Wednesday, June 8, 2016

2016 Verizon IndyCar Series First Half Review

Three months remain in the IndyCar season
IndyCar is still in the middle of its longest stretch of racing of the season but the series will enter the second half of the season this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway before getting a much needed break before returning to Road America at the end of the month. While the 2016 season started much like 2015, full of anger and Penske dominance, 2016 has not followed down the path of controversy (minus Long Beach but that was quickly and successively resolved) and has instead been full of intrigue and mind games.

One Year Later
When looking at this year's championship standings after eight races, I thought I would go back and look at the championship standings after eight races in 2015 just to compare.

Position 2015 Points 2016 Points
1 Juan Pablo Montoya 315 Simon Pagenaud 357
2 Will Power 294 Scott Dixon 277
3 Scott Dixon 252 Hélio Castroneves 271
4 Hélio Castroneves 250 Josef Newgarden 259
5 Graham Rahal 246 Alexander Rossi 242
6 Sébastien Bourdais 228 Carlos Muñoz 242
7 Marco Andretti 224 Will Power 240
8 Josef Newgarden 206 Tony Kanaan 240
9 Simon Pagenaud 193 Juan Pablo Montoya 233
10 Charlie Kimball 187 Charlie Kimball 227
11 Carlos Muñoz 180 James Hinchcliffe 226
12 Tony Kanaan 174 Graham Rahal 225
13 Ryan Hunter-Reay 171 Ryan Hunter-Reay 224
14 Takuma Sato 166 Sébastien Bourdais 210
15 Gabby Chaves 133 Conor Daly 177
16 James Jakes 132 Takuma Sato 173
17 James Hinchcliffe 129 Marco Andretti 166
18 Jack Hawksworth 128 Mikhail Aleshin 155
19 Luca Filippi 120 Max Chilton 139
20 Stefano Coletti 104 Jack Hawksworth 110

It is no surprise Simon Pagenaud is a big mover but it is interesting to see how much more dominant he has been compared to Juan Pablo Montoya last year. There was a point last year where we all thought Montoya was going to clinch the championship before getting to Sonoma. This year, it seems almost certain Pagenaud will be lifting the Astor Cup at either Pocono or Watkins Glen despite the season finale being double points (more on that later).

It is also not surprising Scott Dixon is second in the championship and Hélio Castroneves is third. Josef Newgarden finds himself in fourth, four spots better than last year. Newgarden was in the championship fight at Sonoma last season and even if he isn't in championship contention come Sonoma this year, if he can keep up his good form and stay in the top five of the championship for the rest of the season, he could have a promotion fall into his lap.

A few surprises would be Alexander Rossi and Carlos Muñoz (more on those two later) but also Charlie Kimball in tenth, Graham Rahal in 12th and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 13th. Until the most recent race, Kimball had been very consistent this season with finishes of tenth, 12th, 11th, ninth, fifth, fifth and eighth. Tenth in the championship seems a little low for Kimball. Rahal has had a good season with four top fives from eight races but he is further down the table because his other four finishes have been 16th, 15th, 14th and 11th. Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay through eight races last season had zero podiums and three top ten finishes. This season, Hunter-Reay has two podiums and five top ten finishes through eight races and he is still 13th in the championship. If Hunter-Reay can repeat how he finished 2015, he will vault up the standings but it is hard to believe he isn't in the top ten after the first eight races.

How Much Is Indianapolis 500 Double Points Screwing Things Up?
Despite winning the Indianapolis 500, nobody truly believes Alexander Rossi has had the fifth best season through eight races. He has had a good season, arguably the best of the rookies (although Conor Daly is making a valid case) but he is probably more around the tenth or 11th best season.

The same can be said for Carlos Muñoz. Outside of his second in the Indianapolis 500, Muñoz's next notable moment in the 2016 season is him t-boning Graham Rahal at St. Petersburg and having an accident at Phoenix. While Rossi has had about the tenth or 11th best season, Muñoz has to be much lower and I would even argue to put him below Conor Daly who is 15th in the championship.

Double points and qualifying points for the Indianapolis 500 are inflating Rossi and Muñoz success. What would the championship look like had the Indianapolis 500 been paid like the other seven races contested this season?

Position 2016 As Is Points 2016 Without Double Points Points
1 Simon Pagenaud 357 Simon Pagenaud 318
2 Scott Dixon 277 Scott Dixon 232
3 Hélio Castroneves 271 Hélio Castroneves 226
4 Josef Newgarden 259 Juan Pablo Montoya 211
5 Alexander Rossi 242 Graham Rahal 201
6 Carlos Muñoz 242 Tony Kanaan 191
7 Will Power 240 Will Power 188
8 Tony Kanaan 240 Josef Newgarden 184
9 Juan Pablo Montoya 233 Charlie Kimball 179
10 Charlie Kimball 227 Ryan Hunter-Reay 177
11 James Hinchcliffe 226 Sébastien Bourdais 173
12 Graham Rahal 225 Alexander Rossi 169
13 Ryan Hunter-Reay 224 Carlos Muñoz 168
14 Sébastien Bourdais 210 Conor Daly 162
15 Conor Daly 177 James Hinchcliffe 158
16 Takuma Sato 173 Takuma Sato 146
17 Marco Andretti 166 Marco Andretti 129
18 Mikhail Aleshin 155 Mikhail Aleshin 120
19 Max Chilton 139 Max Chilton 112
20 Jack Hawksworth 110 Jack Hawksworth 93

Rossi and Muñoz each drop seven positions while Pagenaud would still lead the championship and would actually lead it by six more points than he does now over Dixon. Montoya's last place finish at Indianapolis wouldn't drop him to ninth in the championship and he would be fourth while Rahal would be seven positions higher than he is now in fifth. Newgarden would drop four positions, Kimball would be up one, Hunter-Reay would be up three, Bourdais would be up three and Hinchcliffe would be down four.

I don't think double points are the end of the world. I think Indianapolis 500 qualifying points are more annoying than double points but it's a level playing field for everyone. Everyone had an equal chance at 100 points. It's not like all the Honda teams got double points at Indianapolis while the Chevrolet teams were stuck on single points.

How Competitive Has It Really Been?
If I had told you there would be six different winners in the first eight IndyCar races, you would probably have been excited and think this would be another wide open season with another championship fight between at four, maybe as many as six or seven drivers heading into the final two races of the season. However, the only driver with multiple victories this season has won three times and has finished second on three other occasions and the championship is on the verge of becoming a runaway.

Chevrolet has won seven of eight races but Honda has been more competitive and this isn't just based on the Indianapolis 500. Graham Rahal was one back marker away from winning at Barber. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been on the podium twice. Conor Daly has been in good form for the last month. With three ovals remaining this season and Honda having won at two of those ovals last season, I have to think Chevrolet won't win out and the two manufactures could split the remaining eight races. Last year, it ended 10-6 in terms of victories in favor of Chevrolet. The American manufacture would surpass that mark should it win four of the final eight but even if that is the case, 2016 hasn't been as much of a bloodbath as 2015 was.

It Could Be Over Early
Some are afraid about Simon Pagenaud lifting the Astor Cup before Sonoma. Sonoma Raceway is afraid Pagenaud clinches the title on the East Coast at Pocono or Watkins Glen.

Let's take a step back for a second. The last ten seasons have come down to the final race of the season. I think some are taking it for granted that the championship must be decided on the final lap at the final race. It doesn't and it shouldn't happen every year. One year of the championship being decided early isn't the end of the world. It should be a reminder of how fortunate we are that the title has come down to the wire as often as it has in recent memory.

There shouldn't be a knee-jerk reaction should Pagenaud be crowned champion before Sonoma. A knee-jerk reaction would tarnish the last decade because of one year that didn't go the way people wanted it to go. It's ok for the championship to be decided early. It will happen from time to time. Some years, championship series end in four-game sweeps, other years series go seven games. Four-game sweeps don't cause other leagues to panic and try to prevent it.

Sonoma Raceway is probably the most concern as it hosts the IndyCar season finale and can't promote the championship being decided at the track when it could be decided a few weeks earlier. This is just one of the reasons IndyCar needs to evolve its races from just being races to community events. When Lewis Hamilton clinched the World Drivers' Championship at Austin last year, that didn't stop Mexico City from having one of the largest crowds of the Formula One season, if not the largest of the season the following week. Formula One is something people want to see and will go to see regardless if the title has been decided or is still up in the air. IndyCar races should be the same. It should be something people want to attend to have a good time. It should be a place with a variety of events from concerts for millennials to family fun zones. It should be a party around the race.

It will be interesting to see how Sonoma handles and promotes its race knowing the golden egg of its promotional campaign could be spoiled.

Eight Questions
Eight races remain so here are eight questions about the second half of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

1. Will Penske choke away another championship?

The team everyone believes is the best in IndyCar has had at least one driver championship eligible entering the final race of the season in nine of the last ten seasons. In those nine seasons, Penske has won the title twice. Barring Simon Pagenaud getting hurt or him losing his mojo, he should be at the center of the championship fight. The Frenchman has a significant lead but he has never been in this position before. Will the pressure prove to be too much for him? Will Penske be too conservative? If there is any year this appears to be in the bag for Penske, it is 2016 but last year Juan Pablo Montoya led by 54 points with four races to go, three seasons ago Hélio Castroneves threw away a 49-point lead with three races to go and six years ago Will Power held a 59-point lead with four races to go. Penske always keeps it interesting.

2. Who can take the fight to Simon Pagenaud?

Pagenaud is just going to give this championship away. Someone is going to have to capitalize when he leaves points on the table. Scott Dixon is second in championship; 80 points back and we know he can go off at any moment. Dixon could win the next three races at Texas, Road America and Iowa and the only surprise would be Iowa because Andretti Autosport owns that place. Dixon also has a home game at Mid-Ohio.

Comparing Pagenaud and Dixon's average finishes at the remaining eight tracks Dixon has the better average finish at seven of them. Note that Pagenaud has never raced Watkins Glen in an open-wheel car and the number being used is Pagenaud's average finish in all his IndyCar starts on permanent road courses. Also note that Dixon has two starts at Road America, the most recent being in 2002 and Pagenaud has one start at Road America, which was in 2007.

Track Pagenaud Dixon
Texas 8.5 7
Road American 11 10.5
Iowa 9 7.8
Toronto 10.5 7.5
Mid-Ohio 6 3.7
Pocono 6.3 5
Watkins Glen 7.8* 4.2
Sonoma 9.2 6.7

If Pagenaud and Dixon were to finish every race right on the average, rounding to the nearest whole number and rounding down when it falls in the middle (7.5=7 in this case), Dixon would only outscore Pagenaud by 33 points.

Hélio Castroneves is the next close championship rival but in the DW12-era, Castroneves has only one victory in the second half of a season and that was Edmonton in 2012 and Castroneves has not finished strong the last two seasons. Last year, Castroneves failed to finish in the top ten in the final four races and in 2014, Castroneves finished outside the top ten in the final five races.

Josef Newgarden is the only other driver within 100 points of Castroneves but the American has never finished in top ten in more than three consecutive races and not only will Newgarden need to finish at the front of the pack consistently for the remaining races but he will need to finish at the front and ahead of Pagenaud.

3. Will any other rookies challenge Alexander Rossi for Rookie of the Year?

As you saw above, the Indianapolis 500 victory bodes well for Rossi's Rookie of the Year aspirations. Conor Daly and Max Chilton are the only other drivers slated to contest all remaining eight rounds while Spencer Pigot will be running five of the final eight races as his boss Ed Carpenter will take the ovals and Pigot will run the road and street courses.

Taking the points out of it, Rossi has the best average finish of the rookies at 11.8 while Chilton has the best average starting position at 15.5 but that is only three-tenths better than Rossi at 15.8. Rossi has been running at the finish of all eight races while Pigot has been running at the finish of all five races he has started. Daly has one retirement while Chilton's two retirements both came at Belle Isle. Rossi has completed all but two laps this season at 950 laps. Daly has completed 864 to Chilton's 818. Pigot has only one lead-lap finish in his five starts and that was the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

4. Is Gabby Chaves in for the rest of the season at Dale Coyne Racing?

The 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year replaced Luca Filippi at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and in the Colombians four races he has a better average finish than Filippi (15.5 to 18.8) but the Italian has Filippi heavily beaten on average starting position (13.8 for Filippi to Chaves' 19.8). Chaves has completed all but one lap in his four starts and he is carrying over his consistency from the 2015 season. However, Dale Coyne has been known for dropping drivers if checks don't come fast enough. Chaves belongs in IndyCar, so does Filippi but results and talent aren't enough. I think Chaves will be in the #19 Honda for the remainder of 2016 but part of me is curious to see Bryan Clauson run Iowa just to see how he does on a short track. If Chaves isn't in the car for the final eight races, Coyne never fails to find someone interesting to put in his car.

5. Does A.J. Foyt Racing continue to implode?

Takuma Sato is 16th in the championship and Jack Hawksworth is 20th in the championship. Sato has actually been clean this year. He has retired from only one race and outside of his retirement in the Indianapolis 500, Sato has completed all but one lap. However, this can't be good enough, especially for a team that has ABC Supply sponsoring both cars and investing in the series by sponsoring the Pocono race. I am shocked Sato has made it this far and Hawksworth might be in the wrong situation but unless both drivers make a monumental turn around, I can't see either returning. Sato might be able to stay in IndyCar and get a seat at Dale Coyne Racing (maybe a straight swap of Daly for Sato) but Hawksworth looks destined for sports car.

6. Do any former Indianapolis 500 winners retire?

Hélio Castroneves is 41 years old. Juan Pablo Montoya turns 41 years old two days after the 2016 season ends. Tony Kanaan turns 42 years old this New Year's Eve. None of the three are hinting at retiring and in this age of farewell tours and big promotional pushes I don't think any of the three would quietly ride off into the sunset. Well... I could see Montoya doing that, especially after the last week or so with him banging heads with Will Power. Montoya has won a race this year, Castroneves is in championship contention despite not winning a race and Kanaan is hanging in there. The good news for these three is in this era where testing is scarce and Penske and Ganassi don't want to go out on a limb, there rides are all safe until someone such as Josef Newgarden pushes one of them out or until whenever they decide IndyCar no longer tickles their fancy.

7. When is IndyCar's new television deal announced?

This likely won't happen in 2016 but I was thinking of this the other day and narrowed down when it will be announced. It will be sometime between next May 1st and the end of the 2017 IndyCar season. Here is my thinking: ABC is going to look at the metrics and decide whether or not it is worth keeping IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. If ABC wants it, the deal will probably be announced just before or just after the 101st Indianapolis 500 so they can say during the race broadcast that ABC will be the home of the Indianapolis 500 for however long the new deal is. However, if ABC and IndyCar can't reach a deal, IndyCar will announce its new deal, (likely with NBC because what other network could it be?) toward the end of the 2017 season and have all of 2018 to promote it while giving ABC one final rodeo and let everyone know that 2018 will be the final Indianapolis 500 on the network after showing 54 editions.

8. What will the decision on aero kits be?

Something is going to be decided but the time period and the manufacture is what is up in the air. Will 2016 be the final year of the manufactures each having their own kit or will they continue into 2017? If one kit is selected, which will it be? Will it be the Chevrolet, the Honda or will the series revert to the Dallara kit or will Dallara produce another kit? This is a big moment for IndyCar as teams struggle to keep the doors open, the series struggles to draw new teams and manufactures and the series tries to do what is best for competition.