Monday, October 23, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Where Will the Drivers Come From?

Hiroaki Ishiura locked up his second Super Formula championship thanks in part due to a typhoon canceling the final weekend of the season from Suzuka. Champions were decided under blue skies in Portugal. Max Verstappen cut a corner and it cost him a podium finish. Kyle Larson had his NASCAR Cup championship hopes evaporate when his engine expired at Kansas. Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Jamie McMurray also had their title hopes end. Ford swept the weekend at Surfers Paradise. MotoGP looked more like a Moto3 race at Phillip Island. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Where Will the Drivers Come From?
The Road to Indy series had a little postseason soirée this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test. The 2017 season was pretty good for the IndyCar ladder system. The Indy Lights grid remained stable and four of the five teams picked up a victory and the top four drivers in the championship came from four different teams.

Pro Mazda was in a transition season and the grid surprisingly went up from 2016. There were eight full-time drivers, up from six, and the average grid size was up to 11.5 from 10.25 in 2016. U.S. F2000 had grids around 20 cars at each event in its first season with he Tatuus USF-17 and U.S. F2000 saw teams like Newman Wachs Racing and Exclusive Autosport enter the series.

Things are looking good for the Road to Indy series and another set of champions are set to move up. Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will both be moving up to IndyCar for at least four races next season, including the two Indianapolis races. Victor Franzoni tested for Juncos Racing in an Indy Lights car at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test and Oliver Askew tested the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis for Cape Motorsports.

The one hope with the new Pro Mazda car is the grid will grow, like the Indy Lights grid after the introduction of the IL-15 chassis and the USF-17 chassis helped that series as well. But cars need drivers and Pro Mazda is the middle of the ladder. It is one thing to get drivers in on the ground floor. There are plenty of drivers from around the world hoping to make a move from karting or F1600 into something bigger and U.S. F2000 is that next step.

Pro Mazda isn't in as ideal of situation. Drivers aren't jumping straight into Pro Mazda and some are skipping it completely, see RC Enerson and possibly Rinus VeeKay, who finished second in the U.S. F2000 championship this year but tested an Indy Lights car this weekend. Experienced junior series drivers coming over from Europe are going to want to be making a step up, which would be Indy Lights. They want to be a step away from something bigger and better. Look at Colton Herta and Matheus Leist. Both drivers came to Indy Lights from European series. Herta ran the Euroformula Open Series, a Formula Three series, and Leist won the BRDC British Formula Three championship, which is a Formula 4-spec series but more powerful than a proper Formula 4 car. You could argue both those drivers were more in line to run in Pro Mazda but both ended up in Indy Lights and both had success.

While it is only October, there weren't many suitors from Europe at the Pro Mazda test this weekend. For this weekend's test, 11 different drivers participated in the Pro Mazda sessions. Six of those 11 drivers were in U.S. F2000 last year, four were returning drivers and one driver came over from Europe, Leonard Hoogenboom, who raced in ADAC, Italian and UAE Formula 4 the last two years and he also has a fun last name.

U.S. F2000 drivers are supposed to move up to Pro Mazda but Pro Mazda still has a ways to go to get the grid back to a healthy level and taking a half a dozen drivers or more from U.S. F2000 isn't going to solve the issue. The ladder system could run the risk of Pro Mazda taking too many drivers from U.S. F2000 and then the issue of grid size will only move from Pro Mazda to U.S. F2000.

U.S. F2000 did have 20 cars entered for its test but the issue is both series should be around the 20 to 24-car range and right now both series are fighting for drivers. Pro Mazda needs to almost double its grid size but where are those drivers going to come from? The Formula 4 United States Championship has over two dozen cars at most races and notable names on that grid are Kyle Kirkwood, who won the Team USA Scholarship last year with Oliver Askew, and Dakota Dickerson, who was in U.S. F2000 earlier this year before funding dried up. The problem is the jump to Pro Mazda from Formula 4 is big. The new Pro Mazda car was over ten seconds faster on the IMS road course than the Formula 4 car. The U.S. F2000 car was five seconds faster than the Formula 4 car so that is not really a solution.

This might be a situation where the problem won't fix itself for another three or four years. I don't see a mass influx of drivers from European junior series to Pro Mazda and propping up the grid. As more drivers funnel through U.S. F2000, more will end up in Pro Mazda and if things continue on the same pace then we will eventually see Pro Mazda grid get back to the desired level. Pro Mazda will likely see progress in 2018 and that is all you can ask for.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Hiroaki Ishiura but did you know...

The #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca of Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel won the European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship with a fourth-place finish at Algarve.

The #2 United Autosport Ligier of Sean Rayhall and John Falb won the European Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a second-place finish in class at Algarve.

The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Jody Fannin and Robert Smith won the European Le Mans Series GTE championship with a second-place finish in class at Algarve.

Joan Mir won the Moto3 race from Phillip Island, his ninth victory of the season, and he clinched the Moto3 championship with that result.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Joan Mir but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the United States Grand Prix, his ninth victory of the season and his sixth United States Grand Prix victory. Hamilton broke a tie with Michael Schumacher for most United States Grand Prix victories.

Marc Márquez won MotoGP's Australian Grand Prix. Miguel Oliveira won in Moto2, his first career Moto2 victory.

Chaz Mostert and Steve Owen won race one of the Gold Coast 600km. Scott McLaughlin and Alexandre Prémat won race two from Surfers Paradise.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Kansas, his seventh victory of the season. Christopher Bell won the Grand National Series race, his first career victory in the series.

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races from Jerez. Federico Caricasulo won the World Supersport race.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Mexican Grand Prix.
MotoGP heads to its penultimate round of the season at Sepang.
The World Rally Championship has its penultimate round of the season at Wales Rally GB.
NASCAR returns to Martinsville.
The WTCC will be at Motegi.
The Asian Le Mans Series season commences at Zhuhai.