Thursday, February 1, 2018

2018 Race of Champions Preview

The 29th edition of the Race of Champions take place this Friday February 2nd and Saturday February 3rd from King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and a total of 22 drivers will take part in the two-day event.

Included in the driver line-ups are the reigning champions from IndyCar, FIA World Endurance Championship, Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, European Le Mans Series, World Rallycross Championship, NASCAR Mexico Series and the European Formula 3 Championship.

Besides all those defending champions there are past three Indianapolis 500 winners, a past 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, a World Rally Champion and a past Champion of Champions winner. Besides these champions, the event features the top drivers from three Middle East nations as well as two people really good at video games.

While having all these great drivers, this year's competition marks the first without an active Formula One driver since 1998. Since the Race of Champions moved to stadium venues in 2004, a European team has won every Nations' Cup and only twice has non-European teams won the Nations' Cup. That would be the United States in 2002 and an All-Star team featuring Spaniard Fonsi Nieto, Brazilian Cristiano da Matta and Frenchman Gilles Panizzi. No driver has won the Nations' Cup and Champion of Champions in the same Race of Champions.

Nations' Cup
We will start with the Nations' Cup. Included below will be a breakdown of the draw and look at each team and how those teams have faired in the past. At the end of each group will be a prediction of what could happen. The top two teams from Group A and Group B will advance to the knockout round while only the group winner from Group C will advance.

Group A
Best Result: 1st (2007-12, 2018)
Timo Bernhard: 2017 World Endurance Drivers' Champion and 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans winner
René Rast: 2017 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion

Latin America
Best Result: Group Stage (2017)
Juan Pablo Montoya: 2017 Champion of Champions, finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500
Hélio Castroneves: 4th in the IndyCar Series championship, second in the Indianapolis 500

Best Result: Debuting this year
Memo Rojas: 2017 European Le Mans Series LMP2 Drivers' champion
Abraham Calderón: 2017 NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series champion

United States of America
Best Result: 1st (2002)
Josef Newgarden: 2017 IndyCar Series champion
Ryan Hunter-Reay: 9th in the IndyCar Series championship

Group A Prediction: This is a tough group to predict. Germany has been dominant but that has been with Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher as its representatives and Vettel won the Nations' Cup all by himself last year after Pascal Wehrlein was hurt in the individual competition. Montoya and Castroneves both did well in 2017's competition while Newgarden is a rookie and Hunter-Reay has been wishy-washy in his Race of Champions appearances. Mexico is the ultimate underdog and Calderón could swing this group especially if he gets to race the Euro NASCAR. I think Germany and, going with my heart, the United States advance.

Group B
Team Nordic
Best Result: 1st (2005, 2014)
Tom Kristensen: 2017 Champion of Champions runner-up
Petter Solberg: 3rd in the 2017 World Rallycross Championship

Great Britain
Best Result: 2nd (2009, 2010, 2014)*
David Coulthard: 2017 Champion of Champions semifinalist
Lando Norris: 2017 Formula Three European champion

* - England won in 2015 with Jason Plato and Andy Priaulx.

Best Result: Semifinals (2003)
Johann Kristoffersson: 2017 World Rallycross champion
Joel Eriksson: 2017 Formula Three European vice-champion

Sim Racing All-Stars
Best Result: Debuting this year
Rudy van Buren: 2017 McLaren World's Fastest Gamer
eROC winner*

* - eROC contest takes place Friday at 7:45 a.m. ET between the first ever Formula One eSports champion Brendon Leigh of the United Kingdom, three-time Project CARS World Champion Kevin Leaune of France, iRacing Blancpain GT3 Sprint champion Enzo Bonito of Italy and 2017 eWTCC champion Alexander Dornieden of Germany. (Update: Bonito was the eROC winner).

Group B Prediction: Kristensen and Solberg won the Nations' Cup in 2014 and I think they will be the pairing to beat in Group B. Despite being retired from full-time competition for close to six years Coulthard always is competitive in this competition. Norris and Eriksson are both teenagers and they kind of cancel each other out as while they finished 1-2 in Formula Three last year, both lack experience in many other forms of motorsports. It is hard to see the Sim Racing All-Stars finishing second in this group. Give me Team Nordic and Great Britain. If Team Nordic wins the Nations' Cup, Kristensen would join Vettel and Schumacher as the only drivers to win the Nations' Cup at least three times.

Group C
Saudi Arabia
Best Result: Debuting this year
Yazeed Al-Rajhi: Ran two World Rally Championship events, best finish was 13th at Rally Italia Sardegna
Ahmed Bin Khanen: 2014 Nissan GT Academy Middle East winner.

United Arab Emirates
Best Result: Debuting this year
Khalid Al Qubaisi: Two-time Dubai 24 Hour winner
Khalid Al Qassimi: Ran four World Rally Championship events, best finish was 16th at Rally Finland

Best Result: Debuting this year
Karl Masaad: 8th in the F4 British Championship
Mansour Chebli: Lebanese hillclimbing

Group C Prediction: This group is wide open. All these drivers are making debuts. My gut says take the United Arab Emirates because it has two successful drivers in their fields and those drivers have been more successful on an international stage. I feel that will give them the advantage to take Group C. Should any of these teams win the Nations' Cup it would be the first time a Middle East nation won the Nations' Cup. Saudi Arabia could become the sixth host nation to win the Nations' Cup. It occurred in 2001 with Spain, 2004 with France, 2010 and 2011 with Germany and 2015 with England.

The Nations' Cup will be on Friday February 2nd at 12:00 p.m. ET.

The Champion of Champions
Each group has three competitors already decided while the fourth and final spot will be decided by a playoff between two drivers in the first round of this competition. The top two drivers from each group will advance to the quarterfinals with the Grand Final being a best-of-three.

Below will be a breakdown of each group with the playoff to decide the final spot in each group included as well.

Group A
Juan Pablo Montoya
Best Result: 1st (2017).

Hélio Castroneves
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2017)

Ryan Hunter-Reay
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2014)

Memo Rojas/Abraham Calderón
Best Result: Both drivers are making debuts.

Group A Prediction: This is an IndyCar-heavy group and all three of those drivers along with Rojas have all had success in American sports car racing. Montoya won on debut last year at 41 years old. I don't think he is going to be topped by two drivers. Montoya is attempting to join Stig Blomqvist, Didier Auriol and Mattias Ekström as back-to-back winners. Last year, Montoya became the first non-European driver to make the Champion of Champions final. As for the second spot, Hunter-Reay's only good year in the Race of Champions was 2014, where he won all three races in his group but was bounced in the quarterfinals. Castroneves did respectable, including beating Sebastian Vettel to advance from the group round last year. Both Castroneves and Hunter-Reay looked good at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Montoya and Castroneves advance.

Group B
Tom Kristensen
Best Result: Runner-up (2005, 2011-12, 2015, 2017)

David Coulthard
Best Result: 1st (2014)

Timo Bernhard
Best Result: This is his debut.

Rudy Van Buren/Enzo Bonito
Best Result: Both drivers are making debuts.

Group B Prediction: If there is one thing we have learned the last few years is age wins in Race of Champions. Kristensen has finished runner-up in four of the last five Race of Champions and he is 50 years old. Coulthard won at 43 years old in 2014. Kristensen has made five Champion of Champions finals, tied with Didier Auriol for second-most all-time. Sébastien Loeb made six Champion of Champions finals.

Throw in the defending World Endurance Drivers' champion and two-time Le Mans winner Timo Bernhard at only 36 years of age and this is a tight group. Only one German driver has won the Champion of Champions competition and that was Vettel in 2015. Germany has had five different drivers make the Champion of Champions final. The only country with more Champion of Champions final representatives is Finland with six. France has also had five Champion of Champions final participants.

I think Kristensen and Bernhard advance.

Group C
Johan Kristoffersson
Best Result: This is his debut.

René Rast
Best Result: This is his debut.

Lando Norris
Best Result: This is his debut.

Joel Eriksson/Mansour Chebli
Best Result: Eriksson makes his debut as well as Chebli.

Group C Prediction: This is the most wide open-group and it is a fairly young group. Rast is the oldest driver at 31 years old and there could be two teenagers if 19-year-old Eriksson wins in round one and joins 18-year-old Norris. Rast is the most experienced circuit racer in this group but Kristoffersson had a good circuit career, which included winning the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship and the International Superstars Series championships in 2012 and he won six of ten races he started in the STCC last year. Norris is young and that inexperience could be a disadvantage Sweden has had a driver win the Champion of Champions competition five times behind only France, which has won it ten times and Finland, which has won it six times.

I think Rast and Kristoffersson move onto the knockout round.

Group D
Josef Newgarden
Best Result: This is his debut.

Petter Solberg
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2014)

Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Best Result: This is his debut.

Karl Masaad/Ahmed Bin Khanen
Best Result: Both drivers are making debuts.

Group D Prediction: If there is a group Newgarden has to advance from and prove he has talent outside an IndyCar and could run other series this is it. What could be in his way is the fact that rally drivers have done well in the Race of Champions even since it moved to the stadium format in 2004. No American has ever won the Champions of Champions competition and the only time an American has made the semifinal was Carl Edwards in 2008. Al-Rajhi could become the third driver to win the Champion of Champions competition on home soil. Carlos Sainz did it in 1997 on the Gran Canaria course and Sébastien Loeb won in 2005 in Stade de France in Paris.

I think Newgarden will advance with Solberg.

The Champion of Champions competition will be held Saturday February 3rd at 8:00 a.m. ET.