Tuesday, September 20, 2016

More Thoughts on the 2016 IndyCar Season

I guess these few days after the IndyCar season are just like the days after camp has ended. All you can do is talk about it and wish it never ended.

Yesterday, I wrote about how 2016 finally felt like IndyCar had a winning season. Throughout 2016 I would tweet IndyCar finally felt like a proper racing series when you consider it returned to Phoenix, Road America and Watkins Glen, tracks that are the backbone of American motorsports and wasn't running on the streets of Baltimore, NOLA Motorsports Park and the streets of Boston. I was half joking but I was also kind of serious. How many races this year had a practice session televised, a qualifying session televised or both? And how many of those practice and qualifying sessions were televised live?

After years of IndyCar getting a fraction of the coverage compared to Formula One, let alone NASCAR, this year IndyCar got a fair shake. NBCSN showed practice at noon on a Friday instead of a fishing show. Even when NBC's portion of the NASCAR season began IndyCar still could squeeze in a practice session or qualifying session. I am sure some want more and want every IndyCar session broadcasted live on television with a weekly IndyCar talk show breaking down the news. That isn't going to happen, at least not in 2017 or 2018 or even 2019. The series still has a way to go in terms of growth to reach that level of exposure but the steps made in 2016 are good signs for IndyCar's future.

On track, there is no mistaking Chevrolet's dominance despite Honda being gifted a mulligan and chance to catch up on aero kit developments during the previous offseason. I am not sure how Honda could have wasted an opportunity such as the one they were given. Honda won two races, only a third of its 2015 total when the Honda teams appeared really lost. The only races Honda didn't win where it appeared they should have won were Barber and Pocono and even if you gave Honda those victories it still would have had less than 2015. It had two drivers in the top ten of the championship.

There is no way you can spin 2016 as a positive step for Honda. It wasn't. Many fret over 2017 since aero kit development has been frozen before the 2018 universal kit is introduced but I think the Honda teams are going to be throwing things at the wall to gain ground on Chevrolet. This year alone it appeared the Hondas were sacrificing fuel efficient for speed at the ovals. That kind of bit their teams at Pocono as it allowed Will Power to work his way to victory but Honda needs to try everything it can. Since Chevrolet returned in 2012, the American manufacture has won 57 of 84 races, four of five drivers' championships and five of five manufactures' championships. Chevrolet wins two out of three races and if that continues in 2017, Honda would get five victories. Five victories aren't good enough.

I expect Honda and its teams to make up some ground next year but gaining ground on barely acceptable isn't saying much. I am not sure Honda can have a driver in championship contention late in 2017 unless Graham Rahal goes on another dream run or Andretti Autosport really takes a step forward but winning four or five races should be the minimum for Honda next season.

This was another year where the championship went to the final race, the 11th consecutive season of the title coming down to the wire. However, I don't think anyone would have been disappointed had Simon Pagenaud locked up the title at Watkins Glen. He was that good this season. The only time he put a wheel wrong was at Pocono. He had engine bugs bite him in the Indianapolis 500 and Road America. The only other mistake was running out of fuel in the first Belle Isle race, which dropped him from seventh to 13th. He was that good. Eventually an IndyCar season will see the champion decided before the final race. Double points kept Will Power alive for the Astor Cup and you had a half a dozen drivers competing for third in the championship and Juan Pablo Montoya jumped six positions from 14th to eighth, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but weighing two races heavier than the rest feels like it skews the championship a bit. Although, here is what the championship would have looked like had Indianapolis and Sonoma offered just a maximum of 54 points:

Simon Pagenaud- 570
Will Power- 470
Hélio Castroneves- 433
Graham Rahal- 420 (+1)
Scott Dixon- 419 (+1)
Josef Newgarden- 399 (-2)
Tony Kanaan- 396
Juan Pablo Montoya- 376
Charlie Kimball- 363
Ryan Hunter-Reay- 350 (+2)
Sébastien Bourdais- 347 (+1)
Carlos Muñoz- 343 (-2)
James Hinchcliffe- 331
Alexander Rossi- 327 (-3)
Mikhail Aleshin- 302
Conor Daly- 289 (+2)
Marco Andretti- 278 (-1)
Takuma Sato- 277 (-1)
Max Chilton- 226
Jack Hawksworth- 200
Spencer Pigot- 148
Gabby Chaves- 98

A handful of drivers would change positions but no one would have a drastic move. Alexander Rossi drops three positions as his success at Indianapolis and Sonoma wouldn't be as heavily weighed but Rossi dropping from 11th to 14th wouldn't have been that big of the deal. On the other end of things, Conor Daly, who retired from both Indianapolis and Sonoma would have two move positions in the championship as he wouldn't have lost nearly as many points to the rest of the field had those races been normal points. Once again, Daly moving from 18th to 16th isn't that big of a deal. Comparing the two championship tables, it is actually kind of surprising how similar the results would have been. It makes you wonder if double points are really that big of deal. Despite a few drivers voicing displeasure with double points, I don't see it going anywhere.

Now we wait for the first moves of silly season to be made. That deserves its own post and watch out for it in the next week or so. As great as it is to have IndyCar competing on track, this offseason is shaping up to be just as unpredictable.