Friday, December 30, 2016

2017 IndyCar Predictions

Here we are. Final set of 2017 predictions, final post of 2016 and it will be on the series that has the longest offseason. IndyCar has not raced since September 18th, 103 days ago and there are still 72 days until the season opener at St. Petersburg but that has given us plenty of time to thoroughly think out what the 2017 season could behold.

1. Penske Repeats as Champion
I was going to predict the opposite because Team Penske has not won titles in consecutive seasons since 2000-01 with Gil de Ferran. Team Penske is a model of success and failure when you consider all the championships and how for the better part of the last decade the team has gagged away championships. However, with Ganassi now at Honda and a freeze in aero kit development and the team signing Josef Newgarden away from Ed Carpenter Racing, the ball is in Penske's court. Simon Pagenaud could repeat. Will Power could dethrone his teammate. Newgarden could stun everyone in year one but it wouldn't be that great of a surprise. Hélio Castroneves could be in his final year but I am not sure he has the ability to be the top Penske driver let alone the top driver in IndyCar. Either way, if you offered me the four Penske drivers or the field, I will take the four Penske drivers.

2. Carlos Muñoz Will Have a Better Average Finish Than Conor Daly
Both Muñoz and Daly are coming off strong 2016 seasons and while Muñoz could arguably being taking a step back, Daly is arguably making a step up. A.J. Foyt Racing hasn't had the best time the last couple of seasons as the team wasn't able to turn Takuma Sato into a consistent driver and Jack Hawksworth never found his footing. Muñoz has done a good job of bringing the car home in one piece and Daly did a great job when strategy got him to the front and he was able to hang with the big boys. However, I think Daly is behind Muñoz in development. It didn't help Daly that Coyne lacked a strong oval program while Muñoz was with the team with arguably the best oval program. Muñoz has the clear advantage in at least six races in 2017 and that could put him well ahead of Daly.

3. Dale Coyne Racing Will Get One Podium That Wasn't Because of Going Off Strategy
The team has stacked up on drivers for 2017. It is surprising we knew both Coyne drivers before Thanksgiving let alone Christmas. The team has brought Sébastien Bourdais back and Ed Jones has moved up to IndyCar after winning the Indy Lights title. Coyne has been the king of strategy the last few seasons but the team held its own on speed when it got to the front. I think the team might still be lagging behind on ovals but Bourdais can't be ruled out of qualifying in the top seven or eight on a road course and then fighting his way to a podium.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan End Winless Droughts
Hunter-Reay was kept off the top step of the podium in 2016 for the first time since 2009 and Kanaan hasn't won a race since the 2014 season finale at Fontana. It wasn't for a lack of trying by each driver. Hunter-Reay was taken out in the pit lane while contending for the victory at Indianapolis and had the car hiccup on him while leading at Pocono. Kanaan only had two podium finishes and five top five finishes but his average finish was 8.8, his best since the 2010 season. Both drivers can win any of the six ovals. Both will be in Hondas in 2017 and while Honda has slacked on road/street courses I would favor Hunter-Reay over Kanaan to win on a road/street course considering Kanaan hasn't won a road/street race since 2007.

5. JR Hildebrand Sets Career-Highs for Top Fives and Top Tens
After spending the better part of the last four seasons on the sidelines, JR Hildebrand returns to full-time IndyCar competition in 2017 in the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. While Hildebrand has made it a habit of getting strong finishes as a one-off in the Indianapolis 500 with three consecutive top ten finishes in the race since being canned by Panther Racing. He has actually improved his Indianapolis 500 by two positions each of the last three years. Hildebrand has only run two full seasons in IndyCar and both were with Panther Racing, a team that had a dreadful road/street course program, leaving Hildebrand with a less-than-impressive record on those tracks. In each of his two full seasons he had two top five finishes and in his sophomore season he had six top ten finishes. While he has been away for a bit and Ed Carpenter Racing has lost lead engineer Jeremy Milless to Andretti Autosport, I think the team can still get decent results and I don't think it is crazy to think Hildebrand could end up with three top five finishes and seven top ten finishes.

6. Graham Rahal Increases His Amount of Top Ten Finishes but not Top Five Finishes
The American driver finished fifth in the championship and while he averaged a top five finish in every other race in 2016, he had zero finishes between sixth and tenth. For every strong day he had, he had a race where he was behind the eight ball or threw the race away and got into the barrier (Watkins Glen). I think he will be a little more consistent and end up with ten or 11 top ten finishes but perhaps only six or seven of those are top five finishes. If he can find the right balance, Rahal could end up in the championship fight again in 2017.

7. James Hinchcliffe Scores His Best Finish in the Championship
I predicted for 2016 he would at least match his career best finish by saying he would finish in the top eight of the championship. Hinchcliffe dropped to 13th in the final table after being deducted points after his runner-up finish at Texas for a car that was too low, running out of fuel on the final lap at Watkins Glen and rallying from 20th on the grid to 12th at Sonoma. Now I am predicting he will at least finish in the top seven. I think he can do it though. He is going to have to improve on the road and street courses where he finished outside the top ten in six of 11 races and outside the top fifteen in four of those six.

8. Alex Tagliani Does Not Lead a Lap in the Indianapolis 500
Believe it or not, Alex Tagliani has led a lap in the last six Indianapolis 500s. If he leads a lap in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, he will match Tony Kanaan's record for most consecutive Indianapolis 500 led. While the Canadian famously won the Indianapolis 500 pole position in 2011, his best finish in the race was tenth and has averaged a finish of 16.5 in eight starts. Most of the times he has led have been during a pit cycle or by going off strategy. I am not sure Tagliani even ends up in a ride this May but if he does, I think he won't be under the lap leaders column in the box score.

9. There Will Be More Lead Changes at all Short Oval Races From the Previous Race at the Tracks
Last year, Phoenix had two lead changes, Iowa had 11 lead changes (which seems ridiculously high considering Josef Newgarden led 282 of 300 laps) and the last Gateway race in 2003 had five lead changes. The Phoenix aero package wasn't great for on track action and I think the series made the wrong decision to apply it to Iowa. I hope we see the horsepower increased and downforce decreased for this year's short track races and not the proposed less horsepower, more downforce, push-to-pass button enable races at these three tracks but I believe whatever change will be made will increase passing, especially at the front of the field.

10. At Least Two Drivers Improve by at Least Five Positions in the Championship
A five-spot jump up the championship table seems like a lot but Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 12th and could easily finish seventh. James Hinchcliffe finished 13th and I already said I think he could finish in the top seven, which would be a six-spot jump. Sébastien Bourdais finished 14th and could easily finish ninth. Then there is Scott Dixon, who finished sixth and you aren't ruling him out for the championship even if he is in a Honda. Then you have JR Hildebrand, who finished 23rd in the 2016 championship after only running two races and I think he will surely finish inside the top fifteen let alone the top eighteen.

11. A Ridiculous Rumor About a Driver Out of IndyCar at Least Three Years is Published on Either or
Remember when Mario Domínguez was rumored to have a few million dollars for an Indianapolis 500 one-off? Well, why couldn't we hear that Vitor Meira is working on a comeback or Jay Howard or Jaques Lazier? Hell, maybe even Sam Hornish, Jr. enters the rumor mill.

12. Jenson Button Will be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway During the Month of May
I am not saying he is going to be in a car making an attempt to qualify but I could see him being there as a VIP to Honda. He could even be on the grid on race day but I think Monaco seems more appealing than Indianapolis at the end of May. But I think Button will make a trip to Speedway, Indiana come May.

That is it. All predictions are out. With the final day of 2016 approaching, don't forget to check out 2017 predictions for NASCAR, Et Cetera, sports cars and Formula One. We will be back in the present after the calendar flips over. Have a Happy New Year. I look forward to writing to you in 2017.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2017 Formula One Predictions

We will not have a repeat world champion in 2017 now that Nico Rosberg has retired but we could see Lewis Hamilton pick up his fourth, Sebastian Vettel pick up his fifth, Kimi Räikkönen pick up his second or anyone number of drivers picking up their first title. The new technical regulations could see the Mercedes-era of dominance come to the end and could mark the start of another dynasty.

1. Lewis Hamilton Beats His Teammate in the Championship By At Least Three Spots
We don't know who Lewis Hamilton's teammate will be. We think it will be Valtteri Bottas. It could still be Pascal Wehrlein but regardless, I think Hamilton will thrash his teammate. I think he could benefit from being in the team the last few seasons and from the sudden departure of Nico Rosberg. Rosberg's former crew will have a short period to get on the same page with a new driver. If it is Wehrlein, they will at least know his personality a bit and he knows the team a bit but bringing in Bottas or another outsider would come with a learning that could allow Hamilton to set the pecking order before the season even reaches Barcelona.

2. Nico Hülkenberg Finally Gets a Podium
The man won a pole position as a rookie with an underpowered Williams in the wet at Interlagos, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans but he has yet to be on a podium in 115 starts. Equipment isn't an excuse anymore especially after Sergio Pérez had four podium finishes in the three years they were teammates at Force India. It is now or never and while Renault was a poor team in 2016, the team did suffer for designing a car for a Mercedes engine before the team was bought by the French manufacture. The Renault engine was fine in 2016, Red Bull proved that. If Renault can develop a car that fits the engine, the team could makes strides up the grid and I think the team will have a few races where the car can compete with the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari, Williams and Force India.

3. There Will be at Least One Race Red Bull Bosses
Despite finishing a distant second to Mercedes-Benz in 2016, Red Bull looked really good and was on the heels of the Silver Arrows for a good chunk of the season. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen provide a tantalizing driver line-up and I think with new regulations Red Bull could leapfrog Mercedes-Benz at a few races and we could see a race where Red Bull sweeps the front row and the drivers are gone from the off never to be caught. Both Red Bull drivers could lead a race lights to flag and I wouldn't be surprised if either does it in 2017.

4. Haas Has More Finishes in the Points But Do Not Finish Ahead of any of the Top Seven in the 2016 Constructors' Championship
I am conflicted about Haas. The team reportedly started working on the 2017 car before the 2016 Australian Grand Prix. While that level of preparation is extraordinary and it could give the team a head start, Haas is a young team and still have a bit to learn and I can't see it jumping any teams especially if I think Renault will make a big improvement. The only team of the top seven I could see Haas jumping is Toro Rosso but even that I am not confident about. Haas had five points finishes in 2016, all at the hands of Romain Grosjean. I think each Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen could get four or five points finishes in 2017 but if those are all finishes from seventh to tenth, the team will only have somewhere from eight points to 60 points. Toro Rosso finished on 63 points in 2016. I think the team could end up with about 40 points but not make any progress up the Constructors' Championship table.

5. Lance Stroll has an Incident That Leads People Calling for His Head
Part of me thinks the 18-year-old Quebec-native will be very coy and not try to do anything to stir the pot but at the same time I think he could feel the pressure if the results don't start coming and his teammates, whomever it is, opens a large gap between the drivers in the Drivers' Championship. Stroll has a history of bonehead moves and it there is a race where he thinks he could make a name for himself, he could overstep the line and end up irking many fellow drivers, pundits and fans.

6. McLaren Gets Podiums
I think McLaren could be the revelation of the 2017 season. McLaren could put the likes of Force India and Williams behind them in the Constructors' Championship and I think this could be the revitalization of Fernando Alonso's career. We saw what Alonso could do with an average Ferrari. And if he has the bombastic Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne breathing down his neck and bring out the best of him, McLaren could reclaim a good chunk of its former glory. I think each McLaren driver will get a podium in 2017 and I would surprised if they each ended up on the podium multiple times.

7. Max Verstappen is Alive for the Championship Entering Mexico
He might have pissed off his fair share of people in 2016 but Verstappen has all the talent in the world and I think he will be a championship contender. Verstappen has done a good job keeping the wheel on the car. Outside of an accident in drying conditions at Monaco and the Ferrari sandwich at La Source, Verstappen didn't throw away races through contact with barriers or other cars. If he continues keeping all four tires on the car and remains constantly finishing in the top five while increasing victories and podium finishes, you can't rule him out.

8. A Non-European Country Wins the Race Promoters' Trophy and It Is Not Mexico
The last European race to win the Race Promoters' Trophy was the Monaco Grand Prix in 2005 (Unless you count Russia in 2014 but Sochi is not on the European continent but Russia is generally accepted as a part of Europe and is a member of UEFA). I wonder why European races don't win it more often but I will write about that early in 2017. The Mexican Grand Prix has won the Race Promoters' Trophy and since the trophy was created in the 1975 season, only once has a race won in three consecutive years. That was the Australian Grand Prix from 1995-97. What race could usurp Mexico? If Austin brings Taylor Swift back, it could take the honors. Maybe Azerbaijan wins it, which like Russia, isn't on the European continent but is a member of UEFA. Could awarding it to Singapore or Malaysia entice those races to stay on the schedule for a few more years after both expressed wanting to withdraw from hosting a Formula One race?

9. At Least One Driver Loses a Race Seat Midseason Due to Financial Reasons
We have no idea who will be driving at Manor but Rio Haryanto is still in contention and that means he could end up running out of funding midseason again. I am also counting "financial reasons" as a manufacture getting one of its reserve drivers into a race seat. For example, if Felipe Nasr returns to Sauber and midseason Ferrari decides it wants to put Antonio Giovinazzi on the grid and decides to finagle Giovinazzi in for Marcus Ericsson or Nasr.

10. At Least Three Races Do Not Feature a Mercedes-Benz on the Front Row
In the last three seasons, only twice was Mercedes-Benz shutout from the front row (Austria 2014 and Singapore 2015). With the deck being shuffled with the new regulations, there will have to be a handful of races that Mercedes-Benz is just off and the likes of Red Bull or Ferrari will be on the ball. All dominant reigns come to an end and while I am not necessarily saying Mercedes-Benz is going to go from the top back to the middle of the pack but I think the teams grip will be loosened a bit.

11. We Will Not See a Standing Restart in 2017 and If We Do, Standing Restarts Will Be Removed From the Championship During the Season
I guess there will be standing restarts next season but unless everyone comes to their senses and reverses this before the start of the season, here is what I see happening: We have one race where the first two-thirds are green and then there is a safety car and the dirty side of the grid is covered in klag. Half the drivers will be forced to marinate their tires in the gunk and when the lights go out again drivers in second, fourth and sixth will be railroaded into turn one and drop to the last few points of positions or another big accident will be caused and leaves the right people fuming and it forces it to be dropped the same way the elimination qualifying format was dropped after a few rounds in 2016.

12. Nico Rosberg Does the Podium Interview at Least Once in 2017
He might be retired but that doesn't mean we won't see the 2016 World Drivers' Champion at a handful of races in 2017 and knowing FOM and Bernie Ecclestone, he will get Rosberg to do the podium interviews, especially if Lewis Hamilton wins the race. Plus, Rosberg will love to do it because he loves the spotlight even if the masses don't care for him and if anything he could see it as an attempt to make himself more likable.

Just like that, we are four-fifths of the way through predictions. Tomorrow will be come the final set of predictions and as you have probably figured out by now, it will be IndyCar predictions. Until then, enjoy the NASCAR, Et Cetera and sports car predictions as well.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2017 Sports Car Predictions

The 2017 sports car season will see a slew of changes. Audi is gone. Porsche is back in GTE. IMSA has a new prototype class and a couple new manufactures in GTD.  There are new LMP2 cars. Pirelli World Challenge will have a new race weekend format for half the season. But what else could happen?

1. WEC: Porsche Runs Three Cars at Le Mans
I know Porsche has said it won't be running a third car at Le Mans but I think Porsche is lying and with no Audi on the grid and Toyota likely to run a third entry, I think Porsche will want to enhance its odds of getting its 19th Le Mans victory and third on the trot. While I am at it, let's speculate that Fernando Alonso will be one of the drivers because there are no clashes with the 6 Hours of Spa, Le Mans test day or Le Mans and he wants to do it. I think Juan Pablo Montoya will be one of the drivers because he won't be busy and why not bring Nico Hülkenberg back?

2. Sébastien Buemi Gets Back on the Top Step of the Podium
The Swiss driver hasn't won in WEC since he and Anthony Davidson won the title in 2014. Toyota found its footing in 2016 but the Buemi-Davidson-Nakajima trio couldn't catch a break after a retirement, two finishes outside the top fifteen and the car stopping at Le Mans. With Porsche and Toyota down to two full-time entries each, numbers are in favor of Buemi winning at least one race.

3. Aston Martin Finally Wins the GTE-Am Title
Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda has finished in the top two of 12 of the last 17 races and dating back in 2014, Dalla Lana and Lamy have finished in the top two in 17 of 25 races. However, the team has yet to win a title. That has to end. This team won't get bit at Le Mans. They will still win a handful of races and now that Emmanuel Collard and François Perrodo are gone that is one less combination the team will have to worry about.

4. IMSA: Mazda Wins at Least Two Races
This is the prediction I feel least confident about. I am making it because Mazda came close to getting a handful of victories last year and I think they will correct that. At the same time, after watching how long it took Mazda to get its last prototype to a competitive level, I think this could be another season of Mazda sloshing along at the back behind the Cadillacs, Nissans and the global LMP2 cars.

5. Acura, Lexus and Mercedes-AMG All Win at Least Once in GTD
Lexus better win because the RC F GT3 was suppose to be on the grid in 2016 and it never got off the ground and I guess Scott Pruett and Sage Karam spent a lot of time testing the car. They should have been. Plus, Jack Hawskworth will be hungry and Robert Alon is a decent driver. Michael Shank Racing is a top-notch team and the two cars have stout driver line-ups of Oswaldo Negri-Katherine Legge and Andy Lally-Jeff Segal. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 is already a proven car and Riley Motorsports will field one and the WeatherTech Racing will field another.

6. Penske Enters a Car Late in the Season and Juan Pablo Montoya and Hélio Castroneves Are the Drivers
It seems like I should feel less confident about this prediction than the Mazda one but I think Penske will field a prototype but we won't see it until Laguna Seca at the earliest. I don't think Penske offered Montoya the Indianapolis 500 one-off and sports car ride if there wasn't a sports car ride. I think Castroneves will be the second driver because I think Castroneves' 2017 season will be what Montoya's 2016 season was. Castroneves will be phased out from IndyCar and still have a ride for the Indianapolis 500 but come 2018, he will be a full-time sports car driver and that career switch will start late in 2017.

7. ELMS: Racing Team Nederland Does Not Win a Race With Rubens Barrichello and Jan Lammers as Drivers
I am not sure you could get two older drivers in an LMP2 car. Barrichello is still only 44 but Lammers is 60 years old. I don't believe in these older driver line-ups. Lammers hasn't run prototypes seriously in almost a decade. There are a lot of stronger teams in ELMS and I am not sure a new team can enter and compete at the top of the class, although with the new LMP2 regulations maybe it opens the door but I could see either Lammers quit mid-year because he tires out or Barrichello strictly focus on Stock Car Brasil after the first few rounds.

8. At Least One Class has Four Different Entries Win a Race
In 2016, all three ELMS classes only had three winners. In LMP2, G-Drive, Thiriet by TDS and DragonSpeed were the winners. In LMP3, it was United Autosports, Graff and M.Racing - YMR were the winners. In GTE, Aston Martin Racing, JMW Motorsport and Proton Competition were the winners. I think one class will have at least four different winners in six races.

9. An AF Corse-operated Ferrari Finishes in the Top Three of the GTE Championship
AF Corse did not have a great year in 2016 in ELMS. The team's two entries finished fifth and seventh in the ELMS GTE championship. It is AF Corse. The team doesn't stay down that long. I think it will bounce back in 2016.

10. Pirelli World Challenge: The Sprint Champion is Different from the Sprint X Champions
I am not sure how championships will be handed out in PWC in 2017. Will it be like the Blancpain GT Series where a title is handed out for each format and then an overall title? PWC could do that. There could be PWC Sprint champions, Sprint X champions and an overall PWC champion for the top driver from the combination of the two. Either way, I am not sure if many teams or drivers will do both. Granted I think teams will end up running both since it doesn't make sense just to run the five sprint weekends. I don't think one team will have the same type of success in both. It's too unpredictable.

11. Ryan Dalziel is the Patrick Long of 2017
Patrick Long returned to PWC in 2016 and was a handful of corners away from winning the title. Ryan Dalziel will return to PWC in 2017 driving a Mercedes-AMG GT3 for CRP Racing. CRP Racing has been a competitive team in PWC and Dalziel has had his fair share of success in PWC. Nobody would be surprised if Dalziel is a title contender and I would almost lock him into finish in the top five of the championship.

12. American Manufactures Win at Least Eight GTS Races
GTS saw an influx of new vehicle as the KTM X-Bow GT4, SIN R1 GT4 and Ginetta G55 GT4 all entered the championship and won a handful of races. While the new vehicles from Europe had a fair amount of success, the American muscle stalwarts Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang still held their own. With the new Ford Mustang GT4 set to make its debut and Blackdog Speed Shop still being the top GTS team, I think the American makes can still have a good run in the championship although the competition just gets a little bit deeper as the McLaren 570S GT4 enters with Klenin Performance Racing.

We are halfway through predictions and expect another to come tomorrow. Until then, look back on the NASCAR predictions and Et Cetera predictions.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 Motorsports Christmas List

It is that time of year again and I don't know about you but it feels Christmas is getting here quicker than ever before. It won't be soon until the 2017 motorsports season gets rolling with the Dakar Rally and Supercross followed by a handful of endurance races from Dubai to Bathurst to Daytona and then NASCAR will be on track for Speedweeks and a few weeks after that a plethora of series such as Supercars, IndyCar and Formula One will be under way. Until then, let's hand out a few gifts that could make the 2017 a little bit better.

To Pocono Raceway: Wet-weather tires for ovals. That way it won't have to host three Monday races ever again.

Also to Pocono Raceway: A return for the 3/4-mile oval that way Indy Lights, silver crown, Pro Mazda, U.S. F2000 could run as support races to the IndyCar race. And I guess NASCAR could have the East Series run there on the Cup weekends.

With that out of the way, let's hand out series specific gifts and we will start with IndyCar:

To KV Racing/Carlin: Funding to keep that car on the grid for the 2017 season and be able to put a competent driver on the grid. Maybe someone like Sage Karam or Jack Hawksworth or RC Enerson.

To all other IndyCar teams: A smooth and affordable transition to the universal aero kit for the 2018 season and regulations that grandfather in all aero kit pieces from the 2015-2017 that way there is plenty of spare pieces for teams and it can help curb spending for not only full-time teams but Indianapolis 500 one-offs as well (this is for you Dreyer & Reinbold and Lazier Burns Racing).

Another gift for the to teams and many drivers: More horsepower and less downforce for the oval races, especially the short tracks of Phoenix, Iowa and Gateway. Because never has a fan said they want to see an oval race with cars low on horsepower and a push-to-pass button.

Now for some Formula One-related gifts:

A handful of races with three or four teams with at least one car in the fight coming toward the end of the race.

Spreading the races out so teams aren't frantically bouncing around the world.

Liberty Media Group not butchering the series and not taking the U.S. television coverage from NBC Sports.

Now some NASCAR-related gifts:

A minimum ride-height that gets the cars off being suction cupped to the race track and prevents cars from getting the front end torn off if a car spins through the grass.

The restrain not to turn the Brickyard 400 into a restrictor-plate race.

A return to Memphis International Raceway for the Grand National Series and the Truck Series.

To North American sports car racing:

The return of the Paul Revere 250. I am not sure what series it could run the race. IMSA is busy that weekend at Watkins Glen. PWC probably wouldn't be welcomed at Daytona. Continental Tires Sports Car Challenge? Maybe.

To IMSA DPi teams:

A class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

To Formula E:

Races between Thanksgiving and the beginning of March. Because it makes no sense to have one race in a four-and-a-half span. Maybe go to South Africa or Australia or New Zealand or somewhere in the Middle East.

To MotoGP:

What can you give to the series that already has everything? A return to Laguna Seca? And a round at Barber Motorsports Park. Yes. These have been on the Christmas list for a few years but until they happen they are staying on the list. How about I throw Dorna Sports a brain to realize giving beIN Sport the U.S. broadcast rights of MotoGP was moronic as now about 25 people can see the top motorsports series in the world?

To the FIA World Endurance Championship:

A round at Road America because Austin appears to be on its last legs.

Now for some driver-specific gifts:

To Fernando Alonso: A shot at Le Mans with Porsche.

To Jenson Button: Rides in the Suzuka 1000km, FIA World Rallycross and the Indianapolis 500.

To Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen: Brakes. Lots of brakes.

To Will Power: Diapers and baby wipes.

To Scott Dixon: A sponsor and a stunning livery.

To Oriol Servià: One final full season in IndyCar.

To Josef Newgarden: A NASCAR simulator seeing as how he will be in Cup within the next five years.

To Jimmie Johnson: A new trophy case. He might need it.

To Martin Truex, Jr.: Reliable engines when he needs them the most.

To Shane Van Gisbergen: His own private plane for all his traveling to and from Australia for races.

To Johnny O'Connell: An in-face apology from A.J. Foyt.

To Michael Shank and Katherine Legge: A Honda engine and a DW12 chassis for the Indianapolis 500.

To Antonio Giovinazzi: A shot in the Sauber seat.

To Alex Bowman: A full-time Cup ride.

To Adrien Tambay: Boxing lessons and a rematch with Olivier Panis.

To Nico Rosberg: A canoe. He is going to need a new hobby.

To Felix Rosenqvist: A shot in Formula One. Unfortunately, it will have to be at Manor but it is a start.

To Matthew Brabham: An LMP2 ride in either the WEC or ELMS because he is the top silver driver in world.

To Laguna Seca: Stability in operators. Just have it be a group that keeps the doors open and can figure out how to get the best out of the limited amount of events the track can hosts in a year.

To people who bought tickets to the Boston Grand Prix: A full refund.

To Nelson Piquet, Jr.: A ride in the Pau Grand Prix.

To Stewart-Haas Racing: Patience as the team switches to Ford.

To Andrew Palmer: A full-recovery from his injuries suffered at Lime Rock Park.

To Brian Scott, Tony Stewart, Mark Webber and Johnny Mowlem: Peaceful retirements.

And to the rest of you, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and hopefully an extended weekend seeing as how Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. Wherever you are, I hope you spend the holiday with the people you love the most and get to create many wonderful memories for years to come. Coming up for the final week of 2016 will be a few more sets of predictions for the 2017 season.

Merry Christmas from For The Love of Indy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

1000 Words: Grand Prix

Fifty years ago today, Formula One blasted before the eyes of people unlike ever before. Onboard shots, cameras hanging inches above the streets of Monaco, views of the interwork of the car as if someone peeled away the skin on a human and watched a heartbeat or digestive system turn breakfast into fuel. Grand Prix still grabs people today but what must it have been like to get an early Christmas present and to see this film on opening night.

It was a different era. If you were an American Formula One fan and I have to imagine there were very few in 1966, this film must have been heart stopping. You had an image of what a race looked like after possibly only having description of a race written in National Speed Sport News or some other publication. Television was still young and motorsports wasn't on every weekend like it is today. Most people were probably seeing cars thunder up Eau Rouge or brake into the hairpin at Monaco or fly on the banking of Monza for the first time. The legends of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier came to life. You got to see the red Ferraris, the British Racing Green Team Lotus entries, the tartan helmet of Jackie Stewart and the throngs of people who showed up to spend the Sunday on a hillside watching race cars zoom by.

What gets me is how much we don't see in Grand Prix. It feels like the film was going to be six hours long as only three of nine races had been covered by the time we reach the intermission. After that it is a brief visit to Zandvoort, blowing over the Nürburgring (we will touch on that in a moment), Watkins Glen and Mexico and then the film picks up with Brands Hatch and Monza.

Nürburgring film existed. The 27 reels of Nürburgring footage had to be turned over by director John Frankenheimer to Steve McQueen and director John Sturges (famous for directing The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape) who had their own project for a grand prix film, Day of the Champion. The McQueen/Sturges project never got off the ground and I still want to know what happened to those 27 reels of film. Were they destroyed? Are they somewhere in a Hollywood archive? Have they already been released and I have just missed them? I want to know if there is extra film of Watkins Glen and Mexico as well but there is something about the Nürburgring and the 14-plus miles that is mesmerizing. 

As much as Grand Prix is a fictionalized version of the 1966 Formula One season, it is a time capsule of the most dangerous era of racing. Hay bales separated the drivers from the harbor at Monaco. Spa-Francorchamps was an endless straightaway with farms as run off. Brands Hatch... well... Brands Hatch hasn't changed much. At least it doesn't appear it has. And then there is Monza, the incredibly fast track with the addition of a 2.6-mile high-banked oval. The actually 1966 season didn't run that layout but it had been used five years early. Many of the drivers with cameos wouldn't make it to the 10th anniversary of the film. John Taylor died on September 8, 1966 after injuries suffered at the Nürburgring. Lorenzo Baldini was killed at Monaco in 1967. Bob Anderson finished sixth in the 1966 Italian Grand Prix and died after a testing accident at Silverstone in August of 1967. The year 1968 saw Jim Clark, Mike Spence and Ludovico Scarfiotti all fatally injured in accidents. Bruce McLaren died in June 1970 and Jochen Rindt perished in September of that year. Jo Siffert lost his life in 1971 at Brands Hatch. Jo Bonnier died at Le Mans in 1972. For perspective of the era, twenty drivers scored points in the 1966 season and all ten of those drivers scored at least a point in the 1966 season. 

While Taylor died during the filming of Grand Prix, he succumbed a month after the accident. What would have happened if the film had been made a year later? Would the project have survived beyond Monaco had it been the year Baldini was killed?

Beyond the racing scenes, the backstory features people looking for comfort in such a stressful and uncertain environment and most of the time the comfort came in the arms of someone other than their current lover. Pete Aron (played by James Garner) plays the calm American who only wants to race. He loses his ride and is immediately looking for a way back in even if it is with Izo Yamura's (played by Toshiro Mifune) team, a fairly new and unproven entity on the grid. Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) chased his deceased brother's success and that urgency nearly killed him and cost him his marriage to his wife Pat (Jessica Walter) for a brief period. The Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is toward the end of his career but still at the top, however he no longer fancies the series that has given him all his riches and posh lifestyle. As an escape and the start of his transition away from his racing life, Sarti falls for an American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eve Maria Saint) whose knowledge of the sport is zilch. Then there is the up-and-coming Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabàto) on the verge of success at a very young age who has turned the woman he met in a club after Monaco, Lisa (Françoise Hardy) into a girlfriend only to lose her on the eve of his home grand prix with a world championship in his grasp. 

The film asks us motorsports enthusiasts the hard questions; the ones we don't prepare answers for but know exist. As Pat leaves Hotel de Paris a crowd of people flock from overlooking the race track to something arriving screen right. At the proposed thought that there has been an accident, unbeknownst to her that it is her husband, she responds to no one in particular as a few hotel guests in the entrance gather around her, "that's what they come for: See someone get killed." Was that true? Is it true today or has enough danger been sucked out of the sport that it isn't worth the time?

In the final scenes of the film, after Sarti's accident left him tangled in the trees at Monza, Louise rushes to the ambulance to see her dying lover only to be kept from the ambulance as Sarti's wife rides with her husband and shares with him his final moments on Earth. Hysterically crying only to be consoled by one of the thousand of strangers who surrounded the ambulance to get one final view of the dying champion, she holds her blood covered hands up to the crowd and cameras yelling "is this what you want?" three times before collapsing in a despondent state. I wonder how the audience absorbed that scene in 1966. Did it turn people off from motorsports all together? 

The film leaves me with a couple of questions even if it seems ridiculous to ponder about a film after the screen goes black. After all, it is fiction. None of it happened. Once the screen goes black, the story ends and the characters vanish. Louise doesn't have to try to live on after the passing of the man he fell in love with. There is no point of wondering if the other families in the paddock console even though she was only Sarti's mistress. Does she resume her life of independence and dive back into her work?

What does Lisa do? She doesn't dance, she doesn't drink and she doesn't smoke. What does she do? Maybe it is obvious to everyone else but I still can't figure out.

How long do Aron and Stoddart continue racing after the 1966 season? Neither were spring chickens like Barlini. Aron could have retired right there among the sea of tifosi at Monza as world champion. Stoddart could have done the same as vice-champion. Stoddart at the end of the film appeared to reach the level of consciousness Nico Rosberg reached this year but perhaps Stoddart made it to a level higher as he seemed content even if he didn't win the world title while Rosberg says he would have continued into 2017 had he not won the title. What would Aron's life look like in retirement? The words of Pat rings true. All we know about him is he drive cars. Does he find love? Can he find something beyond racing to infatuate his life? Broadcasting clearly wasn't suited for him.

It is a film that couldn't be made today but not because of red tape and contractual conflicts and budget but because we have enough Formula One as it is. We have 21 races, multiple onboard cameras each race, half hour pre-race shows, podium interviews done by Elton John and Gerard Butler and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat to follow drivers off the track. Besides, what would a fictionalized version of the 2016 Formula One season look like especially when the reality is so well known? How could we create a storyline to convince people that Mercedes had a tight title fight with Ferrari or Red Bull or McLaren or Williams? Could we even convince people that an American was on the grid?

Fifty years on and Grand Prix is the best racing film. Le Mans is also great. Winning is good. Rush holds its own against Grand Prix and Le Mans. The reason Grand Prix stands above the rest is because it is sophisticated enough for Formula One fans and yet explains the nuance of it for the general public without seeming elementary. It is a film for all aspiring directors of racing films to shoot for. You got to have something to shoot for.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2017 Et Cetera Predictions

Not every championship and motorsport discipline can have its own set of predictions but sometimes it is nice to mix it up and with Christmas a few days away, why not have smorgasbord of predictions to ponder?

1. MotoGP: There Will be at Least Six Different Winners
After having a record nine different winners in MotoGP, you can't expect that feat to be matched but it is hard to think any fewer than six will win in 2017. Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, and Maverick Viñales all seem like locks for at least one victory. Jorge Lorenzo joins Andrea Dovizioso at Ducati and both of them could win a race. Andrea Iannone moves to Suzuki and if he can keep the bike up, he could win a race. We saw privateer riders Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow win in 2016. They could do it again and maybe another privateer riders such as Danilo Petrucci or Johann Zarco could win a race.

2. Indy Lights: The Top Five From Indy Lights in 2016 Combine to Make Fewer Than 32 Indy Lights Starts in 2017
Ed Jones has moved to IndyCar with Dale Coyne Racing. Santiago Urrutia's career appears to be uncertain. Dean Stoneman has said he has no interest in a second season in Lights. Kyle Kaiser will return for a third season. Zach Veach is 22 years old but not many drivers run four seasons in Indy Lights. The 2017 schedule features 16 races so you can pencil in Kaiser for 16 races. If Urrutia, Stoneman or Veach decide to take one more crack at the scholarship to get to IndyCar then 32 starts will be reached.

3. DTM: Edoardo Mortara Accounts for Less Than 50% of Mercedes-Benz's Victories
After winning five races and finishing runner-up in the championship with Audi, Mortara has moved to Mercedes-Benz for the 2017 season. Mercedes-Benz had a rough 2016 season and won only four times with Robert Wickens being responsible for two of the victories and Paul di Resta and Lucas Auer responsible for the others. I am not sure Mortara can be a championship contender at Mercedes-Benz, especially if he only wins once or twice.

4. Supercars: Simona de Silvestro Gets at Least Two Top Ten Finishes but Finishes Outside the Top Twenty in the Championship
The former IndyCar and former Sauber reserve driver will compete full-time with Nissan in Supercars next year after starting the Bathurst 1000 the last two years. There are almost 30 races in a Supercars season. Two top tens are doable, however, I think she will struggle because many racers coming from Europe or single-seaters struggle in Supercars and Nissan isn't the best manufacture. Alexandre Prémat ran two full seasons in Supercars and he didn't get his first top ten finish until the first race of his second season. De Silvestro had a good showing at Bathurst this year but I don't expect her to be a contender each week in 2017.

5. World Superbike: Alex Lowes Becomes the Next British Winner
The last few years in World Superbike has been dominated by British riders. Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea have combined to win three of the last four championships and won 75 races in that time period, including having won 50 of the last 52 races over the last two seasons. Lowes races for Yamaha, which finished fifth last year in the manufactures' championship in its first season back in the championship since 2011. I think year two goes much better and Lowes joins the likes of Rea, Sykes and Chaz Davies as Brits winning in World Superbike.

6. World Supersport: Niki Tuuli Finishes in the Top Three of the Championship
The Finn made three starts in the 2016 season. He finished second-place in all three races. He will contest the 2017 season with Kallio Racing Yamaha. He is only 21 years old but he seems to be the real deal and I think he could take the championship by storm in 2017.

7. Blancpain GT: The Championship Winning Team Does Not Have Black in it Country's Flag
This is the overall Blancpain GT Series championship by the way. I think either Garage 59 or Bentley Team M-Sport or GRT Grasser Racing Team or maybe even Strakka Racing can hold over the formidable Belgian Audi Club Team WRT and HTP Motorsport.

8. Asian Le Mans: Jackie Chan DC Racing Sweep the LMP2 and LMP3 Championships
This isn't the boldest prediction but after sweeping each class victory at the season opener at Zhuhai, neither car won at Fuji and the team is currently second in LMP3 trailing Tockwith Motorsport by four points. I think the team will flex its muscle at Buriram and Sepang in both classes.

9. Super Formula: Non-Japanese Drivers Win at Least Five Races
In 2016, Stoffel Vandoorne won twice and João Paulo de Oliveira won once and Japanese driver won the other six races. André Lotterer was held winless in Super Formula for the first time since 2008. James Rossiter's best finish was fifth. Narain Karthikeyan had one podium. Vandoorne is heading to Formula One but GP2 champion Pierre Gasly will take his place. I think he could win a race or two. I think Lotterer rebounds and wins at least two races. De Oliveira is always good for at least one victory. I wouldn't be surprised if Lotterer and Gasly are battling for the championship at the final round.

10. Super GT: An All-Japanese Pairing Finishes in the Top Three of the GT500 Championship
The top three in the 2016 GT500 championship all featured a European driver. The top all-Japanese pairing was Yuhi Sekiguchi and Yuji Kunimoto of the #19 Lexus who were fourth in the championship. The #24 Kondo Racing Nissan of Daiki Sasaki and Masataka Yanagida won twice but three finishes outside the points dropped them to seventh in the championship. Should the driver pairings remain unchanged either of those two teams could finish in the top three.

11. WTCC: There is a First Time Champion in 2017
José María López is gone. Yvan Muller finished second in the championship but only won once in 2016. Who knows if Rob Huff or Gabriele Tarquini will return. I think 2017 could be the year Tiago Montiero wins the title.

12. WRC: Four Different Manufactures Win a Rally in 2017
I said Ford would win in 2016 and Ford didn't win. Now that Sébastien Ogier has signed with M-Sport, I definitely think Ford will win at least a rally in 2017. I am not sure if Hyundai are a sure thing to pick up where Volkswagen left off and dominate the championship but Hyundai should win a handful of rallies and should be favorites for the title. I think Citroën could produce a title contender, maybe even Kris Meeke. Jari-Matti Latvala moves to Toyota and although he didn't have a great 2016 season, he might find new life at Toyota.

Round two of predictions are in the book. Don't forget to check out the NASCAR predictions. More predictions will come next week.

Monday, December 19, 2016

2016 For The Love of Indy Awards

With Christmas less than a week away, it is time to reflect on the top moments from the 2016 season in motorsports. There were moments of greatest, moments of absurdity and some of each will have us talking for years to come. Some overcame the odds and others added to their legacy. It was another year full of surprises even though you thought you have seen it all before. With out any more hesitation, let's dive into the year that was 2016.

Racer of the Year
Description: Given to the best racer over the course of 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Simon Pagenaud
Lando Norris
Pipo Derani
Shane van Gisbergen
Nico Rosberg

And the winner is... Shane van Gisbergen
The New Zealander switched to Red Bull Racing Australia and in his first season with the team he won eight races and had 18 podium finishes on his way to winning the Supercars championship. He ended his championship season with ten consecutive podium finishes. That wasn't the only title van Gisbergen took in 2016. He started the year with a victory in the Bathurst 12 Hour and competed in the Blancpain Endurance Series with Garage 59. In the Blancpain Endurance Series, van Gisbergen with Rob Bell and Côme Ledogar won at Monza and Paul Ricard and took the championship with 68 points, winning the title by one point. Van Gisbergen

On the other nominees:
Simon Pagenaud dominated the IndyCar season in an important sophomore season with Team Penske. He came back from a lack of results in 2015 and was head and shoulders above the field, leading the championship from the second race of the season to the end.

Lando Norris might not be a name most of you know, especially if you are in North America, but he won three championships in 2016, all before his 17th birthday! He started 2016 by winning the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, where he won six of 15 races and had 11 podium finishes. In Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, Norris won five of 15 races and had 12 podium finishes. Finally, he took the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC title with six victories and 11 podium finishes in 15 races. Talk about consistency and he will run European Formula Three next year for Carlin. Keep an eye and ear out for Lando Norris.

Pipo Derani had two spectacular outings with Extreme Speed Motorsports to start the 2016 season with victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. He would score four podium finishes in the LMP2 class in the FIA World Endurance Championship season. In the final two North American Endurance Cup rounds, Derani and ESM had a great run going at Watkins Glen before retiring due to a mechanical issue and finished second at Petit Le Mans.

Nico Rosberg won the World Drivers' Championship for the first time in his career and he started the season with four consecutive victories. He added five more victories during the season, including victories at Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Suzuka. He rounded out his championship season with nine consecutive podium finishes, bringing his total for the season up to 16 from 21 races.

Past Winners
2012: Kyle Larson
2013: Marc Márquez
2014: Marc Márquez
2015: Nick Tandy

Race of the Year
Description: Best Race of 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Firestone 600
Dutch TT
Spanish Grand Prix
24 Hours of Daytona
Mexican Grand Prix

And the winner is... Spanish Grand Prix
There isn't a race this year that had more people talking and frankly we are still talking about it. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton got together and who knows what was said behind closed doors. How close was Hamilton to walking away? How much does he think about that moment as well as Malaysia as points drops when he felt he could have won the championship? But that moment created an opportunity. Once we got passed "oh shit" we realized "oh shit, Mercedes isn't going to win." When the race restarted, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, Jr. were 1-2-3. From that point on we saw the Formula One race Formula One wants. Tire strategy shuffled the deck and produced anything but a predictable result. Verstappen ended up in the lead on a two-stop strategy but with a fierce Kimi Räikkönen stalking the teenager lap after lap but unable to get by even with the aid of DRS. Verstappen ended up becoming the youngest grand prix winner and has left us wondering what his future holds.

On the other nominees...
For how odd the Firestone 600 was, it turned out to be a exhilarating IndyCar race. Forget the fact the race started on the first Sunday in June and ended on the final Saturday in August but the race featured what Texas races have become: depending on getting the right set-up for tire preservation. James Hinchcliffe waltzed away from the pack and controlled most of the race but had Ed Carpenter claw his way back into the battle. After a string of cautions, the race came down to a shootout between Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud with Rahal winning the race by 0.0080 seconds, the fifth-closest finish in IndyCar history and Kanaan finished in third, 0.0903 seconds behind Rahal.

The Dutch TT featured a red flag and over a third of the field falling off in the rain. You couldn't help but hold your breathe as the riders tried to survive the conditions. The rain opened the door for Jack Miller on the privateer Marc VDS Racing Honda to beat Marc Márquez on the factory bike, the first privateer winner in MotoGP in almost a decade. Quick sidebar on why I also loved this race: I was with family the day of this race and my grandmother was in the room and she had never watched a MotoGP race before and she thoroughly enjoyed this race.

Arguably the first major race of 2016 was also one of the best races of 2016. The 24 Hours of Daytona featured three of four classes coming down to the final lap with the GTLM battle between the Corvettes highlighting the closing minutes. Not only did the Prototype class, GTLM and GTD classes come down to the final lap but all three podiums had all three teams finish on the lead lap in class.

While it wasn't the Spanish Grand Prix, the Mexican Grand Prix was just as controversial but enthralling. The Mercedes were gone but the battle tightened up for third. Sebastian Vettel closed in on Max Verstappen and heading into turn one Verstappen cut the course and kept the position as Vettel attempted to overtake. A few laps later, Daniel Ricciardo closed in on Vettel and attempted a move into turn five only to have Vettel shut the door on him and leaving the Australian locking up his tires. Once the checkered flag came out, Verstappen drove to parc férme after finishing third only to find out he had been handed a five-second penalty, dropping him behind Vettel and Ricciardo. Vettel got to stand before the crowd and be handed the third-place trophy. Hours later, Vettel suffered a ten-second penalty for his block on Ricciardo, dropping the German to fifth and elevating Ricciardo to the podium and Verstappen to fourth.

Past Winners
2012: Indianapolis 500
2013: British motorcycle Grand Prix
2014: Bathurst 1000
2015: Australian motorcycle Grand Prix

Achievement of the Year
Description: Best success by a driver, team, manufacture, etc.
And the Nominees are:
Haas F1 scoring points on debut
Martin Truex, Jr. leading 392 of 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600
Jamie Whincup's 100th Supercars Victory
Corvette's 100th Victory at Lime Rock Park
Nine Different Winners in MotoGP in 2016
Jimmie Johnson's 7th Championship

And the winner is... Jimmie Johnson's 7th Championship
It is hard to beat joining legends. When the only two at the table are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and you pull up a chair, no one else can hold a candle to what you have done. Say what you want about the format but at the end of the day the goal is to get the trophy and for the seventh-time Jimmie Johnson found a way to be the last one standing. At 41 years old, Johnson will have maybe another half-a-dozen chances to have the table all to himself.

On the other nominees...
I think we all had our fingers crossed that Haas F1 wouldn't be embarrassed in year one and all those fears went away in race one. The red flag for the Fernando Alonso-Esteban Gutiérrez incident left Romain Grosjean as the team's only car remaining but he was in ninth and was able to change tires under red flag conditions. Once back to green flag racing, a few team made additional pit stops while Grosjean stayed out until the end and finished sixth on Haas F1's debut.

We don't see many flag-to-flag dominating runs in NASCAR anymore and rarely to we see it occur in 500-mile races let the only 600-mile race. Martin Truex, Jr. led 588 of 600 miles on Memorial Day weekend. No one came close to him all night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 392 laps led is a record for the 600-mile race and this year's race was the fastest 600-mile race at Charlotte.

The century mark is meaningful in many sports. Wilt Chamberlain holds the NBA record for points in a game at 100. Fans still raise their eyebrows when a pitcher hits 100 MPH on the radar gun. Racing is no different. When it comes to victories, most never get close to 100 in major series. In NASCAR, only Richard Petty and David Pearson crossed that milestone. In Supercars, Craig Lowndes surpassed 100 victories last season and his teammate Whincup joined him in that rarified air this year. Let's not forget to mention that Whincup is 33 years old and Lowndes got there the day before his 41st birthday.

In the same vain as Whincup, Corvette Racing hit the century mark after winning at Lime Rock Park. Some will be cynical because for a period in the American Le Mans Series the GT1 class was the two Corvettes but the team has eight Le Mans victories, ten Sebring victories and has won the 24 Hours of Daytona three times including the last two years.

It is one thing to want a championship to be unpredictable. Then there was the 2016 MotoGP season. Nine different riders from six teams and four manufactures won a race in 2016. Not only did the nearly ten-year streak without a privateer team winning a race come to an end but two privateer teams won in 2016. Heck, last-place in teams' championship won a race (Marc VDS).

Past Winners
2012: DeltaWing
2013: Sebastian Vettel for winning nine consecutive races on his way to a fourth consecutive title
2014: Marc Márquez: Setting the record for most wins in a premier class season.
2015: Justin Wilson Memorial Family Auction

Moment of the Year
Description: The Most Memorable Moment in the World of Racing during the 2016 season.
And the Nominees are:
Alexander Rossi Wins 100th Indianapolis 500
Toyota Slows at Le Mans
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Ends Season Early
Felipe Massa Serenaded by Home Fans at Interlagos
Audi's 1-2 Farewell at Bahrain

And the winner is... Toyota Slows at Le Mans
It seemed certain. The headlines were written. Stories were about to be posted. T-shirts and hats were likely ready to be broken out a box and passed around a garage. Then the #5 Toyota fell off the pace and car after car went by and while Kazuki Nakajima tried to reboot the car it became clear the victory, the glory was slipping from Toyota and then the car stopped just after start/finish line with a lap to go and the #2 Porsche went by in what appeared to be unfathomable five minutes earlier. The motorsports world stopped. No one could believe it and then the realization that even after the #5 Toyota restarted, it wouldn't be classified, let alone on the podium because it failed to compete the final lap within the maximum lap time. It overshadowed Formula One's twilight holiday on the Caspian Sea. The shock comes back to me thinking about those final minutes. I am still processing it and it happened six months ago.

On the other nominees...
The 100th Indianapolis 500 was always going to be memorable to having a rookie win the race by coasting across the line with a final lap average just over 179 MPH was not in any script, especially the few races held during the DW12-era. Alexander Rossi's career will never be the same and I think he doesn't mind.

You never want to see someone sidelined because of an injury. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ended his season in July after suffering from concussion-like symptoms and it has left many fans holding their breath over his return. It also showcased the face of NASCAR putting his health over on-track success making you wonder if this is the start of a trend.

Felipe Massa's final race at Interlagos ended with him in the barrier after hydroplaning. What followed was the Brazilian being honored by his fellow Brazilians as he walked back to the garage. It was a standing ovation unlike any other in racing. Most drivers don't get that moment when a career ends. Normally it is a driver quietly riding off into the sunset but Massa's unfortunate spin allowed the fans to show their appreciation to him when he was out of the car, out from behind the protection of helmet and visor and the only man on stage.

Audi has dominated sports car racing for nearly two decades and when the manufacture announced its intentions to pull out of LMP1, the team had yet to stand on the top step of the podium in what had been one of its most difficult seasons. In its final act, Audi went out and had one more beat down. One final 1-2 finish to cap over what was a dominating reign.

Past Winners
2012: Alex Zanardi
2013: 24 Hours of Le Mans
2014: Post-race at the Charlotte and Texas Chase races.
2015: Matt Kenseth vs. Joey Logano

Pass of the Year
Description: Best pass of 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Dean Stoneman in the Freedom 100 outside of Ed Jones
Pipo Derani on Felipe Albuquerque in turn 7 at Sebring under 8 minutes to go
Pipo Derani on Dane Cameron, the lap after the pass on Albuquerque in the same corner
Daniel Ricciardo on Valterri Bottas at Monza
Scott McLaughlin on Mark Winterbottom at Surfers Paradise
Lucas di Grassi on Jérôme d'Ambrosio in turn one of Mexico ePrix

And the winner is... Scott McLaughlin on Mark Winterbottom at Surfers Paradise
I don't know if you could ask for a much better pass. McLaughlin had four wheels locked up, sliding into the corner. He appeared destined for retirement in the tires and yet he slowed it down enough to make the corner, kissed his backside on Winterbottom's front bumper and hit the gas and pulled away from the Ford driver. It went from bonehead to brilliant in three seconds.

On the other nominees...
Stoneman's pass isn't running in the draft, making the move and slamming the door shut on the way by but it is a move to the outside and holding momentum through turns three and four and to the finish line. Had Stoneman decided to stay behind Jones into three, I am not sure he would have had the momentum off of turn four to make it pass the Emirati driver.

Both of Derani's passes are memorizing. First, he catches Audi driver-on-loan Felipe Albuquerque by surprise to get second. Albuquerque appeared like he was caught with his pants on the ground. Then the next lap, Cameron must have been told of the move Derani made and Cameron appears to dare Derani to try it again and Derani does, catching Cameron's bluff and elevating him to another historic victory.

Another pass out of nowhere was Ricciardo on Bottas in turn one at Monza. It isn't that he made the pass but he dove up the inside, kept it on the road and didn't force Bottas off course.

You might see a theme in these nominees but di Grassi, like McLaughlin, like Derani and like Ricciardo were ballsy moves up the inside, locking it up and doing it without contact or going wide. Unfortunately for di Grassi, he was disqualified but the move was still impressive.

Past Winners
2012: Simon Pagenaud at Baltimore
2013: Robert Wickens at Nürburgring and Peter Dempsey in the Freedom 100
2014: Ryan Blaney on Germán Quiroga
2015: Laurens Vanthoor from 4th to 2nd on the outside in the Bathurst 12 Hour

The Eric Idle Award
Description: "When You're Chewing on Life's Gristle, Don't Grumble, Give a Whistle, And This'll Help Things Turn Out For The Best, and...  Always Look On The Bright Side of Life."
And the Nominees are:
Pocono Raceway
Patrick Long
Santiago Urrutia
William Byron

And the winner is... Toyota
When the 24 Hours of Le Mans slips from you in the final five minutes, no other heartache compares.

On the other nominees...
It is one thing to have one race delayed by rain. It is another to have all three races in three different months across two different series moved to Monday by rain. Pocono Raceway had that happen. Not to mention the track's second NASCAR race was shortened due to fog. Things can only get better in 2017.

Patrick Long was second and all he had to do was finish second and he had room between him and championship rival Álvaro Parente. Long decided to go for the race victory and went off the road after slight contact with Johnny O'Connell and fell from second to fifth, only to be elevated for fourth after O'Connell was penalized for the contact.

Laguna Seca was a sight for a few heartbreaks in 2016. Santiago Urrutia had the Indy Lights title in his in second-place. He couldn't catch Zach Veach for the victory and on the final lap Ed Jones passed teammate Félix Serrallés for fourth, elevating him passed Urrutia for the championship by two points. Now the Uruguayan's single-seater career could be over and he could have to race touring cars in Argentina. It might not all be bad. José María López resurrected his career in touring cars in Argentina.

William Byron was bound to be championship-eligible in the final race of the NASCAR Truck Series but his engine failed while leading with nine laps to go after leading 112 laps of 141 laps to that point. He fell to 27th and missed on advancing to the final race by 15 points.

Past Winners
2012: Ben Spies
2013: Sam Hornish, Jr.
2014: Alexander Rossi
2015: McLaren

Comeback of the Year
Description: The Best Comeback in the 2016 season.
And the Nominees are:
Ryan Hunter-Reay from a lap down to 3rd at Pocono in the final 25 laps
Tommy Milner from fifth to first in GTLM in final five minutes at Road America
Antonio Giovinazzi winning GP2 feature race at Monza from 21st on the grid
Max Verstappen from 15th to 3rd in the final 18 laps in the wet in the Brazilian Grand Prix
Nicolas Lapierre winning the FIA WEC LMP2 title two years after being released by Toyota's LMP1 program

And the winner is... Max Verstappen from 15th to 3rd in the final 18 laps in the wet in the Brazilian Grand Prix
When you consider Verstappen spun in this race and nearly collided with the barrier, the fact he finished at all is incredible but then he and most of other drivers in the race made the wrong decision to switch to intermediate tires and Verstappen made the decision later than others. He came back in for full wet-weather tires and that is where the fun begins. He made passes that made others appear to be standing still. He flew by on the outside at the bottom of the Senna "S". His car twitched but he kept it straight on the drive to the front. You couldn't help but think if he had stayed on the full wet-weather tires he could have given Lewis Hamilton a run for the race victory.

On the other nominees...
I was at Pocono and once Hunter-Reay slowed down after taking the lead exiting turn two, all eyes turned to him as he coasted into the pit road only to re-fire the car and get back on the track but a lap down. A fortunate caution put him back on the lead lap and you couldn't help but watch him go from 12th to 3rd. It was a dazzling and inspiring performance.

The final five minutes at Road America couldn't have been gnarlier. The GTLM field stacked up on one another and as a few cars ran wide, Nick Tandy spun, Toni Vilander was spun by a prototype and Milner picked his way to the front of the class and passed Richard Westbrook on the final lap heading into turn five.

Antonio Giovinazzi qualified second for the feature race at Monza but was sent to the back of the grid after tire pressure violations. He picked off a few spots and benefitted from an accident that moved him up the order but he made the pass for second on Gustav Malja with two laps to go and Raffaele Marciello on the final lap for the lead and victory.

Nicolas Lapierre's career suffered a big set back in 2014 when he was released by the team despite being in the championship leading entry. After a successful stint as a part-time driver with KCMG in LMP2 last year, which included class victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Lapierre returned to full-time competition in 2016 with Signatech and he along with Gustavo Menezes and Stéphane Richelmi blew the doors off of LMP2, winning four rounds including Le Mans on the way to the title.

Past Winners
2013: Michael Shank Racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona
2014: Juan Pablo Montoya to IndyCar
2015: Kyle Busch

Most Improved
Description: Racer Who Improved The Most from 2015 to 2016.
And the Nominees are:
Maverick Viñales: From 12th to 4th with a victory and four podiums.
Simon Pagenaud: From 11th to champion with five victories, seven pole positions and eight podiums.
Oliver Gavin/Tommy Milner: From 8th and two podiums to champions with four victories and seven podiums.
Pierre Gasly: From 8th to champion and getting his first victory in almost three years.
McLaren: From 9th on 27 points to 6th on 76 points.
Extreme Speed Motorsports: From 7th and 8th in WEC LMP2 to 4th and 5th and victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring.

And the winner is... Simon Pagenaud
A ten-position jump and one in which Simon Pagenaud dominated the season. He became the first driver to finish on the podium in the first five races to start an IndyCar season since Sébastien Bourdais in 2006 and it was the 11th such occurrence. From a driver who seemed lost in 2015, it could be argued that no driver was more in control of a championship in 2016 than Pagenaud in IndyCar. Even when it appeared the title was slipping from him, Pagenaud responded with an emphatic victory at Mid-Ohio or coming out of nowhere to find him fighting for the victory at Texas. Pagenaud got into Will Power's head in the final few races and even after Power retired from the finale, handing the title to the Frenchman, Pagenaud closed his championship season in style with a victory.

On the other nominees...
Maverick Viñales was sort of a revelation in MotoGP in 2016 as he carried Suzuki make to top as the manufacture won for the first time since in over nine years. Viñales will move to Yamaha for the 2017.

Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner might have had a disappointing 2015 season but a victory at Le Mans did kind of make up for it. This season however turned out to feature more rounded success.

Red Bull junior driver Pierre Gasly was starting to lose his shine at 20 years old. After finishing second to Carlos Sainz, Jr. in the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, Gasly had a somewhat disappointing 2015 season, where his teammate Alex Lynn beat him in the championship. This season didn't start well but he found his footing, got back to the top step of the podium and ended up winning the championship by seven points over teammate Antonio Giovinazzi.

McLaren weren't a world-beater in 2016 but after watching the difficult struggle of 2015, this season was much better. It wasn't great and it is still a rough patch for McLaren but the team is making steps in the right directions.

Extreme Speed Motorsports had very few things go right in 2015 but 2016 couldn't have started with any bigger of a bang with a win Daytona followed by a win at Sebring. The team might not have won a WEC race but both cars were more competitive and the team returns to full-time IMSA competition off a substantial wave of momentum.

Past Winners
2012: Esteban Guerrieri
2013: Marco Andretti
2014: Chaz Mostert
2015: Graham Rahal

And there you have it. Once again, congratulations to all the champions and race winners during 2016. As always, I am grateful for everyone who has read this post and has been reading throughout 2016 and thank you to all of you who have been reading since the beginning in 2012. I look forward to another year and more 2017 predictions will be out over the final two weeks of the year.

Friday, December 16, 2016

2017 NASCAR Predictions

The first set of 2017 predictions is here and we will look at NASCAR's top three divisions. Heading into 2017, Cup has a new title sponsor, there is a new rule to prevent Cup drivers from moonlighting in the lower divisions and more races will be starting later in the day than ever before.

1. Toyota Does Not Repeat as Manufactures' Champions in Cup
The Japanese manufacture ended Chevrolet's 13-year reign as top manufacture in the Cup series as the manufacture won 16 of 36 races to Chevrolet's 12 victories and Ford's eight victories. Toyota's margin of victory in the manufactures' championship was 25 points. I think Toyota will still be competitive and winning races but it is a numbers game and Toyota is looking at eight full-time cars, two of which belong to BK Racing. I think Hendrick Motorsports doesn't have that rough patch in the summer. Ford bulked up its lineup with Stewart-Haas Racing. The four Joe Gibbs Racing and two Furniture Row Racing entries are good but I think they take a step back and end up losing the manufactures' championship but by a close margin.

2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Makes it to the Semifinal Round of the Chase
After having his 2016 season ended prematurely at Kentucky, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will return to full-time competition. Many are skeptical of his return especially with his history of concussions and many are concerned one big hit could end his career on the spot. However, I think Earnhardt, Jr. will pick up on where he left off. He was in position for a Chase spot when he was sidelined and I think he will drive smarter than ever. If he gets a victory early in the season, say before the All-Star break, the summer will be more about avoiding hairy situations and bringing the car home in one piece. Once he is in the Chase it is a crapshoot but I think his smart driving can get him to be one of the final eight.

3. Stewart-Haas Racing has Fewer Victories, Top Ten Finishes and Drivers in the Chase than 2016
After being a Chevrolet team dating back to the 2004 season after being a Pontiac team in Haas CNC Racing's first season the year before, Stewart-Haas Racing moves to Ford for 2017. Ford was the bottom three of the manufactures but also lacked depth. Outside of Penske, Ford's only other victory in 2016 was Chris Buescher's victory in the shortened Pocono race. Roush Fenway Racing hasn't won in two years. Richard Petty Motorsports had one top five and two top tens finishes in all of 2016. Stewart-Haas taking a step back isn't just because Ford might be down on Chevrolet and Toyota but transitions take time. Penske left Dodge after 2012 and moved to Ford and the team went from five victories to two and defending champion Brad Keselowski missed the Chase. Stewart-Haas Racing had six victories, 57 top ten finishes and three drivers in the Chase in 2016. Tony Stewart is gone and Clint Bowyer is coming off a disastrous season with HScott Motorsports but hasn't won in the last four seasons and scored fewer and fewer top five finishes and top ten finishes over that time. Kevin Harvick seems to be a lock for a Chase and Kurt Busch is consistent enough to make it. Outside of that, the team's first year with Ford could be a headache.

4. Jimmie Johnson is Fourth All-Time in Cup Victories by the End of 2017
By winning at Homestead, Jimmie Johnson capped his 2016 season not only with his seventh championship but with his 80th victory making him the seventh driver all-time to reach that mark in the Cup series. He is three victories behind Cale Yarborough and four victories behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. He needs five victories in 2017 to reach fourth all-time. By winning three of the final seven races, Johnson ended 2016 with five victories, the most in the Cup series, making it the second consecutive season he won five races. In his 15 full seasons in NASCAR, Johnson has won five races or more in a season ten times. Even though he is 41 years you don't expect Johnson to slow down.

5. Less Than Five of the Chase Drivers are Different From 2016
The 2016 Chase saw five new drivers from 2015. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher in. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer out. Looking at the 2016 Chase drivers, I can't see more than four not making it back. We know Tony Stewart won't be in the 2017 Chase so that is one spot. It is likely Chris Buescher won't qualify in 2017. Outside of that, it isn't just who won't make it but who will make it? Kasey Kahne has failed to make the Chase the last two seasons. Ryan Newman hasn't won since Indianapolis 2013 and had two top five finishes last season. Ryan Blaney could steal a race victory. Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon finished 13th and 14th in 2016 and led between them 17 laps, all 17 laps Dillon were responsible for.

6. AJ Allmendinger Makes The Chase
The JTG Daugherty Racing had two top five finishes and nine top ten finishes in 2016 but as long as there are two road course races, Allmendinger has a shot at the Chase and eventually he will breakthrough again. However, not only does Allmendinger run well on road courses but short tracks. He finished second at Martinsville in the spring. He started in the top ten at both Martinsville races, both Bristol races, and at Richmond and Loudon as well as both road course races and Kansas. A few drivers will make the Chase on points. Allmendinger could find himself in one of those spots even if he doesn't win a race.

7. Erik Jones' Average Starting Position is 3.5 Points Lower than His Average Finish
Jones won the most races last year in NASCAR's second division and averaged a starting position of 3.1, the best of the full-time drivers. However, Jones' average finish was 11.6, the worst of the top four drivers in the championship. Furniture Row Racing is coming off a tremendous season with Martin Truex, Jr. and the alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has helped bolster the team as a title contender and has allowed Jones to move up to the Cup series on loan. While Truex, Jr. had a great season and we are coming off Chase Elliott having a spectacular rookie season in the Cup series I think Jones will have a season that mirrors Ryan Blaney's 2015 season. Blaney averaged a starting position of 14.9 but his average finish was 18.5 in 2015. Jones may have benefitted from being on the team that is head and shoulders above anyone else in the Grand National Series but he has a tendency to get his nose in harm way. He might be able to carry his qualifying success into the Cup series but races are another thing and it could be a rough year for Jones.

8. Championship Ineligible Drivers win more than 16 of the first 26 Grand National Series Race
NASCAR has new rules for full-time Cup drivers competing in the lower national touring divisions. While the likes of Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski will be limited to ten races in the Grand National Series, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones will be Cup drivers who can go beyond the ten-race limit. The race limits might not change much as Busch, Logano and Keselowski could still end up winning six races each but the likes of Blaney and Larson might get more starts and more starts without competition from the likes of Busch, Logano and Keselowski. This could be a rule change that NASCAR thought would fix a problem but end up not changing anything at all.

9. All Four JR Motorsports Drivers Make the Chase
The team had Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier make the final round of the inaugural Chase in the Grand National Series and now the team adds William Byron from the Truck series and Michael Annett. The bar is quite low to make the Chase in NASCAR's second division. Ryan Sieg was in the Chase and had no top five finishes and three top ten finishes the entire season. Blake Koch nearly was one of the four championship contenders and didn't have a top five finish. All four JR Motorsports drivers are going to end up with ten top ten finishes on accident. They will all be in the top 12 and don't be surprised if two are in the final four again.

10. A Rookie is in the Top Four of the Truck Championship
Last year, rookie Christopher Bell made the final four in the inaugural Truck Chase and William Byron was an engine failure away from making the final four and despite being eliminated, Byron still won seven races as a rookie. Noah Gragson replaces Byron at Kyle Busch Motorsports and Austin Cindric will run full-time for Brad Keselowski Racing. I wouldn't rule out either to make the Truck Chase and I wouldn't rule either out for the top four either.

11. Someone Becomes the 28th Driver to Win in All Three National Touring Divisions
This one might be the longest shot but active drivers who have won in two of the three national touring series are Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Martin Truex, Jr. Truex, Jr. has yet to win in the Truck series, the rest haven't won in the Cup series. I think Elliott is clubhouse leader to accomplishing the feat.

12. There Will Not Be Any Fights In Any of NASCAR's Three National Touring Series
Last year, Spencer Gallagher and John Wes Townley looked like schmucks at Gateway and John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer looked like schmucks at Mosport. That's not going to happen again.

Round one of 2017 predictions are in the books. Look out for round two next week.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 Et Cetera Predictions: Revisited

We are in the final two weeks of 2016 and we are finally at the final edition of revisited predictions for this season in motorsports. Today, we look at multiple series and form of motorsports and what came out right and what was wrong.

1. MotoGP: Suzuki Scores At Least Three Podiums
Correct! All of Suzuki's podiums came at the hands of Maverick Viñales and not only did the Spaniard finished on the podium four times, he won at Silverstone on his way to finishing fourth in the championship. Now Suzuki will have to hope two new riders can build on the 2017 success as Viñales moves to the factory Yamaha team alongside Valentino Rossi and Aleix Espargaró heads to Aprilia. Andrea Iannone moves to Suzuki from Ducati and Álex Rins moves up from Moto2 after finishing second and third in that championship the last two seasons.

2. Indy Lights: The Champion Does Not Come From Juncos Racing or Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Correct! Carlin's Ed Jones took the title by two points over Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Santiago Urrutia. I had a feeling Jones would win it after nearly taking the title in his rookie season in 2015. I am not one of those perturbed at how Jones won the title. Sometimes too much focus is put on the final act instead of all the acts and when it comes to a championship that is decided on an aggregate of 18 races it is easy to believe the final race is what decided the championship but had Urrutia not spun in the Freedom 100 or dropped from second to ninth in first Road America race then he might have been in control of the championship entering the finale. He wasn't and Jones was in control and Jones did what he had to do to win the championship.

3. Super Formula: Honda Wins More Than Two Races
Correct! Honda won three times in Super Formula. Naoki Yamamoto won the season opener at Suzuka for Honda. McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne would win at Okayama in September and the final race of the season at Suzuka in October. Vandoorne was the top Honda driver in the championship by finishing fourth.

4. Super GT: James Rossiter Does Not Win the Suzuka 1000km
Correct! Rossiter was not able to make it three consecutive Suzuka 1000km victories. His car retired from the event and the #38 Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo of Hiroaki Ishiura and Yuji Tachikawa won the prestigious endurance race.

5. V8 Supercars: Red Bull Racing Australia Wins at Least Fourteen Races
Correct! Red Bull Racing Australia won 17 of 29 races this season in Supercars with the team winning seven of the final eight races to close out the season. Champion Shane Van Gisbergen led the team with eight victories, Jamie Whincup won seven times and Craig Lowndes won twice.

6. DTM: There Will Be At Least Two Driver Changes at Mercedes-Benz
Correct but barely. Compared to its 2015 driver line-up Mercedes-Benz had only one change at the start of 2016 with Esteban Ocon replacing 2015 DTM champion and Manor Racing-bound Pascal Wehrlein. The second driver change at Mercedes-Benz occurred when Ocon himself got promote to Manor Racing to replace Rio Haryanto and Felix Rosenqvist entered as Ocon's replacement.

7. WSBK: Nicky Hayden Scores At Least One Podium but Finishes Behind Michael van der Mark in the Championship
Correct! The Kentucky Kid had four podiums in 2016, including a victory in the wet at Sepang, the only non-British rider to win in World Superbike in 2016. However, Hayden finished fifth in the championship, 19 points behind van der Mark who had six podium finishes with him finishing runner-up twice.

8. WSS: Less than 25 Points Decides the Championship
Wrong! Kenan Sofuoglu locked up his fifth World Supersport championship with a race to spare and his final margin of victory in the championship was 74 points over Jules Cluzel.

9. World Rally Championship: Ford Wins at Least One Rally
Wrong! Although Ott Tänak came close on two occasions. The Estonian driver led Rally Poland but lost the lead on the penultimate stage to Volkswagen's Andreas Mikkelsen and the Norwegian driver beat Tänak by 26.2 seconds in the final results. At Wales Rally GB, Tänak won 12 of 22 stages, including sweeping six stages on the final day but finished second to Volkswagen's Sébastien Ogier by 10.2 seconds. Now Ogier moves to M-Sport and I have to think Ford is going to win a few times with the Frenchman in 2017.

10. World Touring Car Championship: There Will Be More Race Winners Than in 2015
Correct! In 2015, seven drivers won a WTCC race. In 2016, 11 drivers won a WTCC race. Those 11 drivers were Robert Huff, José María López, Tiago Monteiro, Mehdi Bennani, Tom Coronel, Gabriele Tarquini, Nick Catsburg, Tom Chilton, Norbert Michelisz, Yvan Muller and Thed Björk.

Another set of predictions and another time of getting eight predictions correct except this time it was eight from ten. That is it for revisiting 2016 predictions. Feel free to look back on the revisited predictions for IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula One and sports cars. 2017 predictions will be here soon and maybe sooner than you think.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Turn to Sports Cars

Another week is here and there was a race in Sepang. Alexander Rossi got his face put on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Tony Stewart wore glasses and talked to Robin Miller. Romain Grosjean will go ice racing next week in the French Alps. This is the last Musings From the Weekend of 2016 but don't worry. In the final two weeks of the year there is plenty to come. Another set of predictions revisited, the For The Love of Indy Awards, a Christmas list, a trip back to 1966 and predictions for 2017. But until then, here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Turn to Sports Cars
We are just under two weeks until Christmas and most of the IndyCar grid is known. The only openings left are at the mess that is the will-they-won't-they KV-Carlin marriage and the road/street course portion of the season in the #20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Outside of that, unless a team like Dreyer & Reinbold Racing returns to full-time competition or Schmidt Peterson Motorsports expands to three cars, there are one-and-a-half seats remaining and a plethora of drivers circling as the music plays.

Who is still standing? Spencer Pigot, RC Enerson, Gabby Chaves, Dean Stoneman, Santiago Urrutia, Kyle Kaiser, Zach Veach, Luca Filippi, Matthew Brabham and Félix Serrallés just to name a few and who knows if anyone else is on the fringe hoping to jump throw from the periphery and steal a seat from those who have spent months battling.

It is tough to break into any single-seater series. There are two dozens seats if you are lucky and at most five open up in the offseason and the limited testing has made it difficult for young drivers to breakthrough as teams stick to the experienced veterans who know the cars, circuits and all the ins and outs. Not to mention that most seats come with a price tag that even the most successful young can't afford.

In the case for IndyCar, unless you win the Indy Lights championship or have $10 million in the bank that you are willing to split from, you likely aren't breaking into IndyCar. The openings where all a driver needs is a helmet like Conor Daly at Coyne or the Foyt seats are rare and they are even rarer for rookies. Either you need to be a once in a generation stud on track or be really likable by a team owner to invest in.

Knowing what it will take to make it to IndyCar, drivers that don't win the Indy Lights championship or have $10 million in the bank should look to sports cars and IndyCar teams should jump on the opportunity to facilitate these drivers switching careers. IndyCar teams should get involved because it could deepen their talent in the stable. Let's say an IndyCar driver is having a disappointing season and likely won't return the next year or needs to be replaced mid-year or has to miss a race due to illness or injury. If an IndyCar team owned a sports car team and had one or two drivers with Road to Indy experience or IndyCar experience it would allow for a natural replacement. Plus, tying up talent can be a strategic move by a team as it could keep a talented, young driver away from a rival for a period while a team could wait for an opening in its IndyCar program.

The good news for IndyCar teams is there are plenty of sports car options to choose from. A team could stay domestic and run in IMSA or Pirelli World Challenge. In IMSA, a team could run a DPi, GTLM or GTD. If a team goes the GT3 route, it could go to PWC and maybe field two cars. If a team wants to be a little more adventurous, it could attempt the FIA World Endurance Championship with either an LMP2 program or GTE program.

With that said, what could potential IndyCar-sports car teams with IndyCar wannabes look like? Andretti Autosport has a history of running a LMP2 program and a few drivers looking for work have history with Andretti Autosport. Dean Stoneman ran for Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights in 2016 and it doesn't appear he is likely return to Indy Lights in 2017. Matthew Brabham raced for Andretti Autosport in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. Brabham has been demoted to a silver driver rating for 2017 making him more precious than gold. Brabham can be slotted into a WEC LMP2 team or GTE-Am team and be just as quick as some of the professionals and give a team an upper hand compared to teams with an actual gentleman driver.

While it would be a stretch for Andretti Autosport to jump into WEC LMP2, maybe it could use Brabham's family relations to enter the world's stage. Matthew's uncle David Brabham successful crowdsourced the Project Brabham effort about two years ago to enter WEC LMP2 but the team has yet to make it to the grid. Perhaps the combination of resources could allow Stoneman, Matthew Brabham and David Brabham to compete full-time. An Andretti-Brabham partnership would be one of historic portions and most would love to see the marriage. Who knows? It could allow Mario another shot at Le Mans. He is a bronze after all.

Dale Coyne Racing doesn't have a history in sports car racing but the team has had a few respectable drivers in IndyCar the last few seasons who want to be full-time but can't breakthrough beyond a handful of races here and there. While Coyne wouldn't likely go compete on the world stage, IMSA makes sense for the team. Coyne found a gem in RC Enerson last year and he is one you don't want to let go. A DPi program could keep Enerson occupied until something opens up in IndyCar. Who could join Enerson? Why not Luca Filippi? The Italian has had some good runs and we have seen plenty of top GP2 drivers run well in sports cars plus he could become somewhat of a mentor to the young Enerson.

Spencer Pigot is coming off his rookie season in IndyCar and while he could return to run road and street courses in the #20 Chevrolet again that isn't a guarantee. Zach Veach just completed his third season in Indy Lights and finished fourth in the championship. Pigot can't go down and Veach is ready but there is no room for him to move up. Neither might be on the IndyCar grid in 2017 but maybe Ed Carpenter could expand his team's horizon. Instead of prototype though, perhaps ECR could look toward PWC and run a pair of GT3 cars for Pigot and Veach, plus it would allow Pigot and Veach to be at five IndyCar races as PWC runs on IndyCar weekends at St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. ECR could find a silver-rated driver and run a car at the four North American Endurance Cup races in IMSA. Seeing as how GM's only GT3 car is Cadillac and there aren't customer Cadillacs, maybe ECR could run Audis or Porsches.

There is a lot of young talent on the fringes of IndyCar and if team owners are smart, they would make sure to lock it up before someone else gets there hands on them. Just thinking about how the likes of Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Conor Daly and J.R. Hildebrand have all been free agents in recent years with no rides, you can never have too many horses in the barn. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay have gone on to win championships. Daly is in a paying ride with AJ Foyt Racing as is Hildebrand. In five years, which driver who couldn't break into IndyCar in 2017 ends up being one of the contenders on the edge of major success? And how many team owners will be asking themselves why didn't they lock that driver down when he or she was unattached?

Champions From the Weekend
By winning the Sepang 12 Hours with Christopher Haase and Robin Frijns in the #15 Team Phoenix Audi R8 LMS, Laurens Vanthoor won the inaugural Intercontinental GT Challenge drivers' championship and Audi won the inaugural Intercontinental GT Challenge manufactures' championship.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the #15 Team Phoenix Audi but did you know...

The #26 B-Quik Racing Team Audi of Peter Kox, Henk Kiks and Daniel Bilinski won in the GTC class at the Sepang 12 Hours. The #69 Aylezo Ecotint Racing Ginetta of Zen Low, Dan Wells and Darrren Burke won in GT4. The #100 Toyota GT86 of Takashi Oi, Hitoshi Matsui, Takashi Ito and Kenny Lee won in the Touring class.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Gulf 12 Hours.