Wednesday, October 31, 2018

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2018 Season

The eighth IndyCar Wrap-Up is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The team kept up its winning ways from the aero kit epoch and it did it with a familiar driver returning to the two after expanding to a two-car operation for the 2018 season.

The results were good but could have been better for Graham Rahal in 2018
Graham Rahal
The American driver was back with his father's team for the sixth consecutive season and for the fourth consecutive season he finished in the top ten in the championship, however, for the third consecutive season he took a bit of a slide in the championship.

What objectively was his best race?
The season opener! He finished second to Sébastien Bourdais after the kerfuffle with Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi opened the door. It would be easy to say Rahal lucked into a podium finish after running fourth he was a man on a mission from 24th on the grid. Rahal was passing guys and he had a competitive car. He did have a run in of his own with Spencer Pigot and he was fortunate not to get a penalty for it. Contact aside, for all he had to do, second was justified even if it came after a few breaks. Some days the breaks go your way. It evens out in the end.

What subjectively was his best race?
St. Petersburg was a great race but I think Texas needs to be shouted out. He started 20th but it was another race where he worked his way to the front and he showed that oval aggression we are used to seeing from him at Texas and he finished sixth.

Indianapolis was nearly a disaster and for a few hours it looked like he might not make the race. He started 30th and he worked his way to a tenth place finish.

What objectively was his worst race?
Rahal had three finishes of 23rd, all retirements: The first Belle Isle race, Portland and Sonoma. At Belle Isle, he clipped a curb and it launched him into the barrier. At Portland, he was caught in the accident at the start exiting turn two, which ended his day along with Marco Andretti, Ed Jones, severely hampered James Hinchcliffe's and somehow Scott Dixon was the only one to get out with only cosmetic damage. The Sonoma race was ended early because of a battery issue.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Out of those three it is Belle Isle because he should have finished in the top five in that race and he might have been able to finish on the podium. Through that point of the season Rahal had completed every lap and was looking to get his seventh consecutive top ten finish to start the season. At that point it appeared Rahal could be a championship contender. He had yet to have a bad day and he was going to have to step up in the second half of the season but he laid the foundation to build his championship push.

Graham Rahal's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 8th (392 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 29
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 13.625
Average Finish: 11.117

Takuma Sato's return to RLLR was modestly successful
Takuma Sato
One year after winning the Indianapolis 500 and finishing a career-high eighth in the championship, Sato left Andretti Autosport for a return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sato and RLLR had a relationship in the 2012 season. Sato was not able to match his 2017 record but he did have his second best championship finish in his IndyCar career.

What objectively was his best race?
He took a surprise victory at Portland! In a race that could not escape cautions, Sato's pit stops were timely. He would stop, a caution would come out and he would vault up the order. The pit stop that gave him the lead came a few laps after Ryan Hunter-Reay made his final stop and Hunter-Reay was not able to get ahead of Sato. Sato took the lead and Hunter-Reay had to conserve fuel to make it to the end of the race. Hunter-Reay was able to put a late charge on and Sato stayed cool under pressure. He took a popular victory in a popular return to the Pacific Northwest.

What subjectively was his best race?
Victories are nice but Iowa was a race where Sato was one of the fastest five cars on track. He was at the front and similar to James Hinchcliffe he made up a lot of ground after starting tenth. He was hanging in there and while victory was not a thought in this one considering the domination of Josef Newgarden and then the surprise of Hinchcliffe, Sato put himself in a position for a top finish. When Robert Wickens and Newgarden made late pit stops hoping the race would go green, Sato slotted into a podium finish. It was fortunate but earned considering the race he had put in.

What objectively was his worst race?
One year after winning the 102nd Indianapolis 500, Sato ended the 103rd race in 32nd after colliding with James Davison. This wasn't Sato's fault. Davison was off-pace and Sato was much faster when the two collided in turn three. The last few years at Indianapolis there has been that one car that does not have the speed with the rest of the field and it has taken other quicker drivers out. In 2017, it was Jay Howard and Scott Dixon; this May it was Davison and Sato. It is a slightly concerning trend.

What subjectively was his worst race?
This is difficult because there isn't a race where I recall Sato throwing away a great result. When he was on his game he got the job done and when he was off he wasn't a disaster but he was forgotten. The one race that stands out is Toronto because he was in position for possibly a top five and brushed the wall exiting the final corner and that ended his race.

Takuma Sato's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 12th (351 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 8
Laps Led: 32
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 6
Average Start: 12.1875
Average Finish: 13.235

An Early Look Ahead
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was frustratingly good last year and that is part of the problem. This team was really better than good but when you see that Rahal's only podium finish was the season opener, Sato had two other podium finishes and combined they had seven top five finishes, you shake your head at the fact that Rahal had 12 top ten finishes, more than Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe and Sato won a race.

I feel like this is the fourth or fifth season writing imagine how good Rahal would be if he could qualify better because he has gotten his results without making it easy for himself. He made the Fast Six once and that was at Long Beach where he took out Simon Pagenaud, was handed a penalty and fought back, with the help of some cautions, to finish fifth exactly where he started. Sato was not much better. He made the Fast Six once (fifth at St. Petersburg) and Sato was responsible for the team's only top ten qualifying positions on ovals, ninth at Texas and tenth at Iowa.

Qualifying has to improve for this team if it wants to return to being a championship contender. The team has brought in Allen McDonald, who has had the magic when it comes to Indianapolis 500 qualifying, with James Hinchcliffe and Ed Carpenter each winning pole position for that race with McDonald tooling on their automobiles but RLLR needs more than help at Indianapolis. While the team has not really been in contention for victory in that race, the team is not in a position to be putting all its eggs in one basket. Everyone wants to win Indianapolis but the team is on the fringe of being a weekly contender. It needs that little bit extra speed everywhere.

Things did improve a bit toward the end of the season with Rahal qualifying in the top ten in three of the final four qualifying sessions of the season but while qualifying got better Rahal's results took a dip. He did not have a top five finish in the final nine races after he had three in the first eight races.

Was part of the team's struggle down to expanding to two cars in 2018? It may have played a role. If all the attention was focused on just Rahal's car, things might have been better but a multi-car effort seems more advantageous in the long haul and if a one-year set back means greater rewards for the next five seasons then it is worth it but also consider this step back was Rahal still finishing eighth in the championship and Sato finishing 12th and picking up a race victory.

There were some rumblings the team could expand to three cars but instead of spreading the team out event thinner staying as a two-car effort is the right choice. They have to grow from here and I think RLLR has the pieces in place to make a push. Adding a third car is setting the team back a bit.

We know Rahal can fight for the championship. I am not sure Sato has that capability but Sato does bring pace to a team and he is not as erratic in terms of tearing up equipment, as he was not too long ago. I think this team can make a step forward next year especially if it appears Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will be going through a bit of a reshuffle. RLLR was the fourth best team last year in a way. The team got the cars home and in a solid position. The challenge is taking that next step up the order and being in the conversation for at least podium finishes on a weekly basis.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

This Month in Motorsports Headlines: October 2018

We are nearly 10/12ths or 5/6ths of the way through 2018 and championships are being decided. While things are being sown up on-track, off-track there is a lot of talk. Drivers try and construct what went wrong this season. Officials are trying to figure out what to do next year.

This is the end of the tenth month of the year and we have ten headlines from NASCAR, Formula One, Supercars, Formula E and the British Touring Car Championship.

Once again, this is just for fun. 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.

SMI's Marcus Smith on Roval: "I feel like this is unique to Charlotte"
No, it isn't. Don't come off like a prick and think you are genius because you stumbled upon something in a bit of desperation to keep people buying tickets to an event that was previously dying as a 500-mile oval race.

Your track was still half-full for what you call unique. Think about the buzz this race generated and how it was the talk of NASCAR for the first three-quarters of the season and look at the result. It was held in NASCAR's backyard and it was half-full! Spare me the unique bullshit. There were races held on combination oval/road courses before Charlotte Motor Speedway was built. You are just a reproduction with a fresh coat of paint in the shop window.

I get where Smith is coming from and he isn't entirely wrong. Does NASCAR need six more roval races? No. He is protecting his event. He doesn't want another roval on the schedule because then his event no longer stands alone. There is only one roval on the NASCAR schedule. It is the only show in town and if fans want to watch it or go to it Charlotte is the only choice.

But fuck Charlotte. Why should an International Speedway Corporation track give a damn about Marcus Smith? If Kansas Speedway can make one of its races better by running its roval, why not? Hell, the Kansas roval has lights. Kansas should make one of its races a roval next year, better yet, it should make its Chase race run on the roval and on Saturday night and for the entire announcement have its middle finger up to Marcus Smith.

The same goes for Pocono. Pocono should make one of its races a roval race. People complain about these tracks having two dates. If you run the races on entirely different layouts then you at least take some of the venom out of the arguments why that track should lose a date.

With all of that said, I don't think there should be more than two or three roval races. If Kansas and Pocono wanted to do it then fine but we don't need Las Vegas, Daytona, Texas, Indianapolis and Michigan all becoming roval races as well.

The roval was still a half-ass way to get a road course race into the Chase and if NASCAR wants more road course races then go to more road courses but the roval might have a place on the schedule. I think we could see the NASCAR schedule evolve to where we still have 36 races but have six superspeedway races, three races at two-mile ovals, 11 short track races (Phoenix, Dover and Loudon are short tracks, get over it), four road courses, three rovals, eight races on 1.5-mile ovals and the Southern 500.

And before you whine and say, "eight 1.5-mile races is too many" there are eight 1.5-mile ovals on the schedule now and NASCAR isn't going to completely abandon them. Each track gets one race. It can't be fairer than that.

"We needed something to step up, but it just wasn't there" - Keselowski
You, Brad, you needed to step up. What is this "something" crap? Did you need the lug nuts to get the job done or was it the track bar?

Yeah, you had a bad brake at Talladega when you had to stop for fuel coming to the green flag for the final restart but you could have been proactive, traded track position for certainty and maybe come home in the top ten anyway.

You didn't get the results Keselowski and it was part misfortune and part you weren't good enough to begin with. You had a dream end to summer and like the breeze you cooled off come autumn. You returned to earth and now you are running for a consolation prize.

"We've lasted longer than the average marriage" - Knaus
I am not sure what is more of an indictment of: Marriage in general or Chad Knaus thinking just because your relationship was better than average that is good enough.

I don't think anyone goes into a divorce and says to a partner, "hey, we did better than average," if they were married for 17 years. That is not what marriage is about. Marriage is a lifelong commitment but I am getting off-track. This isn't supposed to be about marriage.

Hamilton 'conflicted,' humbled after matching Fangio
Lewis, don't worry about it. Juan Manuel Fangio is never going to think about you. He probably doesn't care you won five World Drivers' Champions. He probably doesn't even know you exist let alone equaled him on titles. It's ok.

You worry about you because the dead do not care.

MEDLAND: F1's qualifying works. Why mess with it?
Because it is easier and cheaper than Formula One changing the regulations that could make for better racing and it is something that would not alienate one team but be medicine all teams have to swallow. One team wouldn't feel like the regulations are changing to bring it back to the field and we know how unpopular that would be.

Plus, it is qualifying and Formula One is too sensitive to play with the structure of an actual grand prix and rightfully so because it does not want the races becoming some type of sideshow with gimmicks and you do not run the risk of losing people because qualifying has been mucked up but the last thing the series wants to do is drive people from the grand finale to the weekend held on a Sunday afternoon.

Verstappen: F1 risks qualifying becoming practice
Technically it is "qualifying practice" so Formula One doesn't risk qualifying becoming practice, it is already practice. I get what Verstappen is saying in that with all the grid penalties and tire regulations in some cases it has become advantageous for a team not to attempt a qualifying run over participating in the session and what you end up with is something like Russia where only ten cars ran a lap in the second qualifying session and in the United States when only 12 cars ran in the second session.

What can be done to prevent that? Get rid of grid penalties? Make grid penalties happen later in the season? I don't have an answer. I am going to throw something at the wall in an attempt to have an answer. Why does every penalty have to be grid spots or time added to a pit stop? What if a penalty could somehow create more racing?

What if the penalty was instead of kicking a car 39.5 positions down the grid but a pit stop within the first ten laps of the race and it not just be a drive-through but allow the team to change tires? It is a bit of strategy manipulation but who is to say this would not make the racing better? In the current state of Formula One teams run to the tire limits. Teams are told how long a tire can go on a stint and what it will take to make it on one stop or two. What if teams are forced off that strategy? What if it wasn't just a mandatory pit stop within the first ten laps but one within the first ten laps and the final ten laps?

You probably hate what you are reading but is the current arrangement the best? Yes, this could lead to a race being altered as a driver could go from fifth to 12th because of a late pit stop but if that team decides to take that penalty at the earliest possible point and let's say that is with ten laps to go it  would force the team down the order but allow for enough time to pick up positions.

In this case, there would still be an incentive to try in qualifying. Instead of sitting out of the second qualifying session and taking a 20-spot penalty and dropping to 20th a team could start on the front row or the second row and the team will have to complete this force strategy but it wouldn't be race over and it be better than what we currently have.

Hartley: Engineer's lie played part in superb qualifying
See kids, sometimes lying is a good thing.

Reynolds labels Bathurst pole lap 'a controlled explosion'
Orgasm. I think the word you are looking for David Reynolds is orgasm.

Formula E "needs" a Japanese driver - Agag
Needs? Really? I am not sure the series needs a Japanese driver. I am sure the series would like a Japanese driver but does it need a Japanese driver more than say it needs an American driver or a Canadian driver or an Australian driver or a Spanish driver or a Finnish driver?

I don't know if Japan watches Formula E. Japan has one of the best motorsports fan bases in the world but is the lack of a Japanese driver keeping people from tuning in? Japanese manufactures were not invested in the series at the start and Nissan is now on-board taking over from its sister company Renault but I don't get a sense that Formula E is taking hold anywhere let alone in Japan.

It is good to have a diverse drive line-up and give a country of 126 million people a reason to tune in and Japan has plenty of talented drivers to choose from. But there are many things about Formula E that makes you cynical. Do they want a Japanese driver or want more money from Japanese companies and the only way to get that is through a Japanese driver? What does Formula E really want? Why can't the series be honest?

Can a champion be worthy if he only won one race?
Yes. In fact, a champion would be worthy if she only won one race. Every series has a championship system and the driver on top when the season is over has fairly won the championship.

This was a story before the British Touring Car Championship finale and Colin Turkington won the title with only one victory.

You might not like that a driver can win the championship and only win one race or possibly not even win a race but that is not on the driver. Don't hate the player; hate the game. But that leads to an entirely different discussion. Should race victories be weighed more? Possibly.

I think we want winning races to matter. We don't want someone to win a quarter of the races or a third of the races and lose the title to a guy who only had a victory and was on the podium in fewer races than the driver with the most victories.

There is nothing wrong with a driver that won only one or didn't win at all. The #3 Corvette of Jan Magnussen and Antonio García won the IMSA GT Le Mans championship and didn't win a race. Are they not worthy? Titles do not come down to worthiness. When you look at that class, no team won more than twice. The #3 Corvette had eight podium finishes. No other team had more than four podium finishes. The #3 Corvette didn't win but when you take into consideration podium finishes, did any other team deserve the title more?

Most series decide a championship based on an aggregate of events. Most people like that system. The alternatives (NASCAR) are not beloved and have not been widely adopted. It is par for the course. It doesn't happen often. It happened one too many times for NASCAR and it has been off the rails for almost 20 years. It is a special case. Instead of being rejected, it should be embraced because it is a rare occurrence.

Should more be done to limit the chances of this happening? If you want, a series could make a victory worth 100 points and second worth 20 points and heavily weigh winning but even that leaves the door open for a champion with one victory, especially if there are 15 different winners and no driver wins more than twice.

Let's not get caught in these traps. It is ok to explore whether more can be done to favor race winners but let's not diminish a driver for doing what was necessary for him or her to win a championship.

November. The year is nearly over. Seasons are nearly over. Seasons are about to begin. It is a fun time of year. It is a melancholy time. Enjoy the days while daylight gets shorter.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: IndyCar Silly Season Catch Up

In Mexico, the World Drivers' Championship was decided for the second consecutive year. Daniel Ricciardo cannot catch a break. Martin Truex, Jr. was not happy. Phillip Island had a few photo finishes. Moisture denied a chance at a record in World Superbike but the World Supersport title was decided on the final lap of the season. Speaking of titles, crowns were handed out in Portugal, Japan and the United States as well. An old face returned to the top step of the podium in the World Rally Championship. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

IndyCar Silly Season Catch Up
It is the end of October. The IndyCar season is six weeks behind us and a lot has happened in the days since Scott Dixon took his fifth title on a summer's evening in Sonoma.

A lot was already decided before the 2018 season ended and most of the few open seats have been filled. With the year almost 80% in the bag, let's look at where IndyCar stands with 132 days left in the offseason.

What did we know?

All four Andretti Autosport drivers are returning. Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach are staying put.

Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato will remain at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Dale Coyne Racing will have Santino Ferrucci join Sébastien Bourdais.

Team Penske retains Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

A.J. Foyt Racing keeps the Brazilian duo of Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist.

Harding Racing will expand to two cars and will have the top two drivers from Indy Lights, Patricio O'Ward and Colton Herta as its drivers.

Spencer Pigot, Max Chilton and James Hinchcliffe will be back at Ed Carpenter Racing, Carlin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports respectively.

Oh... and Chip Ganassi Racing is giving that Scott Dixon guy another chance to prove himself.

Those were 19 confirmed seats. A few more have been filled.

Dixon will have the gem of free agents Felix Rosenqvist join him at Ganassi. The Swede has spent the last two seasons in Formula E but he also ran in Super Formula, Blancpain Sprint Series, Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters and Super GT.

Ed Carpenter will split the #20 Chevrolet with Ed Jones, who will drive in all the road and street course races in partnership with Scuderia Corsa and Jones will run the #64 Chevrolet for the team in the Indianapolis 500.

It is the end of October and 21 full-time seats have been announced. There are two notable openings, the second Carlin seat and the #6 Honda at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

With the releases from Robert Wickens last week it seems certain he will not be in the car next year and likely not the year after that with the Canadian hoping to regain enough strength over the next 24 months just to walk again.

Without a transition in mind it appears 23 full-time entries are on IndyCar's plate for 2019 but there will continue to be a revolving door of part-time entries.

Meyer Shank Racing is expected to expand its operation to ten races in 2019, four more than the team ran in 2018, and Jack Harvey will be back in the car. Like Meyer Shank Racing, Juncos Racing has purchased another DW12 chassis and will likely be a part-time entry but for how many races and with how many different drivers is another story.

Things have cooled on the expansion to three cars for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and not much has been heard from DragonSpeed about entering the series. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing returning to full-time competition has also gone quiet.

The top 16 drivers from the 2018 championship have a ride and the top championship driver on the outside is Charlie Kimball, with the second Carlin seat up in the air but it is not necessarily out of consideration that Kimball could return to the team.

Gabby Chaves has been sent to the unemployment line after spending majority of 2018 with Harding Racing. Jordan King is moving on from Ed Carpenter Racing, as the British driver looks for a full-time seat. Zachary Claman De Melo, Carlos Muñoz, Pietro Fittipaldi, René Binder, Conor Daly and Kyle Kaiser are the remaining drivers from the top 30 of the championship without rides.

From Indy Lights, there is Santiago Urrutia, who finished up his third season in the series and finished third in the championship after being the vice-champion the previous two years. Outside of the Road to Indy system, the most notable name snuggling up to IndyCar is current Sauber F1 driver Marcus Ericsson. Colin Braun finished runner-up in the IMSA Prototype championship and there were some rumblings he was on the IndyCar radar during the summer and those rumblings are still slightly active.

There are likely another handful of drivers on the outside in the ranks of Formula Two who are eyeing IndyCar but the gulf between the two series makes it difficult to see the connections.

One thing is clear in the late stages of silly season: A lot of people will end up not in a ride. There are at most two open full-time seats. Twelve drivers were named in three of the four paragraphs above. You do the math.

There is part of me that wonders if someone like Ericsson realizes how difficult it is to get a seat in IndyCar. Not that Ericsson doesn't have the talent to be in the series but there is a chance Ericsson could have the funding for a ride only to arrive at the party and find all the seats are taken. IndyCar isn't at a place where if you have enough money the seat will be appear for you. How many teams are willing to expand? How many engine leases are out there? Unless Ericsson has a fast track on the Carlin seat or has been on the phone with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he might come and find there is no room at the inn for a driver looking for full-time work.

The length of the Formula One season and the amount of activity in IndyCar silly season makes it difficult for Ericsson to get on the grid. How seriously can he look for a ride when contracted to a Formula One team? Formula One teams demand undivided attentions... unless you are McLaren and Fernando Alonso needs to be kept happy. There are only two races left but I do not think Ericsson wants to be canned early because he announced an IndyCar seat and the team would have justified cause for replacing him with Antonio Giovinazzi.

It feels like these open seats will be for drivers we already know. The Carlin seat requires some money. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports seat requires no money but I am sure additional funding would be appreciated. There are plenty drivers already within the IndyCar bubble that fit those requirements. A team could have their hearts set on Ericsson or another drivers from the European ladder system or from another international series but there are plenty of options already here that teams do not have to look far.

When will things be set? There will be a seat that drags into the New Year. Never is everything buttoned up before Christmas. Plus, there will be the part-time seats, Juncos Racing most notably, that will have an announcement or two to make and there will be Indianapolis 500 one-offs that will slowly come out during winter.

Champions From the Weekend
Lewis Hamilton clinched his fifth World Drivers' Championship with a fourth place finish in Mexico.

Sandro Cortese clinched the World Supersport championship with a second place finish at Losail.

The #15 RLR MSport Ligier-Nissan of Job van Uitert, John Farano and Rob Garofall clinched the European Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a fifth-place finish at Portimão.

The #88 Proton Competition Porsche of Gianluca Roda and Giorgio Roda clinched theEuropean Le Mans Series GTE championship after finishing third.

Naoki Yamamoto won the Super Formula championship, the second of his career, after he won the race from Suzuka ahead of Nick Cassidy.

Tristan Vautier clinched the Intercontinental GT Challenge championship with a third place finish at Laguna Seca.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the slew of champions but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Mexican Grand Prix, his second victory of the season and his second consecutive Mexican Grand Prix victory.

Maverick Viñales won the MotoGP's Australian Grand Prix, Yamaha's first victory of the season. Brad Binder won the Moto2 race, his third victory of the season. Albert Arenas won the Moto3 race, his second victory of the season, and less than a tenth of a second covered the top five riders.

Joey Logano won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville. Johnny Sauter won theTruck race.

The #22 United Autosports Ligier-Gibson of Filipe Albuquerque and Phil Hanson won the 4 Hours of Portimão, the second consecutive victory for the team. The #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier-Nissan of Jakub Smiechowski and Martin Hippe won the LMP3 class. The #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Christian Ried, Marvin Dienst and Dennis Olsen won the GTE class.

The #29 Land Motorsport Audi of Christopher Haase, Christopher Mies and Kelvin van der Linde won the California 8 Hours. The #626 Rearden Racing Audi of Vesko Kozarov, Max Faulkner and David Roberts won in the GT4 class. The #98 Bryan Herta Autosports Hyundai of Bryan Herta, Colton Herta and George Kurtz won in the TCR class.

Jonathan Rea won World Superbike race from Qatar. The second race was cancelled due to moisture. Lucas Mahias won the World Supersport race, his third of the season.

Kevin Ceccon, Robert Huff and Gabriele Tarquini split the three World Touring Car Cup races from Suzuka.

Sébastien Loeb won Rally de Catalunya, his first World Rally Championship victory in over five years.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP has its penultimate round of the season from Sepang.
Supercars has its penultimate round of the season from Pukekohe.
NASCAR will be in Texas.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Friday Five: Mexico City, Phillip Island, Martinsville, Catalunya, Suzuka

While there are five finales, this weekend, there are five other series in action. Three could have a champion decided this weekend but that is highly unlikely in one of them. One title has already been decide and this is the first of three dead rubbers in terms of the championship. The other has manufactured it so the championship is decided at the finale.

Mexico City
Take two for Lewis Hamilton, who has not able to clinch his fifth World Drivers' Championship last week at Circuit of the Americas but he heads to the site of where he clinched last year's title, Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. Despite finishing third at Austin, Hamilton has helped himself in terms of the championship.

With 75 points left on the table, Hamilton leads Sebastian Vettel by 70 points and the margin forces Vettel to win the remaining three races while Hamilton would have to score fewer than five points in the final three events. Hamilton can clinch the title this weekend with a finish of eighth or better. Last year's race saw a turn one collision between Hamilton and Vettel force cars to the back of the field and scramble to make up positions. Vettel recovered to finish fourth but Hamilton's ninth place finish was enough to clinch the title.

The contact between the two title rivals allowed Max Verstappen to lead all 71 laps on his way to victory. He was the seventh different driver to win the last seven Mexican Grand Prix, extending a list that includes Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Riccardo Patrese, Nigel Mansell, Nico Rosberg and Hamilton as winners.

Kimi Räikkönen's victory at Austin has him third in the championship on 221 points and four clear of fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas. Verstappen's performance from 18th on the grid to second has him fifth on 191 points while Daniel Riccardo rounds out the top six on 146 points after his seventh retirement of the season.

Nico Hülkenberg is up to 61 points, four clear of former teammate Sergio Pérez. In three starts in his home country, Pérez has finishes of eighth, tenth and seventh. Kevin Magnussen's disqualification for his car consuming over 105kg of fuel last week keeps him on 53 points. Fernando Alonso is tenth on 50 points with Esteban Ocon, another disqualifed driver from Austin for exceeding fuel flow limits is a point back.

Mercedes leads Ferrari in the World Constructors' Championship with 563 points to 497 points. Red Bull sits on 337 points with Renault on 104 points and Haas rounding out the top five on 84 points.

McLaren has 58 points and is only 11 points clear of Force India. Scuderia Toro Rosso has 32 points and are four clear of Sauber with Williams bringing up the rear on seven points.

McLaren has not scored a point in the last three races and has not had a double points day since Azerbaijan in April while Force India has had both cars score points in four of the six races since the team was sent back to zero after filing for administration.

The Mexican Grand Prix will take place at 3:10 p.m. ET on Sunday October 28th.

Phillip Island
Marc Márquez locked up the MotoGP title last week with his victory at Motegi but he is looking for his fourth consecutive victory and Honda's fourth consecutive victory in the Australian Grand Prix. No manufacture has won the Australian Grand Prix in the top class in four consecutive years. Márquez could become the fourth rider with four Australian Grand Prix victories, joining the eight-time winner Valentino Rossi, six-time winner Casey Stoner and four-time winner Mick Doohan.

After falling off the bike at Motegi, Andrea Dovizioso sits second on 194 points and is nine points clear of Rossi. Dovizioso has not finished on the podium since 2011 when he was third. He won at Phillip Island in the 125cc class in 2004 ahead of Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner, his only victory at the track.

Maverick Viñales is 30 points behind his Yamaha teammate in fourth with 2016 Australian Grand Prix winner Cal Crutchlow rounding out the top five on 148 points. Johann Zarco and Danilo Petrucci are tied on 133 points. Lorenzo has dropped to eighth after missing the last two races due to injury and he will miss Australia as well with Álvaro Bautista moving onto the factory bike from Ángel Nieto Team. Bautista's fifth place finish at Motegi matched his best result of the season.

Álex Rins and Andrea Iannone rounds out the top ten on 118 points and 113 pints respectively. Dani Pedrosa is 11th on 95 points. Pedrosa has not finished on the podium this season and his only podium finishes in the top class at Phillip Island were a third in 2009 and a second in 2013. His only victory at the track was in 250cc in 2005.

The Australian Grand Prix is scheduled for 1:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 28th.

NASCAR heads to Martinsville and the championship has been cut to eight drivers.

Kyle Busch holds the championship lead with 4,055 points, one ahead of Kevin Harvick. Martin Truex, Jr. is on 4,038 points and he is twenty points ahead of Chase Elliott. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch are tied on 4,015 points and Aric Almirola is eighth on 4,006 points.

Busch won last year's autumn race at Martinsville and it moved him onto the final race at Homestead. He is one of four Chase drivers with a Martinsville victory. He and his brother Kurt have each won twice at the track. Harvick won the spring 2011 race and Bowyer won at Martinsville earlier this season. Kyle Busch has six consecutive top five finishes at Martinsville and he has led in five consecutive races. His brother Kurt won the spring race in 2014 but he has finished outside the top ten in the last in the last eight races. His victory in 2014 is his only top ten finish in his last 25 Martinsville starts.

Truex, Jr. has five top ten finishes in his last seven Martinsville starts. Logano has started inside the top five in every one of his Martinsville starts with Team Penske and he leads all active drivers with four pole positions at Martinsville. Almirola has one top five finish and three top ten finishes in 19 Martinsville starts. He has finished outside the top ten in his last eight Martinsville starts. Elliott finished third at Martinsville in the spring 2017 race and he finished ninth in this year's spring race. He led 123 laps in last year's race after contact with Denny Hamlin took him out of the race.

The top three active drivers in average Martinsville finish are no longer racing for the championship. Jimmie Johnson is on top at 7.9 with Denny Hamlin at 10.1 and Brad Keselowski at 12.2. Kyle Busch is the top championship-eligible driver at 12.7 with Bowyer on 13.5 and Logano on 13.8. Johnson has nine Martinsville victories while Hamlin has won at the track five times. Johnson leads all active drivers with 19 top five finishes, 24 top ten finishes, 29 lead lap finishes and 2,862 laps led at Martinsville.

The NASCAR Cup race will take place at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday October 28th.

Three drivers are alive for the World Rally Championship and things tightened up last time out in Wales.

Hyundai's Theirry Neuville has seen his championship lead shrink to seven points over five-time defending championship and M-Sport Ford's Sébastien Ogier. Ogier won Wales Rally GB and finished third in the power stage while Neuville finished fifth in the rally and fourth in the power stage. Ott Tänak remains in the hunt with the Toyota driver but after only picking up four points after finishing second in the power stage. He is 21 points behind Neuville with 60 points left on the table.

Ogier is a three-time winner of Rally de Catalunya but Ford has not won this event since Markko Märtin in 2004. Neuville finished third to Ogier in 2016, his only podium in this race and Tänak finished third in last year's race.

Sébastien Loeb is back for this third rally of the season. Loeb finished fifth in Mexico and 14th in Tour de Corse and he finished fifth and second in the power stage in the respective rallies. Loeb has won Rally de Catalunya eight times, the most all-time. Citroën picked up its tenth victory in this event last year with Kris Meeke.

Super Formula is not the only thing on track this weekend. The penultimate round of the World Touring Car Cup season will be run 3.609-mile course. With 174 points on the table, 15 drivers are alive for the championship and less than 100 points cover the top ten drivers.

Despite not scoring a point in the most recent round at Wuhan, Gabriele Tarquini retained the championship lead on 241 points and Thed Björk only closed the gap to six points after the Swede only scored one point at Wuhan. Yvan Muller scored two points at Wuhan and he is tied with Björk for second in the championship.

Pepe Oriola is fourth on 207 points, two ahead of Jean-Karl Vernay, who won the first race from Wuhan. Esteban Guerrieri is sixth on 199 points, four ahead of Norbert Michelisz. Frédéric Vervisch has scored points in eight consecutive races and he has 192 points. Yann Ehrlacher has not scored points in the last five races and he is ninth on 178 points with Rob Huff rounding out the top ten on 162 points.

The World Touring Car Championship held a race in Japan the ten prior seasons. Tom Chilton and Michelisz split last year's races from Motegi. Suzuka hosted the WTCC on four occasions from 2011-2014 but the first three years were run on the Suzuka East circuit with 2014 being the only prior year run on the grand prix track. Tarquini and José María López split the 2014 races.

This race will feature the return of Tiago Monteiro, who has been out since a testing accident at Barcelona last September. Monteiro's' most recent race was July 16, 2017 at Autódromo Termas de Río Hondo in Argentina. He has one WTCC victory in Japan; it came at Motegi in 2015.

The first race will be at 1:05 a.m. ET on Saturday October 27th with the second race scheduled for 10:05 p.m. ET later that night and the final race will take place at 11:30 p.m. ET.

Over or Under?
1. Over or Under: 2.5 race leaders of the Mexican Grand Prix?
2. Over or Under: 10.5 points for Álvaro Bautista?
3. Over or Under: 75.5 caution laps?
4. Over or Under: 10.5 points for Sébastien Loeb this weekend?
5. Over or Under: 0.5 victory for Honda at Suzuka?

1. Kimi Räikkönen does not finish on the podium.
2. Three different manufactures finish on the podium.
3. Less than six championship-eligible drivers finish in the top ten.
4. Sébastien Ogier retakes the championship lead.
5. There is at least one French driver winning a race.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Five Finales: Qatar, Portimão, Suzuka, Laguna Seca

This weekend is a busy one and five series close out their 2018 seasons. There will be a trio of night races in the Persian Gulf. Hopefully rain doesn't prevent a title fight in champion. Two endurance series come to a close, one on the Atlantic coast and the other on the Pacific coast.

World Superbike
It might be a dead rubber but the final round of the World Superbike season takes place at the Losail International Circuit from Qatar.

Jonathan Rea has locked up the title and he enters the finale with ten consecutive victories and with 16 victories through 24 races, Rea could set the record for most victories in a World Superbike season. Rea has to sweep the weekend to end the year with 18 victories. Doug Polen holds the record with 17 victories in the 1991 season. Polen's 17 victories came in 24 starts. Rea is the all-time leader in World Superbike victories with 68. He swept last year's weekend at Losail

With 21 podium finishes, this is Rea's fourth consecutive year with at least 20 podium finishes. He could end with 23 podium finishes in a season for the third time in his career. If Rea picks up fastest lap in both races he will set the record for most fastest laps in a season. He enters with 13 fastest laps. Last year, Rea tied Polen's record of 14 fastest laps after Polen did it in 1991.

Chaz Davies is second in the championship and is 24 points up on Michael van der Mark. Tom Sykes is 30 points behind van der Mark with Marco Melandri rounding out the top five and eight points behind Sykes. Alex Lowes is sixth on 232 points and five points ahead of Xavi Forés.

The first World Superbike race will be at noon on Friday October 26th. The final race of the Superbike season will be at noon on Saturday October 27th.

World Supersport
The World Superbike title is claimed but the World Supersport crown is a two-horse race.

Sandro Cortese enters with 189 points and holds a six-point lead over Jules Cluzel. Cortese won at Aragón and Donington Park but Cluzel has five victories. The Frenchman won at Assen, Imola, Brno, Magny-Cours and Villicum. Cluzel has won the last two races and Cortese has finished runner-up to him in each race.

Cortese will clinch the title with a second place finish. He would become the second German to win the World Supersport championship joining Jörg Teuchert, who won the 2000 championship. Cluzel could become the fifth Frenchman to win the World Supersport title joining Stéphane Chambon, Fabien Foret, Sébastien Charpentier and Lucas Mahias. Mahias is the reigning champion.

Cortese won the 2012 Moto3 championship while Cluzel has finished in the top three in four of his five World Supersport seasons and he has never finished worst than fourth in the championship. Cluzel has been vice-champion on three occasions.

Randy Krummenacher is third in the championship on 150 points, 15 points ahead of Mahias and 18 points ahead of Federico Caricasulo. The top five riders in the championship are Yamaha riders and Yamaha has won all 11 races. entering the finale.

The World Supersport finale is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET on Saturday October 27th.

European Le Mans Series
The final round of the 2018 European Le Mans Series season is the 4 Hours of Portimão and after an abbreviated penultimate round at Spa-Francorchamps, two titles will be decided in Portugal.

The #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca clinched the LMP2 championship at Spa-Francorchamps. Jean-Éric Vergne, Andrea Pizzitola and Romain Rusinov have won three of five races this season.

The #24 Racing Engineering Oreca of Norman Nato, Paul Petit and Olivier Pla are tied with the #28 IDEC Sport Oreca of Paul-Loup Chatin, Gabriel Aubry and Memo Rojas tied on 56 points with Racing Engineering holding the tiebreaker after winning the season opener at Circuit Paul Ricard. The #21 DragonSpeed Oreca of Henrik Hedman, Ben Hanley and Nicolas Lapierre has finished second in the last two races and this entry is fourth in the championship on 50 points.

The #22 United Autosports Ligier of Filipe Albuquerque and Phil Hanson won the most recent round at Spa-Francorchamps.

Five teams are battling for the championship in LMP3.

The #15 RLR Sport Ligier of John Farano, Job Van Uitert and Robert Garofalo lead the championship with 67.5 points with two victories at Circuit Paul Ricard and Red Bull Ring. The #15 Ligier has a 14-point lead over the #6 360 Racing Ligier of Terrence Woodward and Ross Kaiser, which finished second at Monza and this at Spa. One point back is the #3 United Autosports Ligier of Matthew Bell, Garett Grist and Anthony Wells. The #3 Ligier won at Silverstone. The #11 EuroInternational Ligier won at Monza and Giorgio Mondini and Kay Van Berlo are 20.75 points back. The final car with a shot at the title is the #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier of Jakub Smiechowski and Martin Hippe, which trails by 22.25 points and has one podium finish, third at Red Bull Ring.

It is a five-car battle in GTE.

The #88 Proton Competition Porsche won at Red Bull Ring, has four podium finishes in five races and he not finished worst that fifth this year and the car shared by Gianluca Roda, Giorgio Roda and Matteo Cairoli lead the championship with 80.5 points. JMW Motorsport won at Circuit Paul Ricard and Silverstone but the #66 Ferrari of Liam Griffin, Alex MacDowall and Miguel Molina has not finished on the podium again this season and retired from the Red Bull Ring round. Two points back is the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott, which won at Monza and has four consecutive podium finishes.

The #80 EbiMotors Porsche won at Spa-Francorchamps after finishing third in the first three races of the season and Fabio Babini, Riccardo Pera and Bret Curtis are 22 points back. The #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Christian Ried, Marvin Dienst and Dennis Olsen is a half-point behind the #80 Porsche.

The 4 Hours of Portimão starts at 8:30 a.m. ET on Sunday October 28th.

Super Formula
Suzuka hosts the Super Formula finale and three drivers are gunning for the title.

Nick Cassidy leads the championship with 29 points and is four points ahead of Hiroaki Ishiura and five points ahead of Naoki Yamamoto. Cassidy won at Fuji and finished second at Sportsland SUGO and third at Motegi. Ishiura won at Motegi and his only other podium finish was second to Cassidy at Fuji. Yamamoto won the season opener at Suzuka and he won at Sportsland SUGO but he has not finished better than seventh in the three races since his most recent victory.

Cassidy won last year's Super GT championship and he is currently tied with Yamamoto for the GT500 championship lead this year. Yamamoto won the 2013 Super Formula championship while Ishiura is going for his second consecutive title and third title overall. Ishiura could be the first driver to successfully defend a title since Tsugio Matsuda in 2007 and 2008. Ishiura looks to join Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Satoru Nakajima and Satoshi Motoyama as the only drivers with at least three Super Formula championships.

The Super Formula finale will take place at 1:15 a.m. ET on Sunday October 28th.

Intercontinental GT Challenge
For the second consecutive season the Intercontinental GT Challenge ends its season at Laguna Seca with the California 8 Hours. Four drivers could win the championship.

Tristan Vautier and Raffaele Marciello are tied on 58 points after the pair finished second at Bathurst, was the third amongst the championship eligible entries at Spa-Francorchamps and won at Suzuka. However, after competing the first three races together, the pair will be split for the finale.

Vautier will be in the #175 Mercedes-AMG Team Sun Energy1 Racing Mercedes with Maximilian Buhk and Maro Engel with Marciello in the #43 Mercedes-AMG Team Strakka Racing Mercedes with Maximilian Götz and Lewis Williamson. Engel is second in the championship on 43 points after running with Vautier and Marciello in the last two races.

Christopher Haase and Markus Winkelhock trail by 18 points and the pair will be split up as well. Hase will drive the #29 Audi Sport Team Land Audi with Kelvin van der Linde and Christopher Mies. Winkelhock will share the #19 Audi Sport Team WRT Audi with Robin Frijns and Dries Vanthoor. Haase and Winkelhock were the best championship eligible finisher at Spa-Francorchamps and they finished third at Suzuka. Frijns and Vanthoor has scored 37 points and are tied for fourth in the championship.

Last year, Audi Sport Team Magnus won with van der Linde, Winkelhock and Pierre Kaffer and with the victory Winkelhock took the drivers' championship while Audi took the manufactures' championship for the second consecutive season.

A few other notable entries include the #9 Bentley from K-PAX Racing and Álvaro Parente, Rodrigo Baptista and Bryan Sellers will be the drivers. Bentley Team M-Sport will have Steven Kane, Jules Gounon and Jordan Pepper in the #7 Bentley and Vincent Abril, Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet in the #8 Bentley.

Jack Hawksworth will be in the #44 Strakka Racing Mercedes with Christian Vietoris and Adrien Tambay. Ryan Dalziel will be in the #63 Mercedes for DXDT Racing with Mike Hedlund and David Askew.

Two Porsches to keep an eye on are the #54 Porsche from Black Swan Racing with Patrick Long, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Tim Pappas and the Wright Motorsports #911 Porsche will have factory drivers Romain Dumas, Frédéric Makowiecki and Dirk Werner behind the wheel.

In the Manufacturers' championship, Mercedes leads with 104 points and has a nine-point lead over Audi.

Along with the GT3 class, there will be GT4 cars. Team Panoz has entered the #50 Panoz Avezzano for Ian James, Preston Calvert and Matt Keegan. The lone Mustang is the #10 Ford from PF Racing with Scott Maxwell, Jade Buford and James Pesek. TRG has entered two Porsches with Spencer Pumpelly, Derek DeBoer and Sean Gibbons in the #66 Porsche and Tom Dyer, Chris Bellomo and Robert Orcutt in the #67 Porsche.

There are three TCR entries and the most notable one is the #98 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai, which will be split by Bryan and Colton Herta with George Kurtz as the third driver. The sister call will be the #99 Hyundai and Michael Lewis and Mark Wilkins are coming off finishing second and third in the Pirelli World Challenge TCR championship. Mason Filippi will be the third driver in the #99 Hyundai. M1GT Racing has entered the #23 Audi for Walter Bowlin, Jerimy Daniel and Lars Viljoen.

The California 8 Hours starts at 12:15 p.m. ET on Sunday October 28th.

Over or Under?
1. Over or Under: 556.5 points for Jonathan Rea after the Losail weekend?
2. Over or Under: 0.5 non-Yamaha riders on the World Supersport podium?
3. Over or Under: 6.5 cars on the lead lap in the 4 Hours of Portimão?
4. Over or Under: 1.5 drivers finishing the Super Formula season with at least 30 points?
5. Over or Under: 1.5 German cars on the overall California 8 Hours podium?

Last Week's Over/Unders
1. Over or Under: 6.5 teams scoring points in Austin? (Over. Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, Renault, Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber scored points).
2. Over or Under: 2.5 finishes outside the top twenty for championship eligible drivers at Kansas? (Under. Zero drivers finished outside the top twenty).
3. Over or Under: 7.5 riders finishing within 30 seconds of the race winner at Motegi? (Over. Twelve riders finished within 30 seconds of race winner Marc Márquez).
4. Over or Under: 1.5 non-Japanese drivers finishing on the GT500 podium? (Under. Nick Cassidy was the only non-Japanese driver on the GT500 podium).
5. Over or Under: 750.5 points for the Endurance Cup champions? (Under. Craig Lowndes and Steven Richards scored 696 points).
Last Week: 3 Unders; 2 Overs. Overall: Unders 15; Overs 10

1. The Superpole winner finishes on the podium in both races.
2. Jules Cluzel finishes better than Sandro Cortese but does not win the championship.
3. Both championship leaders entering Portimão win the title but neither takes a class victory in the race.
4. At least three drivers that did not score points at Okayama score points at Suzuka.
5. The GT4 class winner finishes worst than 11th overall.

Last Week's Predictions
1. Haas F1 gets it best finish in the United States Grand Prix (Wrong! It was correct until Kevin Magnussen was disqualified from ninth).
2. None of the four drivers on the outside advance but at least one finishes in the top five at Kansas (Correct! Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman go no further).
3. One of Marc Márquez or Andrea Dovizioso finish on the podium but not both riders (Correct! Marc Márquez won the race and Andrea Dovizioso finished 18th).
4. There will be a new winner in GT300 at Autopolis (Wrong! Yuichi Nakayama and Morio Nitta won at Suzuka).
5. A driver with fewer than four podium finishes scores a podium finish in one of the two Gold Coast 600 races (Correct! Chaz Mostert and James Moffatt won at Gold Coast and Mostert had one podium finish prior to the race. James Courtney and Jack Perkins finished third and Courtney had only two podium finishes prior to Gold Coast).
Last Week: 3/5. Overall: 14.5/25

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' 2018 Season

We are into the final half of the IndyCar Wrap-Ups and we have reached another race winning team in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The team brought together two of Canada's top drivers and the pairing proved that some gambles are worth taking. SPM had returned to a regular contender for race victories and was mixing it up with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti on a weekly basis. However, in motorsports things turn quickly and another harsh blow was the delivered to a team that has already gone through its share of dark moments.

James Hinchcliffe got to experience all ends of the emotional spectrum in 2019
James Hinchcliffe
The Canadian started the season shot out of a cannon and then he joined an established but fretted list in the middle of May, one he likely thought he would never join. From there it became a difficult season to get out of the shadow of his greatest failure and the dream season paired with his childhood friend ended in a bit of a nightmare.

What objectively was his best race?
He won at Iowa! And it was a race he took from Josef Newgarden. Newgarden let his guard down. For over 75% of this race Newgarden had no pressure on him. He was lapping the field and it appeared he would win by a full lap but Hinchcliffe was on the move from the start. He started 11th and he worked his way to the front. He was fifth on lap 18. He was fourth on lap 32. He was up to third on lap 38 and he was up to second position two laps later.

Hinchcliffe held the second position and the one caution gave Hinchcliffe a shot but Newgarden pulled away again. Through lapped traffic Hinchcliffe was able to get the lead and in the final 45 laps he ran away from Newgarden. He turned one of the most dominant performances in IndyCar history into an embarrassment for Team Penske.

What subjectively was his best race?
Iowa was the best. This is a place for honorable mentions and we will start with his only other podium finish, a third at Barber. At Toronto, Hinchcliffe drove from ninth to fourth and at Texas Hinchcliffe started 15th and finished fourth in what was a competitive night for the Canadian.

What objectively was his worst race?
Portland. He was in the infamous first lap accident that Scott Dixon escaped from but Hinchcliffe was not as fortunate. The crew was able to get the car repaired and get Hinchcliffe to complete 76 laps but the damage was done and 22nd was the best he could scrape from the weekend.

What subjectively was his worst race?
We have said everything we could about Hinchcliffe's failure to qualify from the Indianapolis 500. I am not sure what else could be said that wasn't in those dying days of May and early days of June.

It is definitely the biggest blemish of his season but when looking at the races he participated in I think we have to tackle a worrying trend for Hinchcliffe and his sluggish finishes to seasons. He did not have a top ten finish in the final five races this season. Last year, he had one top ten finish and three finishes of 20th, 21st and 22nd in the final five races. It has been bad since the 2016 Texas race, which was the antepenultimate round that season after the rain delay to August. He finished second but was docked 25 points for a dome skid wear violation and he hasn't finished in the top five in one of the final five races of the season since. The race after that Hinchcliffe was in contention for a podium before he ran out of fuel and fell to 18th at Watkins Glen.

This has to be improved on because in his three full seasons with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Hinchcliffe has suffered falls in the championship from seventh to 13th, tenth to 13th and while he only dropped from ninth to tenth in 2018, he was never higher than eighth in the championship after being fifth entering the Indianapolis 500 and this is despite finishing the year tied for the seventh most top five finishes and the ninth most top ten finishes.  

James Hinchcliffe's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 10th (391 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 9
Laps Led: 65
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 9.0667
Average Finish: 10.0625

Robert Wickens had a special 2018 season and we didn't even get to see the best of it
Robert Wickens
After six years in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, Wickens left Mercedes-Benz for IndyCar and the uncertain jump back to single-seaters gave the IndyCar fan base, nay, the motorsports world an exciting rookie season that comes around only so often. He stole the spotlight and a victory seemed inevitable. His season was a reminder that the sun is a star and it can burn out in a flash when it never seemed brighter.

What objectively was his best race?
Wickens had two runner-up finishes, first at Phoenix in his first oval start and then at Mid-Ohio in his penultimate start of the season. Phoenix was not a showy race for Wickens but through mistakes from Sébastien Bourdais and Alexander Rossi it elevated Wickens into a position for a podium and to content for the race victory. He stayed out under the final caution and inherited the lead. He did all he could to hold Newgarden off but fell four laps short.

Rossi dominated Mid-Ohio but Wickens out ran the Team Penske entries of Will Power and Newgarden on the three stop strategy. He might not have been close to winning but he was the best of the rest.

What subjectively was his best race?
This is a bit harder because there are a lot of contenders. Is this a case where the first time is the best? He was stout at St. Petersburg: Pole position on debut, most laps led on debut and it appeared he was going to win on debut but we remember the final restart and the contact with Rossi and the dream start went from top step of the podium to 18th. It was the race that calmed all doubts over hiring a driver from Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters who had been out of single-seater racing for six years.

What objectively was his worst race?
Purely on results, it is Long Beach because he finished 22nd after his gearbox got stuck on a pit stop... oh and that happened after he worked his way from tenth to fifth on the first stint so another stellar day was in store.

What subjectively was his worst race?
The race that broke the man: Pocono. When you fracture your spine, arms, legs and are put in a wheelchair for an uncertain amount of time that is the worst race of your season, career and life. 

Robert Wickens' 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 11th (391 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 7
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 187
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 6.357
Average Finish: 8.928

Carlos Muñoz got the call to fill in for Wickens and he did an adequate job
Carlos Muñoz
With Wickens sidelined, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports called on a tried and true IndyCar veteran in Muñoz to finish out the season. Prior to the call, Muñoz's only start in 2018 had come with Andretti Autosport in the Indianapolis 500.

What objectively was his best race?
It is the race where he was not with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports! It was a seventh place finish in the Indianapolis 500! Carlos Muñoz has five top ten finishes in six Indianapolis 500 starts! He has completed 3,000 of a possible 3,000 miles. The man knows how to wheel it at 16th and Georgetown. He is in a special class of driver.

What subjectively was his best race?
When you finish seventh in the Indianapolis 500 and have no other plans to race again that season that is the best race of the year but shout out to Portland, Muñoz's first race substituting for Wickens. He spent a fair bit of the day in the top ten but fell back. He did keep up the pace, scored fastest lap and finished 12th.

What objectively was his worst race?
The finale at Sonoma where he finished 18th after starting 22nd.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It is pretty clear it was Sonoma. 

Carlos Muñoz's 2018 Statistics
Championship Position: 25th (95 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 4
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 19.0
Average Finish: 12.333

An Early Look Ahead
The big question is what happens with the #6 Honda?

Wickens is beat up. It is verging on late-October and he is just back minimal mobility in his legs over two months after his accident. Nothing gives me more will to live then the updates coming from Wickens as he goes through physical therapy but let's not cloud reality. We are four and a half months away from the St. Petersburg season opener and in that interim will be a handful of tests.

I have zero expectation Wickens will be back for St. Petersburg. I have zero expectation he will race at all in 2019. He will make strides (mind the pun) but getting back into a race car for a race likely will not be in 2019. He might get back in toward the end of 2019 and start testing but the bigger goal for Wickens is to start walking and completing daily human activities on his own. The race car bit can come later.

Who is in the #6 Honda then?

It is a prime seat. We saw what that car is capable of accomplishing with a proper driver. We don't know how long Wickens will be out. We don't know if Wickens will be allowed to race again. How do you hire a driver with that kind of uncertainty? Forget 2019 but we will not know if 2020 will be possible for a comeback until the middle of next year. First he needs to accomplish walking on his own, cooking on his own, driving a street car on his own and so on. How do you hire a driver?

If you go young and Wickens is set for 2020 then SPM is in a position of either cutting a young driver loose after one year, making what would be the highly unpopular decision and kicking Wickens aside or tackling the challenge of three full-time cars. If you go young and Wickens is still not ready for 2020 then it appears SPM has a new driver.

There are plenty of exciting options for the #6 Honda. Muñoz is good. He should be full-time. Pietro Fittipaldi had a bit of that excitement around him for a rookie. Conor Daly has played the role of super-sub and he has a relationship with SPM and Hinchcliffe. Gabby Chaves is back unemployed, has a relationship with SPM and he gets cars home in one piece. Jordan King was quick but doesn't have oval experience. Charlie Kimball seems to be a potential free agent and we know he can finish in the top ten though isn't the sexy pick. Those are just drivers that raced last year.

The answer could be a driver that has no care about being a full-time IndyCar because he or she has jobs elsewhere. Tristan Vautier comes to mind. He could be in IndyCar for a season and then if Wickens is ready to return in 2020, Vautier would have plenty of sports car opportunities to fall back on. A veteran such as Oriol Servià fits.

This team has a lot of long-term planning to do this offseason but it must take into consideration 2019 and what has to be done to make sure this team can continue to win races. It has to find a way to have the best of both worlds and fill the large vacancy left by the loss of Wickens.

Wickens sparked a fire under SPM last year. After years of underachieving, this was the year SPM lived up to the expectations. He took SPM to the top and made Hinchcliffe a better driver along the way. Then he got hurt, Hinchcliffe's slide continued through the Sonoma finale and the team ended with its two regular drivers tied for tenth in the championship. Wickens deserved better. He was no worse than the sixth best driver in 2018. SPM needs another one of those drivers.

Hinchcliffe is a race winner but this will be his ninth season in IndyCar. He hasn't taken that next step. He has never finished better than eighth in the championship. His tenth place championship finish in 2018 is only the third time he has finished in the top ten of the championship. He needs a rabbit as a teammate, someone to chase. Who will that be in 2019? Because we have learned that will determine how well Hinchcliffe finishes next season.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: NASCAR's Entertainment Obsession

Marc Márquez clinched his fifth MotoGP championship and seventh world championship by doing something he had never done before: He won the Japanese Grand Prix from sixth on the grid, his first MotoGP victory when starting outside the top five. Lewis Hamilton will have to wait until Mexico to clinch his fifth World Drivers' Championship. Kimi Räikkönen set the record for most starts between grand prix victories at 113 starts with his victory in Austin. The Super GT championship will be decided at Motegi next month with things all square in GT500 after Autopolis. NASCAR was in Kansas. The rain ruined Supercars party at Surfers Paradise. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

NASCAR's Entertainment Obsession
A fair bit of time has passed since NASCAR confirmed its rules package for the 2019 season. It is a dramatic turn for the series with a combination of tapered spacers reducing horsepower, aero ducts increasing drag and spoilers the size of billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri increasing downforce in hopes to provide closer racing. 

The changes have been met with pushback from drivers, fans, media and a whole bunch of people. On all fronts the worry is the package will depreciate the skill of the drivers out of the races and the pack nature of the races everywhere from the mile and a half tracks to the two-mile ovals to the short tracks will lead to more races being a crapshoot and timing than not the best driver manhandling the car to the front. 

Brad Keselowski went off the deep end, as he is known for doing, and said drivers will stop coming to NASCAR. Jeff Gluck had a more civil approach

Gluck tried wrapping his head around the decision and was upset with the decision because he saw it as "dumbing down the racing." But Gluck had an epiphany of sorts thanks to the words of IndyCar president of competition Jay Frye when it came to the series moving toward lower downforce and higher horsepower. "Every motorsports series has its things," said Frye, "and we're going back to being fast and loud. These cars are hard to drive and cool to look at."

Gluck tried to define NASCAR's thing and he came up with entertainment. 

"NASCAR is about putting on a good show and trying to please its fans — which often comes at the expense of concepts people consider 'pure' racing," wrote Gluck. 

The whole concept of attributing a "thing" to a series is flawed in its own right but there is a hopelessness when it comes to the pursuit of entertainment. 

What does it mean if your "thing" is entertainment? What is that? Entertainment is not defined. What is considered entertaining is constantly changing. What is entertaining today was not entertaining five years ago and will not be entertaining five years in the future. 

A modern example of the evolution of entertainment can be seen in the social media platforms that leached onto the culture within the last decade. A decade ago it was MySpace on top but it wasn't long before Facebook usurped it while Twitter popped up and took its share of real estate. In the last five years Instagram and Snapchat have emerged as the platforms of choice especially for teenagers and young adults but in 2020 or 2021 people will probably reach a point of discontent over the scrapbook nature of Instagram and flash-in-the-pan style of Snapchat and something else will be the location where youths ruin their lives over the idiotic tendencies and filterless actions from pubescent brains. 

If NASCAR's "thing" is entertainment it is setting itself up to always fail because the standards for entertainment is fluid. There is somebody that will spin this as NASCAR forces itself to always be evolving but evolution is not a yearly process. Evolution isn't radically changing the structure of the championship every two or three years.

What makes it worse for NASCAR is the inconsistency and the failure to recognize what it said within the last five years. When speaking about the upcoming rule changes and where driver talent falls into the equation, current NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell said, "To this I think they'll matter more now. You've got to really think about different moves, and you will have ability to make those passes." 

However, in 2016 when downforce was taken off the cars, then-NASCAR vice president Gene Stefanyshyn said, "The objective there is to give the drivers, put the driving back in their hands a bit more... take less aero dependence off the car." 

NASCAR makes moves in search of this mythical racing package that will draw 150,000 people back to the racetrack and six million people to the television each week. It doesn't exist no matter how hard it tries to make the races more entertaining with more passes and more cars side-by-side. 

The archenemy of entertainment is redundancy and sometimes to figure out what you are you have to do the same thing consistently for a period of time. The sanctioning body does not let things rest. It does not let an identity form and it is not only in terms of the aero package. In 15 years, the championship has morphed from the best over 36 races to a pseudo-best over 36 races but with emphasis on the final ten to winning is important to this playoff format where it is more likely than ever the champions will be a driver that really doesn't fit but that driver had the results fall at the right time and that will be enough to be champion. 

Changes continue because NASCAR hopes to reclaim its place from the turn of the 21st century when it arguably was the second-most popular sports entity in the United States. That spot has vanished and will not be reclaimed with 47 lead changes at Chicagoland or a half-second covering the top ten at Pocono. While NASCAR continues to slide, the National Basketball Association has surged, soccer has grown and baseball remained firm. 

The NBA evolved. The game moved outside the paint and games have become a three-point frenzy while taking time to move out from the shadow of Michael Jordan to a league where LeBron James, Stephan Curry, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving are all household names and all play across the North American continent. Soccer has evolved as more kids play the sport growing up, start following the sport at a younger age through video games and televised matches from around the world that were not available to previous generations. Baseball has remained what baseball has always been. It has been difficult to speed up the pace of play and the evolution of the game has been toward bullpen battles from the fourth inning on with defense shifts while the strikeout has been embraced over small ball. Despite baseball's stubbornness and an aging fan base, the sport has held firm, continues to bring in money thanks to local television deals and the ratings have remained consistent.

NASCAR slid behind all three and is a fraction of what is was. During this time NASCAR did not evolve but constantly tinkered. Nothing has been allowed to develop. Rules were forced time after time in hopes of improving the racing. Everything was done in hopes of making things better but better has never been reached. NASCAR doesn't know what better is. If it did, wouldn't the yearly retooling have stopped by now?

Instead of embracing what it is NASCAR fights for what it will likely ever regain. 

Instead of embracing what it is NASCAR remains obsessed with entertainment even if the crowd has moved on. NASCAR can continue chasing the goal posts but the masses found something else that tickles its fancy.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez and Kimi Räikkönen but did you know...

Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Cup race from Kansas, his third victory of the season. John Hunter Nemechek won the Grand National Series race, his first career victory in the series.

Francesco Bagnaia won the Moto2 race from Motegi after Fabio Quartararo was stripped of the victory for a tire pressure infringement. It is Bagnaia's eighth victory of the season. Marco Bezzecchi won the Moto3 race, his third victory of the season.

Chaz Mostert and James Moffatt won the first race of the Gold Coast 600. The second race was abandoned due to weather.

The #1 KeePer's TOM's Lexus of Nick Cassidy and Ryō Hirakawa won the Super GT race from Autopolis and in doing so they are tied with Jenson Button and Naoki Yamamoto for the GT500 championship heading into the final round next month from Motegi. The #96 K-Tunes Lexus of Morio Natta and Yuichi Nakayama won in GT300.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Mexican Grand Prix.
MotoGP will be at Phillip Island.
NASCAR starts the semifinal round at Martinsville.
This weekend will be the California 8 Hours from Laguna Seca, the final round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge season.