Monday, September 26, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: The Grass is Always Greener and More Talented

Marc Márquez took a comprehensive victory at Aragón and the title could be his in three weeks at Motegi but he will need some help for that to be the case. There was a two-wheel championship locked up this weekend. Kevin Harvick locked a spot into the second round of the Chase after a late charge at Loudon. American teams had a great day in Belgium. Audi had a great day in Hungary and Marco Wittmann's title charge was stunted by a disqualification. A new manufacture and driver won in WTCC. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Grass is Always Greener and More Talented
I don't know where we exactly are with IndyCar silly season. I think all signs point to Josef Newgarden heading to Penske and Alexander Rossi is working on an extension with the Andretti-Herta partnership and who knows about Tony Kanaan, Sébastien Bourdais, Conor Daly and Juan Pablo Montoya.

When Rossi's name entered the ring for the Penske seat sometime during the Watkins Glen weekend, I think many were taken aback by it. Sure Rossi is fresh off an Indianapolis 500 victory but I think we can all agree it was a race won more by circumstance than sheer skill and there is nothing wrong with that. You take a victory anyway you can get it. Outside of that victory, Rossi's 2016 season was good but not Penske good. He made Will Power blink during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He carried the Andretti Autosport baton at Iowa. Rossi wasn't spectacular. His rookie season won't mistaken for the rookie seasons of Juan Pablo Montoya, Alex Zanardi or Nigel Mansell but in an era where testing is non-existent, Rossi was respectable and there was a noticeable improvement from when the season began in the last weekend of winter and ended on the last weekend of summer.

This seat has been destined for Newgarden's since 2012. Heck, Newgarden was linked to a Penske seat during that 2012 season despite him failing to score a top ten finish that season. Newgarden didn't jump into the deep end with Penske in 2012 and instead tweaked his game for five seasons driving for Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter. He has become a championship contender for a small team. Newgarden has gone toe-to-toe with the big boys and has proven he is good enough to come out on top. This year only Penske drivers finished ahead of Newgarden.

We have literally watched Newgarden go from a driver who couldn't be recognized in the fan village at Long Beach to being arguably the American face of the series (yes, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay, you both can make an argument for). Then how could Rossi's name be in the conversation?

The truth is most American race fans hadn't seen Rossi's compete prior to his breakthrough with Manor last year in Formula One. We have been watching Newgarden for six years. Newgarden has been a fly in our ear since 2011 in Indy Lights. Prior to Newgarden's Indy Light championship season in 2011, he and Rossi were on the same path. Both participated in the inaugural GP3 season in 2010. Rossi finished fourth in the championship behind ART Grand Prix teammate Esteban Gutiérrez, Robert Wickens and Nico Müller. He finished ahead of Rio Haryanto, Roberto Merhi and Dean Smith. Smith was Newgarden's teammate at Carlin. Newgarden finished 18th in the championship on eight points.

While Newgarden returned to the United States, Rossi went to Formula Renault 3.5 and finished third in the championship between Wickens and Jean-Éric Vergne. He would continue on to GP2 where he finished second in the championship last year. All those years Rossi spent in Europe appear to have counted for something to Penske if the rumors are true but Rossi's anonymity likely also played a role. Most in the U.S. didn't see Rossi's missteps like we did with Newgarden. We didn't see his accidents and good results thrown out the window. The results on paper show he wasn't just some driver coming over to IndyCar, he was a driver who had respectable runs against stiff competition and arguably stiffer competition than what is seen in the Road to Indy but paper leaves out some of the details.

The best comparison I can come up with is the NBA Draft, where international players are drafted in the top five or ten picks while some of the best college players are passed over. Take the 2015 NBA Draft where Latvian secret Kristaps Porzingis was drafted fifth by the New York Knicks but Frank Kaminsky, fresh off being the Naismath College Player of the Year went ninth to the Charlotte Hornets. Both are seven-foot centers and Kaminsky's success at Wisconsin was well documented where he help defeat an undefeated Kentucky team in the semifinals before a hard-fought loss against Duke in the championship game. However, Porzingis was consistently rated ahead of him. Porzingis and Kaminsky are still early in their careers but Darko Miličič, Yi Jianlain and Jan Vesely are all examples of top ten draft picks from foreign countries that never lived up to the potential.

While Newgarden had to claw for half a decade, Rossi's near immediate ascendance to IndyCar's top team shows those years in Europe were not all for naught. His Indianapolis 500 triumph and respectable rookie season also helped increase his value. However, it is not a certain thing. Conor Daly followed a path more similar to Rossi than Newgarden and also had success in GP3 but Daly has always been in IndyCar circle due to competing in Star Mazda and Indy Lights before diving into Europe. Despite his familiarity and respectable IndyCar rookie season, Daly's career is in limbo. He was also just too close to IndyCar for his own good.

Rossi might just be proof the grass is greener and more talented. The European ladder system might be less connected than the Road to Indy but it is a deep talent pool from all corners of the globe, some with funding of countries and oil companies and others who are winging it and hoping hard work forces someone to open up a checkbook. The Road to Indy has respectable grids and Indy Lights has seen the likes of Felix Rosenqvist, Max Chilton, Dean Stoneman, Jack Harvey and Luiz Razia in recent years (by the way, what the hell happened to Luiz Razia? He was a Marussia F1 driver for all of 15 minutes and then ended up in Indy Lights and has been heard from since) but it is nowhere near as coveted a training ground as the junior single-seater series of Europe.

We have seen the likes of Matthew Brabham, Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot and Tristan Vautier light the Road to Indy on fire but the likes of Penske weren't calling when they reach the top rung, except for Karam who got a dozen races with Ganassi and was then shown the door. The Road to Indy does a great job getting drivers to the next level but not necessarily getting drivers to the mountaintop.

Champions From the Weekend
South African rider Brad Binder clinched the Moto3 championship with his second place finish at Aragón.

The #2 United Autosport Ligier-Nissan of Alex Brundle, Christian England and Mike Guasch clinched the European Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a second-place finish at Spa-Francorchamps.

Chris Windom clinched the USAC Silver Crown championship with his victory at the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Raceway.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez and Kevin Harvick but did you know...

The #21 Dragonspeed Oreca-Nissan of Nicolas Lapierre, Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman won the ELMS race at Spa-Francorchamps. The #9 Graff Ligier-Nissan of Paul Petiti, Enzo Guibbert and Eric Trouillet won in LMP3 for the second consecutive race. The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Rory Butcher and Robert Smith won in GTE for the third consecutive race.

Edoardo Mortara and Mattias Ekström split the DTM races from Hungaroring.

Yuhi Sekiguchi won the Super Formula race from Sportsland SUGO from pole position.

Sam Lowes won the Moto2 race at Aragón. Jorge Novarro won in Moto3.

Elliott Sadler won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Kentucky. William Byron won the Truck race from Loudon.

Thed Björk won the first WTCC race from Shanghai, his first career victory and the first for Volvo. José María López won the second race of the weekend.

Rico Abreu won the USAC midget race at the 4-Crown Nationals. Justin Grant won the USAC sprint car race. Ian Madsen won the All Star Sprint race.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Malaysia Grand Prix is a little later than what we are accustomed to.
Petit Le Mans closes out the IMSA season.
The final race of the first round of the Chase takes place at Dover.
Barcelona rounds out the Blancpain Sprint Series season.
World Rally runs Tour de Corse.
World Superbike will also be in France but at Magny-Cours.