Monday, August 6, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Looking at the Ladder

Chase Elliott won his third Cup race that paid points toward the championship but it only counted as his first career victory. NASCAR ran part of the Grand National Series race in the wet and A.J. Allmendinger won the first wet stage in NASCAR history but he did not win the race. He had a heck of a charge to finish second on Saturday though. Comcast and Verizon Fios dropped BeIN Sport, which means no MotoGP or World Superbike for many in the United States, which means many did not get to see three really good races from the Czech Republic yesterday. It was a fuel mileage battle at Road America. Super GT had an endurance race at Fuji. Team Penske is five victories away from 500 victories as an organization. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Looking at the Ladder
The Road to Indy was in the news last week and for the reason we probably all wished would never come.

Mazda will withdraw its funding for the Road to Indy scholarship program after the 2018 season. The 2019 champions in Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and U.S. F2000 will not be slated to have a budget awarded to them to move up to the next level of the ladder system.

Nothing lasts forever and for the last two years I held my breathe knowing one day this would come and we would be in this situation, hanging in the sky after the magic carpet was ripped out from beneath us a mile in the air. The free fall begins with no certainty something will swoop in and save the day or something with cushion our impact.

I remember when the Road to Indy system was announced prior to the 2010 season and there was a lot of skepticism because for the longest time the junior series in the United States were disorganized. It was more likely the Indy Lights or Atlantics champion were not going to end up in IndyCar or Champ Car. Star Mazda drivers weren't guaranteed anything. U.S. F2000 died! Barber Pro Series died. In the shadows of reunification what was scoffed at turned into a productive system.

The first year gave Conor Daly and Sage Karam promotions to Indy Lights and Pro Mazda respectively. Year two is why Josef Newgarden is in IndyCar and now driving for Team Penske today. Tristan Vautier did the double, winning the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles in consecutive seasons and put him in IndyCar. Karam and Gabby Chaves each turned Indy Lights titles into IndyCar rides. Spencer Pigot did the double like Vautier. Ed Jones made it to IndyCar and in his sophomore season ended up at Chip Ganassi Racing.

The Road to Indy has not been perfect. While rewarding champions, plenty of careers stalled out. Matthew Brabham won U.S. F2000 and Pro Mazda titles in consecutive seasons, his Pro Mazda title was a record-setting year but he could only afford to do one season of Indy Lights and now he is resigned to Stadium Super Trucks as his full-time gig. Nico Jamin won the U.S. F2000 title, won races in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights but could not afford to comeback for a second year in Indy Lights. Anthony Martin won the U.S. F2000 title and lost the Pro Mazda title last year with his worst finish being fourth and he is out of the Road to Indy system. Scott Hargove lost the Pro Mazda title by ten points to Pigot and he could never get the breakthrough to the Indy Lights ride that he deserved and this has robbed us of a promising young Canadian.

Jack Harvey finished vice-champion in back-to-back Indy Lights seasons, losing to Chaves on the second tiebreaker and he is still struggling to break into IndyCar full-time. Santiago Urrutia was championship runner-up the last two Indy Lights seasons and got nothing for it and is back for a third year but that appears will end up just as fruitless as the first two. The likes of Daly, Vautier, Karam and Chaves have struggled to find opportunities in IndyCar and are competing in the series on an inconsistent basis.

It was better than nothing even in recent years where the Indy Lights champion was only guaranteed three races plus the Indianapolis 500. The Road to Indy was a beacon of hope in the motorsports world. Formula One doesn't have it. NASCAR doesn't have it. This was the one place where a young driver could come and know that if he or she won the championship there was another level they would be able to achieve. Right now, Road to Indy falls back into the shady world of lower single-seater series with no clear way out.

IndyCar has been proactive in the days following the departure Mazda and announced a five-year plan to bring the two series closer together. Indy Lights will have reduce costs and pay $1.1 million to the 2019 Indy Lights champion. Rewards for the rest of the Road to Indy system will be announced at a later date. IndyCar is trying to not only keep the link to Indy Lights but also grow the second-tier series grid from seven cars. It is taking a bolder step than ever before.

There will now be a licensing system for IndyCar drivers with greater emphasis on drivers competing in Indy Lights and Road to Indy series. In some cases drivers who were allowed to enter IndyCar this year may have been forced to run in Indy Lights before he or she could enter the top division under these conditions.

Formula One drivers and NASCAR Cup drivers will be automatically eligible for IndyCar competition while a driver that finished in the top three of a year of Indy Lights or in the top five in two seasons in the series will be allowed to move to IndyCar. Outside of that, drivers from other series will have to accumulate a certain number of points over two years to qualify for IndyCar or receive special dispensation to compete. The system could prove to be problematic.

The best rookie in IndyCar, Robert Wickens, may have needed special dispensation to compete in IndyCar this year. Wickens ran in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters for six years and it is not clear how many points will be awarded to each series or what series will be rewarded but Wickens finished fourth and ninth the last two years in the DTM championship. Other rookies whose eligibility would have been questionable include Jordan King, René Binder, Zachary Claman De Melo, Matheus Leist and Pietro Fittipaldi. The only regular competing rookie that would have been clear from the get-go would have been Zach Veach.

While IndyCar needs to keep the Road to Indy alive, bolster the grid and make sure scholarships still promote drivers up to the next level, I am not sure picking with who can and cannot race in IndyCar is the way to do it.

My biggest issue is how do you decide who deserves special dispensation and who does not? And if special dispensation exists, what is the point of the system to begin with? Where does IndyCar draw the line? If we were to use this year as a precedent, Wickens finished fourth and ninth in DTM the last two seasons and in the future the drivers who finish in the top nine of the DTM championship should be go to good. Gary Paffett and Lucas Auer should be able to get into IndyCar without any question in that case.

IndyCar really isn't in a position to be turning drivers away. Wickens has proven great drivers are everywhere and just because a driver is competing in a certain series does not mean he or she is not ready for IndyCar. André Lotterer has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times, he is a champion in the World Endurance Championship, Super GT and Super Formula. Would IndyCar turn him away? What about Le Mans winners Sébastien Buemi? How long does someone's Formula One history carry over and how many starts would a driver need to make? Is Lotterer's one start in the Belgian Grand Prix good enough? Would Alexander Rossi's five Formula One starts been good enough? Where would Colin Braun fall as he is reportedly interested in getting an IndyCar test?

This is where it gets tricky and it is really a headache IndyCar doesn't need to impose on itself. I understand IndyCar wanting to make sure the best drivers are on the grid and I understand IndyCar wanting to funnel IndyCar-interested drivers to Indy Lights and inflating that grid from seven cars to 17 but there is a backside to it. If IndyCar makes it too difficult for a driver to breakthrough, drivers will go elsewhere. Drivers do not have the time or money to spend three or four years in Indy Lights. If they can't get to IndyCar they will go to sports cars and what could provide a short-term bump to the Indy Lights grid could put the series back into the dire state it currently rests in after three or four years. We saw it with the IL-15 chassis. It was introduced, the grid size went up but four years later grids are back to where they were with the old chassis.

If anything, the rookie season of Robert Wickens shows teams can find talent and if the best driver available is in DTM or Super GT or WEC, an IndyCar team will find them. Chip Ganassi Racing was going to hire Brandon Hartley, the deal was done and then Toro Rosso came calling. This licensing system will be for naught if teams decide not to follow it and I am not sure IndyCar has the power to make sure it succeeds. You can only force so many teams to hire from Indy Lights but the likes of Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske or Michael Andretti will not take no as an answer.

We have seen how infuriating driver ratings have been in sports cars and IndyCar does not need the same debates over qualifications nor will ruling which drivers are good enough and which ones are not make the series more appealing to follow. The one way to make Indy Lights more appealing is to make it not only more affordable for teams but potentially profitable and hopefully this new television deal has something in mind. Indy Lights would benefit from having three or four races on NBC as lead-in to IndyCar races. The series would become significantly more enticing to sponsors with that kind of increased exposure.

The Road to Indy had a great nine-year run. Mazda's partnership was bound to come to an end and the system would be forced to evolve. Next year we will start the second era of Road to Indy and we will see how the system evolves and devolves from the first era and we will see whether that leaves IndyCar in a better place or a worse one.

Winner From the Weekend 
You know about Chase Elliott but did you know...

Andrea Dovizioso won MotoGP's Czech Republic Grand Prix, his second victory of the season. Miguel Oliveira won the Moto2 race, his second victory of the season. Fabio Di Giannantonio won the Moto3 race, his first career victory.

Joey Logano won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Watkins Glen.

The #54 CORE Autosport Oreca-Gibson of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett won the IMSA race from Road America, their second consecutive victory. The #67 Ford GT of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe won in GTLM, their second consecutive victory and third of the season and Ford's fourth consecutive victory and fifth of the season. The #58 Wright Motorsport Porsche of Patrick Long and Christina Nielsen won in GTD.

Shane Van Gisbergen won the Supercars night race from Sydney Motorsports Park, his fifth victory of the season.

The #36 Lexus Team au Tom's Lexus of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi won the 500-mile Super GT race from Fuji. The #55 ARTA BMW of Shinchi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw won in GT300.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP has a race in Austria.
NASCAR returns to Michigan but the Grand National Series heads to Mid-Ohio.
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters makes it return to Brands Hatch and will run the grand prix circuit.
Pirelli World Challenge's SprintX season ends at Utah Motorsports Campus.