Monday, January 8, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Formula One Winter Series

It was windy in the Northeastern United States. Ed Carpenter Racing has a new Brit. Juncos Racing has found an Austrian. IndyCar has a new race director. Marco Andretti ran at TQ Midget indoors. Brian France isn't buying an NFL team, allegedly. Ryan Truex is out of a ride, unfortunately. Maybe his brother could loan him some of that championship money to get him back into a truck. Two cars were parked at the Roar Before the 24 test and Fernando Alonso made a funny. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Formula One Winter Series
The Formula One offseason isn't as long as it once was. Remember when the schedule used to end in the middle of October? Those were the days when new car unveilings were productions and not merely posting some photos online. Test drivers did the testing over multiple weeks during the winter.  Those were the days.

Now the schedule has ballooned to 21 races and ends after Thanksgiving. Teams are spent after flying from continent to continent. The bad news is more races are expected to be added with Liberty Media running the show. The magic number appears to be 25 races but there isn't much room to squeeze races into the current timeframe. The season is likely going to have to start earlier.

However, while there could be more races, drivers will be getting less seat time before entering Formula One. Drivers enter less prepared than ever before. Unless you are Lance Stroll, most drivers entering Formula One get the young driver test and the handful of preseason test days before making a debut at Australia. Even worse is there are fewer drivers that teams feel comfortable throwing into a car in a pinch. A team can't have three drivers regularly testing and learning the car and have a prayer of being competitive if needed in case of a late injury, illness or driver being dropped.

Williams put Paul di Resta in the car for an ill Felipe Massa at Hungary and he had been out of Formula One for almost four years. Scuderia Toro Rosso went outside the box to get Brendon Hartley despite Red Bull famously having too many development drivers and has kept talented drivers from ever getting a sniff at Formula One (sorry António Félix da Costa).

Formula One wants more races but teams need young drivers to get more experience. What if both desires could be met simultaneously?

The aforementioned Lance Stroll spent a fair amount of time testing a 2014 car last season at private tests and I think it helped the Canadian. He finished 12th in the championship and was giving Massa a run for his money, finishing three points behind the Brazilian. Unfortunately, not everyone has a billionaire father who can ship cars to Suzuka to run two private tests.

What Formula One could do is run a winter series aimed at getting young drivers seat time. My thought is a series could be composed of older cars and it could be a mix of a test and a race weekend. It wouldn't require the same kind of pomp and circumstance of a grand prix weekend so hospitality and fancy garage set up would not be needed. The Friday could be a strict test day. Give the drivers three hours in the morning, take a lunch break and return for three hours in the afternoon.

The weekend doesn't have to be to typical Formula One protocol. A winter series could not only get young drivers seat time in modern Formula One cars but it could allow for Formula One to try new things. Remember the disastrous qualifying format used early in the 2016 season that was quickly scrapped? A winter series could give Formula One a chance to try out a new format and see if it works and where improvements could be made before it goes out to the larger audience.

I would want the winter series to be experimental and the Saturday could be the experimental day. I would want to see a 90-minute qualifying practice in the morning with the results from that session being inverted and then a qualifying race where the slowest from the 90-minute session starts first and the fastest starts at the rear. Let's say every team runs two cars, have all 20 cars separated by a second on the race track and set the qualifying race to be 19 laps with one car being eliminated at the end of each lap. The first car eliminated will start last for the Saturday race. The last car standing starts on pole position. Because these cars will have already run as many as 19 laps, the Saturday race doesn't have to be a traditionally grand prix length. It could probably be half the distance.

Sunday is where the drivers would experience typical grand prix procedures. Have the accustomed knockout-qualifying format late in the morning and an hour or so after the session have a race. It could be to grand prix distance or it could be about 75-80% of a grand prix.

If we have the race weekend set, who would be allowed to drive? It is intended for young or rather inexperienced drivers. However, one Formula One start shouldn't disqualify you from this series. Take Esteban Ocon as an example. He jumped into Manor midseason. If there had been a winter series between the 2016 and 2017 season Ocon would have benefitted from it as nine races in a Manor isn't enough. I would have a rule where a driver could not have made 30 Formula One starts or more to run in the winter series. This would allow a driver to run the winter series the year prior to a rookie's season and the winter before a sophomore season. Contracted 2018 drivers with fewer than 30 grand prix starts include Stroll, Hartley, Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc, Stoffel Vandoorne and even Ocon would be eligible as he has 29 starts.

Let's say all these drivers would run the winter series. That would be six of 20 seats filled. Where would 14 drivers come from? Each year we have plenty of drivers announcing development deals or simulator deals. There are plenty of drivers out there with talent or a checkbook that can land in these seats. Maybe Haas can give an American some seat time. Renault has an academy worth of drivers to pick from. McLaren can give Lando Norris a taste of Formula One. This could also be a chance for teams to give drivers outside Formula One and the ladder system a shot in a Formula One car.

Where would these races be and when would they take place? I would pick three venues and run three consecutive weeks before testing commences in the middle of January and ending the first week in February. There are many places in the Southern Hemisphere where you could visit in January and early February but I am sure not teams want to be traveling around the world during their break from traveling around the world.

Formula One wants more races in the United States. You could do all of them in the United States. Ferrari had an entire development series season in Florida in 2014 at Sebring, Palm Beach and Homestead. None of those tracks shout out Formula One venue but I don't think any city (Miami) would pay for a street course race that is Formula One but lacking the stars. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has a 2.4-mile road course in the parking lot. Out west there is the track formerly known as Firebird International Raceway but that is a smaller track. Laguna Seca looks quite comfortable with a quick glance at the ten-day outlook. California has plenty of racetracks. Willow Springs, Buttonwillow, Thunderhill and Fontana can be turned into a roval.

Once again, none of those tracks shout out Formula One but that is how it is in the United States. Outside of Austin, the only other Grade One circuit is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everything else is Grade Two. Other than the United States, the Middle East has the money to host these races. There could be additional races at Bahrain and Yas Marina and Dubai could host a race but if the goal is to go to new place than those venues don't accomplish that goal. Malaysia is off the schedule so could that comeback with a combination of races in Thailand and maybe another race in China or a race in India? That is possible.

The more you write about it the more it becomes improbable but, while a winter series isn't in the cards, additional races are coming and they will be wedged into the schedule. Drivers will enter more unprepared and people will continue wondering what can be done but no solution will be found.

Winners From the Weekend

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross season opener from Anaheim.

Dakar Rally Stage One Winners
Bikes: Sam Sunderland
Cars: Nasser Al-Attiyah
Quads: Ignacio Casale
Trucks: Aleš Loprais
SXS: Anibal Aliagas

Stage Two Winners
Bikes: Joan Barreda
Cars: Cyril Despres
Quads: Ignacio Casale
Trucks: Eduard Nikolaev
SXS: Reinaldo Varela

Overall Leaders After Two Stages
Bikes: Joan Barreda
Cars: Cyril Despres
Quads: Ignacio Casale
Trucks: Eduard Nikolaev
SXS: Juan Uribe Ramos

Coming Up This Weekend
The Chili Bowl is back.
The Dubai 24 Hour takes place Friday into Saturday.
The Dakar Rally continues.
Supercross heads to Houston.