Monday, December 4, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Will Manufactures Stunt IndyCar Grid Growth?

Formula E had two ridiculous races. Sam Bird nearly hit a guy and drove into his pit building on his pit stop. He had to serve a drive-through penalty from the lead and he came out ahead and won the race. Edoardo Mortara spun while leading with a little more than two laps to go in the second race and Daniel Abt took the checkered flag on his birthday but the German was disqualified for a technical infringement. This handed the victory to Felix Rosenqvist, who spun from the lead in turn one on the first green flag lap of the race. Elsewhere in the world, the WTCC season ended. There were endurance races in California and Japan. Takuma Sato did some laps in an IndyCar around Twin Ring Motegi. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Will Manufactures Stunt IndyCar Grid Growth?
Concerns over whether Harding Racing will be full-time where calmed last week when the team made a surprise addition to the team. Brian Barnhart left his role within IndyCar race control to take over as team president of Harding Racing.

I don't think Barnhart would have left a comfortable job at IndyCar if Harding Racing wasn't going to be a full-time team. IndyCar needs more teams and the addition of Harding Racing as a full-time contender is step one in the growing process for the series after more than a half a dozen teams vacated the series since the start of the DW12-era in 2012. However, one additional team could be pushing the limit due to the constraints set by the manufactures.

Last year's IndyCar grid averaged 22.058 entries per race in 2017, down from 22.75 in 2016 but the better comparison would be that ten races in 2017 featured 21 entries while 12 races in 2016 featured 22-car grids and two races featured more than 22 cars. Only one race featured more than 22 cars in 2017 and that was the Indianapolis 500. In 2015, the average grid size was 24.25 cars and every race featured at least 23 cars.

While Harding Racing enters the series, the grid is on track to shrink for the third consecutive season. Harding Racing used Chevrolet engines in the team's three races last year and I think it is safe to say Harding Racing will be a Chevrolet team in 2018. Team Penske will down size to three cars with Hélio Castroneves' IndyCar exit. A.J. Foyt Racing will remain with two cars with Tony Kanaan joining the team and Matheus Leist promoted from Indy Lights. Ed Carpenter Racing seems set with two cars with the only unknown being the road/street course driver in the #20 Chevrolet with Spencer Pigot becoming the full-time driver in the #21 Chevrolet.

Honda sees Andretti Autosport remain at four cars. Takuma Sato moves to a second entry for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has an all-Canadian line-up with James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens. Chip Ganassi Racing cuts its team in half with Scott Dixon's only teammate being Ed Jones. Sébastien Bourdais will remain at Dale Coyne Racing with a teammate still to be decided.

With eight Chevrolets and 12 Hondas tentatively expected, IndyCar finds itself tracking back closer to grid numbers prior to reunification and that is not a good thing. Fortunately for IndyCar there is some hope, some good ole British hope. It has been expected that Carlin will step up and enter IndyCar next season with Max Chilton and possibly with a second car for Charlie Kimball. That has yet to be confirmed and the news cycle has gone quieter as Christmas has gotten closer but the good news is there is still over three months until the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Carlin isn't the only British hope for IndyCar. Jack Harvey and Michael Shank Racing have been linked to a part-time program in partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Those three entries could go a long way for IndyCar but any further growth in the series is limited and can only come from one direction. Honda is tapped out with 12 engine programs but has been flexible to run a 13th program when necessary. There is only one place for new teams to go and that is Chevrolet. I doubt Chevrolet wants to go beyond 12 engine programs as well, which means at this moment IndyCar is four entries away from a capacity grid.

This causes a problem for IndyCar. One, there is a limit to how large the grid can be and could prevent teams from entering the series that want to be in IndyCar. And two, new teams don't get a choice and this isn't a new problem for IndyCar. Michael Shank Racing was ready to enter IndyCar in 2012 but all the Chevrolet engine leases and all the Honda engine leases were taken meaning the only choice was Lotus. Instead of entering the series Shank passed because he saw the writing on the wall when it came to the Lotus package. Nearly six years later IndyCar can't force teams that want to enter the series to reconsider. The problem is there is no easy solution. IndyCar can't force either manufacture to field 21 cars if there are 21 entries knocking on the door looking for an engine.

On one of the recent Marshall Pruett Podcast episodes, Pruett brought up that in the second year of IMSA's DPi-era the Prototype class will come close to matching the size of the IndyCar grid and the class will see four manufacture programs while a handful of cars run the Global LMP2-spec. The IMSA rulebook has allowed Team Penske, BAR1 Motorsports, Performance Tech Motorsports and CORE Autosport to join the Prototype class for 2018 and JDC-Miller Motorsports will be adding an entry for next season as well.

One reason for this growth in IMSA's Prototype class is teams have choices. IMSA wasn't going to stop Team Penske from bringing a new, albeit returning, manufacture into the prototype class. Better yet, IMSA wasn't going to turn Acura away because the engine is a 3.5 L twin-turbo V8. The series wasn't going to say Performance Tech and CORE Autosport couldn't purchase Oreca chassis. IMSA has a rulebook and it has allowed many to enter without fitting one specification for all. It also has Balance of Performance but that is another story. Flexibility has been a wonderful thing for IMSA.

IndyCar has been rigid to change and it prevents teams from entering. If the only option is the Chevrolet engine program and there are at most four available leases then the series might not be appeasing to outside teams. The IndyCar rulebook doesn't allow for anything but a 2.2 L twin-turbo V6 engine. Only Chevrolet and Honda produce engines to those specifications. Once all those engine leases are accounted for the grid has reached maximum capacity and no other teams can enter. An outside team can't even bring a new manufacture to the series unless it builds a 2.2 L twin-turbo V6 engine, which that manufacture likely doesn't or doesn't want to because the existing manufactures have a six-year head start.

IndyCar enters year seven of the DW12-era and no manufactures have joined since the year one. None are coming anytime soon despite yearly reports that the series is talking with manufactures. Once or twice a year we reach a point of frustration with the shackles IndyCar puts on itself and its reluctance to shed them when it could be for the best of the series. I don't blame IndyCar for being nervous that changing the rulebook could upset the existing two manufactures and could increase cost for the few teams that are in the series but do nothing has been a slow hemorrhage and soon this wound will need to be addressed.

Champion From the Weekend

Thed Björk clinched the 2017 World Touring Car Championship with finishes of fifth and fourth at the doubleheader at the Losail International Circuit.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Sam Bird and Felix Rosenqvist but did you know...

The #45 Toyo Tires/Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi of Darren Law, Charles Hayes, Tom Haacker and Nathan Stacy won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.

The #8 Jackie Chan DC Racing x Jota Oreca-Nissan of Stéphane Richelmi, Harrison Newey and Thomas Laurent won the 4 Hours of Fuji. In LMP3, the #6 Jackie Chan DC Racing x Jota Ligier-Nissan of Patrick Byrne and Guy Cosmo were victorious. The #91 FIST-Team AAI Ferrari of Marco Cioci, Ollie Millroy and Lam Yu won in GT.

Tom Chilton and Esteban Guerrieri split the final two races of the WTCC season at Losail.

Coming Up This Weekend
We are running out of events but the Andros Trophy heads to Alpe d'Huez.