Monday, December 5, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: What to Expect From the Locals?

Nico Rosberg retired! And everybody is applying to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. NASCAR had an award show. Takuma Sato was confirmed at Andretti Autosport. And there was actual racing! A champion was crowned in style. There was an LMP3-GT battle that lasted 25 hours. There was a slightly shorter endurance race in Japan. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

What to Expect From the Locals?
Almost a month ago, I stated my astonishment in the Americans signed up for full-time IndyCar competition in 2017. You have the usual suspects of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball and Josef Newgarden all returning. Young studs such as Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly returning for their second full-time years and J.R. Hildebrand returning to full-time competition after three years of part-time rides.

John Lingle, author of the Hard Luck Lloyd, commented that they have to win. He isn't wrong. The grid could be 90% American but if they can't win and be competitive it doesn't really matter. I thought about looking back to the so called glory days of CART just to see how many Americans were competing, how much Americans were winning and contending for championships. Of course, Americans were pretty much the only drivers in town for the 1960s, 1970s and most of the 1980s. Emerson Fittipaldi's entrance to IndyCar could be argued as the moment the IndyCar door opened to international drivers (Or Teo Fabi. Maybe we should give Teo Fabi the love considering he finished second in the 1983 CART championship and the following year Fittipaldi, Roberto Guerrero and Arie Luyendyk all made their IndyCar debuts but I digress).

Throughout the late-1980s, you had Fittipaldi win a few races a year but majority of the race winners were still Americans. Even in 1990 Americans won 14 of 16 races with the exceptions being Luyendyk at Indianapolis and Fittipaldi at Nazareth.

I decided to look back at the previous 25 years because it encompasses the years prior to the split, the split and reunification. I also looked at drivers who you could classify as being a regular driver. To be classified as finishing the 24 Hours of Le Mans a car must complete 70% of the winner's distance. In this case, a driver who runs at least 70% of the races will be considered a regular.

I thought about writing a synopsis for the last 25 years in IndyCar, which would be covering 38 seasons thanks to the split but that would be very lengthy so here is a chart instead.

What I will write is that since 1992, an average of 4.405 races have been won by Americans in a season with a median of four. The average amount of American drivers to win in a season is 2.675 with a median of two. The average amount of American drivers in the top ten of the championship is 3.783 with a median of three. The average amount of regular American drivers is 7.75 with a median of eighth.

With eight American drivers confirmed as regulars in 2017, it would be the most regular Americans on the grid since reunification. The last season to see eight regular Americans was the 2007 IRL season and while four Americans finished in the top ten of the championship, only one finished in the top five of the championship (Sam Hornish, Jr. in fifth) and Hornish, Jr. was the only American to win that year with his lone victory being at Texas.

I think the more important thing is to look at is where IndyCar has been the last few seasons. IndyCar has had multiple American winners each of the last six seasons. Since 2011, American drivers have won at least three races a year with 2015 being the high point at six victories. While six doesn't sound like much when you consider the schedule has ranged from 15 to 19 races in that timeframe and at the end of CART's formidable years, Americans would win one to three times in a 20-race season.

Another note that should be made is that some years when Americans dominated, the success came at the hands of one or two drivers. Take the 1994 season where Americans won 10 of 16 races but Al Unser, Jr. won eight of those, including the Indianapolis 500, on his way to the championship that season. Michael Andretti won the other two races. Of course there was the 2001 IRL season where seven Americans were responsible for winning 12 of the 13 races that season. The one not won by an American was the Indianapolis 500, won by the full-time CART driver Hélio Castroneves. That year in CART Michael Andretti's win at Toronto was the only time an American stood on the top step of the podium and he was the only American of four regulars to finish in the top ten of the championship.

I have dug through all this because I am curious, what does the IndyCar fan base want from the American drivers? If Charlie Kimball went out in 2017, won six races including the Indianapolis 500 and won the championship but he was the only American winner and one of two American in the top ten and the other was Ryan Hunter-Reay in ninth, would that be good enough? If six different Americans won one race in 2017 and one of them won the Indianapolis 500 but only three finished in the top ten of the championship and the best ended up in sixth, would that be good enough?

There is hope that American success will rejuvenate the image of IndyCar and bring fans back to the TV set, computer screen, tablet or through the gates and IndyCar can have a sliver of the relevance the series once had. IndyCar won't return to the days of USAC where Americans were pretty much the only drivers on the grid and it isn't likely that Americans sweep the top four in championship and take eight of the top ten but in recent years the current crop of American drivers has been holding their own to the precedent set over the last two and a half decades.

To some, Americans locking up the championship and the Indianapolis 500 should be yearly occurrence but there is nothing wrong with Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal winning at Barber, Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Pocono.

The 2017 crop of American drivers is very talented. Hunter-Reay and Rossi are Indianapolis 500 winners and Hunter-Reay has a championship. Newgarden is entering his prime as he moves to Penske and coming off consecutive career-best seasons. Rahal has been in the top five of the championship the last two years. Hildebrand returns after a few years away but him, Daly and Rossi have all driven Formula One cars in recent memory. Kimball is a consistent driver. Andretti isn't his grandfather or father but you wouldn't rule him out to win the Indianapolis 500 and it wasn't that long ago that he finished in the top five of the championship. Not to mention the likes of Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot and RC Enerson are all on the sidelines, under the age of 24 and have shown promise in their handfuls of IndyCar starts.

IndyCar doesn't have to worry about not having any Americans on the grid any time soon and from what we have seen already, it won't have to worry about if the Americans can be competitive.

Champions From the Weekend
Shane Van Gisbergen clinched his first Supercars championship with a third-place finish in race one from the Homebush Street Circuit. He capped off his championship weekend by winning the second race on Sunday.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Shane Van Gisbergen but did you know...

Jamie Whincup won the first race of the Supercars weekend at Homebush Street Circuit.

The #8 Race Performance Oreca-Judd of Struan Moore, Giorgio Maggi and Fabian Schiller won the 4 Hours of Fuji. The #26 Tockwith Motorsports Ligier-Nissan of Nigel Moore and Philip Hanson won in LMP3. The #5 DH Racing Ferrari of Michele Rugolo, Stéphane Lémeret and Matthieu Vaxivière won in GT.

The #45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi of Darren Law, Johannes van Overbeek, Dion Von Moltke and Mike Hedlund won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The #57 Ryno Racing Ginetta G57 of Colin Braun, Parker Chase, Ryan Carpenter, Randy Carpenter, Colton Herta and Bryan Herta won in the ESR class and finished second overall.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Sepang 12 Hours.