Monday, December 19, 2016

2016 For The Love of Indy Awards

With Christmas less than a week away, it is time to reflect on the top moments from the 2016 season in motorsports. There were moments of greatest, moments of absurdity and some of each will have us talking for years to come. Some overcame the odds and others added to their legacy. It was another year full of surprises even though you thought you have seen it all before. With out any more hesitation, let's dive into the year that was 2016.

Racer of the Year
Description: Given to the best racer over the course of 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Simon Pagenaud
Lando Norris
Pipo Derani
Shane van Gisbergen
Nico Rosberg

And the winner is... Shane van Gisbergen
The New Zealander switched to Red Bull Racing Australia and in his first season with the team he won eight races and had 18 podium finishes on his way to winning the Supercars championship. He ended his championship season with ten consecutive podium finishes. That wasn't the only title van Gisbergen took in 2016. He started the year with a victory in the Bathurst 12 Hour and competed in the Blancpain Endurance Series with Garage 59. In the Blancpain Endurance Series, van Gisbergen with Rob Bell and Côme Ledogar won at Monza and Paul Ricard and took the championship with 68 points, winning the title by one point. Van Gisbergen

On the other nominees:
Simon Pagenaud dominated the IndyCar season in an important sophomore season with Team Penske. He came back from a lack of results in 2015 and was head and shoulders above the field, leading the championship from the second race of the season to the end.

Lando Norris might not be a name most of you know, especially if you are in North America, but he won three championships in 2016, all before his 17th birthday! He started 2016 by winning the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, where he won six of 15 races and had 11 podium finishes. In Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, Norris won five of 15 races and had 12 podium finishes. Finally, he took the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC title with six victories and 11 podium finishes in 15 races. Talk about consistency and he will run European Formula Three next year for Carlin. Keep an eye and ear out for Lando Norris.

Pipo Derani had two spectacular outings with Extreme Speed Motorsports to start the 2016 season with victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. He would score four podium finishes in the LMP2 class in the FIA World Endurance Championship season. In the final two North American Endurance Cup rounds, Derani and ESM had a great run going at Watkins Glen before retiring due to a mechanical issue and finished second at Petit Le Mans.

Nico Rosberg won the World Drivers' Championship for the first time in his career and he started the season with four consecutive victories. He added five more victories during the season, including victories at Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Suzuka. He rounded out his championship season with nine consecutive podium finishes, bringing his total for the season up to 16 from 21 races.

Past Winners
2012: Kyle Larson
2013: Marc Márquez
2014: Marc Márquez
2015: Nick Tandy

Race of the Year
Description: Best Race of 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Firestone 600
Dutch TT
Spanish Grand Prix
24 Hours of Daytona
Mexican Grand Prix

And the winner is... Spanish Grand Prix
There isn't a race this year that had more people talking and frankly we are still talking about it. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton got together and who knows what was said behind closed doors. How close was Hamilton to walking away? How much does he think about that moment as well as Malaysia as points drops when he felt he could have won the championship? But that moment created an opportunity. Once we got passed "oh shit" we realized "oh shit, Mercedes isn't going to win." When the race restarted, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, Jr. were 1-2-3. From that point on we saw the Formula One race Formula One wants. Tire strategy shuffled the deck and produced anything but a predictable result. Verstappen ended up in the lead on a two-stop strategy but with a fierce Kimi Räikkönen stalking the teenager lap after lap but unable to get by even with the aid of DRS. Verstappen ended up becoming the youngest grand prix winner and has left us wondering what his future holds.

On the other nominees...
For how odd the Firestone 600 was, it turned out to be a exhilarating IndyCar race. Forget the fact the race started on the first Sunday in June and ended on the final Saturday in August but the race featured what Texas races have become: depending on getting the right set-up for tire preservation. James Hinchcliffe waltzed away from the pack and controlled most of the race but had Ed Carpenter claw his way back into the battle. After a string of cautions, the race came down to a shootout between Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud with Rahal winning the race by 0.0080 seconds, the fifth-closest finish in IndyCar history and Kanaan finished in third, 0.0903 seconds behind Rahal.

The Dutch TT featured a red flag and over a third of the field falling off in the rain. You couldn't help but hold your breathe as the riders tried to survive the conditions. The rain opened the door for Jack Miller on the privateer Marc VDS Racing Honda to beat Marc Márquez on the factory bike, the first privateer winner in MotoGP in almost a decade. Quick sidebar on why I also loved this race: I was with family the day of this race and my grandmother was in the room and she had never watched a MotoGP race before and she thoroughly enjoyed this race.

Arguably the first major race of 2016 was also one of the best races of 2016. The 24 Hours of Daytona featured three of four classes coming down to the final lap with the GTLM battle between the Corvettes highlighting the closing minutes. Not only did the Prototype class, GTLM and GTD classes come down to the final lap but all three podiums had all three teams finish on the lead lap in class.

While it wasn't the Spanish Grand Prix, the Mexican Grand Prix was just as controversial but enthralling. The Mercedes were gone but the battle tightened up for third. Sebastian Vettel closed in on Max Verstappen and heading into turn one Verstappen cut the course and kept the position as Vettel attempted to overtake. A few laps later, Daniel Ricciardo closed in on Vettel and attempted a move into turn five only to have Vettel shut the door on him and leaving the Australian locking up his tires. Once the checkered flag came out, Verstappen drove to parc férme after finishing third only to find out he had been handed a five-second penalty, dropping him behind Vettel and Ricciardo. Vettel got to stand before the crowd and be handed the third-place trophy. Hours later, Vettel suffered a ten-second penalty for his block on Ricciardo, dropping the German to fifth and elevating Ricciardo to the podium and Verstappen to fourth.

Past Winners
2012: Indianapolis 500
2013: British motorcycle Grand Prix
2014: Bathurst 1000
2015: Australian motorcycle Grand Prix

Achievement of the Year
Description: Best success by a driver, team, manufacture, etc.
And the Nominees are:
Haas F1 scoring points on debut
Martin Truex, Jr. leading 392 of 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600
Jamie Whincup's 100th Supercars Victory
Corvette's 100th Victory at Lime Rock Park
Nine Different Winners in MotoGP in 2016
Jimmie Johnson's 7th Championship

And the winner is... Jimmie Johnson's 7th Championship
It is hard to beat joining legends. When the only two at the table are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and you pull up a chair, no one else can hold a candle to what you have done. Say what you want about the format but at the end of the day the goal is to get the trophy and for the seventh-time Jimmie Johnson found a way to be the last one standing. At 41 years old, Johnson will have maybe another half-a-dozen chances to have the table all to himself.

On the other nominees...
I think we all had our fingers crossed that Haas F1 wouldn't be embarrassed in year one and all those fears went away in race one. The red flag for the Fernando Alonso-Esteban Gutiérrez incident left Romain Grosjean as the team's only car remaining but he was in ninth and was able to change tires under red flag conditions. Once back to green flag racing, a few team made additional pit stops while Grosjean stayed out until the end and finished sixth on Haas F1's debut.

We don't see many flag-to-flag dominating runs in NASCAR anymore and rarely to we see it occur in 500-mile races let the only 600-mile race. Martin Truex, Jr. led 588 of 600 miles on Memorial Day weekend. No one came close to him all night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 392 laps led is a record for the 600-mile race and this year's race was the fastest 600-mile race at Charlotte.

The century mark is meaningful in many sports. Wilt Chamberlain holds the NBA record for points in a game at 100. Fans still raise their eyebrows when a pitcher hits 100 MPH on the radar gun. Racing is no different. When it comes to victories, most never get close to 100 in major series. In NASCAR, only Richard Petty and David Pearson crossed that milestone. In Supercars, Craig Lowndes surpassed 100 victories last season and his teammate Whincup joined him in that rarified air this year. Let's not forget to mention that Whincup is 33 years old and Lowndes got there the day before his 41st birthday.

In the same vain as Whincup, Corvette Racing hit the century mark after winning at Lime Rock Park. Some will be cynical because for a period in the American Le Mans Series the GT1 class was the two Corvettes but the team has eight Le Mans victories, ten Sebring victories and has won the 24 Hours of Daytona three times including the last two years.

It is one thing to want a championship to be unpredictable. Then there was the 2016 MotoGP season. Nine different riders from six teams and four manufactures won a race in 2016. Not only did the nearly ten-year streak without a privateer team winning a race come to an end but two privateer teams won in 2016. Heck, last-place in teams' championship won a race (Marc VDS).

Past Winners
2012: DeltaWing
2013: Sebastian Vettel for winning nine consecutive races on his way to a fourth consecutive title
2014: Marc Márquez: Setting the record for most wins in a premier class season.
2015: Justin Wilson Memorial Family Auction

Moment of the Year
Description: The Most Memorable Moment in the World of Racing during the 2016 season.
And the Nominees are:
Alexander Rossi Wins 100th Indianapolis 500
Toyota Slows at Le Mans
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Ends Season Early
Felipe Massa Serenaded by Home Fans at Interlagos
Audi's 1-2 Farewell at Bahrain

And the winner is... Toyota Slows at Le Mans
It seemed certain. The headlines were written. Stories were about to be posted. T-shirts and hats were likely ready to be broken out a box and passed around a garage. Then the #5 Toyota fell off the pace and car after car went by and while Kazuki Nakajima tried to reboot the car it became clear the victory, the glory was slipping from Toyota and then the car stopped just after start/finish line with a lap to go and the #2 Porsche went by in what appeared to be unfathomable five minutes earlier. The motorsports world stopped. No one could believe it and then the realization that even after the #5 Toyota restarted, it wouldn't be classified, let alone on the podium because it failed to compete the final lap within the maximum lap time. It overshadowed Formula One's twilight holiday on the Caspian Sea. The shock comes back to me thinking about those final minutes. I am still processing it and it happened six months ago.

On the other nominees...
The 100th Indianapolis 500 was always going to be memorable to having a rookie win the race by coasting across the line with a final lap average just over 179 MPH was not in any script, especially the few races held during the DW12-era. Alexander Rossi's career will never be the same and I think he doesn't mind.

You never want to see someone sidelined because of an injury. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ended his season in July after suffering from concussion-like symptoms and it has left many fans holding their breath over his return. It also showcased the face of NASCAR putting his health over on-track success making you wonder if this is the start of a trend.

Felipe Massa's final race at Interlagos ended with him in the barrier after hydroplaning. What followed was the Brazilian being honored by his fellow Brazilians as he walked back to the garage. It was a standing ovation unlike any other in racing. Most drivers don't get that moment when a career ends. Normally it is a driver quietly riding off into the sunset but Massa's unfortunate spin allowed the fans to show their appreciation to him when he was out of the car, out from behind the protection of helmet and visor and the only man on stage.

Audi has dominated sports car racing for nearly two decades and when the manufacture announced its intentions to pull out of LMP1, the team had yet to stand on the top step of the podium in what had been one of its most difficult seasons. In its final act, Audi went out and had one more beat down. One final 1-2 finish to cap over what was a dominating reign.

Past Winners
2012: Alex Zanardi
2013: 24 Hours of Le Mans
2014: Post-race at the Charlotte and Texas Chase races.
2015: Matt Kenseth vs. Joey Logano

Pass of the Year
Description: Best pass of 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Dean Stoneman in the Freedom 100 outside of Ed Jones
Pipo Derani on Felipe Albuquerque in turn 7 at Sebring under 8 minutes to go
Pipo Derani on Dane Cameron, the lap after the pass on Albuquerque in the same corner
Daniel Ricciardo on Valterri Bottas at Monza
Scott McLaughlin on Mark Winterbottom at Surfers Paradise
Lucas di Grassi on Jérôme d'Ambrosio in turn one of Mexico ePrix

And the winner is... Scott McLaughlin on Mark Winterbottom at Surfers Paradise
I don't know if you could ask for a much better pass. McLaughlin had four wheels locked up, sliding into the corner. He appeared destined for retirement in the tires and yet he slowed it down enough to make the corner, kissed his backside on Winterbottom's front bumper and hit the gas and pulled away from the Ford driver. It went from bonehead to brilliant in three seconds.

On the other nominees...
Stoneman's pass isn't running in the draft, making the move and slamming the door shut on the way by but it is a move to the outside and holding momentum through turns three and four and to the finish line. Had Stoneman decided to stay behind Jones into three, I am not sure he would have had the momentum off of turn four to make it pass the Emirati driver.

Both of Derani's passes are memorizing. First, he catches Audi driver-on-loan Felipe Albuquerque by surprise to get second. Albuquerque appeared like he was caught with his pants on the ground. Then the next lap, Cameron must have been told of the move Derani made and Cameron appears to dare Derani to try it again and Derani does, catching Cameron's bluff and elevating him to another historic victory.

Another pass out of nowhere was Ricciardo on Bottas in turn one at Monza. It isn't that he made the pass but he dove up the inside, kept it on the road and didn't force Bottas off course.

You might see a theme in these nominees but di Grassi, like McLaughlin, like Derani and like Ricciardo were ballsy moves up the inside, locking it up and doing it without contact or going wide. Unfortunately for di Grassi, he was disqualified but the move was still impressive.

Past Winners
2012: Simon Pagenaud at Baltimore
2013: Robert Wickens at Nürburgring and Peter Dempsey in the Freedom 100
2014: Ryan Blaney on Germán Quiroga
2015: Laurens Vanthoor from 4th to 2nd on the outside in the Bathurst 12 Hour

The Eric Idle Award
Description: "When You're Chewing on Life's Gristle, Don't Grumble, Give a Whistle, And This'll Help Things Turn Out For The Best, and...  Always Look On The Bright Side of Life."
And the Nominees are:
Pocono Raceway
Patrick Long
Santiago Urrutia
William Byron

And the winner is... Toyota
When the 24 Hours of Le Mans slips from you in the final five minutes, no other heartache compares.

On the other nominees...
It is one thing to have one race delayed by rain. It is another to have all three races in three different months across two different series moved to Monday by rain. Pocono Raceway had that happen. Not to mention the track's second NASCAR race was shortened due to fog. Things can only get better in 2017.

Patrick Long was second and all he had to do was finish second and he had room between him and championship rival Álvaro Parente. Long decided to go for the race victory and went off the road after slight contact with Johnny O'Connell and fell from second to fifth, only to be elevated for fourth after O'Connell was penalized for the contact.

Laguna Seca was a sight for a few heartbreaks in 2016. Santiago Urrutia had the Indy Lights title in his in second-place. He couldn't catch Zach Veach for the victory and on the final lap Ed Jones passed teammate Félix Serrallés for fourth, elevating him passed Urrutia for the championship by two points. Now the Uruguayan's single-seater career could be over and he could have to race touring cars in Argentina. It might not all be bad. José María López resurrected his career in touring cars in Argentina.

William Byron was bound to be championship-eligible in the final race of the NASCAR Truck Series but his engine failed while leading with nine laps to go after leading 112 laps of 141 laps to that point. He fell to 27th and missed on advancing to the final race by 15 points.

Past Winners
2012: Ben Spies
2013: Sam Hornish, Jr.
2014: Alexander Rossi
2015: McLaren

Comeback of the Year
Description: The Best Comeback in the 2016 season.
And the Nominees are:
Ryan Hunter-Reay from a lap down to 3rd at Pocono in the final 25 laps
Tommy Milner from fifth to first in GTLM in final five minutes at Road America
Antonio Giovinazzi winning GP2 feature race at Monza from 21st on the grid
Max Verstappen from 15th to 3rd in the final 18 laps in the wet in the Brazilian Grand Prix
Nicolas Lapierre winning the FIA WEC LMP2 title two years after being released by Toyota's LMP1 program

And the winner is... Max Verstappen from 15th to 3rd in the final 18 laps in the wet in the Brazilian Grand Prix
When you consider Verstappen spun in this race and nearly collided with the barrier, the fact he finished at all is incredible but then he and most of other drivers in the race made the wrong decision to switch to intermediate tires and Verstappen made the decision later than others. He came back in for full wet-weather tires and that is where the fun begins. He made passes that made others appear to be standing still. He flew by on the outside at the bottom of the Senna "S". His car twitched but he kept it straight on the drive to the front. You couldn't help but think if he had stayed on the full wet-weather tires he could have given Lewis Hamilton a run for the race victory.

On the other nominees...
I was at Pocono and once Hunter-Reay slowed down after taking the lead exiting turn two, all eyes turned to him as he coasted into the pit road only to re-fire the car and get back on the track but a lap down. A fortunate caution put him back on the lead lap and you couldn't help but watch him go from 12th to 3rd. It was a dazzling and inspiring performance.

The final five minutes at Road America couldn't have been gnarlier. The GTLM field stacked up on one another and as a few cars ran wide, Nick Tandy spun, Toni Vilander was spun by a prototype and Milner picked his way to the front of the class and passed Richard Westbrook on the final lap heading into turn five.

Antonio Giovinazzi qualified second for the feature race at Monza but was sent to the back of the grid after tire pressure violations. He picked off a few spots and benefitted from an accident that moved him up the order but he made the pass for second on Gustav Malja with two laps to go and Raffaele Marciello on the final lap for the lead and victory.

Nicolas Lapierre's career suffered a big set back in 2014 when he was released by the team despite being in the championship leading entry. After a successful stint as a part-time driver with KCMG in LMP2 last year, which included class victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Lapierre returned to full-time competition in 2016 with Signatech and he along with Gustavo Menezes and Stéphane Richelmi blew the doors off of LMP2, winning four rounds including Le Mans on the way to the title.

Past Winners
2013: Michael Shank Racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona
2014: Juan Pablo Montoya to IndyCar
2015: Kyle Busch

Most Improved
Description: Racer Who Improved The Most from 2015 to 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Maverick Viñales: From 12th to 4th with a victory and four podiums.
Simon Pagenaud: From 11th to champion with five victories, seven pole positions and eight podiums.
Oliver Gavin/Tommy Milner: From 8th and two podiums to champions with four victories and seven podiums.
Pierre Gasly: From 8th to champion and getting his first victory in almost three years.
McLaren: From 9th on 27 points to 6th on 76 points.
Extreme Speed Motorsports: From 7th and 8th in WEC LMP2 to 4th and 5th and victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring.

And the winner is... Simon Pagenaud
A ten-position jump and one in which Simon Pagenaud dominated the season. He became the first driver to finish on the podium in the first five races to start an IndyCar season since Sébastien Bourdais in 2006 and it was the 11th such occurrence. From a driver who seemed lost in 2015, it could be argued that no driver was more in control of a championship in 2016 than Pagenaud in IndyCar. Even when it appeared the title was slipping from him, Pagenaud responded with an emphatic victory at Mid-Ohio or coming out of nowhere to find him fighting for the victory at Texas. Pagenaud got into Will Power's head in the final few races and even after Power retired from the finale, handing the title to the Frenchman, Pagenaud closed his championship season in style with a victory.

On the other nominees...
Maverick Viñales was sort of a revelation in MotoGP in 2016 as he carried Suzuki make to top as the manufacture won for the first time since in over nine years. Viñales will move to Yamaha for the 2017.

Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner might have had a disappointing 2015 season but a victory at Le Mans did kind of make up for it. This season however turned out to feature more rounded success.

Red Bull junior driver Pierre Gasly was starting to lose his shine at 20 years old. After finishing second to Carlos Sainz, Jr. in the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, Gasly had a somewhat disappointing 2015 season, where his teammate Alex Lynn beat him in the championship. This season didn't start well but he found his footing, got back to the top step of the podium and ended up winning the championship by seven points over teammate Antonio Giovinazzi.

McLaren weren't a world-beater in 2016 but after watching the difficult struggle of 2015, this season was much better. It wasn't great and it is still a rough patch for McLaren but the team is making steps in the right directions.

Extreme Speed Motorsports had very few things go right in 2015 but 2016 couldn't have started with any bigger of a bang with a win Daytona followed by a win at Sebring. The team might not have won a WEC race but both cars were more competitive and the team returns to full-time IMSA competition off a substantial wave of momentum.

Past Winners
2012: Esteban Guerrieri
2013: Marco Andretti
2014: Chaz Mostert
2015: Graham Rahal

And there you have it. Once again, congratulations to all the champions and race winners during 2016. As always, I am grateful for everyone who has read this post and has been reading throughout 2016 and thank you to all of you who have been reading since the beginning in 2012. I look forward to another year and more 2017 predictions will be out over the final two weeks of the year.