Monday, September 11, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Is IndyCar Turning Japanese or German?

Márc Marquez won a wet race from Misano with a final lap pass on Danilo Petrucci and Márquez and third-place finisher Andrea Dovizioso are tied on 199 points with five races to go. The Moto2 and Moto3 races saw plenty of riders go down in the wet conditions. There was a wet race from the Nürburgring and the changing conditions cost a few drivers top finishes. NASCAR had an ambulance cause a stir. A future Formula One driver won again in Japan and he could be in Formula One sooner than we thought. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Is IndyCar Turning Japanese?
We have covered the strangeness of IndyCar silly season. Everyone seems to be on the move and yet a lot of things appear to be staying the same.

Andretti Autosport is sticking with Honda after all but the team is not keeping all its drivers. Alexander Rossi is staying put but Takuma Sato exits to return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It has become pretty clear Tony Kanaan and Max Chilton will not return to Chip Ganassi Racing. Ed Carpenter Racing has only confirmed Ed Carpenter will be back for 2018. One seat is in question at Dale Coyne Racing and Sébastien Bourdais is not the driver in question. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was chasing Alexander Rossi and it now has to look elsewhere. A.J. Foyt Racing may clean house after cleaning house last year. Team Penske appears to be contracting to three cars with Hélio Castroneves moving to the Acura sports car program.

More drivers appear to be lining up at IndyCar's already busy door. Besides the dozen current drivers who will be free agents this offseason, there are also a handful of Indy Lights drivers who are looking for a chance at the top level of North American open-wheel racing and a few interesting names from other forms of motorsports. Former Sauber F1 driver Felipe Nasr was at Watkins Glen and was putting out his feelers for a future move to IndyCar. Robert Wickens, who just won at the Nürburgring this weekend for Mercedes-Benz in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, is open to a move to IndyCar. Current Porsche LMP1 factory driver Brendon Hartley could be in line with a move to Chip Ganassi Racing. Sage Karam could be making a return to IndyCar and I am sure there are another half-dozen drivers I am forgetting.

The rumor that has me the most intrigued is the potential Hartley to Ganassi deal because I think it could signal a shifting culture in IndyCar that could be very beneficial to the series but could also lead IndyCar down a dangerous path and leave it in worse shape.

According to Racer's Marshall Pruett, Hartley's arrival to IndyCar sounds more like Honda would facilitate it and not a Honda team. Hartley would become a Honda-factory driver and paired with a Honda team, which could be Chip Ganassi Racing or it could be Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. What makes this more intriguing to me is that since Hartley would be a Honda-factory driver, he could be used as an endurance driver for the Acura DPi program, meaning Hartley could potential drive for Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske simultaneously.

Honda has been taking a more hands-on approach when it comes to the drivers within its IndyCar line-up. We know about Sato's relationship with Honda but Rossi's future with Andretti Autosport hung on whether or not the team stayed with Honda. It didn't sound like it was because of personal preference for Rossi but rather a professional tie to the manufacture. Honda even had a hand in facilitating Sébastien Bourdais' move to Dale Coyne Racing before the start of this season.

All these moves have me wondering are we seeing a new culture in IndyCar where the manufactures play more of a role in who is in the cars? It has been a rough ride for Honda in the last couple IndyCar seasons and a few seasons ago Honda had a significantly less experienced and less successful driver line-up. Has all these years of not having the upper to Chevrolet in terms of technical performance and drivers finally led the manufacture to take control and take some of the ease off the teams? It makes sense for teams to have Honda provide a driver, as the driver would be a loanee, with Honda paying him or her. The team wouldn't have to worry about spending out of pocket for a driver and at the same time would not have to rely on a pay driver who might not have the talent to compete at the front.

It appears Honda of North America could be taking a common practice in Japanese motorsports and applying it in North America. It is normal for drivers to sign for a manufacture and race in Super Formula and Super GT. Takuya Izawa has been a Honda driver in Super Formula and Super GT for the last decade and his relationship with the brand led to him getting a shot in the GP2 Series when Honda returned to Formula One with McLaren and McLaren had a tie to ART Grand Prix. Kazuki Nakajima is a part of the Toyota LMP1 program but he also drives for Team TOM'S in Super Formula and Super GT. Nakajima's Toyota LMP1 teammate Kamui Kobayashi also has a ride in Super Formula, driving a Toyota for KCMG.

It would also be similar to what the German manufactures in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. It wasn't long ago when Audi LMP1 drivers such as Tom Kristensen and Frank Biela and Mike Rockenfeller spent time in the DTM when not driving the Audi R8 or Audi R10. Even today, drivers for Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are running multiple series for the manufactures. René Rast, Nico Müller and Jamie Green have each been involved in a handful for Blancpain GT Series races for Audi while Maxime Martin, Tom Blomqvist and Bruno Spengler have done the same for BMW. Lucas Auer has moonlighted for Mercedes-Benz in the ADAC GT Masters this season while Maro Engel has run the Bathurst 12 Hour and Spa 24 Hours for the manufacture.

Depending on what happens with Hartley, we could see all five Honda teams with a driver that Honda helped secure the seat for. While Honda has been helpful, Chevrolet has been hands-off. The one noticeable difference is the three Chevrolet teams have paying seats. Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing each have sponsors footing the bill but while they are all paying rides only one Chevrolet team has been responsible for all the of the manufactures' victories this season. At the same time, all of Chevrolet's victories are coming from Team Penske with drivers the manufacture isn't paying anything for. It doesn't seem like Chevrolet should start getting involved but getting involved could add more depth to the Chevrolet IndyCar roster.

There is some cause for concern with Honda's recent approach to IndyCar. While it brings quality drivers to the grid and keeps veterans in the series, it could lead for a harsh reality if or when Honda pulls out of IndyCar. All of a sudden a handful of drivers will be without the manufacture connection and teams will have to start paying drivers or hiring pay drivers. At the same time, if Honda cannot gain the upper hand with this talent, especially next year with the introduction of the universal aero kit, it could be a waste of money while Chevrolet had no influence over who drove a Chevrolet-powered car and saved some pennies along the way.

It will be interesting to see if Honda continues funneling talent to the series and if it works for the manufacture will it force Chevrolet to get more involved in who is on the grid? Chevrolet failed to entice Andretti Autosport to come back and it will be tough to expect any Honda team to switch over without any aid. A Honda team at the bottom of the pecking order could use Chevrolet's desire to have an additional competitive team to get a deal on engines or have the manufacture help pay for a driver or two quality drivers.

I don't think we will see teams stop signing drivers all together. Teams are still going to want specific drivers and are going to want sponsors to cover those costs. The Penskes, Ganassis and Andrettis of the world are going to want to decide who is in their cars. But how much of a shift do we see if IndyCar does not become a more appetizing place for sponsors? Manufacture-supported drivers could become the only way some teams remain on the grid if things don't change. While top names could be joining the series with help from Honda and maybe Chevrolet in the future, IndyCar should still want to increase its exposure to attract more sponsors and have teams be sustainable on their own.

IndyCar could be heading down a dangerous path if Honda and Chevrolet get too involved in where drivers go and then decide to bounce from the series but at the same time manufacture influence could strengthen the grid and keep familiar faces in the series. Only time will tell us if manufacture involvement in the driver market is for the best of the series.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez and Robert Wickens but did you know...

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup race from Richmond. Brad Keselowksi won the Grand National Series race.

Dominique Aegerter won the Moto2 race from Misano. Romano Fenati won the Moto3.

Lucas Auer won the Saturday DTM race from Nürburgring while Wickens won on Sunday.

Pierre Gasly won the Super Formula race from Autopolis, his second consecutive victory.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar season finale from Sonoma.
Pirelli World Challenge sprint season finale from Sonoma.
Formula One heads to the streets of Singapore for the tenth time.
NASCAR begins its Chase at Chicagoland for the final time.
Circuit of the Americas hosts the FIA World Endurance Championship for likely the final time.
World Superbikes return to Algarve after a year away.
Nürburgring is in use for a second consecutive weekend as it hosts the Blancpain Sprint Series season finale.
The Supercars series has its first endurance race of the season at the Sandown 500.