Friday, August 28, 2020

Best of the Month: August 2020

This August saw an Indianapolis 500, not one but two Formula One races from Silverstone, NASCAR running the Daytona road course, Spa-Francorchamps being used every weekend of the month, a rainstorm at Road America, Formula E finish its 2019-20 season, horrendous accidents at the Red Bull Ring and the closeted finish in DTM history. 

We still have a weekend to go, but it will be a busy weekend and we have seen enough to recap the month while also going over previously undiscussed topics. 

Where Does Takuma Sato Rank Among Japanese Drivers?
I was going to ask on Twitter immediately after Sato won his second Indianapolis 500 whether he was the greatest Japanese driver of all-time. With the words typed out, I paused, and went to the backspace button, clearing out the box and leaving the question unasked. 

Knee-jerk reactions come with these significant events, regardless of the form of motorsports, regardless of the sport really. The problem is we do not let these moments breathe. We are always looking to rank, review, place, scrutinize and canonize the second something is over, as if it has to be done. It doesn't ever have to be done. 

Fandom and dissecting analysis are luxury items, afforded us by free-time and disposable income. Because we are not working 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, we are able to waste our time on such debates that have no meaning to life and do not matter at all. 

Japan is a lot like America in it has a strong domestic motorsports scene, and while Sato's success in the United States, accentuated with two Indianapolis 500 victories, would appear to give him the top honor, I thought about Kazuyoshi Hoshino, a six-time champion of the series now known as Super Formula in Japan. Hoshino was also won the 1990 Suzuka 1000 and 1992 24 Hours of Daytona. 

To me, and likely many others in the United States, we would likely all assume Sato is the greatest Japanese driver of all-time. But what about in Japan? Would the Japanese contingent have a completely different answer, one that would not be known to the rest of the world? 

From what we have seen, Sato is beloved in Japan. We saw that when he returned in 2017 after his first Indianapolis 500 victory, and he also was competitive in Formula One, finishing third in the 2004 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Japan is a country that takes great pride in international success. Former Seattle Mariner right fielder Ichiro drew a considerable amount of interest from across the Pacific while being one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball. Japan's women's national team provided great inspiration, winning the 2011 FIFA Woman's World Cup in the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami four months prior. Sato is held with great honor, but he is not the only Japanese driver with significant international success.

Aguri Suzuki and Kamui Kobayashi are the other two Japanese drivers to stand on a Formula One podium, coincidentally both at Suzuka in 1990 and 2012 respectively. Satoru Nakajima did not get a podium finish in his Formula One career, but he was the first Japanese driver to score points in Formula One. He had a pair of fourth place finishes in his career and he won five Super Formula championships. 

Kazuki Nakajima, son of Satoru, had respectable results in Formula One and has since gone on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice. Nakajima has also won the World Endurance Drivers' Championship and two championships in Super Formula. 

Masanori Sekiya and Seiji Ara are the other two Japanese drivers to win at Le Mans.

Satoshi Motoyama won four Super Formula titles and three Super GT championships. Tsugio Matsuda has two championships in each Super Formula and Super GT. Masahiro Hasemi was a three-time Japanese touring car champion, an All-Japan Sports Prototype champion, and won the 24 Hours of Daytona with Hoshino in 1992. Kunimitsu Takahashi started out on two wheels, winning four grand prix across the 125cc and 250cc classes, including a victor in the Ulster Grand Prix before switching to four wheels. Takahasi won the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship four times and he was a class winner in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

Naoki Yamamoto might be the best Japanese driver in the world today with two Super GT championships, a Super Formula title and he drove for Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice at Suzuka last year. Yamamoto has been linked at a Formula One opportunity because of his ties with Honda. 

I am not sure where to fairly place Sato, but being one of only twenty drivers to win multiple Indianapolis 500s, to have a Formula One podium finish, to be responsible for Japan's best finish in the World Drivers' Championship (eighth on 34 points in 2004) and to be responsible for the first fastest lap in Formula E history (bet you forgot that), I think if Sato is not on top, he is in the top five. Fifth is floor for Sato.

Kody Swanson Attempts to Jump American Open-Wheel Racing's Canyon
While Sato was making history at 16th and Georgetown, two days prior at Indianapolis Raceway Park, five-time USAC Silver Crown champion Kody Swanson made his Indy Pro 2000 debut in the Freedom 90.

Starting second, Swanson held his position over the first third of the race, but pole-sitter Manuel Suliamán opened a good gap. As Suliamán caught traffic, Swanson reeled him in and on lap 41, Swanson took the lead and never looked back. It was a dominating second half for a man who was probably the most familiar with the 0.686-mile oval in Brownsburg, Indiana. Swanson won on debut and he won the next night in the Night Before the 500 sprint car race.

Swanson hopes to one day be considered for an Indianapolis 500 ride. Outside of Bryan Clauson, we have had a few USAC drivers attempt Road to Indy races. Chris Windom made one Freedom 100 start, which lasted all of a lap before a gnarly accident in turn four. Chad Boat made an Indy Lights start at Gateway three years ago. Boat ran 58 laps before being caught in an accident. 

Clauson sparked a lot of hope IndyCar was returning to its root to attract USAC's best drivers last decade. Under Randy Bernard's leadership, the USAC National Championship was going to get an Indy Lights ride for all the oval races. Clauson won the prize and had respectable results in Indy Lights. When Clauson won the USAC National Championship for a second consecutive year, instead of having it be another five Indy Lights races, he got a shot at the Indianapolis 500. Clauson was respectable in practice and was likely going to qualify on the fourth row before he spun on his qualifying lap. He returned the next day and put the backup car in the field, but the confidence was gone, and his "500" debut lasted 46 laps.

Clauson would return for two more Indianapolis 500 starts and he showed improvements each year. However, Clauson's IndyCar experience remained exclusive to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. No greater oval opportunity came up and he was never considered as a possible full-time driver. 

I am glad Swanson gave it a go in Indy Pro 2000 and I am not surprised he won the race. I am willing to accept that USAC is not where the next IndyCar championship will come from, but I believe USAC is a place where four or five competitive Indianapolis 500 starters are making their living. 

The current issue is deciding whether or not it is worth it for a USAC driver. Indy Pro 2000 has two oval races. Indy Lights has at most three oval races a season. Is it really worth it for a guy who will run around 100 races between Silver Crown, sprints and midgets to take out the time to run a handful of higher downforce, lower formula, single-seater races? Swanson is making a living doing what he is doing. Even if he gets an Indianapolis 500 start, it might not pay more than a great night at IRP, Gas City or a handful of other dirt tracks across the country. 

Heck, the BC39, which has been held on the dirt track inside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway likely pays more to win at $15,000 than Swanson would get from his cut to start the Indianapolis 500. Let that sink in for a second. 

I wanted Clauson to get a shot outside of Indianapolis. I wanted to see him get a chance at Iowa in an IndyCar and that never happened. I would love it if Kody Swanson, Justin Grant, Zeb Wise and Windom found a way to tie IndyCar into their already busy schedules. I would love USAC guys to dabble in IndyCar oval races throughout the year. The only problem is it likely costs $2-3 million to run all the IndyCar oval races. Is $2 million really worth five or six races when you are a likely only going to make a fraction of that back on track? No, and that is why this will likely remain a canyon USAC's best will be unable to clear. A few may get a shot at the Indianapolis 500, but any greater participation is not going to happen. 

I wish Swanson the best and I hope we see more of him, hopefully he is at the Freedom 100 and the other Indy Lights oval races in 2021 and perhaps come 2022 he will be in the field of 33 on Memorial Day weekend.

Choose Your Series
As much as I did not like NASCAR limiting each driver to one series for its Daytona road course weekend, mostly because NASCAR didn't want any driver getting extra track time, it opened the door for different names to enter these races. 

Alex Tagliani got an additional Truck start. Mike Skeen was back in a Truck. Earl Bamber made his debut in the Grand National Series. Andy Lally had another great run in a mid-level car. Jade Buford and Scott Heckert were back and ran respectably. Kaz Grala made his Cup debut, albeit because of other circumstances, but if drivers were allowed to run multiple series A.J. Allmendinger would have substituted for Austin Dillon. James Davison got another start in a Cup car. 

I will admit, I was little underwhelmed not seeing more road course drivers come out. I would have loved Jack Hawksworth to get another chance in a Gibbs car in the Grand National Series. I am disappointed Jordan Taylor may have been told he could not run a Cup race. I think it is hard to find a NASCAR Cup ride and find one that will be competitive. Rick Ware Racing is always willing to accept a paycheck, but you are getting a car that will be three-seconds off the pace. 

Over the Daytona weekend, I was lamenting the end of the road course ringer, mostly in the Cup series because of the playoff rules. Unlike 15 years ago when a team would remove Ken Schrader, David Stremme, Sterling Marlin and Tony Raines for a driver with a lot more road course experience and could take a mid-pack car and put it in the top ten, possibly even the top five, the current format forces a driver to start every race. 

As much as JTG Daugherty Racing would get a better running with a driver other than Ryan Preece in its car for a road course or Germain Racing with a driver other than Tyler Dilon or GoFas Racing benching Corey LaJoie, the teams have to run these drivers, why? Because if any of them fall into a victory in the Daytona regular season finale they only make the playoffs if they start every race. None of them would get a waiver because they skipped a road course race due to lack of ability. 

I was thinking of the generation of road course ringers we lost. We have some of them, because of the Grand National Series having four or five road course races a year and many of those teams rotate drivers. That allows Lally to be a regular, Bamber to get an opportunity and Davison and Hawksworth to get a shot. In the Cup Series, the road course ringer died with the generation of Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett and Boris Said. 

If the Cup series was still the Cup series of 20 years ago and one of these teams normally fighting for 23rd would like to be in the top ten for a race, we would see Lally, Hawksworth and Davison all getting greater opportunities. I think Colin Braun and Patrick Long would be in the conversation for opportunities. I think Jordan Taylor would have gotten his shot in a Cup car. I think Jeroen Bleekemolen would have gotten a crack at it. 

NASCAR already limits when and where championship-ineligible drivers can run in lower series. The Triple Truck Challenge races bar Cup driver for three, as does the Dash 4 Cash races in the Grand National Series for four races. I wouldn't mind if NASCAR enforced the one series rule for Watkins Glen and it opened the door for more road course ringers to get an opportunity, even if it would mostly be in NASCAR's second division. If NASCAR did it right, it would make sure Watkins Glen fell on an IMSA off weekend and perhaps Jordan Taylor would be allowed to race. All Taylor has been doing in 2020 is adding victories to his résumé. 

End With a Festival
The Formula E season concluded with six races over nine days from Berlin's Tempelhof Airport. Three pairs of doubleheaders were run, the first on a Wednesday and Thursday going in the reverse configuration of the track. The Saturday and Sunday races were run on the track as it has typically been run. The final two races on the following Wednesday and Thursday were held on the regular layout but with an extension in the final sector. 

I quite enjoyed it, from the evening races to races on Wednesday and Thursday and the different layouts. It felt like Formula E was finishing its season with a festival of motorsports. Each day was something different and there were some really good races. Of course, there were no spectators, making the festival comparison quite moot. 

I thought it was a great way to end this championship. Formula E did not have many other options and Berlin was the place most suited to end a championship. No city center was going to close down to host an automobile race during a pandemic. Berlin is a vacant airport transitioning into a green space and park. The races could be held and not be impede daily life for the citizens of Berlin. 

While different from your typically race weekend, the Berlin festival might only be able to exist during this pandemic. 

This was done out of necessity. Formula E had to complete a season, run a sufficient number of races to meet requirements for televisions, sponsors, etc., and this happened knowing Formula E's dilemma of being a street course-based series. It also would help the teams if it could be done in one place and not split over two or three countries where shipping and travel restrictions would have come into play. 

We ended up with a six-race, nine-day schedule. Sanity tells you that could not be replicated under normal circumstances, but I do think a five-day, Wednesday through Sunday race weekend could be possible, especially if it encompassed a holiday. 

It could be a big event, taking over a city or closely located racetrack and be a hub for five days. You could have concerts every night with a different act. If it was an oval with a road course, à la Indianapolis, you could have three days on the road course with three different configurations with two days on the oval. If it was Watkins Glen or Circuit of the Americas, you could run different configurations and have different types of races, sprints and an endurance event. Internationally, I think Silverstone would be a venue for such an event. Perhaps the Nürburgring or Circuit Paul Ricard could be an option.

Formula E might need this festival format in 2021, because I do not see how the series will be able to go to Santiago, Mexico City, Riyadh and Sanya, China in the first three months of 2021. It might need to head to Jerez or Valencia for an early makeup round in March or April to make up four or five races. Down the road though, the conclusion to the 2019-20 season in Berlin might be just one of the many quirks we reminisce upon when reflecting how we lived through a pandemic.

Who Had the Best Month?
Takuma Sato. Any time you can win the Indianapolis 500, it has been a good month.

Austin Cindric with finishes of first, first, second and third and Cindric has nine consecutive top five finishes since the start of July. 

KTM, which picked up its first MotoGP victories at Brno with Brad Binder and the Styrian Grand Prix with Miguel Oliveira.

António Félix da Costa, who locked up the Formula E title in convincing fashion and early in Berlin. We had two dead rubbers because of da Costa's results.

Who is Glad to See September?
Sebastien Vettel. The answer is always going to be Vettel until we get to 2021.

All of Andretti Autosport, although it still has Gateway to turn things around. The team does not have a victory and it had a disappointing Indianapolis 500 with Alexander Rossi being the only contender for the race victory.

Marc Márquez, who frankly should be looking to 2021 at this point because if he is going to be out for another two or three months, why return for the final two or three races? Because that is all he will get if he chooses to return. Granted, he might want to give Portimão a go and I would not blame him, but there will be no world title for Márquez this year.

September Preview
When looking at the remaining Formula One schedule, it is a bit of an unknown across the board. 

I will admit this isn't just a September preview but almost the rest of the Formula One calendar and September is just the start of it. 

We begin in Monza, no worries, we all know Monza. We know how Monza races. We know how the tires degrade and we know who is quick and who is going to struggle (Haas). 

A week later is Mugello, which on paper will be a boring race. We aren't sure of that, but it seems to be the consensus. Mugello has the long front straightaway, that is really the only passing zone because of the tight and curvy nature of the circuit. It is wonderful for motorcycles. Formula One might not quite fit. The only other hope is cars can make a run out of the right-hander turn three to the left-hander turn four. Outside of that, I am not sure where else a pass could take place. 

Then we get Sochi because Russian money and lack of covid-19 restrictions on September 27.

September doesn't look all that different, but getting into October we have Nürburgring, Portimão and Imola. Two of the three tracks Formula One has been to before, but not with this generation of car. Nürburgring missed the turbo-hybrid era by a year. Imola last held a race in 2006. Kimi Räikkönen is the only driver on the grid with Formula One experience at Imola. Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean, Sergio Pérez, Daniel Ricciardo, Valtteri Bottas and Räikkönen have Nürburgring experience. A lot of the grid will be new to the Nürburgring and throw in that the race is in October and the weather could make for an interesting weekend. 

Then there is Portimão, a gem hidden in the rocky landscape of Algarve in southern Portugal. I was convinced the track would get a Formula One race when it first opened in 2008. Little did I know it would take 12 years and a pandemic to make it happen. 

I don't like to set the bar high, but I will for Portimão. You have the tabletop front straightaway, where you start ascending out of the final corner, reach the plateau and then descend into turn one! The next key section will be downhill into the turn five hairpin. Out of the hairpin, the track heads up hill and turn six might be taken flat, which could allow for some chances into turn seven if one dares. The track flows over the next three corners, before a big descend out of turn ten, through turn 11 and then starts to climb again after turn 12. Turn 13 brings the cars back to toward the main straightaway and the long, sweeping, downhill turn 14 will allow cars to build speed before climbing up to the start/finish line. 

After Portugal is Imola, and Imola is tough to judge because it is tight and it doesn't have the same high speeds with the chicanes, but with the final left-right corners gone and a long straightaway from Rivazza to Tamburello, we could see some plenty of passing. I also think the downhill section from the Variante Alta to Rivazza could set up some moves. 

After that, we head to Istanbul for the first time since 2011, a track only Vettel, Hamilton, Pérez and Räikkönen have Formula One experience at. I know Istanbul was beloved for turn eight and the quadruple apex, but I felt it was a few great corners with poor corners in-between. Turns one and two, the descending left-hander into the right sweeping bend is exciting but it is immediately wasted with a series of four tight corners that exists just to be corners. The run from the final apex in turn eight to turn nine is a little too short but the downhill into the kink that is turn ten and hard breaking turn 11 is hair rising. The only problem is it is all wasted because immediate after turn 11 is a tight left, right, left back on the main straightaway. After all that, we are left with a whimper on our way to start the next lap. Istanbul has the pieces to be a great circuit, but it also has the pieces of a terrible circuit.

The final three weekends will be a Bahrain doubleheader, with the second race on the perimeter circuit, and Abu Dhabi ends the season on December 13. We can get to these races when we get closer to that time.

We likely will never see a world championship like this one again. There is a chance this will be the final time and only time we see a lot of these circuits. It is something to appreciate.

Other events of note in September:
The 24 Hours of Le Mans on September 19-20.
NASCAR starts its playoffs at Darlington and it has races at Richmond and Bristol. 
IndyCar might be at Mid-Ohio... or somewhere else... or nowhere at all... we will keep you posted.
Road Atlanta stands in for the 6 Hours of the Glen. 
World Rally returns with a round in Estonia.
A week after Le Mans is the 24 Hours Nürburgring.
MotoGP has two rounds at Misano and one at Barcelona.