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.
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.
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.
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.
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.