Monday, September 5, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Rotating Tires

Scott Dixon spanked the field in New York. Martin Truex, Jr. won the Southern 500. NASCAR was brushed by a hurricane. Meanwhile in Canada, the Truck series had a finish to forget. Felipe Massa announced he would be leaving Formula One at the end of the season. Jenson Button announced he will not be racing in Formula One in 2017 but he left the door open for a return. A champion was crowned this weekend and it wasn't the IndyCar champion despite being Labor Day weekend. A manufacture won for the first time in over nine years. A Frenchman took out a Brit at Silverstone. Monza featured a tremendous drive but a local lad. Rain greeted the FIA WEC's debut in Mexico. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Rotating Tires
IndyCar qualifying has become predictable on road and street circuits. The Chevrolets will take eight or nine of the top ten spots, a Chevrolet will be on pole and that will set the course for the race to come.

With all signs pointing to an aero kit development freeze for 2017, it means Honda will be stuck in the mud for at least one season. The Hondas need to roll the dice just to get into the conversation each week let alone become the topic of the conversation. Granted, some have broken through. Graham Rahal has found success and nearly won at Barber. Ryan Hunter-Reay has two podiums on street circuits. James Hinchcliffe has consistently been one of the best in qualifying. Conor Daly has made top six finishes out of nothing but very few times has Honda been able to compete with Chevrolet for the top spot.

Honda appears to have taken a big whiff at making up the aero deficiency through more power and in turn that has made the engines less fuel-efficient. While that worked at Indianapolis and Texas, it bit the Hondas at Pocono and really hasn't paid off at any road and street circuits. Honda has won two races this season and would be lucky if it won a third. Somehow the manufacture regressed from 2015 when it appeared it couldn't get any worse.

I have come up with ideas before and here is another because we all want to see Honda make a step forward considering how unpredictable IndyCar is already with half the field with a hand tied behind its back. My idea revolves around tires. The one way Hondas have made the second round of qualifying is by putting on both alternate sets of tires allowed for qualifying in the first round. It is how Dale Coyne Racing has made the second round of qualifying on every occasion this year. After the first round of qualifying these teams have slim hopes of making the final round of qualifying as most if not all the Chevrolet teams have at least one set of fresh alternate tires available.

Here is the proposal:
The top six in qualifying from the previous road/street course round are not allowed to use the alternate tires in the first two rounds of qualifying OR the top six in qualifying from the previous road/street course round are allowed to only make one lap in either the first or second round of qualifying on the alternate tires.

The cars that qualified seventh through 12th from the previous road/street course round are not allowed to use the alternate tires in the first round of qualifying.

All cars that failed to make it out of the first round of qualifying from the previous road/street course round have unlimited use of alternate tires.

This is balance of performance without worrying about the ramifications of giving more manufacture extra turbo boost or extra fuel or adding weight to cars. It gives some of the lower teams a chance to move up and not having to burn through both sets of alternate tires in the first round of qualifying while the top teams aren't significantly disadvantaged as they could still be quick enough to advance on the primary tires. The other good thing about this is it wouldn't affect the race itself. While it could mix up the starting grid, these limits are only for qualifying. If a team wants to start on alternate tires and then switch to the primaries on two pit stops it still can.

It is not a perfect idea, no idea never is. I am sure some drivers wouldn't like it but it is something that might bite them in one race weekend and then benefit them the next. It isn't IndyCar playing with the engines and holding back Chevrolet or giving Honda a shot in the arm and it objectively balances the field. If a Honda makes the final round than it is limited on its use of the alternate tires just like the Chevrolets that make the final round. If a Chevrolet fails to advance from round one than it has unlimited use of alternate tires in the next race just like any Honda that makes it out of round one.

It is worth trying for 2017. A slight leveling the playing field can only make IndyCar better.

Back to the Roots
A lot has been made of NASCAR's throwback weekend at the Southern 500 and it has been great. NASCAR made the bonehead decision to move the Southern 500 from Labor Day weekend and it took 11 years too many to put it back where it belonged. When it returned, teams and drivers turned it in a celebration of the past and has featured jaw-dropping retro paint schemes to honor the past. While I am nervous it could be taken too far and the retro paint schemes could become stale in the next few years it is a fun event and you really don't know what will be rolled out. 

The Southern 500's return to Labor Day weekend has been tremendous but it doesn't nullify the fact that NASCAR is much different than it was 15 and 20 years. Rockingham has been gone for over a decade and the Trucks revival of the track sadly did not work. While Cup never went to tracks such as Milwaukee, Memphis, Gateway, Pikes Peak, Mesa Marin and Indianapolis Raceway Park were all hosts to the lower two national touring division and those tracks are missed. The Grand National Series has out grown being an affordable series for small teams and drivers. A simply weekend with fancy paint schemes are dressing in 1970s attire won't bring the philosophies that could potentially revive these series. 

A few tracks NASCAR's lower divisions cannot return to but perhaps it could turn smaller tracks into a promotional events. The Truck series was built on short tracks. The non-sexy short tracks. The short tracks that held less than 10,000 spectators. Instead of running Trucks on mile-and-a-half tracks with less than stellar racing, why not return to a short track or two or three and why not tie these short track visits into Cup weekend. When the Cup series is at a big track, the Grand National series and/or Truck series goes to a short track in the area. If Cup is in at Fontana, run a Truck race at Kern County Raceway Park, the successor of Mesa Marin, the Friday night before and have Cup drivers come out and give local fans who might not necessarily be able to afford a Cup race a chance to see their favorite drivers in-person either doing autograph signings and taking photos or maybe even competing. 

During All-Star weekend, have the Grand National Series run at Hickory Motor Speedway on the Sunday afternoon. Both junior series should return to Indianapolis Raceway Park. The Trucks shouldn't be at Atlanta or Kansas. Take the Trucks back to Milwaukee and Memphis. The Grand National Series doesn't need two races at Dover. Run a race at South Boston and pair it with a Martinsville weekend.  

Of course, none of this will happen because the bigger tracks need dates. Pocono got a Truck and Grand National Series race because it needed more than just ARCA races to pair with Cup races. It is why the Truck series races on a Thursday night at Kentucky with a crowd that makes an IndyCar rainout at Pocono seem respectably attended. It would be nice to see NASCAR return to tracks that are excited about having a race, even if it is just one of the lower two divisions than have a race in an indifferent market. It would be nice if NASCAR embraced its roots more than just one weekend of the year and return to some of those left behind.

A Few Words on Felipe
Felipe Massa will never be World Drivers' Champion but few know what is feels like to be as close as he was on November 2, 2008. He was world champion for all of 30 seconds. He did all he could do and when it appeared that would be enough an act of God and a tiptoeing Timo Glock nullified his run. It is easy to pinpoint the lose of a championship on one race, especially the final one but Massa left the pit lane while leading with the fuel hose trailing behind him at Singapore. He spun five times in the British Grand Prix. He had a trip into the kitty litter at Malaysia when he was challenging teammate Kimi Räikkönen for the lead and both were running seconds faster than the rest of the field. One point from any of those three and he is world champion.

We are seven years removed from his near-fatal accident at the Hungaroring. Many probably thought in the days afterward his career was over. Others probably thought he would have come back but only competed for another year or two. I don't think anyone expected Massa compete to compete until 2016. While he hasn't won since that day in Brazil and the most notable moment in his career since his accident is a win being taken from him by the Ferrari team, Massa's career should be remembered for perseverance.

I am not sure where Massa ranks among greatest drivers never to be world champion but he should be remembered as an outstanding driver who kept trying after a brush with death and finding a place in the modern-era of Formula One when it appeared to have passed him by.

Provisional Champion From the Weekend
José María López provisionally won the 2016 World Touring Car Championship with a fourth-place and second-place finish this weekend at Motegi. It is his third consecutive title in the series. López will race in Formula E this upcoming season for DS Virgin Racing.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon and Martin Truex, Jr. but did you know... 

Nico Rosberg won the Italian Grand Prix. 

The #1 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley won the 6 Hours of Mexico City. The #43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier-Nissan of Ricardo González, Felipe Albuquerque and Bruno Senna won in LMP2. The #97 Aston Martin of Darren Turner and Richie Stanaway won in GTE-Pro. The #88 Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing Porsche of Patrick Long, Khaled Al Quibashi and David Heinemeier Hansson won in GTE-Am. 

Maverick Viñales won MotoGP's British Grand Prix, his first career MotoGP victory and the first for Suzuki since the 2007 French Grand Prix with Chris Vermeulen. Thomas Lüthi picked up his second victory this season in Moto2. Brad Binder won in Moto3 and extended his championship lead.

Zach Veach won the Indy Lights from Watkins Glen. 

Antonio Giovinazzi won the GP2 feature race from Monza from last on the grid. Norman Nato won the GP2 sprint race. Jake Dennis and Nyck de Vries won the GP3 races. 

Norbert Michelisz and Yvan Muller split the WTCC races from Motegi.

Elliott Sadler won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Darlington.  John Hunter Nemechek won the Truck race from Mosport after running Cole Custer off the track. 

Coming Up This Weekend
All three Road to Indy series crown champions at Laguna Seca.
The 26th race of the NASCAR season will be at Richmond.
MotoGP returns to Misano.
DTM has a doubleheader at the Nürburgring. 
Super Formula has a doubleheader at Okayama.