Monday, January 23, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Going Green and Only Green

Juan Pablo Montoya is the best driver in the world. Sebastian Vettel would like to make an argument that he is at least second best. Pascal Wehrlein flipped a three-wheeler. Kurt Busch jumped a start and got away with it. Scott Speed rear-ended Hélio Castroneves. Jenson Button looks like he loves retirement. And that is just what happened in Miami at the Race of Champions. In other areas of motorsport, a Frenchman picked up where he left off despite driving for a privateer team, there was a surprise in Sepang, Scott Dixon went to the beach and a German broke an arm. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Going Green and Only Green
The winter months lead to a lot of thinking about racing because there frankly isn't much racing to watch. While waiting for the ground to thaw and cars to be shipped to the sands of Dubai and Daytona, we sit and wait and listen because podcasts that talk about racing exist.

Dinner with Racers has found a hole in the fabric of motorsports and has patched it with over two-dozen episodes interviewing an array of people from the motorsports industry in the United States. From the legends of Hurley Haywood to the anonymous NASCARCASM, Dinner with Racers brings together many different stories and ideas about what should be done in motorsports because everyone has the answer.

Some answers make sense. Others are scary. Another batch border on ridiculous but most deserve some time to deconstruct and see how they could work.

IndyCar technical manager Kevin Blanch was one of the guests on the latest season of Dinner with Racers. While IndyCar has shifted from the identity of the dirt of USAC to arguably a confusing and unclear identity of wanting to be ovals because the only race worth a damn in the series is an oval but realistically being a road course series that attracts young American and international kart drivers and runs a few oval races on the side. Blanch comes from a dirt track background and he sees the reality of motorsports: Fewer people are drawn to the race track.

In the episode, Blanch talks about simplifying a race weekend, making it a one-day show and providing constant on-track action for fans, similar to local short track events he attends. He suggestion he makes is having only green flag laps count. He said a race like the Indianapolis 500 could be left alone but for the rest of the schedule that is irrelevant to most, why not count only green flag laps. It is an interesting suggestion and one that bucks from what we are taught to believe. Motorsports stand out because a race never stops; it only slows down. While cautions are seen as stoppages in a race, they aren't. Cautions slow the racing and prevent people from deliberately overtaking but positions change hands through pit stops and teams try to conserve more fuel than the next to go a lap longer and hopefully open a gap. The only stoppages are red flags.

Maybe IndyCar should adopt the green flags laps only approach to racing but there are other things to consider and in the year 2017 the most important thing is television time. With the 2017 IndyCar TV schedule being released last week, we know most races get a 3-hour window with a few exceptions. The 500-mile races get four-hour windows while the IMS road course race and the Belle Isle races get two and a half hours and coincidentally those are ABC races.

One issue with green flag laps only is getting those races to fit into the TV window. They fit now because even if a caution period lasts 10-15 minutes laps are still clicking down. Now imagine cars circling for 10-15 minutes and doing nothing but wasting fuel and tires? Now imagine four caution periods at 12 minutes in length, 48 minutes total. Now add the laps that would have been completed under those caution periods to the elapsed time of the race.

Let's take Iowa as an example. Iowa took an hour and 52 minutes to complete in 2016. Of 300 laps, 42 were under caution, not many and considering how fast laps are at Iowa, 42 wouldn't take that long but 42 is the second-fewest caution laps at Iowa. The average amount of caution laps at Iowa is 56.9 laps with a median of 60.5 laps. Since the race increased to 300 laps in 2014, the average length in time is an hour and 58 minutes. Looking back to when Iowa ran heat races to set the grid in 2012 and 2013, the 2013 heat races were 50 laps in length and all took about 15 minutes.

That appears doable. An extra 15 minutes wouldn't be the end of the world. However, Texas this year, as crazy and confusing as it was, took just under two and a half hours of elapsed time with 53 caution laps. Let's say the average lap at Texas took 25 seconds to complete, it would take about 22 minutes to complete those 53 laps but that would leave little wiggle room at the end of the TV window for what fans would deem as sufficient post-race coverage.

What about road and street circuits? The road courses had low caution numbers in 2016. Barber had one caution lap, Sonoma had three, Road America had four, Watkins Glen had nine and the IMS road course and Mid-Ohio had ten. Running an extra lap or three or four would be doable. It would only be an extra 90 seconds to six minutes. Even nine or ten laps would only take about fifteen minutes. The natural-terrain road course races ranged from an hour and 39 (Road America) to two hours on the nose (Sonoma). Once again, that appears doable.

Street courses are similar. While St. Petersburg and Toronto both led the way with 16 laps. Long Beach was caution-free and was the fastest Grand Prix of Long Beach in event history. The Belle Isle races had eight and nine cautions respectively. The street course races ranged from 93 minutes (Long Beach) and two hours and 13 minutes (St. Petersburg) with the other three street course races falling between an hour and 40 minutes and an hour and 42 minutes. While St. Petersburg has always been a rather long race in elapsed time, the other races could run an extra 15-20 minutes.

It appears green flag laps only could be done not just at ovals but even road and street courses and the races could still fit within current TV windows but there are other issues. First would be increased risk. If only green flag laps count and laps are still run under caution that means more total laps run which means more chance of a mechanical failure or increased chance of contact with another car. Another issue is that caution periods will become absolutely pointless. What is the point of turning laps if the laps don't count? If that was the case, why not just red flag the race every time? However, that wouldn't be any better as then you could have 10-15 minutes of no action, something that most people whether in the stands or watching on TV would want.

Blanch's idea could work for IndyCar but how much would it change? Would it increase the television ratings by 125%? Probably not. Would it increase attendance by 125%? Probably not but I think it would help attendance more than television ratings. My worry would be a race would end up becoming like a basketball game where it takes 45 minutes to complete the final ten laps of action. NASCAR is already criticized for its green-white-checkered rule and I can't imagine IndyCar being praised by only counting green flag laps if races ended with three, four or five attempts just to complete the final lap.

While interesting, I am not sure counting only green flag laps would increase IndyCar's popularity by much and the series should keep the status quo.

Champions From the Weekend
By winning the 4 Hours of Sepang, the #25 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier-Nissan won the Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 championship. Andrea Pizzitola, Andrea Roda and Aiden Read were the winning drivers in the race but Roda defeated Pizzitola by two points in the drivers' championship.

With its victory in LMP3, the #26 Tockwith Motorsport Ligier of Nigel Moore and Phil Hanson took the LMP3 drivers' and teams' championship.

By finishing fifth, the #5 DH Racing Ferrari won the GT teams' championship with Michele Rugolo taking the GT drivers' championship. The #31 Team Audi Korea of Alex Yoong, Marchy Lee and You Kyong-Ook won the race at Sepang.

All three LMP3 champions receive automatic invitations to the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened from Miami and Sepang but did you know...

Sébastien Ogier won Rallye Monte-Carlo on his debut with M-Sport Ford.

Ryan Dungey won the second Supercross race from Anaheim and gives him the championship lead over Ken Roczen. Roczen fell during the race and broke his left arm.

Richard Verschoor won the bookends of the Toyota Racing Series races from Teretonga Park with Pedro Piquet winning race two. Thomas Randle crossed the line first in race one but received a ten-second penalty for jumping the start and elevating Verschoor to first.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 24 Hours of Daytona.
Supercross heads east to Glendale, Arizona (even though they say it is Phoenix).
Toyota Racing Series heads north to Hampton Downs.