Monday, September 19, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: 2016 IndyCar Review and Predictions Revisited

The final weekend of summer saw an IndyCar champion be crowned, Daniel Ricciardo left it all out on the race track and two Chases were set in Chicago while another was kicked off. Audi chocked like a dog in Austin. Johnny O'Connell crushed a teenagers dreams but a teenager had his day in the GTS class. A damaged Holden limbed home to victory in the Sundown 500. World Superbike raced for the first time in two months. Another champion was crowned at Nürburgring. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

2016 IndyCar Review
For the previous six seasons, IndyCar has felt like a football team stuck in mediocrity. The Randy Bernard-era was always painted in optimism and things got done. The ball got rolling on the DW12 chassis after years of series officials dragging their asses. Two new manufactures joined the series after years of Honda gulping down victories and championships to brag about on television commercials only to fail to tell the general public the success was from uncontested competitions. He brought back Milwaukee after a year hiatus. He got Loudon, Fontana and Pocono back on the schedule. He revived doubleheaders.

However the Randy Bernard-era was littered with hostility. He butted heads with team owners. Lotus flamed out as a manufacture. Milwaukee struggled to gain its footing. Loudon was one-and-done. The Las Vegas finale didn't go as planned. The aero kits were delayed multiple seasons. The tire bill went up. More teams left the series than joined. He burned bridges with Phoenix and had an attempt to race in China crumble on him in the 11th hour. Ultimately, he pissed off John Barnes and Chip Ganassi enough to get him sacked.

Enter Mark Miles. The veteran of running tennis and a Super Bowl committee came in and tried to be a visionary for IndyCar. He made a massive hack to the schedule. The October season finale at Fontana, which saw anywhere from 25,000-30,000 show up, was moved to the heat of Labor Day weekend and the crowd shrunk. The condensed schedule wore down teams. Miles promised international races to start the season and all he produced was a half-renovated race track in Brasilia and rumors about Dubai. Houston vanished. New Orleans came and went. Milwaukee died a second time. His Hail Mary for Fontana was to move the race to late-June and that fell to the ground like a dead duck. Boston was a clusterfuck.

But for all of Mark Miles stubbed toes, he got Phoenix and Road America back on the schedule. Watkins Glen became an emergency race to replace Boston. Gateway is returning next year. He made smart hires in Jay Frye and C.J. O'Donnell. He has been able to achieve 100% retention rate of a schedule from one year to the next. Aero kits were ushered in under the reign and while it wasn't a whopping success it was better to try aero kits than for aero kits to be put in the IndyCar box of headlines never to see the light of day like the Hawaiian Super Prix, the Falcon chassis and a half of dozen races in the Asian-Pacific.

And most importantly, ratings are improving under Mark Miles. They are incremental increases and aren't noticeable to the naked eye especially as it is still difficult for teams to stay in the series but IndyCar is on the right path to becoming a more desirable series for manufactures and sponsors. And Mark Miles has been able to calm a series that had been unstable for two decades. Has there been a calmer season than 2016? Maybe 2008 after reunification when everyone was still in the honeymoon phase but this season has been nothing but calm waters. Aero kits have been settled and no one has chewed Miles out for his decision. He has loosened his belief on the season ending by Labor Day and the schedule is now settled allowing IndyCar to plan for long-term growth. Maybe a third manufacture is in the works.

IndyCar, to me, has been a football team stuck at 8-8 for the last six years. The only difference between Bernard and Miles was Bernard won flashy, come-from-behind games and Miles won divisional games against the most despised opponents. If IndyCar was a football team, I think they went 10-6 this year, maybe even 11-5. It was a really good year but can they do it again in 2017 or will they fall back to 8-8 or take an even larger step back? With Jay Frye as Miles' right-hand man, IndyCar shouldn't take a drastic step back in 2017. If anything, IndyCar is more likely to make another step forward.

2016 IndyCar Predictions Revisited
Another season is in the bag and it is time to look at predictions made last December during the season of sugar cookies and gingerbread houses.

1. Hélio Castroneves Wins the 100th Indianapolis 500
Wrong! Although for a moment, after Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay took each other out and James Hinchcliffe faded and it became clear the race would come down to fuel mileage, it appeared Castroneves was lining up to steal the 100th Indianapolis 500 and join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears at the most exclusive table. There is always 2017 for Castroneves.

2. Honda Wins At Least Two Pole Positions
Correct! Honda won three pole positions this season and all on ovals. James Hinchcliffe won pole positions for the Indianapolis 500. His teammate Mikhail Aleshin took a surprising pole position at Pocono. Carlos Muñoz was the fastest qualifier at Texas. What amazes me is all of Honda's pole-sitters in 2016 were first time pole-sitters. I don't know if this shows Honda's lack of veteran presence or if these were just quick drivers finally breaking through. I will go with the latter. Hinchcliffe was a long-time coming. Muñoz has been a darling on ovals since his debut in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Aleshin's bravery appears to have to no limit. Granted, three pole positions from 16 races isn't great but after getting shutout for an entire season, it is a step in the right direction. Now if only they could win a pole position on a road or street course.

3. James Hinchcliffe Finishes in the Top Ten in the Championship
Wrong! Unfortunately. Hinchcliffe fell from seventh after Mid-Ohio to 13th after Sonoma. Hell, he lost a position in the championship after finishing second at Texas. How does that happen? He seemed to have a much better season than 13th in the championship. Unfortunately, he ended up on a low note.

4. There Will Be Four Indianapolis 500 Rookies
Correct! Alexander Rossi, Max Chilton, Matthew Brabham, Spencer Pigot and Stefan Wilson all made their Indianapolis 500 debuts. We all know about Alexander Rossi's stunning victory. This was a pretty good rookie class but with how difficult it is to get a full-time race seat in IndyCar, I am not sure we will ever see the full potential of most of these drivers. Brabham lit the world on fire in the Road to Indy but he can't break through. Pigot turned three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing into seven races with Ed Carpenter Racing and he got two top ten finishes with a team he had no experience with before his first practice session with the team at Belle Isle. However, Pigot's future is still grey. IndyCar has quite a few drivers knocking on the door. Now someone needs to answer.

5. Conor Daly Finishes Worse Than 14th in the Championship
Correct! He finished 18th in the championship but his best race finish was second, he had two top five finishes and five top ten finishes. He finished behind Takuma Sato but I think we can all agree he had a better season than Sato and probably even Marco Andretti, who finished 16th in the championship. Hopefully he can build on his 2016 season next year.

6. Three Drivers That Didn't Win in 2015 Win in 2016
Wrong! Surprisingly wrong. There were only two new winners in 2016. One was Pagenaud; the other was Alexander Rossi. Who saw that coming?

7. At Least Three Races Will Be in the News For Not Returning in 2017
Wrong and I am glad. I am not sure we saw any stories headlined "Pocono's IndyCar Future in Doubt" or "Eddie Gossage Reconsidering IndyCar" or "Road America Disappointed With IndyCar's Return." We had the opposite of that and all 15 tracks from 2016 will return for 2017. That doesn't mean IndyCar is golden. Pocono, Texas and Iowa are all races that need work on the crowd. Sonoma could also be put in that boat. Phoenix needs to make gains after year one. Toronto is teeter tottering with a beat up race track and city infrastructure suffocating the roads of Exhibition Place and making it more difficult for an IndyCar race to take place there. This year wasn't so bad but 2017 could see our worst fears come to light.

8. There Will Be At Least Three Moments Where Race Control Leaves Us Scratching Our Heads
Wrong... I think? Other than the blend line kerfuffle at Long Beach and the interference penalties in qualifying at Watkins Glen, race control did a really good job not being the storyline in 2016.

9. There Will Be a Delayed Session at Boston
Umm... Boston never happened. So were any of its seasons ever "delayed?" Regardless, I think we are all happy IndyCar ended up at Watkins Glen instead of Boston.

10. Scott Dixon Breaks the Record for Most Consecutive Seasons With a Victory Before Texas
Correct! It took Scott Dixon two races to become the first driver to win a race in 12 consecutive seasons. He added his 40th victory at Watkins Glen and is now in sole possession of fourth all-time in IndyCar victories. Michael Andretti is two ahead of him. Third seemed destined to be his by this time next year.

11. At Least Two 2015 Championship Contenders at Sonoma Will Finish Outside the Top Eight
Wrong! Of the top six from 2015, only Juan Pablo Montoya finished outside the top eight and he finished ninth. The other five finished second through sixth in the championship this year. That is surprising.

12. There Will Be No Serious Injuries or Fatalities
I am not going to say Josef Newgarden's broken collarbone and fractured wrist aren't terrible injuries but he didn't miss any races and frankly, just from looking at the championship, you would never guess that Newgarden drove a handful of races with screws in his arm. I am counting this on in the correct column.

Champions From the Weekend
The #58 Garage 59 McLaren of Rob Bell, Shane Van Gisbergen and Côme Ledogar won the Blancpain Endurance Series championship despite not scoring points at the season finale at Nürburgring.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Simon Pagenaud but did you know...

Nico Rosberg won the Singapore Grand Prix and took the championship lead away from Lewis Hamilton.

The #1 Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard won the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas, their third consecutive victory after the #7 Audi had an accident late in the race. The #36 Signatech Alpine of American Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi won in LMP2 for the fourth time in 2016. Aston Martin swept the GTE classes with the #95 Dane Train of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen won in GTE-Pro while the #98 of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda was victorious in GTE-Am.

Johnny O'Connell swept the Pirelli World Challenge GT races weekend at Sonoma with a last-lap pass on Austin Cindric. Nate Stacy and Brett Sandberg split the weekend in GTS.

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP of Ricky and Jordan Taylor won IMSA's leg of Lone Star Le Mans. The #8 Starworks Oreca of Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow won in PC. Earl Bamber and Frédéric Makowiecki won in GTLM driving the #912 Porsche. The #96 Turner Motorsport BMW of Jens Klingmann and Ben Curtis took top honors in GTD.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race at Chicagoland. Erik Jones won the Grand National Series race. Kyle Busch won the Friday night Truck race.

The #16 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini of Rolf Ineichen, Christian Engelhart and Mirko Bortolotti won the Blancpain Endurance Series finale from Nürburgring.

Garth Tander and Warren Luff won Supercars' Sandown 500.

Chaz Davies and Jonathan Rea split the World Superbike races from Lausitzring. Kenan Sofuoglu won his third consecutive World Supersport race and fifth of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP will be in Aragón.
The second race of the Chase will be at Loudon.
European Le Mans Series returns to Spa-Francorchamps.
DTM's penultimate round of 2016 will be at the Hungaroring.
Super Formula heads to Sportsland SUGO.
Shanghai hosts WTCC.
The 4-Crown Nationals take place at Eldora Raceway.