Monday, March 6, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: What to Watch For in IndyCar

Shane Van Gisbergen credited his pole position at Adelaide to going pee and then the New Zealander promptly swept his first weekend as defending Supercars champion. NASCAR's 2,500th Cup race was won by Brad Keselowski after Kevin Harvick was penalized for a pit lane speeding violation. NASCAR awarded no playoff points in one race. Las Vegas might get a second Cup race. Supercross teams dealt with the cold of Canada. The IndyCar season is upon us. Formula One teams will head back to Barcelona for testing on Tuesday. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

What to Watch For in IndyCar
With the IndyCar season on the horizon, I think it is important to take a look at a few topics that are likely going to be consistent storylines throughout the 2017 season. Here are five:

1. Abundance of Americans
There are eight full-time American drivers scheduled to contest the entire 2017 IndyCar season and the #20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet is going to be split by two Americans. Each IndyCar race is shaping up to have nine American drivers on the grid, the most regulars since the 2005 IRL season and by far the United States will be the most represented country on the grid and these aren't just a bunch of field fillers.

Josef Newgarden is at Penske. Graham Rahal has been a contender the last two seasons. Ryan Hunter-Reay is a past champion and Indianapolis 500 winner. Alexander Rossi is defending Rookie of the Year and Indianapolis 500 winner. J.R. Hildebrand returns to full-time competition and was quick in testing. Charlie Kimball and Marco Andretti are consistent drivers. Conor Daly has moved to A.J. Foyt Racing. Ed Carpenter looks to find his footing and Spencer Pigot is looking to make an impression and earn a full-time ride.

I enter 2017 not wondering if an American will win a race but how many races will Americans win. Expectations are high but muted for Newgarden. He is at Penske but we saw Simon Pagenaud struggle in his first year with the team. Five of the Americans drive Hondas so there is a feeling that half the contingent will be fighting an uphill battle but Honda held its own on the big ovals and there seems to be at least two or three road/street course races where the Hondas are in contention.

I won't say 2017 could be a watershed year for IndyCar but people shouldn't be complaining about a lack of Americans in IndyCar this year.

2. Chevrolet vs. Honda
It has been a bloodbath for the better part of five years but the last two years have been particularly a mess. After Chevrolet won the most races in 2015 10-6, it upped its win total to 14-2 in 2016, year two of the aero kits. This marks the third and final year for aero kits but all aero kit development has been frozen and that doesn't leave many encouraged thinking it could be any better than another 14-2 beat down by the Bowtie Brigade.

The optimist would look at the freeze in aero kit development and think the teams would at least have another year with the kits and could work on perfecting setup at all these races and that could make up some of the deficit between the two manufactures. The optimist would also point out, as was mentioned above, that Honda had the advantage at the large ovals of Indianapolis, Pocono and Texas. While it is only three races, it is better than nothing and not to forget mentioning that one of those three is the most important race on the schedule.

On paper, the manufacture battle is an inevitable one-sided battle but maybe diminished expectation combined with Honda teams finding a solution could provide us with a surprising and thrilling season.

3. Universal Aero Kits
While we speculate about the Chevrolet-Honda battle, the development of the universal aero kits will linger in the background of the entire 2017 IndyCar season.

The actual timeline isn't clear. Whether the specifics are known before or after St. Petersburg is being disputed. Whether a model of the car will be unveiled at Indianapolis during the month of May is being disputed. The one thing that seems to be cemented is IndyCar wants the universal aero kit tested by the Mid-Ohio weekend, which makes sense considering the initial DW12 test was held after the 2011 Mid-Ohio race.

One other thing that needs to be announced is the constructor of the universal aero kit. I can't see how a model can be unveiled until a constructor is known. I know IndyCar released renderings of what the universal aero kit could look like in 2018 during the North American International Auto Show in January but if a constructor has another idea in mind then those are meaningless unless IndyCar already has a constructor and hasn't announced it yet and that constructor is Dallara.

Although, with IndyCar on the front foot of cockpit protection development and all talk pointing to aeroscreens possibly being introduced by 2018, maybe the universal aero kit constructor could be someone different. Red Bull Technologies was rumored as being interested in becoming the universal aero kit constructor and Red Bull has an aeroscreen that has been used during first Friday practices at a few Formula One races. Maybe that suggests IndyCar will have a new relationship come 2018.

Until the constructor is announced and the universal aero kit is unveiled, every race will have chatter about 2018 and that will likely continued once testing of the universal aero kit begins.

There is part of me wondering if the conversations we will have in IndyCar this season are similar to the conversations that we had toward the end of last season in Formula One. Mercedes might have wiped the floor with the competition for a third consecutive season but there were signs that Red Bull were closing in on the German manufacture and many wondered if another change in the regulations was going just going to reset the cycle and have another era of single team dominance. Could the same happen in IndyCar this year where the Hondas make up noticeable ground on the Chevrolets and lead us to wonder whether the universal aero kit, another cost to the teams, will be needed at all?

4. Future Television Rights
The current television contract ends at the end of 2018 but negotiations can begin this year. laid off IndyCar/motorsports writer John Oreovicz after the Daytona 500 and in a parting message he said the website would scale back IndyCar coverage to just the Indianapolis 500 and the Detroit races. I don't want to say that points to ABC/ESPN slowly stepping away from the series and not putting up a bid for 2019 and beyond but one would think if your network wanted to extend the rights then it wouldn't be decreasing the amount of attention it gave the series.

Does this suggest NBC is going to become the sole broadcaster? Not necessarily. NBC has a lot of properties that aren't IndyCar that take up key weekends. The Indianapolis 500 weekend traditionally is the opening weekend of the French Open, an NBC property. NBC has a lot of golf tournaments that take up weekend afternoons during spring and summer. Remember it wasn't that long ago Indianapolis 500 qualifying coverage was bumped off NBCSN because of Preakness post-race coverage. NBC is a crowded network and while having the Indianapolis 500 would be a nice property to have, it might not fit.

I could see a deal where IndyCar gives ABC the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Indianapolis 500 qualifying, the Indianapolis 500 and the Belle Isle races and the rest of the season to NBC with NBC now allowed to show four races on network, something that currently isn't allowed. That scenario would allow ABC to continue its coverage of the Indianapolis 500 but narrows its IndyCar coverage to four consecutive weekends, NBC gets to show a few IndyCar races on network and IndyCar gets a few more races on network television, which increases exposure of the series, which is good for sponsors and hopefully makes IndyCar a more promising destination for sponsors. That seems to be the best win-win-win scenario.

Could another network sweep in and take IndyCar? Fox has motorsports but IndyCar would be second fiddle to NASCAR for the first half of the season but would likely be the top motorsports property across the second part of the season. Turner Sports just stunned the American soccer landscape and purchased the UEFA Champions League rights away from Fox Sports and Turner has history with motorsports albeit with NASCAR. However, Turner would be cable-only and likely replace NBCSN with the Indianapolis 500 remaining on network, most likely ABC. CBS hasn't had regular motorsports coverage since 2000 and there are no signs of that changing. BeIn Sports has MotoGP, World Superbike and World Rallycross rights in the U.S. and while it could probably write a large check the ratings would be piss poor and make IndyCar even less appealing to sponsors.

I am not sure if the next IndyCar television deal will be announced during this season or after but we will hear about it.

5. Future Scheduling
The current IndyCar schedule is decent but IndyCar CEO Mark Miles still wants an international series as well as expanding the series domestically.

The good news for IndyCar is it appears all races on the 2017 schedule have a contract through 2018. That gives a year hiatus from the worrying articles about the impeding departures of Pocono, Iowa, Texas and others from the IndyCar schedule. IndyCar has a foundation for 2018 and in all likelihood none of these races will move too far around the schedule meaning we know there is a gap from St. Petersburg in mid-March and Long Beach in mid-April that needs to be filled and a possible place in early-August for a race in-between Mid-Ohio and Pocono.

A return to Portland kept floating around late in 2016 but that rumor has gone quiet in 2017. In all likelihood the winter came and talks died down because at the earliest the race could be added in 2018. The good news is we have seen in the past at St. Petersburg track presidents or promoters from other venue go to the race, talk to IndyCar's senior officials and then a deal is announced and maybe in a few weeks Portland is back in the discussion.

Outside of Portland, where else could IndyCar expand to domestically? No other tracks have reportedly shown interest but I would love to see a return to Fontana or the series visit Circuit of the Americas for the first time and while Circuit of the Americas has expressed interest in a NASCAR race, this is year two of five-year deals NASCAR has made with all its tracks making the earliest NASCAR could head to Austin be 2021. Of course, contracts can be bought out but I am not sure Circuit of the Americas is in that position, not to forget mentioning Eddie Gossage wanting exclusivity over the state of Texas not just for IndyCar but NASCAR as well. I don't know how interested Circuit of the Americas would be in IndyCar but the series is looking for venues and a trip to Austin in late-March could fill that gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach quite nicely.

As for the international, flyaway races to start the IndyCar season, Miles has been pushing this since he took control in 2013 and in the four years since we have had zero flyaway races to kick off the season. I am not sure IndyCar can draw the financial figures it wants to have flyaway races. I am all for IndyCar expanding its international profile but it doesn't make any sense to go somewhere abroad for one year and then have the event drop off the schedule because the organizers went bankrupt after not being able to recoup the sanctioning fee it paid.

While the recent past points to talk of flyaway races going nowhere, the chances of domestic expansion are promising and even if it doesn't happen, IndyCar will at least have schedule stability heading into 2018.

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

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Toronto, his fourth victory of the season and he trails Ryan Dungey, who finished second in Toronto, by 22 points.

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Grand National Series race on Saturday. Christopher Bell won the Truck race.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar season opener from St. Petersburg.
Road to Indy series start their seasons in St. Petersburg.
Pirelli World Challenge starts its season in St. Petersburg.
NASCAR heads west to Las Vegas.
Supercross heads to Daytona Bike Week.
Superbikes will be at Buriram.
The World Rally Championship heads to Mexico.