Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The 101st Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Conundrum

We end the month of May with one final look back on the 101st Indianapolis 500 and we look at the story that has ruffled feathers and boiled blood in the aftermath. It is the decision over Rookie of the Year. Ed Jones was the best rookie finisher in third and did not get the award. Fernando Alonso took the honor despite an engine failure with 21 laps to go.

Some said Alonso was too experienced and wouldn't appreciate the award while Jones deserved it with the minnow team in Dale Coyne Racing and he held his own racing in the front in his sixth career IndyCar start with the likes of Hélio Castroneves. Some said Alonso was unfortunate to have suffered an engine failure and led 27 laps and was consistently the fastest rookie over the course of the month.

It was a difficult decision across the board and it is based off of four criteria: Skill, sportsmanship, accessibility and finishing position. The first three you can't put a number on and each of the first three are vague. How do you determined who had better skill or better sportsmanship or more accessibility. Jones finished third. Alonso ended up 24th. That is the easy part but let's try to dissect the other three.

Before diving into these it should be noted that everything is going to skew in favor of Alonso. More attention was spent on him. Every lap he turned was made to be important. It seemed like was interviewed after every session to get his thoughts on what he had just experienced.

If we look at the time sheet from every day, Alonso was top of the charts in the rookie orientation practice on the first Monday and he was the top rookie in the full Monday practice session later that day. Jones was the top rookie on Tuesday. Wednesday was a day hampered by wind and only 21 cars took to the track, 14 of which ran at competitive speed. While Alonso ended up fourth on the day, Jones did not run. Alonso was fourth again on Thursday while Jones was in 18th and Alonso was fourth again on Fast Friday with Jones in ninth.

Come qualifying Alonso ended up seventh and Jones tenth on day one. Jones ended up 11th on the grid, but ninth fastest on day two of qualifying with Alonso fifth on the grid and sixth fastest. In the post-qualifying practice on Monday, Jones was second and Alonso 12th. On Carb Day, Alonso ended up fifth and Jones was 23rd.

If you look at the Rookie of the Year as something that takes into account everything that happens over the course of the month and throwing out the Wednesday, Alonso was ahead of Jones in five of seven practices sessions and out-qualified Jones and he was in the top five in four practice sessions.

One other bit of skill that should be noted for Alonso is from day one, his May 3rd test, Alonso was running below the white line on a consistent basis and it led many to believe the only way he would correct his perceived over-aggressive nature in the turns was the hard way in the barrier. Some even speculate that his low line was costing him speed in the corners. Alonso never really changed his style and never ended up in the barrier despite many believing it was bound to happen and he proved that low line could be quick.

On the reverse side, Jones was able to stay at the front in the race despite using a bit of strategy to get him to the front. We have seen plenty of drivers end up at the front and get swallowed up only to end up where they were originally situated within five to ten laps. And as mentioned before, Jones wasn't just going toe-to-toe with Max Chilton, his teammate James Davison and Takuma Sato in a battle for tenth or 12th but he battled those drivers and Hélio Castroneves for the lead. He was legitimately in contention for the victory and he was on the heels of Castroneves and Sato over the final seven laps in what can only be described as a terrific piece of driving.

I don't know how to determine who was better at this. I don't know if either flipped any one off or blatantly ignored a rule or official. Neither driver was reckless on track and neither driver was chopping trailing cars in the corners. Jones was sent to the rear of the field after pitting before the pit lane was open but that was more a miscommunication because that occurred after the red flag had been lifted and the pits didn't open the next time by but rather two laps after the red flag was lifted and Jones came a lap early. Not the worst offense in the world by any means.

The one gripe that could be made against Alonso is after he retired with his engine failure he didn't immediately stop and do an interview with Dr. Jerry Punch. He did eventually do the interview and did it prior to the race ending but after he went back to the driver's lot, showered and changed. Like Jones' one mistake, I could write this down to a cultural difference between IndyCar and Formula One. In Formula One, when a car retires a driver usually gets a chance to go back to the garage, debrief with the team, change and then goes to see the media in one centralized gathering. Once again, this is not the worst offense in the world.

This is another one that skews heavily in favor of Alonso. We couldn't help but hear about how willing he was to talk to the press, go to press conferences, go to New York on the media tour and so on and how he never said no to any request.

To be fair, we didn't hear about Ed Jones spurning any media requests. This could be a case where Alonso went for 100-for-100 and Jones went six-for-six. Both were at 100% only Alonso was more heavily requested.

Finishing Position
We already covered this one but finishing position doesn't tell the whole story. Yes, Ed Jones finished third and Fernando Alonso finished 24th and Jones was ahead of Alonso when the Spaniard's engine failed but it is hard to use finishing position as the end all be all. It doesn't necessarily tell the entire story.

If future generations look back on the 2012 Indianapolis 500 and see that Takuma Sato finished 17th, they would miss so much of the story about how he worked his way to the front and made daring pass after daring pass before one final attempt just stepped over the line and left him in the turn one wall while Dario Franchitti took his third Indianapolis 500 victory.

Alonso was running in the top ten for 173 of the 179 laps he completed and he led the third-most laps in the race with 27 laps led. The exceptions were lap 114 during a pit cycle when he dropped to 11th and lap 143-147 when he dropped to 12th in a mix of pitting while the likes of Chilton, Charlie Kimball, J.R. Hildebrand, James Davison, Jones and company stayed out and this was just after a caution for debris after one lap of green. Alonso was in the top ten for 96.648% of the laps he completed and that is without mentioning that his average lap time was the best at that point of the race.

Jones, however, spent 98 of the first 112 laps and 122 of the first 138 laps outside the top ten. From lap 139 to the end of the race, Jones was in the top ten for all but two laps, lap 166, when he made his final pit stop and lap 167. He gets back in the top ten on lap 168 when the rest of the field makes its final pit stops under caution and Jones never dropped lower than fourth over the final 32 laps. Overall, Jones spent 38% of the race in the top ten and there was a spell of fortune for Jones. He pitted on the lap where Charlie Kimball lost his engine. Had Kimball not lost his engine or lost it heading into turn one a half-lap later instead of entering turn three, Jones may have been caught a lap down and this would have ruined his chances to finish in the top ten let alone be on the fringe of victory.

There is a strong case for both drivers to be Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and if there was ever a year where the award should have been split this was it. A lot of people are arguing Jones deserved it but at the same time it would be very hard to justify that Alonso didn't deserve it. Alonso was unfortunate that he pulled a short straw when it came to the Honda engines and it cost him a respectable finish. I don't think something out of a drivers' control should cost a driver the award. After all, Tony Stewart was crowned Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and his engine expired after 82 laps.

Ed Jones joins Graham Hill, who won the 1966 race, and Richie Hearn, who finished third in 1996, the year Stewart won Rookie of the Year despite not making it to halfway, as rookies to be a top three finisher in the race not to win the Rookie of the Year award. If there is any consolation prize for Jones is through six races in 2017 he has been impressive everywhere he has gone and since he is the only rookie full-time in IndyCar, he should have the 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Year award wrapped up by Mid-Ohio and just like the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, it pays a cool $50,000.