Monday, January 17, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: You Must Compromise

The Bathurst 12 Hour has moved to May 15. The New Zealand Grand Prix and the Toyota Racing Series season has been cancelled. It will be the first time the race has not been held since 2001. Supercross had a very different second race of the season, and Kawasaki's Jason Anderson won in Oakland, his first victory since 2018. An American set a Dakar Rally record. Jacques Villeneuve keeps talking. Robert Wickens will be full-time in Michelin Pilot Challenge's TCR class driving a Hyundai for Bryan Herta Autosport. Conor Daly will be full-time in IndyCar at Ed Carpenter Racing. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

You Need to Compromise
Only six weeks out from the 2022 IndyCar season, and this past week the broadcast start times were announced for the 17 races. We knew the networks, an NBC heavy season with 14 races on the flagship network with USA showing two races and one race exclusively on the Peacock streaming platform. With nearly every race on network television, the 2022 season is set up for the most exposure the series has ever seen. Times aside, IndyCar is in a good position, and yet that didn't stop the masses from expressing dissatisfaction. 

Seven of 17 broadcasts will start at 12:30 p.m. ET or earlier, including an 11:00 a.m. start for the Indianapolis 500. Eight seven races will begin at 3:00 p.m. ET, including one of the USA races, Belle Isle, and the Peacock race, Toronto. The two exceptions are the first Iowa race, which will have a 4:00 p.m. ET start time and Gateway, the second USA race, which will start at 6:00 p.m.

It is a consistent schedule when it comes to start times. There are plenty of early races, which American race fans like. Fourteen of 17 races are on one network. It is fan-friendlier than many other years, but there was a murmur of discontent when the start times were announced. 

"Texas should be a night race" even though it will now be in March. 

"Iowa must be night races" even though these are a Saturday-Sunday doubleheader.

"Why isn't Gateway at night?" even though it is an evening start. 

We generally accept that some people will never be happy. A person could be angry about their wages, be gifted a billion dollars and then start complaining about taxes. Talk about living with your head in the sand! In this case, IndyCar's schedule has changed, and some cannot accept that.

Texas isn't an early June race anymore. It moved to March, and it wanted a network television spot. An NBC broadcast is more attractive to a potential race title sponsor, and IndyCar isn't big enough to justify any primetime network time slot. IndyCar is barely cracking a million people per broadcast. The average audience must be tripled before IndyCar could possibly get a primetime NBC race. Also, 2021 saw some good ratings for noon-ish start times. A few of those were NASCAR lead-ins and IndyCar's Texas trek will be during the Fox portion of the NASCAR schedule, but it is better than not being on network at all. 

The same applies to Iowa, and frankly, I am not sure how any doubleheader could have a night race. They would both have to be night races. The teams would not agree to a 8:00 pm local start time on a Saturday night, race until 10:15 pm and then have the teams try to get the cars ready for a 3:00 pm race the next day. Friday night is a poor television ratings night and racetracks do not hold Sunday night races unless it is a holiday because people have work the next day and aren't going to return home until midnight at best. However, we know Iowa has held mid-afternoon races and not drawn good crowds, but some of its better attended races were night races. 

Iowa is a tricky situation. The grocery store chain Hy-Vee, which made a massive investment in motorsports last year and will continue with full-time sponsorship of Jack Harvey's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entry, is backing the Iowa race weekend. Hy-Vee benefits greatly from double NBC exposure, but Iowa Speedway could suffer in terms of attracting a fraction of the largest possible crowd because these races will be in the middle of the afternoon in the summer. 

There is also the straight fact that some of IndyCar's worst ratings are Saturday night races. People go out on Saturday night. They spend time with the family and have other things to do. NASCAR has the same problem and has dropped nearly all its Saturday night races in 2022, with the spring Martinsville race, Daytona's summer race and the Bristol night race being the lone survivors. Even the All-Star Race is a Sunday night race.

We must accept that night racing is not a great business decision for any major racing series when television money is the largest revenue source, even if a few racetracks draw better at night than in the daytime. 

Some people will not get over it, but there is a methodology to the start times. IndyCar exists a part of a larger sports platform for NBC. It is one of many tentacles and NBC is placing these races among its other sporting events. You might not like to hear that, but it is a good thing that NBC puts IndyCar in this spot. It is a good thing to lead into golf or NASCAR. It is a good thing to follow a Premier League match or a French Open match. 

It does run the risk of being pre-empted for the first ten laps of a race or being quickly shuffled off-air when the next event is ready to go, but NBC wants to keep the viewers tuned in. Pre-race and post-race are chances for people to change the channel and move on. The network wants people to stay all afternoon, and IndyCar is getting its time on stage to be seen. 

The current arrangement comes from compromise. IndyCar and the tracks are going big with 14 network races in 2022. Will ratings go up? Will the series gain traction? We don't know, but this television lineup is favorable to IndyCar what nearly every IndyCar fan has wanted for over 25 years. It required a few changes and a few sacrifices. 

Gateway might not be a true night race, but it will immediately follow a NASCAR Xfinity Series race from Watkins Glen on USA. The Mid-Ohio race will lead into the NASCAR Road America race again. The IndyCar/NASCAR combination will be back on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with IndyCar leading off on Saturday afternoon. Portland is before the Southern 500, albeit on different networks, with IndyCar on NBC and NASCAR on USA, but the series will work off each other, as NBC has been doing the last few seasons. 

Let's see what happens with this season, but for night races to return to IndyCar, it will require compromise, the same way everyone has had to compromise for this schedule. A balance will be found. That could require IndyCar having five races on USA and only nine races on NBC. Nine network races would still be good. It would be in line with what the series has had since NBC took over as the exclusive broadcaster.

There are a few concerns, a few early races for the central time zone, notably Texas, which already has a date change, and Barber Motorsports Park. History points to Iowa not having great attendance for afternoon races, and it will have two afternoon races. Gateway had a good thing going with its night race. A 5:00 p.m. local start is not a night race. Nashville is moving from an evening race to the middle of the afternoon. It is a risk, but it could pay off. These changes might not be what we wanted to see, but let's be open to the possibilities. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jason Anderson, but did you know...

Tanner Thorson won the 36th Chili Bowl.

The #7 MS7 by WRT Audi of Dries Vanthoor, Christopher Mies, Thomas Neubauer, Axcil Jefferies and Mohammed Said Fahad Al Saud won the 17th Dubai 24 Hour.

Dakar Rally class winners:

Cars: Nasser Al-Attiyah won his fourth Dakar Rally by 27 minutes and 46 seconds over Sébastien Loeb. This was Toyota's second Dakar victory. 

Bikes: Sam Sunderland won his second Dakar Rally by three minutes and 27 seconds over Pablo Quintanilla. This was Spanish manufacture GasGas' first Dakar victory.

Quads: Alexandre Giroud won his first Dakar Rally, over two hours and 21 minutes ahead of Francisco Moreno. Giroud is only the second European to win in the quads class, joining inaugural quads winner, Czech rider Josef Macháček.

Side-by-Side: American Austin Jones won after overcoming a minute and 41-second deficit to Gerard Farrés entering the final stage. Jones defaced Farrés by two minutes and 37 seconds in the final classifications. Jones is the third American to win a Dakar class.

Light Prototypes: Francisco López won, his third Dakar victory, by 51 minutes and 28 seconds ahead of Sebastien Eriksson and Cristina Gutiérrez was third, four hours and 34 minutes back. 

Seth Quintero won 11 of 12 Light Prototype stages, but a broken differential and ten-hour time penalty knocked Quintero out of overall contention. Quintero's 11 stage wins broke the Dakar Rally record for most stage wins in single Dakar.

Trucks: Dmitry Sotnikov won for the second consecutive year. It was Kamaz's sixth consecutive victory and 19th overall.

Coming Up This Weekend
It is Roar Before the 24 weekend, and the grid will be set for the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Supercross will be in San Diego.
The World Rally Championship begins with Rallye Monte-Carlo.

Friday, January 14, 2022

2022 IndyCar Team Preview: Team Penske

The second 2022 IndyCar Team Preview is another one of IndyCar's "Big Three" teams. Team Penske did not take home the championship and it did not win the Indianapolis 500, the second consecutive season the team took home neither piece of silverware. It was a rather tame season by Penske standards and only one driver finished in the top five in the championship, the fewest for the team since 2011.

Penske is retaining three drivers for 2022, but it is downsizing to three cars. Josef Newgarden is leading the way and he is coming off finishing runner-up in the championship for the second consecutive season. Will Power won a race for a 15th consecutive season, but he also had his worst championship finish as a full-time driver since 2008. Scott McLaughlin became the first Team Penske driver to win IndyCar Rookie of the Year. While there are still two past champions in the team, it feels like Penske is going through a transition.

2021 Team Penske Review
Wins: 3 (Mid-Ohio, August IMS road course race, Gateway)
Poles: 5 (Belle Isle II, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Gateway, Long Beach)
Championship Finishes: 2nd (Josef Newgarden), 8th (Simon Pagenaud), 9th (Will Power), 14th (Scott McLaughlin)

Josef Newgarden - #2 Hitachi Chevrolet
The 2021 season had an unexpected start for Newgarden, he spun on the opening lap at Barber. The spin took out Newgarden and a few other drivers, but Newgarden's first race was over before he had even completed a lap.

Newgarden fought back with a runner-up at St. Petersburg and then was sixth in the first Texas race despite notable contact with Sébastien Bourdais. He closed out the Texas weekend with another runner-up finish. His month of May began with a fourth-place finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but his Indianapolis 500 was difficult, as was a common theme for Team Penske in 2021. Newgarden was mostly in the middle of the field and finished 12th. 

Belle Isle started with a tenth, but he on pole position for the second Belle Isle race, and dominated. A mistake on tire selection put him on the less ideal compound for the final stint. Colton Herta was chasing Newgarden down, but a few late caution kept Newgarden in the lead. It did allow Patricio O'Ward back into the race and with three laps to go O'Ward took the lead and eventually the victory. Newgarden dropped back to finish second. 

In the next race, Newgarden was again on pole position at Road America, and he led of the most laps again. There was another late caution, but this time Newgarden had gearbox issues at the restart with two laps to go and lost the lead to Álex Palou. Palou took the victory, while Newgarden limped home in 21st. 

After a pair of late defeats, Newgarden mastered Mid-Ohio, leading the most laps from pole position. He was tenth in his home race in Nashville after a qualifying accident was a setback. He ran eighth in the second IMS road course race before winning at Gateway, his third victory on the oval. Newgarden closed the season with finishes of fifth, seventh and second at Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach respectively, lifting him to second in the final championship standings.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Consecutive seasons with at least 300 laps led.

6: Consecutive top five championship finishes.

22: Newgarden became the 22nd driver with at least 20 IndyCar victories last year.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Something like his first two championship seasons. At least four victories, at least one on a road course, street course and oval. Along with those victories, he will regularly be on the podium and in the top five. He will be in the top ten for nearly every race and he will complete almost every lap. 

In that oval race victory, he will likely lead 85% of the laps and again have north of 400 laps led in a season. Qualifying results will be good, but he will not necessarily win a lot of pole positions. In all likelihood, one of his victories will come from seventh starting position. Mechanical issues will be nonexistent. 

Newgarden will be the clear Team Penske leader and he will likely enter the finale with the championship lead, only needing to finish eighth or better to secure the title. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Every year is a possible championship season for Newgarden. He is still getting started with Team Penske, as he only turned 31 years old in December. He has been first or second in the championship in four of his five seasons with Penske. In the last two seasons, he has been there but had one or two results you can point at where the championship swung away from him. 

Seeing as how he already has two championships with Penske, and he has 17 victories in the last five seasons, six more than the next two drivers in that time frame, Newgarden wants to be the next Penske driver to win the Indianapolis 500. This year will be his 11th Indianapolis 500 start, and he only had three top five finishes in the race. Last year was one of Penske's worst at Indianapolis in a long time. Newgarden would like to be the guy to lead the team's revival in 2022. 

Newgarden is eventually going to have a down season. There is a good chance 2022 could be that season. Newgarden's engineer Gavin Ward left Penske for Arrow McLaren SP at the start of the year. Penske will figure it out but after numerous successful seasons together, 2022 will be a shock to the system. 

Engineer aside, nobody leads the number of laps Newgarden has been leading and winning at the rate he has been at forever. But that season will be an anomaly, and it will still be a good season in comparison to the average IndyCar driver. I don't expect a fall off from Newgarden. He will still be at the front. 

Scott McLaughlin - #3 PPG Chevrolet
The New Zealander's rookie season began with respectable results of 14th and 11th at Barber and St. Petersburg respectively. 

McLaughlin's fourth career start was his first oval outing at Texas. It was an impressive race and in the closing laps McLaughlin was up to second behind Scott Dixon. McLaughlin kept his countryman honest and picked up his first career podium finish. McLaughlin backed it up the next day finishing eighth before finishing eighth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. 

In the Indianapolis 500, McLaughlin was the top Penske qualifier, and he ran well only to have a pit lane speeding penalty cost him a possible top ten finish and leave him in 20th. It was the start of a rough patch for McLaughlin. He would finish outside the top ten in seven consecutive races. 

Gateway was where things turned around and with the help of a caution, he ended up fighting for a top five result, ending up fourth. A ninth would follow at Portland and his season would end with finishes of 12th and 11th in the California races. 

Numbers to Remember:
3: Top ten finishes in four oval starts.

8.5: Average finish on ovals.

14.583: Average finish on road/street courses.

14: McLaughlin was 14th in the 2021 championship, the worst finish for a Penske regular since Al Unser, Jr. was 21st in the 1999 CART championship.

What does a championship season look like for him?
A McLaughlin championship will be built off strong oval race success, likely needing at least two victories, a top five finish in the Indianapolis 500 and top five finishes in four of the five races with all of his ovals ending with top ten results. 

Away from the ovals, McLaughlin improves on road and street courses, finishing in the top ten majority of the time with at least three or four top five finishes and at least one or two visits to the podium. In the races he does not finish inside the top ten, McLaughlin is running and finishing at least within the top fifteen. He also does not have a stretch longer than two races without a top ten finish.

Benefitting McLaughlin is no other driver standing out and winning many races. There are an abundance of winners and no one else cracks more than three victories. His main championship rivals all finish outside the top five in the Indianapolis and most of them actually finish outside the top ten, allowing McLaughlin to have a larger positive points swing in that one race. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Improvements, but not necessarily jumping into the top ten of the championship. 

McLaughlin had three top ten finishes from the first five races with a finish of 11th and 14th in the other two races. But he finished outside the top ten in the seven races that followed and five of those results were outside the top fifteen. His final four races of 2021 were nearly identical to his first five races. 

He can have a more balanced season and pick up a few more top ten results and possibly a few more top five finishes. There could be a road/street course race where he is on from the first practice session, spends every session in the top ten, makes the final round of qualifying and finishes in a top five position. I don't sense that would be a regular occurrence for McLaughlin in 2022 and he will still have a few tough weekends. 

There is also a chance his oval results dip. There is little margin for error when you were in the top ten of 75% of oval races the year before, and 75% is not an option in 2022. If he three top ten finishes again, that is a drop to 60%. If he gets the same number as 2021, his percentage increases to 80%. There are fine margins.

McLaughlin should be in the fight for a top ten championship finish. I don't expect a drop off. Anywhere between eighth and 14th in the championship would feel right. 

Will Power - #12 Verizon Chevrolet
Power opened the 2021 season with a runner-up finish at Barber and he followed it with an eighth-place finish in St. Petersburg. It was a good start, but a funk followed. 

In Texas, Power was 14th and 13th, and he ended up 11th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The Indianapolis 500 almost did not happen. Power struggled the most of the Penske drivers and at the end of the first qualifying day, Power was not in the top 30 and would have to participate in the Last Row Shootout on Sunday. On his Sunday qualifying run, Power brushed the wall exiting turn two on the final lap. Power completed the run, but his car was damaged and would not be able to make a second attempt. The good news is Power ended up 32nd and held on to make the field of 33. 

The race did not go much better. Power was a non-factor and he spun entering the pit lane late, taking him off the lead lap. He would end up finishing 30th, three laps down. 

Things looked to be going better in the next race at Belle Isle, and through all the chaos, Power was leading late, but Romain Grosjean's accident brought out a red flag with five laps to go. When the race was restarted, Power's car would not re-fire. After multiple attempts, the car was pulled from the line and the lead was lost. He ended up 20th and irate when the race was over. 

A sixth in the second Belle Isle race was barely a consolation, the same goes for third at Road America. A lap three spin at Mid-Ohio ended an encouraging day. He was 14th in Nashville. The good news was he found his form in the August IMS road course race and took his first victory of the season. He won his first pole position at Gateway and finished third. 

The season ended with lackluster results, a spin at Portland, a mechanical issue early at Laguna Seca and a tenth at Long Beach.

Numbers to Remember:
1: Pole position in 2021, the second time since joining Team Penske he has not had multiple pole positions in a season.

11: Power's 11-year top five championship finish streak was snapped in 2021 after finishing ninth.

12.438: Average finish in 2021, his worst as a Team Penske driver.

99: Laps led in 2021, the first time he has led less than 100 laps in a season since 2008.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Power is the baddest man on the planet. 

His qualifying form is exceptional. Power picks up at least six pole positions and he wins from at least three of those. Not to mention he wins at least two other times when not on pole position. He claims residency in the top five and there is a stretch where he is on the podium for at least five consecutive races. 

The mechanical gremlins cannot keep up with him. Every race occurs without a headache. A bad day is finishing eighth but that is also one of the few races he is not quite feeling it and not really fighting for a top five, but he isn't outside the top ten. There might be one really bad race, but that isn't because Power did something wrong. It could be a race where he was caught out on pit strategy or maybe gets the strategy wrong on tire compounds and finishes on the less desirable rubber. 

His oval results are just as good as his road and street course results, and at least one of his victories comes on an oval. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
At any point it feels like Power could turn it on and be the Will Power that we saw from 2010 through 2016. But it has been awhile since Power has been breathtaking over an entire season. It is not that he is losing it, but we know his mechanical woes and the number of race victories those have cost him. For a driver who lost plenty of races because of his own mistakes in the first half of his career, he has probably lost more from flukey mechanical problems in the last five years. 

We do have to acknowledge the drop in Power's form in 2021. He was ninth in the championship and had only one pole position and one victory. That lone victory didn't come until August. If it wasn't for the issues at Belle Isle, he would have had two victories and those extra 40 points would have had him seventh in the championship, still a drop but not as major as ninth. 

Power is going to win a few races and he is going to be quick in qualifying. He will get a few pole positions. However, he will struggle to beat Newgarden, and there is a clear number one at Penske. Power can get back into the top five of the championship, but for him to be a title contender he will need to be near flawless and not lose his cool, something we have seen more from him the last few years, a behavior unbefitting a Penske driver. A championship will require composure in 2022.

The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season begins on Sunday February 27 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBC's coverage will begin at noon ET.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

2022 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

January might feel early for IndyCar previews, but in 45 days the season will begin at St. Petersburg. It is time to look ahead. Teams have started testing in preparation for the new season, a 17-race, 14-track trek that will last 196 days. The schedule has been mixed up a little, and there could be a few returning tracks. 

The first team preview will look at Andretti Autosport. It has been a few rough seasons for the past champions. It won a few races, but all those victories came with Colton Herta. A few more races were lost. Alexander Rossi had difficulty getting results again and was clearly second in the team. Ryan Hunter-Reay has left the team after 11 seasons. James Hinchcliffe is gone after a one-year return. For 2022, Andretti has drafted in two new drivers. One was a standout in 2021. 

After Álex Palou won the championship last year, it had me thinking about how to tweak these previews. Palou went under the radar and was not considered a championship contender. He won the season opener and never looked back. Not every driver will be fighting for the championship, but there is a path for every driver. This year's set of previews will ask what each driver's possible championship looks like and then also ask what is a realistic season for that driver. 

2021 Andretti Autosport Review
Wins: 3 (St. Petersburg, Laguna Seca, Long Beach)
Poles: 3 (St. Petersburg, Nashville, Laguna Seca)
Championship Finishes: 5th (Colton Herta), 10th (Alexander Rossi), 17th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 20th (James Hinchcliffe), 35th (Marco Andretti)

2021 Drivers:

Colton Herta - #26 Gainbridge Honda
Herta's 2021 season began with him being caught in the opening lap accident at Barber Motorsports Park when Josef Newgarden spun exiting turn four. Herta had qualified fourth. Bouncing back at St. Petersburg, won pole position, and led 97 of 100 laps on his way to victory. A wheel bearing issue took him out at the first Texas race, but he was fifth in the Sunday race. 

Indianapolis was not his best pair of races for Herta. He was 13th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and poor strategy wasted a second place starting position in the Indianapolis 500, with Herta finishing 16th. Though he was 14th in the first Belle Isle race, Herta ran an aggressive strategy in the second race, and was catching Newgarden before two cautions late. Herta did not have the car on restarts and dropped to fourth. 

Herta was set for a podium finish at Road America and was elevated to second after Newgarden had his gearbox issues late. Re-fueling issues forced Herta to stop for a splash on the penultimate lap at Mid-Ohio, dropping him to 13th. He looked set to dominate another street race at Nashville, but the fractured nature of that race set Herta back. He proceeded to climb up the order and challenge Marcus Ericsson for the lead in the closing laps. With six laps to go, Herta got into the turn nine barrier and ended what should have been at least a runner-up finish. 

He bounced back with a third at the second IMS road course race, but a driveshaft broke while leading at Gateway and effectively ended Herta's championship hopes. He was eighth at Portland, but the season ended on a high note. Returning to Laguna Seca, Herta was back on pole position and led 91 of 95 laps. At Long Beach, Herta was fastest during practice, but a qualifying mistake staying on the primary tire meant he did not advance from round one. Starting 14th, Herta shot out the order and took the lead on lap 34. He led 43 of 85 laps and closed the season with his second consecutive victory.

Numbers to Remember:
5: Podium finishes in 2021, tied for third most.

5: Finishes outside the top fifteen in 2021.

14.6: Average finish in 19 oval starts.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Herta wins the three races he won in 2021, but he also wins at Nashville and his driveshaft doesn't break while leading at Gateway, giving him another victory, and on top of all that he doesn't having the other mechanical issues nor gets caught in an opening lap accident to start the season. 

The team nails every pit stop and doesn't put him on the fence in terms of fuel mileage, preventing him from running at 100% and possibly costing a handful of positions. There are no qualifying hiccups and Herta is always starting at the front of the field. On restarts, Herta is going forward and not backward. 

A respectable Indianapolis 500 result would also help. Anywhere in the top eight would go a long way and a few extra bonus points from qualifying would help. Oval results improving across the board would be a major development and make him a more dangerous terms in terms of running away with the championship. A career year on ovals would be make Herta very difficult to beat in the championship and a victory would be significant. 

Overall, at least four victories, top five finishes in at least half the races and top ten finishes at least 15 times would make him difficult to beat for the title.

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Herta's championship season is realistic. The speed is there, and he is a proven race winner. Not only are these victories but shear beatdowns for Herta. He doesn't luck into his victories. He goes out and flexes his muscle from the drop of the green flag. 

There were a few races that went against Herta in 2020 that likely do not happen again. He was going to pass Newgarden in the closing laps in the second Belle Isle race before Jimmie Johnson spun. If Nashville decreased the insanity by just 15%, he likely wins that race and if the driveshaft holds up at Gateway, he would already have an oval victory to his name.

Even if those three races are flipped, Herta would still have had a few poor results, but six victories in a year where nobody else truly dominated would have at least put Herta in the conversation for the title in the finale. He might have still fallen short, but he would have been right there. 

If Herta and team cleans things up, the best possible outcome is within reach.

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda
After finishing 2020 in generally good form, Rossi could not get into a rhythm in 2021. 

Poor tire strategy knocked him from a possible podium finish to ninth at Barber. Contact with Graham Rahal ended a possible top five finish at St. Petersburg. He was eighth in the first Texas race and was caught in the start accident in the second race. May started with a seventh in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but an emergency pit stop and stalling within the first 100 miles of the Indianapolis 500 put Rossi in a hole he couldn't get out. Trapped a lap down and with almost no attrition, Rossi was 29th but only two laps down! 

Through the first nine races, Rossi alternated top ten finish with non-top ten finish. His first top five was fifth Mid-Ohio, but a slow pit stop kept him from finishing on the podium. Patricio O'Ward spun Rossi at Nashville, ending a possible top five finish. He was fourth in the second IMS road course race, and then brushed the wall after getting in the marbles fighting for a podium finish at Gateway. 

Overcoming a blow start at Portland, Rossi was second. He qualified second at Laguna Seca, but a nudge after attempting a pass for the lead on Herta in five spun Rossi off course and he finished 25th. He ended the season with a sixth in Long Beach.

Numbers to Remember:
2: Laps led in 2021.

37: Starts since his most recent IndyCar victory.

12.3: Rossi's average finish in 2021, the worst of his IndyCar career and his second consecutive season resetting his worst average finish in a season.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Rossi combines the best aspects of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. 

He dominates Long Beach, he has a great Indianapolis 500 and this time holds on in the closing laps to get his second victory, and puts together dominant days at Road America and Mid-Ohio. On days when victory is not possible, Rossi is able to maximize points and finish ahead of his main championship rivals, regularly finishing on the podium. 

Balance is achieved on both tire compounds and there are no instances of Rossi losing five spots in one stint mid-race because of tire compound choice. His qualifying results are impeccable. The minor incidents that lead to catastrophic results do not occur. Cautions go his way. Rossi is the leader in the team. He is constantly coming out on top in every session, from the first practice session to the race. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
After two winless seasons, it feels like a win is due to Rossi, but he didn't come that close in 2021. In 2020, there were at least three races where it felt like Rossi was there and just the wrong thing happened each time. We didn't see any of those races in 2021. Perhaps Portland falls in that category, but that was such a weird comeback where Rossi fell back due to cutting the chicane at the start and then he had to follow Álex Palou to the front. 

If the likes of Rinus VeeKay can win in IndyCar and Marcus Ericsson can win twice, Rossi can get at least one victory. He can also be on the podium more than once. 

Rossi's largest hurdle is his own teammate, Herta, and there could possibly be a second stablemate giving him serious competition. For two seasons, Rossi has not even been the best of his own quartet. If he is third and looks up to see Herta is first, he could have the most infuriating career season in a career. 

Andretti Autosport could have multiple championship contenders, something the team really hasn't had since the days of Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti. Multiple victories and six to eight podium finishes are possible for Rossi, but two or three poor results could plague his season and keep him outside the top five in the championship.

Romain Grosjean - #28 DHL Honda
The anticipated IndyCar debut of Grosjean saw him make it out of round one in his first IndyCar qualifying session, and he finished tenth on debut at Barber for Dale Coyne Racing. Another good day in 13th followed at St. Petersburg. 

On Grosjean's first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he won pole position for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and led majority of the race. Difficulty with traffic cost Grosjean the lead, but he was still second in his third career start. He would come back to Earth at Belle Isle, hitting the barrier in race one and having a brake fire in race two. But good days would continue with a fifth at Road America and seventh at Mid-Ohio. 

A penalty for contact took away a possible top ten finish at Nashville and he was second again on the IMS road course. With confidence, Grosjean took his first crack at oval, starting 15th at Gateway. Grosjean improved with each lap and was making passes. Cold tires were his downfall and he lost significant time after each pit stop. He could have finished in the top ten but was caught a lap down when Rossi got into the barrier and finished 14th. 

He was in the opening lap accident at Portland but continued with a damaged race car. All he could manage was 22nd. Arguably Grosjean's best race was Laguna Seca, moving from 13th to third with many impressive passes and showing great pace on each tire compound. Grosjean was in contention for another top ten finish at Long Beach but slapped the barrier and ended his race early.

Numbers to Remember:
20.923: Points per start in 2021.

334: Points based on Grosjean's point per start over 16 starts, good enough for tenth in the championship in 2021.

20: Average finish on street courses in 2021.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Grosjean takes his world-class talent and combined with a championship-caliber team sees him immediately imposed his will on IndyCar. Grosjean wins early in the season, is on the podium in three of the first five races and he completes all 500 miles at Indianapolis, finishing somewhere between ninth and 16th. 

From there, Grosjean builds on his championship lead and picks up at least one victory in the next three races. He keeps his nose clean at the Iowa doubleheader and finishes the season with top five finishes in each of the last five races with at least one, if not two victories. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
A championship is not a crazy expectation for Grosjean. We just saw Palou win the title in his sophomore season after moving to a new team, and Grosjean is quite talented. 

However, let's temper expectations and remember Andretti Autosport has been struggling the last few seasons. The team has brought Olivier Boisson over with Grosjean from Dale Coyne Racing. That engineering mind should lift the team. 

Road and street course results should not be a concern. He should win once or twice. Ovals will be new. He looked good at moments last year at Gateway, but also showed exactly where he needs to improve, notably on cold tires. Gateway is one animal. Texas and Indianapolis are entirely different beasts. He is with one of the best teams, but he will still have to overcome his own insecurities. For a driver who long expressed trepidation over competing on ovals, the risks will alway linger in his mind and could hamper his output. 

Grosjean should be a top ten championship driver and push for a top five spot. 

Devlin DeFrancesco - #29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda
After finishing runner-up in the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 championship, DeFrancesco moved up to Indy Lights in the Andretti Autosport program. 

The season opened with a pair of third-place finishes. His season took a step back with an accident in the first St. Petersburg race, but he was fifth in race two. DeFrancesco would have only one top five finish in the next six races. He found his form over the summer with a pair of fifth-place finishes in Mid-Ohio, and a fourth and a fifth at the Gateway doubleheader. 

Mechanical issues knocked him to 11th in the first Portland race and he would finish outside the top five in the next four races. He ended the season with an impressive drive in the wet to finish fourth, but he ended up sixth in the championship and third among the four Andretti Autosport cars.

Numbers to Remember:
2: Victories in 37 Road to Indy starts, both in Indy Pro 2000 (Gateway and the first New Jersey Motorsports Park race in 2020)

7: Years since DeFrancesco was selected as a Chip Ganassi Racing development driver.

17.4: James Hinchcliffe's average finish in this car last season.

What does a championship season look like for him?
Any championship season for DeFrancesco is built off the back of a strong Indianapolis 500. If it is still double points, a top three finish with possibly some qualifying bonus can notably boost a championship finish a few positions. 

A DeFrancesco championship season also means he outperforms what history projects for him. He would have to be the best rookie in every race, stun his three senior teammates, and somehow win at least four or five times. 

What does a realistic season look like for him?
James Hinchcliffe did not put up great numbers in this car last year and Hinchcliffe already had multiple IndyCar victories to his name. I am not sure how DeFrancesco exceeds those results significantly. He couldn't finish in the top five of an Indy Lights championship that had only nine drivers compete in every race. If you cannot win in Indy Lights, I cannot imagine you are going to be impressive in IndyCar. 

DeFrancesco has done well in a few championships, but also been nonchalant in others. Matheus Leist won multiple Indy Lights races and wasn't much of a challenger in IndyCar. Leist was driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, but DeFrancesco is stepping into a car that was 20th in the championship, a.k.a Foyt territory. 

DeFrancesco could get a top ten finish or two, but I don't think he will be close to his teammate this season. There is a high possibility we could see a race where Herta, Rossi and Grosjean are all in the top five and DeFrancesco is struggling to break into the top 20. 

The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season begins on Sunday February 27 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBC's coverage will begin at noon ET.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Why Do We Penalize the Leader?

We begin with sad news, as Kevin Kalkhoven passed away, aged 77. Kalkhoven was the co-owner of Champ Car during the series final seasons and remained as a team owner with KV Racing, famously winning the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with Tony Kanaan. IndyCar teams will resume testing this week, and there has been a significant engineering shuffle across the grid. Chip Ganassi Racing has announced its driver lineups for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Thursday Night Blunder continues to be the most creative thing in iRacing. NASCAR has reserve drivers now. Ken Roczen won the Supercross return to Anaheim. The Gulf 12 Hours returned to Abu Dhabi. The Dakar Rally has entered its final week. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking. 

Why Do We Penalize the Leader?
It has been a month since the Formula One season finale at Abu Dhabi, and we haven't moved on from it. The final few laps have remained on the forefront of our minds as we continue to process what happened. From the Nicholas Latifi accident through the checkered flag and all the indecision in-between. 

Initially, race control had made the decision to restart with the lapped cars remaining between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Of course, the controversial decision was made to remove the lapped cars between the first two drivers, but not between second and third and so on down the order, just before restarting with one lap to go. 

With the hurdles removed, Verstappen went on to take the lead and win the world championship from Hamilton. An uproar has persisted that the regulations had not been followed ahead of that restart, but protocol aside, why should a race director ever removing lapped cars from between cars on track? 

For pretty much the entire 21st century, motorsports have been attempting to become more appealing to viewers and give people more reason to remain watching. The structure of a race has changed to keep things close. In Formula One's case, race control can remove lapped cars from between lead lap cars on track. In NASCAR, every restart is a double-file restart and there are about a half-dozen ways to get back on the lead lap and at least two guaranteed opportunities to get back on the lead lap. IndyCar employs similar wave around procedures and had a double points season finale for a handful of seasons. 

While attempting to keep races compelling until the checkered flag, these series have removed some competitive integrity, because losing out with all these regulation changes have been the race leader. A leader can spend laps driving away from the field, lapping cars and with one caution, all that work is erased, and second place is suddenly placed immediately on the leader's rear with a chance to take the top spot even though it could have spent majority of the race with the leader not even in sight. 

Why do we penalize the leader in motorsports? It is the only sport to do so. 

If a football team works it way to a 28-0 lead at the end of the third quarter, the trailing team doesn't get 21 points just to make it interesting. If a soccer team is up 2-0 entering the 80th minute, the leading team doesn't automatically lose a player and must play a man down for the rest of the match. These teams have earned these leads and they get to keep them. There aren't rules in place to decrease those leads artificially. Why can't the same be the case in motorsports?

Hamilton had a lead over 11 seconds when Latifi hit the barrier in Abu Dhabi. The time was lost but Hamilton was still going to have five cars between him and Verstappen. Hamilton had to negotiate those obstacles. He had to pass those cars on the track, and lost some time in the process, something Verstappen was also bound to face if he wanted to take the lead. Race control decided to remove those cars out of Verstappen's way. Why did the leader have to work his way through that traffic, but one caution meant race control could remove the traffic for second place? 

The race conditions become different for two competitors. In soccer, the goals are the same size for each time, same for the hoop in basketball. In football, both teams have four downs to get a first down. It isn't the case that one team gets two downs and the other gets six. Three strikes are an out for both teams in baseball. For motorsports, traffic is a part of the competition. If the leader must go through it, then second place should have to go through it as well. There are circumstances that could change that, lapped traffic pitting, the leader going off course and the traffic getting back ahead, but it shouldn't be a barrier removed at the discretion of the officials. It is one thing for the race to play out and it is another for race control to move the pieces around. 

After the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the conversation was not about how exciting the finish was or the fact that the championship came down to the final lap but the decisions from race control and the unfairness to Hamilton. The newbies weren't shouting about the last lap pass, but the injustice to one competitor. In the United States, I think too often the motorsports literate believe the way to draw in viewers is to just pump up excitement and think raising the heart rate will be enough at any cost, but in this case the motorsports literate fail to realize that these people are sports fans and they can tell when one competitor has been screwed. 

These people have seen blatant pass interference go unpenalized, dubious third strikes and questionable charging calls. They aren't stupid and they can see when similar grievances occur in motorsports. 

Formula One had a great season and attracted more viewers in the United States mostly because of Netflix's Drive to Survive, but viewers stuck around and didn't need the races dumbed down. Viewers weren't demanding every race finish with a two-lap shootout. They weren't demanding rule changes to keep the field close. The people bought into the stories and the competition for what they are, not for what they weren't. Not every race was spectacular or legendary, but they were invested in something greater than what occurred in the 300-kilometer grand prix. Once again, they are sports fans. Just as not every football, baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer game can be stuff of legend, they understood some races were going to be stinkers and others were going to be breathtaking.  

Motorsports has been chasing viewers at an increased rate for the last two decades, but I hope these series realize staying true to the sport is not a deterrent and people appreciate when the best are the best. If a leader has a 20-second lead and has six cars between him and second, they accept it just as they accept the Kansas City Chiefs leading 31-10 at the half against the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Formula One season concluding with a one-lap sprint with five-lapped cars between Hamilton the leader and Verstappen in second would not have been the most exciting finish, but people watched the first 57 laps of that race and could see it was fitting to what had transpired during the race, the same way a team can kneel out the clock at the end of a football game or dribble out the clock of a basketball game when up 20 points. Verstappen had 57 laps to remain close to Hamilton and he didn't. The same way a five-point field goal isn't introduced for the team trailing by four with two seconds left, motorsports should realize people can accept a result and not need a sudden plot twist to justify watching. 

My hope is motorsports can allow motorsports to be motorsports and stop thinking it must be cheapened to be attractive. Attraction goes beyond what happens between the green flag and the checkered flag. Formula One made the series compelling and sold a story that people bought. People will love the sport for what it is if you give them a reason to watch. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Ken Roczen, but did you know...

Here are the Dakar Rally general classifications entering stage eight:

Bikes: Yamaha's Adrien Van Beveren leads by five minutes and 12 seconds ahead of KTM's Matthias Walkner and five minutes and 23 seconds ahead of KTM's Kevin Benavides.

Quads: Alexandre Giroud leads Pablo Copetti by 18 minutes and 21 seconds, and Giroud is an hour and ten minutes clear of Aleksandr Maksimov.

Cars: Toyota's Nasser Al-Attiyah holds a 44-minute and 59-second lead ahead of Prodrive's Sébastien Loeb. Yazeed Al-Rajhi is 53 minutes and 51 seconds behind fellow Toyota driver Al-Attiyah.

Light Prototypes: Francisco Ló[ez has an hour and 24-minute lead over Sebastian Eriksson with Cristina Gutiérrez over two hours back.

SSV: American Austin Jones has a six-minute and 33-second lead over Gerard Farrés with Michał Goczał just over 20 minutes back in third.

Trucks: Dmitry Sotnikov leads a Kamaz 1-2-3, five minutes and 14 seconds ahead of Eduard Nikolaev and 31 minutes and 25 seconds clear of Anton Shibalov.

The #1 2 Seas Motorsport Mercedes-AMG of Ben Barnicoat, Martin Kodrić and Isa Al-Khalifa won the Gulf 12 Hours for the second consecutive season.

Coming Up This Weekend
The conclusion of the Dakar Rally.
The Chili Bowl.
The 17th Dubai 24 Hour.
Supercross goes to Oakland.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

2022 Supercross Season Preview

It is early January, but there is no time to rest at the start of the New Year. Supercross is back and it is getting right to business. Starting this Saturday night, the two-wheel championship will begin its 17-race season taking place over 18 weekends. 

After two pandemic-affected seasons, 2022 looks normal with a variety of venues all across the United States. On the track, things will look different. Top riders have switched manufactures, but the defending champion has remained in place. There are many questions heading into the new season.

It is back to normal for Supercross in 2022. There are no multiple race residencies scheduled and no midweek races either. Every race is scheduled for a Saturday and the 17 races are scheduled to take place at 15 different venues in 13 different states after competing at only seven different venues in only five starts last year. 

Anaheim is back as the season opener, and it starts a four-race California swing to open the season with five of the first six events taking place in the Golden State. Saturday's race is the first in California since February 8, 2020 in San Diego. Round two will take the series up the coast to Oakland on January 15 before heading down south to San Diego on January 22. Anaheim will host the fourth round to close out the month. 

Glendale, Arizona is the first stop outside California on February 5 before one more Anaheim race the following weekend. The series makes a big jump to Minneapolis on February 19, the first of four afternoon races, before returning to Arlington, Texas, and a primetime event, on February 26. 

Daytona Bike Week is the midpoint of the season with the only Floridian round running on March 5. Detroit will host Supercross on March 12 with Indianapolis following on March 19. The series returns to the Pacific Coast on March 26 for a return to Seattle. 

The series will take the first weekend of April off before returning on April 9 at St. Louis. Supercross will run Easter weekend this year, but it will be an afternoon race starting at 3:00 pm on April 16 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Foxborough is back on the schedule and that will also host an afternoon round on April 23. Denver closes the hat trick of afternoon races on April 30.

Salt Lake City will host the season finale for the third consecutive season. The season closes on May 7. 

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Cooper Webb: #1 KTM 450SX-F Factory Edition
What did he do in 2021: Webb won his second Supercross championship with eight victories, 13 podium finishes and 15 top five finishes from 17 races. He was fourth in the AMA Motocross championship, but he did not win a race with four podium finishes. 
What to expect in 2022: After winning the championship two of the last three seasons, expectations will be he can do it again. In 2020, Webb had a slow start, but ended strong and finished second in the championship. In Webb's favor is many of his competitors have switched teams and there are many unknowns. His rivals could experience growing pains, allowing Webb to remain on top.

Aaron Plessinger: #7 KTM 450SX-F Factory Edition
What did he do in 2021: Plessinger was fifth in the Supercross championship with his best finish being third at Daytona riding for Yamaha. He was tenth in the AMA Motocross championship and finished on the podium four times, but only made 18 starts.
What to expect in 2022: Plessinger had a few rough seasons with Yamaha, but last year was a nice step forward. He should push Webb a little bit, but I think Plessinger will be the clear second in the team, competing for a race victory here and there, but mostly fighting for a top five championship spot.

Marvin Musquin: #25 KTM 450SX-F Factory Edition
What did he do in 2021: Musquin was ninth in the Supercross championship and won the penultimate race in Salt Lake City. He had five podium finishes but he finished outside the top five in his other ten starts and he did not start two races due a concussion and an arm injury. He was seventh in the AMA Motocross championship with only one podium finish in 18 starts.
What to expect in 2022: Musquin has been on the decline for a few seasons. After it appeared he would carry KTM after Ryan Dungey's retirement, Musquin has not met those expectations. If he is healthy, he should finish somewhere in the top ten of the championship, but I don't think he will be winning races or pushing for the championship. 

Team Honda HRC
Chase Sexton: #23 Honda CRF450R
What did he do in 2021: Sexton missed six races after suffering a shoulder injury in the second race of the season in Houston. He returned for the final nine races, where he was on the podium three times and had six top five finishes, earning Sexton 12th in the championship. In the AMA Motocross championship, he was fifth in the championship with a victory and five podium finishes.
What to expect in 2022: Sexton had a few close calls for victory last season, and he should breakthrough in 2022. It is a matter of staying healthy. He should push for a top five championship finish.

Ken Roczen: #94 Honda CRF450R
What did he do in 2021: Roczen was second in the championship, 35 points behind Webb after Roczen won four races and stood on the podium ten times. He did finish outside the top five in four of the final eight races. Roczen was third in the AMA Motocross championship with seven victories with 15 podium finishes. 
What to expect in 2022: Good, but not good enough. After multiple comebacks from injuries, Roczen has been at the top, but not been the ruthless winner we had been expecting to break out many years ago. He should win multiple races, but after the last few years of fading late in the season, it is hard to see him breaking that trend. For Roczen to win the championship, he needs to be stellar early while others stumble around him. 

Monster Energy Yamaha Factory Racing
Eli Tomac: #3 Yamaha YZ450F
What did he do in 2021: Riding for Kawasaki, Tomac won three times, his fewest victories since one in 2016, with eight podium finishes on his way to finishing third in the championship, 62 points behind Webb. Tomac was second in the AMA Motocross championship with six victories and 13 podium finishes.
What to expect in 2022: New team, new expectations. After a successful stint with Kawasaki, Tomac's shift to Yamaha shocks the Supercross system. Yamaha hasn't been a regular challenger for the last few seasons, but it made progress in 2021, and had a great Motocross season last summer. Tomac could lift Yamaha to a contender for race victories, or the combination could struggle a bit and have a few good races. Tomac is a champion, but if he finishes third with a few victories again I would consider that a successful season. 

Dylan Ferrandis: #14 Yamaha YZ450F
What did he do in 2021: Ferrandis was seventh in the championship with one podium finish, a runner-up result in the second race at Houston. He did finish in the top five of three of the final five races. He won the AMA Motocross championship with eight victories and 22 podium finishes in 24 starts. 
What to expect in 2022: After winning the Motocross championship, expectations increase for Ferrandis. His Supercross season was good last year. He has a challenge within his own team, but after thoroughly dominating the Motocross season, he can't be flat to start 2022. The bare minimum is beating Tomac in the championship. If he does that, he will likely be in the top five of the championship and have won a few races. I am holding off on pronouncing Yamaha a contender. We need to see some results first.

Monster Energy Kawasaki
Adam Cianciarulo: #9 Kawasaki KX450
What did he do in 2021: Cianciarulo had one podium finish and four top five finishes in seven starts before breaking his collarbone in the second Orlando race ending his season early. He returned to the AMA Motocross championship and won a race, but only made 11 starts. 
What to expect in 2022: Cianciarulo is still battling his shoulder injury entering 2022. A fully healthy Cianciarulo should be fighting for race victories, but if he is banged up, I am not sure he can fight at the front on a consistent basis. It would not surprise me if he won a few races, but I worry his body will not hold up fo an entire season. 

Jason Anderson: #21 Kawasaki KX450
What did he do in 2021: Anderson ended up eighth in the championship with only two podium finishes, both third place results. He had only five top five finishes all season and failed to qualify for the second Indianapolis race.
What to expect in 2022: We have seen the best of Anderson. He is a consistent rider who keeps his nose clean and gets results, but Supercross is rising to a higher level and Anderson's consistency will not win him a championship like it did in 2018. He will be somewhere between sixth and tenth in the championship and could get on the podium a few times. 

Troy Lee Designs/Red Bull/Gas Gas Factory Racing
Justin Barcia: #51 Gas Gas MC 450F
What did he do in 2021: Barcia was fourth in the championship after winning the Houston season opener and having four podium finishes. He had ten top five finishes. He won once in the AMA Motocross championship but only made 14 starts, finishing ninth in the championship. 
What to expect in 2022: Barcia was the surprise of 2021. I don't think anyone expected him to win at all, let alone the season opener on a new manufacture. Barcia will drop a little in the championship. I don't think he will fall out of the top ten, but I expect fewer top five finishes.

Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Team
Dean Wilson: #15 Husqavarna FC450 RE
What did he do in 2021: Wilson was 11th in the championship with his best finish being eighth with seven top ten results. He also missed two races and failed to qualify for two others. 
What to expect in 2022: With Anderson is leaving for Yamaha and Zach Osborne retiring, Wilson is the veteran leader at Husqvarna. However, I am not sure Wilson can get back into the top ten of the championship when looking at the depth of the field.
Malcolm Stewart: #27 Husqvarna FC450 RE
What did he do in 2021: Stewart scored a career best sixth in the championship and picked up his first career podium finish with a third in the penultimate race in Salt Lake City. 
What to expect in 2022: This is a big shift, as Stewart moves from Yamaha to Husqvarna. Stewart should be leading this team, but I am not sure he can get back to sixth in the championship. Unfortunately, it looks like Stewart is leaving Yamaha as it is ascending and joining Husqvarna when it is going through a dip. He should pull out a few top ten results, but his goal should be beating Wilson and also the man he is replacing Anderson in the championship. 

Rocky Mountain ATV/MC – KTM – WPS
Shane McElrath: #12 KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition
What did he do in 2021: McElrath started only two race with his best finish being 14th after he suffered a shoulder injury in January 2021.
What to expect in 2022: McElrath was second in the 250 SX East championship in 2020 and fourth in the 250 Motocross championship that same year. Now he shifts over to a customer KTM program after being a customer Honda rider. If he is fit, he could be fighting for a top ten championship position.

Joey Savatgy: #17 KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition
What did he do in 2021: Savatgy was tenth in the championship with his best finish being sixth. He had eight top ten finishes. He was eighth in the AMA Motocross championship. 
What to expect in 2022: After missing much of 2020, Savatgy's results were sufficient in 2021. I don't sense 2022 will be much different. 

Max Anstie: #34 KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition
What did he do in 2021: Antsie started the final ten races with Suzuki and his best finish was 12th. 
What to expect in 2022: Suzuki is the weakest of the manufactures, and it is impressive Anstie was best of the bunch despite missing nearly the entire first half of the season. He should give Savatgy a run for his money.

Smartop/Bullfrog Spas/Motoconcepts/Honda
Justin Brayton: #10 Honda CRF450R
What did he do in 2021: Brayton missed eight races due to injured ribs and an injured hand. His best finish was third in the second Houston race, but his only top ten results were in the three-race Houston residency. 
What to expect in 2022: This will be Brayton's final Supercross season. He turns 38 years old in March. He could sneak into the top ten of the championship, but I think those results will be hard to come by. He should have a few stand out races.

Vince Friese: #40 Honda CRF450R
What did he do in 2021: Friese started 13 races with his best finish being 11th on his way to 18th classification in the championship. 
What to expect in 2022: Motoconcepts is doing something different this year. Friese and Mitchell Oldenburg will be splitting a 450 SX program while each compete in one of the regional 250 SX championships. Friese will run the 250 West season with Oldenburg in the 250 East championship. On the 450 bike, I don't see Friese doing much better than he did in 2021.

Mitchell Oldenburg: #54 Honda CRF450R
What did he do in 2021: Oldenburg was ninth in the 250 SX East season with two top five finishes. He also made four 450 SX starts with his best finish being 13th. 
What to expect in 2022: Oldenburg's 250 results aren't spectacular, and his 450 results last year match Friese's output. Friese has more 450 experience, but Oldenburg has a chance to outperform him in this split program. 

Twisted Tea/H.E.P. Motorsports Suzuki Racing Team
Justin Bogle: #19 Suzuki RM-Z450
What did he do in 2021: Bogle had two top ten finishes, but failed to qualify for three races and missed five other events, leading him to 20th in the championship. 
What to expect in 2022: Suzuki isn't a great bike and Bogle is at a crossroads. He was ninth in the 2019 championship. A top 15 championship finish would be a great result in 2022, and I think that could be a stretch for him. 

Brandon Hartranft: #28 Suzuki RM-Z450
What did he do in 2021: Hartranft made nine main events but failed to qualify for seven others. His best result was 17th. 
What to expect in 2022: About the same as 2021. Some main events made, other missed, not much to brag about.

Adam Enticknap: #722 Suzuki RM-Z450
What did he do in 2021: Enticknap made four main events with his best finish being 20th twice. He failed to qualify nine times and did not enter four races. 
What to expect in 2022: See Hartranft. 

The 2022 AMA Supercross season begins this Saturday at 10:00 pm with coverage on CNBC.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Match Race

We are back! The FIA has a new president. NASCAR did more testing and committed to its regulations. IndyCar signed an extension with Dallara. Marc Márquez is battling double vision. The LMP2 class will have Daytona Prototype international lineups at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Juan Pablo Montoya will share a car with his son Sebastián at Sebring. Dover and Nashville Superspeedway were purchased and are now under the Speedway Motorsports, Inc.'s umbrella, and the duopoly grows stronger. There will soon be less chocolate in Kyle Busch's life. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Match Race
It is a New Year, but 2021 is fresh in our minds, and we saw plenty of historic moments. 

From first time champions in IndyCar, MotoGP and World Superbike, retirements of past world champions, endurance races that went to the wire, but 2021 had two standout performers: Kyle Larson and Lewis Hamilton. 

Larson won the NASCAR Cup Series championship in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports after missing most of 2020 due to a suspension for using a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson won ten races, the most since 2007. His laps led total were the most in over 20 years. It was one of the most thorough seasons we have seen in contemporary NASCAR. NASCAR aside, Larson won the Knoxville Nationals, Chili Bowl and 4-Crown Nationals.

Hamilton did not win the World Drivers' Championship, but the Brit put together a great title fight, coming from behind to enter the season finale level with Max Verstappen on points, the first time the championship lead was tied entering the finale since 1974. Hamilton fell nine points shy of a record eighth championship, but he did surpass the 100 grand prix victories mark, and he put together some impressive drives at Bahrain, Barcelona, Silverstone, Interlagos and Saudi Arabia.

With the seasons both drivers had, cases were made for each being the best in the world. 

The two drivers are on entirely different paths. Larson is an oval based driver, running dirt and pavement, from his main job on Sunday to his hobby during the week. Hamilton is in Formula One. There are nearly two-dozen races held around the globe in some of the most technologically advanced cars in the world. Larson isn't going to Formula One anytime soon and Hamilton isn't going to NASCAR. The two will likely never be on the same circuit at the same time, and yet this predicament suggests there is a way to make it happen. 

With both drivers having their contingent of followers, and with Formula One at one of its most popular points in the United States, a special event bringing arguably the two best drivers in the world from different sides of the Atlantic could be the one-off motorsports event to capture the world's attention. 

In the heyday of horse racing, match races between two horses were common events, the most famous of them all is Seabiscuit defeating Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938. Match races are nonexistent in the 21st century, and for motorsports, they have never been grand spectacles between drivers. In the early days of the automobile, races were held to prove which machine was superior. The driver was an afterthought. 

We are less concerned about the machine as we are the man strapped inside of it. With the difference in race cars, the machine needs to be taken out of the equation when it comes to a comparison such as Larson and Hamilton, but there is a level playing field in which these two could go head-to-head to determine who is the best. 

Any match race would have to be more of a heptathlon approach, five vehicles each something neither regularly drives, best three out of five. The course would have to be something neither has any great experience at. The Race of Champions would be the perfect place for such a battle. It would have plenty of neutral vehicles and its courses are temporary constructions. Of course, neither Larson nor Hamilton will be going to Sweden this February to compete in this year's event. Though, the ice circuit likely would not be the best conditions for these two to battle either. 

Considering the mass appeal of both drivers, this is the show everyone would want to see. They are the best at what they do, two distinctively different disciplines and it would be an event no one has ever seen before. It could be a big money event, though I doubt Larson or Hamilton would demand doing it for a large paycheck. It could be something we have never seen in motorsports, and in 2022, motorsports should try different things. 

We are always going to have the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, British Grand Prix and Daytona 500, but we have been doing races for decades and if people want to watch they know where to find the events. However, this match race would be unlike anything we have ever seen. Drivers may battle on track all the time, but we almost never see drivers compete only directly against another driver on a circuit. Drag racing is 1,000 feet or a quarter mile, but this type of match race, five heats with the spoils of deciding who is the best driver in the world, it could be the sporadic event of the 21st century that catches the attention of the masses. 

Motorsports is not like it was 50 or 60 years ago when cross-pollination was regular. It also wasn't the case where hyper-specialization was required to be the best in a discipline. There are plenty of drivers who run different vehicles, but we don't see the same caliber driver doing it as we did in the decades following World War II. Hamilton isn't following the paths of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, driving for Mercedes in Formula One and sports car racing. Larson does jump between different categories, stock cars and dirt cars, mostly winged sprint cars and midgets. Larson has dabbled in sports car racing, but it has been a few years. 

A Larson-Hamilton showdown would bring together two drivers from two different philosophies, and it would answer many questions about the world of motorsports. 

Formula One is about to make big money on the next television contract in the United States, but the money iout there for more. Any television executive with half a brain should be trying to organize this event. It would be a global event the likes we have never seen, and it could also be organized at a reasonable price. It wouldn't require a $25 million sanctioning fee like some Formula One races. Find a stadium in a major metropolitan market, promote the crap out of it and profit. People will show up.

This match race could be a three-hour event with undercard events filling the bill and providing a stadium full of fans with entertainment before the main event. Other big drivers could compete in the undercard races. There could be a celebrity race. The people will be there. This event would attract stars from many different walks of life. Fellow drivers will turn up just to say they were there and support someone who is normally a competitor, Music and movie stars would come out. Other athletes would show up and fill luxury suites. It would be the Monaco Grand Prix meets a prize fight. 

Who wouldn't want to see this? Larson fans would want to show his adaptability makes him superior. Hamilton fans would love to silence the globe once and for all. We would have the driver with the most grand prix victories against the NASCAR champion who is also the best driver on dirt. The fact this hasn't be organized already is a shame. 

This type of event bringing together those type of drivers could be the future of motorsports and we shouldn't wait a second longer to make it happen.  

Winners While We Were Away
Cristina Gutiérrez and Sébastien Loeb won the Extreme E finale, the Jurassic X-Prix for Team X44, but Rosberg X Racing won the championship with Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor. 

Dakar Rally stage winners:
Bikes: Daniel Sanders (swept prologue and stage one)
Cars: Nasser Al-Attiyah (swept prologue and stage one)
Quads: Manuel Andújar (prologue), Laisvydas Kancius (stage one)
Light Proto: Seth Quintero (swept prologue and stage one)
SSV: Marek Goczal (prologue), Aron Domżala (stage one)
Trucks: Eduard Nikolaev (prologue), Dmitry Sotnikov (stage one)

Coming Up This Weekend
The Dakar Rally continues!
Supercross opens in Anaheim.

Friday, December 31, 2021

2022 IndyCar Predictions

The final day of the year brings our annual tradition of closing the year with IndyCar predictions. The 2021 season saw a surprise first-time champion and IndyCar continued to be a wide-open championship with race winners coming from any and nearly every team. 

We can expect more of the same in 2022, but what exactly should we look out for? Here are a dozen predictions! 

1. Scott Dixon will be the top Ganassi finisher in at least seven races
Last season, Dixon was beat in the intra-team Ganassi battle, and handily for the first time since Dario Franchitti left the team. 

It wasn't a bad year for Dixon, as he was fourth in the championship, but Álex Palou won the championship and Palou was the top Ganassi finisher in seven of 16 races. Marcus Ericsson was top Ganassi finisher in five races. Dixon was the top Ganassi finisher in only four races! He went 11 consecutive races at one point without being the top Ganassi finisher. It was only the third time in Dixon's career he went more than five consecutive races without being the top finisher for a race team! 

Dixon was good, but he never had a team where two teammates were at his level prior to 2021. He has had one before, but typically Dixon was at least second in the team. Ericsson's level of success was unexpected. The Swede was going to be a top ten driver, but I don't think anyone saw him winning more races than Dixon and challenging for a top five championship finish.

In 2014, Dixon had a stretch of ten races without being the top Ganassi finisher. He bounced back and won the 2015 championship while being the top Ganassi finisher in seven of 16 races. 

I don't necessarily think Dixon will win the 2022 championship but being the top Ganassi finisher in seven of 17 races is possible. Palou and Ericsson both could come down to Earth. Both those drivers will be competitive, but not keep up the same pace as they had in 2021. Dixon will be strong and will be back leading the Ganassi contingent. 

2. Andretti Autosport will have multiple top ten finishers in at least eight races
It has been a strange few seasons for Andretti Autosport. Alexander Rossi hasn't won a race since June 2019. Colton Herta has been great but has let races slip and could have been champion in 2021. Ryan Hunter-Reay had two of his worst seasons with the team. Marco Andretti backed away from full-time competition and James Hinchcliffe returned only to have a disappointing season.

In 2020, Andretti Autosport had multiple top ten finishers in only six races! Only twice did the team have multiple top five finishers. 

The team is mixing it up in 2021. Romain Grosjean is in for Hunter-Reay. Rossi is in a contract year. Delvin DeFrancesco is replacing Hinchcliffe. No one expects DeFrancesco to contribute greatly, but between Herta, Rossi and Grosjean, Andretti should be a regular race winner and should have multiple championship challengers. 

A successful season for this team is all three of those drivers winning races and at least one of them competing for a championship. If it wasn't for some of the mechanical issues, Herta could have been been in the fight in 2021. Herta arguably could have had five victories in 2021 if it wasn't for mechanical issues, and an accident that was on him. If Herta converts those results, he could have been champion. 

Andretti Autosport needs to have a great year. It is approaching ten years since its most recent championship. A "Big Three" team can't go a decade without a championship. 

3. There will be at least three first-time winners
In 2021, there were four first-time winners in IndyCar. 

Álex Palou won the season opener, Patricio O'Ward won the second Texas race, Rinus VeeKay won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Marcus Ericsson won the first Belle Isle race. There were four first-time winners in the first seven races of 2021. 

For all the first-time winners IndyCar had in 2021, there are just as many drivers out there still waiting for their first career victory. 

Romain Grosjean, Jack Harvey and Scott McLaughlin have all finished on the podium before. Jimmie Johnson will be running a full season and his oval expertise could prove important. There are some exciting young drivers with Christian Lundgaard, Callum Ilott, Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas joining the series. The road/street course position in Ed Carpenter Racing's #20 Chevrolet is still unfilled. 

Here is the one thing going against this prediction: Since reunification there has never ben multiple first-time winners in consecutive seasons. There were three new winners in 2008 and then no new winners until 2011, when Mike Conway and Ed Carpenter each won. There were no new winners in 2012 and then four in 2013 before one in 2014, two in 2015 and one in 2016. 

There were then two seasons without a first time before Herta won in 2019, Felix Rosenqvist won in 2020 and then the four-driver splash in 2021. The last time a series had multiple first-time winners in consecutive seasons was Champ Car from 2005 to 2007. Each of those three seasons had two first-time winners. 

We could see another surprise addition to the IndyCar grid at some point. Everyone expects Grosjean to win. Harvey is in position to get a victory. Lundgaard could be the breakout star of 2022. McLaughlin has ovals figured out. Three might be a stretch, but it is highly possible, especially in the current landscape. 

4. Team Penske will not lose a race in the final five laps due to a mechanical issue
It happened twice to Team Penske in 2021. 

First was at Belle Isle, when Will Power overheated under the red flag period late in the Saturday race and was unable to restart his car when the red flag was lifted late in the race. Power went from almost assured victory to 20th. 

Two races later, Josef Newgarden dominated at Road America, but had Álex Palou staying within touching distance. A late caution for a Ed Jones spin set up a restart with two laps to go. Newgarden had been having gearbox concerns all race. On that final restart, Newgarden's gearbox jammed, and he lost the lead. Palou won the race, it was a pivotal point in the championship, as it went from a +13 point race for Newgarden to a -38 point race, a 51-point swing. 

This is also not taking into considering the second Belle Isle race, where Newgarden led the first 67 of 70 laps before Patricio O'Ward passed Newgarden on fresher tires after multiple late cautions bunched up the field. 

Multiple mechanical issues will not rip victories from Team Penske's hands again in 2022. Power does have a knack for falling into mechanical issues, so we cannot rule it out, but for it to happen in the closing laps in multiple races in one season, that doesn't happen often. Twice in a season is unfortunate. Penske has covered its bad breaks for the next few seasons.

5. Patricio O'Ward will lead the most laps in at least two races
For as great as O'Ward's 2021 season was, he never led the most laps in a race. 

O'Ward won twice, but he only led 25 laps at Texas and three laps in the second Belle Isle race. He never led more than 28 laps in a single race in the 2021 season. His 118 laps led were fifth most of the season, but it was also the most laps led for a driver who did not lead the most laps in a race. 

In 2020, O'Ward led the most laps in the second Road America race and the first Gateway race, but he could not get a victory. 

We will see a more balanced O'Ward in 2022. He should be in the championship fight again, but his race victories will be more dominant performances, races where he starts on the front row and he leads 75% of the laps. He was great on ovals again with finishes of third, first, fourth and second. He could be the next driver to lead 200 laps at Iowa. 

6. Simon Pagenaud and Hélio Castroneves average greater than 12.0 in final championship position
Meyer Shank Racing stepped up to full-time competition in 2020, and in 2022 it is going to have two full-time cars. It will also bring in a new driver.

Pagenaud is moving over after a few good, but not spectacular seasons with Team Penske. Castroneves is returning after four years as a part-time IndyCar driver, which saw him win his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 2021 and give MSR its first IndyCar victory. 

MSR has had good results ever since it has entered IndyCar. Jack Harvey might not have won a race or been on the podium as much as his speed would have suggested, but it is a good organization and can mix with the IndyCar big boys. 

But I am not set on the Pagenaud/Castroneves pairing. Pagenaud will be good, but Castroneves showed weak points in 2021 that an Indianapolis 500 victory papers over. I am not sure how both these drivers finish in the top 12 of the championship. I could see Pagenaud finishing eighth to tenth, but I don't think Castroneves can match that. Castroneves could end up outside the top fifteen in the championship. It is not crazy when you consider there are three Penske teams, four Ganassi teams, four Andretti teams, three Rahal Letterman Lanigan teams, two Arrow McLaren SP teams and Rinus VeeKay is a race winner with Ed Carpenter Racing. 

That is 17 teams. Drop Johnson and DeFrancesco and that leaves 15 teams besides the MSR cars. How many of those cars can Castroneves beat? He could get McLaughlin and VeeKay. That would put him 14th in the championship. Fourteenth would be generous for Castroneves in his first season back as a full-time driver. If Castroneves is 14th, then Pagenaud has to be 11th or worse for this prediction to be correct, a conceivable result.

7. Ed Carpenter Racing will not have a top ten finish drought longer than six races
Ed Carpenter Racing started 2022 on fire, and it felt like the team had turned a corner it had long been trying to get around since Josef Newgarden left. 

Then the rest of the season happened. 

Coincidentally, the team's decline coincided with Rinus VeeKay's broken collarbone from a cycling accident the Monday prior to Road America. The team ended 2021 without a top ten finish in the final nine races. It opened the season with at least one top ten finish in six of the first seven races. 

ECR might not be either the team we saw in the first half of 2021 nor the team we saw in the second half. There should be some middle ground. VeeKay's injury knocked him off his game. A fully healed VeeKay should be better than what we saw in the summer. 

Conor Daly could be back in the #20 Chevrolet for road and street courses, but the team could be set to move on and whatever driver is brought in will have a low bar to clear to better Daly's results. Daly had zero top ten finishes in two seasons as the road/street course driver. 

A driver change should help this team, and with Iowa returning as a doubleheader, there will be one more oval race for Ed Carpenter to contest, not to mention the ovals are more spread out. It is less likely ECR will suffer a long dry spell.

8. The rookie drivers will combine for fewer than four podium finishes
IndyCar just had an impressive rookie class with Scott McLaughlin, Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson running for rookie of the year. There will be more rookie of the year contenders in 2022, but I don't think they will have the same kind of success we saw from the class of 2021. 

Christian Lundgaard qualified fourth on debut last year for the August Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race. Lundgaard lost some spots in the race, but for his first weekend in a car he had never driven prior to the first practice, he looked to have it under control. 

Driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Lundgaard is the rookie best setup to succeed. There are other good drivers in the class of 2022, but I don't know if any can be regularly competitors at the front of the grid. 

Kyle Kirkwood has made it to IndyCar after years of Road to Indy success, including winning the 2021 Indy Lights championship. However, Kirkwood will be driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, a team with one podium finish and eight top five finishes over the last six seasons. 

David Malukas was runner-up to Kirkwood in Indy Lights last year and he joins Dale Coyne Racing. Coyne has a history of successful rookies, some have even finished on the podium, but DCR is going through another shakeup. Malukas' teammate will be Takuma Sato, who moves over from RLLR. Coyne is a small team, and engineer Olivier Boisson left with Grosjean. Coyne finds a way to work its magic, but eventually it will have an off year. 

Callum Ilott nearly won the Formula Two championship, losing out to Mick Schumacher in 2020. Ilott is regarded as a respectable gain for IndyCar. He was a test and reserve driver for Ferrari and Alfa Romeo in 2021. The talent is there, but Ilott will drive for Juncos Hollinger Racing. The combination ran the final three races in 2021. It was a dress rehearsal, but the team has some work to do. For a team that has never finished better than 15th in its limited IndyCar experience, I cannot think Ilott and JHR will be on the podium in 2022. It could have a few good days, but I need to see more before thinking it will be on the podium. 

We still don't know who will be in the #20 ECR entry on road courses, but looking at the current rookie crop, the only one who could regularly fight for the podium is Lundgaard. Is Lundgaard going to have four podium finishes? Probably not. He could get on one or two, and that would be a good rookie season. Four will be out of reach for him.

9. There will be consecutive winners on at least two occasions
It wasn't until the final two races of the season, the last possible opportunity, that IndyCar had a driver win consecutive races in 2021. Colton Herta closed out the season with victories at Laguna Seca and Long Beach.

If Herta had not won at Long Beach, 2021 would have been the first season without a single consecutive race winner since 2015. 

While IndyCar is hyper-competitive and it feels like the series could produce 17 different winners from 17 races, the best drivers find a way to win multiple times. Sometimes those victories come in consecutive races. 

We saw it with Herta. In 2020, Scott Dixon opened the season with three consecutive victories. In 2019, Simon Pagenaud swept the Indianapolis races. Will Power swept the Indianapolis races in 2018, and Alexander Rossi won consecutive races at Mid-Ohio and Pocono that season. Graham Rahal swept the Belle Isle doubleheader in 2017 and Josef Newgarden won at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. Pagenaud had three consecutive victories in 2016 while Power won consecutive races at Belle Isle and Road America. 

It happens all the time. Next IndyCar season will see at least two drivers have a great pair of races. While IndyCar could have 17 different winners from 17 races, the series also has ten drivers you look at and think they could easily win two or three races on the spin. 

10. No race will have more than 35% of its laps under caution
There were a few caution heavy races in IndyCar in 2021. Most notably, Nashville, which had 33 of his 80 laps behind the safety car. That was 41.25% of the race! 

Overall, 247 of 1,925 laps run in 2021 were under caution, 12.831% of the season. Before you say that is a lot or IndyCar has a caution problem, let's look at some reason seasons, and how many laps were run under caution. 

2014: 323 of 2,385 laps (13.48%)
2015: 426 of 2,232 laps (19.08%)
2016: 302 of 2,070 laps (14.58%)
2017: 311 of 2,331 laps (13.34%)
2018: 249 of 2,368 laps (10.51%)
2019: 270 of 2,092 laps (12.91%)
2020: 203 of 1,900 laps (10.68%)
2021: 247 of 1,925 laps (12.83%)

Over the last eight seasons, 2,331 of 17,303 laps have been under caution, or 13.471%. Last season was below the recent average despite Nashville's choppiness. If Nashville was more in line with the rest of the races and ten laps were under caution, the overall caution lap percentage would have been down to 11.636%. 

I don't think we will see another Nashville. I don't think we will have an oval race go off the rails. Iowa will feel normal. Next year will be calm.

11. Jimmie Johnson will be involved in 0.25 cautions or fewer per start
Johnson's IndyCar debut season was not fantastic.

It took him ten laps for Johnson to cause his first caution at Barber. Johnson brought out two cautions at St. Petersburg. His spin in the second Belle Isle race changed the outcome significantly, allowing Patricio O'Ward into the battle for the lead. He spun at Road America and was then caught in the infamous turn 11 restart accident at Nashville. 

Through eight races, Johnson's best finish was 19th, he was in six caution periods, and had severeal other spins and accidents in practice sessions, and he did not finish on the lead lap once.

However, Johnson was heading in the right toward the end of the season. He was 19th in the August IMS road course race and finished on the lead lap. He was 20th at Portland and again on the lead lap. In the final two races, he finished 17th in both, and he was on the lead lap at Long Beach. 

Most importantly, Johnson caused no cautions in those final four starts.

Johnson might not be a top ten driver on a regular basis, but I don't think he will cause as many cautions as he did in his rookie year. Johnson is smart, and most of his cautions were about car control. He didn't have a grip on it. These weren't reckless moments where he overstepped the limit significantly. They were mostly because Johnson wasn't used to the limit of an open-wheel car. 

Based on 12 starts in 2021, he had 0.5 cautions per start. Johnson has announced he will run a full season, but I still hold out Johnson might pull back if he doesn't feel comfortable on ovals. There is also the chance Johnson doesn't qualify for the Indianapolis 500. We cannot rule it out considering Will Power was in the Last Row Shootout in 2021. 

Averaging 0.25 cautions per start would be 4.25 cautions over 17 races. Four or fewer and this prediction is correct. Five or more and this prediction is wrong.
12. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's qualifying average will be 12.5 or under
For the last few seasons, RLLR has been a strong team, a regular race winner and it regularly puts its drivers in the top ten in the championship. 

In 2021, Graham Rahal had seven top five finishes and 11 top ten finishes. He was seventh in the championship, his seventh consecutive top ten championship finish. Takuma Sato finished in the top ten in eight of 16 races and Sato just missed out on the top ten in the championship, ending up 11th. 

Those results came despite poor qualifying results for RLLR. Rahal qualified in the top ten five times. Sato didn't start in the top ten once! The team's best qualifying result was Lundgaard starting fourth at the August IMS road course race. Rahal had one top five start and Oliver Askew had one top five start. 

Overall, between Rahal, Sato, Lundgaard, Askew and Santino Ferrucci, RLLR's average qualifying result in 2021 was 15.729. 

Rahal remains, but Jack Harvey joins the team, and Harvey has been one of IndyCar's better qualifiers over the last four seasons, though he took a dip last season. We already saw what Lundgaard did with limited time in the car. 

The team is set on making a move forward. It has invested in the future with Harvey and Lundgaard. RLLR will find its footing and bounce back after a winless 2021 season. We will see improvement in the team's qualifying results.

And that is a wrap on 2021. Five sets of predictions are in the books. Check out NASCAR, Formula One, sports car and motorcycle predictions before the year is out. We have plenty of fun ahead of us.