Friday, January 18, 2019

2019 Race of Champions Preview

The 30th Race of Champions takes place this weekend in Mexico City with Foro Sol, the stadium located inside Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, hosting the event. At least nine different countries will be represented in this competition with 20 different drivers set to participate. Two past Champion of Champions winners are in this competition, both of which have also won the Nations' Cup before with two additional Nations' Cup winners also in the field. At least eight drivers will be making their Race of Champions debut this year with two spots still to be decided.

An eight-driver competition will take place on Saturday to decide the winner of ROC Mexico and the winner will get to compete in the Nations' Cup and in the play-in round of the Champion of Champions competition. There will also be the eROC competition for sim racers with the winner also getting to compete in the Nations' Cup and play-in round of the Champion of Champions.

This year's Nations' Cup is split into three groups. Group A features four teams while Group B and Group C each have three teams. The top two from Group A advance to the knockout round while only the group winners of Group B and Group C will advance. The winners of Group A and Group B will meet in one semifinal and the Group C winner will face the Group A runner-up in the other. Each round of the knockout stage will be a best-of-three races.

The Nations' Cup will be held on Saturday January 19th.

The Champion of Champions competition will have four groups of four drivers but the final spot in each group will be decided in a play-in, head-to-head race. The top two finishers from each group will advance to the knockout round. The top of the draw will have the Group A winner face the Group B runner-up and the Group B winner face the Group A runner-up in the quarterfinals. The bottom of the bracket has Group C winner facing the Group D runner-up and the Group D winner facing the Group C runner-up. The Grand Final will be a best-of-three races.

The Champion of Champions will be held on Sunday January 20th.

Nations' Cup
Group A
Best Result: 1st (2007-12, 2017-18)
Sebastian Vettel: 2018 Formula One vice-champion with five victories
Mick Schumacher: 2018 FIA European Formula 3 Championship champion

Best Result: Group Stage (2018)
Esteban Gutiérrez: Mercedes-AMG Simulator driver
Patricio O'Ward: 2018 Indy Lights Series champion

Infinitum Mexico
Memo Rojas: Fourth in the European Le Mans Series LMP2 Drivers' champion
Benito Guerra: Made four starts in the World Rally Championship.

Best Result: 1st (2000, 2004)
Pierre Gasly: 15th in the Formula One World Drivers' Championship
Loïc Duval: 17th in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship and he finished third overall in the 2018 24 Hours of Daytona

Group Breakdown: This group seems to lean toward Germany and France. Vettel is remarkable in this competition and he has won seven Nations' Cups, including all by himself when he last competed in 2017. Schumacher is a rookie but junior formula drivers have done well before in Race of Champions. Both Mexican teams have a shout. O'Ward is coming off a fantastic year with a Indy Lights title and successful IndyCar debut but Gutiérrez was on the sidelines for all of 2018. Last year, Rojas went 0-6 in the Race of Champions between both competitions and Guerra went 2-1 when he ran the Nations' Cup in 2012 but he went 0-3 in the Champion of Champions. On paper, it seems Gasly and Duval will advance but I think the Gutiérrez/O'Ward is their biggest worry.

Group B
Best Result: Semifinals (2004)
Hélio Castroneves: 7th in the IMSA Prototype championship with one victory
Lucas di Grassi: 2017-18 Formula E vice-champion

Daniel Suárez: 21st in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship
*ROC Mexico Winner

Sim Racing All-Stars
Best Result: Group Stage (2018)
Enzo Bonito: 2018 Sim Racing All-Stars representative
eROC winner*

Group Breakdown: This group leans toward Brazil. Castroneves has been here before and di Grassi is a rookie but experienced driver. Two of the teams still have undecided spots and we have not seen the late addition drivers fair well. Rudy van Buren represented the sim racers in the Champion of Champions and went 1-2. Bonito went 0-3 in the Nations' Cup and lost to van Buren in the play-in round for the Champion of Champions group stage.

ROC Mexico is a decent field. Last year's representative for Mexico, Abraham Calderón is in this competition with Pirelli World Challenge champion Martín Fuentes, NASCAR Mexico Series champion Rubén García, Jr., rally driver Ricardo Triviño, Nissan GT Academy's Ricarco Sánchez, rally driver Pancho Name, NASCAR Mexico Series driver Rubén Rovelo and rally driver Ricardo Cordero.

I think it is either Brazil or TELCEL Mexico but I think it easily goes to Brazil.

Group C
Team Nordic
Best Result: 1st (2005, 2014)
Tom Kristensen: 2018 Champion of Champions semifinalist
Johan Kristoffersson: 2018 World Rallycross Championship champion

Great Britain
Best Result: 2nd (2009, 2010, 2014)*
David Coulthard: 2018 Champion of Champions winner
Andy Priaulx: Currently eighth in the FIA World Endurance Championship World Endurance GT Drivers' Championship
* - England won in 2015 with Jason Plato and Andy Priaulx.

United States of America
Best Result: 1st (2002)
Josef Newgarden: 5th in the IndyCar Series championship with three victories
Ryan Hunter-Reay: 4th in the IndyCar Series championship with two victories

Group Breakdown: This is the toughest group to pick. Kristensen and Priaulx have each won the Nations' Cup before. Coulthard is the defending Champion of Champions winner. Kristoffersson had an impressive debut last year making the semifinals in the Champion of Champions competition and he missed out on the semifinals in the Nations' Cup on tiebreaker to Kristensen and Petter Solberg, who represented Team Nordic. Hunter-Reay has been shaky in this competition and he has advanced from the group stage of Nations' Cup in only one of his prior five appearances. History says this group goes to the Nordic team.

Knockout Round Breakdown: This sets up a Germany-Brazil semifinal and Team Nordic and France in the other semifinal.

The first semifinal goes to Germany. Vettel is not going to lose. Even if Schumacher loses his race it sets up for Vettel to run the rubber match and he will win it.

This France team is similar to last year's Germany team of Timo Bernhard and René Rast. Neither driver was the best for their country but they are damn good when compared to the rest of the field. I think this semifinal will need all three races and I give the edge to France.

Germany vs. France in the final and a rematch of the Group A matchup. Germany swept France in the 2012 Nations' Cup final with Vettel and Michael Schumacher knocking off Romain Grosjean and Sébastien Ogier respectively. I don't think that will be the case. I think this one goes all three races. Vettel gets a victory and as does the French driver that faces Schumacher.

I guess the question should be, who can beat Vettel? In the Nations' Cup, Vettel went 8-0 in 2017 in Miami, 5-0 in 2012, 5-1 in 2011, 2-3 in 2010, 5-1 in 2009, 2-1 in 2008 and 3-1 in 2007. His record in the Nations' Cup is 30-7! In chronological order, his losses have been to Travis Pastrana, Mattias Ekström, Andy Priaulx, Pastrana again, Tanner Foust and Priaulx again.

It is an odd bunch of drivers to lose to. Pastrana and Foust are far from the greatest in the world. Although Pastrana has Vettel's number. Pastrana beat Vettel in the group stage of the 2017 Champion of Champions. Ekström historically was great at Race of Champions and Priaulx is respectable.

This will be the second time Germany and France will have met in this competition. I am not sure Gasly can be the guy. Can Duval be the guy? Can Duval be the sports car guy to finally knock off Vettel?


Vettel isn't going to be stopped. Germany gets its ninth title.

The Champion of Champions
Group A
David Coulthard
Best Result: 1st (2014, 2018)

Tom Kristensen
Best Result: Runner-up (2005, 2011-12, 2015, 2017)

Patricio O'Ward
Best Result: This is his debut.

Round 1A:
ROC Mexico winner

Andy Priaulx
Best Result: Semifinalist (2007-08, 2011)

Group Breakdown:  This is a bit of experience against a bit of youth. I think Kristensen edges out Coulthard and O'Ward gets the other spot. I have Priaulx getting out of the Round 1A. It is kind of forgotten how much success Priaulx has in this competition. It should not be a surprise if he makes a run to the semifinals or beyond. The ROC Mexico competitors that could do the most damage are García, Jr., Sánchez and Fuentes. Regardless who wins the round 1A matchup I think this group will be very competitive.

Group B
Johan Kristoffersson
Best Result: Semifinalist (2018)

Lucas di Grassi 
Best Result: This is his debut.

Josef Newgarden
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2018)

Round 1B:
Loïc Duval
Best Result: This is his debut.

Hélio Castroneves
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2017)

Group Breakdown: This is a tight group and I think Kristoffersson wins it. He won his group last year. It will be a tough fight for second. Newgarden advanced to the knockout round last year and lost to Kristoffersson in the quarterfinals after he collided with the barriers after three turns. Newgarden did advance from a weaker group that featured two Saudi drivers and those were the two drivers he beat. Newgarden could benefit from having two debut drivers in his group but neither are slouches. I think Duval wins Round 1B and I think Duval would be the second best driver in this group if he gets out. Give me the Frenchman advancing.

Group C
Sebastian Vettel
Best Result: 1st (2017)

Daniel Suárez
Best Result: This is his debut.

Benito Guerra
Best Result: Group Stage (2012)

Round 1C:
Memo Rojas
Best Result: Group Stage (2018)

Mick Schumacher
Best Result: This is a debut.

Group Breakdown: We will pencil Vettel into the next round. This could be an interesting group if Rojas advances from Round 1C. I don't think that is the case however and I think this group will only have Germans advancing to the knockout round.

Group D
Pierre Gasly
Best Result: This is his debut.

Esteban Gutiérrez
Best Result: This is his debut.

Ryan Hunter-Reay
Best Result: Quarterfinals (2014)

Round 1D:
Enzo Bonito
Best Result: Play-In Round (2018).

eROC Winner

Group Breakdown: This is a hard group to call. Not one competitor stands above the others. What benefits Hunter-Reay is experience and he has advanced twice out of his five previous appearances. In 2014, he went 3-0 with victories over Kristensen, Pascal Wehrlein and Jolyon Palmer and last year, Hunter-Reay went 2-1 with victories over Castroneves and Rojas but lost to Juan Pablo Montoya. I think Gasly advances as well. Gutiérrez has been inactive for a year and the sim racers are too much of an unknown. You likely have to win twice to advance and last year van Buren won once. I am not sure lightning can strike twice.

Knockout Round Breakdown: Here is what the bracket would look like:

Kristensen vs. Duval
Kristofferson vs. O'Ward
Vettel vs. Gasly
Hunter-Reay vs. Schumacher

These are all crapshoots. They are all best-of-one race competitions. One spin of the wheels at the starting line, one bobble in a corner, one brush of the barrier and you are done. Your opponent is not going to make a mistake. Newgarden learned last year that cold tires can catch you out and if that happens you are out. There is no mulligan. There is no do-over.

On gut, I think Kristensen, Kristoffersson, Vettel and Hunter-Reay all advance. All the group winners. How likely is that to happen?

It happened in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, three of four group winners advanced. Only one group winner advanced in 2012 and 2014. There was no competition in 2013 and 2015 was only a knockout competition. Two of the four group winners advanced in 2017 and last year had three of four group winners advance. It has happened once out of seven possible competitions. That means 17 out of 28 semifinalists were group winners.

What about finalists? How many finalists won a group?

Obvious both in 2009, but both were group winners in 2010, one made the final in 2011, Coulthard was the only group winner to advance in 2014 and won the entire competition, both were group winers in 2017 and both were group winners last year. Ten out of a possible 14 finalists won a group.

Sébastien Ogier and Romain Grosjean are the only Champion of Champions winners not to win a group when the drivers won in 2011 and 2012 respectively and 2012 is the only year when no group winners made the final. Grosjean defeated Kristensen that year.

Give me Kristensen and Vettel to make the finals and Kristensen finally gets his Champion of Champions victory over Vettel 2-1.

The Nations' Cup will be held at 2:00 p.m. ET on Saturday January 19th with the Champion of Champions competition beginning at 2:00 p.m. ET on Sunday January 20th.