Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Best of the Month: September 2020

Though the year remains off-kilter, September felt more on track. We are approaching the final races for many series. Silverware is already being claimed. Though normal will have to be something we strive for in 2021, this September felt familiar to say the least even if it was different. The puzzle pieces are out of place, but we are making a new image for 2020, one that would make Picasso proud. 

There is a French-theme to this review of September, but we also mix increasing a car count for a struggling sports car class before turning our attention to October.

We Ran Le Mans
This year's 24 Hours of Le Mans was not the most thrilling. I saw Patrick Long describe it as having a sleepy feel, and he is right. 

Around the halfway point of this year's race, it felt like another race. A certain buzz was missing, but it was still Le Mans. 

I was thinking about how there will not be a Monaco Grand Prix this year, and that is unfortunate, but we will be fine. There is a small price to pay for this season. A lot of other great sporting events did not happen this year, from Wimbledon to The Open Championship, the NCAA tournament to the Boston Marathon and events such as the Summer Olympics and UEFA Euro 2020 were delayed until 2021. 

Would it have been better to have no Le Mans at all this year?

It was better that Le Mans happened, even if it was a slightly stunted field and atmosphere around the event was tame. It would not have ruined our lives if the race was not run, but it was a little bit of normal even if it was during unusual circumstances.  

Corvette was not present. Porsche did not run its North American team. Long, Oliver Gavin, Earl Bamber and Olivier Beretta were a handful of names not on the grid. Ginetta pulled its one entry and we were left with five LMP1 cars. There was no test day a few weeks prior nor scrutineering earlier in the week in the city center. We have had worse Le Mans, but recent memories are so sweet. 

If anything, the final hour was worth the extra wait and a fairly bland first 23 hours. Toyota had the overall victory wrapped up, but we had an overall podium position change. The LMP2 class podium spots changed a handful of times in the final 60 minutes. We nearly saw United Autosports dominate this race only to lose it in the closing minutes for a late pit stop. GTE-Am had a battle for the final podium spots. 

Those final battles made us forget everything we lost this year, and a new chapter begins in 2021.

Pierre Gasly
Everyone was in love with Pierre Gasly's victory in the Italian Grand Prix. 

One, it was a new winner. 

Two, it was a new winning manufacture, the first time Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari did not win since Lotus at the 2014 Australian Grand Prix. It was also AlphaTauri's first victory since it won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix as Scuderia Toro Rosso with Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel.

Three, Gasly was the first French winner since Olivier Panis at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix.

Four, it was a quirky race. Lewis Hamilton threw away a victory after missing that the pit lane was closed. You had Gasly vs. Carlos Sainz, Jr. vs Lance Stroll vs. Lando Norris, four drivers who had never won a grand prix in the top four over the closing stages. 

These races are rare in Formula One and they have gotten rarer. There was a time when a Ligier, a Stewart, a Jordan, a BMW Sauber or a Toro Rosso could have their day. Renault, Williams and McLaren were once regular race winners. The turbo-hybrid era has created nearly a decade of three-team dominance. Even during Michael Schumacher's most dominant years we at least saw a mix of contending teams. McLaren was the regular foil. Williams was competitive. Like we said, Jordan could have its day. Renault was picking up its game. This has been different. 

I try to remain level-headed when it comes to this kind of occurrence. Many overreact and believe Gasly's victory and this Italian Grand Prix was the greatest thing they have ever seen. Relax. It was different, it was nice to see, but let's hold our horses. Gasly benefitted from a few timely safety cars, red flags, penalties and Lance Stroll's failure to capitalize on being gifted a free pit stop. 

It was a fluke, not a sign of things to come. That doesn't mean it wasn't good, but let's keep some perspective.
Bourdais' Return
Remember a week ago when Sébastien Bourdais' return for the final three IndyCar races in 2020 with A.J. Foyt Racing was the biggest driver change of the month? 

Yeah, that didn't last long thanks to Zach Veach stepping out of his seat at Andretti Autosport and Hélio Castroneves substituting for an unfit Oliver Askew. The one thing that makes Bourdais' news different is he will be full-time with A.J. Foyt Racing for 2021. 

It was a surprise to hear such an early commitment to Bourdais. Foyt lost long-term sponsor ABC Supply Co. at the end of the 2019 season after the company had sponsored the team fornearly 15 years and had sponsored two cars for the last five seasons. The team went from two fully funded cars to none for 2020. The team was able to bring in Charlie Kimball for one car this season, but the second car remained vacant of sponsors and a trio of drivers with Tony Kanaan on the ovals, Indy Lights participant Dalton Kellett in bulk of the races and Bourdais for a handful of events on the cards. 

Then the pandemic happened. Bourdais' races were front loaded in 2020 and when Long Beach and Barber were cancelled and St. Petersburg was postponed, Bourdais' 2020 plans took a significant hit. It has worked out for the Frenchman and his focus will go beyond the three races between the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and St. Petersburg.

At the start of the year, Bourdais had an encouraging preseason test at Austin with Foyt. There has been nothing about Foyt's season since. 

Texas was pretty good with Kimball running in the top ten and Tony Kanaan also had a top ten run. Kimball threw away a top ten in the season opener, when he decided to pit from sixth under the late caution and then spun while in 11th, trying to make a late run up the order.

Outside of that, Foyt has been its atrocious old self. The road course pace has gotten worse. Kellett paid the bills but didn't bring the results. I honestly wondered if the team would have been consolidating to a one-car program for 2021 and focusing on having one competitive car. 

We don't know the team's plans for 2021 outside of Bourdais. Maybe Kimball will be dropped, although he has not been the problem, but Bourdais should make things better. Since retiring to IndyCar in 2011, his second stint has been full of elevating whatever organization he was at. 

It starts with Dale Coyne Racing, not the reason "getting the band back" together stint with former Newman/Haas Racing engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson, but the 2011 season when he filled in the #19 entry with Alex Lloyd. 

That 2011 season started slow, in fact it started at rock bottom with a warm-up accident preventing Bourdais from starting the St. Petersburg season opener, but he followed it up with a drive from 20th to 11th at Barber. He made it out of the first round of qualifying at São Paulo. He had four sixth-place finishes over the final six races, and he made it out of the first round of qualifying three times, including a fifth place start at Baltimore. 

The most unappreciated accomplishment of Bourdais career is he was the only driver to score a top ten finish with the feeble Lotus program in 2012, when he went from 17th to ninth at Barber driving for Dragon Racing. After the team switched to Chevrolet, he qualified in Fast Six for four of the final six races and he made it out of the first round of qualifying five times. 

Bourdais got Dragon Racing its only three podium finishes. His five top five finishes are more than every other Dragon Racing driver combined. In three years with KV Racing, he won each year and he never had a teammate finish in the top five. His KV Racing teammates combined for only two top ten finishes over Bourdais' three years with the team.

Then there is the second stint with Coyne, where Bourdais won the season opener twice, had a seventh-place championship finish and for a moment appeared to be the fastest man at Indianapolis is only for a bone-crushing accident to leave us wondering what kind of magic could have been done in the 101st Indianapolis 500. 

There could be some difficult days ahead of Bourdais with Foyt, but history points he will raise the team to a higher level.

Saving GTLM
The IMSA race from Mid-Ohio gave us a taste of what 2021 will be like in the GTLM class: Four cars, two Corvettes and two BMWs. 

With Porsches pending withdrawal North American program, the professional GT class will have gone from pairs of Corvettes, BMWs, Porsches and Ford GTs to just the first two, and this will be the lowest point for a GT class since Corvette had GT1 all to itself in the American Le Mans Series. 

Four cars from two manufactures is terrible, and it's not IMSA's fault. The Ford GT program was only ever going to be four years. Porsche decided to pull out during the pandemic. These are a couple of poor hands and not poor decisions from IMSA. It does put the series in an uncomfortable position because there is not much of a reason for either BMW or Corvette to stay. If one more pulls out, then we are back to GT1 all over again. 

While watching the race, I was wondering what could be done to save GTLM. I think it is simple as keeping the class at five or six cars with at least one other manufacture. There just needs to be more competition for Corvette and BMW. Apparently, IMSA officials and GTLM participants have been thinking the same thing.

IMSA has not had a regular Ferrari in GTLM since 2017 with Risi Competizione. A Risi return to full-time GTLM competition would significantly lift the class, but it goes beyond getting Risi back. 

At Le Mans, WeatherTech Racing switched from the GTE-Am class to the GTE-Pro class with Cooper MacNeil, Toni Vilander and Jeff Segal, mostly because there were fewer GTE-Pro entries. Why couldn't we see the same happen with GTLM and GTD? 

I realize that GTE-Am and GTE-Pro are affectively the same class broken in half for professionals and amateurs and GTLM is aligned with GTE regulations while GTD is a GT3-class, but could the extra cost be worth it for a few teams.

When CORE Autosport ran Prototypes, Jon Bennett was an amateur driver, but he ran against the big boys, the professionals with Colin Braun. CORE had to apply strategy to account for Bennett's speed deficit, but the team found a way to win races and even contend for a championship in a LMP2 car against Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan. If it can be done in prototypes, it could be done in GTLM. 

Risi aside, why couldn't MacNeil, Vilander and Scudera Corsa also field a Ferrari in GTLM? Why couldn't Ben Keating get a Ford GT, which is still eligible though the factory team is gone, and run with Jeroen Bleekemolen? 

GT Daytona draws about 12-14 cars and losing two or three to GTLM is more shifting weight than expanding the series, but if GTD went down to 9-11 cars for the sake of GTLM, that is worth it. The GTD field would still be strong. GTLM could get a few more cars and hopefully one or two more manufactures. 

An incentive would be necessary for some of the top amateur drivers to switch classes. The Bob Akin Award, which goes to the top amateur driver in GTD, carries an automatic invitation to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. You would not want to take the Bob Akin Award from GTD, and the Jim Trueman Award goes to the top LMP2 amateur driver and carries a Le Mans invitation as well, but you don't want to take that away either. IMSA could lobby the ACO and FIA for one more invitation that goes to the top GTLM silver-rated driver. The plan is for the Le Mans grid to grow to 65 entries, what is one more invitation at that point? 

IMSA doesn't need six to eight confident silver-rated drivers to make this happen. It only needs two or three. It would also be nice if Aston Martin considered supporting one full-time GTLM car. There is plenty of room for competition in this class.

October Preview
The IndyCar season will close with three races left to run between the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader and the St. Petersburg finale. 

In all likelihood, Scott Dixon will clinch the title this weekend in Indianapolis, most likely after the second race on Saturday. This would be Dixon's sixth title, putting him only one behind A.J. Foyt's record, and if Dixon clinches early, it would be the first time the title did not go down to the final race since the 2007 Champ Car finale, when Bourdais clinched his fourth championship a race early. It would be the first time in the series stemming from the IRL since 2005, when Dan Wheldon clinched the title a race early.

There is also an abundance of endurance races in October across multiple series and multiple continents. 

It all starts with the inaugural Indianapolis 8 Hours this weekend, being run in partnership with the Harvest Grand Prix weekend. Twenty-three cars are entered, with majority of the entrants being GT World Challenge America teams with some international flavor. It is the second round of the 2020 Intercontinental GT Challenge season, which started back in February with the Bathurst 12 Hour.

Speaking of Bathurst, the one and only endurance race on the 2020 Supercars schedule will be the Bathurst 1000 on October 11 and it will be the season finale this year. Scott McLaughlin has already clinched the championship, but he could be heading into his final Supercars race looking for his second consecutive victory in The Great Race. McLaughlin will have Tim Slade as his co-driver this year after winning the race with Alexandre Prémat last year.

IMSA will run Petit Le Mans on October 17. Five different teams have won the ten-hour race in the last five years. The #7 Acura Team Penske Acura of Ricky Taylor and Hélio Castroneves will head to Petit Le Mans with three consecutive races. Jordan Taylor and Antonio García are controlling the GT Le Mans class in the #3 Corvette. It is Acura vs. Lexus in GT Daytona. 

On October 25, the 24 Hours of Spa will begin, but this year's race will be different because the race takes place on the weekend Daylight Savings ends in Europe and the one-hour fall back will occur during the race. This year's race will run for 25 hours because of the oddity. This will double as a round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge and GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup.

Other events of note in October:
NASCAR concludes its second round at Talladega and the Charlotte roval before starting the semifinal round at Kansas and Texas.
Besides Petit Le Mans, IMSA will have a GT-only race at Charlotte and a race at Laguna Seca.
Formula One heads to Nürburgring and Portimão. 
World Superbike concludes it season at Magny-Cours and Estoril. 
MotoGP will be at Le Mans and spend two weeks at Aragón.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Risks and Best Interests

Michael Schumacher remains in sole possession of most grand prix victories for another fortnight. Lewis Hamilton is collecting all the odd penalties this season. Andrea Dovizioso was on the wrong end of a lap one accident. Suzuki might be the best bike in MotoGP and has still not won a race. There was a lengthy red flag for rain in the 24 Hours Nürburgring. Team Penske, Corvette and Lexus keeps up their strong forms in IMSA. DJR Team Penske collected some more silverware. Super Formula had a mess of a start at Okayama. Chip Ganassi should be a happy man. Musical chairs have started early in IndyCar for the final races, though it is not fun and games for some and that is where we will start this week. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Risks and Best Interests
Last week, I listened to the latest episode of "Off Track with Hinch and Rossi," the podcast which James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi hosts. One conversation topic was what each driver hoped to do when their driving careers ended. 

Hinchcliffe said he hoped to help get a formal IndyCar drivers' association established when his career is over. He wants to be a voice for IndyCar drivers to protect driver interests and stated, "Because right now, we are fairly disposable and we are the one's out there risking our lives, and it seems like the balance of power is a little skewed." 

Within hours of listening to those words from the six-time IndyCar race winner, the news came out that Oliver Askew would miss the Harvest Grand Prix weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course due to concussion-like symptoms he was experiencing. Askew stated these symptoms stemmed back from his accident in the Indianapolis 500 on August 23. After running four races between the rounds at Gateway and Mid-Ohio, Askew sought a diagnosis on his own after receiving encouragement from friends and family. 

The main reason for Askew's decision to stay in the car was fear of losing his ride and wanting to improve after a string of difficult results. The only problem was he did not feel like he could improve on-track in the condition he was in. 

Askew has established a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's sports medicine concussion program, the same one Dale Earnhardt, Jr. used when concussions plagued the later years of his career. Askew hopes to return to the #7 Arrow Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren SP at St. Petersburg.

Askew's withdrawal from the Harvest Grand Prix caught the attention of many, especially because concussions are a serious injury in sports and the timing of his withdrawal in relation to the accident that has sidelined him. Nearly five weeks passed between that accident at Indianapolis and his decision to step out of the car. In-between, there were four IndyCar races, all of which Askew started. 

In the last ten years, concussion have received more attention in light of untimely deaths to former football and hockey players and the biggest case in motorsports was Earnhardt, Jr., who stepped away from the car multiple times due to concussions and complications stemming from a string of incidents. 

IndyCar has had its own concussion-related retirement. Dario Franchitti's career ended after a concussion sustained in his accident at Houston in 2013. Doctors advised him to stop racing because of the Houston accident and concussions suffered earlier in his career. 

Across the board, sports organizations have been improving their concussion protocols over the last decade to be most cautious to the athletes even when it means removing an athlete from competition. That is what made Askew's news so shocking. After the last ten years, especially the last five, hearing that a driver had competed in four races while not feeling 100% and then having that driver decide to step out of the car on his own after seeing a doctor on his accord does not mesh when a sanctioning body would publicly state it holds the highest standards when it comes concussions and the health and safety of its competitors. 

To be fair to IndyCar, it has a good track record of sidelining drivers who show concussion symptoms. In 2014, after debris hit Hinchcliffe in the head in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he missed the first few days of Indianapolis 500 practice before being cleared to participate for later practice days and qualifying. E.J. Viso practiced the car on those days. Simona de Silvestro was sidelined after suffering a concussion before Iowa in 2011. 

IndyCar even improved its concussion testing after Will Power's accident at St. Petersburg in 2016. While Power did not have a concussion and was unable to compete due to an ear infection, IndyCar adopted the I-Portal Portable Assessment System in 2018 to help with concussion diagnosis.

IndyCar cleared Askew to race after his accident at Indianapolis and knowing how cautious IndyCar is with driver safety and with how stringent the IndyCar medical team is, Askew would not have been allowed to race if he failed a concussion test. I would like to believe IndyCar did everything right and Askew's accident shows that concussions are much more complicated.

Concussions are tricky, and we are still learning. He could have passed his assessments, but still felt off. Since he was cleared to race, he figured he would give it a go because the doctors said he was fine, even though he was not fully there. 

Part of Askew's choice was in fear of losing his ride and stepping out for concussion concerns puts him halfway to unemployment. 

It is the nature of motorsports. Drivers have to be part vulture. If a seat opens up, a driver has to swoop in, regardless if that ride was vacated because a driver ran out of funding or was severely injured and sometimes killed. A driver has to take a shot at every opportunity. If Askew stepped out, another driver would step in and there is no guarantee the ride will be there for Askew. 

You can say that is the name of the game, and it is true in every sport, but it forced Askew to go out there and put himself in further risk. 

There is no safety net for the drivers. There is no collective bargaining agreement. There is no injury list. There is no safety from release of contract because of injury. A driver has to lookout for himself, including putting his long-term health at risk for the short-term gain. 

We do not know if Askew let the team know he was going to seek additional help or asked IndyCar for additional tests. You would have thought the IndyCar medical team would have been the first place Askew would have gone, especially knowing how much drivers trust and are familiar with those doctors. 

This news was jarring because we have been more cautious and understanding when it comes to concussions. It felt like Askew slipped through the cracks when he should have felt comfortable to say he was not feeling well to compete after the Indianapolis 500. It felt like a major oversight, and one that does not look good for either IndyCar or Arrow McLaren SP. 

This was a reminder that even if we are more mindful of concussions, the lingering symptoms and the extended time it can take to fully heal, motorsports will retain its cutthroat here today, gone tomorrow mentality. A driver sacrificing his seat today could be out of a job permanently and for a 23-year-old Askew thought the best thing to do was compete when not 100%. He is not going to be the last driver to face these circumstances. 

IndyCar has done a lot for driver safety over the last ten years, however while protecting driver's noggins with aeroscreens, re-enforcing cockpit protection from suspension intrusion and decreasing the risk of other physical harm, the series could make significant strides when it comes to protecting a driver's job security if an injury forces a driver out of a car. 

Askew is an Indy Lights champion. He also won the U.S. F2000 championship, as he spent one season in each Road to Indy series on his way to IndyCar in four years and did it without much funding. Askew got to the top through results and not a banking account. He is a success story IndyCar should want around for a longtime. He shows what is possible through the Road to Indy system and a lengthy IndyCar career for him elevates the Road to Indy system even higher. If IndyCar hopes to use him as a model for ladder system success, then it should be behind him when he is injured and make sure he can be there for years to come. 

I am not sure what the correct steps are to protect a ride and make sure one is available when an injured driver is fully cleared to compete. These aren't like teams in other sports. There isn't an injury list that drivers can be put on and wait until they are healed. A team cannot necessarily keep a seat open until a driver recovers nor expand to an extra car when a driver is ready to return. There are outside factors, like sponsorship and engine leases, that determine how many cars are on the grid. 

There are many things that could be done. There could be more ironclad contracts that the series oversees and makes sure fairly compensate drivers and are fulfilled even in the event of an injury. Leader Circle funding could be tied to the drivers and not the entrants. We might even have to consider changing the championship format to allow a driver to miss two or three rounds without penalty. Instead of having every race count toward the championship, perhaps only the top 75% of a driver's results count toward to a driver's championship points total, allowing an injured driver to miss multiple races if needed and allow that absence to not necessarily affect where that driver finishes in the championship. 

The solution might be radical, but many revolutionary changes are, and it is necessary for drivers taking on the risks to feel the series is looking out for their best interests.

Winner From Last Weekend
Elfyn Evans won Rally Turkey last weekend, his second victory of the 2020 World Rally Championship. I had Rally Turkey down for this weekend by mistake. There have been a monumental number of schedule revisions this season and this one slipped through. That's my bad! 

Evans leads the World Rally Championship with 97 points with Sébastien Ogier on 79 points and defending champion Ott Tänak tied with Kalle Rovanperä on 70 points with two rounds to go. 

Champion From the Weekend
Scott McLaughlin clinched his third consecutive Supercars championship with two victories and a second-place finish from Tailem Bend. Cameron Waters won the final race of the weekend.

Winners From this Weekend
You know about Elfyn Evans, Scott McLaughlin and Cameron Waters but did you know...

Valtteri Bottas won the Russian Grand Prix, his second victory of the season.

Mick Schumacher and Guanyu Zhou split the Formula Two races from Sochi.

Fabio Quartararo won MotoGP's Catalan Grand Prix, his third victory of the season. Luca Marini won the Moto2 race, his third victory of the season. Darryn Binder won the Moto3 race, his first career grand prix victory.

The #99 Rowe Racing BMW of Nicky Catsburg, Alexander Sims and Nick Yelloly won the 24 Hours Nürburgring.

Esteban Guerrieri and Yann Ehrlacher split the WTCC races on the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

Kurt Busch won the NASCAR Cup race from Las Vegas, his first victory of the season. Chase Briscoe won the Grand National Series race, his eighth victory of the season. Austin Hill won the Truck race, his second victory of the season. 

The #7 Acura Team Penske Acura of Ricky Taylor and Hélio Castroneves won the IMSA race from Mid-Ohio, its third consecutive victory. The #3 Corvette of Jordan Taylor and Antonio García won in the GTLM class, its fourth victory of the season. The #14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus of Jack Hawksworth and Aaron Telitz won in the GTD class, its third victory of the season.

Sho Tsuboi won the Super Formula race from Okayama, his first career Super Formula victory. 

The #31 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi of Kelvin van der Linde and Ryuichiro Tomita and the #163 Emil Frey Racing Lamborghini of Albert Costa and Giacomo Altoè split the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup races from Zandvoort.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar's Harvest Grand Prix on Friday and Saturday from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 
The inaugural Indianapolis 8 Hours on Sunday, the second Intercontinental GT Challenge round.
NASCAR will be at Talladega with all three series.
World Superbike has its penultimate round of 2020 at Magny-Cours.
Super GT begins the second half of its season with its third round at Fuji.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

2020 MotoGP Midseason Review

Typically, September is the time championships are winding down. A few races are left. We have a clear idea who is in the championship hunt, who is out of it, and we are turning an eye to the next year. 

This autumn, that is further from the truth is nearly every championship, and MotoGP is no different. There are still seven races remaining in the 2020 MotoGP season and with seven rounds in the books there is no clear runaway with this championship. In fact, it is one of the most open championships in reason memory. 

We have had six different winners from seven races. Customer bikes have won over half the races. We have had four first-time winners this season. Only four factory riders currently occupy spots in the top ten of the championship. 

There are a lot of places we could start this midseason review, but we will start with the man who hasn't been there and whose absence significantly affects this year's champion. 

Is Marc Márquez out of it?
The eight-time world champion Márquez suffered a broken right arm in the season opener at Jerez and he has not started another race this season. 

Márquez tried to return to competition, but after practicing for the second round at Jerez, the injury forced him to withdraw. A further comeback was delayed when the titanium plate in his arm broke while he attempted to open a window. This additional operation at the end of August pushed any return back two months, meaning a late-October return at the earliest. However, this is Marc Márquez we are talking about. 

He isn't going to be ready for Barcelona this upcoming weekend, but what about Le Mans for October 11? That would be a little earlier than originally thought, but not impossible. 

With Márquez out, the championship is up for grabs with Andrea Dovizioso currently on top of the mountain with 84 points, one ahead of Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales and four ahead of Joan Mir in fourth.

No rider has lit this season on fire with six different winners from seven races. 

At best, Márquez could be back for six races with 125 points left on the table. A sweep is asking a lot but let says he does it and picks up 125 out of 125 points, all Dovizioso would need is 42 points from the final seven races to claim the championship. Missing Barcelona means the top four are spotted another handful of points should they all stay on their bikes. 

Márquez is out of it, but he could make it interesting if he returns for France. Even if he is not back for Le Mans, we could get three or four stellar performances to remind us of his greatness. If Márquez does return, he will likely be competing at the front of the field and stealing points from championship-contenders. Even though he will not be going for the title himself, he surely could factor in deciding this year's champion.

Who is the title favorite with seven races to go?
Well, as stated above it is a four-horse race, but nobody looks spectacular. 

Dovizioso won the Austrian Grand Prix, but his only other podium finish was third in the Jerez season opener. Quartararo swept the Jerez races, but his fourth-place finish in the second Misano race last week was his first top five finish since his victory in round two. It would have been a podium finish for Quartararo had he not been handed a three-second penalty for exceeding track limits.

Viñales picked up his first victory of the season at Misano last week and he had finished runner-up to Quartararo in the first two races, but had finishes of 14th, tenth, a retirement and sixth in-between. Mir has not won this season, but he has three podium finishes in his last four starts and he has finished in the top five in every race outside of his retirements in the first Jerez race and Brno.

There is no favorite. We are halfway through the season and it is still too early to pick out a rider and yet it feels like we should have an idea of who will come out on top. That isn't the case this season. Everyone has been streaky and in two races, these four could be completely flipped and just as close together.

Who else will win a race this year?
There have been six different winners in the last six races and there are probably two or three other riders that could pick up a victory this season.

First, you have Mir, who has been on the cusp of victory a few times only to fall short. That would not be a surprise. 

Second, Jack Miller and Pol Espargaró are both kicking themselves for letting the Styrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring slip from their grasps and into Miguel Oliveira's pocket. Either of those riders are an option and Espargaró had great shots at victory also slip away from him at Brno and the Austrian Grand Prix. 

Third, Francesco Bagnaia had two strong outings at Misano, only to be second to Franco Morbidelli in the first race and to fall while leading in the second race. 

Fourth, this season has already seen both Petronas SRT Yamaha riders, a factory KTM rider and a Tech3 KTM rider win races this season. We have had four first-time winners this season between Quartararo, Morbidelli, Oliveira and Brad Binder. The door is open to anybody breaking through. 

I think Mir can get a victory, but he will have to be flawless that day. If Márquez returns for at least three or four races he will get a victory and if Espargaró can keep his head straight and repeats his speed at Brno and Red Bull Ring, he could absolutely get a victory. Maybe Miller can get one but Dovizioso and Quartararo will likely each get at least one more victory this year. They have to if they want to be champion. 

Can anyone else enter the title fight?
Four points cover the top four but there is a 16-point gulf between Mir in fourth and Morbidelli and Miller tied for fifth. Takaaki Nakagami is a further point back in seventh and then you have Oliveira a further 21 points back of Mir in eighth. 

I am not going to say it is impossible for someone like Morbidelli or Miller to go on a run, win four of the final seven races, finish on the podium in the other three and steal the championship, but I will say that is unlikely. I think the gap is too great for either of those two or anyone else outside the top four to be a contender heading into November. 

I think this year's MotoGP champion is currently one of the riders in the top four.

Anything to say on Valentino Rossi?
Rossi has been good, as he sits ninth in the championship on 58 points, 26 points off Dovizioso. 

His only podium finish was a third in the second Jerez race and he lost his 200th premier class podium in the closing laps of the first Misano race. 

Rossi is fourth of the four Yamaha riders, but he is 41 years old and he is still ninth in the championship. There hasn't been a race this season where he has looked like a potential race winner though. He has had a bunch of solid rides, including a few from the back of the field, but I think ninth fits perfectly for how he has been this season. 

Can Rossi win a race? 

The Yamaha is good enough with four victories this season, but the only time Rossi has been the top Yamaha finisher was in the two races at the Red Bull Ring, a fifth and a ninth, arguably the toughest weekends for Yamaha. He was running third in the first Misano race and lost it in the closing laps. I don't see him running away with a victory. It would have to come from a close battle between the top three or four riders and him making the correct moves and coming out on top at the checkered flag.

Who is going to be the top KTM rider?
The Austrian manufacture is having a breakout season after Brad Binder picked up KTM's first premier class victory at Brno and Miguel Oliveira slipped through in the final corner to get a sensational victory in the Styrian Grand Prix, which was a 1-3 finish for KTM with Pol Espargaró in third. 

KTM has shown incredible pace, but it has the occasional off-race. 

Oliveira is the top KTM rider on 59 points with Espragaró two points back, Binder four points back and Iker Lecuona miles back on 15 points. Best in class will be between the Portuguese, the Spaniard and the South African. 

Oliveira and Binder might have the victories but Espargaró has shown more consistent pace throughout the season. The only problem is Espargaró had contact with Johann Zarco take him out at Brno. He was leading when the red flag came out during the Austrian Grand Prix for Morbidelli and Zarco's horrendous accident and lost his wits, showing visible frustration. When the race restarted, he lost ground immediately and he and Oliveira came together, taking both riders out. 

Espargaró went from first to third on the final lap of the Styrian Grand Prix, but I will not peg that too much on him. Sometimes you are on the losing end of those battles and it glosses over what otherwise was a terrific race. He was elevated to third last week at Misano after Quartararo's penalty. 

If Espargaró can keep his head straight, he can get at least one victory and he will be the top KTM rider. If he can't do that, then it is Oliveira's as Binder has not been able to put up as consistent results.

Is Honda doomed without Marc Márquez?
A little bit.

All credit to Takaaki Nakagama because the LCR Honda rider is seventh in the championship on 63 points and the only other rider to score points in every race this season is Dovizioso. 

The Honda is a difficult bike to ride and it fits Marc Márquez's style more than anyone else's. Márquez won the championship last year but the next best Honda rider was Cal Crutchlow in ninth and Crutchlow's three podium finishes were the only other podium results for Honda that Márquez was not responsible for. 

Nakagama's fourth in the second Jerez race is Honda's best finish this season. Álex Márquez is slowly getting a handle on the bike but has not shown to be factor yet. Crutchlow has been beat up this season and hurt himself after slipping in the paddock at Barcelona. There is a reason Stefan Bradl is a test rider and not a full-time rider. 

Honda is a little doomed. Nakagama has been a revelation this year, but he is not quite up to speed to run for victories. I don't see Álex getting there this year, but perhaps he could be equal to Nakagama before this year is out. 

If Honda hopes to be on the podium this year, let alone the top step, it has to get Marc Márquez back for a few rounds. 

What are the storylines to focus on for the remainder of this season?
Andrea Dovizioso currently leads the world championship and does not have a ride for 2021. He announced his departure from the team in-between races from Austria. Jack Miller will move up to the factory outfit, as Danilo Petrucci will head to Tech3 KTM next year. 

The problem for Dovizioso is all the factory rides are gone. Honda will reshuffle its lineup with Álex Márquez moving to LCR so Pol Espargaró can join the factory team. Quartararo is replacing Rossi at the factory Yamaha team alongside Viñales. KTM is all set with Binder and Oliveira in the factory team and Petrucci and Lecouna at Tech3.

Unless Dovizioso wants to join Aleix Espargaró at Aprilia, his options are a demotion to one of the two customer Ducati teams or he replaces Quartararo at Petronas SRT Yamaha, though that spot is likely going to be Rossi's. I guess the second LCR Honda ride is open but after seeing what Nakagama has done this season I would think Honda will retain him.

Petronas SRT would not be a bad choice if it somehow falls to Dovizioso. It does have the most victories through seven races this season. It does feel like Dovizioso played himself into a corner. He almost held out too long and was too old for another manufacture to take a shot at and he is ready to move on from Ducati. 

There is also the chance Dovizioso retires. He is 34 years old. This is his 13th season in the premier class. If he doesn't want to return to Ducati, then it really isn't worth taking a step back to run eighth or ninth for most of a season with perhaps one or two podium finishes falling his way. He has a chance to retire a champion and maybe that is the door he chooses to open come the end of November.

How will these final seven races play out?
Unlike Formula One, there are not many surprises in the final portion of the MotoGP schedule. 

Bracelona, Le Mans, Aragón and Valencia were all on the original schedule. Aragón and Valencia will now be doubleheaders. The only new addition is Portimão, which will host the season finale on November 22. This will be MotoGP's first trip to Portimão and MotoGP's first round in Portugal since 2012. 

We can actually forecast how these remaining races should play out. 

Before Marc Márquez won at Barcelona last year, Ducati had won the previous two races at the track and Yamaha won the two Barcelona races before that. Ducati has had a rider on the podium at Barcelona the last three years and Dovizioso won in 2017, but he has only one other podium finish at the track, a third in 2012. Quartararo was runner-up last year to Márquez and Barcelona was the site of his only Moto2 victory. Viñales' best MotoGP finish at Barcelona is fourth. Suzuki had two of its bikes in the top six last year. 

Honda and Yamaha have split the last 12 races at Le Mans, with Yamaha holding the advantage seven to five. Chris Vermeulen won at Le Mans in 2007 with Suzuki. Ducati has never won the French Grand Prix, let alone won at Le Mans. Ducati did take second, third and fourth last year with Dovizioso, Petrucci and Miller behind Márquez, and Petrucci and Miller were second and fourth respectively in 2018. Viñales won this race in 2017 but has finished seventh and retired the last two years. Viñales was third in 2016 with Suzuki and Aleix Espargaró was sixth that year, but outside of 2016, Suzuki has not finished better than ninth at Le Mans. 

Márquez has fourth consecutive victories at Aragón and Honda has seven victories, ahead of Yamaha's two and Ducati's one. Dovizioso has been runner-up the last two years and Ducati has had a bike on the podium the last three years at Aragón. Yamaha has not been on the podium in either of the last three years at Aragón. Suzuki did pick up a third and a fourth with Andrea Iannone and Álex Rins at Aragón in 2018.

Four different riders have won the last four Valencia races with Honda taking two of those victories with Márquez and Dani Pedrosa. Dovizioso won a shortened 2018 race ahead of Rins on the Suzuki and Pol Esparagaró on the KTM. Quartararo was runner-up to Márquez last year after winning pole position. Viñales' best finish at Valencia was fifth in 2016. 

Márquez sure tips the scales and history does not paint one clear favorite over the final seven races. Ducati should be happy Le Mans is not a doubleheader and Aragón is. Viñales has historically struggled at Barcelona, Aragón and Valencia and those tracks host five of the final seven races. Quartararo was second at Barcelona and Valencia last year and was on pole position in both races, fifth at Aragón and eighth at Le Mans. Mir's best finish at the remaining tracks was sixth at Barcelona, but like Quartararo, this is only his sophomore season. 

Adding to the difficulty of predicting the final seven races is the first seven races were held at four tracks. Jerez, Red Bull Ring and Misano all held doubleheaders. There is not much variety to go off of. KTM was strong at Red Bull Ring and won Brno but was less competitive at Jerez and had one good Misano race and one mediocre Misano race. Yamaha swept the Jerez and Misano races but struggled at Red Bull Ring and Morbidelli picked up a second-place finish at Brno. The factory Ducatis were off at Brno and Misano, but the customer Ducatis got podium finishes at those tracks.

It sounds crazy but Suzuki might be the most consistent of the top four manufactures, but it is only fourth best because Suzuki's high is not as high but its low is not as low. It is a perfectly centered bike. Suzuki has had a top five finisher in six of seven races. Yamaha is the only other bike that can say that. 

I would say the deck is stacked in Dovizioso's favor. Experience is on his side; past success is on his side and he has scored in every race this season. While Quartararo won the first two races and should put up a mighty challenge, his results have been too inconsistent to suggest he can win the title. He will have to raise his game over the final seven races. These are not Viñales' best tracks and his results have been streaky in 2020. Like Quartararo, Viñales has to find another level over these final seven races. Mir is too much of an unknown.

If you are as puzzled as I am about all this, don't worry, in two months, this will all be straightened out.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

2020 IMSA Midseason Review

IMSA has pieced together a 2020 season and we have reached the halfway point... well, we actually surpassed halfway through the 6 Hours of Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, but five races remain, and this is our chance to get a look at how the championship sits entering autumn. 

This is a much different season. Normally, at this time of year all that is left is the season finale at Petit Le Mans. However, there are two endurance races left in 2020, including the 12 Hours of Sebring. There are also two traditional sprint weekends left and an audible was made to allow a GT-only round to take place with a NASCAR weekend at a course North America's top sports car series has not used since 2000. 

We need to get a grasp of where we are, how did we get here and what is still to come in this 2020 IMSA season. 

How has IMSA kept this season on track?
By adding a second race at Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta among other things. 

With Long Beach, Belle Isle and Mosport first falling off the calendar, IMSA revived the Paul Revere 250 on Independence Day weekend at Daytona and added a traditional, two-hour and 40-minute race at Sebring in July. When Watkins Glen and Lime Rock Park were called off, Road Atlanta took over the six-hour endurance race and the Charlotte road course was called upon to take the GT-only round to run on Friday night of the NASCAR weekend. 

Mid-Ohio moved from May to the end of September. Laguna Seca moved from September to November 1. Petit Le Mans was shifted back a week and will no longer be the season finale. The 12 Hours of Sebring will close the season on November 14.

The season will be 11 rounds, down one from originally planned, but we should still have four endurance races, including the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. 

Where has the pandemic hit the hardest?
While Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR have skated through 2020 without seeing much of a hit on grid size, IMSA and sports car racing as a whole has not been so fortunate. 

Paul Miller Racing won the 24 Hours of Daytona and missed the next three races due to financial constraints. Heart of Racing Team has also missed races and Alex Riberas has not been able to return to the country. GEAR Racing powered by GRT Grasser shutdown. 

The LMP2 class was due to see some growth in 2020, but Tower Motorsport by Starworks closed after the second round. Cameron Cassels ended his season due to quarantine concerns and Performance Tech Motorsports' season ended with Cassels pulling out. DragonSpeed is a part-time program after originally stating full-time aspirations. 

The 6 Hours of Road Atlanta had two LMP2 starters after opening 2020 with five cars.

Though not immediately felt, the Porsche GT North America program will cease operation after the 2020 season. Although, I guess we will immediately feel Porsche's absence, as it withdrew from the Mid-Ohio round due to positive covid-19 tests coming out of the Porsche camp at Le Mans and drivers have been quarantined.

Felipe Nasr tested positive for covid-19 prior to the Paul Revere 250 round at Daytona and missed the race. Nasr has since returned to competition, but IMSA has not been immune from the harsh realities of the current climate.

How does Acura Team Penske have the most victories and yet simultaneously is the most disappointed team?
For some reason the entire Acura Team Penske program was casted as a failure when the manufacture and team announced they would go in separate directions after 2020, though it won a championship last year!

The first few races were difficult for the team. The #7 Acura of Hélio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor was caught in an accident in the 24 Hours of Daytona and then had mechanically problems in the Paul Revere 250. The #6 Acura of Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron was fourth in both Daytona races. Both cars did not have a great day in the Sebring sprint race. 

The #7 Acura turned it around with impressive victories in the wet at Road America and a comeback drive at Road Atlanta. However, the decision has already been made between Acura and Penske to go separate ways in 2021. 

The #7 Acura has actually gotten itself back in the title fight, ten points off the championship leading #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac. The #7 Acura is actually ahead of the #6 Acura by 11 points despite starting the season with two last-place finishes. 

If Acura is not happy, then who is in Daytona Prototype international?
Wayne Taylor Racing? It started the season with a dominating victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona. It had two runner-up finishes and probably had a podium finish taken from the team when Ryan Briscoe was penalized for hitting Montoya entering the pit lane at Road Atlanta, although there was not much Briscoe could have done in that situation. Both cars were already at pit lane speed and Montoya abruptly decelerated. 

Briscoe and Renger van der Zande have not made many mistakes together and are a reliable duo to have leading the championship. 

Cadillac as a whole should be happy. 

The #5 Mustang Samplings Cadillac of João Barbosa and Sébastien Bourdais for JDC-Miller Motorsports is second in the championship, four points off the #10 Cadillac with finishes of third, third, third, fourth and fourth this season. The #31 Action Express Racing Cadillac has been on the podium in the last three races, including the Sebring sprint where Pipo Derani and Nasr scored victory in Nasr's first race back. 

Mazda should be pleased. Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell won the Paul Revere 250 in a Mazda 1-2. Bomarito and Tincknell were second at Road Atlanta. Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez were runner-up in the first two races. The Mazdas are fourth and fifth in the championship.

Has Corvette's driver change worked out?
Jordan Taylor entered, and victories came with him. 

Taylor and Antonio García have won three races in the #3 Corvette. They have pulled away in the GT Le Mans championship with 191 points, 14 points clear in class. They could have had four consecutive victories if it were not for the #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin leading a Corvette 1-2 at Sebring. 

Not all the credit can fall on Taylor, as the #4 Corvette has a runner-up finish at Road America and was second at Road Atlanta. Corvette has the top two spots in the championship. It ended a two-year victory drought. García got his first victory in almost three years! Corvette might be the one entity having a good 2020.

Is GT Le Mans Balance of Performance working?
Put the #3 Corvette aside for a second...

The #4 Corvette is on 177 points. The #25 BMW Team RLL BMW of Bruno Spengler and Connor De Phillippi is on 174 points and won at Road Atlanta. The #24 BMW Team RLL BMW of John Edwards and Jesse Krohn is on 171 points and won at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Both Porsches are on 171 points with the #912 Porsche ahead of the #911 Porsche because Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor were runner-up in the first two races while Frédéric Makowiecki and Nick Tandy were third in both those races and has not finished better than third this season but does have three pole positions. 

The #3 Corvette aside, which caught a break at Virginia International Raceway and probably should have been third instead of first, six points cover five cars. All six cars have finished on the podium multiple times this year. 

We all acknowledge people hate Balance of Performance, but it is working in GTLM. Things are pretty balanced.

Who is standing out in GT Daytona?
Mario Farnbacher and Matt McMurry are leading the championship in the #86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura with a victory at Road Atlanta and four podium finishes, but the noticeable standout is Aaron Telitz, who is second in the championship, and Telitz was not supposed to be full-time this year.

Telitz was going to be an endurance race driver for AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus, but when Parker Chase withdrew from the team due to financial woes the pandemic caused, Telitz was drafted in to be aside Jack Hawksworth and it has worked out. 

Telitz and Hawksworth won the Paul Revere 250 and Sebring sprint race and they were third at Road America. So how is Telitz ahead of Hawksworth in the championship? 

Originally, Hawksworth was ahead of Telitz because Hawksworth was ninth in the #14 Lexus in the 24 Hours of Daytona and Telitz was 12th in the #12 Lexus with Townsend Bell and Frankie Montecalvo. However, for Road Atlanta, Telitz moved back to the #12 Lexus and Chase and Michael de Quesada were back in the #14 Lexus with Hawksworth. 

The #12 Lexus was fifth at Road Atlanta, the #14 Lexus was tenth and Telitz is now two points ahead of Hawksworth, and 12 points off the #86 Acura. 

Shout out to Bell and Montecalvo, who won at Road America, and are fourth in the championship, 16 points off the #86 Acura. 

And Bill Auberlen deserves recognition for becoming the all-time leader in IMSA victory with his 61st triumph at VIR in the #96 Turner Motorsport BMW with Robby Foley.

Anything to say on LMP2?
The best story of the year is Patrick Kelly, who has won two of three starts in the #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca. 

At the start of the 2010s, Kelly was a Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge competitor and he started in the 2010 12 Hours of Sebring in the GTC class, finishing third in class. Nine years ago, Kelly was hit head-on by a school bus driver in a traffic accident. Kelly suffered a significant brain injury and a crushed knee. He was about to start competing in the Prototype Challenge class at the time of the accident, but it sidelined him for the rest of the decade. 

After being told his motorsports career was over, his neurologist cleared him three years ago to return to competition. Last year, he won with Matt McMurry driving for PR1/Mathiasen at Road America, but this year Kelly is pursuing a full season and he leads the championship with 98 points. There are still three races to go. 

The #18 Era Motorsport Oreca of Dwight Merriman and Kyle Tilley are second in the championship with 92 points. DragonSpeed has crossed the finish line first in all three of its starts, but it was disqualified from the Sebring sprint because Henrik Hedman was two seconds shy of meeting minimum drive time. 

It is not clear if LMP2 will be a two-car class for the final three races between PR1/Mathiasen and Era Motorsports. DragonSpeed had two cars at Le Mans, is focused on the European Le Mans Series championship, but it could return for the final three races. 

LMP2 took a dip at the 6 Hours of Atlanta. This entire season hasn't gone as planned. Hopefully, LMP2 can end on a high note in the final three races.

Who can turn it around in the final four races?
The only DPi entries without a podium finish are the #6 Acura and the #85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac. I think Montoya and Cameron can pick up a victory or two. A successful championship defense could be over, but they should have a few respectable races. 

It is a six-horse race with four events to go in DPi. It is equal parts confusing and understandable Wayne Taylor Racing leads the championship. It is one of the best teams out there, but we have not seen the dominant speed out of the team in the four races succeeding the 24 Hours of Daytona. 

In my eyes, Mazda has been the best top to bottom, but rain and a poorly timed safety car forced Jarvis to sacrifice a victory at Road America. Mazda is winning but has yet to entirely shed the cruel defeats. 

GTLM feels partially sewed up. With only six cars, and only four for Mid-Ohio, I don't think the #3 Corvette is going to slip up in the final five races. If Porsche returns for the final four races, it will win at least once. It should have taken VIR. It will get one final victory before it steps away from IMSA, hopefully only for a brief hiatus. 

There isn't one GTD team that is doing more poorly than the rest, but Magnus Racing has not finished better than seventh in the last five races since finishing runner-up at Daytona. I think Andy Lally and John Potter are due for some good results in the #44 Lamborghini.

How is 2021 shaping up?
We have a schedule and a new class has been announced for the series. 

The LMP3 class will be added for the 2021 season, in hopes of keeping the grid size up with the impending departure of Porsche from GTLM and possibly more teams. There has already been one LMP3 entry announced. Riley Motorsports will field a Ligier for Jim Cox and Dylan Murry.

LMP3 will compete in six races, plus the 24 Hours of Daytona will only count toward the Endurance Cup. Sebring, Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, Mosport, Road America and Petit Le Mans make up the full schedule. 

Similar to LMP3, Daytona will only count toward the Endurance Cup in LMP2. Sebring, Laguna Seca, Belle Isle, Watkins Glen, Road America and Petit Le Mans make up the full LMP2 calendar. 

GTLM will run at every round but Mid-Ohio and Belle Isle. 

GTD wll compete at every event with Belle Isle and Mosport only counting toward the GTD Sprint Cup. 

DPi will run at every round but the GT-only events at Lime Rock Park and Virginia International Raceway.

IMSA decided to change the points system. Take the current system and multiple the points total for each position by ten. A victory is now worth 350 points. That's it. The system didn't change, they only made the points larger. What did change is qualifying will carry what are now race points. Pole position will pay 35 points, second-fastest will get 32 points and so on. 

There will also be a different qualifying format for the amateur classes. The amateur driver will qualify in the first half of the session to determine the starting position with the professional driver qualifying in the second half to determine the championship points that will be awarded to each entry.

The unanswered questions are what happens to the Acura program and does a team such as Meyer Shank Racing, Wayne Taylor Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing step into that role? 

Will GTLM consist of two Corvettes and two BMWs or could a full-time return of Risi Competizione or another privateer effort add some variety to the grid? 

How many LMP2 teams stick around? 

How many LMP3 teams are on the grid? Does LMP3 really help grid size or is it robbing Peter to pay Paul and sees LMP2 and/or GTD teams switch classes?

There will be driver movement. All four Acura drivers are up in the air. I would think Ricky Taylor and Dane Cameron land somewhere. Juan Pablo Montoya has expressed more interest at a shot at Le Mans and the Triple Crown. Hélio Castroneves has said he wants to return to IndyCar full-time. 

Sébastien Bourdais will be returning to IndyCar full-time with A.J. Foyt Racing in 2021 and that opens a prime seat next to João Barbosa in the Mustang Samplings Cadillac. Felipe Nasr had also planned on dipping his toes in IndyCar waters in 2020, but the pandemic prevented him from competing in any races. If Nasr does get a serious IndyCar opportunity in 2021 that could open up a co-driver role with Pipo Derani. 

Porsche's exit means Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber, Laurens Vanthoor and Frédéric Makowiecki are all free agents. I am sure some of those guys will stick with Porsche and be re-directed to other series. Perhaps some stay in IMSA and find roles with GTD teams, but there is a chance a few move on looking for other opportunities. 

The 2021 season will look a lot different from 2020. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Nashville!

Toyota won Le Mans. United Autosports won Le Mans. Aston Martin won twice at Le Mans. And so far, nobody has been disqualified from Le Mans. Four points separate the top four riders in MotoGP through seven of 14 races. Andrea Locatelli's perfect season is over in World Supersport. Four drivers were eliminated from championship contention in the NASCAR Cup Series. Championship contenders clashed in Supercars action from Tailem Bend. Audi continues to beat the snot out of BMW in DTM. IndyCar announced a street race in Nashville for August 6-8, 2021 and that is where we will start this week. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Well, the news is above but to repeat it a second time, IndyCar will run a street race around Nashville in early August next year. After being a lingering rumor for a few years, the Nashville streets will shut down next summer for the Music City Grand Prix. 

The 2.17-mile circuit will feature 11 corners and take place around Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, with the parking lots being used for paddock space. The first six corners will be around the stadium before the track crosses Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge and makes a left-hand turn into a tight section of corners on 1st Avenue South and turn 11 will be a right-handed corner back across the bridge. 

It is a semi-unique circuit. The start line will be on Korean Veterans Blvd before turn one, a left-hander onto Interstate Drive. Turn two is a left-hander from Interstate Drive on to Russell Street with turn three being another left-hander from Russell onto S 2nd Street, which runs parallel to the football stadium. 

Between turns three and four is where the finish line will be located. Turn four and five are a left-right section located in the parking lot next to S 2nd Street. After exiting turn five, the cars will rejoin S 2nd Street before the right-handed turn six onto Korean Veterans Blvd and toward the bridge. Pit entrances will be on Russell Street and it will exit on the outside of turn five.

Though IndyCar has history with the Nashville-area, having run at Nashville Superspeedway about 30 miles southeast of the city, this is IndyCar first new road course since Baltimore in 2011. Technically, Houston was added to the schedule in 2013, but the Reliant/NRG Park had been used in 2006 and 2007 when a fixture on the Champ Car calendar, so technically, Houston was not a new course, though many are referring to Houston as the most recent new street course added to the IndyCar calendar. 

But I digress... this will be truly be IndyCar's first new street course in nearly a decade when (or, because it is IndyCar, if) it occurs next year. 

Earlier this year, long before this announcement, an Indianapolis 500 in August and a lockdown that lasted for the better part of two months, I was starting to think it has been awhile since IndyCar visited a new city to use the public roads as a racetrack, especially when looking back at its 21st century history. 

Street races were quite common and not only common but constantly changing over the previous decades. Since 2000, American open-wheel racing has inaugurated street races in Monterrey, Denver, Miami, St. Petersburg, San Jose, Edmonton, Houston, Las Vegas, São Paulo and Baltimore. Of those ten street courses, only St. Petersburg remains. 

Monterrey came during the peak of Mexican competition in CART. Denver was a second iteration of something that failed in the 1990s. Miami was a second and third iteration of something that failed in the 1980s. San Jose was the alternative when Laguna Seca fell away. Edmonton... well that was an airport circuit, so not a street circuit, but still a temporary use of municipality property before the city decided the land would be better for housing. Houston was the second iteration of something that failed in a different part of the city with the dot-com bubble bursting and then it came back again in 2013 and failed again, partially because it was scheduled at the end of June. Las Vegas was an Easter mistake. São Paulo was successful in drawing a crowd, but after four editions it was not worth it for the Brazilian officials. Baltimore was more successful than São Paulo, but an equally big financial loser. 

Besides those nine street courses, we have had a few that failed to get off the ground. There were attempts for races in Calgary and Quebec City, Providence and Boston, Phoenix and Fort Lauderdale, Seoul, Dubai and Qingdao, China. 

For the first 15 years of the 21st century, whether its name was CART, Champ Car, Indy Racing League or IndyCar, American open-wheel series were testing every city circuit option. Boston was the most recent stillbirth, originally set for Labor Day weekend 2016, it was called off on April 29. It is impressive IndyCar didn't make another attempt in the last four years. 

I am generally against street course because... well, see above. They have a short-shelf life. However, I am willing to give Nashville a shot. It's been awhile since IndyCar tried a new city. For all the consternation over the number of street courses during the 2000s and into the 2010s, only four that were supposed to be on the 2020 calendar: St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Belle Isle and Toronto. 

Those have been the only four street courses since 2015. St. Petersburg is the youngest, with 2020 set to be its 17th race. Belle Isle is on its third stint on an IndyCar calendar. It hosted CART for ten years from 1992 to 2001. The IRL visited in 2007 and 2008 before the recession nixed the event. Roger Penske revived it in 2012 when Chevrolet return to the series and it has been around ever since with the last seven years being run as a doubleheader. All told, Belle Isle has been on 20 IndyCar schedules. Toronto has been on 33 schedules with two doubleheaders. Long Beach leads the way having been run for 45 years with the last 36 being an IndyCar race. 

With that street course lineup, Nashville has to live up to high expectations. 

We have seen the dog-and-pony show before where city officials and IndyCar officials and a driver get together, take photos and talk about how this will be a long-term partnership, some quote inspiration of becoming the next Monaco, only for it to be gone after the first contract expires. Nashville has checked all those boxes. We all know the difference is Roger Penske. Nashville is the first street course under Roger Penske's leadership. Belle Isle is doing quite well under Penske's watch, albeit he is the promoter of that event. Penske is not promoting Nashville. 

The Music City Grand Prix will be led by former Nashville Predators executive Chris Park, FullCircle Ventures president Matt Crews, who was president and CEO of NASCAR team Brewco/Barker Curb Racing, which was based in the Nashville-area, and Jason Rittenberry, who was formerly vice president of Memphis Motorsports Park and Chief Strategy Officer of Circuit of the Americas.

Some wide-eyed dreamer is not leading the Music City Grand Prix group. These are men with years of experience in the city and/or in American motorsports. If this race fails, it is not because of some schmuck in charge. 

We have yet to hear any pushback on the Music City Grand Prix, though the event is being promoted as being privately financed. It is still going to use public roads and cause road closures and construction that will alter daily city life months before the race even happens. Citizens of Nashville might not have a clue what they are in for with this event but could get a bad taste in April and public perception could turn against it. Come August 2021, Nashvillians could be wanting the race gone after one edition and it is difficult for any street race to survive when the community largely rejects it. 

Winning over the people will decide how long this race stays on the schedule. All the current street course races have succeeded in winning community approval, though they still face some pushback, see Belle Isle. Boston was dead on arrival in 2016 because of community rejection. Though Baltimore drew massive crowds, it usurped daily life and when the organizer struggled to pay debt back to the city, it was an easy call to move on from the race. 

Street races are tough to turn a profit even when drawing tens of thousands of people all three days. They can divide a city and piss off plenty of locals, leading to their demise. There is also the chance the circuit is dismal, even if it looks good on paper, and that will turn off the spectators and participants. 

History points to the Music City Grand Prix lasting three or five years tops, but let's give it a go. It might work out, most likely it will not. IndyCar hasn't had a calamitous failure in a while. If Nashville is welcoming the series with open arms, let's give it three years and if (or when) it falls apart, we at least get to say we tried it... and then we move on to the next one.

Champions From the Weekend
You know about the championships that were settled at Le Mans, but did you know...

Michael Cooper clinched the GT4 America sprint championship with a sweep of the three races from Austin.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened at Le Mans and Michael Cooper's success but did you know...

Maverick Viñales won MotoGP's Emilia-Romagna and Rimini Coast Grand Prix, his first victory of 2020. Enea Bastianini won the Moto2 race, his third victory of the season. Romano Fenati won the Moto3 race, his first victory of the season. Dominique Aegerter and Matteo Ferrari split the MotoE races. 

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Cup race from Bristol, his ninth victory of the season. Chase Briscoe won the Grand National Series race, his seventh victory of the season. Sam Meyer won the Truck race, his first career Truck victory and he is the second-youngest winner in series history.

Robin Frijns and Nico Müller split Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from the Nürburgring sprint circuit.

Fabian Coulthard, Shane van Gisbergen and Scott McLaughlin split the Supercars races from Tailem Bend.

Jonathan Rea, Michael van der Mark and Chaz Davies split the World Superbike races from Barcelona. Andy Verdoïa and Andrea Locatelli split the World Supersport races. It was Verdoïa's first career victory. Locatelli was fourth in the first race.

The #1 Squadra Corse Ferrari of Rodrigo Baptista and Martin Fuentes swept the GT World Challenge America races from Austin. 

The #51 Panoz of Roman De Angelis and Parker Chase and the #2 GMG Racing Porsche of Jason Bell and Andrew Davis split the GT4 America SprintX races from Austin. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One treks to Sochi.
Another 24-hour race, the 24 Hours Nürburgring.
The World Touring Car Cup will have its doubleheader on the Nordschleife. 
NASCAR begins its second round of the playoffs in Las Vegas.
IMSA starts autumn at Mid-Ohio.
MotoGP will be in Barcelona.
Super Formula has its second round of 2020 at Okayama.
The World Rally Championship will run Rally Turkey.
Zandvoort hosts the penultimate GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup round.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Toyota Completes Le Mans Hat Trick

The 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans lacked drama and felt procedural.

Everything followed the script. The only thing that was missing was the rain. 

Toyota was the fastest car and dominated the event. Rebellion remained in the mirrors of the TS050 Hybrid, a reminder they were ready to pounce should a mistake or error occur, but as long as Toyota kept all four wheels on the tarmac and heading forward, Rebellion would settle for the consolation of a podium finish.

The largest heart flutter came a little past the halfway point when the #7 Toyota of Kamui Kobayashi rolled into the pit lane after a turbo failure and was pushed into the garage for repairs. Brendon Hartley, in his first Le Mans with the Toyota, was ready to slip the #8 Toyota into the top position while the mechanics plugged away at the rear of the sister car in an effort to get it back in the race. 

Once the turbo was replaced, the #7 Toyota's goal was to run down the Rebellions and give Toyota two podium positions. It took 11 hours, but when Louis Delétraz had an off in the #3 Rebellion at Indianapolis and had to stop for repairs, the #7 Toyota moved into third.

It was another year where Kobayashi, Mike Conway and José María López had the legs over their teammate at Le Mans, but the glory goes to the other side of the garage. Last year, it was a tire puncture and a failure to replace the correct faulty ring of rubber on the first unscheduled pit stop, leading the car to limp around before needing a second unscheduled pit stop to correct the error and handing the #8 Toyota a victory. 

Sébastien Buemi suffered a tire puncture in the first hour this year, throwing the #8 Toyota off sequence and allowing the #7 Toyota to have a lap lead 12 hours into the race. As we have seen at Le Mans the previous two years, the #8 Toyota has run another faultless race. This year, it was not the blessing of Fernando Alonso's presence that saw Toyota's long-time lead car complete 24 hours without major hiccups. 

Buemi, Hartley and Kazuki Nakajima missed out on the heartache through a drama-less race. Other than the early puncture, the #8 Toyota did not have a massive off or get caught in another incident. A driver didn't have a spin while in traffic. The car stayed pointed in the right direction through the checkered flag. Nakajima's 2016 sputter from the lead in the final minutes, handing Porsche its 18th Le Mans victory while Toyota's painful wait for its initial triumph continued, might have been penance paid in advance, allowing the spoils of victory to shower over whoever enters this car. 

Four years ago, Nakajima and Buemi were sinking in one of Le Mans' most crushing defeats. At the end of the 2020 race, they are the ninth and tenth drivers to win Le Mans in three consecutive years, the first to do it since Marco Werner from 2005 to 2007. Hartley is now a two-time Le Mans winner, a co-driver in Porsche's most recent Le Mans victory, the final Le Mans victory for the Porsche 919 Hybrid, and now he will get the final victory in the LMP1-era at Le Mans.

Toyota lifts itself up to level with the French manufactures Matra-Simca and Peugeot on three Le Mans victories. Only seven manufactures have more overall victories than Toyota and Alfa Romeo and Ford are within striking distance for next year. 

This was Rebellion's swan song. The team is exiting sports car racing at the end of the 2019-20 FIA World Endurance Championship. The #1 Rebellion R13 took three checkered flags earlier this season with Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato and Bruno Senna, but the team will have to settle for a runner-up result at Le Mans, five laps behind the #8 Toyota. 

Rebellion has long been one of the best privateer LMP1 entrants, experiencing the hardships that come with arm wrestling the mighty manufacture dollars and even stepping back to LMP2 for a year, however the team is ending on a high. It entered a competitive automobile that kept Toyota honest over 24 hours. The Swiss outfit deserves only praise.

United Autosports stuck to the LMP2 script and the pre-race favorite came out on top, though the final 15 minutes were more hectic than any other point over the first 23 hours and 45 minutes. With just over nine minutes to go, Phil Hanson had to pit for fuel in the #22 Oreca while having a 52-second lead over the #38 Jota Sport Oreca of Anthony Davidson. Needing only a splash of fuel, Hanson emerged from the pit lane just six-seconds clear of Davidson, though Davidson himself had to stop a lap later for his final splash of fuel, sealing a victory for United Autosports. 

Filipe Albuquerque and Phil Hanson continue a remarkable 2020 season and their Le Mans victory clinched them the Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers championship. The Anglo-Portuguese pairing has won four consecutive WEC races, all with Paul di Resta as the third driver, three of which have come from pole position, including Le Mans. In the European Le Mans Series, Albuquerque and Hanson have won the last two races and lead that championship with two rounds to go, two rounds from a historic accomplishment.

Similar to Toyota, the spoils of victory might have spilt out of the cup of the sister #32 United Autosports Oreca, only to flow into the mouth of the #22 Oreca. With eight hours remaining, the #32 Oreca suffered an oil leak and fell out of the battle. 

Jota Sport was on United's coattails for most of this race, but Le Mans success continues to elude Davidson, who picked up his fourth Le Mans podium finish, none of which have seen him on the top step. António Félix da Costa and Roberto González each get their first bit of Le Mans hardware, though in the form of runner-up trophies. A messy final hour saw the #31 Panis Racing Oreca of Julien Canal, Nico Jamin and Matthieu Vaxivière inherit third position when the #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca of Jean-Éric Vergne went off at Indianapolis with broken suspension. 

Aston Martin's incredible 2019-20 season continued at Le Mans, taking victories in each GTE-Pro and GTE-Am. 

After four podium finishes from the first seven WEC races this season, but never finishing better than third, the #97 Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin and Harry Tincknell's first trip to the top step of the podium is in the most famous event on the calendar. Lynn and Martin had been co-drivers the previous two years, never finishing better than 12th in class. Tincknell was a refugee from the shuttered Ford GT program. Tincknell had won in the LMP2 class on his Le Mans debut six years ago. 

The #51 AF Corse Ferrari fell just shy of successfully defending its GTE-Pro class victory. James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi and Daniel Serra mixed it up with the Aston Martins for majority of this race, but a runner-up finish will have to do in 2020. Calado and Pier Guidi will have the consolation of closing the gap to the #95 Aston Martin of Marco Sørensen and Nicki Thiim in the World Endurance GTE Drivers' Championship with one round to go. Sørensen and Thiim were third with Richard Westbrook. 

This victory and third-place finish clinched the World Endurance GTE Manufacture Championship for Aston Martin. 

In the amateur class, the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin and Jonny Adam, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluç were victorious, the team's fourth victory this season, and TF Sport will lead the Endurance Trophy for GTE-Am Drivers championship heading into the Bahrain season finale in two months.

The story of LMP1 and LMP2 repeats itself for a third time in GTE-Am, a sister car benefitting from the misfortune from a stablemate. The #98 Aston Martin had been leading when Ross Gunn suffered a rear suspension failure and brought that car to the garage with a third of the race remaining. The #98 Aston Martin has become accustomed to victory slipping from its grasp. Paul Dalla Lana saw the car crash out from the lead in the final hour in 2015 and was not classified. Dalla Lana retired or had not been classed in five eight Le Mans start entering this race in the #98 Aston Martin, this is despite being one of the best GTE-Am teams for the better part of a decade, having won 15 of 34 races over a four-season period at one point.

The safety car period in the final hour led to a scrap for the final two GTE-Am podium positions. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche of Matt Campbell, Riccardo Pera and Christian Ried came home in second ahead of the #83 AF Corse Ferrari of Emmanuel Collard, François Perrodo and Niklas Nielsen. With the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin's victory, it leads the championship with 148 points, eight points ahead of the #83 Ferrari, which led the championship entering Le Mans. The #56 Team Project 1 Porsche of Egidio Perfetti, Matteo Cairoli and Larry Ten Voorde was fourth.

In the middle of the night, it didn't feel like Le Mans. It felt like another endurance race clicking along through the darkness with no end in sight.

But the specialness of Le Mans broke through. Cars flew at a blistering pace down Mulsanne. Cars spun off in the Porsche curves. Safety car periods dragged on. Leaders broke down. Mechanics wrenched in garages through sleep deprivation. It was everything we sell Le Mans as for 51 weeks of the year, and yet it felt underwhelming, though the final hour did its best to save the day. 

That is not to say this year would have been better off without the race taking place at all. We rather have had this Le Mans than no Le Mans at all in 2020. These feelings extend beyond the pandemic, which certainly left its fingerprints on this year's race, more for who was not on track than for who participated, but this Le Mans is a dull end to an otherwise strong chapter in sports car racing. 

This was the last race for the LMP1 class, which has been the premier class since 2004. Audi dominated the LMP1-era, though it last competed four years ago. In the last 16 years, Audi battled Pescarolo, Peugeot, Porsche and Toyota. Nissan and Aston Martin both even made brief attempts to compete in the top class. Peugoet, Porsche and Toyota each had their share of success, but Audi changed the game. 

Audi introduced diesel when everyone was sipping petrol. Though Pescarolo brought hybrid to the table, Audi elevated it to a higher level. Sixteen years ago, hybrid automobiles earned eye rolls from plenty of everyday drivers, casting it as a weak technology for the tree-huggers worried about the environment. Now, it is a reasonable option many motorists take into consideration when purchasing an automobile. 

We may never know how much motorsports contributed to the change in hybrids perception over the last two decades, but for the last eight years a hybrid won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an accomplishment that speaks of everything but weakness in technology. 

Technological capabilities aside, hybrid technology is one of the reasons why LMP1 is ending and Le Mans Hypercar is beginning. While being necessary to succeed, the hybrid technology priced out manufactures. It became an unsustainable arms race. Audi had done it all by the end of 2016. There was no reason left to stay with that level of cost. Porsche won Le Mans three times and three championships, and on the heels of Volkswagen's emissions scandal, that program shuttered, leaving Toyota the last standing hybrid on the grid. 

The FIA and ACO could not afford Toyota to exit. Hypercar is an attempt to make the top class more affordable and make hybrids optional, hoping to attract manufactures that were otherwise dissatisfied with what LMP1 had to offer. 

Toyota will remain. Peugeot will return in 2022. The other Hypercar options lack global recognition. American hypercar manufacture Glickenhaus plans to enter in 2021. Long-time LMP1 privateer ByKolles stated its intent to build a hypercar. Alpine will run grandfathered and re-badged Rebellion R13s. Aston Martin was set to enter but has since postponed its Valkyrie program. 

Along with Hypercar, the trans-Atlantic Le Mans Daytona h class will allow the top cars from IMSA to compete in the top class in WEC and 24 Hours of Le Mans while using a spec hybrid system. LMDh is scheduled to debut in 2023 and it could allow manufactures to compete for Le Mans glory at a more affordable cost than Hypercar.  

I feel like we have been talking about uncertainty around Le Mans' future for the last five years. For two or three of those years it was general consternation, fear of losing what existed, knowing change would come but that change was not imminent. Now, change is here. Now, we don't know what is next. The cars will be new next year, but we are not certain if the competition will increase to a higher level.

There is a big difference between a Le Mans with Audi vs. Peugeot or Audi vs. Porsche vs. Toyota and the last few years at Le Mans when it was Toyota vs. reliability. It is still Le Mans, there is inherited excitement that comes with the event, but intensity lacks over the entire 24 hours. There are a few nervy moments when a turbo fails or a tire is punctured, but once those are rectified, the air is let out of the balloon. 

This was the 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans and there have not been 87 years of multiple-manufacture battles coming down to the final minutes to decide the winner like we saw with Audi vs. Porsche vs. Toyota. There were plenty of years when Porsche was the only contender. It was Audi vs. reliability for most of the German manufacture's time at Le Mans. Le Mans has survived worse than what the 2020 race had to offer, but the taste of something more delectable remains on our lips, while a less savory option is on our plates.

Our wait for what is next will be short. It is September. Our first glimpse at the future is only nine months away.