Thursday, March 29, 2018

This Month in Motorsports Headlines: March 2018

We are back for the second edition of This Month in Motorsports Headlines and this month had a bit more variety. More series are in action in March. IndyCar, MotoGP and Formula One seasons all started this month, there was a rally in Mexico and a few more series are preparing for upcoming season openers.

In case you are new, this is my gut reaction to headlines without reading the article. Of course, the gripes I have may be answered in the article.

We have seven headlines to look at this month and we will start with NASCAR.

Brett Moffitt: "I would go race for free" to be in winning equipment
No you wouldn't. People love the sentiment of a driver who would race for nothing and would do whatever it took to win a race and would race hard for nothing but let's be realistic. Winning equipment doesn't pay the bill and while the information has been kept secret the last few seasons all signs point to purses being lower than the last time the information was public, which means a drivers' percentage of the winning is less than it was three of four years ago.

I am sure a driver could still make rent just on winnings but you need a base to start with because if Moffitt has three or four consecutive races where he retires early or gets in accidents and finishes outside the top 24 that would net him a fraction of what he would make if he was consistently finishing eighth to 12th.

Let's see how long a driver could go racing for free and there is nothing to gain by racing for free. That shouldn't make you more desirable to a future team owner. All it says is you are cheap. Put a price on yourself and demand you get paid. The team owners aren't going to look out for a driver. Moffitt and all drivers should get as much as they can as soon as they can.

At 250 Starts, Almirola feels like a rookie again
Since when did joining a new team make you feel like a rookie again?

Think about what a rookie goes through: New team, unknown car, possibly new tracks, longer races, more sponsorship commitments and higher expectations. It is quite a bit and that isn't considering all the off-track stuff a driver has to balance.

Almirola has been a frequent Cup driver since 2008 and he has been full-time since 2012. He spent the 2011 season in NASCAR's second division with JR Motorsports when he couldn't find a Cup ride. Stewart-Haas Racing is his sixth Cup team. His last 220 Cup starts have been with Ford. The tracks haven't changed, the races are the same length, one of his sponsors followed him from Richard Petty Motorsports and no one is expecting the world from him. The bar is low for Almirola.

There is no reason he should feel like a rookie. He switched teams and unless Stewart-Haas Racing has some really odd dress code or makes everyone come in a 4:00 a.m. for work or has a pet goat that everyone has to take care of and everyone has to bring it home one night a month, Almirola's routine should not have changed that much from the previous six years of his career. It should be a similar culture to what he is used to. If anything, it should be easier for Almirola because he has gone from being the only driver at Richard Petty Motorsports to the fourth of four Stewart-Haas drivers. While all eyes are on Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch get attention a fair amount of the time, Almirola is in a position where if he does well everyone is excited and if he does mediocre it was probably better than what he did at RPM and people are still happy for him. He is in a win-win situation. Most rookies don't get that.

Edwards: No rethink on retirement
Is this going to be a quarterly article? Someone calls Carl Edwards on his Missouri farm (I am guessing he lives on a farm and takes advantage of a tax break) and asks him if he wants to comeback to NASCAR and every time the answer is no?

Why do people think he will come back? His age?

Edwards would not get the same salary he did when he retired. Look at how NASCAR has changed in the year-plus since he stepped away. Matt Kenseth is gone and it wasn't because he wanted out. It is cheaper to put a Daniel Suárez, William Byron, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman or Darrell Wallace, Jr. in a car than a Kenseth or an Edwards. Jimmie Johnson is in the sponsorship hunting business now and he may be disappointed in how difficult it will be.

Edwards is gone but get ready for another article with Edwards once again saying he isn't coming back sometime in July.

Moving on to Formula One...

MIDLAND: Fourth is the new first
Nope, it is still fourth.

I understand the sentiment. The Formula One grid has been split into two packs, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull vs. Everybody else.

No one is going to break up the top three this year. There might be a few races where Haas gets a car in the top five or Renault or McLaren does the same but unless your name is Hamilton, Bottas, Vettel, Räikkönen, Ricciardo or Verstappen you probably will not win a race this year and there is a slim percentage you will be on the podium at some point in 2018.

While this divide could be seen as Formula One being too predictable, it does allow for an interesting competition. At Australia, Haas looked strong and was running fourth and sixth with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean before the team botched two consecutive pit stops and took both cars out of the race. Who stepped up and was the best of rest? Fernando Alonso and McLaren with the Spaniard finishing fifth and Stoffel Vandoorne's ninth place finish has McLaren fourth in the Constructors' Championship on 12 points after one race, five points ahead of Renault and the other five teams have zero points after one race.

It will be an interesting battle and one that could swing back and forth all year but let's be clear, fourth is fourth. Just because more teams have a realistic shot of obtaining it doesn't make it first. These teams have a long way to go.

Brown to skip Japanese GP for the Bathurst 1000
Is Zak Brown bringing Fernando Alonso along with him?

While Brown is in charge of McLaren, it isn't a big deal he will not be at a Formula One race. He has multiple teams in multiple corners of the earth and Bathurst is the biggest event for his team, Walkinshaw Andretti United, a team that Brown is the minority owner. It would be a slightly bigger deal if Honda was still partnered with McLaren and Brown was skipping Japan. That could be seen as disrespectful. The only race in your engine manufactures' country and you choose not to go would be a bad look for Brown but that isn't the case.

Motorsports is a diverse sport and there are many stellar events. Roger Penske is in a similar boat. It wouldn't be news if he skipped an IndyCar race to attend a massive sports car race or skips a NASCAR race because the IndyCar title is on the line. You got to pick and choose and in Brown's case his first trip to Bathurst as a car owner, with potentially a shot at victory, is a big deal.

On to rally...

Loeb "sorry" to be replacing Breen in Mexico
I call bullshit. Come on, Sébastien Loeb. If it bothered you that much you wouldn't be doing it all. You had been happily retired from World Rally Championship competition for four years but after a few years and a fair amount of success in sports cars, touring cars, rallycross and the Dakar Rally you needed to return to your domain and Citroën wasn't going to say no to its favorite son.

Craig Breen has been a very good driver but Loeb is the greatest of all-time. Someone had to make room for the Frenchman and Breen got the short straw.

Let's end with IndyCar...

IndyCar owner Chip Ganassi in favor of stricter Indy 500 rookie orientation
I got to admit I read this article before writing but it seems in line with something Ganassi would say. Of course, in the article he goes on to say it was tougher when he was a driver, everything was tougher back in the day and today's drivers are spoiled brats with everything handed to them. I think I covered all the bases there.

I have argued in the past that rookie orientation is a session that could disappear from the Indianapolis 500 schedule and I doubt anyone would miss it. It is not like unqualified drivers are being allowed to compete. I think it is an arbitrary session in this era of racing and the drivers unprepared for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be found out immediately and struggle to make the race. Drivers have other tools to get ready for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and because of Indy Lights and the Freedom 100 drivers have experience on the track before ever getting into an IndyCar, something that is different from Ganassi's time as a driver. I am sure rookies appreciate the extra time on the track and it is probably beneficial to those drivers but this isn't 1964 and the first time a driver has been on a large, paved oval.

Ganassi is still angry about Scott Dixon being in the wrong place when Jay Howard hit the wall and Dixon's race ended after colliding with the past Indy Lights champion. Howard wasn't a rookie but needed to go through a refresher but a tougher rookie orientation program or refresher program would not have changed what would have happened in that incident. Howard got into the marbles, brushed the wall, had suspension damage and unfortunately slid into the way of Dixon. It was an unfortunate accident. Make rookie orientation harder for all I care. The same drivers are still going to get rides and be allowed to compete.

That was March. Let's see what April brings as more seasons firmly get into the 2018 season and we will have the starts of the FIA World Endurance Championship and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters seasons approaching.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: What Could Bumping Look Like in 2018?

Sebastian Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix for the second consecutive year after Haas F1 had a pair of pit stop issues that were timely for the German. It was the 100th podium finish of Vettel's Formula One career and he is the fourth driver to reach the century mark in that category. Lewis Hamilton finished second. Max Verstappen spun and kept it out of the barrier. Fernando Alonso should be pleased. Roger Penske and Michael Andretti were each winners this weekend in Melbourne. British order has been restored in World Superbikes. It snowed in Indianapolis and Martinsville but the Supercross race got in without delay and had a few thrilling twists. The NASCAR weekend cannot say the same as it snowed and both Cup and Truck races will be held today. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

What Could Bumping Look Like in 2018?
There is no secret that this year's Indianapolis 500 entry list likely will have more than 33 entries with as many as 35-36 entries rumored.

Last week saw two more Indianapolis 500 entries confirmed and both were on the Honda side. Pippa Mann will be back at Dale Coyne Racing, meaning the Illinois-based team will field four different drivers from four different countries as the Briton Mann joins Frenchman Sébastien Bourdais, Brazilian rookie Pietro Fittipaldi and American Conor Daly.

Mann wasn't the only Brit to seal an Indianapolis 500 ride. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports confirmed Jay Howard will return for the second consecutive year.

We haven't reached Easter and Honda has 19 entries confirmed for the Indianapolis 500. That has to be the maximum the manufacture could support and other than Chip Ganassi Racing, which has no plan on fielding an additional entry in May, all the other Honda teams have to be at their limits for supporting cars come May.

Whether we have bumping or not all rests on Chevrolet and the manufacture already has ten full-time entries on the table meaning we are five additional Chevrolet entries away from bumping and Chevrolet has said it is willing for field up to 17 entries, meaning possibly 36 entries are on the table.

For a moment, let's put aside where those additional Chevrolet entries could come from and play out a hypothetical situation. It is Saturday May 19, 2018; the first day of Indianapolis 500 qualifying. What could bumping look like?

Indianapolis 500 qualifying changed a few years ago and instead of having pole day be the first qualifying day with the second day left for bumping we have had two days of redundant qualifying sessions where everyone qualifies the first day, the Fast Nine is set and the field is set. Then on Sunday everyone qualifies again with everyone tenth to 33rd going again to set rows four through 11 and following that session is the Fast Nine Session to determine who starts on pole position.

Since the change the only year that saw more than 2015 and that was a fluky year in its own way because Saturday was washed out and then because of a few crashes in practices IndyCar made teams run its race aero package in qualifying and everyone had one qualifying run. After that, the bottom three cars and Buddy Lazier were put in a last chance qualifier group to decide who was going home.

We haven't seen what bumping would look like with this format unabridged and I am not sure people know what to expect when qualifying comes. The field will not be decided at 6:00 p.m. ET on Sunday May 20th but the field might not be set at 6:00 p.m. ET on Saturday May 19th either. Let's try to clear this up.

While the plan is for the field of 33 to be set on Saturday, there are provisions in place that could extend the proceedings until Sunday.

Rule for Indianapolis 500 qualifying states:
If a car is unable to complete its Guaranteed Attempt because of a mechanical condition or on-Tack incident and is prevented from making a second attempt during Saturday Qualifying as determined by INDYCAR, the INDYCAR shall provide that Car an opportunity to complete its second attempt on Sunday at a time determined by INDYCAR ("Last Chance Qualifying").
Each car gets a Guaranteed Attempt on Saturday but let's use Sébastien Bourdais' accident last year as an example. If there had been 34 cars entered last year and Bourdais had crashed, his entry would have been allowed an opportunity to qualifying on Sunday even if 33 cars had set a time.

Rule adds:
The fastest thirty-three cars completing Qualifications attempts on Saturday shall start the race. However, for every Car unable to complete their Guaranteed Attempt, as described in Rule, there will be an equal number of temporary positions available at the rear of the starting field.
Once again, using Bourdais as the example, if 33 cars had set a time on Saturday and an accident kept Bourdais from making a second attempt then he would get a shot in the "Last Chance Qualifying" on Sunday. Since Bourdais would have been the only driver needing "Last Chance Qualifying" there would only be one temporary position made available. That means the top 32 qualifiers would be safe while Bourdais and the 33rd fastest car on Saturday would take part in "Last Chance Qualifying."

Rule describes how "Last Chance Qualifying" works:
INDYCAR shall provide each Car from Rule one Qualification attempt during Last Chance Qualifying, with the order being determined by a random draw. If a Car from Rule can post a time faster than any Car occupying one of the temporary positions, that Car will earn a position in the race, subject to the numbed Car having one last opportunity to prequalify and reclaim a position.
Bourdais would get an attempt to bump in. If he were to be faster than the 33rd fastest time then the car that was bumped out would get a shot to reclaim the position and bump Bourdais back out of the field. Bourdais would not get a second chance if he were to be bumped out.

There are two more rules to keep in mind:

All cars earning positions in the Race during Last Chance Qualifying shall be listed in order of speed rank behind Cars that qualified on Saturday. 
If there are open positions remaining at the conclusion of Last Chance Qualifying, these remaining positions will be filled according to Rule 8.4.8. 
What is Rule 8.4.8?
Special Session - In the event the Qualifications period ends on Saturday May 19th with fewer than thirty-three Cars qualified for the Race after the break in the line and there are no Cars eligible for Last Chance Qualifying, all Car having met the Qualifications requirements shall be locked in and cannot be bumped. INDYCAR shall fill the balance of the Starting Lineup by the fastest Qualified Cars of a special session, with the only bumping taking place amongst the Cars participating in the special session. The following procedure shall apply to the special session: 
a) An entrant who wishes to secure a spot in the Qualifications order for the special session must have a representative present at 6:15PM on Saturday May 19th at N1 to draw for a Qualifications position.
b) The special session shall take place on the next available day, weather permitting, prior to Group One and "Fast 9" Qualifying and consist of one Guaranteed Attempt for each Car. any car not presented and starting its Guaranteed Attempt when directed to do so by INDYCAR or not taking the green flag will forfeit its Guaranteed Attempt. The remained of the Starting Lineup will be filled based on Qualifications time during the special session. If the special session does not fill the Starting Lineup, INDYCAR will fill the Starting Lineup.
c) Cars that have qualified in the special session will participate in Group One.
d) In the event INDYCAR determines that this procedure will interference with the preparations for the Race, either due to weather or otherwise, INDYCAR may forego the special session and fill the Starting Lineup in accordance with Rule
I am going to save you the time and tell you Rule is setting the rest of the field by entrant points.

Is there a way to simplify this? Yes.

Let's say there are 36 qualifiers, 19 Hondas and 17 Chevrolet, and all make their Guaranteed Attempt and none are prevent a second because of a mechanical issue or an on-track incident then the fastest 33 cars at the end of Saturday qualifying make the race and the three cars on the outside do not get another chance on Sunday.

Let's say there are 36 qualifiers and 33 make their Guaranteed Attempt but three don't, one because of an on-track incident and two had mechanical issues, there will be Last Chance Qualifying and three temporary positions will be held, meaning the 31st, 32nd and 33rd fastest qualifiers will not be safe. The three cars will be a part of a random draw to determine the qualifying order. If "Car A" and "Car B" are faster than the 32nd and 33rd fastest qualifiers then the 32nd and 33rd fastest qualifiers from Saturday will each get an attempt to reclaim a position in the field.

If there are 36 entries you would think a special session would not be necessary as it would mean at least four entries would have to fail to complete a qualifying run on Saturday. That isn't out of the realm of possibility but it seems unlikely.

Going through all this and all the other possible session if a car doesn't complete a guaranteed attempt or if the field isn't full and I have to say there has to be a simpler way for Indianapolis 500 qualifying. The pole position deciding session was moved to be the final round of qualifying to have the most important thing of the qualifying session to be the last thing decided, keeping fans interested until the end. Fantastic but it has created more bullshit than ever necessary and it forced teams to spend an extra day at the racetrack with the post-qualifying Monday practice.

It is easy to say let's go back to the way it was with pole day on Saturday and bump day on Sunday and get rid of the Monday practice, saving the teams some money but I think that ship has sailed especially with the new television deal. If network NBC is going to show Indianapolis 500 qualifying on both days then there better be some qualifying and while we could have frantic bumping this year there is no guarantee that would be the case next year. If IndyCar could somehow guarantee there would be at least 36 Indianapolis 500 entries next year and maybe even bump it up to 38 entries then perhaps it could consider reverting to the old format because bump day is the cruelest day in motorsports and it can be more exhilarating than pole day but if the series can't guarantee that then the current muddled up schedule will remain.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Sebastian Vettel and the snow in Martinsville but did you know...

Scott McLaughlin, Jamie Whincup, Scott Pye and David Reynolds split the four Supercars races from Melbourne's Albert Park. Pye's victory was the first of his Supercars career and it was the first for the rebranded Walkinshaw Andretti United.

Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies split the World Superbike races from Buriram. Randy Krummenacher won the World Supersport race.

The #61 R. Ferri Motorsports Ferrari of Toni Vilander and Miguel Molina swept the Pirelli World Challenge SprintX races from Austin. The #55 PF Racing Ford Mustang of Jade Buford and Scott Maxwell won the first GTS SprintX race. James Sofronas and Alex Welch won the second GTS SprintX race in the #14 GMG Racing Audi.

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross race from Indianapolis, his second of the season and first since the season opener. Jason Anderson was 21st at the end of lap one but fought for a fourth place finish and holds a 35-point championship lead over Musquin with five races to go and with an off week set for Easter.

Coming Up This Weekend
Easter, which means not many motorsports series will be in action.
However, the British GT Championship is at Oulton Park on Easter Monday.
British Superbikes will be at Donington Park the same day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What to Make of the IndyCar-NBC TV Deal?

You might turn March 21st into an annual celebration from here forward. The long-sought-after IndyCar television deal with the series permanently moving to NBC and NBC Sports has come. Starting in 2019, the entire IndyCar schedule will be on the NBC Sports family of networks and the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Congratulations IndyCar fans! You have got what you have always wanted. Are you ready to live with it? Things are going to change. Some things will be the same but not everything. This is a new era and some of the luxuries you may have gotten used to will be going away or will be altered. It was never going to be a simple as NBC taking over what ABC was doing and everything else remaining unchanged. The entire pot is be stirred.

Let's get one thing out of the way, before you start panicking about what races will be on network television, how races can be viewed if you don't have a cable subscription or what will be behind a pay wall or how much you will have to shell out; calm down. Calm down. Those answers will come in due time. It is March 21st. This deal starts next year and the 2019 IndyCar season likely will not start for another 50 weeks. All you questions will be answered. You will have plenty of time to digest it all and make decisions accordingly.

I think it would be best if we go over the press release thoroughly and see what we can decipher.

NBC Sports Group and INDYCAR announced a new, multi-year media rights agreement today in which NBC Sports has acquired the rights to present all INDYCAR races, qualifying, practices and Indy Lights races across its platforms beginning in 2019. Financial terms were not disclosed.
What did we learn? NBC gets everything and the kitchen sink. For what price? Well, regardless of what it cost you probably wouldn't have liked it and thought IndyCar could have done better. Moving on...

The Indianapolis 500 and seven additional Verizon IndyCar Series races will be broadcast annually on NBC, with all remaining races televised on NBCSN. All races will be live streamed to authenticated subscribers on and the NBC Sports app. Details of the NBC Sports' 2019 IndyCar schedule will be announced at a later date.
This is pretty straightforward. NBC will show eight races and likely nine or ten races will be on cable and NBCSN. If you get NBCSN through your cable package you will be able to stream races at no additional cost.

NBC Sports Gold – NBC Sports Groups' direct-to-consumer product — will offer a package to INDYCAR fans that features all qualifying and practices not televised, all Indy Lights races and full-event replays. Additional details, including the cost of the Gold offering, will be announced at a later date.
This is probably the part that made you nervous. What does this mean? Will I have to spend more money to see things that are already free? Let's go piece-by-piece...

If you want to be guaranteed a way to see every IndyCar session and al Indy Lights races then, if you want to pay an additional fee, this is for you. Practice sessions and qualifying sessions will be shown on television but in case one can't be shown live because of NHL playoff games or Tour de France or Premier League games you will be able to watch it live if you subscribe for the IndyCar package.

There is one thing unclear about the IndyCar package on NBC Sports Gold is will races be available and this has been an issue with NBC Sports Gold with other sports. Prior to the start of the 2017-18 Premier League season, every game was available at no additional cost to NBCSN subscribers online. If Tottenham-West Ham United was not on NBCSN or CNBC or USA or NBC and you had NBCSN in your cable package you could go online or on the app and watch it. Starting this season that changed.

For the 2017-18 Premier League season, all matches not on an NBC television network would only be available on NBC Sports Gold. For $49.99, the Premier League package gave fans access to 130 Premier League games from August to May. However, the games on an NBC network (NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, USA) are not available through NBC Sports Gold. It is a bit confusing. So if Manchester City-Manchester United is being shown on NBCSN, you can't watch it on NBC Sports Gold.

You can see how that is annoying and Premier League fans weren't happy about it. There is nothing wrong with that though. If you have NBCSN in you cable package you still get 250 Premier League games at no additional cost. If you want the capability to see all 380 Premier League and have NBCSN in your cable package then it will cost an additional $49.99. If you don't have NBCSN but want to see Premier League games then you can pay $49.99 and get 34.21% of the games and not necessarily the sexy games.

I think NBC has learned this year from the rollout of Premier League package for the future not only the Premier League package but also for all other packages sold on NBC Sports Gold... or at least I hope it learned from it. I could see multiple packages roll out, one being everything available to fans (all IndyCar races, Indy Lights races, qualifying sessions and practice session) for one price and another being a package for everything not live on television but not including IndyCar races.

As for how much an IndyCar package will cost, let's see what other NBC Sports Gold packages are going for. The most expensive package is the track and field package at $74.99 followed by the rugby package at $59.99. The Premier League package was $49.99 but with two months left in the season you can now get it for the low price of $19.99. The Pro Motocross package was $49.99 last season and it is currently $9.99 because we are in the Motocross offseason. The next subscription period for the Pro Motocross package begins in late May and I would guess the price would return to at least $49.99 when the season starts. The final national package is the cycling package, which costs $29.99.

My guess is the IndyCar package will cost you somewhere between $20-$50 a month depending on if there are multiple tiers.

No one is going to force you to spend money and there will be IndyCar coverage at no additional cost if you have NBCSN in your cable package. Things cost money. This deal wasn't going to be a handout to race fans with everything being for free. It is a business and somebody has to pay the bills. IndyCar fans are going to have to ask themselves questions. First being, if the fan already has NBCSN does it want to shell out additional dollars to be guaranteed live coverage of all sessions and Indy Lights or could that fan live with knowing he or she will see all the races and most qualifying sessions and can live without seeing the Friday morning practice at Barber, which they likely don't watch now because it occurs during the work day? If a fan doesn't have NBCSN that fan will have to decide either to open up the wallet and move up a tier in the cable package or subscribe for the IndyCar package on NBC Sports Gold and we aren't sure yet if all the races will be made available through that package.

I hope and I expect all the races to be available through the IndyCar package on NBC Sports Gold. IndyCar and NBC know cord-cutters are out there and some you aren't going to change. While NBC could keep the races out of the NBC Sports Gold package and entice people to either keep a cable subscription or make them get the tier with NBCSN I think IndyCar was keen on making sure IndyCar would be available to cord-cutters and all races will be available on the package.

The only other thing that caught my eye was the length of the deal, which is three years. That doesn't seem that long. It allows for one honeymoon year, one year getting to business and then a year of nail biting and negotiations. NBC's first deal with the Premier League was for three years and prior to the start of the third year a six-year extension was signed. At the end of the 2020 season things might be going so well that IndyCar and NBC agree to a three-year or six-year extension on the spot. I feel like three years isn't long enough of a commitment for a partnership to develop but another way to look at this is IndyCar has been working with NBC Sports since 2012 when the network absorbed Versus. This isn't a new network to IndyCar. When this three-year deal is up, IndyCar's relationship with NBC Sports will be ten years old. The three-year deal should keep you on your toes but you shouldn't hold your breath.

There are going to be things that piss you off about the new IndyCar television deal even though it was the one you were dreaming of from the start. There are going to be practice sessions you will want to watch and can't for some reason. There will still be hard outs for races or sessions. ABC caught a lot of flack for the ending of the St. Petersburg race but that won't change on NBC. If an IndyCar race runs a bit long and golf is following or NASCAR is following, IndyCar isn't going to get a 30-minute post-race show. NBC has another event to get to and once the checkered flag is waved and perhaps the winner is interviewed it will be onto the next event. That is the nature of the business.

There is no such thing as a perfect deal but this deal doesn't get much better for IndyCar. It has an interested television partner that wants to revive the television numbers, especially when it comes to the Indianapolis 500. We know the quality of the NBCSN broadcasts and it doesn't appear there will be massive changes. Leigh Diffey deserves the role as lead announcer with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy in the booth. Kevin Lee, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are a stout team of pit lane reporters. What this deal hopefully allows is for IndyCar to be available to a segment of the population that chooses an alternative way to viewing television other than a traditional cable package.

This is what IndyCar fans wanted. Everything will be fine.

2018 Formula One Preview

For the 68th time, the Formula One World Championship will be held and this year sees the calendar expand to 21 races with a few notable returning venues but the schedule does see the Malaysian Grand Prix and Sepang International Circuit left off after hosting Formula One for 19 years.

Australia hosts the season opener at Melbourne's Albert Park this Sunday. Last year, Ferrari won its first Australian Grand Prix in ten years with Sebastian Vettel taking the victory. After having Easter off, Bahrain has its night race on April 8th and Vettel will look to defend another race victory and possibly start the season with two consecutive victories. One week later the teams will be in China and Lewis Hamilton looks for his sixth victory at Shanghai and Mercedes goes for its fifth consecutive Chinese Grand Prix. Azerbaijan moves up the calendar and the race will be April 29th. Spain closes out the first quarter of the season and opens the European portion of the schedule on May 13th.

Monaco will be May 27th and Ferrari looks to win the famed race in successive seasons for the first time since Niki Lauda won the race in 1975 and 1976. Two weeks later, Formula One crosses the Atlantic for the Canadian Grand Prix on June 10th and Hamilton could match Michael Schumacher for most Canadian Grand Prix victories at seven. It would be Hamilton's fourth consecutive victory in Canada. France holds a Formula One race for the first time since 2008 and Circuit Paul Ricard is on the calendar for the first time since 1990. Ferrari has won the last three French Grands Prix with three different drivers. The June 24th race in France also kicks off a stretch of three consecutive weeks of races with Austrian Grand Prix taking place on July 1st and the British Grand Prix on July 8th. Hamilton is gunning to become the most successful driver in British Grand Prix. He is tied with Jim Clark and Alain Prost on five British Grand Prix victories and Hamilton has won four consecutive years at Silverstone.

The Hockenheimring marks the halfway point of the season on July 22nd. Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are tied for most German Grand Prix victories among active drivers on three. Hungary is the final race before the summer break on July 29th. Vettel has won two of the last three years in Hungary. Formula One returns from break on August 26th at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix. Mercedes has won the last three races in Belgium and Red Bull won three of the four races prior to that. Ferrari has not won at Spa-Francorchamps since 2009. Monza and the Italian Grand Prix follows one week later. Mercedes has won four consecutive years at Monza and Ferrari has not won its home race since 2010. Singapore will be the 15th race of the season on September 16th.

Sochi drops back to the end of the schedule and the Russian Grand Prix will be the final race of September on September 30th. Mercedes is an undefeated 4-0 in the Russian Grand Prix. The Japanese Grand Prix will be a week later at Suzuka. Hamilton and Vettel are tied on four Japanese Grand Prix victories, the most among active drivers. The United States Grand Prix will be October 21st. Hamilton has the most United States Grand Prix victories with six, including four consecutive and he has won five of six races held at Circuit of the Americas. Mexico is a week later on October 28th. Three different drivers have won the last three years at Mexico. Interlagos hosts the penultimate round on November 11th. Vettel is the only active driver with multiple Brazilian Grand Prix victories and last year was his third victory at Interlagos. The season concludes on November 25th at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Hamilton and Vettel each have three victories at the Yas Marina Circuit. Mercedes and Red Bull combine for seven of nine victories at Yas Marina. Ferrari has yet to win at Abu Dhabi.

Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
Lewis Hamilton: #44 Mercedes F1 W09 EQ Power+
What did he do in 2017: Hamilton won the World Drivers' Championship for the fourth time in his career and he picked up nine grand prix victories. He scored points in all 20 races and started on pole position 11 times.
What to expect in 2018: In four seasons Hamilton has won 40 races, three world championships and finished vice-champion. So expect ten victories and Hamilton to join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers with at least five world championships. He is bound to be within 20 victories of Schumacher for the all-time record at the end of 2018.

Valtteri Bottas: #77 Mercedes F1 W09 EQ Power+
What did he do in 2017: Bottas finished third in the World Drivers' Championship, a career best for him. He won three grands prix and stood on the podium 12 times. He won four pole positions.
What to expect in 2018: Bottas will win the few races where Hamilton has an off day. There is no reason why shouldn't at least match his championship finish from last year if not finish second to his teammate.

Scuderia Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel: #5 Ferrari SF71H
What did he do in 2017: Vettel finished second in the World Drivers' Championship and he won five races. Vettel had 13 podium finishes and won four pole positions.
What to expect in 2018: The Ferrari looked good in testing but I am not sure if it has made much ground on Mercedes. Vettel will have good days and be there when Mercedes is off. He will win races but I am not sure he will surpass Alain Prost for third all-time with 51 victories.

Kimi Räikkönen: #7 Ferrari SF71H
What did he do in 2017: Räikkönen finished fourth in the World Drivers' Championship and had seven podium finishes. He won pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: The Finn's time has passed. It feels like Räikkönen is only at Ferrari because the Italian manufacture doesn't want to take a chance on any other driver and Räikkönen is ok with the role he has been given and letting Vettel lead the team. He will get a few podium finishes but not has many as last year and not really care about it.

Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo: #3 Red Bull RB14
What did he do in 2017: Ricciardo finished fifth in the World Drivers' Championship. He won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix from tenth on the grid. The Australian had in podium finishes but retired from three of the final four races.
What to expect in 2018: I think Red Bull has made more ground to Mercedes than Ferrari has and I think Red Bull is close to equal to Ferrari but the question is will the Tag Heuer-badged Renault power unit be reliable enough to get the Red Bull to the finish of races? Ricciardo has potential world championship talent and Mercedes could scoop up the Australian. If it weren't for unreliability, he would have beat Räikkönen in the championship last year. He is calmer than his teammate and it benefits Ricciardo. I think he could win as many races as Vettel does.

Max Verstappen: #33 Red Bull RB14
What did he do in 2017: Verstappen finished sixth in the World Drivers' Championship. He won two races and had four podium finishes but retired from seven races.
What to expect in 2018: The Dutchman's season didn't get off the ground until the middle of the summer and in he races he won he controlled. He is going to push his teammate but in year four in Formula One and basically year three with Red Bull, will Verstappen lose it if Ricciardo is faster than him on a regular basis? I think Verstappen will get a few victories but I think he will have one or two races where he cracks.

Sahara Force India F1 Team
Sergio Pérez: #11 Force India VJM11
What did he do in 2017: Pérez finished seventh in the World Drivers' Championship, scored 100 points and his best finish was fourth at the Spanish Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: Pérez has been consistent since joining Force India four years ago and while he has found his way onto the podium that final breakthrough seems to be out of reach. Force India's off-track issues will eventually bite this team and Pérez has a teammate that is at least equal to him and could surpass him this year. I expect him to take a step back in the championship.

Esteban Ocon: #34 Force India VJM11
What did he do in 2017: Ocon finished eighth in the World Drivers' Championship with his best finish being fifth in the Spanish Grand Prix and Mexican Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: If you think Pérez has been consistent, Ocon's entire single-seater career is impeccable. He had not retired from a single-seater race for over four years until he was collected in a first lap collision in Brazil. He scored points in 18 of 20 races. I think Ocon bests Pérez in the championship this year and he might be the only Force India driver to crack the top ten in the championship.

Williams Martini Racing
Lance Stroll: #18 Williams FW41
What did he do in 2017: Stroll finished 12th in the World Drivers' Championship and finished third in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: The training wheels are coming off for the Canadian and now, at 19 years old, he is now the elder statesman. I don't think he is ready for it. I don't think Williams is ready for it.  This team is going to tumble down the pecking order in 2018 and I expect there to be a fair amount of noise and not the good kind coming out of the Williams camp.

Sergey Sirotkin: #35 Williams FW41
What did he do in 2017: Sirotkin was Renault reserve driver. He participated in the Azerbaijan Formula Two round and finished tenth and fourth. He participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with SMP Racing in the LMP2 class. He finished 16th in class and 33rd overall.
What to expect in 2018: The Russian has made it to Formula One after four years of trying. The good news is Sirotkin set Williams' fastest lap in preseason testing. The bad news is Williams was the slowest of the teams but only a fraction behind Sauber. Williams will score points but not many and I would not be surprised if neither driver breaks double figures in points.

Renault Sport Formula One Team
Nico Hülkenberg: #27 Renault R.S. 18
What did he do in 2017: Hülkenberg finished tenth in the World Drivers' Championship and his best finish was sixth on four occasions.
What to expect in 2018: It hasn't happened yet for the German and he enters his eighth Formula One season still waiting for his first podium finish. The good news is Renault has made a leap forward and it could mix it up with the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull on a given day. Once again, reliability could be the greatest obstacle for this team. I think Hülkenberg has a great shot at a career best championship finish... but his teammate is better.

Carlos Sainz, Jr.: #55 Renault R.S. 18
What did he do in 2017: Sainz, Jr. finished ninth in the World Drivers' Championship and his best finish was fourth in the Singapore Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: Sainz, Jr. might be the darling of 2018. It seems he is everyone's sleeper and this year could be a gap year before he returns to Red Bull should Ricciardo exit the team. I would not be surprised if Sainz, Jr. got a podium finish or two this year. He should finish ahead of Hülkenberg in the championship and I might take a massive step further and say he could finish in the top six in the championship, meaning he finishes ahead of either a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull driver.

Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda
Pierre Gasly: #10 Toro Rosso STR13
What did he do in 2017: Gasly finished second in the Super Formula championship and won two of seven starts. He finished seventh and fourth in the two Formula E races in Brooklyn. Gasly made five Formula One starts with his best finish being 12th in Brazil.
What to expect in 2018: The good news is the Honda engine appears to finally be able to not only stand on its own but run with the pack. Gasly was faster than his teammate and the Toro Rosso was only three-thousandths of a second off Haas for fifth fastest. Gasly will score points but he will be a driver consistently finishing seventh to tenth.

Brendon Hartley: #28 Toro Rosso STR13
What did he do in 2017: Hartley won the World Endurance Drivers' Championship. He won four races with Porsche and had eight podium finishes in nine races. He also won the Dubai 24 Hour and made four Formula One starts with his best finish being 13th in the United States.
What to expect in 2018: I already said Hartley will end the 2018 season as at least the fourth-most points among New Zealander drivers in Formula One history, meaning he will need at least six points. He should get that and like Gasly have a bunch of finishes between seventh and tenth.

Haas F1 Team
Romain Grosjean: #8 Haas VF-18
What did he do in 2017: Grosjean finished 13th in the World Drivers' Championship and his best finish was sixth in the Austrian Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: The Haas was a bit of a surprise during testing, as the team was fifth fastest. The team's best finish last year was seventh but I think Haas can at least match its all-time best finish of fifth, which Grosjean did in the team's second race at Bahrain. I think Haas finishes better than eighth in the Manufactures' Championship and Grosjean could crack the top ten in the championship.

Kevin Magnussen: #20 Haas VF-18
What did he do in 2017: Magnussen finished 14th in the World Drivers' Championship and his best finish was seventh in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
What to expect in 2018: The Dane was the quicker of the two Haas drivers but Magnussen is a puzzling driver. He has talent and potential but the last two seasons have been frustrating when you consider he finished second on debut in a less than stellar McLaren. He should score more points than he scored in the last two years combined.

McLaren F1 Team
Stoffel Vandoorne: #2 McLaren MCL33
What did he do in 2017: Vandoorne finished 16th in the World Drivers' Championship and his best finish was seventh at Singapore and Malaysia.
What to expect in 2018: I have no idea what to expect from McLaren. The last four years have scarred me. It never seems to get better but while last year was difficult, Vandoorne at least hung around. He scored points in three races but he finished 11th or 12th in six races last year. He should score more than 13 points this year but I can't give an exact number.

Fernando Alonso: #14 McLaren MCL33
What did he do in 2017: Alonso finished 15th in the World Drivers' Championship with his best finish sixth at Hungary and he scored fastest lap in that race. He also finished 24th in the Indianapolis 500 after an engine failure but led 27 laps on his way to earning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors.
What to expect in 2018: How Alonso hasn't picked up smoking is beyond me. I already said Alonso would get a podium finish in the first nine races, which seems ambitious. He put McLaren second fastest in preseason testing but the McLaren broke down more than any other team in testing. It was the only team to have multiple breakdowns. The car could be quick but will it make it to the end of the race? You could tell me Alonso will finish sixth in the championship with five podium finishes and ten finishes in the top six or Alonso will have nine retirements and he will finish 13th in the championship with 38 points and I would believe both.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team
Marcus Ericsson: #9 Sauber C37
What did he do in 2017: Ericsson finished 20th in the World Drivers' Championship with his best finish being 11th twice.
What to expect in 2018: Ericsson has made 48 starts since he last scored points. The Sauber seems better now that it has an influx of Ferrari money. It is a distance away from standing on the podium let alone winning races but the team should have a few races where it ends up in the points. I think Ericsson gets a handful of points.

Charles Leclerc: #16 Sauber C37
What did he do in 2017; Leclerc won the Formula Two championship. He won seven races and had ten podium finish in 22 starts.
What to expect in 2018: Leclerc was a stud in junior series. Welcome to the big time. I think he will finish better than his teammate more times than not, score more points and Ericsson and I think there will be plenty of times where are impressed wit Leclerc and there will be races where he makes it out of Q1 and pushes for Q2 while his teammate is starting far down the grid.

The first practice of the Formula One season will be at 9:00 p.m. ET on Thursday March 22nd. Free practice two follows at 1:00 a.m. ET on Friday March 23rd. Later that night will be third practice at 11:00 p.m. ET. Qualifying is scheduled for 2:00 a.m. ET on Saturday March 24th. The Australian Grand Prix will take place at 1:10 a.m. ET on Sunday March 25th.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: The Popularity Contest

Nick Heidfeld has made 225 single-seater starts since his most recent single-seater victory. Andrea Dovizioso won the MotoGP season opener and once again did it by letting Marc Márquez lunge up the inside of the final corner only to overcook it enough for the Italian to have the advantage on the run to the line. The final margin of victory between Dovizioso and Márquez was 0.027 seconds and that wasn't even the closest finish at Losail. Kevin Harvick's winning streak came to an end. Formula E returned to Uruguay. Add Paul di Resta to the list of drivers pissed off about Balance of Performance. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Popularity Contest
There is something juvenile about popularity. Yet it is valued. It is powerful. In motorsports, it can make or break a career. The more followers you have the more attractive you become to sponsors. The more sponsors you have the easier it is to find a ride and not only find a ride but get to select which team to pony up with.

So why was IndyCar's most popular driver from 2017 on the sidelines for the 2018 season opener and he didn't announce retirement like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? One, because of timing of the online voting process. IndyCar decided the 2017 most popular driver on the eve of the 2018 season starting, over two months into the calendar year of 2018 nearly five months after the final round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Second, it was a bit of a protest vote. Conor Daly was out of ride. Many aren't happy about it, especially after Daly represented IndyCar on the CBS show The Amazing Race with Alexander Rossi only for him to find out A.J. Foyt Racing would not be retaining the American shortly after he returned to the States after the show concluded. Daly is beloved in IndyCar circles and it is a shame he is without a ride. The timing of the vote allowed fans to voice its displeasure in the form of a digital middle finger to the rest of the IndyCar grid.

If the voting had been held within a week after the season had concluded, I don't think Daly comes close to winning most popular driver. He wouldn't have even been the most popular American driver in IndyCar. Josef Newgarden took a popular championship victory and the murmuring about whether Newgarden could be the personality that would lift IndyCar to national attention had already started. If it wasn't Newgarden's to win then perhaps it would have been Hélio Castroneves, as the Brazilian would get recognized for two decades of IndyCar dedication on his way out to sports cars. Daly might not have been in the top three or top five if the vote had been held in a more timely fashion after the season. He is a nice guy and ended the season on a good note but 18th in the championship, worst of the drivers to start all 17 races, takes a while for people to get over.

Daly won fair and square and he will hold the distinction of the quickly forgotten title of IndyCar's most popular driver for 2017.

But it did get me thinking, in this analytical era, where numbers are being digested in more nuanced ways than ever before, there has to be a more scientific way for most popular driver to be decided than a self-selected online poll on IndyCar's website. What year is this, 2004? We are more developed than that.

Between social media, merchandise sales, commercial spots and at-track fan interaction, IndyCar should take a step in revolutionizing how most popular driver is selected and perhaps make it an interesting metric to follow. It would be interesting to see which drivers are garnering the most traffic from social media and how they are doing it and it could create a competition off the racetrack, leading to drivers try more stuff to get attention and get more people exposed to the series. In turn, we could see if the drivers who are doing the best on social media are the ones that are leading to people purchasing their merchandise, whether it be hats, t-shirts or die-cast cars or if the social media noise is not producing results.

Too often the most popular driver selection process has become a routine. Was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., really the most popular driver every single year from 2003 to 2017? Was he still the most popular driver in 2007 when the castle was crumbling at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.? Was he the most popular driver in 2010 when he had not won a race in two years and ended up missing the Chase for the second consecutive season? He unquestionably was loved and sponsors didn't leave him even in that rough period but at a time when Tony Stewart bucked the trend and became an owner-driver and Mark Martin returned to full-time competition and nearly won a championship there were definitely more popular stories than that of Earnhardt, Jr. at the time. Everyone is allowed to have an off year but when it comes to sports people vote with their hearts and won't put those they love the most down.

Since people are biased we should look at the numbers and objectively decide who is the most popular. What does it say to a sponsor that IndyCar's most popular driver is unemployed? There is more to it than that but a more sophisticated way of deciding most popular driver can only help the series. We can keep track of followers on Twitter and Facebook, we can watch YouTube views of videos that include certain drivers increase and it is easy to see who is moving t-shirts. Those things should decide who the most popular driver is and the results may surprise us one year. An unexpected face could find himself or herself on top and the crowd might not even realize it.

If anything, making most popular driver an active competition could be the best for IndyCar. It could get a shy driver out of his or her shell and in his or her own way. In doing so, it could possibly bring people to the series who otherwise would not have been exposed to it. If a driver is making waves talking about his or her bracket for the NCAA Tournament, terrific. If another driver posts a dynamite peach cobbler recipe and it is shared amongst people who care more about Le Creuset than Le Mans and leads to that driver getting invited onto Food Network shows, phenomenal. After all, most popular driver should not be about who is most popular in the already small IndyCar circle but who is growing the circle and bringing more people into the conversation.

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

The #22 Extreme Speed Motorsports Nissan Onroak DPi of Pipo Derani, Nicolas Lapierre and Johannes van Overbeek won the 12 Hours of Sebring. The #911 Porsche of Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Frédéric Makowiecki won in GTLM. The #48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of Bryan Sellers, Madison Snow and Corey Lewis won in GTD.

Francesco Bagnaia won the Moto2 race from Qatar. Jorge Martin won the Moto3 race over Arón Canet by 0.023 seconds.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Fontana. Joey Logano won the Grand National Series race.

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from St. Louis, his fifth victory of the season.

Jean-Éric Vergne won the Punta del Este ePrix, extending his championship lead to 30 points over Felix Rosenqvist.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Formula One season starts in Melbourne.
Supercars will run four championship races this year at Albert Park in conjunction with the grand prix.
Pirelli World Challenge has its second round of the season and first SprintX round of the season at Austin.
World Superbikes has its second round of the season at Buriram.
NASCAR returns to Martinsville.

Friday, March 16, 2018

1000 Words: 2008 12 Hours of Sebring

Ten years ago, Porsche and Team Penske were the underdog. Together they took an unlikely overall victory.

Before the FIA World Endurance Championship, Daytona Prototype international, GT3 classes or Balance of Performance, the 12 Hours of Sebring kicked off the American Le Mans Series schedule and unlike today, the LMP1 class was the strongest but it was not the undisputed king.

Porsche returned to sports car racing at the end of the 2005 season with the Porsche RS Spyder, an LMP2-spec prototype, the German manufactures first prototype in seven years. With Team Penske running the program, it won on debut at Laguna Seca and finished fifth overall one lap off the winning Zytek 04S of Tom Chilton and Hayanari Shimoda.

Despite the surprise Zytek victory at Laguna Seca, Audi domination of sports car racing had just begun. At the end of the 2005 season, Audi had won five of the previous six editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Audi had wrapped up its sixth consecutive American Le Mans Series title and had 48 of 60 races overall in that time period.

Audi had challengers. Pescarolo took on the German manufacture at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Pescarolo C60-Hybrid but the innovative car from the French manufacture lacked the reliability to defeat Audi. In 2006, Audi continued its despite the switch to diesel powered Audi R10 TDI. Audi won the 12 Hours of Sebring by four laps while both Penske Porsches retired due to transmission issues. Two months later at Houston, Audi reverted back to the Audi R8 and won again, this time by five laps with the GT1 Corvette C6.Rs rounding out the overall podium. The next closest LMP1 car was the Dyson Racing Lola B06/10-AER in sixth overall, nine laps down. The LMP2 winning Lola B05/40-AER for Intersport Racing was 11th overall, 14 laps again. The rough Houston circuit caused problems again for the Porsche transmissions and forced another double retirement despite leading 50 laps in the race. Nine days later, something surprising happened.

ALMS returned to competition at Mid-Ohio and the #6 Porsche of Sascha Maasssen started on pole position while a weight infraction dropped the #7 Porsche of Timo Bernhard to the back of the grid with the #2 Audi of Allan McNish starting second. The tight nature of Mid-Ohio favored the LMP2 machinery with the mighty Audi R8 not able to reach the cars maximum potential. Bernhard and co-driver Romain Dumas overcame the penalty and won overall with the #6 Porsche finishing on its teammates bumper in an overall 1-2 with Audi taking top LMP1 honors in third overall.

Audi won overall in the final seven races of the 2006 season while Porsche took six of seven victories in LMP2.

The 2007 season would see Porsche gain some company in LMP2 with Acura entering the series with the likes of Andretti Green Racing, Fernández Racing and Highcroft Racing each field an Acura ARX-01a. Porsche's second year at Sebring would see both cars make it to the finish but not without electrical issues during the race plaguing not only the Penske Porsches but of Dyson Racing as well. Audi once again dominated, winning by six laps and Acura not only won in its maiden race but finished 1-2 in LMP2 and second and third overall.

Two weeks later, Porsche bounced back on the streets of St. Petersburg and not only won in LMP2 with Team Penske but challenged Audi, finishing on the lead lap and in third overall. At Long Beach, the LMP2 cars held the advantage over Audi with the slower nature of the circuit and the Penske Porsche not only finished 1-2 but Dyson Racing made it a clean sweep of the podium for the Porsche RS Spyder and LMP2 cars took the top six positions overall with Audi winning in LMP1 in seventh and on the lead lap.

It was the start of eight consecutive races where a Penske Porsche won overall. Porsche not only succeeded on the tight circuit of Long Beach, Lime Rock Park and Mid-Ohio but won on the larger Miller Motorsports Park and Road America. At Petit Le Mans, the Porsche gave Audi a fight to the wire but finished second overall by 0.923 second in what remains the closest Petit Le Mans finish. Team Penske finished the season with its 11th consecutive LMP2 victory and once again finished second overall and on the lead lap with Audi at Laguna Seca.

The 2008 12 Hours of Sebring marked 20 years since Porsche last won the famed endurance race. Audi was gunning for its ninth consecutive Sebring victory with two R10 TDIs. Team Penske and Dyson Racing each entered two Porsche RS Spyder Evos with Horag Lista Racing from Switzerland adding a fifth Porsche to the grid. All three Acura teams returned with the updated ARX-01B. The usually cast of characters had company from France.

Peugeot returned to sports car racing in 2007 with the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. The French manufacture took no time getting up to speed and won on debut in the Le Mans Series at the 1000km of Monza in April. In May, it went two-for-two with a win at Valencia. Peugeot took pole position for the 24 Hours of Le Mans by over a half-second ahead of Audi but in the race Audi flexed its muscle while the 24-hour endurance race broke the down the Peugeots. Audi won by ten laps with Peugeot finishing a respectable second but with work to do. Peugeot ended the 2007 Le Mans Series season with four victories from the final four races, a perfect season.

To start 2008, Peugeot sent a car to Sebring, a track notorious for pushing the limits of every bit of a race car and a track that has been used as a barometer for whether or not a car could survive the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If a car could handle the grueling World War II-era runways of Sebring than it was more than ready for the French classic in June.

Audi started on pole position and in third with the lone Peugeot sandwiched between the R10 TDIs. The top Penske Porsche was the #7 of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Emmanuel Collard in fourth. The sister #6 Porsche of Patrick Long, Sascha Maassen and Ryan Briscoe was fifth on the grid but just over an hour in the #6 Porsche was done due to overheating issues. Nicolas Minassian took the lead at the start for Peugeot and handed over the car in the lead to Pedro Lamy. Peugeot led 80 of the first 85 laps but shifting issues and hydraulic problems derailed the French team's hope of victory early. Audi inherited the lead but would have its own spat with mechanical issues.

The #2 Audi lost a lot of time due to a turbo issue, taking it out of contention for victory. The #1 Audi dropped out of the lead through a combination of brake and pushrod issues that forced changes to be made. The #7 Penske Porsche took the overall lead with just under five hours to go ahead of the Dyson Racing Porsches and the Acuras. With three hours to go, the #1 Audi was still three laps down.

Tom Kristensen clawed the #1 Audi back into fight and got back on the lead lap in fourth overall but he needed a full course caution to bunch up the leaders to have a shot at victory. Romain Dumas, nursing a leg injury, had a comfortable lead to Adrian Fernández for most of the final hour but lapped traffic and two years of unreliability kept the victory from being a certainty for Team Penske and Porsche. Despite two years of disappointment, Dumas held on for the final hour and took the overall victory, Porsche's first in 20 years and for the first time in ALMS history the LMP2 class took the overall victory at Sebring. Fernández's Acura would be disqualified for a broken air box, elevating the #20 Dyson Racing Porsche and giving the German manufacture a 1-2 finish. Kristensen and the #1 Audi rounded out the overall podium and took the class victory.

Porsche did not match same level of success it had in 2007 but the LMP2 class once again provided stout competition to the Audis. Audi would win seven of 11 races overall in 2008 but Porsche and Acura each picked up two overall victories, including a famous battle between David Brabham and Timo Bernhard at Lime Rock Park for the overall victory with Brabham getting Acura's first overall victory with a pass to the outside of the German into turn one on the final lap. It was a move where the Australian shut the door so hard the German was forced to spin. Acura won six races in LMP2 but Team Penske and Porsche won the championship.

The global recession hit at the end of the 2008 season and Audi withdrew from full-time ALMS competition but would return for the endurance races at Sebring and Road America. Team Penske and Porsche withdrew entirely. Acura stepped up to an LMP1 program with Highcroft Racing and the newly emerging de Ferran Motorsports while Fernández Racing remained in LMP2.

I look back on the 2007 and 2008 American Le Mans Series season with a bit of fondness. As much as we are thrilled to live in present for American sports car racing with Cadillac, Mazda, Nissan and Acura all fielding factory supported efforts with plenty of competitive privateer prototypes, those two seasons in ALMS were special and the last time multiple classes entered a race with a legitimate shot at the overall victory.

In the decade since the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring, LMP1 became a hyper hybrid class. There was no way to win without it. LMP1 machinery was reaching unfathomable levels and LMP2 was slotting into the space LMP1 was leaving behind. Porsche went to LMP1, won Le Mans three times and won the world championship three times. Audi ended up winning six of seven 24 Hours of Le Mans from 2008-2014 as well as two world championships. However, the escalating costs of innovation, combined with an emissions scandal, forced both German manufactures out of LMP1, leaving the class with Toyota as the sole manufacture in class.

I miss those days. I miss LMP1 cars being a regular feature in American sports car racing. I miss the dynamic of tighter circuit favoring one class over another. The crazy thing is ten years later and the teams are all back. Team Penske returned with Acura. Team Joest is back but now runs Mazda. Dumas will drive an Oreca-Gibson with CORE Autosport this weekend. Nine tracks on the current IMSA schedule were on the 2008 ALMS schedule. The difference being the inclusions of Daytona, Watkins Glen and Virginia International Raceway in place of St. Petersburg and Miller Motorsports Park.

Five different manufactures and five different teams have won the last five years at Sebring. Porsche will not take victory this year and neither will Audi. It is a cycle. Porsche will be back someday. They always return. There have been plenty of rumors in the two years since Audi withdrew that it would be back and possibly with a DPi. Sebring returns to the international schedule next year with the WEC running a 1,500-mile race the same weekend as the 12-hour race, though the actually logistics are still being worked on.

It doesn't feel like it has been ten years since the night an LMP2 Porsche outlasted the LMP1 Audis and Peugeot. IMSA is at a great place and WEC is working a few things out but still appears will have an interesting 2018-19 season despite Toyota being the only manufacture in the top class but this season is missing something that 2008 had. I can't put my finger on it but it is something that mystifies me still.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

2018 MotoGP Preview

The 70th MotoGP season commences this weekend and a healthy grid of 24 riders and six manufactures start the eight-month championship battle. Ducati leads all manufactures with eight representatives on the grid with Honda fielding six bikes and Yamaha fielding four bikes. KTM, Suzuki and Aprilia will all field two bikes apiece. Five rookies join the MotoGP grid this season, all contested in Moto2 last season.

Qatar once again hosts the season opener. Yamaha has won the Qatar Grand Prix eight times, including the last three years. Honda and Ducati each have won three times at Losail but Ducati's most recent victory there was in 2009. A fortnight after the March 18th season opener, the series heads to Argentina. Honda and Yamaha have traded victories since the series first visited Autódromo Termas de Río Honda. Circuit of the Americas hosts the Grand Prix of the Americas on April 22nd. Marc Márquez is an undefeated 5-0 at the Austin track and Márquez has won all nine of his MotoGP starts in the United States of the America. He has won 11 consecutive starts in the United States dating back to his Moto2 career.

After the trip to the Americas, the European portion of the season begins on May 6th at Jerez for the Spanish Grand Prix. The French Grand Prix follows on May 20th at Le Mans. Spaniards have won six consecutive French Grands Prix and eight of the last nine. The last time a Frenchman won the French Grand Prix that counted toward the world championship was Pierre Monneret in 1954. June 3rd sees MotoGP return to Mugello. Last year, Andrea Dovizioso became the first Italian to win the Italian Grand Prix in the MotoGP class since Valentino Rossi in 2008. The series returns to Spain and Barcelona on June 20th. Dovizioso got Ducati's first victory at Barcelona in ten years in 2017.

The Dutch TT will take place on July 1st. Since 2012, the Dutch TT winner has alternated between a Honda rider winning in even years and Valentino Rossi winning in odd years. The German Grand Prix is the final race before the summer break on July 15th. Márquez has won five consecutive years at the Sachensenring and he trails only Giacomo Agostini for most top class victories in Germany. Agostini won the German Grand Prix eight times in the 500cc class. Honda has won eight consecutive years at the Sachensenring.

Brno is the exact middle point of the calendar with nine races preceding it and nine races following the August 5th round in the Czech Republic. Honda has won six of the last seven Brno races with four different riders. One week later the series will be at the Red Bull Ring. Ducati has won the last two years in Austria. The only Spaniard to win the Austrian Grand Prix was Àlex Crivillé in 1996. The British Grand Prix will be August 26th from Silverstone. Four different manufactures have won the last four Silverstone races. The final race of summer will be September 9th at Misano. Since the track returned to the scheduled in 2007, Yamaha has six victories, Honda has four victories and Ducati has one victory. Aragón closes out the European portion of the schedule on September 22nd.

Thailand hosts MotoGP for the first time on October 7th in what will be an extended Asian-Pacific swing for the series. The Buriram International Circuit is a 2.830-mile, 12-turn road course that has been open since 2014. The track has hosted World Superbike, Super GT, Asian Le Mans Series and World Touring Car Championship. The series will take a week off before three consecutive weeks of racing starting on October 21st at Motegi. Honda, Yamaha and Ducati have combined to win all 18 Japanese Grands Prix held in the 21st century. Phillip Island follows Japan on October 28th. Last year Márquez snapped a streak of five consecutive different winners of the Australian Grand Prix.

Malaysia hosts the penultimate round of the season on November 4th. Dovisiozo has won the last two years at Sepang and Honda won the four races prior to that with Dani Pedrosa responsible for three of those victories. The season concluded on November 18th at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia. Spaniards have won six consecutive years at Valencia and nine of the last 11 years after only one of the first eight Valencia races were won by a Spaniard.

Repsol Honda Team
Marc Márquez: #93 Honda RC213V 2018
What did he do in 2017: Won his fourth MotoGP world championship and won six races.
What to expect in 2018: He won his fourth title in five seasons in MotoGP last year. However, he was eighth fastest and seventh fastest in the preseason tests at Sepang and Qatar respectively. I think this could be a more challenging year and there could be more races where Márquez cannot break into the top four. He will still be in the hunt for the championship and he is still the man to beat but I think it will be more of a fight.

Dani Pedrosa: #26 Honda RC213V 2018
What did he do in 2017: Finished fourth in the championship and won two races.
What to expect in 2018: Pedrosa has proven to be the consistent veteran over the last few seasons but if I think Márquez is going to have more difficult days then I expect Pedrosa to be down the pecking order as well. This might be the year he doesn't get his one contracted victory a season. The good news for Pedrosa is he was second quickest at the Sepang test. He might not get a victory but I still think he will be on the podium five to seven times.

Movistar Yamaha MotoGP
Maverick Viñales: #25 Yamaha YZR-M1 2018
What did he do in 2017: Finished third in the championship and won three races
What to expect in 2018: The Catalan rider started his first season at Yamaha like gangbusters with three victories in the first five races and he led the championship through seven races. Then Viñales came back to earth and had four podium finishes in the final 13 races. He still finished third in the championship and won two pole positions despite the slump. I think he could drop a few positions in the championship but have a better year than 2017.

Valentino Rossi: #46 Yamaha YZR-M1 2018
What did he do in 2017: Finished fifth in the championship and won one race.
What to expect in 2018: The Italian is 39 years old and he was eighth in the Sepang test and second in the Qatar test. Last year was a gasp year when looking at Rossi's results. He had one podium finish in the final ten races and it felt like the beginning of the end. I hope it isn't true and I think he will win a race or two in 2018 but fight for a top five championship finish.

Ducati Team
Andrea Dovisiozo: #04 Ducati Desmosedici GP18
What did he do in 2017: Finished second in the championship and won six races.
What to expect in 2018: Dovizioso had the season he deserved for a career of hard work and under appreciation. He deserved to be in the title fight and get his moment in the sun. Though he fell short I think he will not slump in 2018. I don't think he will win six races but three or four victories and a top five championship finish should not be seen as a disappointed.

Jorge Lorenzo: #99 Ducati Desmosedici GP18
What did he do in 2017: Finished seventh in the championship and his best finish was second.
What to expect in 2018: Lorenzo was lost for all of 2018 and the preseason tells two stories about Lorenzo. He was fastest at the Sepang test but tenth in the Qatar test. He should do better than last year, contending for race victories and be pushing for a top five championship finish. He might even finish better than his teammate.

Monster Yamaha Tech 3
Johann Zarco: #5 Yamaha YZR-M1 2018
What did he do in 2017: Finished sixth in the championship, top rookie, and his best finish was second on two occasions.
What to expect in 2018: I think Zarco will win a race this season and challenge to break up the factory Yamaha line-up. He ended strong and nearly won the season finale at Valencia. He topped the Qatar test. I am not sure when the victory will come and I don't think it will come early like Viñales last year but I would say somewhere around the middle of the season.

Hafizh Syahrin: #55 Yamaha YZR-M1 2017
What did he do in 2017: Finished tenth in the Moto2 championship and his best finish was second.
What to expect in 2018: Syahrin replaces Jonas Folger, who is taking 2018 to recover from Gilbert's syndrome. Syahrin is 23 years old and turns 24 in May. I think he will be significantly off his teammate and off from where Folger was. He will be fighting to finish in the top ten.

Alma Pramac Racing
Danilo Petrucci: #9 Ducati Desmosedici GP18
What did he do in 2017: Finished eighth in the championship and his best finish was second on two occasions.
What to expect in 2018: Petrucci had a career-year in 2017 and came close to victory twice. I think he will have a few close days in 2018 but breaking through will be the hardest part. After a few victories have slipped through his fingers I think Petrucci holds on and wins one race in 2018 but I think he will be in the back half of the top ten in most races.

Jack Miller: #43 Ducati Desmosedici GP17
What did he do in 2017: Finished 11th in the championship and his best finish was sixth.
What to expect in 2018: Miller has moved to a customer Ducati after three years on a customer Honda. I think he could finish in the top ten of the championship and might even finish ahead of Petrucci. Miller was fifth in the Sepang test, six spots ahead of Petrucci, and was two spots behind the Italian in 11th at Qatar.

Team Suzuki Ecstar
Andrea Iannone: #29 Suzuki GSX-RR
What did he do in 2017: Finished 13th in the championship and his best finish was fourth.
What to expect in 2018: Iannone's first year at Suzuki saw sporadic results for the Italian and he once again he had a lot of accidents. That is going to set him back and I am not sure he will do enough for Suzuki to retain Iannone.

Álex Rins: #42 Suzuki GSX-RR
What did he do in 2017: Finished 16th in the championship, missed five races and his best finish was fourth.
What to expect in 2018: Rins looked good in testing, sixth at Sepang and eighth at Qatar, and I think he will lead the Suzuki team in the championship. His rookie season was broken up due to an injury but in 13 starts he had six top ten finishes and seven finishes in the points. I think Rins will finish on the cusps of the top ten in the championship and I think he could get at least one top five finish.

EG 0,0 Marc VDS
Thomas Lüthi: #12 Honda RC213V 2018
What did he do in 2017: Finished second in the Moto2 championship for the second consecutive season, won two races and had ten podium finishes before missing the final two rounds.
What to expect in 2018: The Swiss rider will make his MotoGP debut at 31 years old. He has been really consistent in Moto2 for seven seasons but I think he is going to be a fish out of water and points will be hard to come by for Lüthi.

Franco Morbidelli: #21 Honda RC213V 2018
What did he do in 2017: Won the Moto2 championship with eight victories.
What to expect in 2018: The Italian improved from the Sepang test to the Qatar test and I think this entire season will be one race building on another. It would not be surprising if he ends the season with a string of top ten finishes but starts the season with a handful of finishes outside the top ten.

LCR Honda
Cal Crutchlow: #35 Honda RC213V 2018
What did he do in 2017: Finished ninth in the championship and his best finish was third.
What to expect in 2018: He finished third in the second race of the season and could not repeat that performance. The Briton was quick in both test sessions, third at Sepang and fourth at Qatar. I think he improves on last season, gets four or five podium finishes and contends for a victory or two.

Takaaki Nakagami: #30 Honda RC213V 2017
What did he do in 2017: Finished seventh in the Moto2 championship and won one race.
What to expect in 2018: Nakagami had a few good years in Moto2 but I think he will be battling to be the second best rookie in 2018. He will be constantly fighting for points but should come out with something more times than not.

Ángel Nieto Team
Álvaro Bautista: #19 Ducati Desmosedici GP17
What did he do in 2017: Finished 12th in the championship and his best finish was fourth.
What to expect in 2018: Last year's Ducati looked good and I think it could help Bautista as he tries to break into the top ten. However, the Hondas look really strong and I think Bautista could finish 12th in the championship for a third consecutive year.

Karel Abraham: #17 Ducati Desmosedici GP16
What did he do in 2017: Finished 20th in the championship and his best finish was seventh.
What to expect in 2018: The Czech rider is on a two-year-old bike. He held his own last year and didn't fall off the bike that often. I don't think he will score many points and might score less than 32 points, his total from 2017.

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Pol Espargaró: #44 KTM RC16
What did he do in 2017: Finished 17th in the championship and his best finish was ninth on two occasions.
What to expect in 2018: The KTM doesn't appear to have made a step forward and seemed stagnant in testing from where it was in 2017. I think it is going to be another difficult year and those top ten finishes might be harder to get.

Bradley Smith: #38 KTM RC16
What did he do in 2017: Finished 21st in the championship, missed one race and his best finish was ninth.
What to expect in 2018: Similar to his teammate.

Reale Avintia Racing
Esteve Rabat: #53 Ducati Desmosedici GP17
What did he do in 2017: Finished 19th in the championship and his best finish was tenth.
What to expect in 2018: Rabat was 12th at the Sepang test but 19th at the Qatar test. He consistently finished in the points on a customer Honda last year but I don't think he will have the same kind of success on the Ducati.

Xavier Siméon: #10 Ducati Desmosedici GP17
What did he do in 2017: Finished 23rd in the Moto2 championship, missed three races and his best finish was seventh.
What to expect in 2018: Not many points and a lot of battles with Lüthi to see who will not be the worst rookie in a race.

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini
Aleix Espargaró: #41 Aprilia RS-GP
What did he do in 2017: Finished 15th in the championship, missed a race and his best finish was sixth on two occasions.
What to expect in 2018: When Espargaró had a good day in 2017, it was a really good day. When he was off, he was way off. He had eight points finishes and eight retirements. I think Espargaro should finish more races but he might only match his total of points finishes from 2017 or pick up one or two more.

Scott Redding: #45 Aprilia RS-GP
What did he do in 2017: Finished 14th in the championship and his best finish was seventh on two occasions.
What to expect in 2018: Redding moves over Pramac Racing and he was off in testing. He was nine positions behind his teammate at the Sepang test with Redding 23rd and at Qatar he was 22nd but Espargaró was 15th. This could be a long year.

First practice of the MotoGP season takes place at 7:45 a.m. ET on Friday March 16th with second practice scheduled for 12:05 p.m. ET. On Saturday, MotoGP's third practice will be at 7:35 a.m. ET with fourth practice at 11:40 a.m. ET. Qualifying begins at 12:20 p.m. ET with the Q2 session to determine pole position at 12:45 p.m. ET. The Qatar Grand Prix will take place at noon ET on Sunday March 18th.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Sizing Up the 102nd Indianapolis 500 Entry List

IndyCar had a phenomenal race in St. Petersburg that ended in heartbreak for rookie Robert Wickens and unexpected ecstasy for Sébastien Bourdais. Aaron Telitz had a disastrous start to the Indy Lights season. Wickens wasn't the only Canadian turning heads in St. Petersburg. NASCAR has a familiar face dominating races. Supercross had a familiar face finally get a first career victory. Bourdais wasn't the only Sébastien victorious this weekend in North America. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Sizing Up the 102nd Indianapolis 500 Entry List
It is March and the IndyCar season has started but we are going to talk about May and we all know where this is going.

With two-dozen cars entered for the IndyCar season opener and a wave of momentum there is a feeling the Indianapolis 500 will be more than 33 cars trying to make the famed race.

All 24 cars entered for St. Petersburg will be at Indianapolis although some will have a few different drivers behind the wheel.

Honda won last year with Takuma Sato and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver had an additional teammate announced for Indianapolis. Along with Graham Rahal, Sato will have Oriol Servià as a teammate with the Catalan driver competing in the #64 Honda in collaboration with 24 Hours of Le Mans GTE-Am class winners and IMSA GT Daytona champions Scuderia Corsa. This will be Servià's third Indianapolis 500 attempt in the last four years with RLLR and his fourth overall.

Andretti Autosport has already announced six entries with full-time drivers Zach Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti having Carlos Muñoz return to the team after a year at A.J. Foyt Racing and Stefan Wilson joins the team.

Schimdt Peterson Motorsports appears it will bring back Jay Howard for the second consecutive year in a third car alongside James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens. The team is also working in partnership with Michael Shank Racing and its effort for Jack Harvey.

Sébastien Bourdais will be the lead dog at Dale Coyne Racing and he will have as many as three different teammates from St. Petersburg. Pietro Fittipaldi will be in the #19 Honda for Indianapolis in what will be one of his seven races this season. Conor Daly announced he will return to Dale Coyne Racing for this year's Indianapolis 500 prior to St. Petersburg. Pippa Mann has not been confirmed but it seems she will be in a DCR entry for the sixth consecutive year.

While many Honda teams are adding drivers, two appear happy with the hands they have. Chip Ganassi Racing will stick with Scott Dixon and Ed Jones.

It isn't even St. Patrick's Day and tentative Honda has committed to 19 entries. With such a large number of engine leases accounted for it appears Honda is already tapped out and that isn't a bad thing.

On the Chevrolet side, the biggest announcement in the days prior to the season opener was the confirmation that Danica Patrick will drive the #13 Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing with Carpenter and Spencer Pigot in the #20 Chevrolet and #21 Chevrolet respectively.

Another notable Chevrolet one-off will be three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Hélio Castroneves at Team Penske alongside defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud and 2014 IndyCar champion Will Power.

Outside of ECR and Penske, no other full-time Chevrolet entry has announced an Indianapolis one-off. A.J. Foyt Racing, shockingly, appears to be sticking with Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist. In its first full season Carlin will settle with Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton and the same goes for Harding Racing and Gabby Chaves.

The good news for Chevrolet is it will have a few part-time entries. Kyle Kaiser will compete at Indianapolis for Juncos Racing in what is the fourth and final race on the 2017 Indy Lights champion's schedule for 2018. Sage Karam was recently announced as returning with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

With 19 Hondas on the slate, Chevrolet sits on 14 tentative entries, bringing the entry list to 33 and enough for a full field. However, we might not be done yet.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been linked to a second entry and J.R. Hildebrand's name has been linked to that seat. At the same time, Buddy Lazier has found a way to make to Indianapolis each year on a shoestring budget. If both those materialize and the American manufacture brings out 16 cars we would have bumping and be setting up for two cars to be heading home. Chevrolet even came out and said it could field 17 entries or more this year

It wouldn't be the first time we would see bumping during the DW12-era. Thirty-four cars entered in 2013 and 2015 but unfortunately both those years saw the 34th-fastest car a distant 34th and close to making it interesting.

It is still early. Chevrolet might call it at 14 entries and rob a few drivers of a shot at the most important race on the IndyCar calendar and also rob the fans of the agonizingly exciting experience of bumping, although I am not sure what bumping would look like since the qualifying format change has flipped and moved the run for pole position to the final qualifying run of the weekend. That is something we will have to look into at a later date.

If we get 35 or 36 entries, we should be happy. It isn't the excess of entries we were used to for decades but the last time we have an interesting bump day was 2011. There will be something missing as there will be plenty of capable drivers on the outside even with bumping. In an ideal world the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Briscoe, James Davison, Tristan Vautier and a handful of other drivers with the dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500 would be in the qualifying line and bump day would be have a few noteworthy names breathing into a brown paper bag and sweating bullets.

We don't live in that world but let's be thankful we could at least have 35 entries.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Sébastien Bourdais but did you know...

Patricio O'Ward and Santiago Urrutia split the Indy Lights races from St. Petersburg. Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda races. Kyle Kirkwood and Alex Baron split the F2000 races.

Scott Hargrove won on his Pirelli World Challenge debut in the first GT race from St. Petersburg and swept the weekend with a victory on Sunday. Lawson Aschenbach swept the GTS races.

Justin Brayton won the Supercross race at Daytona, his first career Supercross victory in his 131st start. He is the oldest Supercross winner at 31 years, 11 months and 25 days.

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Cup race from Phoenix. Brad Keselowski won the Grand National Series race.

Sébastien Ogier won Rally Mexico.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP season opens from Qatar.
The 12 Hours of Sebring.
NASCAR has one more date out west at Fontana.
Formula E returns to Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Supercross will head indoors to St. Louis.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

First Impressions: St. Petersburg 2018

1. For the second consecutive year Sébastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing leave the first race of the IndyCar season as the surprise championship leaders but unlike last year it did not come from a dominating run when it was thought Honda teams would be languishing behind the Chevrolets and most notably Team Penske. Dale Coyne called another gem of a race. An early flat tire did not derail the team. Coyne's ability to adapt in face of adversity has won him a handful of races and it worked out today, with help from an incident in turn one. Bourdais made fuel mileage and caught a few breaks with cautions but he was put into a position where victory was possible, something that seemed unlikely from 14th on the grid.

After his first 33 victories came from starting positions inside the top ten, this is Bourdais' fourth consecutive victory to come from outside the top ten. He has evolved in a sense in his second stint in IndyCar. The series has changed and it took a few years for him to change as well. Since he has returned Bourdais has never been with the top team like he was with Newman-Haas Racing in the final years of Champ Car. He has had to pull results out of thin air. Once again, this is the man who finished ninth at Barber in a Lotus. That is how you know Bourdais didn't lose his gift after a period split between Formula One and sports cars. Last year, we wondered how long the Dale Coyne Racing fairy tale could last. We knew it had an end date because the superior Chevrolet package was going to regain control at some point during the 2017 season. One year later and with the universal aero kit this fairy tale may end on a stage in September in Sonoma County.

2. Bourdais won the race but Robert Wickens was the driver of the day. Unfortunately for him, it ended in a side-by-side collision with Alexander Rossi on the final restart with two laps to go while battling for the lead. Even worse, the driver who dominated the conversation never uttered a word over the air waves and no one knows what he looks like.

My uncle came over after the race and he was an IndyCar fan before the split and has never gotten back into. He said he watched this race and was impressed by Wickens and had no idea where he came from. Maybe this race ignites an interest in him to watch more in 2018 and he could not have been the only one in awe of the Canadian but there are plenty of people who may have found their favorite driver and have no clue what he looks like. Yes, ABC had an NBA game to get to and if Rick DeBruhl was going to do the victory lane interview then it should have had Jon Beekhuis sprint to the end of pit lane to get to Wickens after he crossed the track. Not only would they get him in what has to be one of the worst moments of heartbreak in his career but people would have actually gotten to see him and hear him for the first time.

I thought Wickens would struggle a bit considering he has not been in an open-wheel car in almost seven years but that was not the case. This could have been a flash in the pan and the rest of his season might not come close to the heights of today but it appears that will not be the case. The ovals will be new but we have seen drivers succeed from the start on ovals. It might come down to how mental prepared he will be at Phoenix and Indianapolis. He has yet to have a hard hit on an oval and that could knock him down a few pegs but we will have to wait and see. All I could think of after Wickens' dream day ended in a nightmare was the line from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, "You lost today kid, but it doesn't mean you have to like it."

3. As for the incident between Wickens and Rossi, it is a 50-50 call. Rossi was alongside Wickens. I don't think either driver was in the wrong. It was unfortunate it happened. They were the two best drivers all day and neither finished in the top two positions. Rossi was on the move from the start and had he not been penalized in qualifying and prevented from running in the top six he might have won pole position and dominated this one. A third place finish is a respectable start considering how he has faired in his first two seasons.

4. Lost in the Bourdais victory, the Wickens disappointment and the Rossi no-call is that Graham Rahal finished second from 24th on the grid. He did have his own bit of contact with Spencer Pigot and that was a little more on his side but he was making up positions from the get go. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was not the class of the field that everyone expected it to be. Most days it seemed to be struggling and Takuma Sato at least started fifth on the grid. This could have been an off-weekend for the team and things will turn around at Phoenix but what appeared was going to be a disappointing start to the season for Rahal has him second in the championship to his first IndyCar teammate.

5. James Hinchcliffe finished a quiet fourth. I was harsh on Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in its team preview and the fact is we have seen Hinchcliffe have a good start and then have three poor races. He needs to build on this result and that is something we have not seen him do consistently in his career.

6. Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five after he had to enter the pit lane while coming to the green flag. Hunter-Reay had a difficult three seasons during the aero kit epoch and when he was on pit lane when the rest of the field was buzzing toward turn four all I could feel was Hunter-Reay has an inescapable amount of bad luck and no matter what he does he will still get the short straw. Fortunately, he turned it around and made a few passes and was in the middle of the pack. From there he clawed into the top ten. Hunter-Reay had long periods of droughts during the aero kit epoch. He won a championship in the first year of the DW12. Could the universal aero kit at least bring him back into the championship conversation?

7. Let's go over Scott Dixon's day: He ran into the back of Takuma Sato, was handed an avoidable contact penalty for that and then got a pit lane speeding penalty on his final stop and he still finished sixth! Bravo! This was an odd day; an odd weekend actually. I never once thought Dixon was going to win. Maybe that is just St. Petersburg. He could win the next ten races and I wouldn't be surprised.

8. Josef Newgarden was the top Chevrolet in his title defense with a seventh-place finish, one better than last year. Like Dixon I never thought Newgarden was going to win this weekend. He salvaged a result after today and sometimes that is what you need to do. Championships aren't just about winning races or finishing on the podium but taking a day where you are 12th-best and finishing seventh.

9. For the second consecutive year Ed Jones quietly finished in the top ten and this year he was eighth. You didn't hear from him much. He kept his nose clean, which he did for most of 2017. Gnosis will be happy.

10. Marco Andretti finished ninth and was in the top ten for most of the race. He made a few moves and got up to third at one point and then made a pit stop that seemed smart as he had open racetrack and fresh tires and had a chance to claw into the gap from Wickens and Rossi and potentially jump them during a pit cycle. Unfortunately, Andretti never made up that gap and lost ground from that strategy. Either way, it was a solid day for him.

11. Rounding out the top ten was Will Power, who somehow was not run over after he spun in turn two on lap one. He never recovered from that and it is baffling how someone like Dixon could have multiple things go from, all of his own making and one of which occurred late in a race and still recover to finish sixth but Power had one thing go wrong and he never could make it up. Even Bourdais had a bit of adversity in a flat tire only a few laps after Power's spin and he ended up winning the race. I think that is something that should be broken down. Why do some overcome hiccups and some can't?

12. Quickly through the rest of the field: A.J. Foyt Racing had the air let out of its balloon today. Tony Kanaan finished 11th but I can't recall one moment he stood out today, other than when Zach Veach spun him. I guess that was a good recovery for Kanaan. Matheus Leist had what had to be an electrical issue knock him out of the top five and then the young Brazilian slammed the wall exiting turn three. New drivers, same results for Foyt. Takuma Sato finished 12th after being punted by Dixon. Simon Pagenaud had an odd day and finished 13th. He was never a factor. The good news for the Frenchman is he finished on the lead lap and he has 21 consecutive lead lap finishes dating back to Texas 2016. Gabby Chaves finished 14th and was in the back half of the top ten for a fair portion of this race and was mentioned once on the broadcast. Good day for Harding Racing.

13. The lapped cars: Spencer Pigot was spun and then was in sixth and appeared to be one of these drivers that would overcome early adversity but in the middle of the race he disappeared and he ended up making six pit stops. I have no idea what happened. Zach Veach spun Kanaan but outside of that he didn't embarrass himself. Zachary Claman De Melo looked good when he was at the front but the same strategy that won his teammate the race had De Melo finish 17th. Wickens was classified in 18th.

14. Now the bottom of the field: It was not a great day for Carlin. Make that weekend for Carlin. They are behind and it is early but Max Chilton stalled out at one point and so did Charlie Kimball. It is a look way to the mountaintop. Jordan King was in the top five when he walloped the wall and had to make a pit stop. René Binder was off the pace all weekend but he wasn't a hazard. He did bring out the caution that bunched up the field for a restart with four laps to go but he didn't embarrass himself. Jack Harvey had a hard accident in an odd part of the track exiting turn 12. I am sure Michael Shank was hoping to avoid crash damage this early into the season.

15. A couple things from this weekend and the first thing has to do with qualifying. We saw a handful of penalties handed down for interference and many seemed to be perplexed at the penalties handed down. I don't have the numbers and I could be wrong but it feels like IndyCar hands down a few penalties during qualifying in the first few races but then by May penalties are few and far in-between. There are two things to take into considering when it comes to interference during qualifying, a car on a flyer could still be causing interference and there is a difference between that and deliberately trying to slow down a competitor.

It is no secret a car ahead is disrupting air and slowing down a trailing car. If two cars are on flyers and the trailing car feels the wake of the car ahead then it is going to be slowed down but the leading car is doing nothing wrong. It has all the right to be there and should not be penalized. I feel like the rule for interference has evolved from something that should be more for preventing someone from deliberately staying on the racing line when significantly off the pace. That should be penalized but if a car is on a qualifying run and not appearing to be nefarious then no penalty. Either way, these drivers get ten minutes to set a lap time. There is plenty of time to find clean track.

16. Indy Lights grids have returned to pre-IL-15-era levels and that is a good thing. Many point to IndyCar needing to come up with a way to incentivize teams to fielding entries in the second-tier series but instead of looking for incentives, why not just make the series more appealing? Indy Lights had no television coverage this weekend and the current television deal with NBCSN isn't that great. If the series got more exposure and looked better to sponsors then more teams would get involved. This is something to take into consideration when it comes to the pending IndyCar television contract. It has to help not only IndyCar but Indy Lights as well and that is a tougher sell for the series. This is something that should get a more in-depth look and I think I will break it down at a later time but it something to keep in mind.

17. One race down and now three weeks off. It isn't ideal but there is plenty to fill this gap. We got the 12 Hours of Sebring and the MotoGP season opener next week. The week after that is the Formula One season opener and then it is Easter week. We get a break and we IndyCar returns there will be three consecutive weeks of racing from Phoenix to Long Beach to Barber. Don't be disappointed because come April 23rd you will be asking for a break.