Friday, July 31, 2020

Best of the Month: July 2020

We are starting something new in July 2020.

Due to the shakeups around the globe because of the covid-19 pandemic, the motorsports calendar has been jammed together and we are in a busier than usual period. With all these races week after week, the time is not there to do a regular catchup or breakdown of what has happened. Certain topics will fall through the cracks. A race or competitor might not get the attention he or she deserves.

This is a chance to do one large review and tie up loose ends. It is also a chance for a brain dump of things that otherwise do not fit the course of the month. A few things still might not make the cut, but if we at least hit all the larger items, I think we can call it a success.

In this hectic year, doubleheaders have been a saving grace for many series trying to fit in as many races as they can into a condensed schedule.

IndyCar and NASCAR have both used additional doubleheaders to squeeze in races and both series will run additional doubleheaders later this year to fill out the schedule. Formula One and MotoGP have run its own form of doubleheaders. The Red Bull Ring hosted Formula One races on consecutive weeks. Silverstone is doing the same starting this weekend and there is belief Bahrain will also host a doubleheader toward the end of the 2020 season. MotoGP began its 2020 season with back-to-back rounds in Jerez and it will have a back-to-back at Red Bull Ring in August, one at Misano in September and one at Aragón in October.

After being starved of racing for almost three months, doubleheaders allow the masses to gorge themselves. It is making up for what was lost but also preparing for tightened restrictions come autumn. The pandemic will carry on into 2021 and this autumn and winter could be worse than what we have experienced. These series are aiming to hit their desired race number before possibly returning to a strict lockdown.

The schedule has worked out. IndyCar ran a two-day show at Road America with practice, qualifying and race on day one and qualifying and a race on day two. At Iowa, the series got to experiment with a new qualifying format on day one ahead of race one and then have a warm-up session before race two.

NASCAR's schedule has allowed it to experiment with shorter race distances and inversions. Both have been met positively, although there has been a push for a return of some practice and qualifying.

Formula One and MotoGP has treated each of its doubleheader rounds like individual weekends. Despite clamoring for a reverse grid race at the second Red Bull Ring round, Formula One stuck to procedure. Neither race had any course alteration and that will likely be the same for Silverstone. MotoGP as well did not have any differences between its two rounds at Jerez.

Formula One will bring out different tire compounds for the two Silverstone rounds and that will hopefully change things up. There has been talk that Bahrain could run a race on a layout different from its grand prix circuit should it get two races. Bahrain's perimeter circuit has been touted as a possible layout.

Doubleheaders most likely will not become a regular thing in Formula One and MotoGP but IndyCar and NASCAR could see an expansion of the practice. IndyCar has already been regularly using doubleheaders since 2013. NASCAR was already planning on testing it out in 2020 for the Pocono weekend and the pandemic increased the experiment three-fold or five-fold depending on how you look at the May races at Darlington and Charlotte.

This number of doubleheaders were not planned but they have allowed multiple series to succeed in these difficult times.

Choose Rule
Introduced at the NASCAR All-Star Race, the choose rule was... fine.

It wasn't a revolutionary introduction. It didn't bust down the doors like double-file restarts did in 2009 or when the green-white-checkered finish was introduced to NASCAR's top two divisions in 2004. Unlike rushing to introduce something midseason, NASCAR appears to be waiting until 2021 for the choose rule to become a permanent fixture in the Cup Series.

While different, it didn't shake up the All-Star Race up as much as initially expected. One car started on the outside, another started on the inside, the actual order off pit road doesn't matter and the race went on. Ultimately, one of the first two or three cars behind the leader will pick the opposite lane. Sometimes, second will want to be side-by-side and hope to get the jump at the restart. Other times second will remain in the preferred lane and third will move up and if third stays then fourth will go.

I doubt we are going to see the top eight remain in the same lane and ninth jumps to second.

I think the choose rule's implementation in the Cup Series and full-time NASCAR racing is more complicated than it appears, especially when we have a significant number of lapped cars separating the lead lap cars, similar to what we saw at the end of the Texas race after the Quin Houff caution.

NASCAR has a lot of provisions in its rulebook. The lucky dog has to start at the rear of the field, certain penalties force drivers to drop to the tail end of the longest line. The choose rule complicates that. Couldn't the lucky dog choose the lane that is shortest? You don't know what the longest line will be until everyone has chosen their lane.

This could be the sponge that washes away all the qualifiers and NASCAR admitting none of it really matters. The choose rule feels like NASCAR giving in and telling the drivers to choose a lane and go. It doesn't care what happens once you pick a lane.

Moving the All-Star Race Around
This year has forced almost every back-burner idea into the forefront: Doubleheaders, one-day shows, inversions, midweek races, even the All-Star Race at different venues.

After 34 consecutive years at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the 2020 race was held at Bristol Motor Speedway, a stone's throw from the Charlotte-area.

I have long held the belief the race should stay at Charlotte for the benefit of the teams. It is a race weekend, but 95% of the drivers and personnel are staying in their own beds. It is a plus for them, especially before the start of a grueling summer schedule.

However, 2020 has forced us to re-evaluate every possible solution. With Darlington, Martinsville and Bristol all hosting one-day shows earlier this year with most of the teams driving down the morning of the event and then returning home, I think the All-Star Race could be held elsewhere, but there are limited options and there are other problems.

One issue is diluting the schedule. I don't think the All-Star Race would move to July. I think it should stay in the middle of May before the Coca-Cola 600. But does it make sense for Bristol to host a Cup race in April and then the All-Star Race a month later? What type of crowd would that draw?

A Martinsville All-Star Race could be the reverse of Charlotte. Instead of having the All-Star Race at Charlotte the week before the "600," the original 2020 schedule had Martinsville the weekend before the All-Star race. We could run Martinsville and then return seven days later for the exhibition event. It has the same problem as Bristol. Will the Martinsville crowd shell out for another Cup race the following weekend? People will end up choosing one over the other and instead of having one packed Saturday night race at Martinsville, you could end up with two moderately filled Martinsville night races.

Two events that would not have to worry about date dilution is Darlington and Atlanta. Both only have one Cup race and have abrasive surfaces that make for better racing. Both would need to shed the high downforce package NASCAR has forced upon it, but both would be great options. Darlington would be the better of the two options because the Southern 500 is Labor Day weekend while Atlanta's one race is in the middle of March. The schedule could change to allow Atlanta a little more space, but until then I don't think two months is enough between races.

People would come out and support an All-Star Race at Darlington. It might even feel like a Southern 500 crowd, especially if the Truck and/or Grand National Series also race that weekend. I also enjoyed the All-Star Race being on a Wednesday night, but we can discuss that on another day. 

Andretti Autosport Indy Lights Progression
This is going back to June, but when Michael Andretti joined Marshall Pruett for Pruett's This Week in IndyCar, Andretti noted the success of his Indy Lights program. "I think if you look at our record, just about every single driver that raced for us made it to IndyCar for at least one race," the 1991 IndyCar champion said.

I thought I would go through that history and see how many actually made an IndyCar start.

Marco Andretti - 240 starts and counting
Jonathan Klein - Zero starts
Jaime Camara - 14 starts (Last raced Chicagoland 2008)
Wade Cunningham - 5 starts (Last raced Fontana 2012)
Arie Luyendyk, Jr. - 1 start (Last raced Indianapolis 2006)
Raphael Matos - 38 starts (Last raced São Paulo 2011, last appearance Indianapolis 2011)
J.R. Hildebrand - 64 starts and possibly counting
Sebastián Saavedra - 65 starts
Charlie Kimball - 147 starts and counting
Martin Plowman - 5 starts (Last raced Indianapolis 2014)
Stefan Wilson - 3 starts (Last raced Indianapolis 2018)
James Winslow - Zero starts
Peter Dempsey - Zero starts
Carlos Muñoz - 73 starts (Last raced Sonoma 2018)
Zach Veach - 42 starts and counting
Matthew Brabham - 2 starts (Last raced Indianapolis 2016)
Shelby Blackstock - Zero starts
Dean Stoneman - Zero starts
Dalton Kellett - 3 starts and counting
Nico Jamin - Zero starts
Colton Herta - 32 starts and counting
Patricio O'Ward - 14 starts and counting
Oliver Askew - 6 starts and counting

Out of 23 past Andretti Autosport Indy Lights drivers, only six never made an IndyCar start. That is 26%. However, seven of those drivers are still regular competitors in the IndyCar series. Nine of those drivers have made fewer than 20 IndyCar starts but O'Ward and Askew are rookies in IndyCar. It is still a pretty good hit record for the organization.

Marco Andretti's Lost Races
On that same podcast, Michael Andretti noted how Marco Andretti had the worst luck and it cost him at the Texas season opener. Michael said Marco should easily have ten to 12 wins in his IndyCar.

Challenge accepted. Can we find another eight to ten victories that slipped through Marco's 15-year career?

1. 2006 Indianapolis 500
Let's start with Marco's greatest defeat. It was his fourth IndyCar race, his first time at Indianapolis and the 19-year-old lost by 0.0635 seconds to Sam Hornish, Jr.

It wasn't a race Andretti dominated. In fact, he had only led laps 198 and 199. But a timing of caution positioned Andretti to have one hand on the Borg-Warner Trophy as a teenager.

Even though Andretti had not been a frontrunner all race, he held nearly a second lead at the start of the final lap. Hornish drove the lap of his life to take victory in the 90th Indianapolis 500. Andretti didn't make a mistake. Hornish did something magnificent.

2. 2007 Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan 
Another photo finish. This time it was Andretti falling 0.0595 seconds short behind teammate Tony Kanaan.

This is another race Andretti didn't dominate, he only led 12 laps, but after a five-car accident took out Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Sam Hornish, Jr., it opened the door for anyone to take victory and it set up an three-way battle between Andretti teammates Kanaan, Andretti and Danica Patrick.

Patrick fell out of the running after making a late pit stop for a tire with a slow puncture, setting up Kanaan vs. Andretti down the stretch and Kanaan won. Two races, two superspeedways, two photo finishes and Andretti fell a combined 0.123 seconds short of two victories.

3. 2007 Motorola Indy 300 at Sonoma
This is one Dario Franchitti owes Andretti.

Franchitti had led 62 laps, but on the final pit stop cycle Andretti got out ahead of Franchitti only for Franchitti to make contact with Andretti at the top of the hill in turn two. Andretti was out, Franchitti had to limp with a broken front wing, holding up the field and hanging onto a top three finish.

Franchitti could have finished second, ahead of championship rival Dixon, and left Sonoma with a 16-point lead instead of a four-point deficit, and he could have headed into the Chicago finale with a 23-point lead instead of a three-point lead.

Everything worked out for Franchitti, but chalk this as another race that got away from Andretti.

4. 2008 Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 at Homestead
Andretti led a race-high 85 laps in this race but finished second to Dixon.

In all honesty, this is a race that got away from Tony Kanaan because Kanaan was leading when the damaged race car of E.J. Viso slid down the track and grazed Kanaan's right front tire. Kanaan had to sacrifice the lead with four laps to go and Dixon took the victory.

But it was the first time Andretti led the most laps in his career and he didn't pick up the victory.

5. 2008 SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond
Andretti got the pit strategy wrong in this race. He drove to the front and took the lead, led 90 laps but didn't come under the lap 145 caution and instead ran to lap 206 and made his final pit stop under green flag conditions. This put him a lap down and then the caution came out at lap 218.

Kanaan was able to pit under caution and keep the lead. Andretti was waved around but stuck in the middle of the field. Kanaan took the victory, Andretti was ninth.

6. 2010 Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber
Andretti led 58 of 90 laps on an alternate strategy and made his final pit stop with nine laps to go. This dropped him to fifth and Hélio Castroneves took the victory.

The alternate strategy and the lack of a caution in the middle of the race led to the high number of laps led, but not many times will you see a driver lead nearly two-thirds of a road course race and not deserve the victory.

7. 2012 Indianapolis 500
Andretti led a race-high 59 laps but as the race wore on the Hondas gained the upper hand and Andretti kept falling back. The car went away from him and he was left chasing the race.

It led to an accident on lap 187 and what looked like a promising day ended in disappointment.

8. 2013 Milwaukee IndyFest
On pole position for the first time in five years, Andretti led the first 61 laps, but a long pit stop dropped him down the order and an electrical failure ended his race.

It was one of those races where the dominoes did not fall in his favor.

9. 2013 Pocono 400
After 25 years since IndyCar last raced at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway, the hometown favorite Andretti won pole position and it felt like the storybook return was set to come to life.

Andretti controlled this race, leading 88 laps, but like Indianapolis the year before, the Hondas gained the upper hand in the race, especially with the lack of cautions. Andretti was forced to conserve fuel and dropped down the order, eventually crossing the line in tenth with barely any fuel in the tank.

10. 2015 Chevrolet Indy Duel in Detroit #1
On a dry-to-wet day, Andretti went off strategy from the start from ninth on the grid. While everyone watched the weather and tried to time switching the wet tires correctly, Andretti ran fast lap after fast lap.

Drivers emerged from the pit lane with wet weather tires shod but a dry track and the raindrops refused to fall. Andretti opened a significant lead as some teams had to return to pit lane because they ruined their wet tires before the rain even began.

Unfortunately, Andretti had to stop for fuel before needing tires. He emerged with wet tires because the rain was bound to come. This allowed Carlos Muñoz to take the lead and pulled away from Andretti. Muñoz made his pit stop as the rain started and kept the lead. Andretti was second. The rain became torrential, the red flag came out after 47 laps and Muñoz got the victory with eight laps led while Andretti rounded out the 1-2 finish for the team.

11. 2015 MavTV 500 at Fontana
Andretti led 31 laps and finished third from third on the grid. Maybe this wasn't a race Andretti deserved but in the chaotic ending it was one race that could have been in Andretti's favor. It wasn't. Graham Rahal took the victory, Kanaan was second and Andretti was third.

That is 11 races. A few are questionable but there are at least seven races that arguably Andretti was the best driver and it didn't work out. I am sure we could do this with every driver on the grid. I am sure every driver has at least ten races that slipped away. Think about how differently Andretti's career would be viewed if he had four or five more victories and let's say one of those was at Indianapolis.

Nick Cassidy's Formula E Promotion
This could have easily been lost in the shuffle of the month, but Nick Cassidy will join Virgin Racing in Formula E next season. Cassidy will replace Sam Bird, who has been with the team since day one. Bird flies over to Jaguar to partner Mitch Evans.

Cassidy has spent the last five years conquering the Japanese motorsports scene. He has championships in both Super GT and Super Formula. He has finished in the top two the last three years in Super GT and he has been in the top two of Super Formula the last two years.

With rival Naoki Yamamoto being promoted as a possible Formula One driver due to Yamamoto's Honda ties, it only makes sense that Cassidy look to see what awaits him outside of Japan. With Super Formula becoming a testing crowd for future Formula One drivers, Cassidy has shown mastery in a car that the likes of Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly have used as a final step before entering Formula One. Felix Rosenqvist, Álex Palou and Pietro Fittipaldi have all used Super Formula before moving on to other top international series. Red Bull development drivers Jüri Vips and Sérgio Sette Câmara are scheduled to contest Super Formula this season.

Cassidy has already topped the series and he turns 26 years old next month. Now is the time to take the leap into the international waters. This is the biggest step of Cassidy's career. However, Formula E is developing into a final destination and not a steppingstone in the larger motorsports world.

Bird, Lucas di Grassi, Jean-Éric Vergne, António Félix da Costa and Sébastien Buemi have all made Formula E their homes. Buemi still has the Toyota LMP1 ride and Vergne runs in LMP2 on a regular basis, but no one has turned Formula E into a Formula One seat. Vandoorne joined the series after a disappointing time at McLaren. Nyck de Vries was a McLaren development driver and won the Formula Two title but his career has led him to Formula E.

There is greater flexibility with Formula E. As we see with Buemi and Vergne, sports car racing supplements their careers, the same is true for da Costa and James Calado. There is a limit to it. Cassidy will probably see a fair pay increase with his move to Formula E, but a mystery remains as to where he goes from there. Either way, Cassidy will get his first bit of international exposure and he could become a familiar name for years to come.

Who Had the Best Month?
Ford development drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Briscoe continues to lead the NASCAR Grand National Series championship and he has been one of the best drivers in 2020. Briscoe won on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and had two runner-up finishes. Cindric won three consecutive races, including sweeping the Kentucky doubleheader. Cindric was in the top five of every race in July and now leads the championship. Briscoe had a top five in every race until he lost a tire late in the Kansas race and finished 14th.

Scott Dixon continues to be one of the best drivers in the world. Dixon won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and followed it up with a Road America victory, becoming the fifth driver in IndyCar history to open a season with three consecutive victories. He also finished second and fifth at Iowa and holds a 49-point championship lead over Simon Pagenaud.

Mercedes-AMG. It is three-for-three in 2020. Lewis Hamilton leads the World Drivers' Championship with 63 points, Valtteri Bottas is second with 58 points and with 121 points the team is 66 points clear of Red Bull Racing after three races.

Who is Glad to See August?
Sebastian Vettel. Vettel cannot get out of Ferrari soon enough.

Andretti Autosport. No victories, one podium finish and six top five finishes combined from six races. Colton Herta is seventh in the championship with Alexander Rossi in tenth. Rossi still hasn't led a lap in the last 13 races. Ryan Hunter-Reay has finished outside the top fifteen in the last three races. Veach started July 4th in the championship and is now 19th. Marco Andretti is bottom of the drivers to run every race this season.

The entire Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters grid because that series is finally returning to competition.

August Preview
We will cover the Indianapolis 500 thoroughly in August but the one thing that will get a little less attention is the end of the Formula E season.

Formula E will conclude its 2019-20 campaign with six races at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport with three pairs of doubleheaders in the span of nine days.

The first doubleheader will be Wednesday August 5 and Thursday August 6 going in the reverse direction of the original course. On Saturday August 8 and Sunday August 9, Formula E will run the course in its traditional direction. The season ends on Wednesday August 12 and Thursday August 13 on an extended layout with six additional corners.

Every single person on Earth is mathematically alive for the Formula E championship, as 180 points remain on the table.

António Félix da Costa leads with 67 points after the DS Teecheetah driver won the most recent race at Marrakesh and was runner-up in the prior two in Santiago and Mexico City. Jaguar's Mitch Evans is 11 points back. Evans won at Mexico City. BMW i Andretti drivers Alexander Sims and Maximilian Günther are third and fourth in the championship, 21 and 23 points behind da Costa respectively. Sims won the second race in Saudi Arabia and Günther won in Santiago.

Audi Sport ABT driver Lucas di Grassi and Mercedes-Benz EQ drive Stoffel Vandoorne are tied on 38 points for fifth. Venturi Racing's Edoardo Mortara sits on 32 points ahead of two-time defending champion Jean-Éric Vergne. Oliver Rowland leads the way for Nissan on 30 points with Saudi Arabia season opener winner Sam Bird on 29 points, two ahead of Sébastien Buemi.

There was a game of musical chairs since Formula E last competed.

Daniel Abt was fired from Audi Sport ABT after he used a professional simulator driver in one of the Formula E virtual events. Audi has drafted in DTM champion René Rast for the final six races.

Abt will move to NIO 333 FE Team in place of Ma Qinghua, who is unable to travel to Berlin.

Pascal Wehrlein left Mahindra Racing and Alex Lynn replaces the German.

Brendon Hartley departed from Dragon Racing and Brazilian Sérgio Sette Câmara joins the American team.

Other events of note in August: 
World Superbike restarts its season in Jerez and will have two other events during the month.
NASCAR's regular season ends but it will have two doubleheaders and run the Daytona road course before it wraps up.
The FIA World Endurance Championship will be at Spa-Francorchamps, its first round since Austin in February.
Super Formula begins its 2020 season at the end of August at Motegi.