Monday, June 12, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: 2017 IndyCar Midseason Review

IndyCar tore up a lot of equipment in Texas. Some blinking lights caused some confusion on Friday night in Texas. Force India perhaps dropped the ball in Montreal. The Formula E championship looked like it was getting enticing on Saturday and then it went back to status quo on Sunday. MotoGP had another great race in Barcelona. There was a first time winner in the World Rally Championship and it was a long time coming. There was also a first time winner in the Cup series at Pocono and there were a lot of brake issues. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

2017 IndyCar Midseason Review
IndyCar finally gets a week off after five consecutive weekends at a race track and while some head to Le Mans on the off weeks, others will get some relaxation. We are 9/17ths through the IndyCar season and eight race weekends remain. In honor of the midway point to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, let's look back team-by-team at the first four months.

Chip Ganassi Racing
You wouldn't guess that Chip Ganassi Racing switched manufactures midseason. Scott Dixon leads the championship and Tony Kanaan is eighth in the championship but in a sense Dixon has been carrying the load. He has been the top Ganassi finisher in seven races and he was the top Ganassi qualifier in seven of the first nine races. Kanaan has two top five finishes this year. Max Chilton has made a big step forward from 2016 but he still isn't regularly challenging at the front and Charlie Kimball has taken a massive step back from his consistent top ten form of last year. This hasn't been bad this season but it has been far from a great season for Ganassi despite having a legitimate championship contender once again. 

Team Penske
Let's see, Penske drivers are second in the championship, fourth in the championship, fifth in the championship and seventh in the championship. Team Penske is where Team Penske should be. Four wins from three different drivers and you could argue this is a down year for Penske. Simon Pagenaud has struggled in qualifying but has turned poor starting positions into results. Will Power finished outside the top ten in three races and he has since won twice and stood on the podium a total of four times. Josef Newgarden has proven this isn't too big of a spotlight for him and Hélio Castroneves had finished in the top ten of every race this season before his tire failure at Texas. This might not have been the Penske walkover some of us were expecting but the team is in a great position for a second consecutive championship.

Andretti Autosport
This has been an odd two years for Andretti Autosport. It has won the Indianapolis 500 the last two years but last year that was the team's only victory. The team has two of its four drivers in the top ten in the championship, which is the same amount it had in the top ten at this point last year but the team has looked much more competitive. Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi have picked up the ball while Ryan Hunter-Reay lingers outside the top ten in the championship and has been dealt a cruel hand twice this season with mechanical failures while in positions for victory. Marco Andretti has also been bitten by mechanical gremlins a few times this year and while he has looked more competitive he still has some room for improvement. 

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
The season didn't start well for the only single-car team on the IndyCar grid but it has rebounded ever since the Indianapolis 500. Graham Rahal finished 12th in the Indianapolis 500 but he had worked his way into the top five before a flat tire dropped him to the back late in the race. Last year, all eight of Rahal's top ten finishes were top five finishes and five of those were in the six natural-terrain road course races. He hasn't had that same pace at the front, his best finish on a natural-terrain road course was sixth, but it is getting there, he has three consecutive top five finishes and there are four natural-terrain road courses in the remaining eight races.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
The best way to describe 2017 for SPM is good but not great. James Hinchcliffe did win at Long Beach and he had three top ten finishes from the first three races but he has finished outside the top ten in four of the last five races with the exception being a third in Belle Isle I. Mikhail Aleshin has been aggressive but the results haven't been there with two top ten finishes. The team wasn't able to replicate the pace it had at the big ovals last year. Hinchcliffe is tenth in the championship and Aleshin is 15th. It is going to be a uphill battle to get both those drivers in better championship positions by the end of the season.

Dale Coyne Racing
This has been the most improved team through the halfway point and this is after a heaping dose of adversity. Dale Coyne Racing won the first race of the year with Sébastien Bourdais and he was seventh in the championship and on his way to topping Indianapolis 500 qualifying before his accident. However, Ed Jones was in the Frenchman's footsteps for the first five races and he has done well in the absence of his champion teammate. The second Belle Isle race is Jones' only bad race this season, he was collateral damage at Texas and he has been to five of the final eight tracks previously in Indy Lights. It appears the team wants Esteban Gutiérrez to be the driver of the #18 Honda for the rest of the year but he will still need to pass an oval test for that to become reality and Tristan Vautier made a great audition at Texas. Unfortunately for Dale Coyne Racing is the team has had a lot of race cars torn up through the first half of the season and he will likely be on pins and needles until September.

Ed Carpenter Racing
In year one of the post-Josef Newgarden-era, Ed Carpenter Racing has had good moments but it has also clearly taken a step back. Spencer Pigot has been a wonder for this team with three top ten finishes from six starts and he could have had five top tens in that period. J.R. Hildebrand finished third at Phoenix but he is still off pace on road and street circuits although he has had a few respectable finishes taken from him because of contact or penalties. Ed Carpenter has been respectable on the ovals after a few years of tearing up his own equipment. 

A.J. Foyt Racing
New manufacture, new drivers, same results for A.J. Foyt Racing. The split team with Carlos Muñoz being run out of Houston, Texas and Conor Daly being run out of Indianapolis hasn't shown to benefit the team. Daly was the only full-time driver without a top ten finish prior to Texas and Daly more or less finished seventh at Texas because he was off the pace and avoided the big accident. Muñoz has three top ten finishes but all of those have been high attrition races. Even more difficult for A.J. Foyt Racing is it doesn't even have one track style where the team has shown some muscle. It has struggled everywhere.

The Rest of the Grid
Harding Racing has entered two races this year and the team didn't exist when the calendar changed over to 2017. It finished ninth in the Indianapolis 500 with Gabby Chaves in the team's maiden voyage by avoiding the melees and working strategy to their advantage and then this combination finished fifth at Texas. The team has it sights set for full-time in 2018. That seems a bit of a bold move for such a new team and considering how established teams have struggled to find funding but the team has looked good in its early days. The team has stated it intend to run at Pocono later this year.

Sage Karam was competitive in the Indianapolis 500 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing before a battery failure ended the race while he was on the cusp of the top ten with 75 laps to go. 

Juncos Racing got both its cars to the finish of the Indianapolis 500 on the team's first IndyCar race. Neither car got to a competitive pace and Spencer Pigot was struggling with speed throughout the race but Sebastián Saavedra did finish on the lead lap. The team might return for Pocono later this year.

Buddy Lazier returned for the Indianapolis 500 with his own team for the fifth consecutive year and while he got off the final row of the grid for the first time in five starts, his race ended in the turn two barrier after 118 laps.

What to Look Forward to?
Through nine races last year, Pagenaud led the championship by 74 points over Castroneves. This year, after nine races 72 points cover nine drivers and 98 points cover 12 drivers and the leader of the championship still hasn't won a race this season. After last year when it appears Pagenaud could have locked the title up a race early, we are potentially looking at four to six drivers being alive for the championship entering Sonoma. You have Dixon and Pagenaud, the last two championships ahead of Sato, a 40-year-old driver who has finally found consistency, and Castroneves, a 42-year-old driver who has finished runner-up in the championship four times.

Behind the top four drivers are Power and Rahal, the only drivers with multiple victories but Power has finished outside the top ten five times this year and Rahal has finished outside the top ten four times. Then there is Newgarden in seventh, 49 points behind Dixon. With seven different winners through nine races it appears unlikely anyone is going to runaway with the championship in the second half of the season.

Four natural-terrain road courses, three ovals and a street course make up the second half of the season. Two of those ovals are short ovals, which Chevrolet has dominated but Gateway could be a different animal. The tires were significantly wearing at the open test at Gateway in May and drivers seemed to think the extra quarter-mile in length compared to Phoenix made passing possible. Honda has won all four street course races this year. Road America and Watkins Glen could be toss-ups as Honda has the power advantage while Chevrolet has the edge on downforce. 

Another thing to keep an eye on is the upcoming testing of the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit. It will be first tested on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on July 25-26th. The first road course test for the universal kit will be at Mid-Ohio on August 1st. Additional tests will be held on August 28th at Iowa with one postseason test scheduled for September 26th at Sebring.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Will Power but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Canadian Grand Prix. 

Andrea Dovizioso won MotoGP's Catalan Grand Prix, his second consecutive victory. Álex Márquez won in Moto2, his second career Moto2 victory and he has won both Moto2 races in Spain. Joan Mir won in Moto3, his fourth victory of the season.

Felix Rosenqvist and Sébastien Buemi split the races at the Berlin ePrix.

Ryan Blaney won the NASCAR Cup race from Pocono. Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity race. Christopher Bell won the Truck race from Texas on Friday night.

Ott Tänak won Rally d'Italia Sardegna, his first career World Rally Championship victories in his 73rd rally. 

Dušan Borkovic and Roberto Colciago split the TCR International Series races from Salzburgring.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 24 Hours of Le Mans. 
NASCAR head to another large race track, this time it is Michigan International Speedway.
The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters heads east to the Hungaroring. 
World Superbikes will be at Misano, the series second stop in Italy. 
Supercars treks to the Northern Territory and Hidden Valley Raceway.