Monday, December 31, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: 2019 New Year's Resolutions

This is it: The final day of 2019. There hasn't been much going on in the final weeks of December. In recent news, McLaren appears to be joining Super GT, Sébastien Loeb has joined Hyundai, Christina Nielsen will drive for Meyer Shank Racing in the 24 Hours of Daytona and Christopher Haase will drive for Starworks at Daytona. Before moving on, there are two articles I read that I thought were really well done. The first was Marshall Pruett's year of surprises piece and the other is Will Buxton's piece looking back at Fernando Alonso's career in Formula One. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

2019 New Year's Resolutions
It is the end of the year and it is time to set our expectations for the New Year.

We have a lot of time until the IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One seasons to start to name a few series but instead of waiting until the middle of February or the middle of March to set the mindset, let's do it now. Let's take a moment to take into consideration what will happen in 2019 and weigh what we should expect. I think it is important to be realistic and not set the bar too high where it is more likely to end up disappointment than pleased.

The same goes for the series. I think series need to set the expectations accordingly. The last thing a series should do is set the numbers too high whether that be in terms of attendance, viewership or social media attention. There are far greater consequences if a series does not live up to its expectations than if our expectations are not met.

We are going to look what series and fans should work on in 2019.

IndyCar: Don't Get Complacent
A lot of things have gone IndyCar's way in the last 18 months.

We saw the universal aero kit introduced without many, if any, problems. The racing was great with some areas for improvement but it was a gain for the series.

Besides the aero kit, the series started testing an aeroscreen and while it has not been tested since May and while there has been no set schedule for implementation the series has made a step in this safety device. It may not be moving as fast as some would like but progress has been made.

There have been new teams. For half a decade it seemed like IndyCar was shedding teams left and right and the party was dying down. It was a concern and thankfully it appeared to have been righted. Carlin expanded to two full-time entries. Harding Racing became a full-time team. Michael Shank expanded his operation to IndyCar, six years after initially planning to in 2012. Juncos Racing ran most of the 2018 season. DragonSpeed will run part-time in 2019. Scuderia Corsa has been testing the waters. Then there is McLaren, which will take on its own Indianapolis 500 effort in 2019 after running in partnership with Andretti Autosport in 2017.

Gateway and Portland returned to the schedule with much fanfare. Laguna Seca will be back in 2019. The series will make its first trip to Circuit of the Americas. Surfers Paradise is having conversation of bringing IndyCar back.

I guess what I am saying is I don't want IndyCar to forget where it came from. I don't want the series to forget the struggles during the early days of the DW12-era. I don't want the series to think it is all gravy from here and teams are going to be coming in every year from all different areas. I don't want the series to think returning to places of yore will result in 50,000 people turning up on race day.

I want the series to be on top of any future hurdles whether it comes with the next generation of car, which could be set to come in 2021, or making sure teams are properly compensated and the Leader Circle program is able to accommodate new entries as well.

The series still needs a title sponsor, which we think will be here before February, there are still races that struggle with attendance, most notably the ovals. There is no guarantee Pocono will last beyond 2019. Who knows if local pressure forces Belle Isle and Toronto off the schedule. Long Beach does not have a title sponsor! Long Beach of all races!

It is easy to put your feet up but this is no cakewalk for IndyCar. The last things the series can afford is to get caught out when faced with adversity. Not saying that will happen to the series but it is a good reminder that just because things are good today does not mean it will be that way tomorrow.

IndyCar Fans: Be Patient with the New Television Deal
Congratulations IndyCar fans, you got what you wanted. NBC is the home for IndyCar. Every race from the Indianapolis 500 to St. Petersburg, Laguna Seca to Long Beach and Toronto to Texas will be on an NBC property. There will be races on network NBC. The Indianapolis 500 has a new home and one that has been celebrated for years. That doesn't mean problem solved and move on.

Don't expect the numbers to skyrocket with this change. Don't expect any gains. We are in an odd time and motorsports is shifting. Less people are watching across the board. A network switch will not change a bigger trend that is beyond the series.

Year one may see things remain stagnant and that does not mean NBC is not doing good enough but it could just be how things are in this crazy world. You cannot change the ratings are your own. It is greater than you and me. All you can do is enjoy the race in front of you and not worry about the numbers. That shouldn't dictate how you feel about this series that you love.

NASCAR: Admit a Mistake Without Spin
NASCAR changes a lot a lot of the time.

Something always has to be tweaked, tinkered, fixed, massaged, relaxed, tightened, flipped, flopped, finagled, erased, adjusted, doctored, developed, enhanced, re-engineered, reimagined, reconsidered or retooled.

And yet the racing is always the best it has ever been!

I want NASCAR to just say it is wrong. If this new aero package doesn't work I want the series to say, "Hey, we thought we could get 85 lead changes in every race from Texas to Loudon to Homestead to Las Vegas and it didn't work out." And then leave it at that. Not try and sell it as being some wondrous thing.

Even with the Playoff/Chase format, I want the series to admit its flaws. Just say, "Hey, this might not necessarily feel right and it does have holes when it comes to deciding who the best driver in a series is."

Just be honest. Don't keep saying the racing is the greatest it has ever been when you are completely changing aero regulations, race format, championship format and more. It is clear the series has a few insecurities if it is revamping everything every two or three years. We can all see it. We have all had siblings, cousins or family members who were the same way and had a different hairstyle, color or new tattoo every year at Thanksgiving. NASCAR is that family member: Constantly changing and never happy.

Just say you are wrong once in a while and have no shame in returning to who you are.

NASCAR Fans: Keep 2020 Calendar Expectations in Check
There is a lot hope over the 2020 calendar. The five-year contract will be up and everyone seems to think NASCAR has a big shake up in store.

However, people have to keep a few things in mind.

One: International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports Inc. control 20 of the 23 tracks and 31 of the 36 races. Neither is going to budge and give up races. ISC has 18 races and SMI has 13 races. If there is going to be any changes, those numbers are staying the same.

Two: The schedule isn't going to be shaken up that much. Homestead is going to be the finale. What other track can host a race in late-November? Martinsville isn't getting a night race. Las Vegas isn't moving to July. Pocono isn't moving to October. The schedule will look pretty to similar to how it has looked for the last 25 years.

Three: Weeknight races are not likely to happen. No one has explained how weeknight races solve any of the issue. It is different. It is hopeful more people watch but instead of racing 36 of 40 weeks, the probably is moved from being a weekly thing to having it be an occasional short week where the teams have to go to one track, be there Friday through Sunday, pack everything up and get to the shop and then to another track for a Wednesday or Thursday event and then get maybe an additional three days off and then return to the weekly grind?

How does that benefit anyone and how many times could you afford to do that?

Where could you do that? What places want to do it?

Richmond and Martinsville could be run in consecutive weeks but would either track want that? You can't run at Loudon on a Wednesday after Watkins Glen. You wouldn't run at Fontana the Thursday after Sonoma.

Four: (Insert One of the Following Tracks Below Here) will not be on the schedule:

Gateway, Nashville, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Austin, Barber, South Boston, Myrtle Beach, Road Atlanta, Bowman Gray Stadium, Eldora, Knoxville, Lime Rock Park, Texas World, Pikes Peak, Memphis, Nazareth, Indianapolis Raceway Park, any street circuit, Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.

Formula One: Keep Common Sense in Mind
Liberty Media is still in its infancy as superior ruler of Formula One and while the new bosses have done some good things for the series, it has keep in mind the limits of the series.

There can only be so many races and there are only so many places that can host a race. The series has committed to Vietnam for 2020 but other places such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Argentina to name a few.

There are also places the series should not turns its back on in favor of "destination events." As much as the series chase people it should not run from the lifeblood of the series. This is Silverstone, Monza, Spa-Francorchamps, Canada, Germany, Brazil and Japan to name a few. These are venues where people turn up and are passionate crowds. Silverstone is jam-packed on Friday and it would be overflowing if there was practice on Thursday as well. Canada is sold out all three days. Suzuka is a wonderful atmosphere. Monza goes back to the beginning of Formula One and is the ultimate venue in terms of speed and raw emotion when it comes to the tifosi.

The series cannot sacrifice what it is in hopes of becoming greater. Formula One has to realize what it has, how great it is and it is not worth trading away for some corporate crowd at a race around a resort in a tropical climate.

Formula One Fans: Be Nicer to Lewis Hamilton
I might catch flack for this one but it seems like Lewis Hamilton gets way more crap than he deserves and one person comes to mind when I think about this: Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher had his flaws and I think people grew tired of him but then he suffered a skiing accident and we have only come to appreciate him after such a disastrous event occurred. For years, Schumacher was dragged over the coals for his demeanor. Some of it may have been justified but it was used to fully discredit the German. I feel like no driver's accomplishments have been casted as impure as much as Schumacher's. Whether it was because of his aggressive nature or the technical wonder team around him at Ferrari or his clear delineation as the number one drivers and preferential treatment, it always seemed to wash over his accomplishments.

However, now that Schumacher is no longer in the public life and we are unsure of his capabilities it seems the stances have softened. People aren't as critical. People are starting to realize he has seven championships and 91 grand prix victories and how great of an accomplishment that was to achieve.

It seems like Hamilton gets similar criticism. While Schumacher's criticism was directed at on-track and race-related blips, Hamilton is chastised for everything. He wins a race; people are upset about his pose on the podium. He qualifies third; he isn't angry enough about not being on pole position. He hangs out with a pop star in New York; he is distracted. He wears a coat two sizes too big; he is too exuberant. He eats a chocolate doughnut for breakfast; he is too excessive.

The man can't catch a break. I can't help but think what will happen when Hamilton retires. I think more people will be happy to see him gone but after ten years they will start to come around and realize it was silly to pick apart the man as much as we did while he was a driver.

Instead of coming full circle a decade down the line, let's just enjoy him for who is he now and recognize where is among the all-time greats. These days will not repeat and we better enjoy now and not regret we did not make the most of them later.

IMSA: Be Aggressive
With the DPi and LMP2 cars split into separate classes, it is time for IMSA to get aggressive. As much as I would have rather seen IMSA just boosted LMP2 cars and have them not necessarily match the exact WEC regulations because after all, why would the IMSA LMP2 cars have to run exactly like the WEC LMP2 cars? The GTLM class isn't a mirror image of GTE-Pro, why would LMP2 be the same?

But that is behind us and we now have a dedicated pro-am prototype class, albeit much smaller than I think anyone would wish.

Open up the DPi cars. There is no reason to keep the shackles on these cars. If you are splitting up the prototypes class then one mind as well be far superior than the other especially when one is designated as a pro-am class. This isn't like the days of LMP1 and LMP2 in American Le Mans Series when Audi was in one and Porsche was in the other. All the manufactures are in one class and the other is for chassis manufactures with a spec engine.

IMSA could have something great on its hands if it handles it right. While the WEC is down to one manufacture in LMP1 and has revealed the hypercar regulations but has yet to receive any official commitments, IMSA has multiple manufactures and it seems like the door is still open for some more.

Le Mans is great but if a manufacture is weighing its options between the uncertain WEC hypercar regulations and IMSA's successful DPi class, why wouldn't it jump into IMSA? The WEC is a world championship and will take you to China, Japan and Brazil but the other option could be an American program at a lower price.

I think this is IMSA's time to capitalize on the class split and become enticing to undecided manufactures.

IMSA Fans: Come to Terms With Coverage Spread Over Multiple Channels
Like IndyCar, IMSA has a new television home. Like Fox, IMSA is going to have its races split over multiple networks and streaming options.

It is bound to happen when you have a 24-hour race, a 12-hour race and a ten-hour race and it is a crowded block. There is Premier League from August to May, NHL from October to June and then there is NASCAR and IndyCar. There is the Tour de France in July. You got to share the time.

The races are going to be on any one of four options that has "NBC" in the title whether it be NBCSN, NBC, CNBC or the NBC Sports app.

It is not a bad thing that things are split over multiple networks and there has been a way to print out, write down, paint on the wall or carve into stone what race will be broadcasted on what network this season. It isn't that hard to change the channel at the appropriate times.

Winners From While We Were Away

Alexander Sims won the Formula E season opener from Saudi Arabia.

Franck Lagorce and Jean-Baptiste Dubourg split the Andros Trophy races from Andorra.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Supercross season opener from Anaheim.
The Dakar Rally begins on Sunday.

Friday, December 28, 2018

2019 IndyCar Predictions

We have reached the final predictions for 2019 and it is IndyCar. The 2018 season saw a big boost for the series with the new universal aero kit, new teams on the grid and great races. It appears the momentum is still on IndyCar's side heading into 2019 with more new teams joining the series, some teams expanding their operations and an exciting rookie class joining an already highly talented grid. Plenty could happen in 2019, here are 12 things I think will occur.

1. There will be multiple first time race winners in 2019
In combination with this year's rookie class, there are a handful of veteran drivers looking for their first victory.

Let's start with the rookies as this year's class has a European ladder vs. Road to Indy system feel to it. The most notable name is Felix Rosenqvist, who was a European Formula Three champion, won races in Formula E, won in Blancpain GT Series, was competitive in Super GT and Super Formula and yes, he did run a bit of Indy Lights in 2016 and won three races but for the most part he is a European developed driver and the Swede has landed at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Santino Ferrucci will become full-time in 2019 with Dale Coyne Racing. Ferrucci contested three IndyCar rounds last year while his Formula Two season ended prematurely after an unceremonious divorce with Trident. In 23 Formula Two starts, Ferrucci's best finish was sixth and in 24 GP3 Series starts, he had a third in the 2016 sprint race from Spa-Francorchamps and he finished fourth in sprint races at Silverstone and Hockenheim but he never finished better than ninth in a feature race in GP3 and Formula Two.

Pato O'Ward is coming off the Indy Lights championship and he was tremendous in his IndyCar debut in the 2018 finale from Sonoma. The Mexican driver started fifth and finished ninth. The good news for O'Ward is he has experience at 13 of the 16 tracks on the 2019 schedule. Eleven of those tracks came from Road to Indy experience, including Laguna Seca. The other two come from when he ran in Prototype Challenge in 2017. The only tracks he doesn't have experience at are Long Beach, Texas and Pocono. O'Ward has won at ten of the 13 tracks he has experience at.

Colton Herta was the vice-champion to his teammate O'Ward in Indy Lights in 2018 and he too made his IndyCar debut at Sonoma. While O'Ward out qualified and finished ahead of Herta, the American started 19th and finished 20th. Like O'Ward, Herta has experience at most of the tracks on the 2019 schedule with Herta having run at ten of 16 circuits. Of those ten tracks, he has won at five of them. O'Ward and Herta will remain teammates in IndyCar with both drivers running Honda-powered cars for Harding Steinbrenner Racing

Then there is Marcus Ericsson, who comes over from Formula One. Ericsson will be driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to fill in for Robert Wickens. Ericsson is coming off his best championship finish in Formula One after he finished 17th on nine points. Other Circuit of the Americas, the other 15 tracks on the schedule will be new to Ericsson.

It will be interesting to see how this rookie class plays out because it could answer the question about whether the competition of European junior series trains a driver better than the Road to Indy and that perceived talent gap means track experience does not outweigh overall driving talent. At the same time, if the likes of O'Ward and Herta do run better than or at the same level as at least Ferrucci and Ericsson then it will bode well for the Road to Indy system and might convince people that running a year of Indy Lights would be better for a young driver in Formula Three or Formula Two then jumping right into IndyCar.

I think Rosenqvist will win at least one race. He should be in Formula One and his bit of Indy Lights experience will help him out. Ovals will still be somewhat new to him. He did run at Phoenix and Indianapolis but that is not much experience.

I am not sure any of the other rookies can win a race. Ferrucci was respectable in his four IndyCar starts but I am not sure he will be the best Dale Coyne Racing driver most of the time let alone good enough to win a race. Ericsson is with a team capable of winning but he may have a learning curve and it might take him a quarter of the season to get comfortable. Harding Steinbrenner Racing should be in better position with Honda engines and Andretti dampers but it will be a monumental task to take now the senior team of Andretti Autosport.

As for veterans, I think Zach Veach can win an oval race. Veach made big gains in the second half of the season and we know Andretti Autosport puts out great cars at Indianapolis, Pocono and the team has a history of short track success. If Veach wins in 2019, it will most likely be on an oval. I am not sure he is at the level of teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay to win on a road course yet.

Ed Carpenter Racing will have two drivers looking for their first career victories. Ed Jones will be the road course driver in the #20 Chevrolet and he will run the Indianapolis 500 in a one-off while Spencer Pigot will be full-time for the second consecutive year in the #21 Chevrolet. Jones had a bit of a rough sophomore season at Chip Ganassi Racing. He did have a few good days but he never really seemed to win the team over. Ed Carpenter Racing can win on road/street courses and while he will not be full-time Jones will have time to focus on the road and street courses. It would not be surprising if he pulled one out. Pigot was a bit wishy-washy in 2018 but the results got better toward the end of the year. If Pigot improves on qualifying results then he will get himself into a better position for race victories. Although, I feel like Pigot is in the same boat as Veach and if he were to win in 2019, it would most likely be on an oval.

And if there is one more name we cannot rule out it is Fernando Alonso in the Indianapolis 500. This year's effort will be a bit different. It will not come with the support of Andretti Autosport and it will be with Chevrolet engines. There is no guarantee Alonso will replicate his pace of 2017 but if there is one thing we know about Alonso is he is determined. He is going for something greater than a World Drivers' Championship and the Indianapolis 500 is the final leg of the Triple Crown. It is there for the taking and I think Alonso will be toward the sharp end of the field on Memorial Day weekend.

2. There will be no more than three cars failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500
It is December 28th and we have almost a field of 33 on paper and still another half dozen realistic entries. This will not be a year of scrambling to fill the field but it appears 2019 will be another year of bumping. The only question is how many cars will not be making the race.

Some are coming up with as many as 40 entries. Everyone seems to think 38 is possible but we have to remember it comes down to the engine manufactures. It sounds like one has already said the limit is 19 and I bet that manufacture is Honda. Honda has gone over and beyond the call of duty the last two years. If Chevrolet matches that then there will be 38 entries. However, Chevrolet has fewer teams and fewer teams means fewer one-off entries.

I think we are looking at most 36 entries, which would be one more than 2018. If it was an even split than each manufacture would have 18 entries but I bet this falls at 19 Honda entries and 17 Chevrolet entries.

Despite not reaching our greatest predictions, 36 entries is a great thing and as much as I want 40 entries and beyond I realize that there are production factors that keeps the entry list a bit lower than it probably could be and that is not a bad thing. These are good days for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. For the better part of two decades we have had worrisome experiences with Indianapolis 500 entries and bumping. The fact that it appears we will have bumping no matter what in December is a wonderful thing.

3. Passing will be down in over half the street course races but up in over half the oval races
The universal aero kit may have had an argument for rookie of the year in 2018 over Robert Wickens because the production of the new bodywork was better than I think most people anticipated.

The first race at St. Petersburg had 336 total passes and 283 passes for position. Long Beach had 200 total passes and 134 passes for position. Four of five street course races had over 100 passes with the lone exception being the first Belle Isle race, which had 96 total passes, 82 for position. The next Belle Isle race had 144 total passes and Toronto had 184 passes.

The ovals were a weaker area for the universal aero kit compared to its two predecessors.

Phoenix was better than the previous two years with 280 passes and 98 for position. Somehow 633 passes in the Indianapolis 500, 428 for position, was a dismal performance. Texas had 688 passes, 242 for position. Iowa nearly broke into the four-figures with 955 passes but it had fewer passes for position than Texas with 234. Pocono had fewer passes than four street course races at 135 passes and it had fewer passes for position than every street course race with only 53. Gateway ended the season with 396 passes, 137 for position.

The good news for the ovals is IndyCar has been tweaking the aero kit in hopes of improving overtaking especially at Indianapolis and Pocono. Those are the two races where I think we could see significant jumps in 2019. Gateway was better in 2018 but there is definitely room for improvement. I am not sure there can be any more passing at Iowa and Texas could be marginally better but I am not sure it could see much of a gain.

The street courses are a bit of a crapshoot. We saw passing numbers on street courses we had never seen before. Every race was dazzling in terms of street courses from years ago. I think we are bound to see a step back on the street courses. Are we really going to see 336 passes again at St. Petersburg or 283 passes at Long Beach? We kind of saw the decline start during the 2018 season. At the first two races shattered the 200 passes mark but none of the final three street courses broke 200 and only one got over 150 passes.

There is still the possibility that passing could be down on street courses and the races are still fantastic. Would anyone complain if St. Petersburg only had 210 passes? What if Toronto had 180 passes? The numbers might be down but that doesn't necessarily mean we have to be alarmed.

It was a dangerous thing when IndyCar started publishing passing statistics because we really don't know what they mean. A large number doesn't mean it is a great race and a small number doesn't mean a bad race. We should not be slave to the numbers and let them dictate whether a race is good or not. I hope our critical commentary does not need numbers to steer how we feel about a race.

4. Simon Pagenaud wins multiple races and more than double his podium finishes from 2018
Pagenaud did not win in 2018 despite ending the season with ten consecutive top ten finishes and 14 top ten finishes in 17 starts.

While he had that stats line and finished sixth in the championship, there wasn't a race Pagenaud should have won in 2018. The two races he finished runner-up in he probably deserved no better than second. Scott Dixon was the best driver at Texas and Dixon was better than Pagenaud at Toronto. The Frenchman may have been gifted an extra position had teammate Josef Newgarden not slapped the wall while coming to the green flag for the restart while in the lead.

Plenty of parallels were drawn between this season and Pagenaud's first season at Penske in 2015, which coincided with the introduction of the manufacture-specific aero kits but Pagenaud was borderline championship-caliber in 2018 while his 2015 definitely showed a few growing pains.

He only led 31 laps in 2018, 26 of which came at Texas but he had the fourth best average finish and completed the fifth most laps. His only retirement was completely out of his control when Graham Rahal ran into the back of Pagenaud in turn one on lap one at Long Beach and Pagenaud had started third. That ended 22 consecutive races of running at the finish. Prior to that streak, Pagenaud had a 23 consecutive finish streak.

Pagenaud is going to finish races and he is bound to have his weekends again where he starts on the front row and leads two-thirds of a race on his way to victory. Not to forget mentioning that Pagenaud is better on ovals than he was prior to his Team Penske days and he is just as likely to win at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono as he is to win at Road America, Toronto and Mid-Ohio.

5. Will Power will start at least one race outside the top ten
Power has started 27 consecutive races in the top ten. The last time he did not start in the top ten was in the first Belle Isle race in 2017 when he started 11th. Power has started outside the top ten in three of 65 starts since 2015 and that does not include his pole position for the 2016 season opener at St. Petersburg, which Power was forced to withdraw from on the morning of the race due to an inner-ear condition.

Power was a qualifying master in 2018. He started 15 of 17 races in the top five and his worst starting position was seventh at Sonoma, the only time he didn't make the Fast Six.

He isn't going to slip up on a road/street course. He is too good. You can pretty much pencil him into the top six at every road/street course and if you are penciling him into the top six, you mind as well put him in the top three. Penske also has a way of producing some good cars in oval qualifying trim and Power does have the benefit of Penske having deeper pockets than some other teams. Penske is able to focus on qualifying set up more than some other teams and on top of that Power can overcome wrecking a car in qualifying because Penske has spares while other teams might not and have to be conservative in qualifying to focus on the race.

While Power has a lot going for him, IndyCar can be a bit unpredictable. There have been plenty of occasions where a fast driver is caught out during a qualifying group with an untimely yellow and someone you thought would make the Fast Six all of a sudden hasn't made it out of group one. It happened to Power in 2015 at Long Beach. There could be an oval qualifying session where Power just gets the wrong conditions and has a head wind that he can't overcome or he has a twitch and is forced to get out of the throttle and that drops him down the starting order.

Power is going to win plenty of pole positions in 2019 but he will have one uncharacteristic starting position.

6. Sébastien Bourdais has at least three podium finishes
Bourdais has not had three podium finishes in a season since 2013 when he had three consecutive podium finishes between the Toronto doubleheader and Mid-Ohio.

It was impractical to expect Bourdais to match his Champ Car numbers when he returned to IndyCar. He has been solid driver during the DW12-era but he has yet to have a season that is shadow of his previous success. He has won a race in five consecutive seasons, something only Dixon and Power can claim but Bourdais has not strung together consistent finishes at the front. He has two podium finishes in four of the last five seasons.

Bourdais has had some close calls with three podium finishes. In 2014, he finished fourth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the first Houston race, which was a bit of a gift after Graham Rahal got into Tony Kanaan under caution. His two victories were his only podium finishes in 2015. Last year, Bourdais led 60 laps from pole position at Phoenix but he could not overcome an early penalty for clipping a crew member and finished 13th. He had to start last at Mid-Ohio and put on a performance working his way to sixth in a caution-free race. He finished fourth at Pocono and he was less than a second behind Dixon for third.

There are plenty of places where Bourdais can get results and Dale Coyne Racing might be the smallest team on the grid but they get the most out of what they got. I am not sure he can win three consecutive races at St. Petersburg but what is stopping him? He probably should have been on the podium at Long Beach as well in 2018 had it not been for an untimely yellow and not getting to pit lane in time. Coyne has also established a dangerously quick superspeedway program.

It feels like this fairy tale is bound to come to an end. Nothing lasts forever but Bourdais finished seventh in the championship last year and I think he and Dale Coyne Racing aren't done yet.

7. Both Harding Steinbrenner Racing drivers score more points per start than Gabby Chaves
A lot has changed in a short period of time for Harding Racing. The team finished ninth on debut in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 and then finished second in the team's second race a few weeks later at Texas. After three oval races the team expanded to a full-time operation in 2018 and it started eighth at St. Petersburg.

Things went downhill from there. The team did not score a top ten finish until the season finale with O'Ward and after the team had divorced its young stud in Gabby Chaves.

Chaves did not do a bad job in his 13 starts. He did not match the output of Indianapolis and Texas from 2017 but he was running at the finish of 12 of his 13 starts with his lone retirement being at Iowa due to a handling issue. He did finish 14th in the Indianapolis 500 and complete all 200 laps.

Harding Racing was playing with some dated equipment. The dampers were eight years old for most of the season. It was a team fighting an uphill battle and doing it with little funding. Chaves got the most out of what he was given. O'Ward and Herta will have upgrades across the board.

Not only will the team have Andretti dampers and those dampers provided a big boost at Sonoma but the team has switched from Chevrolet engines to Honda engines. The Honda camp is quite deep with four Andretti cars, two Ganassi cars, two Rahal cars, two Schmidt Peterson cars and Bourdais at Coyne. That is 11 stout drivers to contend with in Honda's own camp but O'Ward's debut has everyone's hopes yet and while Herta didn't pull off what O'Ward did, he will still be 18 years old at St. Petersburg and he is bound to grow.

Chaves scored 187 points from 13 starts, good enough for 20th in the championship and on average 14.384 points per race. To beat that, O'Ward and Herta have to finish 15th or better in ever race. That doesn't sound like much but that is a huge task. I listed 11 Honda entries alone that we all think can win a race and then there are the three Penske entries and Ed Carpenter Racing should have an entry in the top 15. It is going to be tough to breakthrough but I think these two drivers will do it.

I am not saying O'Ward and Herta are both going to be in the top ten in the championship and will each have a race victory but I think each will have respectable days and if both drivers run all the races it should not be a surprise if both break 245 points. Matheus Leist scored 253 points in 2018 and he was far from spectacular. O'Ward and Herta should be able to at least match that but most likely surpass that with ease.

8. There will be at least two races with three rookies finishing in the top ten
It might sound crazy but the only rookies to get a top ten finish in 2018 were Zach Veach and O'Ward and O'Ward only ran the finale. This is despite there being 13 rookies. In 2017, Ed Jones was the only rookie to score a top ten finish. He was also the only rookie to run a full season.

The most recent race with three rookies in the top ten was at Watkins Glen in 2016 when Conor Daly finished fourth, Alexander Rossi finished eighth, RC Enerson finished ninth and Max Chilton came home in tenth. The next race with at least three rookies in the top ten was the first Houston race in 2014, which Carlos Huertas won (with an illegal fuel cell), Carlos Muñoz rounded out an all-Colombian podium (Montoya was second) and Jack Hawksworth finished sixth.

It is a mixture of we are due for this to happen, this rookie class is strong and it is quite a big class. There are five rookies scheduled to go full-time. It is not crazy to think there will be a race, let's say Barber, where Rosenqvist finishes sixth, Ericsson seventh and Herta tenth or at Road America Ericsson could finish fifth, Ferrucci could finish eighth and O'Ward finishes tenth.

Those are possible outcomes and lets not rule out at Indianapolis Alonso finishing sixth, Rosenqvist seventh and Herta ninth.

This is a really good rookie class and none of the five drivers are with terrible teams. We still have to see where Harding Steinbrenner Racing falls but if Sonoma is any indication it appears that team will be better than 2018. This is going to be a fun season.

9. There will not be a race decided under caution, barred rain-shortened races
Two races ended under caution in 2018: St. Petersburg after Rossi and Wickens got together and Iowa after Ed Carpenter brushed the wall exiting turn two, forced some debris on the track and there just was not enough time to restart the race.

Texas was the only race to end under caution in 2017; Phoenix was the only race to end under caution in 2016 and 2015 had NOLA, Fontana and Pocono end under caution with the first Belle Isle race being stopped early due to rain.

It has been a while since an IndyCar season did not have one race end under caution. In fact, you have to go back to the 2007 Champ Car season for the last time it happened.

However, IndyCar does not have a problem and it doesn't need to adopt green-white-checkered finish. There may be a race or two that finish under caution in a given season but it hasn't been a quarter or a third of the races.

This year I think every race will have a green flag finish and that is tough to predict. You never know if someone will bin it in the final corner of a street course and force a caution to be thrown with the leader on the other side of the circuit. Oval racing can be wild and that last lap move could end up taking out a few drivers. You never know but I think this will be the year of green.

10. Honda wins the most races for the second consecutive season
It really comes down to power in numbers and Honda is going to have it for a third consecutive year. It isn't just the quantity but the quality as well. It wasn't long ago Honda was lost with Hunter-Reay really being the manufactures' only consistent winner. Now it has Dixon, Rossi and Bourdais to give with Hunter-Reay and there are also Rahal, Hinchcliffe and Sato that have won a few races. All five full-time Honda teams have won a race the last two seasons. That is something Chevrolet can brag about.

Chevrolet has Team Penske and Team Penske has been pulling the boat for a while now. Team Penske has had some dominating seasons all on its own but that is not a reliable source. Eventually a team is going to hit a rough patch. One team cannot win nine races a season forever. The last non-Team Penske win for Chevrolet was Josef Newgarden with Ed Carpenter Racing at Iowa in 2016. Bourdais won earlier that season at Belle Isle with KVSH Racing.

There isn't that second team waiting in the wings to swoop in if Team Penske is off. ECR has that potential but we are not sure yet if the driver lineup is capable of being there like it once was. A.J. Foyt Racing is a mess. Carlin is still new.

If every Honda team wins at least one race again that is five and it is four victories away from sealing most victories. Dixon is likely going to win another, Rossi is likely to win another and Hunter-Reay has two victories that gives Honda nine victories and clinches most victories over Chevrolet. That also doesn't mention the possibility of Rosenqvist, Veach and possibly both Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers getting a victory.

I do not think Honda will dominate and win 12 of 17 races. I think it will be close to even but Honda could clinch this with two or three races to go.

11. The first caution in the Indianapolis 500 does not come after a lead lap car runs into a lapped car
It has happened the last two years. First, it was Scott Dixon and Jay Howard in 2017. Then it was James Davison and Takuma Sato. They have been funky incidents and unfortunately these incidents are used to diminish drivers and smeared them as being hazardous and not fit enough to run the Indianapolis 500.

That isn't fair to those drivers and sometimes accidents happen. But three consecutive years seems to be a bit much. Personally, I don't want to see any cautions. I want a 500-mile sprint with no room to breathe but a caution will likely come at some point in the race. I just don't think we will see lapped traffic and faster lead lap cars colliding as the cause in 2019.

12. Every driver in the top twenty of the championship starts every race.
This may be one of those things you haven't realized has not happened in a while and that is because it has never happened.

Never in IndyCar history has all twenty drivers in the top twenty of the championship started every race.

It sounds crazy and it sounds like it has to be wrong but it is completely correct. There have been plenty of times when 20 drivers have started every race but there has always been one driver in the top twenty that has missed a race whether it is because of injury or that driver was part-time.

IndyCar has had some oddity in the championship. During the days of AAA running the series and the early days of USAC there would be the drivers who only ran Indianapolis, would win it and then finish fifth in the championship or run a few other races but not all of them. In the 1960s, many drivers skipped Pikes Peak. In the 1970s, there were fewer driving running full-time and even those who did run majority of the schedule might have missed a round or two.

More drivers running full-time started in the 1980s but there were still the occasional DNS or DNQ or missed race due to an injury. By the time the mid-1990s rolled around we had the split and for many years neither series had enough drivers to have 20 run full-time. Things have been better since reunification but there have still been drivers not starting a race due to mechanical issues or injury.

Here are a few times when it was close to happening:

1991: The top 15 drivers started every race. Mike Groff was 16th and missed four races, Willy T. Ribbs missed six races, John Jones missed seven races and Ted Prappas missed five races. Gordon Johncock was 20th in the championship and his only start was the Indianapolis 500, where he started sixth.

1994: Nineteen of the top 20 and 20 of the top 21 started every race. The lone exception was Mark Smith, who finished 19th in the championship. Smith withdrew from Phoenix and did not qualify for Indianapolis. Willy T. Ribbs was 22nd in the championship and only missed Indianapolis.

1995: Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi both missed Indianapolis. Robby Gordon didn't start at Michigan. Eddie Cheever missed the final two races. Danny Sullivan missed the final four races due to injury.

1996 CART: Adrián Fernández did not start the U.S. 500. Paul Tracy didn't start the second Michigan race and missed Mid-Ohio. Mark Blundell broke his foot at Rio and missed the next three races. Emerson Fittipaldi suffered his career-ending injury at Michigan and missed the final four races. Eddie Lawson's only IndyCar season ended at Toronto, five races early.

1996 IRL: Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever both withdrew from Phoenix. Scott Brayton was fatally injured before Indianapolis. David Kudrave did not attempt Indianapolis. Michel Jourdain, Jr. and Jim Guthrie did not run the season opener at Orlando.

1998 CART: Christian Fittipaldi was the only driver in the top 20 not to start a race. He did not start at Milwaukee.

2000 IRL: Sarah Fisher did not start the season opener at Orlando. Tyce Carlson did not qualify for Indianapolis. Jaques Lazier missed Phoenix and Atlanta.

2001 CART: Tony Kanaan withdrew from Belle Isle due to a concussion. Memo Gidley did not run the first six races.

2004 Champ Car: The top 15 ran every race but Nelson Philippe missed three races, Gastón Mazzacane missed five races. Guy Smith missed seven races. Alex Sperafico missed the final six races. David Besnard was 20th in the championship and his only start was at Surfers Paradise, where he finished seventh.

2005 IRL: Buddy Rice missed Indianapolis. Tomáš Enge missed three races. Ryan Briscoe missed three races, including the final two after his Chicagoland accident. A.J. Foyt IV did not run the road courses.

2007 IRL: The top 17 ran every race but Jeff Simmons ran the first 11 races before he was replaced by Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ran the final six races and Milka Duno rounded out the top 20 after making only seven starts.

2008: Graham Rahal missed Homestead after he suffered an accident in a test days before the race. Bruno Junqueira missed Iowa after he wrecked his car in practice. E.J. Viso and the entire HVM Racing team missed Nashville due to the mumps.

2009: Hélio Castroneves missed the season opener due to his tax evasion case. Mario Moraes missed Mid-Ohio after the passing of his father. Will Power was 19th as a part-time entry and Tomas Scheckter was 20th as a part-time entry.

2010: The top 19 drivers started every race. Graham Rahal was 20th running a piecemeal season with Sarah Fisher Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Newman-Haas Racing. Takuma Sato was 21st in the championship, ran every race but scored 21 fewer points than Rahal.

2011: James Hinchcliffe missed the season opener at St. Petersburg. Alex Tagliani missed Kentucky because Dan Wheldon got an extra race before Las Vegas. Mike Conway did not qualify for Indianapolis. Simona de Silvestro missed Iowa due to injury and Sonoma due to visa issues.

2012: Rubens Barrichello did not start Texas due to a mechanical issue on the grid. Alex Tagliani and Byran Herta Autosport did not make the flight to São Paulo. Charlie Kimball missed Mid-Ohio due to injury.

2013: Dario Franchitti missed Fontana after his Houston accident. E.J. Viso missed Fontana due to illness.

2014: Jack Hawksworth missed Pocono due to injury and Mikhail Aleshin missed Fontana due to injury.

2015: The top 17 drivers started every race. Ryan Briscoe was 18th but ran as a substitute for James Hinchcliffe. Sage Karam was a part-time entry.

2016: Nineteen of the top twenty started every race. Will Power was second in the championship but missed St. Petersburg after his inner-ear condition.

2017: J.R. Hildebrand missed Barber due to injury. Mikhail Aleshin was benched for Toronto and released with four races to go. Spencer Pigot was part-time.

2018: James Hinchcliffe did not qualify for Indianapolis. Robert Wickens missed the final three races due to injury. Ed Carpenter was 20th and ran only the ovals.

There have been some close calls but with the number of full-time drivers expected I think this is the year it happens.

And that unnecessarily, long-winded, detailed final prediction closes out the five-part prediction series for the 2019 season. If you have missed the NASCAR, Et Cetera, Formula One or sports car predictions, please check them out.

The New Year will be here soon. Musings From the Weekend return on New Year's Eve for one final goodbye to 2018 and a look ahead to 2019.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

2019 Sports Car Predictions

The penultimate set of predictions will take a look at the major sports car series around the world and in the United States. One season is currently in the midst of a lengthy winter break but three others will get started in 2019.

1. IMSA: Japanese manufactures win at least half the races overall (excluding the GT-only races)
Cadillac has been the top manufacture in the short history of DPi but this year sees Acura Team Penske enter its second year, Nissan move from Extreme Speed Motorsports to CORE Autosport and the Mazda program enters its second year with Team Joest.

Team Penske had a respectable first season with the Acura ARX-05 and it is not inconceivable to think that was only the foundation for an improved sophomore season. Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya had four podium finishes but did not win a race while Ricky Taylor and Hélio Castroneves won at Mid-Ohio and had a runner-up finish at Belle Isle. Each car had a pole position.

Nissan won at Sebring and Laguna Seca last year with Extreme Speed Motorsports and CORE Autosport was a championship contender with two victories and five podium finishes with Colin Braun and Jon Bennett.

Mazda did not win in 2018 and a Mazda prototype has not won since the 2012 American Le Mans Series race at Virginia International Raceway but last year ended with both Mazdas on the podium at Petit Le Mans, granted that was aided with the #5 Cadillac running out of fuel.

Cadillac sees an increase in entries. Action Express Racing keeps up its two car operation with the #5 Mustang Samplings Cadillac and the #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing will still have the #10 Cadillac for Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande. The #5 Cadillac will continue to have its all-Portuguese lineup of Filipe Albuquerque and João Barbosa but the team has added a new Lusophone driver. Eric Curran steps back to the endurance races with Pipo Derani moving over from Extreme Speed Motorsports to join Felipe Nasr in an all-Brazilian lineup.

Three more Cadillacs will be on the grid. Juncos Racing has expanded its program to IMSA with Will Owen being one of its drivers. Owen has been successful with United Autosports in European Le Mans Series but the team has yet to announce his co-driver. JDC-Miller Motorsports will field two Cadillacs. Stephen Simpson and Simon Trummer will drive the #84 Cadillac and Tristan Vautier and Misha Goikhberg will team in the #85 Cadillac.

Cadillac has power in numbers and the three teams Cadillac already had won their fair share of races but I think we will see all three Japanese manufactures make a step forward.

In the case of Acura, with Team Penske running the organization you know it is only a matter of time before it is highly competitive. The Mazda program seems to make progress but not get over that hump but Team Joest is in the same boat as Team Penske. It is only a matter of time before Mazda is winning races. As for Nissan, if CORE Autosport was winning with an LMP2 car, I think it will plenty of good days with Nissan.

The one concern is Cadillac was dominant in the early days of the DPi and Balance of Performance brought it down to earth. With DPi and LMP2 splitting into separate classes we are hopeful DPi is unleashed and if that is the case it is not crazy to think Cadillac will rise to the top and reclaim the top spot. However, the DPi category is more competitive than day one and each manufacture has spent plenty of time developing their entries and I think the DPi class will be a competitive competition all season.

2. The GTLM champion has at least three victories
Jan Magnussen and Antonio García won the GTLM championship last year in the #3 Corvette without winning a race. GTLM is a tight class. It seems every race has every team on the lead lap in class for 80% of the race. Four of five manufactures won a race in 2018 with Ferrari being the only one not to win a race and the Italian manufacture was part-time only running in the North American Endurance Championship with Risi Competizione.

Magnussen and García won three races when they won the title in 2017 and all but one GTLM champion since the ALMS/Grand-Am merger in 2014 had three races or more. The other exception is Kuno Wittmer, who won twice in 2014 driving the #93 Dodge Viper.

Corvette has won three consecutive championships while Ford Chip Ganassi Racing has come close in each of its three seasons. Ford has retained its driver lineups with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook in the #67 Ford and Joey Hand and Dirk Müller in the #67 Ford. Porsche continues with a strong duo of entries. Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy continue in the #911 Porsche and Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor share the #912 Porsche. BMW won twice late in 2018 but it sees Alexander Sims leave the program to focus on Formula E commitments. Tom Blomqvist moves over from Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters to join Connor De Phillippi in the #25 BMW with John Edwards and Jesse Krohn set to remain in the #24 BMW.

It feels like now or never for the Ford GT team. It has won at Le Mans, Daytona and plenty of other races but it has yet to take a championship.

3. GTD has its fourth different manufactures' champion in four years
Maybe it should not be surprising that in a Pro-Am, Balance of Performance class there have been three different manufactures' champions in the last three seasons but with nine manufactures entered in GTD for 2019 it feels like all signs point to a fourth different champion.

Lamborghini is the defending champions and it has strengthened its lineup. Paul Miller Racing returns and Bryan Sellers will have a new teammate in the #48 Lamborghini with Madison Snow retiring and Ryan Hardwick becoming his co-driver. Magnus Racing switches over to Lamborghini after three seasons with Audi. Percision Performance Motorsports steps up from Lamborghini Super Trofeo competition.

Ferrari won the manufactures' title in 2017 but at this point of time the only Ferrari entered is the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari with Cooper MacNeil having Toni Vilander be his co-driver. Audi won the title in 2016 but it has two new entries with Starworks joining the class and it will have Ryan Dalziel and Parker Chase in the #8 Audi while Morespeeed will field the #19 Audi for Alex Riberas and Will Hardeman.

Meyer Shank Racing nearly won the drivers' title with Katherine Legge and it will field two Acura NSXs in 2019. Legge returns but has a new co-driver with Jackie Heinricher in the #57 Acura while Mario Farnbacher and Trent Hindman will share the #86 Acura. On paper, it does not seem Acura is nearly as competitive as last year's lineup.

Mercedes-AMG won a race last year with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating and it won the NAEC manufactures' championship thanks to those two and Team Riley. Bleekemolen and Keating won the NAEC title the year before as well. P1 Motorsports joins Team Riley in GTD as a Mercedes-AMG team.

Porsche has a respectable pairing of Patrick Long and Patrick Lindsey in the #73 Park Place Motorsports entry while Pfaff Motorsports moves over from Pirelli World Challenge, bring GT Sprint champion Scott Hargrove and fellow Canadian Zach Robichon will be his co-driver.

AIM Vasser Sullivan has taken over the Lexus program and it sees Townsend Bell return to full-time competition with Frankie Montecalvo in the #12 Lexus with Jack Hawksworth back in the #14 Lexus with Richard Heistand.

It is really difficult to pick out one entry that could lead the way in this class. I really like the Team Riley and the Mercedes-AMG program but it would not come as a surprise if Long and Lindsey carried Porsche to the championship.

4. WEC: The #8 Toyota wins the world championship
There are three races remaining in the 2018-19 FIA World Endurance Championship season and Toyota has been close to perfect, albeit for a double disqualification at Silverstone, handing Rebellion Racing an overall victory.

The Japanese manufactures' two entries each have two victories after the #8 Toyota of Fernando Alonso, Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi won at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans and the #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López won at Fuji and Shanghai.

The #8 Toyota has a five-point lead over the #7 Toyota. It has been pretty split between the two entries and even if both cars had not been excluded from Silverstone it would still only be an 11-point gap in favor of the #8 Toyota.

While all signs point to Toyota letting the two entries race it out and not play favorites, the #8 Toyota is going to win the world championship. For starters, that lineup is too good to come in second. Although the painfulness of Alonso losing another world championship seems to fit the script, I think this team will pull it out. Buemi has already won a world title in the WEC. Nakajima has been plenty successful in champion.

The only thing that could derail the #8 Toyota from the title is a mechanical issue and that seems to also fit Alonso's script. However, this is one thing that will finally go in the Spaniard's favor.

5. Porsche does not win majority of the remaining races in GTE-Am
Porsche is four-for-five this season in GTE-Am with Aston Martin's victory at Spa-Francorchamps being the lone defeat this year. Dempsey-Proton Racing is responsible for three of those victories while championship leading Team Project 1 won at Fuji.

Dempsey-Proton Racing lost all championship points from the first four rounds of the season after it was found the team was manipulating the data and violating the minimum refueling time. In the next race at Shanghai the team finished first and third and it would come to no surprise if this team scorned because of a rules violation ends on fire and tries to salvage what it can from this championship.

However, Aston Martin has been quick and has been knocking on the door all season. The #98 Aston Martin won the pole position in the last two rounds and the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin had three runner-up finishes in the first four races. Aston Martin will get another victory.

None of the Ferrari entries have been particularly close. Clearwater Racing finished third at Spa-Francorchamps and Spirit of Race finished second at Le Mans but those are the only two podium finishes for Ferrari this season in GTE-Am and MR Racing has not finished better than fifth this season. Ferrari will have a good race and I don't think it will be shut out this season in GTE-Am.

6. At least one new team wins in LMP2
Similar to Porsche, Jackie Chan DC Racing has won four of five races in LMP2 with Signatech Alpine taking the class victory at Le Mans and Signatech Alpine has had a car on the podium in every race this season.

Both teams use the Oreca chassis, which has dominated the LMP2 category since the regulation changes. The only Oreca teams without a victory is DragonSpeed and TDS Racing.

The safe bet is to put some money on DragonSpeed. It has a great driver lineup with Anthony Davidson, Roberto González and Pastor Maldonado although the TDS Racing lineup is just as respectable with Loïc Duval, François Perrodo and Matthieu Vaxivière.

The two non-Oreca cars are the Dallara of Racing Team Nederland and the Ligier of Larbre Compétition. Neither team has finished better than fifth this season. I would not put money on either getting a victory in the final three races.

7. ELMS: Drivers with Formula One starts win fewer races overall in 2019
The 2018 season had half of the races won overall with a team that had at least one driver with Formula One starts. All those victories were at the hands of Jean-Éric Vergne but still half the races had a Formula One-experienced driver as an overall winner.

The previous three European Le Mans Series races with a Formula One-experienced driver among the overall winning team were with Giedo van der Garde, who won the bookends of the 2016 season with Jota Sport at Silverstone and Estoril, and Christian Klien won the penultimate round of the 2014 season at Circuit Paul Ricard.

Vergne alone doubled the number of ELMS victories for Formula One-experienced drivers since the series' resurgence in 2013. The crazy thing is Vergne wasn't the only with Formula One experience on the grid. Bruno Senna did a round, Felipe Nasr did all but one round and Will Stevens did a full season.

The 2019 grid is far from being announced but in likelihood the likes of Vergne and Stevens will stick around and you never know who could fill a professional seat in a Pro-Am team. However, there are plenty of talented drivers in the European Le Mans Series that never made Formula One, including Filipe Albuquerque, who won the final two races of 2018 with Phil Hanson at United Autosports and he will return next season.

Numbers will not be in the favor of the likes of Vergne and give me the field in that case.

8. At least one of the top three championship finishers in LMP3 improve by at least three spots in the championship
Inter Europol Competition went from fifth in LMP3 in 2017 to second in 2018. In 2017, M.Racing - YMR finished second in the championship after the team finished sixth in the 2016 season. In 2016, Graff was the runner-up in the championship after finishing sixth in the 2015 season, albeit Graff only ran the finale that year.

There has always been one team to make a jump up in the championship and with the natural of a Pro-Am category that is not at all surprising. We have seen drivers and teams start in LMP3, run a year or two and then move up to LMP2 or a driver starts as a silver in LMP3, does well and then gets re-categorized to gold and has to leave the class or find an amateur to keep going in that class.

What are three teams to keep an eye on to fulfill this prediction? The #2 United Autosports Ligier finished sixth in the championship after winning the LMP3 championship the prior two seasons. There is no guarantee United Autosports continues with that entry but if it does I would think it would not be crazy if that entry ended up in the top three.

The #7 Ecurie Ecosse/Nielsen Ligier was fourth in the championship and had three runner-up finishes and this car missed out on the top three by a half-point.

One final team is the #11 Eurointernational Ligier, which has won a race the last two season and finished second in a race in 2016 but the team has never finished better than seventh in the championship.

9. At least one race has a manufacture sweep the podium in GTE
The GTE class in ELMS is a bit disappointing when compared to the behemoths of LMP2 and LMP3. When you have two classes that regularly field 10-12 entries and then have a class that is only hitting six entries, especially a GT class that produces top competition in the WEC and IMSA, it is a bit of a downer.

The GTE class had three Porsches and three Ferraris run full-time in 2018 and that was it. No Aston Martins, no Fords, no Corvettes, no BMWs.

Despite this split, there was not a manufacture sweep in 2018 and ironically there was not even a 1-2 for a manufacture! Each manufacture had three victories but Porsche had two cars on the podium in five of six races.

If there are only three Porsches and three Ferraris again in 2019, I think one manufacture has a grand day or in an even worse case, there end up only being three Porsches and two Ferraris or vice versa and that increases the chance of a sweep even more.

10. World Challenge America: American drivers win more races overall in 2019 than 2018
Out of 19 races, only one had an American driver win overall and that was when the all-American lineup of Mike Skeen and Scott Heckert in the #80 Mercedes-AMG for Lone Star Racing.

That was it.

There will be only 14 races in this new Blancpain GT World Challenge America season but I think we still more American influence on the grid. Paul Miller Racing said it was moving to this series and bringing Bryan Sellers along with them but with the team confirming a full-time entry for GTD in 2019 it is not clear if the team will have a foot in each camp. If it does, I think Sellers will win two races on his own.

If Sellers does race but only gets one victory or if he doesn't win or doesn't compete, I think someone like Michael Cooper will have a ride and Cooper is capable of winning. If it isn't Cooper then it could be a Spencer Pumpelly or it could be Skeen and/or Heckert winning multiple times in a season.

11. One of the regional GT4 series averages fewer than ten entries
The upcoming season is a major shift for the series formerly known as Pirelli World Challenge and not only is the GT3 division being rebranded and going to be solely co-driver doubleheaders on race weekends but the GTS division has been rebranded as GT4 America and there will be regional GT4 series as well.

I am not sure there is that much demand for a national GT4 series along with two regional series. I feel like if you are putting a program together you are going to run the national series. Even at that, the western series still requires a lot of travel and I do not think there are enough teams located on the west coast that would run this series.

12. There will be at least one occasion I forget about this series and do not put it in the "Coming Up This Weekend" section of a Musings From the Weekend
I am scared for this series. A few years ago, Pirelli World Challenge was the best-kept secret in motorsports. It embraced GT3 specs before other series. It survived the recession, it survived the loss of Speed title sponsorship and it found a way to grow through streaming live races. It partnered with IndyCar and filled the bill at many events.

Flash forward to 2019 and the series has cut all ties from IndyCar, has dropped the series' signature single-driver, 50-minute race format and it has been absorbed into this growing SRO bubble and gone is the characteristics of this series.

I feel like the series is making some wrong choices and I fear that this series is going to get lost. And in turn, I fear that a weekend will come and when going through what the schedule will be it will be forgotten because IndyCar will be somewhere and then there will be NASCAR and maybe IMSA and unlike days when it was with IndyCar and was something else to look forward to it will be at another racetrack halfway across the country and with a minuscule percentage of the crowd compared to if it was running with IndyCar.

Right now there is no race weekend from June 9th to August 30th and the "grand finale" is still to be announced for October 18-20th. I am not sure the grand finale will get filled. This culture shift for what was Pirelli World Challenge does not appear to be the correction solution and I hope changes are made for 2020.

Not the best note to end up but there are three other sets of predictions to check out from NASCAR to Formula One to a dozen other series. Tomorrow is the final set of predictions and it will be IndyCar's turn in the spotlight.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

2019 Formula One Predictions

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas and now it is time for our Boxing Day tradition of Formula One predictions. We are coming off another world championship for Lewis Hamilton, a better but still disappointing season for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari, a race victory for Kimi Räikkönen and a decent year from Red Bull but still far from its championship days earlier this decade. What will 2019 bring with drivers switching teams, Red Bull changing engine manufactures and the exit of Fernando Alonso?

1. Lewis Hamilton will move up to second all-time in fastest laps
This man is already second all-time in victories, tied for second all-time in championships and the all-time leader in pole position. Hamilton is going to end his career with many of the records even if he doesn't get to Michael Schumacher's record in victories and championships.

He currently sits on 41 fastest laps, tied with Alain Prost for third all-time. He is five behind Kimi Räikkönen and he is five ahead of the next active driver, Sebastian Vettel, who is fifth all-time. Last season, Hamilton had three fastest laps, which might sound low but it is the same number of fastest laps in 2016. In his other three seasons during this era of regulations he has had seven, eight and seven fastest laps.

He just needs to be slightly better than 2018 to surpass Räikkönen. It is possible and I think Hamilton and Mercedes will continue to rule Formula One. I think Mercedes will not be slow to get going as they were in 2018.

2. Mercedes surpasses Brawn for best winning percentage in Formula One history
In Brawn's one Formula One season, it won eight of 17 races, 47.1% of the races on its way to its only World Constructors' Championship.

Brawn's successor Mercedes has won 87 of 189 races, sitting at 46.0%. No other team has won more than a third of the races. Vanwall won nine of 28 races, 32.1% while Ferrari sits on 24.2% with 235 victories from 970 races. Red Bull has won 59 of 265 races, 22.3% with McLaren and Williams rounding out the top seven at 21.6% and 16.3%. Williams will likely fall behind Lotus, which is only a tenth of a percentage behind Williams. Williams would have to win three races to retain seventh.

Meanwhile, Mercedes needs to win 12 of 21 races to surpass Brawn. Last year, Mercedes won 11 races, all at the hands of Hamilton. Hamilton has averaged 10.2 victories a season since the start of this turbo V6 hybrid-era. Bottas did not win a race in 2018 but he very well could have won twice and there were probably two more races Hamilton could have won.

Once again, I don't see Mercedes' stranglehold loosening much in 2019. Even if Hamilton goes under his average for this era and has only ten victories, I think the team will be in position to surpass Brawn. In other news, Mercedes needs 13 victories to reach the century mark, joining only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams to reach that mark. Mercedes has something to aim for.

3. Charles Leclerc does not out qualifying Sebastian Vettel on speed in the first six races 
For the second time in Vettel's career, he has a talented younger driver joining him at an established team. At Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo came in, beat Vettel immediately and forced the German to Ferrari. Leclerc has been slightly more successful than Ricciardo in terms of where he was after year one in Formula One.

Leclerc has won titles in GP3 and Formula Two. Last season, he scored 39 points with Sauber. Leclerc has been heralded as the leader of this next generation of talent and he was good enough to convince Ferrari to take the 21-year-old over the steady hand of Kimi Räikkönen.

However, I think Vettel will not let Leclerc beat him the way Ricciardo did at Red Bull. Leclerc will be competitive and for the first time in at least a decade Ferrari doesn't have a designated number two driver. Leclerc will be going for race victories. Unless Vettel is in the title fight I do not see Ferrari telling Leclerc to move aside to let the German through but I think there will be a learning curve for the Monegasque driver.

I think Vettel will have a bit of an upper hand and it may take until the European portion of the schedule until he reaches the level of Vettel. Unless Vettel has to serve a grid penalty, I think he starts ahead of his teammate for almost the first third of the season.

4. Antonio Giovinazzi scores at least 66% of Kimi Räikkönen's points total
Speaking of Sauber and Räikkönen, it is not only a reunion for those two but also Giovinazzi returns to Formula One after two races in 2017 filling in for the injured Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber had its best season of the turbo V6 hybrid-era with 48 points with Leclerc and the IndyCar-bound Marcus Ericsson. The influx of Alfa Romeo money helped the team and that remains for 2019. It is tough to judge where the team will fall in 2019. Räikkönen won at Austin and had a respectable 2018 season. Will that same kind of momentum and fire last into the next season? Sauber is a step down from Ferrari and we saw Räikkönen lose motivation at Ferrari before. Why would that not happen at Sauber?

As for Giovinazzi, he had a respectable debut at Australia and then could not stay out of the barrier at China in the next round. The man lost the GP2 title in 2016 to Pierre Gasly by eight points. He has been respectable in sports cars. It seems like Räikkönen will still be the number one driver and Sauber could move up the ladder. I think Giovinazzi will cover himself well in 2019 and Räikkönen will not be carrying the load. I am not sure how many points this team will score but I think it will be close to even than some expect.

5. Robert Kubica does not start all 21 races
The Polish driver will complete the remarkable comeback in 2019 with Kubica set for his first Formula One start since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

He has come a long way but there is something that tells me this will not go as swimmingly as we all hope.

I think it is a big leap for him and there may be a track or two where he doesn't have it. I don't know if that means his season will be cut short or if a third driver will have to step in but I am not sure if it will goes as planned for Kubica. Even if it something mechanical that keeps him from taking the lights I am not sure he will go 21-for-21 in terms of starts.

6. At least five constructors get a podium finish
Red Bull switches to Honda in 2019 and I think that will bring Red Bull closer to the rest of the field, allowing for more teams to compete for podium finishes.

Only four teams made it to the podium in 2018 and one of those was Force India's lone third place finish in Azerbaijan after Valtteri Bottas lost a tire at the start of the final lap. The 2017 season was not much different from 2018 with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull accounting for all but one podium finish, which was third at Azerbaijan for Williams with Lance Stroll.

The last season with five teams finishing on the podium was 2016 with Force India finishing third at Monaco and Azerbaijan (what is up with the final podium position at Azerbaijan) and Williams finished third in Canada.

I think with Red Bull taking on Honda the team will have good days but as we have seen with Honda since it returned to Honda it has good days and its bad days are atrocious. Daniel Ricciardo got out and went to Renault and while Renault has not finished on the podium since it returned as a constructor in 2016 (Renault's last podium was third in the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix with Nick Heidfeld), I don't think Ricciardo makes that move unless he knows Renault has enough to be competitive.

It isn't quite Hamilton leaving McLaren for Mercedes but I think Ricciardo made the move because he knew what he had with the Renault engine and the Honda was too much of a roll of the dice for his career at a team ready to embrace Max Verstappen as its number one.

Haas had its best year in 2018 and if Red Bull falls back to the pack the Ferrari engine might push Haas to a podium finish or two. Newly named Racing Point will still have Mercedes engines, will have more money behind the team and has perennial over-performer Sergio Pérez as one of its drivers. And it might not be crazy to think that McLaren-Renault might be in position to get back on the podium for the first time since it took second and third in the 2014 Australian Grand Prix, the first race with the turbo V6 hybrid engines.

This might be the season where Mercedes and Ferrari pull away from the field and on paper it may look competitive with more teams getting on the podium.

7. A driver will end a drought of 50 races or more without a podium finish
If you are wondering who this pertains to the answers are Romain Grosjean, who has made 69 starts since his last podium finish; Kevin Magnussen, who has not had a podium finish in his last 80 starts since he finished second on debut at Australia in 2014; Carlos Sainz, Jr., who has not had a podium finish in 81 starts and Nico Hülkenberg, who has not had a podium finish in 156 starts.

This prediction seems a bit more far fetched now that it has been written out but like I said before if there are going to be five manufactures that end up on the podium and if Haas gets a podium finish than either Grosjean or Magnussen will end their drought.

Sainz, Jr. has yet to finish on the podium, which is kind of surprising considering he has been really good in Formula One and then there is Hülkenberg, who has started more races than anyone in Formula One history without a podium finish.

I think somebody breaks through and gets their long awaited day in the spotlight.

8. None of the rookies break 39 points
There are arguably four rookies entered for the 2019 season. Formula Two champion George Russell joins Williams with his vice-champion Lando Norris moving up to McLaren. Alexander Albon will become the first Thai driver to start a Formula One race since Prince Bira finished ninth in the 1954 Spanish Grand Prix and he finished third in the Formula Two championship. Though Giovinazzi made two starts, he should be classified as a rookie.

Thirty-nine points is the total Charles Leclerc scored in 2018.

The most likely of the four to reach 39 points seems to be Giovinazzi because he is driving for the team Leclerc drove for. Norris replaces Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren and while Alonso scored 50 points, I don't think Norris will replicate that success and Vandoorne only scored 12 points. The average of McLaren's 2018 drivers is 31 points. That seems about the right total for Norris.

Toro Rosso scored 33 points last year and historically Toro Rosso has not been a team that scored a lot of points. Only three times has a Toro Rosso driver scored 39 points or more, one was Max Verstappen in 2015 and the other two occasions were at the hands of Sainz, Jr. in 2016 and 2017. Hold you horses on Albon.

Williams couldn't even get to ten points in 2018. Why should any of us think Russell alone will score 39 points?

I think it will come down to Norris and Giovinazzi for top rookie and both will score over two-dozen points and it would not surprise me if both break 30 points but neither get over 39 points. Albon may score somewhere between 10-20 points and Russell will get on the board but I am not sure he will be able to top Albon.

9. Daniil Kvyat does not improve his best finish with Toro Rosso
The Russian driver's best finish at Toro Rosso is ninth. He has made 51 starts at Toro Rosso. He finished better than ninth in ten of 21 starts at Red Bull.

I do not know what to think of Kvyat's Formula One career but I do not see this second stint being some major improvement. For starters, I am not sure Toro Rosso will have the better of the Honda engines now that the parent team Red Bull has switched over. Toro Rosso had three finishes better than eighth last year.

There is a chance Kvyat gets an eighth place finish or a seventh place finish but if it does happen it is a one-off and not a regular occurrence.

10. There will be at least two grand slams
There were zero grand slams in 2018.

Only four times did the race winner score fastest lap in 2018. Daniel Ricciardo did it at China, Sebastian Vettel did it at Silverstone and Hamilton did it at Germany and Italy. Hamilton led every lap from pole position at Japan but Vettel scored fastest lap.

Hamilton had three grand slams in 2017, matching the single season record and he is tied for second all-time with Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher and he is three behind Jim Clark's record. In 2016, Nico Rosberg had two grand slams.

Mercedes is the only team during the turbo V6 hybrid-era to score a grand slam. The last non-Mercedes grand slam was Vettel with Red Bull in the 2013 Korean Grand Prix.

I think Hamilton will get at least one, if not two and I think there is a chance Vettel gets one with Ferrari.

11. At least three countries have multiple driver finish in the top ten of the championship
Eight different countries were represented in the top ten of the championship last year. Finland had two representatives in Räikkönen and Bottas and Germany had two with Vettel and Hülkenberg.

This one might be a stretch because there are not many countries with multiple drivers on the grid and in fact there are only four countries. After being the only Brit on the grid in 2018, Hamilton has Russell and Norris joining him, making the United Kingdom the most represented country on the grid. Bottas and Räikkönen remain, as does Vettel and Hülkenberg. The only other country with multiple drivers is France with Romain Grosjean and Pierre Gasly, down from three last year now that Esteban Ocon has lost this round of musical chairs and will have to settle for Mercedes reserve driver.

The only country I feel good about is Germany. I think Vettel will be in the top three and Renault will be solid enough to keep Hülkenberg in the top ten. Hamilton will be in the top three but you cannot count on Norris or Russell because of their lack of experience and their teams. Bottas will be in the top four but it is not clear what Räikkönen we will get and if Sauber will gain on 2018 and provide a top ten race car. Then there are the French drivers. Grosjean and Gasly were 14th and 15th respectively in the championship in 2018.

Haas is a good team and Kevin Magnussen finished ninth in the championship. Grosjean could match his level. Gasly moves to Red Bull and both drivers finished in the top six. That alone should warrant at least a five-position bump in the championship but the concern for Gasly is the Honda engine. I think Gasly gets in the top ten but there is no guarantee he will be in the top six.

I don't think the United Kingdom will be one of three but I think Germany will do it, I think Finland will do it with Räikkönen getting into the top ten and I think Grosjean and Gasly each get into the top ten but there is a chance Räikkönen, Grosjean and Gasly are the final three drivers in the top ten.

12. The championship is not clinched in Mexico
Lewis Hamilton has clinched the world championship in Mexico the last two seasons. The only countries to have three consecutive world championships clinched there are Japan and Brazil. The title was decided in Japan five consecutive years from 1987-1991 and in three consecutive seasons from 1998-2000 while Brazil decided the title from 2005-2009.

The odds are not in Mexico's favor but then again I thought Mexico would not win the race promoters' trophy three consecutive years and here we are with Mexico having won the honor for the fourth consecutive year so what do I know?

The one thing in this predictions' favor is Mexico is not the antepenultimate round in 2019 as it and the United States has flipped positions in the schedule. That means Hamilton will need to be better than he was in the last two seasons to clinch the title in Mexico or everyone behind him have to be slightly worse.

I think it is more likely that the championship is closer and goes down to the wire than Hamilton clinches the title in Russia or Japan.

It is hard to see Hamilton not winning the championship this year and Vettel is his most serious contender. Mercedes will not suddenly swing into Bottas' favor even if Bottas replicates Nico Rosberg's start to the 2016 season and Hamilton starts off sluggish. It is too soon to think Leclerc will compete for a title in year one with Ferrari.

For Vettel to take the title to at least Brazil or Abu Dhabi he not only needs to cut out the mistakes that cost him in the second half of 2018 but he has to be all around better. Vettel's final victory in 2018 was Belgium. There were eight races after that. He was only on the podium for four of them. He had only two front starts in the final eight races after having eight front starts including five pole positions in the first 13 races.

Vettel and Ferrari cannot have any fall off. For five seasons when Mercedes has a bad race it immediately response and doesn't repeat that performance. Hamilton will not put a foot wrong and it will come down to if Ferrari can put pressure on the German outfit and the British champion.

We have surpassed the halfway point of the predictions and if you have missed the NASCAR and Et Cetera predictions, please check them out. We got two more to go and both will be posted in the next two days.

Monday, December 24, 2018

2018 Motorsports Christmas List

It is Christmas Eve and it is time to hand out some gifts. Drivers need things. Series need things. There is always something missing. Either it has been a vacancy for a while or it is something you realize is needed after all these years. There are plenty of things on everyone's wish list.

To IndyCar: A successful event at Circuit of the America.

Also to IndyCar: Race sponsorship for Austin, Long Beach, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Iowa, Portland and Laguna Seca.

To Laguna Seca: The kind of enthusiastic crowd that Gateway and Portland got when IndyCar returned.

To Scott Dixon: I am out of ideas... socks? A new bicycle? How about a canoe?

To Alexander Rossi: A caution in his favor.

To Ryan Hunter-Reay: The little things going his way.

To Zach Veach: Less fires.

To Will Power: Some respect... motherfuckers... and a Bathurst 1000 entry with Simon Pagenaud (I know I said this last year but for some reason I think those two would make a really good pair).

To Simon Pagenaud: He needs more than a Bathurst entry. A new work shed.

To Josef Newgarden: A new dining room set.

To Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato: Better qualifying results.

To James Hinchcliffe: A clear day of qualifying at Indianapolis.

To Ed Jones: A seat for the additional ovals.

To Carlos Muñoz: People remembering he exists and how good he is.

To Patricio O'Ward: Tens of millions of Mexican fans in Mexico and the United States.

To Kyle Kaiser: A greater shot at IndyCar.

To Conor Daly: A full-time ride in a midget car with cameos in IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars... and also a sponsor that won't leave him hanging.

To Juan Pablo Montoya: An Indianapolis 500 entry. He is too good not to be in that race... oh, and an entry in an LMP1 car at Le Mans, even if it isn't with Toyota.

To Fernando Alonso: An engine that will last 500 miles.

To Drew Feustal: A trip to every IndyCar race in 2019.

To Formula One: Common sense when it comes to scheduling and realizing when the limit is reached.

To Lewis Hamilton: Peace.

To Daniel Ricciardo: Patience.

To Robert Kubica: A respectable season.

To Kimi Räikkönen: A smooth transition into his retirement team.

To Pietro Fittipaldi: A race seat somewhere because he should be more than a reserve driver in 2019.

To Force India: Financial stability.

To Red Bull: Honda finally getting it to click.

To the Monaco Grand Prix: That race returning to 100 laps. Let's do something different and spice the race up.

To Silverstone: Security for the British Grand Prix.

To the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas: A better date because it is in the middle of football season and somehow clashes with the NASCAR race in Texas.

To Billy Monger: A seat in the Road to Indy.

To Ryan Tveter and Juan Manuel Correa: Seats in Indy Lights.

To the FIA World Endurance Championship: A successful weekend at Sebring.

To Toyota: A few competitors committing to the hypercar class.

To Dempsey-Proton Racing: New fuel nozzles.

To IMSA's Prototype class: Cadillac not dominating now that the cars will be unleashed.

To IMSA's LMP2 class: Another five entries.

To United Autosports: A full-time IMSA entry with Paul di Resta as one of its drivers.

To Colin Braun: Four IndyCar races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

To Simona de Silvestro: Four IndyCar races as an additional entry for Meyer Shank Racing.

To Bob Pockrass: A great-paying job.

To Brendon Hartley: Something more than a Formula E seat.

To NASCAR: Some racing people in charge.

To NASCAR's second division: A revival of the Paul Revere 250 at Daytona.

To Indianapolis Motor Speedway: A clear weekend of the Brickyard 400 and moving that race to Saturday afternoon.

To Martin Truex, Jr.: A team that won't close on him.

To Darrell Wallace, Jr.: Brakes.

To NASCAR teams: Significant cuts to make it more affordable.

To Roush Fenway Racing: A preist, a rabbi, an iman and a monk to bless the #60 Ford in the Grand National Series because that car could not stay out of the wall in 2019.

To Nashville Fairgrounds: Safer barriers, modern lighting system, garage area, grandstand and pit road.

To Rockingham (North Carolina): A bit of hope.

To Rockingham (United Kingdom): Hope as well.

To the Truck Series: Races at Richmond, Milwaukee, Memphis, Indianapolis Raceway Park and Loudon.

To Chip Ganassi Racing: Some good sponsorship news.

To Jimmie Johnson: The ability to lose a battle in order t try and win the war.

To Chase Elliott: The NASCAR fan base have realistic expectations.

To Brett Moffitt: A paying gig in one of NASCAR's top two series.

To Kyle Larson: Books. I don't think he reads much.

To William Byron: Books as well. I don't how much he is reading either and he is a "college" student.

To Daniel Suárez: Revenge on Joe Gibbs Racing and winning two Cup races.

To Chris Buescher: A better Darlington throwback car than a car that was all-white.

To Christopher Bell: A pre-order on #11 merchandise because that is where he will be driving in 2020.

To Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo: A couple's therapist on standby.

To Johann Zarco: A competitive KTM.

To the Dutch TT: A return to race day being on Saturday.

To MotoGP: A better television deal in the United States... as well as a race at Barber Motorsports Park.

To Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters: A fourth manufacture because apparently three is not enough.

To the Intercontinental GT Challenge: Full-time programs from Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, McLaren and Lamborghini.

To Supercars: Less complicated rules that seem to decide every other race.

To Craig Lowndes: Attempts at Le Mans, Daytona, Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps and every other endurance race under the moon.

To Naoki Yamamoto: Honda giving him a few IndyCar races.

To Jenson Button: Some races in the United States. He leaves here after all. Acura, get him in an NSX or the DPi. He would never do an IndyCar oval race but Long Beach? That is practically in his backyard.

And finally, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. It is a wonderful time of the year even if it is without a race on the weekends but soon racing will resume and we will have plenty to keep us busy. Enjoy this time with friends, family and loved ones and end your year on a strong note.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2018

2019 Et Cetera Predictions

This is the little bit of everything set of predictions. There just isn't enough time to come up with a dozen predictions for all these series and sometimes the best thing to do is to come up with one good prediction for each series. That is what has been done and from two-wheel series to touring cars, the United States to Australia. Enjoy the diversity.

1. MotoGP: At least three manufactures have multiple race winners
This seems like an easy prediction but it not be as easy as it seems on paper.

The 2018 season had three different manufactures win a race but Yamaha won once. In 2017, there different manufactures won a race but Andrea Dovizioso was the only winner for Ducati. It last happened in 2016 when Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa and Jack Miller won for Honda, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo won for Yamaha while Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone won for Ducati. Suzuki had one victory with Maverick Viñales.

The 2019 season sees Márquez and Lorenzo team at Honda, Danilo Petrucci joining Dovizioso at Ducati, Rossi and Viñales staying put at Yamaha and Álex Rins stays at Suzuki with Joan Mir moving up from Moto2.

It doesn't seem like KTM or Aprilia are quite there yet to win races but the other four manufactures appear to have the pace. The question is will one manufacture dominate enough to keep others from winning? This is particularly aimed at Honda.

Márquez is coming off nine victories and he has never won fewer than five in a season since joining MotoGP. Lorenzo had a mini revival last season with three victories before injuries cut his season short. If the factory Honda team is on the mark entering each race it seems like the team could win 15 times. Meanwhile, Ducati has Dovizoso, who has carried the flag for a few seasons and Petrucci, who has been quick but hasn't been consistently in the top five.

When it comes to Yamaha, it feels like the team could turn it around. The team has more room to go up than down from one victory but Rossi turns 40 years old a month before the season opener. We have seen Rossi prove everyone wrong and comeback and win races when it seemed he had slipped. He came back from injuries at Mugello in 2008, he returned to his winning ways after his brief stint at Ducati and now he is facing time and coming off a winless season. Rossi had his shots in 2018. He almost had Malaysia had he not fallen late in the race. He was third in the championship. Viñales might end up topping the Yamaha riders but Rossi likely will not be that far off.

Suzuki made big gains in 2018 and Rins would have won at Valencia had the weather not been so poor. However, I do not see Mir coming in and contending for race victories in year one.

If three manufactures are going to do it, Honda, Ducati and Yamaha are the three. 

2. Indy Lights: Three continents produce race winners
It might come as a surprise to you that no European driver won in Indy Lights in 2018. The four winners were Mexican Patricio O'Ward, American Colton Herta, Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia and Brazilian Victor Franzoni. It was the first time Europe had been shut out in Indy Lights since 2005.

I think that will change in 2019 and not only will we have a European winner but winners from North and South America as well.

Going into Christmas we only know of four drivers confirmed for the 2019 Indy Lights season and they come from two continents. Ohio's Ryan Norman will return to Andretti Autosport. Zachary Claman De Melo will be full-time in Indy Lights at Belardi. Parker Thompson joins fellow Canadian Claman De Melo on the Indy Lights grid with Team Pelfrey. Dutchman Rinus VeeKay moves up after winning the Pro Mazda title with Juncos Racing.

VeeKay has been stout in his two years in the Road to Indy and Juncos Racing is a proven Indy Lights race winner. Norman improved immensely from 2017 to 2018 but I am not sure if he will have enough to win in 2019. Claman De Melo has already won in Indy Lights and I think he will challenge for the title while Thompson should be competitive.

There are still many openings and we still need a third continent to be represented on the grid.

At the Chris Griffis Memorial Test, Norman was fastest while Oliver Askew and Robert Megennis were both quick. Franzoni participated with Belardi and he was also quick. If there is another European driver to keep an eye on it is Frenchman Julien Falchero, who tested at Homestead with Andretti Autosport earlier this month. Falchero contested in the GP3 Series and in the European Le Mans Series this season.

There is a lot of time between now and the start of the Indy Lights season. The series has a test in February at Circuit of the Americas. I am sure there will be a few South American drivers added to the grid and I am sure one or two will have what it takes to win a few races. Who knows, maybe the grid sees drivers from Japan, Australia and other parts of the world in 2019. 

3. Supercars: There will be first-time winners in at least two of the three endurance rounds
To explain this one a little bit better: a driver will get his or her first victory in one of the endurance race, as in a driver that has not won the Bathurst 1000 will win the Bathurst 1000 and the same for the Sandown 500 and Gold Coast 600.

Defending champion Scott McLaughlin and 2016 champion Shane van Gisbergen have yet to win the Bathurst 1000 and the Sundown 500. Van Gisbergen has come close in both. It is only time before he wins The Great Race but it would come to the surprise of no one if McLaughlin kept him waiting another year and the DJR Team Penske driver took the honor in 2019.

Scott Pye has finished runner-up in the last two years at Bathurst and he picked up his first, and so far only, victory at Albert Park in 2018. The superteam of Walkinshaw Andretti United did well in year one but the sophomore season must see a leap forward and it is not crazy to think Pye could win at one of the three endurance races. On top of that, teammate James Courtney has not won the Bathurst 1000 nor the Sandown 500.

Erebus Motorsport's David Reynolds won at Surfers Paradise in 2013 and won at Bathurst in 2017 but he has yet to win the Sandown 500. Could 2019 be the year Reynolds completes the trio?

Those are five names to keep an eye on when Supercars enter October.

4. World Superbike: At least two riders with new teams win a race
Jonathan Rea is likely going to win 66% of the schedule and the championship. But other riders are going to win races and Chaz Davies isn't going to clean up the rest of the races.

Riders are moving on and some are moving in and Ducati's new addition Álvaro Bautista has tipped as a challenger to Rea. The Spaniard did not win once in his nine years in MotoGP and he only had three podium finishes in 158 starts. We are approaching ten years since Bautista's most recent victory,  in 250cc at Barcelona. I think he will get a few victories and give Davies a run for the best Ducati rider.

What about the man Bautista is replacing, Marco Melandri? The Italian moves over to GRT Yamaha, the second team in the stable and it is difficult to see him topping the factory duo of Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes.

Ducati is not the only team that has shuffled the deck. Tom Sykes has left Kawasaki after nine seasons and he will join BMW. The German manufacture has had World Superbike success before but it took four seasons for BMW to get its first WSBK victory in 2012, coincidentally Melandri got that victory, but after good seasons in 2012 and 2013, the manufacture pulled support. It could be an uphill battle for Sykes.

If Sykes is going to BMW, what about his replacement? That would be Leon Haslam, the reigning British Superbike champion. Haslam has won in WSBK with Suzuki and Aprilia and Rea will be tough to beat. Sykes topped Rea only once in 2018 but if there is a day when Rea is just off or he falls off, Haslam could be in position to clean up the mess and keep Kawasaki on the top step of the podium. 

5. World Supersport: Yamaha has fewer than 75% of total podium finishes
Yamaha smoked the World Supersport field in 2018. The manufacture swept all 12 races, swept the top six positions in the championship and accounted for 30 of 36 podium positions, with Yamaha having at least two riders on every podium.

Yamaha has had a rider on the podium for 24 consecutive races and I think the manufacture will continue to be strong in 2019 but I think they lose a bit of their grip. For starters, 2018 champion Sandro Cortese moves up to World Superbike. Secondly, the injury and forced retirement of Kawasaki rider Kenan Sofuoglu definitely helped Yamaha have the dominant season it had in 2018. MV Augusta rider Raffaele De Rosa deserves a shout out for his five podium finishes in 2018.

I think a few non-Yamaha riders will step up and get some good results. After scoring 83.333% of the podiums in 2018, I think Yamaha will score no more than 26 podium finishes in 2019. 

6. Blancpain GT: The Spa 24 Hours winner wins one of the three Blancpain GT championships
Blancpain GT keeps reinventing itself and that is not necessarily a compliment. This focuses on the European-based championships, what will be called the Blancpain GT Series, Blancpain Endurance Cup and the World Challenge Europe series.

The Spa 24 Hours might be the signature event in the Blancpain GT and SRO universe but the notable thing is how infrequent the winner of that race has taken a title. Since the introduction of the Blancpain GT Series in 2014, the last time a Spa 24 Hours winner took one of the three titles was Laurens Vanthoor in 2014, when the Belgian won the Blancpain GT Series championship and the Blancpain Endurance Series title.

Since the establishment of the Blancpain Endurance Series in 2011, the only other driver to win the title and the Spa 24 Hours in the same year was Maximilian Buhk in 2013.

It is bound to happen again and four years is long enough.

7. Asian Le Mans Series: One of the three class champions go to Le Mans and finish in the top six in class
The Asian Le Mans Series has some good entries this year and when looking at the teams it would not come as a surprise if any of them did well at Le Mans.

Spirit of Race and Algarve Pro Racing have split the first two races but United Autosports leads the championship with two rounds to go. Inter Europol Competition leads in LMP3 ahead of two United Autosports cars and Inter Europol Competition had a respectable season in LMP3 in the European Le Mans Series. CarGuy Racing leads the GT championship but current FIA WEC GTE-Pro driver James Calado is currently in the line-up but we have seen Ferrari fill GTE-Am entries with respectable professionals.

Le Mans is a deep field and it will be tough to finish at the front in LMP2 against the full-time WEC entries and ELMS entries but it is not crazy to think United Autosports could end up at the front with its ALMS entry.

8. Super Formula: There are at least three winners under the age of 30
The last time Super Formula introduced a new car was 2014 and that year there were only two winners under the age of 30, Kazuki Nakajima and Tomoki Nojiri. However, in the five seasons since then Super Formula has gotten much younger as the series has transformed again into a development series for drivers with Formula One aspirations.

Top, young drivers from Europe are heading to Japan at a large rate and the grid is getting noticeably younger and add to that a new car with the Dallara SF19 replacing the SF14, it will be a somewhat level season between veterans and rookies. The veterans will still have the upper hand with track knowledge but Stoffel Vandoorne, Pierre Gasly and Felix Rosenqvist all went to Super Formula and were competitive off the crack of the bat.

The name to keep an eye on in 2019 is Dan Ticktum. The 19-year-old Red Bull development driver will be with Team Mugen, replacing defending champion Naoki Yamamoto, who moves to Team Dandelion Racing with his 2018 teammate Nirei Fukuzumi and Nojiri flips from Team Dandelion Racing to Team Mugen. Nojiri will be under 30 for the first five rounds. Fukuzumi turns 22 years old in January and he did not score points in his first year after splitting the year with Formula Two but he should be in competitive equipment.

Nick Cassidy is 24 years old and the vice-champion could return. Cassidy was the only driver under 30 to win in 2018. Lucas Auer is 24 years old and he joins Super Formula after four years in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. Other drivers under 30 that could return to Super Formula and have a shot at victory include Ryō Hirakawa, Yuji Kunimoto, Nobuharu Matsushita and Pietro Fittipaldi.

I think 2019 will be the year of the young driver.

9. Super GT: We do not see a DTM crossover event or entry during the season
Both series are finally adopting "Class One" regulations after years of conversations. Super GT cars will do it in 2020 and Super GT has already done test runs at Hockenheimring but the actual feat of having a crossover event was planned for 2019 but I do not think it is going to happen.

For starters, DTM is just getting ahold of the "Class One" regulations and Aston Martin will be in its first year as a manufacture. The proposed crossover event will require Balance of Performance because Super GT has yet to adopt "Class One" regulations. The series isn't ready to take on the Japanese teams of Super GT. The German teams will not want to enter a race and be smoked by Super GT opposition.

Another problem is where and when would this race take place? It does not seem like there is enough time to schedule one in 2019. The Super GT season goes until November and while DTM ends a month before that it is hard to imagine Super GT would want a race scheduled in the middle of October. If this race is going to happen then it will need plenty of planning and occur at a time and a location that suits both series.

With that said, I do not see Lexus or Honda or Nissan taking a car or two over to the Norisring or Assen in July nor do I see Audi, BMW or Aston Martin entering a car or two at the Motegi Super GT final after the DTM season is over.

And if it is a crossover event, it is not going to be some exhibition, mini race held during a Super GT or DTM weekend with like eight cars competing in a ten-lap race. This has to be a legitimate race with the best from each side for a longer distance.

10. DTM: Aston Martin has fewer drivers in the top ten of the championship than BMW in 2012
The last time a manufacture entered DTM was BMW in 2012 and the first year went pretty well. Bruno Spengler won the championship, Spengler won the second race of the season, BMW won five of ten races and the manufacture ended with four drivers in the top ten of the championship.

I do not think Aston Martin will match those numbers. Though BMW's success also came in a season where a new car was introduced, Aston Martin's DTM arrival was announced quite late and, while Aston Martin will work with HWA, the long-established Mercedes-Benz team, will run the operation, I think Audi and BMW will battle for the championship.

Aston Martin will have good days and with 20 races it is not crazy to think the British manufacture will win a race or two or three but I am skeptical it can have a championship contender and I am not sure it can put four drivers in the top ten.

11. World Touring Car Cup: The average age of the top three in the championship is at least ten years lower than 2018
Super Formula is not the only championship that will get younger in 2019. The first year of the World Touring Car Cup was a year of the veterans.

Gabriele Tarquini won the championship at 56 years old, Yvan Muller was second at 49 years old and Esteban Guerrieri was third at 33 years old. The average age of the top three was 46 years old.

There is a chance Tarquini and Muller finish in the top three again, which means a 30 year old would have to finish in the top three. That might not happen unless the 23-year-old Yann Ehrlacher or 30-year-old Nathanaël Berthon return and finish in the top three.

Tarquini will have competition from inside the Hyundai camp with Norbert Michelisz returning and Augusto Farfus and Nicky Catsburg join the series. Johan Kristofferson joins the series after winning the World Rallycross title. The Swede will run a Volkswagen with Sébastien Loeb Racing and Rob Huff will be one of his teammates.

Andy Priaulx returns to touring car competition but he will drive a Lynk & Co 03 TCR, a Chinese manufacture and Thed Björk, Ehrlacher and Muller will be his teammates.

Many more entries will be announced but I think the top of the grid will get younger.

12. WRC: Citroën moves up at least two positions in the manufactures' championship and wins at least four rounds including one of the first five
Citroën is back to talking the World Rally Championship seriously.

The French team has signed six-time reigning champion Sébastien Ogier from M-Sport Ford and Esapekka Lappi joins the team from Toyota.

Citroën finished fourth in the manufactures' championship last year with 237 points, 87 points behind Ford and 104 points off Hyundai. It will be tough to catch Toyota and it will be tough to beat Hyundai. With Ogier leaving Ford, I think that is an easy manufacture to jump.

If Ogier couldn't lose the championship driving for what is a customer team in M-Sport I can't see him falling off joining Citroën, a championship-caliber manufacture when it puts forth the effort. Hyundai will be tough. It has brought Sébastien Loeb out of retirement for a handful of races. Thierry Neuville is still there although Neuville fell off when it came to crunch time.

Toyota is the manufacture to beat. Jari-Matti Latvala won the finale but Ott Tänak kept up with Neuville and Ogier for majority of 2018.

It might come down to what Lappi produces. He won Rally Finland in 2017 and last year he had three podium finishes but Lappi consistently scored points with ten finishes in the points out of 13 rallies and that got the Finn fifth in the championship.

Two predictions down and three more will come after Christmas. Until then, enjoy the NASCAR predictions if you have missed them.