Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Right When IndyCar Silly Season Settled Down It Turned On Its Ear

In the middle of summer it appeared IndyCar was set for a noticeable shift with familiar faces potentially on the way out and a few outsiders from the IndyCar and Road to Indy scene coming into the series. Weeks and races fell away and the silly season storylines began to settle in and we had plenty of time to wrap our heads around what was to occur this autumn and winter in lead up to the 2018 season.

Then the bottom fell out and we are back to the uncertain silly season we had thought we had already endured. Faces we expected to enter have passed by and the faces we expected to stay may have been kicked out the door.

Some pieces have expectedly fallen in place. Hélio Castroneves is moving on. Takuma Sato moves from Andretti Autosport to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Zach Veach replaces Sato at Andretti Autosport. Spencer Pigot becomes Ed Carpenter Racing's full-time driver while J.R. Hildebrand returns to unemployment. Tony Kanaan signed with A.J. Foyt Racing. Robert Wickens announced his switch from Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters to IndyCar with Wickens joining his fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

After that, the puzzle has not been as easy to complete as it once appeared. Brendon Hartley was signed with Chip Ganassi Racing but the Porsche LMP1 star had to wait for the deal to be announced. In the interim, the New Zealander ended up getting a call from Scuderia Toro Rosso and one attempt in the United States Grand Prix turned into another and now he will finish the 2017 Formula One season with Toro Rosso in what appears to be an audition for the 2018 season.

With Hartley following the Formula One path, Ganassi did not waste a second and signed Ed Jones from Dale Coyne Racing and another set of dominos are starting to fall that we didn't see set up behind us.

Dale Coyne Racing had hoped to keep Jones paired with Sébastien Bourdais for another season. The team started out strong with Bourdais winning the season opener and leading the championship until Phoenix and Jones had a respectable start to the season with two top ten finishes in the first two races. After Bourdais' injury, Jones finished third in the Indianapolis 500 but he started to struggle in the second half of the season as he vaulted from role of rookie to team leader at Belle Isle with Esteban Gutiérrez joining the team with no IndyCar testing to his name.

It appeared Dale Coyne Racing was ready to build on the foundation laid in 2017. The team was ready to potentially make a run at the front of the grid on a regular basis with a healthy Bourdais and a more experienced Jones. Now the team has to look for a new partner for the Frenchman.

While Coyne is looking for a new driver, a pair of teammates is looking for new teams. Conor Daly came out and publicly said his days with A.J. Foyt Racing are done after a season. Meanwhile, Carlos Muñoz has said he is looking for an Indianapolis 500 one-off and a full-time IMSA prototype seat for the 2018 season and he will not sign for a new team entering IndyCar. Larry Foyt came out and neither confirmed nor denied the team would not keep Daly or Muñoz to team with Kanaan but all indications the team is moving on and an Indy Lights driver has become the clubhouse leader for the #4 Chevrolet.

Matheus Leist has been linked to join his fellow Brazilian Kanaan at A.J. Foyt Racing. Leist finished fourth in the Indy Lights championship last year driving for Carlin, his first season in the series after he won the BRDC Formula Three Championship in 2016. The 20-year-old Leist won the Freedom 100, the first race from Road America and at Iowa last year. Brazilian television money is reportedly backing Leist's rise to IndyCar.

We have reached the end of October and the bad news for the likes of Daly, Muñoz and any other aspiring IndyCar driver is the selection of full-time seats for 2018 has dwindled to slim pickings. Penske has confirmed three seats with Foyt sticking to two and Ed Carpenter Racing only needs a driver for road and street course races, a demotion for any driver that was full-time. On the Honda side, Andretti Autosport is set at four; Ganassi is set at two as is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Besides the second Foyt seat, the other full-time seat open from last year is the #19 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing and the question will be what does Coyne want to do with that seat? Does Coyne want to continue with the plan of having a teammate who can work hand-in-hand with Bourdais or does the loss of Jones shake everything up and lead Coyne to return to his old ways of taking the drivers with the biggest check?

If that is the case then it appears Daly and Muñoz will both lose out on the #19 Honda. Esteban Gutiérrez drove for DCR last year and he brought some money last year and the anticipated IndyCar race in Mexico City only helps his chances of getting on the IndyCar grid. Besides Gutiérrez, Daniil Kvyat will be moving on from Formula One and he has reportedly been interested in IndyCar. Russian drivers find money and I don't think Kvyat would be any different.

Full-time rides are getting harder to come by. The eight teams returning from last year appear to be committed to field 19 full-time cars, down from 21 cars in 2017. Harding Racing has said it plans to be full-time in 2018 and Gabby Chaves is the lead candidate to drive for that team but a formal announcement has not been made. Juncos Racing has announced it will contest Kyle Kaiser in four races next season and has not ruled out a full-time season and that team could potentially have two cars. Carlin has been quiet about its IndyCar plans in the early stages of this offseason. If Carlin were to come into IndyCar Max Chilton has been linked as its driver and it is unclear whether the team would run a second car. Charlie Kimball was originally linked to a second Carlin seat back in the late summer.

Outside of new teams it is hard to see more full-time opportunities coming from teams already on the grid. Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are tapped out. I can't see Coyne going to three cars; that goes for Foyt and ECR as well. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports running three full-time cars has been a rumor before. Maybe the addition of Sato could bring enough Honda funding to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to make three cars possible but that seems to be a stretch.

We have reached an odd point in the silly season. Most pieces are in place but it isn't clear what will happen next and the next pieces are crucial. Surefire lineups have been torn apart and the grid size could be in some fluctuation with perhaps fewer full-time teams than 2017 if the likes of Harding, Juncos and Carlin don't enter the series. Then there is Jack Harvey who says he has the funding for six races next season. I have a feeling Harvey's landing place may have to wait until the full-time seats are figured out.

The IndyCar offseason has only been going on for six weeks and there are still 19 weeks until St. Petersburg. There is too much down time left for it feeling this urgent.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Newgarden Deserves a Shot at Formula One and He Isn't The Only One

Despite getting together with Sebastian Vettel on lap one, Lewis Hamilton clinched his fourth World Drivers' Championship in Mexico City and he has more World Drivers' Championships than any other British driver. Andrea Dovizioso kept his MotoGP championship hopes alive with another victory in the wet at Sepang. Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch all got together at some point at Martinsville. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Newgarden Deserves a Shot at Formula One and He Isn't The Only One
I would like to thank Haas F1 Team Principal Guenther Steiner because he has forced me to get to something I had planned on touching in a few weeks but his comments this weekend about Josef Newgarden's desire to race in Formula One created the perfect time.

Steiner said Newgarden could not just jump into Formula One and one reason for it was the pressure. "It's a lot more pressure," he said of Formula One and, "the pressure here is tremendous. After three races if you don't deliver, you know what your are – an idiot and you need to leave." Steiner cited Brendon Hartley's struggle in his debut at the United States Grand Prix at how tough Formula One is but in the next breath slightly contradicts himself and defended why Hartley could be in Formula One and not Newgarden because Hartley had been exposed to the culture of Formula One because of a prior role as a test driver, a role Newgarden never got the chance to experience.

Part of me thinks Steiner's words are a little out of context and I think what he is trying to say is Newgarden cannot just jump into Formula One and be a successful driver immediately but I think this is where it gets lost the minutia. I don't think anyone is saying Newgarden would come into Formula One and immediately start contending for podium finishes. What some people want and what I bet Newgarden wants is a chance to show what he has got.

Newgarden couldn't jump into a Formula One car and immediately start competing for top five finishes but why couldn't he have a year to consistently score points and maybe catch the attention of a team and potentially earn a promotion? That is basically what Valtteri Bottas did for four seasons at Williams and it earned him a Mercedes seat. Carlos Sainz, Jr. did the same thing at Scuderia Toro Rosso and he is now at Renault. I would love to see an American driver winning races in Formula One but first I want an American driver who can consistently show he or she is competitive and scores points on a regular basis and I think Newgarden can be that driver.

When it appeared Pierre Gasly would not be in Austin for the United States Grand Prix because of a scheduling conflict with his Super Formula commitments I wondered why an American-based driver, an IndyCar drive to be specific couldn't get the opportunity to do one race. André Lotterer got a shot in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix in a one-off for Caterham and the man had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times, he was a World Endurance Drivers' Champion and he had won championships in Super GT and Super Formula. You don't win that much and not have talent and Lotterer deserved the opportunity.

IndyCar has its share of successful drivers. Besides Newgarden, who has enough FIA Super License points thanks to his championship this season, Scott Dixon was another name that came to mind of a guy who should at least get one crack at Formula One. You don't accidentally win four championships and 40 IndyCar races, not to forget mentioning two 24 Hours of Daytona victories overall and a finish on a class podium in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Simon Pagenaud is another one of those drivers with success across many disciplines. Beside having an IndyCar championship to his name, Pagenaud won many races in LMP1, including for the factory Peugeot effort and he finished second overall at Le Mans with Peugeot.

Anyone of those three are talented enough for Formula One but there is a cloud hanging over the heads of North American-based drivers that makes them appear inferior to the Formula One teams based in Europe. At some point you have to see success and think it can't all be a fluke or the level of competition isn't at an insufficient standard.

Steiner's thought process has many flaws when it comes to why Newgarden is not ready for Formula One. If he is discrediting IndyCar for not having enough pressure for a driver to make the switch to Formula One, then what about the handful of drivers that have moved to Formula One directly from Formula Three in recent seasons? Does Formula Three really have more pressure than IndyCar? Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll followed that path and while Verstappen and Stroll have had their taste of success both have shown pure immaturity at times on the racetrack.

Esteban Ocon entered Formula One in the middle of last year after ten DTM races where he scored all of two points and the year prior to that he won the GP3 Series championship. Is there more pressure in GP3 and DTM than IndyCar? Let's not forget to point out the driver that had two points from ten DTM races has finished every race in his brief Formula One career and he has scored points in 17 of 18 races in 2017.

Another fallacy in Steiner's logic is while he said Hartley's experience as a test driver was enough of a reason for him to be in Formula One and why Newgarden should not be in Formula One, does that apply to all former test/reserved drivers? Would Carmen Jordá be a better fit for Formula One than Newgarden? Because despite failing to score a point in 44 GP3 starts and failing to qualify for two GP3 races and being disqualified in another and let's not forget her average finish of 18.0 in five Indy Lights starts in 2010, she was a development driver for Lotus F1 and Renault. By Steiner's logic, she is more qualified for Formula One than Newgarden. Is Haas' current development driver Santino Ferrucci, who had one podium finish in 26 GP3 starts, more qualified than Newgarden?

And there is just one more thing Steiner should consider. Didn't his team employ Esteban Gutiérrez for the 2016 season? I believe Haas did and if I recall Gutiérrez scored a grand total of zero points for the team and he got a full season! I thought drivers that didn't deliver results within three races were idiots and had to leave? And yet, Haas kept him on for the full season. So who is the idiot Guenther, the driver who doesn't score or the team that chooses to keep him on?

Let's not forget to mention that Gutiérrez went to IndyCar and while he had respectable results considering his lack of testing, the pressure he endured in Formula One didn't seem to give him an advantage once he got to IndyCar and he never once was a challenger to the likes of Newgarden, Dixon and Pagenaud.

If there is one thing I think we all wish would stop are people coming up with a reason for why an IndyCar driver couldn't make it in Formula One and not even think about giving him or her a chance. There has to come a point where a driver's success gets someone's attention. Talent is talent regardless of series and it will get the job done anywhere.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton but did you know...

Franco Morbidelli clinched the Moto2 championship after Thomas Lüthi was unable to start the race from Sepang.

Sébastien Ogier clinched his fifth consecutive World Rally Championship with a third place finish in Wales Rally GB.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Andrea Dovizioso but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Mexican Grand Prix.

Miguel Olivera won the Moto2 race from Sepang, his second consecutive victory. Joan Mir picked up his tenth Moto3 victory of the season.

Elfyn Evans won Wales Rally GB, his first career WRC victory.

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville. Noah Gragson won the Truck race, his first career Truck series victory.

The #8 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Nissan of Thomas Laurent, Stéphane Richelmi and Harrison Newey won the 4 Hours of Zhuhai. The #18 KCMG Ligier-Nissan of Josh Burdon, Neric Wei and Louis Prette won in LMP3. The #91 FIST-Team AAI BMW of Jesse Krohn, Chaz Mostert and Junsan Chen won in GT.

Tom Chilton and Nobert Michelisz split the WTCC races from Motegi.

Coming Up This Weekend
World Superbike and World Supersport closes out their seasons in Qatar.
The FIA World Endurance Championship has its penultimate round at Shanghai.
Supercars heads to New Zealand and Pukekohe Park Raceway to be specific.
NASCAR's antepenultimate round is at Texas Motor Speedway.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Five: Mexico, Malaysia, Martinsville, Great Britain, Zhuhai

October closes with a handful of series nearing season finales. A handful of championships could be wrapped up this weekend. A few are hoping the champion remains undecided beyond this weekend and in one case a season is getting started.

Mexican Grand Prix
Three races remain in the 2017 Formula One season but it appears the championship will be decided this weekend at Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.

Lewis Hamilton picked up his ninth victory of the season last week in the United States Grand Prix and he increased his points total to 331 points in the World Drivers' Championship. With 75 points left on the table, the only other driver in contention for the championship is Sebastian Vettel. The German trails the Brit by 66 points.

Hamilton will clinch his fourth World Drivers' Championship with a finish inside the top five this weekend. He won last year's race and finished second in 2015. Hamilton could become the third British driver to win the Mexican Grand Prix on multiple occasions. Jim Clark won the Mexican Grand Prix three times, one of which was a non-championship round. Nigel Mansell won at Mexico City in 1987 and 1992. Alain Prost is the only other driver with multiple victories in Mexico. Prost won the 1988 and 1990 races. Three times has the championship been clinched in Mexico. John Surtees did it in 1964, Denny Hulme in 1967 and Graham Hill in 1968. Those three drivers drove for Ferrari, Brabham and Lotus respectively and they did it on Dunlops, Goodyears and Firestones respectively.

Vettel retired from the 2015 Mexican Grand Prix after an accident in turn seven. Last year, Vettel finished fourth on road but was elevated to third after Max Verstappen was handed a five-second penalty for cutting a corner. However, Vettel would be handed a ten-second penalty for dangerous driving, relegating him from third to fifth in the final results. Nico Rosberg is the only German to win the Mexican Grand Prix.

Valtteri Bottas is 21 points behind Vettel in the championship. Daniel Ricciardo remains on 192 points after his retirement from the United States Grand Prix. Kimi Räikkönen is 29 points behind the Australian. Max Verstappen is 40 points behind Räikkönen. Force India teammates Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon sit on 86 points and 73 points respectively. Carlos Sainz, Jr. finished seventh on his Renault debut last week and he has 54 points. Felipe Massa jumped into the top ten with 36 points after he finished ninth at Austin.

The Mexican Grand Prix will take place at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday October 29th.

Malaysian Grand Prix
MotoGP has reached the penultimate of the season and like Formula One, the title will likely be wrapped up this weekend.

Marc Márquez's victory at Australia gave him six victories on the season and he has 269 points. The Spaniard has a 33-point lead over Andrea Dovizioso and Márquez would clinch the championship with a finish in the top two on Sunday. Dovizioso won last year's Malaysian Grand Prix in the wet while Márquez won the 2014 race from Sepang. Dovizioso's victory ended a four-year winning streak for Honda at Sepang and it was Ducati's first victory at the track since Casey Stoner in 2009. The Spaniard Márquez has retired and finished 11th the last two years at Malaysia.

Maverick Viñales finished third at Phillip Island and he is third in the championship on 219 points. Valentino Rossi jumped up to fourth in the championship after finishing second last week on 188 points. Yamaha has not won at Sepang since 2010. Rossi leads all riders with seven Malaysian Grand Prix victories with six coming in the premier class. His 125cc victory in 1997 came at the Shah Alam Circuit. Viñales won in Moto2 at Sepang in 2014 and he won in 125cc in 2011.

Dani Pedrosa is tied with Mick Doohan and Max Biaggi for second most Malaysian Grand Prix victories at five. Pedrosa has won at the track three of the last five years. He is fifth in the championship on 174 points. Johann Zarco sits in 138 points and he won the last two years at Sepang in Moto2. Jorge Lorenzo has finished on the podium in the last six contested Sepang races but he has not won at the track since he won in the 250cc class in 2006.

This weekend will see Michael van der Mark make his debut with Tech3 Yamaha. The World Superbikes regular was on standby to race for Valentino Rossi at Aragón after the Italian broke his leg in a training accident. Van der Mark is currently sixth in the World Superbike championship and he won the Suzuka 8 Hours earlier this year for Yamaha.

The Malaysian Grand Prix will take place at 3:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 29th.

NASCAR at Martinsville
Martinsville marks the start of the semifinal round in the NASCAR Cup Series Chase and eight drivers remain and those eight compete for four spots in the final race at Homestead.

Martin Truex, Jr. enters as the championship leader with 4,069 points and he is 27 points clear of Kyle Busch. Brad Keselowski is 43 points back in third. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are tied on 4,017 points with Denny Hamlin three points behind Johnson and Harvick in sixth. Ryan Blaney is seventh on 4,009 points and Chase Elliott rounds out the field on 4,006 points.

Johnson leads all active driver with nine Martinsville victories and the other seven Chase drivers have won nine Martinsville races combined, five of those are at the hands of Hamlin. Keselowski picked up his first Martinsville victory in the spring. Busch won last year's spring race at Martinsville. Harvick's lone Martinsville victory was in April 2011.

Truex, Jr.'s best finish at Martinsville was fifth in the spring of 2010 and in the spring of 2012. He started on pole position for this race last year and led 147 laps before he finished seventh. He started third in the spring but finished 16th after leading 42 laps. Elliott finished third in the spring race and led 20 laps. It was his first top ten finish in his fourth Martinsville start. Blaney's three finishes from his only three Martinsville starts 19th, 19th and 25th.

Keselowski is attempting to become the first driver to sweep the Martinsville races since Hamlin in 2010. Ford has not swept the Martinsville races since Dale Jarrett and Ricky Craven split the races in 2001. Craven is also the most recent driver to get his first career victory at Martinsville. Prior to Keselowski's victory in April, Ford's most recent Martinsville victory was Kurt Busch in October 2002. Seven different drivers have won the last seven Martinsville races.

The NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville will take place at 3:13 p.m. ET on Sunday October 29th.

Wales Rally GB
This third penultimate round this weekend will take place in Great Britain with the World Rally Championship contesting the 73rd Wales Rally GB.

Sébastien Ogier leads the championship with 198 points and he is 37 points clear of his M-Sport World Rally Team Ford teammate Ott Tänak with Hyundai's Thierry Neuville 38 points behind Ogier with 60 points left on the table. Ogier has only won two rallies this season and he has not won since Portugal in May. The Frenchman has stood on the podium after eight of 11 races with ten top five finishes and his lone retirement coming at Rally Finland. Tänak has also won twice this season and has stood on the podium six times. Neuville leads all drivers with three victories this season and he has six podium finishes but he had failed to finish in points paying positions in four races including the last two.

Ogier can clinch his fifth consecutive championship by scoring 23 points this weekend, which can be done by winning the race or by finishing second and winning the Power Stage, which pays five points. Ogier has not won a Power Stage this season but he has scored points from the Power Stage nine times this season. Ogier has won the last four Wales Rally GBs and he is tied for most victories in the event with Hannu Mikkola and Petter Solberg. Ford leads all manufactures with 12 Wales Rally GB victories with the most recent coming in 2012. M-Sport has never won Wales Rally GB.

The most recent Wales Rally GB victory by a British driver was in 2000 when Richard Burns won for Subaru. Welshman Elfyn Evans has yet to win a WRC rally and he has finished runner-up twice this year for M-Sport Ford. Northern Ireland's Kris Meeke has won twice this season for Citroën, including the most recent round in Catalunya.

Toyota driver Jari-Matti Latvala has won Wales Rally GB twice but the Finn's best finish is seventh in the last four races. Latvala is fourth in the championship on 123 points with Hyundai's Dani Sordo on 93 points, one ahead of Evans.

Ogier won stage one on Thursday by 0.4 seconds over Latvala with Neuville a half-second back in third. Tänak is another tenth back in fourth with Evans and Andreas Mikkelsen, who joins Hyundai for this round, both 1.1 seconds back. Rally Finland winner, Toyota's Esapekka Lappi and Sordo are 1.2 seconds back with Irishman Craig Breen and Jüho Hanninen rounding out the top ten, both 1.3 seconds back. Meeke finished 14th on the day, 2.5 seconds off Ogier.

Six stages will take place on Friday with nine stages on Saturday and five stages on Sunday.

4 Hours of Zhuhai
While many seasons are coming to an end, one season starts this weekend and the Asian Le Mans Series is back for the first round of the 2017-18 season. Sixteen cars are entered across the three classes.

LMP2 has six entries and Algarve Pro Racing is back to defend its championship. The #25 Ligier-Nissan will be driven by Ate de Jong, Tack Sung Kim and John Graham. Jackie Chan DC Racing has two cars entered with defending World Endurance Championship Endurance Trophy for LMP2 champion Stéphane Richelmi sharing the #7 Oreca-Nissan with current Endurance Trophy for LMP2 championship leader Thomas Laurent and Harrison Newey, the son of Adrian Newey. David Cheng, Ho-Pin Tung and James Winslow will drive the #8 Oreca-Nissan.

ARC Bratislava steps up from LMP3 with Miro Konopka, Konstantīns Calko and Rik Breukers in the #4 Ligier-Nissan. Eurasia Motorsport has Alex Au and Keiko Ihara paired in the #33 Ligier-Nissan. Team BBT steps up from GT racing with Pipo Derani teaming with Anthony Liu and Davide Rizzo in the #37 Ligier-Nissan.

In LMP3, Jackie Chan DC Racing fields the #6 Ligier for Guy Cosmo and Patrick Byrne. WIN Motorsport has entered the #1 Ligier for Richard Bradley, William Lok and Philippe Descombes. Taiwan Beer GH Motorsports will have Hanss Lin and Shaun Thong in the #11 Ligier. Josh Burdon, Louis Prette and Neric Wei will drive the #18 Ligier for KCMG. Viper Niza Racing has an all-Malaysian lineup with Douglas Khoo and Dominic Ang in the #65 Ligier.

There are five GT entries this weekend. Ferrari won the championship last year and the lone Ferrari belongs to Spirit of Race. Rui Águas and Nasrat Muzayyin will drive the #38 Ferrari. FIST-Team AAI has entered two cars. Rafaelle Marciello will drive the #90 Mercedes with Ollie Millroy and Lam Yu. Supercars regular Chaz Mostert will be in the #91 BMW with Jesse Krohn and Jun-Sun Chen. TianShi Racing Team has entered the #66 Audi for Peng Liu, Weian Chen and Max Wiser. Team NZ has entered the only GTC car for Zhuhai with John Curran and Graeme Dowsett in the #66 Porsche.

The 4 Hours of Zhuhai will begin at 1:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 29th.

Over or Under?
1. Over or Under: 4.5 cars handed grid penalties for the Mexican Grand Prix?
2. Over or Under: 75.5 points for Álvaro Bautista after Sepang?
3. Over or Under: 2.5 Fords in the top ten at Martinsville?
4. Over or Under: 4.5 different drivers winning stages in Wales Rally GB?
5. Over or Under: 5.5 European winners across the three classes in the 4 Hours of Zhuhai?

Last Week's Over/Unders
1. Under: Sebastian Vettel set fastest lap on lap 51.
2. Under: There were no Super Formula races therefore zero podium finishes came from Non-Japanese drivers.
3. Under: Three cars were within 20 seconds of the race one winner from Surfers Paradise.
4. Under: Two LMP3 cars finished on the lead lap of the class winner. 
5. Over: It took 40.829 minutes to complete the Australian Grand Prix. 
6. Under: 0.049 separated pole-sitter Federico Caricasulo and Jules Cluzel.
7. Over: Four Chase drivers finished outside the top twenty at Kansas.

1. Red Bull puts both cars on the podium.
2. Michael van der Mark finishes in the top ten.
3. There is at least one red flag at Martinsville.
4. Sébastien Ogier wins the Power Stage.
5. At least two classes are decided by more than a lap.

Last Week's Predictions
1. Brendon Hartley qualifies at least three positions behind Daniil Kvyat prior to grid penalties (Correct! Kvyat qualified 12th and Hartley qualified 18th before grid penalties).
2. Hiroaki Ishiura scores points in both Suzuka races but does not win the championship (Uh... there were no races from Suzuka but Ishiura did win the championship so... correct?).
3. The Enduro Cup winners win one of the two Gold Coast 600km races (Correct! Chaz Mostert and Steve Owen won race one from Surfers Paradise).
4. G-Drive Racing does not finish on the podium but does take the LMP2 championship (Correct! The #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca finished fourth and took the LMP2 championship).
5. There will be three manufactures on the podium at Phillip Island (Wrong! Two Yamahas finished on the podium).
6. A manufacture other than Kawasaki or Yamaha wins the World Supersport race (Wrong. Yamaha's Federico Caricasulo won the race).
7. Three of the four drivers that don't advance from round two don't finish in the top ten in Kansas (Correct! All four drivers that did not advance finished outside the top ten).
Last Week: 5/7 Overall: 18/27

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2017 Season

While Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was not the top Honda team in 2017, the team continued a successful stretch and was competitive everywhere IndyCar went. This year will mark the end of the team's single-car status. The team didn't fight for the championship until the wire nor did it set any records but it was the first team to win multiple races this season.

Graham Rahal picked up another two victories this season
Graham Rahal
The season started off with a bit of a rough patch almost immediately. Rahal started tenth and in turn two he was spun by Charlie Kimball and he was caught a lap down. He never recovered from the incident and he finished 17th. He spent most of the Long Beach race in the top ten and a late pit stop dropped him out of the top ten. He would steal the tenth position on the final lap after Mikhail Aleshin ran into J.R. Hildebrand. He started dead last at Barber and finished 13th. Rahal was one of five drivers taken out in the turn one lap one accident at Phoenix.

For the second consecutive year, Rahal took a car from one of the final three positions on the grid and raced his way into the top five in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He picked his way through the field and ended up with a sixth place finish. After qualifying 14th for the Indianapolis 500, Rahal had a good car. He worked his way to the front and he led two laps just after halfway. However, a caution dropped him out of the top ten and a flat tire sent him back even further. He was able to get back up to a 12th place finish. Rahal had not dominated a race yet in his career and that changed at Belle Isle. He won his third career pole position for race one and he proceeded to lead 55 of 70 laps on his way to victory. In race two, Rahal rolled off from third position and he would take the lead after the first pit cycle. He was cruising until a late caution but he held off all challengers and swept the weekend on his way to become the first multi-race winner this season. At Texas, Rahal yo-yoed through the field all night and by the time he took the checkered flag he was in fourth.

His podium streak at Road America ended and he didn't have a great car but a change of strategy mid-race salvaged an eighth place finish for him. Rahal had a strong run around the top five all day at Iowa and finished fifth. He qualified on row one for Toronto but the Tony Kanaan caution shuffled him to the back and he had to claw his way to a ninth place finish. At his home race of Mid-Ohio, Rahal started fourth and he got up to third but could not break up the Penske 1-2 of Josef Newgarden and Will Power.

Rahal and Kanaan put on a show at Pocono trading the lead every lap for a dozen laps and he was in the top ten the entire race. Unfortunately for Rahal, he was shuffled back a few positions and finished ninth when he was better than that on the day. The lone mistake of the season for Rahal was leaving the pit lane with the fuel hose attached at Gateway and it cost him a top five finish. He recovered to finish fifth at Watkins Glen after starting tenth. He put together another solid day at Sonoma after starting ninth and finishing sixth.

Graham Rahal's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 6th (522 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 6
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 110
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 9.647
Average Finish: 8.352

It was another season where Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing deserved a round of applause when it was all said and done. For three years of the aero kit-era, RLLR was the best Honda team. While Rahal was not the top Honda driver in the championship, he was second best of the Honda drivers from a single-car team. Rahal is a top driver. He had a few rough years. The results didn't come as quickly as most wanted them to come but he is a driver you aren't surprised to be contending no matter where the race is located. He had 12 top ten finishes this season, only Hélio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden had more.

Rahal wasn't the only driver who did well this year for RLLR. Oriol Servià was running well in the Indianapolis 500 and could have stolen a top ten finish before he was caught in an accident. The Catalan driver's two Belle Isle races were not good. Zachary Claman DeMelo made a surprise debut at Sonoma and he started 21st but he kept the car in one piece and finished 17th.

The team now transitions from a single-car team to a two-car team with the addition of Takuma Sato from Andretti Autosport. I think there has to be a little concern of the team taking a step back. Growth is change and sometimes it takes a while for change to really take hold. There will be more team members but it is about getting everything to mesh and keep Rahal where he is at while trying to get Sato's team up to that level. There will be more resources but the attention will be split and there will be more chances for a headache.

You would think the introduction of the universal aero kit will only bring an already strong RLLR even closer to the top but I do wonder if a neutralization of the field will only make it more difficult for RLLR to stand out. Sato had good runs with the team in 2012 but Rahal struggled in 2013 and 2014, the final two years of the original DW12 aero kit. I think the pieces in place behind the scenes are stronger than they were in the first three years of the DW12-era and that could keep the team fighting at the sharp end of the grid.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Where Will the Drivers Come From?

Hiroaki Ishiura locked up his second Super Formula championship thanks in part due to a typhoon canceling the final weekend of the season from Suzuka. Champions were decided under blue skies in Portugal. Max Verstappen cut a corner and it cost him a podium finish. Kyle Larson had his NASCAR Cup championship hopes evaporate when his engine expired at Kansas. Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Jamie McMurray also had their title hopes end. Ford swept the weekend at Surfers Paradise. MotoGP looked more like a Moto3 race at Phillip Island. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Where Will the Drivers Come From?
The Road to Indy series had a little postseason soirée this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test. The 2017 season was pretty good for the IndyCar ladder system. The Indy Lights grid remained stable and four of the five teams picked up a victory and the top four drivers in the championship came from four different teams.

Pro Mazda was in a transition season and the grid surprisingly went up from 2016. There were eight full-time drivers, up from six, and the average grid size was up to 11.5 from 10.25 in 2016. U.S. F2000 had grids around 20 cars at each event in its first season with he Tatuus USF-17 and U.S. F2000 saw teams like Newman Wachs Racing and Exclusive Autosport enter the series.

Things are looking good for the Road to Indy series and another set of champions are set to move up. Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will both be moving up to IndyCar for at least four races next season, including the two Indianapolis races. Victor Franzoni tested for Juncos Racing in an Indy Lights car at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test and Oliver Askew tested the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis for Cape Motorsports.

The one hope with the new Pro Mazda car is the grid will grow, like the Indy Lights grid after the introduction of the IL-15 chassis and the USF-17 chassis helped that series as well. But cars need drivers and Pro Mazda is the middle of the ladder. It is one thing to get drivers in on the ground floor. There are plenty of drivers from around the world hoping to make a move from karting or F1600 into something bigger and U.S. F2000 is that next step.

Pro Mazda isn't in as ideal of situation. Drivers aren't jumping straight into Pro Mazda and some are skipping it completely, see RC Enerson and possibly Rinus VeeKay, who finished second in the U.S. F2000 championship this year but tested an Indy Lights car this weekend. Experienced junior series drivers coming over from Europe are going to want to be making a step up, which would be Indy Lights. They want to be a step away from something bigger and better. Look at Colton Herta and Matheus Leist. Both drivers came to Indy Lights from European series. Herta ran the Euroformula Open Series, a Formula Three series, and Leist won the BRDC British Formula Three championship, which is a Formula 4-spec series but more powerful than a proper Formula 4 car. You could argue both those drivers were more in line to run in Pro Mazda but both ended up in Indy Lights and both had success.

While it is only October, there weren't many suitors from Europe at the Pro Mazda test this weekend. For this weekend's test, 11 different drivers participated in the Pro Mazda sessions. Six of those 11 drivers were in U.S. F2000 last year, four were returning drivers and one driver came over from Europe, Leonard Hoogenboom, who raced in ADAC, Italian and UAE Formula 4 the last two years and he also has a fun last name.

U.S. F2000 drivers are supposed to move up to Pro Mazda but Pro Mazda still has a ways to go to get the grid back to a healthy level and taking a half a dozen drivers or more from U.S. F2000 isn't going to solve the issue. The ladder system could run the risk of Pro Mazda taking too many drivers from U.S. F2000 and then the issue of grid size will only move from Pro Mazda to U.S. F2000.

U.S. F2000 did have 20 cars entered for its test but the issue is both series should be around the 20 to 24-car range and right now both series are fighting for drivers. Pro Mazda needs to almost double its grid size but where are those drivers going to come from? The Formula 4 United States Championship has over two dozen cars at most races and notable names on that grid are Kyle Kirkwood, who won the Team USA Scholarship last year with Oliver Askew, and Dakota Dickerson, who was in U.S. F2000 earlier this year before funding dried up. The problem is the jump to Pro Mazda from Formula 4 is big. The new Pro Mazda car was over ten seconds faster on the IMS road course than the Formula 4 car. The U.S. F2000 car was five seconds faster than the Formula 4 car so that is not really a solution.

This might be a situation where the problem won't fix itself for another three or four years. I don't see a mass influx of drivers from European junior series to Pro Mazda and propping up the grid. As more drivers funnel through U.S. F2000, more will end up in Pro Mazda and if things continue on the same pace then we will eventually see Pro Mazda grid get back to the desired level. Pro Mazda will likely see progress in 2018 and that is all you can ask for.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Hiroaki Ishiura but did you know...

The #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca of Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel won the European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship with a fourth-place finish at Algarve.

The #2 United Autosport Ligier of Sean Rayhall and John Falb won the European Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a second-place finish in class at Algarve.

The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Jody Fannin and Robert Smith won the European Le Mans Series GTE championship with a second-place finish in class at Algarve.

Joan Mir won the Moto3 race from Phillip Island, his ninth victory of the season, and he clinched the Moto3 championship with that result.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Joan Mir but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the United States Grand Prix, his ninth victory of the season and his sixth United States Grand Prix victory. Hamilton broke a tie with Michael Schumacher for most United States Grand Prix victories.

Marc Márquez won MotoGP's Australian Grand Prix. Miguel Oliveira won in Moto2, his first career Moto2 victory.

Chaz Mostert and Steve Owen won race one of the Gold Coast 600km. Scott McLaughlin and Alexandre Prémat won race two from Surfers Paradise.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Kansas, his seventh victory of the season. Christopher Bell won the Grand National Series race, his first career victory in the series.

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races from Jerez. Federico Caricasulo won the World Supersport race.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Mexican Grand Prix.
MotoGP heads to its penultimate round of the season at Sepang.
The World Rally Championship has its penultimate round of the season at Wales Rally GB.
NASCAR returns to Martinsville.
The WTCC will be at Motegi.
The Asian Le Mans Series season commences at Zhuhai.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Five: Seven Series Special

This weekend is jam-packed full of on-track action that five series is too few to cover. We have debuts. We have championships on the line. We have endurance races. We have two-wheel races. We have four-wheel races. We have races in the United States, in Australia, in Iberia and Japan. We have a street race and an oval. There will be plenty to watch this weekend. I am sure you will find something to your liking.

United States Grand Prix
Formula One is back in the United States and Circuit of the Americas hosts the United States Grand Prix for the sixth consecutive season. 

The championship could be decided this weekend. Lewis Hamilton has 306 points and a 59-point lead over Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas is the only other driver mathematically alive for the title. The Finn trails Hamilton by 72 points. With 100 points left on the table, Hamilton could wrap up the championship with a victory on Sunday and Vettel finishing outside the top five. Hamilton has won four of five races held at Austin, including the last three, with Vettel responsible for victory in the 2013 Austin race. While Mercedes has finished 1-2 in the last three Austin races, Ferrari has put a car on the podium only twice with Vettel finishing third in 2015 and Fernando Alonso finishing third in 2012. Bottas' best finish at Austin was fifth in 2014. He finished outside the points in the last two Austin races. 

The championship has been clinched in the United States seven times, five of those coming in the United States Grand Prix and twice in the Caesars Palace Grand Prix. Hamilton could become the first driver to clinch the World Drivers' Championship on more than one occasion in the United States. Hamilton clinched the 2015 title at Austin. Other drivers to clinch the championship in the United States are Jack Brabham (1959), Jochen Rindt (1970), Emerson Fittipaldi (1974), Niki Lauda (1977), Nelson Piquet (1981) and Keke Rosberg (1982).

Daniel Ricciardo has finished on the podium in the last three races and he is fourth in the championship on 192 points. Kimi Räikkönen has 148 points and rounds out the top five with Max Verstappen on 111 points in sixth and the Dutchman has finished on the podium in the last two races. Sergio Pérez has 82 points with Force India teammate Esteban Ocon on 65 points. 

Carlos Sainz, Jr. makes his Renault debut, as Jolyon Palmer has left the team, and the Spaniard is ahead of his new teammate, Nico Hülkenberg, in the championship with 48 points to the German's 34 points. Hülkenberg is tied with Felipe Massa but holds the tiebreaker with three sixth-place finishes to Massa's two. 

Brendon Hartley will make his Formula One debut this weekend with Scuderia Toro Rosso as Sainz, Jr. moves to Renault and Pierre Gasly will be busy (more on him in a moment). Daniil Kvyat returns after two races on the sidelines. Hartley is the first New Zealander entered for a Formula One races since Mike Thackwell failed to qualify for the 1984 German Grand Prix for Tyrrell. Thackwell made a start earlier that season at Canada with RAM Racing.

Hartley will use car #39. The #39 has been used in 46 Formula One races, most recently in the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix with Bruno Giacomelli, who drove for Life Racing Engines. However, the #39 has failed to qualify for 40 consecutive races and the last time the #39 has started a race was the 1976 Dutch Grand Prix with Boy Hayje. The best finish for #39 was 11th in the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with Alessandro Pesenti-Rossi.

A New Zealander has not scored points in a Formula One race since Chris Amon finished fifth in the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix.

The United States Grand Prix will take place at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd.

Super Formula Finale at Suzuka
At least one single-seater championship will be decided this weekend. The 2017 Super Formula season comes to a close with a doubleheader at Suzuka. 

With 19 points left on the table, eight drivers have a shot for the title entering this weekend.

Hiroaki Ishiura leads the championship with 33.5 points. The 2015 champion is the only driver to have finished in the points in all seven races this season. However, Ishiura has not finished on the podium in the last three races and he has only two podium finishes this season. He won at Fuji and finished second at Okayama. Pierre Gasly will not be at Austin because he trails Ishiura by a half-point. Gasly has two victories and a second-place finish in the last three races. Felix Rosenqvist trails Ishiura by five points after the Swede has finished in the top five in the last five races, including three podium finishes. 

Yuhi Sekiguchi picked up his second victory of the season in the most recent race at Sportsland SUGO and he sits on 25 points. Kazuki Nakajima won the season opener at Suzuka and he is coming off victory in the World Endurance Championship at Fuji. Nakajima has 22 points with André Lotterer two points behind him. Lotterer has not scored points in the last two races. The German has not failed to score points in three consecutive Super Formula races since 2005. Kamui Kobayashi and Yuji Kunimoto are the final two drivers alive for the title. They have 16.5 points and 16 points respectively.

Race one from Suzuka will be at 8:25 p.m. ET on Saturday October 21st with race two taking place at 1:20 a.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd.

Gold Coast 600km
Supercars heads to the final round of the Enduro Cup and it is the antepenultimate round of the season with the Gold Coast 600km from the Surfers Paradise Street Circuit.

DJR Team Penske driver Fabian Coulthard took the championship lead after his third place finish at the Bathurst 1000 and he and Tony D'Alberto lead the Enduro Cup championship with 480 points. Coulthard has 2,431 points and he is 91 points clear of Jamie Whincup and the Red Bull Holden Racing Team driver is back with Paul Dumbrell. Coulthard's teammate Scott McLaughlin dropped from the championship lead to third in the championship, 97 points back after he and Alexandre Prémat retired from Bathurst.

Prodrive Racing Australia Ford drivers Cameron Waters and Richie Stanaway are second in the Enduro Cup standings with 444 points with Rod Nash Racing Ford drivers Chaz Mostert and Steve Owen are third on 414 points. Bathurst winners David Reynolds and Luke Youlden are fourth in the Enduro Cup on 404 points.

Holden has swept the Gold Coast doubleheader the last three seasons with Shane Van Gisbergen responsible for three of those six victories and the pair of Whincup and Dumbrell picking up two of those victories.

The first race of the Gold Coast 600km weekend will take place at 12:25 a.m. ET on Saturday October 21st and race two will take place at 12:25 a.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd.

4 Hours of Algarve
All three championships are on the line in the European Le Mans Series season finale from Algarve International Circuit in Portugal. Two of the champions appear will be predictable while the other will likely come down to the final lap.

In LMP2, the #22 G-Drive Racing Oreca has not finished worse than second in any of the first five races and leads the championship with 98 points. Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel have contested all five rounds while Ryō Hirakawa will be back in the car for the fourth time this season. Those three won at Monza in May. The #32 United Autosports Ligier is the only other car with a shot at the title. Felipe Albuquerque, Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer have won twice this season but those three sit on 80 points and will likely need the #22 Oreca to fail to score to win the championship.

The #22 Oreca will lock up the championship with a fifth-place finish or a sixth-place finish if the #32 Ligier does not win the race from pole position. The #32 Ligier does hold the tiebreaker with two victories to the #22 Oreca's one victory.

United Autosports is on the right side of the championship battle in LMP3. The #2 Ligier leads the LMP3 championship with 85 points. Sean Rayhall and John Falb have two victories this season and the All-American duo has finished on the podium four times from five races. Nineteen points back is the #18 M.Racing - YMR Ligier of Alexandre Cougnaud, Antoine Jung and Romano Ricci. The #18 Ligier has not won this season but has three podium finishes.

The #2 Ligier will clinch the LMP3 title with a sixth-place finish or a seventh-place finish if the #18 Ligier does not win the race from pole position.

In GTE, five teams have a shot at the championship. The #90 TF Sport Aston Martin and the #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari are separated by one point with the #90 Aston Martin on 87 points to the #66 Ferrari's 86 points. Each team has one victory, two second-place finishes, a third-place finish and a fifth with the difference being the #90 Aston Martin having won one pole position this season. Nicki Thiim leads the Aston Martin line-up with Euan Hankey and Salih Yoluc. Jody Fannin and Robert Smith have run all five races in the #66 Ferrari and Will Stevens returns in the car for the second consecutive race.

Spirit of Race has won three consecutive races and both the team's Ferraris are alive for the title. The #55 Ferrari won at Red Bull Ring and Circuit Paul Ricard and Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott trails by 11 points. The #51 Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Gianluca Roda and Giogio Roda won the most recent round at Spa-Franchorchamps and the all-Italian line-up has 70 points. The #99 Beechdean Aston Martin has an outside shot at the championship with Andrew Howard and Darren Turner. The #99 Aston Martin has to win this race as it trails the #90 Aston Martin by 24 points. German driver Immanuel Vinke joins Turner and Howard for Algarve. 

The 4 Hours of Algarve starts at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd.

Australian Grand Prix
MotoGP heads to its antepenultimate round and four riders are still alive for the championship.

Marc Márquez had his championship lead cut to 11 points after Andrea Dovizioso's victory at Motegi. Márquez has finished on the podium in eight of the last nine races with the one blemish being his engine failure while in contention for a podium finish at Silverstone. Márquez and Dovizioso have split the seven races since the start of July with the Spaniard holding the advantage four to three since July but the two riders are tied on five victories overall this season.

Maverick Viñales sits third in the championship on 203 points, 41 markers behind Márquez. Viñales has not finished on the podium in the last three races. Dani Pedrosa has a slim shot at the championship. With 75 points left on the table, Pedrosa trails his Honda teammate by 74 points. Valentino Rossi rounds out the top five in the championship but he is 76 points behind Márquez. 

Cal Crutchlow won last year's Australian Grand Prix, a race that saw Márquez fall off while leading in turn five. Crutchlow's victory made it five different winners in the last five Australian Grands Prix. Honda has won three of those five races with Yamaha responsible for the other two. Ducati has not won at Phillip Island since Casey Stoner picked up his final victory for the manufacture in 2010. Dovizioso's only victory at Phillip Island came in 2004 in 125cc class. Ironically, prior to last week Dovizioso's only victory at Motegi came in 2004 in 125cc. Dovizioso's only podium finish in the top class at Phillip Island was third in 2011.

The Australian Grand Prix will take place at 1:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd. 

World Supersport Spanish Round
While Jonathan Rea has locked up the World Superbike championship, the World Supersport championship is up in the air with two races remaining and Jerez hosts the penultimate round. 

Lucas Mahias took the championship lead with a fourth-place finish at Magny-Cours after Kawasaki rider Kenan Sofuoglu was forced to miss the race due to injury and Sofuoglu will not be fit for Jerez. The Yamaha rider has 154 points; nine points ahead of the injured Turkish rider. South African rider Sheridan Morias trails Mahias by 32 points with Honda rider Jules Cluzel 39 points behind his fellow countryman. 

Mahias has finished on the podium in seven of ten races but his only victory was at the third round of the season at Aragón. Sofuoglu has won five races this season and he is the only rider with multiple victories. Sofuoglu had won the last two years at Jerez. MV Agusta rider Roberto Rolfo won the season opener at Phillip Island, Yamaha's Ferderico Caricasulo won at Buriram, Morias won at Lausitz and Niki Tuuli won the most recent round at Magny-Cours. All four of those victories were the first World Supersport victories for those respective riders. 

American P.J. Jacobsen sits fifth in the championship on 95 points and Jacobsen picked up his third podium of the season at Magny-Cours.

The World Supersport race will be held at 5:30 a.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd.

Hollywood Casino 400
The final round of the second round of the Chase for the NASCAR Cup Series will be held at Kansas Speedway. 

Martin Truex, Jr. secured his spot in the semifinal round with a victory at Charlotte and Brad Keselowski has advanced to the next round thanks to his victory at Talladega last week. Those two drivers also are the top two in points with 3,120 points and 3,101 points respectively. 

Kyle Larson is the top driver on points that has yet to advance. The Ganassi driver has 3,096 points and he is 29 points to the good. Kevin Harvick is 23 points ahead of ninth with Hamlin a point behind Harvick. Keselowski and Hamlin were the only two Chase drivers to finish in the top ten at Talladega with Hamlin finishing sixth. Chase Elliott is 20 points above the drop zone in sixth and he 11 points ahead of Ryan Blaney. Blaney has not had a top five finish since his victory at Pocono in June. Jimmie Johnson holds eighth position, seven points above the drop zone. 

Kyle Busch is the first driver on the outside with 3,067 points with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth a point behind him. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Jamie McMurray are on the outside by 22 points and 29 points respectively. 

Truex, Jr. won the spring race at Kansas. Harvick won last year's autumn race and Busch won the spring race last year. Johnson is tied with Jeff Gordon for most Kansas victories with three. Harvick, Kenseth, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart all won at Kansas twice. Johnson, Harvick and Kenseth have all won three pole positions at Kansas. Stenhouse, Jr. finished 11th in the spring race, matching his career-best finish at the track in nine Kansas starts and Stenhouse, Jr. has not had a top ten finish and a 1.5-mile oval since Atlanta last season, where he finished tenth. His only other top ten finish on a 1.5-mile oval was eighth at Chicagoland in 2013. McMurray finished eighth in the spring race, his fourth top ten finish at Kansas in 21 starts. His best finish at Kansas is seventh. 

The NASCAR Cup race will be at 3:16 p.m. ET on Sunday October 22nd. 

Over or Under?
1. Over or Under: 54.5 being the lap on which the fastest lap occurs in the United States Grand Prix?
2. Over or Under: 3.5 podium finishes for non-Japanese driver in the Suzuka doubleheader?
3. Over or Under: 7.5 cars within 20 seconds of the winner in the first Gold Coast race?
4. Over or Under: 4.5 LMP3 cars finishing on the lead lap of that class winner?
5. Over or Under: 40.7 minutes to complete the Australian Grand Prix?
6. Over or Under: 0.075 seconds between the pole-sitter and second on the grid?
7. Over or Under: 2.5 Chase drivers finishing outside the top twenty at Kansas?

Last Week's Over/Unders
1. Under: The winning #44 Magnus Racing Audi completed 314 laps in the California 8 Hours.
2. Under: Robert Wickens finished the 2017 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season with 119 points.
3. Over: Eight French drivers finished in the top five of LMP2 at Fuji.
4. Over: The top finishing non-Spaniard/Italian at Motegi was Frenchman Johann Zarco in eighth.
5. Under: There was six caution laps during stage two of the Cup race at Talladega.

1. Brendon Hartley qualifies at least three positions behind Daniil Kvyat prior to grid penalties.
2. Hiroaki Ishiura scores points in both Suzuka races but does not win the championship.
3. The Enduro Cup winners win one of the two Gold Coast 600km races.
4. G-Drive Racing does not finish on the podium but does take the LMP2 championship.
5. There will be three manufactures on the podium at Phillip Island.
6. A manufacture other than Kawasaki or Yamaha wins the World Supersport race.
7. Three of the four drivers that don't advance from round two don't finish in the top ten in Kansas.

Last Week's Predictions
1. A third different manufacture wins the third IGTC round of the season (Wrong. Audi picked up its IGTC victory).
2. Mattias Ekström wins the DTM championship but does not win a race at Hockenheimring (Wrong and Correct. René Rast won the championship but Ekström didn't win a race).
3. There will be a first time winner this year in at least one of the classes at Fuji (Correct! The #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari picked up its first victory in GTE-Am).
4. Valentino Rossi is not the top Yamaha finisher (Correct! Rossi retired from Japan).
5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finishes ahead of at least two of his teammates (Correct! He was the top Hendrick Motorsports finisher in seventh).
Last Week: 3.5/5 Overall: 13/20

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Andretti Autosport's 2017 Season

We are getting closer to the sharp end of the IndyCar grid and as we have entered the second half of IndyCar team reviews, we have reached one of two teams that had multiple drivers win a race this season. Andretti Autosport also had three drivers finish in the top ten in the championship. Unfortunately for this team, it did not have a driver finish in the top five in the championship for the fourth consecutive season.

The stud everyone in IndyCar is falling for: Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi
His sophomore season began with a lackluster result in St. Petersburg. Rossi started eighth but the debris caution during the first round of pit stops shuffled him back and he could only finish 11th. He made the Fast Six for the first time in his career at Long Beach and he started fifth. He was running at the front the entire race and he was looking to at least have a podium finish before an engine failure ended his race after 62 laps. Barber did not start any better and he was 18th on the grid but two consecutive stints on alternate tires got him up to seventh and he finished fifth. A brush with the wall ended his night early at Phoenix.

He had a solid eighth place finish from ninth on the grid in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and it set him up nicely for Indianapolis 500 qualifying. He was fifth fastest on the first day of qualifying and improved to third on the second day of qualifying. Rossi was at the front for most of the race and it appeared his chances of going 2-for-2 were going to stay alive right until the very end but one botched pit stop dropped him to the back and he had to settle for a seventh place finish. He kept up on his good form at Belle Isle with finishes of fifth place and seventh place.

An apparent tire failure caused Rossi to be the first retirement of the night at Texas after starting third. Rossi was one of the first drivers to go to the four-stop strategy at Road America after starting 15th. It appeared it might have been good enough to get him into the top five even with the cautions. However, he suffered a front wing failure and he had to limp home to a 14th-place finish. This was followed by a mediocre day at Iowa in 11th. Things picked up when he crossed the border. He started eighth at Toronto and fortunate timing for his pit stop put him in fourth. He then passed Charlie Kimball and Ed Jones to get up to second but Josef Newgarden was gone and Rossi had to settle for second best. He was in podium contention at Mid-Ohio but his alternate tires fell off earlier than most in a stint and he settled for sixth.

The second 500-mile race of the season at Pocono was another race where Rossi was up front all race and in this one he was arguably the best driver all day. He started sixth and led 44 laps but Team Penske driver Will Power and Josef Newgarden jumped him in the order and Rossi could do no better than third. At Gateway, Rossi ran in the top ten all race despite Honda being at a deficit and he finished sixth. He took his first career pole position at Watkins Glen and despite losing the lead after a bobble on a wet spot, Rossi had the superior car and drove away from the field and held off Scott Dixon after the final restart to take the victory. His season would end prematurely as a mechanical issue hampered his race and he had to settle for a 21st place finish.

Alexander Rossi's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 7th (494 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 99
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 8.647
Average Finish: 9.529

It will never get better than this for Takuma Sato
Takuma Sato
His first race with Andretti Autosport was surprisingly competitive. Not only was he the top Andretti Autosport qualified but he also started fifth and ran at the front the entire race. He was overtaken by his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay in a drag race to the line for fourth but it was an encouraging start. He was just one of four Andretti cars to bit by a sick Honda at Long Beach however he followed that up with a solid ninth place finish at Barber. Unfortunately for Sato he could only make it to the fourth race before his first accident in a race and that occurred at Phoenix.

He had an unenthusiastic 12th place finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he qualified fourth for the Indianapolis 500. Sato was at the front with Rossi and teammate Fernando Alonso and to be honest, I never took him seriously when he was apart of that trio. I figured if there was an Andretti car to fade it would be Sato but when Hunter-Reay and Alonso retired and Rossi fell back Sato was there and not only was he there but he was aggressive and for one glorious day in May it didn't bite him. The man who had a Indianapolis 500 slip through his hands five years earlier grabbed onto this one and never let go.

Even better for Sato was he didn't have a slump at Belle Isle and finished eighth in race one, won pole position for race two and came home in fourth in that race. His first arguably bonehead move of the season came at Texas with five laps to go when he dropped his tires into the grass and slid into Scott Dixon, ending both their nights while both were in contention for the victory but he was still able to be classified in tenth and head into summer third in the championship. He was dealing with a stiff neck at Road America and finished 19th. Sato didn't have the car at Iowa and he finished 16th.

Contact with Spencer Pigot forced him to change his front wing at Toronto and he picked up another 16th place finish. He followed that up with a fifth at Mid-Ohio and he won pole position for Pocono. However, he dropped like a rock in that race and had to settle for 13th. He had nowhere to go when Will Power spun at Gateway and his race was over early. A wastegate issue caused him to be off the pace at Watkins Glen and he had a spin. An engine failure at Sonoma ended his season early.

Takuma Sato's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 8th (441 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 41
Poles: 2
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 8.588
Average Finish: 12.352

Ryan Hunter-Reay did well but 2017 could have been better
Ryan Hunter-Reay
The 2012 IndyCar champion started 12th for the season opener at St. Petersburg and he worked his way to the front and made a late pass on Sato to be the top Andretti finisher in the first race of the season in fourth. He started third at Long Beach and had the car to beat leading 28 laps. James Hinchcliffe jumped him in the order when the second caution came out but Hunter-Reay would be right behind the Canadian. Unfortunately, Hunter-Reay's race ended 23 laps early due to an electrical issue. Things didn't get better in the next two races as he finished 11th at Barber and brushed the wall one too many times at Phoenix.

Hunter-Reay had an improvement in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He started eighth but made a fair share of passes and finished third. He was unable to make the Fast Nine in Indianapolis 500 qualifying but he topped the first group of Sunday qualifiers and started tenth. It took him no time at all to be at front and content for the victory. He led 28 laps and his engine let go while running in the top five after completing 136 laps. Things didn't get better at Belle Isle. He was not a factor in race one and finished 13th and despite starting second in race two he fell like a rock after slight contact with Hélio Castroneves and finished 17th. Any progress was stunted at Texas when he was caught up in the lap 152 accident.

He was in position for a top ten at Road America but like his teammate Alexander Rossi, front wing damage bit him late and he had to settle for 14th. It finally started to turn around at Iowa. He was in the top ten all day and his car improved over the course of the race. He was the top Honda when it was all over in third position. He caught a break with Tony Kanaan's caution at Toronto and he lost a tough battle for fifth with Simon Pagenaud but sixth was a well-earned finish. Mid-Ohio was nearly a disaster after he spun due an incident with Rossi while both were in contention for top five finishes but Hunter-Reay kept going albeit he slipped to 12th after the incident. He made a handful of passes and finished eighth.

A hard qualifying accident at Pocono led to a trip to the hospital and questions if Hunter-Reay was going to race. Despite a slight hobble, he charged to the front and even led 12 laps before sliding back to an eighth-place finish. He started seventh at Watkins Glen and was in the top five for most of the race. He even led four laps when Rossi had to make an early pit stop. He wasn't able to challenge his teammate once Rossi retook the lead but he did manage to finish third. Bent suspension after kissing the wall exiting turn two at Gateway ended a top ten run and he started seventh and finished eighth at Sonoma.

Ryan Hunter-Reay's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 9th (421 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 8
Laps Led: 72
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 8
Average Start: 10.705
Average Finish: 11.117

Things were better for Marco Andretti in 2017 and he got married!
Marco Andretti
After starting 15th at St. Petersburg, his speed came out in the race and he started the season with a seventh place finish. Unreliability bit Andretti the hardest this season among the four Andretti Autosport cars. He was the first of the four to go at Long Beach and he was running in the top ten. At Barber, he had to stop in the pits coming to the green flag because of a gearbox issue. By the time the issue was corrected he was two laps down and never had a shot for a respectable finish. Andretti had nowhere to go when Mikhail Aleshin spun at Phoenix and his race was over before lap one was completed.

The month of May started with him in the 11th position on the grid for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he was penalized on lap one for contact with Tony Kanaan and he had to settle for 16th. He had a solid car on the oval and started and finished eighth. He didn't do much at Belle Isle and finished 12th and 13th in the respective races. Andretti got a sixth place finished at Texas through survival. He started eighth at Road America but lost a lap because he had to fix his car to prevent his throttle from sticking and he finished 18th.

Andretti had a horrendous day at Iowa, starting 20th and finishing 18th but he led seven laps through a pit cycle. He may have benefitted from the Tony Kanaan caution at Toronto but he was competitive prior to that. He had a solid run to a fourth place finish, his first top five finish in over two years. He was mid-pack all race at Mid-Ohio and finished 12th.

At his home race of Pocono, Andretti started 16th but spent a fair amount of time in the top ten. He led nine laps after stretching his fuel as late as possible and a stop for a splash of gas took a little longer than it should have and he finished 11th. He had an uneventful day and finished 14th at Gateway. He had a top ten run going at Watkins Glen before losing positions late and settling for 16th. A top ten finish did not slip from him at Sonoma where he finished seventh after starting 11th.

Marco Andretti's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 12th (388 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 16
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 13.117
Average Finish: 12.941

It was a solid year for Andretti Autosport when you consider it had drivers seventh, eighth, ninth and 12th for the championship but these results are also unacceptable when you consider Andretti Autosport is one of three four-car teams and it hasn't had a driver alive for the championship entering the finale since 2014. This team should expect more and I think deep down they are all a little disappointed the team didn't accomplish more.

Rossi is the sexy pick for 2018. Don't think you are special if jumping on his bandwagon. It is more crowded than it appears. Part of it is rightfully so. He only looked better after every race and enough people were cast under his spell by his Watkins Glen performance. He is the championship sleeper to 99.9% of experts. No pressure kid.

When you look over the results, Sato rarely put a wheel wrong and for the better part of five years I have been saying we know who Sato is and he isn't going to change. However, he had only three retirements this season due to accidents and one of those was not his fault. Last year, he had only two retirements due to accidents. I am not saying the best is yet to come but I think Sato could have another solid season or two in IndyCar at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Something has been bugging me about Ryan Hunter-Reay and more specifically it is something someone wrote about Ryan Hunter-Reay. Jeff Gluck covered the IndyCar finale at Sonoma and while writing about Josef Newgarden's championship he mentioned that Hunter-Reay's championship in 2012 did not revitalize IndyCar and he speculates part of that is because Hunter-Reay has not finished in the top five of the championship since he won the title.

I like Jeff Gluck. I think he is a good writer and I admire what he has done to make it as a journalist and I recommend donating money to him. Hunter-Reay hasn't finished in the top five of the championship since 2012 but that doesn't tell the whole story about Ryan Hunter-Reay. It is one of those sports oddities like the fact Walter Payton never scored a touchdown in a Super Bowl or Ernie Banks never played a postseason game. When you consider where Hunter-Reay was ten and a half years ago and the era of IndyCar racing he came up in the fact that he is full-time in IndyCar in 2017 let alone a champion, an Indianapolis 500 winner and a regular top ten driver in the championship is outstanding. His career was over at the start of 2007. He lost his Champ Car ride the year prior, he had no sponsors to get him back on the grid and he could have been another American driver who couldn't make it in open-wheel racing and had to settle for sports car options.

Hunter-Reay might not have finished in the top five in the championship the last five seasons but he does have an Indianapolis 500 victory and he was fourth in the championship entering the 2014 season finale at Fontana before a spin exiting turn four put him a lap down and double points dropped him to sixth in the final championship standings. He has also had some incredible races, most notably his Iowa victories in 2014 and 2015 and he had a stunning drive at Pocono last year to go from 12th to third in the final 20 laps after going a lap down due to an electrical glitch in 2016. Even this year's Pocono race was incredible considering he wasn't 100% after an accident the day before. I am not going to say Hunter-Reay is one of the ten greatest American IndyCar drivers of all-time but he has been a respectable driver for a decade and he hasn't won the last two seasons but it hasn't been without his fair share of quality races and heartbreaking misfortune. He is bound to win a race again and it will likely come in 2018.

I think Andretti Autosport expects to pick up the results next year with the new aero kits. The team might be slightly behind on paper considering four teams have tested the universal aero kits and Andretti Autosport wasn't one of them but Andretti Autosport was the test team for Honda's aero kit and that caused nothing but problems heading into the 2015 season. The team is bringing in Zach Veach and I don't think he will be able to match the results of Sato but Rossi is on a tear, Hunter-Reay ended the season strong and Marco Andretti improved from 2016. This team is bound to rid itself of the misfortune that has snuck up on it the last three years and 2018 might be that season.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: We Need to Talk About COTA

Fourteen drivers finished the NASCAR race from Talladega. MotoGP had a titanic battle in the wet at Motegi and that championship is getting tighter. Rain caused a hectic end to the World Endurance Championship at Fuji and the race was eventually called early. The same thing occurred in China for the WTCC race and Argentines swept the weekend. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship came down to the final race and it came down to one of four Audi drivers taking the title. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

We Need to Talk About COTA
Formula One makes its sixth visit to Circuit of the Americas this weekend and where have six years gone? The days during the recession when it seemed there was no way a racetrack worth a couple hundred million dollars still feel like yesterday. It felt like another American Formula One pipe dream that would never come to life. It did but the first FIA Grade 1 circuit built in the United States has had anything but the rosiest six years.

Formula One has had its trouble and though things seems to be ok, it wasn't that long ago when it appeared Austin was going to lose the Formula One race. It appears we are beyond that now but you can never tell with the world of Formula One, even now with Liberty Media in control. Austin has Formula One for now and outside of that, it doesn't have much. That is a concern to me.

Circuit of the Americas has become the hotspot for international motorsports in the United States. Besides the Formula One race, COTA is host to the only MotoGP race in the United States. The track even added a 24H Series race for November with this year's race being a non-championship round before being the season finale in 2018. However, things are changing and the track is losing key rounds.

The World Endurance Championship will not be returning to the track next year. IMSA is not returning either. Both series tried to run on their own weekend after a few years of doing a doubleheader and it came out for worse for both series. Outside of Formula One, MotoGP and 24H Series, the only series slated to run at Circuit of the Americas next year is Pirelli World Challenge and that is the only domestic series to go to the racetrack.

We are five years into the existence of Circuit of the Americas and the track should be hosting more domestic series. The Formula One race and MotoGP race provide really good crowds for the racetrack but two big rounds aren't good enough. WEC and IMSA left because of small crowds, mostly I think because of poor date choice and running on a Saturday during college football season and only a few miles away from the University of Texas. To be fair to COTA it takes more than five years to develop a regularly attending fan base. When COTA was first announced, I think I wasn't the only one a little surprised about the idea of a racetrack outside of Austin, Texas. Austin didn't have a connection to motorsports. It wasn't Indianapolis or Charlotte. It was the cliché "untapped market" that got a racetrack. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe an "untapped market" will never get it and never be able to create a regularly attending fan base but the only way to develop a motorsports fan base is by having races to attend and having two weekends when you hope to draw people out isn't enough.

Circuit of the Americas is in a dangerous position and one that it should have gotten out of by adding domestic series. If Formula One and MotoGP decide to leave Austin the track will likely be on the verge of collapse. It has got nothing beyond those races of substance that draws people, sponsors and potentially make money. The track has expressed interest in hosting a NASCAR race, which is harder to get than it sounds and something Eddie Gossage and Texas Motor Speedway would do everything in its power to block. IndyCar doesn't appear to be on the track's radar and while IMSA said it was open to returning I don't see the series going back to Texas any time soon.

Without races, the track is hoping to make money through other avenues. The track's amphitheater hosts concerts throughout the year and the track is even building a soccer stadium on the property but I want to see Circuit of the Americas succeed at what it decided to put in its title, as being a circuit. It is a really nice racetrack; one that is under appreciated in this country and more series should go there. Besides hosting Formula One and MotoGP, the series should go out there and add a NASCAR race and add an IndyCar race. While concerts and soccer games both attract a crowd, the venue needs to use the racetrack to stay alive and it would be a shame in five years all we will have is a 3.4-mile ribbon of asphalt collecting dust.

Champion From the Weekend
Réne Rast won the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship by three points over Mattias Ekström.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about René Rast but did you know...

Andrea Dovizioso beat Marc Márquez in a tussle in the wet in the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi. Álex Márquez won in Moto2, his third victory of the season. Romano Fentai won in Moto3, his third victory of the season.

The #8 Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima, Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson won the 6 Hours of Fuji. The #31 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca of Bruno Senna, Julien Canal and Nicolas Prost won in LMP2. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi won in GTE-Pro, their second consecutive victory and their third in the last four races. The #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci and Miguel Molina won in GTE-Am.

The #44 Magnus Racing Audi of Pierre Kaffer, Kelvin van der Linde and Markus Winkelhock won the California 8 Hours.

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega. Parker Kligerman won the Truck race.

Jamie Green and Marco Wittmann split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from Hockenheim.

Esteban Guerrieri and Néstor Girolami split the WTCC races from Ningbo.

Coming Up This Weekend
The United States Grand Prix.
Supercars ends the endurance section of the season at Surfers Paradise.
MotoGP takes the title battle to Phillip Island.
World Superbikes will be at Jerez.
Suzuka hosts the final round of the Super Formula season.
Portimão hosts the final round of the European Le Mans Series season.
Kansas hosts the final race of the second round of the NASCAR Chase.