Monday, May 2, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: How Thin is the Talent Pool?

The month of May is here. The 2016 World Drivers' Championship is firmly in Nico Rosberg's hand after he won in Sochi. IndyCar's Labor Day will not be spent in Boston. NASCAR had a confusing finish and a ginormous amount of damaged race cars. V8 Supercars is dropping the "V8." Red Bull tested an "aeroscreen." There was a first-time and popular winner at Laguna Seca. Ryan Dungey clinched his third career AMA Supercross championship. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

How Thin is the Talent Pool?
For a young driver hoping to make it to the top of motorsports, whether it be Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR or whatever it could be, track time is getting harder and harder to come by. Drivers use to test like crazy during the offseason, running thousands of miles in preparation for an upcoming season. Rookies would enter a season with hours of track time and a vast working knowledge of a car. Drivers would know what setup they liked and could slide right into a series and be competitive.

Costs have expanded and now offseason testing consists of one or two two-day sessions. A driver goes months without being behind the wheel of a car. Most drivers enter on a wing and a prayer of getting top results in their first season. Rookie balance the expectations to be as great as their predecessors with a fifth of the testing and to bring the car home in one piece because checkbooks are tight and teams don't want to pay for spares.

The quality of future grids is likely to go down in the next few years as the last of the generation of testers approach retirement. This lack of testing has lengthened the careers of a handful of drivers (Tony Kanaan, Hélio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya) but eventually they will need to be replaced and the youngsters will likely be overlooked. It's not that drivers born in the 1990s aren't as talented because they don't rush to get their drivers' licenses like previous generations but they have raced in an era where track time only ever comes on a race weekend and the expectation has been to supplement real-life testing for computer simulations. Let's just say, there is no experience that makes up for the real thing.

Some people are worried, especially with the month of May beginning. Six rookies are currently entered for the Indianapolis 500. That's not a bad thing and this abundance of rookies isn't a new thing. Just two years ago there were seven rookies. Back in 1992 there were seven rookies including two future champions, Paul Tracy and Jimmy Vasser. The 1995 Indianapolis 500 had six rookies and two finished in the top four and three in the top eleven.

What people are concerned about is the lack of oval experience in this rookie class. Of the six rookies, three made their first oval start ever at Phoenix in April (Alexander Rossi, Max Chilton, Luca Filippi) and the other three haven't raced an oval in IndyCar but have oval experience in Indy Lights and all three have raced the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, Stefan Wilson). Only Brabham has yet to make an IndyCar start but he is scheduled to debut in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Comparing this rookie class to the 2014 class, they aren't that different. All seven had never run an IndyCar oval race entering that year's race. Of the seven, two had never run an oval race prior (Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Huertas). The other five all had oval experience and all had experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Jack Hawksworth, James Davison, Martin Plowman and Sage Karam had all raced the Freedom 100 and Kurt Busch was well versed in ovals from his NASCAR experience. Busch and Karam were the only two drivers making their IndyCar debuts.

Is the concern over experience just another storyline being created out of thin air? Probably. There wasn't nearly as much concern in 2014 and you could argue that class was less prepared that 2016. Two of these rookies went on to finish in the top ten, five finished all 200 laps and all seven were running at the finish. Heck this rookie class is arguably more experienced then the 1995 class. André Ribeiro had four ovals starts in Indy Lights and two in IndyCar, both coming earlier that season. Alessandro Zampedri had three IndyCar oval starts. Gil de Ferran's only IndyCar oval starts were at Phoenix and Nazareth earlier that season, same for Eliseo Salazar and Christian Fittipaldi. Carlos Guerrero ran Nazareth the month prior.

The aero kits and the domed skids are what have been making people twitchy. The domed skids have never been raced. Whether you agree with something being implemented for the first time in the Indianapolis 500 or not it is happening. It would have been nice for IndyCar to race the domed skid prior and maybe IndyCar should increase the requirements if a driver wants to attempt the Indianapolis 500. If a driver, regardless of what they have done in their careers, wants to run the 24 Hours Nürburgring in GT3 machinery, a driver must not only compete in but finish two VLN events around the Nordschleife with at least 18 laps driven and in the top 75% of class with a minimum of three starters.

If IndyCar wants to make sure the drivers are better prepared, requiring them to run at least one, if not two IndyCar oval races before going to Indianapolis isn't necessarily a bad idea, especially with testing being so limited. IndyCar already has Phoenix prior to the "500." Adding a 1.5-mile oval before the month of May could be another chance for drivers to get oval experience and allow IndyCar to test any technical changes, such as the domed skids. As for worries about drivers getting the funding to run these races, I am sure it could be found and IndyCar could use their television partner to its advantage. The network races give sponsors more exposure and the ovals could be shown on ABC (I would even argue ovals should be the only IndyCar races shown on network but that's a discussion for another day).

Ultimately, what IndyCar wants to be comes down to IndyCar. If IndyCar wants its drivers to have more experience, it is up to IndyCar to raise the standards and make sure it is possible for those standards to be met. Raising the standards would not only help the series but help the young drivers get experience that the top teams want when it comes to hiring a driver.

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

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega. Elliott Sadler won the Grand National Series race.

The #60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier-Honda of Oswaldo Negri, Jr. and John Pew won the IMSA race from Laguna Seca. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook took the Ford GT's first victory in GTLM since its return to competition in the #67 Ford GT.

The #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca of Tom Kimber-Smith and Robert Alon won the PC/GTD race at Laguna Seca. The #23 Heart of Racing/Alex Job Racing Porsche of Alex Riberas and Mario Farnbacher won in GTD.

Chaz Davies swept the World Superbike races from Imola, the second time he swept a weekend this season. Davies swept Aragón a month ago. Kenan Sofuoglu won the World Supersport race.

Ken Roczen won the AMA Supercross race from East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Coming Up This Weekend
FIA WEC will run six hours around Spa-Francorchamps.
NASCAR will run Saturday night at Kansas.
MotoGP heads to Le Mans.
Super GT runs mid-week at Fuji.
DTM opens its season at the Hockenheimring.
V8 Supercars head west to Barbagallo Raceway, just north of Perth.
Blancpain Sprint Series will be at Brands Hatch.
WTCC return to the streets of Marrakech.
AMA Supercross ends its season in Las Vegas.