United States and Canada thanks to geo-blocking. Off the track, a few drivers announced their plans to participate in IndyCar in 2016. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

IndyCar Needs to Exploit Gaps in European System
Esteban Ocon is in a dilemma. The GP3 champion is 19 years old and his career path is at a crossroads. It would seem obvious that Ocon should just move up to GP2 like four of the five previous GP3 champions but it's not that simple. The Mercedes development driver wants to go to Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters next year and Mercedes-Benz shouldn't have a problem finding a place for the Frenchman.

The GP2/GP3 system does not allow a champion to return and defend their title and that makes sense on paper. It's a development series and once you win it, you are kicked out of the nest and have to make it on your own. The only problem is there aren't always seats available at the next level and GP2 champions Giorgio Pantano, Davide Valsecchi, Fabio Leimer and Jolyon Palmer have failed to get a Formula One race seat the year after their titles and it appears you can add Stoffel Vandoorne's name to that list. Ocon doesn't turn 20 years old until September 17, 2016 and while he wouldn't necessarily be a shoe-in for the GP2 title, if he were to win it, Ocon would likely find himself adding his name to that list above. He could go to Formula 3.5 V8 (formerly Formula Renault 3.5) but that isn't a series Mercedes has used for development drivers.

The GP2/GP3 system is made to keep drivers flowing through but currently there is a logjam of drivers trying to get to Formula One but with no alternative that will keep them in the eyes of Formula One team owners. Ocon could be 20 years old with nowhere to go. As long as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are winning races and getting along, there will be no room for Ocon at Mercedes and let's not forget to mention DTM champion and Mercedes development driver Pascal Wehrlein is also trying to make it to Formula One and tested a GP2 car last week.

DTM makes all the sense in the world for Ocon. He could run two years there before moving to GP2 or straight to Formula One. The FIA Super License points could become an issue though. Ocon sits on 65 Super License points and is set to drop five points from third in the 2013 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0. However, Ocon is set to drop 30 points for second in the 2014 European Formula Three champion after the 2017 season and that could put the Frenchman in jeopardy of not being qualified for a Super License. The DTM champion only gets 15 points. DTM would be a butterfly bandage to a wound that needs a suture.

However, there is an alternative. The United States and the Road to Indy system. Indy Lights is also a butterfly bandage but IndyCar is Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte to the more expensive, harder to find  croquembouche that is GP2. Both champions get 40 Super License points, second in GP2 also gets 40 points and IndyCar only gets 30. There are fewer races in IndyCar but everyone agrees there should be more. But, unlike GP2, the IndyCar champion can stay as long as they like.

IndyCar needs to promote this one difference to Formula One teams and turn their series into a semester-abroad option for development drivers and a chance for Formula One teams to get a firmer hold in the American market. Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Williams and McLaren all have development drivers that could one day make it to Formula One. By sending one or two to the United States creates the opportunity for these names to build up a following stateside and if they were to make it to Formula One, it would be a name American fans could recognize and tune in to watch. It could also increase viewership of IndyCar in Europe and around the globe, as fans would have a chance to tune in and see highly touted drivers with Formula One in their future.

The stretch would be for IndyCar to turn their U.S. campus also into a series that the likes of Mercedes and FIAT invest in and develop engines for. IndyCar needs more engine manufactures. Honda and Chevrolet are strained and growth in the series has been stunted because of it. But if Mercedes could partner with a team or two (say... KV and Carlin) and FIAT could partner with a team (say... Andretti and Racing Engineering, who are evaluating expanding to IndyCar) all of a sudden the pressure is off Honda and Chevrolet, IndyCar has two more partners in the series and hopefully the grid would grow by 4-6 entries.

It's a pie-in-the-sky idea but IndyCar can't just be selling IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 to manufactures. While many of you are angry that this sounds like IndyCar taking a backseat to Formula One, let's face it that IndyCar and Formula One aren't even in the same car. If IndyCar can benefit by turning itself into an American promotional and development arm for Formula One teams and manufactures, then why not do it? Of course, don't put all your eggs in that basket and still buddy up with Super Formula but IndyCar needs to be open to whatever it takes to raise the quality of the series and grow, not just in the United States but also around the globe.

IndyCar Needs to Embrace Electric Power
With the news coming out of Paris that countries from around the world will govern the reduction of carbon dioxide emission, I start thinking about the future of motorsports. While any motorsports series from around the world evolving into an all-electric series won't be the cure for the environment issues of the world, it is worth considering slowly adapting and weaning off fuel.

I think about IndyCar's place in the motorsports landscape and I think about Formula E. Formula E isn't lighting the world on fire but it has people's attention and most importantly, it has the attention of manufactures.

What if the 101st Indianapolis 500 was all-electric? It's not going to happen but let's play a hypothetical. Speeds would be much slower but the problem is how motorsports fans view electric motorsports. Fans hold electric motorsports to the standards of over a century of development when in reality electric motorsports are in year two. Back at the turn of the 20th century, when it was gas-powered engines vs. steam-powered, the speeds were comparable to what Formula E is running at today.

If anything, instead of pooh-poohing electric motorsports for not being equal to cars running on ethanol, gasoline or diesel, we should celebrate the milestones. We should celebrate the first 100-mph average lap and same for 150-mph and 200-mph and so on in electric equipment. The men and/or women who become the first to break those milestones should be celebrated in the same way René Thomas, Parnelli Jones and Tom Sneva were.

When I look at Formula E, I see a very narrow path being paved for electric motorsports. It seems the ball will only go in the direction that series is going and while that isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is if it doesn't embrace the current motorsports infrastructure. Formula E has from the start been about racing on street circuits in city centers around the world and while that sounds nice, I only wonder what it means for places such as Monza, Spa-Francorchamps, Silverstone, Bathurst and Indianapolis? I think about oval racing in general. There is no reason why Formula E couldn't run an oval race or two. The series is too young to say oval racing is against their tradition. The series should be open to being different and not being all-street circuits.

However, while Formula E shows no interest in bringing their product to ovals, maybe another sanctioning body should partner with Formula E to further the development of electric motorsports and maybe that series should be IndyCar. IndyCar needs support races at oval races and an electric championship could be it.

My expanded idea:
An American-based electric series run in partnership with Formula E and IndyCar as a support-series to IndyCar events.

Run at all the ovals, three road courses and three street circuits.

The goal would to further develop the electric technology in hopes to one day become the formula for IndyCar.

There are a lot of questions I still have about how it would work. How long would races be? What is the practical length for a race around a place such as Indianapolis or Pocono? What road courses would be run? I'd love to see Road America be attempted because some day an electric car is going to have to tackle the over four-mile course. And these questions are a good thing. They lay the foundation for what needs to be explored. If I had to choose the three road courses, I'd select the IMS road course, Road America and Sonoma. As for the street circuits, I would select St. Petersburg, Toronto and Boston.

How many cars would there be? Would all these teams be run by IndyCar teams? IndyCar teams barely have enough to run IndyCar programs. There could be some crossover but Bryan Herta Autosport, Dale Coyne Racing and AJ Foyt Racing would be unlikely to compete. I think 18 cars would be good for a start. Andretti could run a car or two, same for Dragon Racing. Maybe Penske or Ganassi would consider joining the series. Maybe the likes of e.dams and Abt would expand to the United States. As for the drivers, I would have as many IndyCar/Road to Indy drivers as possible involved. They would already be at the race tracks and it would be good for both series as it would give current IndyCar fans drivers to watch for and it would give new fans drivers they could follow to IndyCar if they gave it at shot. It would be a win-win for each series.

As for a name for this pie-in-the-sky electric series, I was thinking IndyE but I think the terms "Indy" or "IndyCar" should be as far away from the name of this series name. I then came up with United States Electric Championship (USEC) but it sounds too similar to USAC. Considering there would be a race in Canada, I thought it should be the North American Electric Championship but NAEC is already claimed by IMSA for their North American Endurance Championship. What about the Can-Am All-Electric Championship? The CAAEC. It's not worth coming up with acronyms and names for something that currently doesn't exist but I have already wasted my time doing it.

One day there will have to be an all-electric race on an oval and it mind as well be sooner rather than later and IndyCar mind as well jump on the opportunity now and not let the ball pass them by.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the Gulf 12 Hours but did you know...

The #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT of Laurens Vanthoor, Stéphane Ortelli and Stuart Leonard won the Sepang 12 Hours.

The #23 Top Speed Racing Lamborghini Super Trofeo Huracán of Yuan Bo, James Munro, Mohamad Afiq Ikhwan Bin Mohamad Yaz and Martin Rump won in the GTC class in the Sepang 12 Hours. The #86 Wing Hin Motorsports Toyota GT86 of Kenny Lee Wan Yuen, Ho Wil Liam and Wong Yew Choong won in the TC class.

Coming Up This Weekend
The final major race of the calendar year: Formula E heads to Punta del Este, Uruguay.