Friday, February 26, 2021

Best of the Month: February 2021

We are at the end of February, the shortest month of the year, and now that we are approaching March's doorstep it feels like we have cleared the worst of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. We have made it. Whatever sloppy weather comes is surmountable. We have come this far and brighter days are upon us. We can already tell we are gaining daylight. 

In the motorsports world, there have been a handful of events and a handful of announcements. We continue to make it through these pandemic conditions and hope there are no further delays. Let's take into account what has happened over this month. 

Fixing the Qualifying Races: Ideas #1,092-#1,094
Let me start by saying I enjoyed the condensed festivities ahead of the Daytona 500. There was something each night leading up to the main event. It was a constant buildup. I hope it is here to stay. 

However, Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying races could use some work. 

With the charter system and 36 cars locked into the 40-car field, there is little excitement over four spots, especially when two of those spots are tied to the best remaining qualifying times from the open team. One spot is up for grabs in each race. This year we were lucky to have four drivers going for each spot, but there have been years when it has been three cars and one of them has not be overly competitive. 

I got three more ideas to add to the nearly countless ways to reinvent the qualifying races.

Idea #1,092: Split the field in half, top 20 qualifiers compete in race one to set the first ten rows; the remaining drivers compete in race two to set the final ten rows and who will be in the race

Advantages: Qualifying would matter. Drivers would have something to compete for in qualifying. An open team can still qualify into the race via qualifying times. 

Qualms: What happens if all the open teams qualify in the top 20? 

I would love NASCAR to make the Daytona 500 be the only race where anyone can fail to qualify, but that's not going to happen. 

For this format, my suggestion would be only the fastest two open teams in the top 20 would make it. In theory, if open teams qualified first, second and third, the third fastest car would have to start in the second race. I hate it too, but it is the stipulation NASCAR would put in. The first race would actually be at least the fastest 18 chartered teams with possibly two open cars, but no more than two. 

It would make the second race interesting. Let's say none of the open team make the first race. You would then have possibly eight cars going for four spots. There is wiggle room for some of these teams. It doesn't come down to one spot. But open teams could handle their business in qualifying and not have to worry about the qualifying race and could even be guaranteed a top 20 start. 

Idea #1,093: Race first and then qualify

Advantages: People are getting dumber. That was my takeaway after this year's Daytona 500 qualifying races. The viewers had no clue that the open car that made the race on time could race its way in, even though that has been the custom since NASCAR starting tooling around with the Daytona 500 format and locking teams in over the last 15 years. 

When Ryan Preece crossed the line the best open car in the first qualifying race, he raced in and kept his starting position as corresponded to his race finish, which meant the third-fastest open car from qualifying made the race. Austin Cindric was the lucky driver, but again, people are getting dumber, and did not know that despite it being that way for years, so many thought Tyler Dillon got the spot because Dillon was next-best open finisher behind Preece. 

To cater to the dumber people, let's just flip proceedings. We are already racing without qualifying or practicing, let's do the same thing with the Daytona 500 qualifying races. Race on Wednesday and qualify on Thursday. 

The race winners are guaranteed second row positions. The best open cars are guaranteed spots in the field. Then we have qualifying and qualifying sets the rest of the field and what other two open entries make the race.

Qualms: How do you set the grid for the qualifying races if qualifying hasn't happened?

I would just split the field in half via owner points. Odd-positioned finishing chartered teams in race one, even-positioned chartered team in race two and then you can split the open teams with the odd-positioned of the open teams in the first race and even-positioned open teams in the second race.

What happens when a handful of cars get into an accident?

This is a problem I am not sure I can adequately solve. 

How do you prevent the teams from having two cars, one for the qualifying race and one for qualifying? You could have a bunch of teams not mind it being a free-for-all because the backup car is better for qualifying. 

You cannot institute a rule barring teams from qualifying if they have an accident in the first race. You could, but then you take all the air out of qualifying. For the chartered teams it is fine, they would just start at the rear of the field, but for the open teams that is likely an automatic qualifying failure. You could have two open teams left standing who just have to complete a qualifying run and they would be in because everyone else is out, but what happens if no open teams can qualify? What do you do then? 

This idea has its flaws. But it is aimed for the dumb people. 

Idea #1,094: Shorten the races to 50 laps, fill the cars with fuel, no pit stops allowed, no new tires, no re-fueling. Go. 

Advantage: This is nothing procedural, but it is another way to spice up the races. The cars can't quite get 125 miles on a tank of fuel now, but what kind of race would we see if we made the teams stretch it? Would all the teams agree to run the first five or ten laps at slower speeds? Would some teams start slow to save early and go hard at the end? Would some teams speed away and hope to be able to coast to the finish? 

One caution and all of a sudden the teams can make it, but nobody can take tires and there is always a chance of a green-white-checkered finish, with means there is a chance teams could find themselves in trouble even if conserving.

Qualms: You know someone is going to bring up safety and say you can't have cars running out of fuel at Daytona. We had cars running out of fuel at the finish of the 2017 Daytona 500 and we all survived. 

Hildebrand Heads to the Mountain?
There is not a lot out about this story, but the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb entry list was released and one of the entrants was J.R. Hildebrand with a Dallara DW12 chassis.

Is an IndyCar returning to Pikes Peak?

I hope so.

I have been a proponent of IndyCar returning to Pikes Peak. When Michael Shank Racing was toying with bringing an LMP2 car to Pikes Peak, I thought it was a great opportunity to stand out and I wished an IndyCar team would do it. I actually think Pikes Peak should return to the IndyCar calendar. 

1. It would be an event unlike any other and it would force people to watch. An IndyCar climbing up over 4,700 feet on a 12-mile road? That will catch the attention of many. Let's face it, IndyCar racing at Mid-Ohio or Pocono or Gateway or on the street of Nashville isn't turning many heads. IndyCar racing at Pikes Peak with no guardrails and risking life and limb? That will get some eyeballs. 

2. Nobody knows what the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is. Pretty much every racetrack looks alike to the commoner. It is a paved road and some barriers. Unless it is Monaco with yacht and bikini-clad women lining the track, no one can tell the difference between Road America and Road Atlanta, Sonoma and Laguna Seca or Texas and Chicagoland. 

Pikes Peak is a mountain, absent of the sterilizing safety amenities, and an actual beast. None of the racetracks scare anybody, not even Indianapolis. They got SAFER Barriers and catchfences and the drivers walkaway. Like it or not, motorsports is a thrill sport and a staring contest with death is the greatest thrill of all, especially when it is setup to be a spectacular death. 

3. For part-time IndyCar teams or Indianapolis-only teams, I have always wondered why one wouldn't do an event like this for the exposure. A full-time season is expensive, but for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Juncos Racing, the now-defunct Lazier Racing Partners, why not go to Pikes Peak and draw out sponsors? Why not use that car for more than Indianapolis?

I know there are limits and those Honda and Chevrolet engines are not readily available for an effort like this, but you could put something else inside the DW12 chassis to get it up the mountain. 

We need more adventurous teams, teams that will take a chance doing something no one else is considering. Hopefully, Hildebrand does take an IndyCar to Pikes Peak and guns to shatter the record. It will be the event of year if it happens.

March Preview
Speaking of taking chances, NASCAR's dirt race at Bristol is the event of the month in March 2021.

We are still learning about the race, but here is what we know. On Saturday night before the race, there will be four 15-lap qualifying races. I am not sure how those are setting the field or how the field will be split for those races, but it is happening. The main event on Sunday will be 250-laps. There is still no word on if there will be live pit stops or how the race will be broken up. 

I am skeptical this will be a good race. Good is subjective, but we have to look at what this race is replacing, a regular Bristol race, which didn't need any improvement. 

I have already set a tier-one of possible winners: Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 

This could be Stenhouse, Jr.'s greatest day in NASCAR, which means he is going to blow it. 

Is it crazy to put a Rick Ware Racing car in tier two? Because I think Chris Windom could have a shot. Windom has been one of the best dirt racers over the last decade, but unlike contemporaries Larson and Bell, Windom has not been able to turn it into pavement opportunities, and he has not made the most of the pavement opportunities given to him. 

Windom kept tearing up Indy Lights cars with it ending in a heavy accident in the Freedom 100. He has made a handful fo Truck starts, including two Eldora races, but even at Eldora he was mediocre. He has done well in the ARCA dirt races at DuQuoin and Springfield. Most Cup drivers are nowhere near as close to the level of comfort Windom has on dirt. I am not going to pick Windom to win it, but no one should be surprised if he is in the top 15 on speed and possibly pushing the top ten. 

Other tier two drivers? Kyle Busch just because of talent, Alex Bowman because everyone has forgotten his dirt background, Ryan Newman because of his dirt background, but we have to acknowledge Newman has not been the same over the last year. 

Many drivers ran the Eldora Truck race. Bubba Wallace won it and was seventh in his other star. Austin Dillon won the inaugural race and was in the top ten of all three of his starts. There is a rumbling Stewart Friesen could be making his Cup debut at Bristol and Friesen won the last Eldora dirt race with three consecutive top five finishes in the race. Friesen is one of two drivers with at least three top five finishes at Eldora. The other driver is Grant Enfinger. 

And then there is a group of drivers who will be completely lost on the dirt: Michael McDowell, William Byron, Daniel Suárez, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, Quin Houff (but he is lost every week in the Cup Series, so Bristol is not going to be that different). Joey Logano will kind of be a fish out of water. Martin Truex, Jr. does not have a lot of dirt experience. 

This might not be the greatest NASCAR race ever, but it will be fascinating to say the least.

Other events of note in March:
Formula One season might start in Bahrain. 
MotoGP season might start in Qatar. 
There should be a 12 Hours of Sebring
Supercross returns with races in Daytona and Arlington, Texas. 
NASCAR will have three other races on paved racetracks.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

2021 Formula E Season Preview

Typically, in February we are reaching the quarter post of the Formula E season with a season that began before Christmas and spent the better part of winter traveling the Southern Hemisphere. After the events of the last 12 months, February is when this new Formula E season will begin. 

Twelve teams and 24 drivers are set for the 2021 championship in a year that will be turning point for the championship. 

The pandemic continues to play havoc on international series and Formula E is not immune. The original calendar has been tossed and we are living with a provisional schedule. We have part of it, but even that is subject to change. 

As of now, we know the season will start with a doubleheader in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia on February 26 and February 27 with both races taking place at night. The next round will not be until April 10, the day before Easter, in Rome. Two weeks later, Formula E will make its debut at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia. The permanent track has played host to Formula E testing with the series using the perimeter configuration. 

Monaco is scheduled for a return on May 8 before heading to Marrakesh on May 22. Santiago is the final scheduled round for now with the Chilean capital set to host a doubleheader on June 5-6. 

Formula E hopes to have 15 races this season and there are six locations that were on the original schedule that could still host a race in 2021. Berlin's Tempelhof Airport will likely host a round. Last year, London was supposed to return to the calendar with a race at the ExCeL London convention center and fingers are crossed 2021 see that race take place. Regular North American stops Mexico City and Brooklyn are tentative hosts and Sanya and Seoul could each be Asian rounds of the 2021 championship. 

Paris is the only scheduled 2021 race that has been cancelled. 

DS Techeetah
António Félix da Costa: #13 DS E-TENSE FE20
What did he do last season: Da Costa won the championship with 158 points, clinching the championship with two races remaining. He had three victories, one at Marrakesh and a sweep of the first Berlin doubleheader, and three runner-up finishes with points scored in nine of 11 races. Outside of Formula E, he was third in the FIA World Endurance Championship's Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers with a runner-up finish in LMP2 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

What to expect this season: More of the same. Techeetah will be at the front and da Costa will put up an honorable title defense. He was fourth in testing. He should win two or three races. Though the six Berlin races were held on three different configurations, I am curious about how Techeetah will run in different environments. Da Costa was in good form before Germany and this was after the team had a slow start. I don't think he will have a slow start again. If he doesn't win the championship, he will be in the top five. 

Jean-Éric Vergne: #25 DS E-TENSE FE20
What did he do last season: Vergne was third in the championship, 72 points off his teammate. Vergne won the fourth Berlin race, his only victory of the season. He had two other podium finishes, a third in the third Berlin race and a third in Marrakesh. His only other top five finish was a fourth in Mexico City. 

What to expect in this season: Vergne will be there, as he has been in his four previous seasons with Techeetah. He will win a few races and pole positions. The two Techeetah drivers complement each other but are each other's biggest rivals. They will take points off of each other. They both should be in the top five of the championship, but they both could fall short of the championship because one doesn't have a clear upper hand. 

Team Notes:

Teechetah has won a race in each of the last four seasons. Last season was the first time both Techeetah drivers won a race in a season. 

Teechetah aims to joins Renault e.dams as the only teams to win three consecutive teams' championships. 

The team has never won one of the first three races in a season.

Nissan e.dams
Oliver Rowland: #22 Nissan IM02
What did he do last season: Rowland was fifth in the championship on 83 points, 75 points behind the champion da Costa. Rowland scored his first Formula E victory in the penultimate race of the 2019-20 season from pole position in Berlin. He scored points in eight of 11 races, but his victory was his only podium finish of the season. 

What to expect in this season: The biggest problem for Rowland is his teammate because when you are paired with one of the best drivers in Formula E history it is going to be tough to stand out. Rowland started on the right foot in testing, ending up seventh while Sébastien Buemi was 14th. Buemi has had a teammate beat him in the championship. I don't expect that to change, but I think 2021 will be a lot like last season and Rowland will not be far off Buemi. 

Sébastien Buemi: #23 Nissan IM02
What did he do last season:  Buemi was fourth in the championship on 84 points, but for the second time in three seasons he did not win a race. He did have four podium finishes, three of which came in the six Berlin races. After opening the season with no points from the first three events, he finished in the points in seven of the final eight races. In the World Endurance Championship, he was runner-up in the World Endurance Drivers' Championship with two victories and six runner-up finishes. 

What to expect in this season: Buemi is there every season. He will be there again in 2021. I think he will get off the snide and win two or three races. I think he will be a championship threat and push the Techeetah drivers. 

Teams Notes:

After winning 15 of the first 32 races, the Renault/Nissan e.dams team has won just two of the last 36 races. In the last two seasons, it has not won until the final race weekend of the season. 

Buemi has had at least four podium finishes in every Formula e season. 

The team has not put both cars on the podium since Mexico City 2016 when Buemi was second and Nicolas Prost was third. In fact, that is the only race e.dams has had both cars on the podium. 

Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team
Stoffel Vandoorne: #5 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: Vandoorne was vice-champion on 87 points and he ended his sophomore season with a victory in the Berlin finale from pole position. He opened the season with a pair of third-place finishes, and he scored points from seven of 11 races. 

What to expect in this season: Vandoorne was one of the most improved drivers of the 2019-20 season. Testing was a little underwhelming considering 2019-20 went. Vandoorne was 18th and the top Mercedes. I expect him to be in the top ten again and fighting for the top five. He should probably win another race or two. 

Nyck de Vries: #17 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: De Vries was 11th in the championship on 60 points. His best finish was second in the Berlin finale, giving Mercedes-Benz its first 1-2 finish. He scored points in five races, but never finished in the points in consecutive races. 

What to expect in this season: While Vandoorne was 18th, de Vries was 21st in testing. De Vries was streaky in 2019-20. It was top five or bust for him. He has to improve on that consistency. If he does, he will be up there with his teammate and perhaps Mercedes could make a push for a teams' championship. I am weary of that though, especially if Mercedes does not improve from its testing form. 

Team Notes:

Vandoorne's victory in the Berlin season finale was his first victory since October 30, 2016 when he won the Super Formula season finale at Suzuka with fellow Formula E driver André Lotterer finishing second that day. 

The season opener will be de Vries' 12th start. Only nine drivers in Formula E history have taken more than 12 starts to get a first victory, including Vandoorne, who took 24 races, tied for the fifth most. 

Mercedes-Benz's 1-2 finish in last season's Berlin finale was the fifth 1-2 finish in Formula E history. Techeetah and Audi each have done it twice. Techeetah did it at Santiago in 2018 and in the fourth Berlin race in 2020. Jean-Éric Vergne won each with André Lotterer second in Chile and António Félix da Costa second in Germany. Audi's first 1-2 was in Berlin in 2018 with Daniel Abt ahead of Lucas di Grassi. Later that season, di Grassi won the first Brooklyn race with Abt in second. 

Envision Virgin Racing
Robin Frijns: #4 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Frijns was 12th in the championship with 58 points and he had a pair of runner-up finishes. However, he only scored points in four races all season and missed the antepenultimate race of the season in Berlin. In the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, he was third in the championship with three victories, 11 podium finishes and 16 points finishes from 18 starts. He also won five pole positions in the DTM.

What to expect in this season: For all the promise Frijns has shown, his championship finishes in four seasons are 12th, 13th, fourth and 12th. He has won only two races and four of his seven podium finishes came in 2018-19 season. With Sam Bird gone, Frijns has to lead Virgin, but his streakiness will cost him. He can sneak into the top ten of the championship, but I don't see getting any higher than eighth. 

Nick Cassidy: #37 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Cassidy competed in Japan and he was eighth in the Super GT championship with a victory in the season opener from Fuji. He missed the final two Super GT races to focus on his Formula E commitments. In Super Formula, he was fourth in the championship with a victory at Sportsland SUGO and a third at Okayama. 

What to expect in this season: Cassidy has already admitted Formula E will force him to drive differently with more energy management and he isn't focused on results too much. It sounds like he is using this year to learn before attempting a better challenge in year two. He was 13th at the Valencia pre-season test. Virgin is a consistent team. I think he will score points and challenge for a podium finish in at least one race, but I think he will be second in this team and Virgin could be set for its worst finish in the teams' championship.

Team Notes:

Virgin Racing has finished in the top five of the teams' championship in every Formula E season.

Only two of the team's 11 victories have not come from Sam Bird. Both those came from Frijns at Paris and the second Brooklyn race in 2019. 

Bird had started all 69 races with Virgin Racing. 

Cassidy becomes the eighth driver in team history and only the second non-European driver joining José María López.

BMW i Andretti Autosport
Jake Dennis: #27 BMW IFE.21
What did he do last season: Dennis ran two races all of 2020. His first start was the Bathurst 12 Hour sharing an Aston Martin with Rick Kelly and Scott Dixon to a 16th-place finish. He ran in the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in the European Le Mans Series with Jota Sport and finished eighth. 

What to expect in this season: Dennis was 11th in testing and I am going to set the bar low because BMW's results have been scattered. The team wins one week and then doesn't score points in the next three or four races. The final championship finishes end up being average for BMW and that is where I expect Dennis to be. I think he will be outside the top ten in the championship. 

Maximilian Günther: #28 BMW IFE.21
What did he do last season: Günther scored two victories in his first year with the BWM i Andretti program at Santiago and the third Berlin race. However, his only other finish in the points was second at Marrakesh and he ended up ninth in the championship on 69 points. 

What to expect in this season: As has become accustom for Formula E testing, BMW led the way back in December in Valencia, however, despite all of BMW's preseason success, the results have fallen relatively flat once the season starts. The team won three races last year, two at the hands of Günther, but the team failed to score points on 14 of 22 occasions, including going scoreless in the final three races. I don't rate Günther highly and though he could win another race in 2021, I don't think he can string together the results to be a serious title contender. 

Team Notes:

BMW has announced this will be the manufacture's last season in Formula E. Andretti Autosport could continue but would need another partnership and likely another powertrain. 

Dennis is the team's 16th different driver. 

Only twice has the team had both cars finish in the top five: The inaugural Formula E race at Beijing in 2014 with Franck Montagny in second and Charles Pic in fourth, and the first Brooklyn race in 2019 when António Félix da Costa was third and Alexander Sims was fourth.

Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler
Lucas di Grassi: #11 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Di Grassi had his worst season of his Formula E career. He was sixth in the championship on 77 points, but he did not win a race for the first time in his career. He had two runner-up finishes and scored points from nine of 11 races. 

What to expect in this season: Last year was a down year and testing results were dismal. Di Grassi was the slowest in Valencia, albeit 0.761 seconds off the top time. The Audis were 20th and 24th though. Di Grassi will figure it out, but I am not sure he can make another championship push. He scored a lot of points last year, but rarely was one of the top drivers on track. It would not be a surprise if he won a race and had a few podium finishes, but for the first time in Formula E history I don't think he is a championship favorite at the start of a season. 

René Rast: #33 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Rast ran the final six races of the Formula E season in Berlin after Daniel Abt's unceremonious exit from the team. Rast scored 29 points from nine races and was third in the penultimate race of the season. In DTM, Rast won his third championship in four seasons with seven victories and 13 podium finishes from 18 races and his worst finish of the season was seventh. 

What to expect in this season: Rast showed promise in his Berlin stint last season and I think he is the teammate di Grassi lacked his entire Formula E career. I think both Audi drivers should be in the top ten of the championship. I don't think Audi is as slow as testing suggested. It might not be the best team, but it will produce. Rast is still re-adjusting to single-seater racing. He has not competed regularly in a single-seater since 2004 in Formula BMW ADAC. I think he will overcome that and be competitive, but I don't expect him to be a regular race winner. 

Team Notes:

This will be Audi's final season in Formula E.

After ending the 2017-18 season with seven consecutive podium finishes on the way to Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler making the teams' championship, di Grassi has only five podium finishes over the last 24 races.

di Grassi has started all 69 races with Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler. His teammate has always been a German driver, with Daniel Abt running 63 races and Rast taking the last six races.

Jaguar Racing
Sam Bird: #10 Jaguar I-Type 5
What did he do last season: Driving for Virgin Racing, Bird won the season opener, but he had only one other podium finish all season and he was tenth in the championship on 63 points, his worst Formula E championship finish. He scored points in six of 11 races. 

What to expect in this season: Bird might be the best Formula E driver not to win a championship, but too often does he start strong and then fade. He has won one of the first four races of a season in five of six seasons. However, in 2014-15, he won the second race and his only other podium finish was his victory in the season finale. He won the fourth race the year after that and didn't finish in the top five again. He won the third race in 2018-19 and didn't get on the podium again. He won the season opener last year and had one other podium finish. Jaguar produces respectable cars but has yet to have that breakthrough. I don't think it will happen this year.

Mitch Evans: #20 Jaguar I-Type 5
What did he do last season: Evans won at Mexico City, was third in Santiago and scored points from seven of 11 races on his way to seventh in the championship with 71 points. 

What to expect in this season: Evans was fifth in testing while Bird was 23rd. Evans has won a race each of the last two seasons and he has been in the top ten of the championship in the last three seasons. I expect more of the same. He will win a race, perhaps two and get on the podium three or four times, but he will be just off that championship level. 

Team Notes:

Bird becomes the sixth different teammate for Evans in five seasons. 

Evans has been the top Jaguar finisher in 35 of 48 Formula E races for the team. 

Jaguar has had both cars finish in the points in only eight of 48 races, including only once last season.

Tag Heuer Porsche Formula E Team
André Lotterer: #36 Porsche 99X Electric
What did he do last season: Lotterer picked up two runner-up finishes and a pole position. He scored points in seven of 11 races on his way to eighth in the championship on 71 points. 

What to expect in this season: Lotterer is uncertain about Porsche's second season seeing improvements because of how tight the Formula E is, but he should see an uptick in results. I think Porsche can win a race or two this season and I think Lotterer could get one. I am not sure the consistency can be there for a championship, but he should be at least eighth in the championship again. 

Pascal Wehrlein: #99 Porsche 99X Electric
What did he do last season: Wehrlein ran the first five races of the 2019-20 Formula E season with Mahindra Racing and his best finishes were fourth at Santiago and ninth at Mexico City. He stepped out of the car prior to the season resuming in Berlin. 

What to expect in this season: Last year, Lotterer scored 71 of Porsche's 78 points. Wehrlein was sixth in testing and I think we will see a greater balance between the two Porsche drivers. Each driver could win a race, but I am more concerned about Wehrlein than Lotterer. Wehrlein walked away from Mahindra in the middle of last year after decent results and a solid first season. He should be close to equal to his teammate, but I will give the slight edge to Lotterer. 

Team Notes:

Lotterer has the most points in Formula E history without a victory. Lotterer has scored 221 points. He is only one of four drivers with over 100 points in a career and no victories. The other are Nick Heidfeld with 214 points, Stéphane Sarrazin with 128 points and Loïc Duval with 112 points.

Lotterer has not won a race since May 27, 2017 when he won the first race of a Super Formula doubleheader at Okayama. 

Wehrlein has not won a race since August 29, 2015 when he won the first race of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters weekend at Moscow Raceway. He has not won a race in a single-seater since March 24, 2013 when he won the second race of the FIA Formula Three European championship season at Monza.

Mahindra Racing
Alexander Sims: #29 Mahindra M7Electro
What did he do last season: Sims started on pole position for the first two races of the season and won the second race in Saudi Arabia. That was his only podium finish of the season. He scored 49 points and ended up 13th in the championship with BMW i Andretti.
What to expect in this season: For all the pace Sims showed at BMW, the results are rather lackluster. He moves to Mahindra, a team coming off its worst championship finish and the two cars were 15th and 16th in testing with Sims leading. I don't see a big turnaround coming. Sims should score some points and he might have a top five finish. Sims scored the same number of points on his own as Mahindra did as a team last year. The team could see an uptick in points and gain a spot in the teams' championship, but I expect Sims to be between 13th and 18th in the championship. 

Alex Lynn: #94 Mahindra M7Electro
What did he do last season: Lynn ran the final six races in Berlin in place of Wehrlein. He ended the season with three consecutive points finishes with his best result being fifth. He ended up 17th on 16 points. 

What to expect in this season: I can't figure out Lynn. Once, he was a strong Formula One hopeful, then he was a sports car stud. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring with Wayne Taylor Racing and was in the Aston Martin factory program, but he is not as desired as I thought he would be. His Formula E results have never been great and he has driven for some good teams in Virgin and Jaguar. However, he ended 2020 on the right path. He scored points in three consecutive races. I think he could top Sims in the Mahindra battle, but he will likely finish in the same range as Sims, somewhere between 13th and 18th. 

Team Notes:

Last season was the first time since the inaugural Formula E season in 2014-15 that Mahindra did not pick up a podium finish. 

Mahindra's 49 points and ninth in the teams' championship in 2019-20 were both the team's worst results in each category. Mahindra had scored over 100 points in the previous four seasons. 

The team has not had a podium finish in its last 21 races, the longest drought in team history.

ROKiT Venturi Racing
Edoardo Mortara: #48 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: Mortara was in the points for seven of 11 races but he had only two top five finishes. He scored 41 points and ended up 14th in the championship for the second consecutive season. 

What to expect in this season: In three Formula E seasons, Mortara has finished 13th, 14th and 14th in the championship. I expect him to be 13th or 14th in the championship. He could see a slight improvement and get to tenth or 11th, but Venturi has never been a regular fighter at the front of the field. He could score points in half the races. 

Norman Nato: #71 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: Nato competed with Rebellion Racing in the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship. He won two races and had six consecutive podium finishes, including a runner-up result in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on his way to finishing third in the World Endurance Drivers' Championship. 

What to expect in this season: Nato was tenth in testing, two spots ahead of his teammate, but Venturi's inconsistency worries me. It will have the Mercedes-Benz powertrain for the second consecutive season, but that doesn't mean the team will be fighting for victories. I think Nato is in the same boat Mortara, trying to get tenth in the championship. 

Team Notes:

Venturi has never finished in the top five of the teams' championship. 

Venturi has only six podium finishes and 17 top five finishes in 69 races.

Nato has not run a single-seater since the 2017 Formula Two season. 

Dragon/Penske Autosport
Nico Müller: #6 Penske EV-5
What did he do last season: Müller scored no points in his rookie season in Formula E. His best finish was 12th in two races. He did pick up fastest lap in the final race of the season in Berlin. In DTM, Müller was second in the championship with six victories, 13 podium finishes and he finished in the points of all 18 races.

What to expect in this season: Dragon/Penske Autosport was the surprise of testing with its two cars ending up second and third, with Müller taking third. It is only testing and like any series we have seen fast cars disappear when the season begins and concerns about a driver's pace disappear once that driver starts succeeding in season. I am skeptical, mostly because Dragon/Penske's championship results have gotten worse in each Formula E and it still hasn't hit rock-bottom. It does have more room above it than below. Müller has a season under his belt and I think he will score points, but not be a serious contender for a top ten championship position.

Sérgio Sette Câmara: #7 Penske EV-5
What did he do last season: Câmara started the final six races in Berlin with his best finish being 15th in the penultimate round of the season. He also ran one Super Formula race at Sportsland SUGO and won pole position, but he retired from that lone start. 

What to expect in this season: Câmara could be the surprise of the season. Based on his Formula Two results and him winning pole position on his Super Formula debut after spending the first half of the year away from the team shows something is there. We have seen one-off winners in Formula E early in a season and then that team kind of craters. Câmara could see early glory and then struggle for results elsewhere but steal a spot eighth to tenth in the championship. I think he will lead this team in points scored.

Team Notes:

Dragon racing was second in the inaugural teams' championship with 171 points and fourth in the second season with 143 points. In the last four seasons, the team has scored 62 points combined. 

Only once has the team not made a driver change during the season and that was in 2015-16. The driver change has always occurred in the #6 Dragon Racing entry. 

The team's most recent victory was Mexico City 2016 and its most recent podium finish was Zürich 2018.

NIO 333 FE Team
Oliver Turvey: #8 NIO 333 001
What did he do last season: Turvey did not score a point in 2019-20 with an 11th in Santiago being his best showing. He finished outside the top 15 in the final seven races of the season. 

What to expect in this season: It has to get better for Turvey and NIO. The good news is he was ninth in testing. However, there was a big gap between him and his teammate. Turvey and NIO should get a few points, but I am talking five or six points. NIO can only go up but a marginal improvement still will not be earth-shattering in the Formula E world.

Tom Blomqvist: #88 NIO 333 001
What did he do last season: Blomqvist started the final Berlin doubleheader in place of James Calado at Jaguar and finished 12th and 17th in those races. He made his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the GTE-Am class with HubAuto Corsa and he won the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000km with Alessandro Pier Guidi and Côme Ledogar to close out the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup season. 
What to expect in this season: Blomqvist was 20th in testing, 11 spots off his teammate. Blomqvist has had a disjointed Formula E career. He got a crack with Andretti in 2017-18 before BMW's full commitment to the series and then he didn't race in the series for two years. It has been seven years since he regularly competed in a single-seater. Turvey is more likely to score points than Blomqvist and I would be surprised if Blomqvist finished in the points once or twice this season. 

Team Notes:

Since having Nelson Piquet, Jr. win the inaugural drivers' championship with two victories and four podium finishes, this team has one podium finish in the last 58 races. 

The team has not had double points scorers since Buenos Aires 2016 when Piquet, Jr. was fifth and Turvey was ninth. NIO has put both cars in the points five times but has never had both cars finish in the top five.

Turvey holds the Formula E record with 59 entries and 58 starts without a victory. 

Blomqvist will become NIO's tenth driver. Only four drivers have scored points for the team (Piquet, Jr., Turvey, Charles Pic, Luca Filippi). 

First practice of the Formula E season will take place at 10:15 a.m. ET on Thursday February 25. Friday practice is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. ET before qualifying at 8:00 a.m. ET. The first race of the Formula E season will be at noon ET on Friday February 26.

There will be a practice session at 5:45 a.m. ET on Saturday February 27 with qualifying at 8:00 a.m. ET and the second race scheduled for noon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

2021 IndyCar Team Preview: Team Penske

Our final IndyCar Team Preview will be Team Penske, which could not successfully defend its championship in 2020, but the team still won seven of 14 races, including the final three races and five of the final six. 

Josef Newgarden led the way again and he took Scott Dixon to the wire in the battle for the Astor Cup. Will Power was hit or miss. His best days were incredible, but his worst days were unbearable. Simon Pagenaud wasn't quite the Simon Pagenaud we are used to seeing. All three drivers will return for 2021, but they will have a new teammate. Penske will expand back to four cars and Scott McLaughlin could become the first rookie to contest a complete IndyCar season for Team Penske. 

2020 Team Penske Review
Wins: 7 (Iowa I & II, Gateway II, Mid-Ohio I, Harvest Grand Prix I & II, St. Petersburg)
Poles: 8 (Texas, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Road America I, Iowa II, Gateway I, Mid-Ohio I, Harvest Grand Prix II, St. Petersburg)
Championship Finishes: 2nd (Josef Newgarden), 5th (Will Power), 8th (Simon Pagenaud)

2021 Drivers:

Josef Newgarden - #2 Hitachi Chevrolet
Newgarden started his title defense on pole position at Texas, but Scott Dixon had the upper hand in the race. Newgarden had a quality run finishing third. He picked up a seventh-place finish at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, his best finish on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. 

Things started well at Road America. He picked up another pole position and dominated the first half of the first race. It looked like Newgarden was set for a commanding first victory, but a caution came out and forced the cars to pit lane. He stalled on his pit stop and dropped down the order. He flat spotted his tires on the restart and it forced an extra pit stop. After 14th on day one, he was ninth in the second Road America race. 

Newgarden adopted a severe fuel save strategy in the first Iowa race and pulled out a top five finish. The next night, he was superb, leading 214 of 250 laps on his way to his first victory of the season. He was the best Penske car at Indianapolis, but never quite made it up with the front-runners. He was fifth. He was off in the first Gateway race and he found himself 117 points behind Scott Dixon. However, in the next race, Newgarden's team won him this race on pit lane after putting him ahead of Patricio O'Ward and the comeback began. 

He was second and eighth in Mid-Ohio, ahead of Dixon on both days and the gap was decreased to 72 points. He won the first Harvest Grand Prix race after having a strong second half of the race and he was fourth in race two while Dixon finished ninth and eighth at that doubleheader. Newgarden kept his title hopes alive, 32 points behind Dixon, with one race remaining.

Newgarden needed to win and have Dixon finish tenth or worse. Newgarden won, but Dixon was third and Newgarden fell 16 points shy of a successful title defense.

Numbers to Remember:
6: Consecutive seasons with at least 300 laps led.

2,499: Laps led in Newgarden's IndyCar career.

46.018: Percent of Newgarden's laps led at Iowa (1,150 laps).

0: Races at Iowa in 2021.

1,088: Laps led in his career at the 14 tracks on the 2021 IndyCar schedule.

Newgarden is going to be a top five championship driver. He is likely going to be push for another championship. The guy is coming off completing every lap in a season for crying out loud. No one should be concerned about Newgarden's future and what he will do this season. 

If he wins the championship, great and historic, because he will have tied Rick Mears with three IndyCar titles, the most for a Penske driver. If he doesn't, it will likely because Scott Dixon was slightly better or Newgarden had one poor race more than he should have. 

There are chances for growth this season. Look at the numbers above. He has been Iowa-dependent for the last five years of his IndyCar career. He would still have two championships if Iowa wasn't on the calendar those years, but he will no longer have his midseason, Midwestern pick-me-up race to swing his season. His oval results are satisfactory. He has been in the top five the last two years in the Indianapolis 500 and he has five top ten finishes in his last six Indianapolis starts. He has won at Texas and Gateway. He will be fine, but he could always count on Iowa and I wonder if that could throw off his game if he has a slight slump heading into summer. 

I don't think he will lead fewer than 300 laps for the first time since 2014. Iowa helped in that category. No one has been close to Newgarden in his consistency of laps led. He is going to win fewer races on ovals because there will be fewer oval races. He has won two oval races in each of the last two seasons. It is possible he could go two-for-four, but I doubt it. 

What does Newgarden need to do in 2021?

Lead at least 200 laps with at least 100 of those coming on road/street courses.

Win at a track he hasn't won at before.

Be the top Penske driver.

Scott McLaughlin - #3 PPG Chevrolet
McLaughlin tested at Austin in February ahead of the 2020 season. His debut was scheduled for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May and he was going to make a handful of starts over the year, splitting his time with his Supercars program in Australia.

However, the pandemic scuttled those plans. McLaughlin remained in Australia and he won his third consecutive Supercars championship, winning 13 of 27 races, standing on the podium for 21 races and he finished in the top five 23 times.

With the Supercars season ending at Bathurst in the middle of October, it allowed McLaughlin to come to America for the St. Petersburg finale. Practice was encouraging, but he ended up qualifying 21st and contact with Rinus VeeKay took McLaughlin out of the race. He ended up 22nd, but the deal was set for McLaughlin to become a full-time IndyCar driver in 2021.

Numbers to Remember:
48: Victories with Team Penske, currently ranked third all-time behind Brad Keselowski (66) and Mark Donohue (59).

5: McLaughlin is five starts away from becoming the second-most experienced New Zealander in IndyCar history.

3: Championships with Team Penske, tied with Rick Mears for second-most in the history of the organization.

6: Mark Donohue's record of six championships with Team Penske (Three Trans-Am, two United States Road Racing Championships, one Can-Am).

After seeing McLaughlin contest a race last year at St. Petersburg, I think a lot of people have adjusted their expectations accordingly. There is plenty of reasons for optimism, but to think McLaughlin will come in and immediately fight to be one of the top Penske drivers is crass. 

There are going to be days where he looks fantastic and will steal the show. There will also be days where he will be lost and trying to punch upward. I think there will be more good days than bad, but the entire schedule will be new for him. He will be learning the tire compounds and he will be learning oval racing as a whole. His year will seesaw up and down, and that is how his rookie season should go. Let's not forget, McLaughlin is coming from a low downforce, touring car series and he hasn't run single-seaters in about a decade, which were Formula Fords. He's still yet to run an oval.

He is not coming to IndyCar with catalogs of open-wheel racing experience. The fact he has been as strong as he has been in testing is outstanding. He is only 27 years old. I think he is young enough that some of his driving patterns aren't fully grown in and he can learn an IndyCar, but he will still be learning. He will pick up a lot, but there will be times where he will try and rely on muscle memory from a different discipline and it will not work out. He will be able to learn from those times. 

I think because of how his season will likely yo-yo up and down, he is more likely to end up outside of the championship top ten than inside of it, even with Team Penske, but if he were to have a season that mirrored Jack Harvey's 2020 season, that is worth celebrating. I think he will have one or two races where he is on the podium or fighting hard for the podium, but I also think there will be four or five races that get the better of him. 

What does McLaughlin need to do in 2021?

Complete as many laps as possible. 

Shoot for at least six top ten finishes with at least one of those being on an oval. 

Qualify to the second round at least eight times and make the Fast Six at least twice. 

Be the top finishing Penske driver at least once in a race. 

Will Power - #12 Verizon Chevrolet
It was a rough start to 2020 for Power, as a botched pit stop cost him time at Texas and he would have to settle for 13th, one-lap down. He won pole position for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and started strong, leading 28 of the first 38 laps, but was caught out when Oliver Askew spun off the final corner and had to stop under yellow when many leaders had already made a pit stop. Power fought back but stalled on his final pit stop. He ended up 20th, the final car on the lead lap.

Power was positioned for victory in the first Road America race, but lost out to Scott Dixon and had to take second. Power and Hunter-Reay made contact on the start of race two and then Power made contact with Rahal later on that first lap. He was sent to the back and would finish 11th. Power was third on the grid for the first Iowa race, but a loose front left tire ended his night. He was runner-up in a Penske 1-2 in the second Iowa race and it provided a slight boost of confidence.

Team Penske had an irritating Indianapolis 500 and Power was mediocre, starting 22nd and finishing 14th. Gateway started on the right note with Power on pole position and leading the first 61 laps. He lost two spots on the first round of pit stops and a cut tire late knocked him two laps down and 17th in the final results. He recovered to finish third in race two but expressed anything but satisfaction with that result.

Power finally got his first career victory at Mid-Ohio in a smackdown, leading 66 of 75 laps from pole position. A spin in qualifying knocked him back to 17th on the grid for race two, but he rallied to finish seventh. He was sixth in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and then led every lap from pole position in the second race, holding off an aggressive Colton Herta. Power picked up another pole position for the St. Petersburg finale, but he was quickly off pace when a downshifting issue quickly put him in trouble. Then he hit the barrier exiting turn three after 35 laps, the first driver to begin the 2020-21 offseason. 

Numbers to Remember:
14: Consecutive seasons with a victory, the second-longest streak in IndyCar history.

12: Consecutive seasons with at least 100 laps led.

5: Pole positions away from tying Mario Andretti's all-time record of 67 pole positions.

7: Seasons with at least five pole positions in 15 full seasons. 

9: Of Power's 12 pole positions in the universal aero kit-era have come on road/street courses.

2: Power was the top Penske finisher only twice in 2020, his two victories.

Power has established a pattern ever since he won his only championship in 2014:

Win a few races and have just as many catastrophically crushing retirements, but counter those with a few more podium finishes.

Every year I feel like I am writing that the one thing standing in Power's way of a second championship are mechanical gremlins. In 2014, he finished every race and completed all but one lap with the only blemish being at Houston. Since 2014, he has had at least three retirements in four of the last six seasons. He has finished off the lead lap in at least four races in all of those seasons with Power having five finishes off the lead lap in at least four of those years. 

Most of these failures aren't Power's fault. He has his share of spins, but some of the broken driveshafts and electrical bugs he has no control over. He has led at least 200 laps in five of the last six seasons. His average starting position has never been over six in that time. He is doing everything right for that second championship, but then he is the Penske driver with a clutch burning out or a spark plug burning out. 

One thing Power can control is his temper and last year there were a few races he spoke out and I don't think many other Penske drivers would have gotten away with it. It was frustration that bordered on public criticism of the team. Power is not biting the hand that feeds him, but there was a sense of dissatisfaction that you don't get from drivers who want to stay with a team. 

Power is not going anywhere. I think his record allows him to express that frustration a little more explicitly than others. He is still going to come back and work on a solution, not look to abandon ship. But a slightly more positive attitude could go a long way and could get him over that hump. 

He is going to win a handful of races, stand on the podium a half-dozen times and win four or five pole positions, but he has to limit the number of crappy races. All drivers are going to have one or two bad days, but he cannot afford to have five or six for another season.

What does Power need to do in 2021?

Finish in the top ten in at least 14 races. 

Finish better than his starting position at least five times. That sounds low, but he only finished better than his starting position three times in 2020. He did start on the front row six times, which makes it tough, but he did start five races outside one of the first two rows. 

Finish every race he starts on pole position in the top ten. 

Simon Pagenaud - #22 Menard's/DXC Technology Chevrolet
The year opened with a runner-up finish at Texas for Pagenaud after spending much of the race in the top five, but not really in contention for the victory. He started 20th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but an aggressive three-stop strategy saw Pagenaud take a third-place finish. 

After an anonymous Road America weekend, his Iowa weekend started on the sour note when fuel pressure issues kept him from qualifying and forced him to start last for both races. Pagenaud's team put him on another aggressive strategy. Combined with the caution laps, Pagenaud ended up in control of the race late and he led the final 73 laps to take his first victory of the season. The next night, he went from 23rd to fourth and he was 49 points off Dixon for the championship lead. 

Pagenaud would hit a slump for the rest of summer. He was never a threat at Indianapolis, finishing 22nd, two laps down. He was caught in the accident at the start of Gateway. While he was able to complete 67 laps, the damage was too much and retired in 19th. Like most drivers in that race one accident, Pagenaud did not recover in race two and was 16th. He spun early in the first Mid-Ohio race and could only manage 18th. He stopped the bleeding in race two, finishing sixth, the top Chevrolet finisher. 

Another race at the IMS road course saw him starting at the rear, but he could not work the strategy magic in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and had to settle for 16th. He could only manage tenth in the second Harvest Grand Prix race and he closed out the season with a sixth in St. Petersburg.

Numbers to Remember:
15.928: Average starting position in 2020, his worst average starting position as a full-time driver.

10.571: Average finish position in 2020, his second worst as a full-time drivers ahead of only 10.625 in 2015.

1: Time Pagenaud was the best Penske starter in 2020 (second Mid-Ohio race).

Pagenaud is not in trouble, but 2020 was a different level of disappointment. Ever since he has joined Penske, Pagenaud has an off year on a regular basis. His first year with Penske he was 11th in the championship. The first year with the universal aero kit he did not win a race and only led 31 laps. In the pandemic-affected season, his averaging starting position was 15.9, his worst by far in a full season. 

However, Pagenaud bounces back. He won the championship in his second year with Penske with five victories and over 400 laps led. In year two of the universal aero kit, he won three races, including the Indianapolis 500 and was second in the championship. 

Even his bad years aren't that bad. He didn't win a race in 2018 but he still was sixth in the championship, ended the season with ten consecutive top ten finishes and he had 14 top ten finishes from 17 races. He won a race last year despite his starting average. He was eighth in the championship and never really came close to Newgarden or even Power for that matter and Power had plenty of results dragging down his points total. 

As long as Pagenaud is with Team Penske, he is going to be in the championship top ten and mostly like be closer to the top five of the championship than tenth. He is going to win races. He is going to finish in the top ten and complete a lot of laps. The one concern is you can never tell if Pagenaud is going to be stuck running between fourth and seventh or if he will have the pace to lead the field. 

What does Pagenaud need to do in 2021?

Lower his average starting position below ten. 

Lead a lap in at least eight races with at least five of those being road/street courses. He only led in two races last year and led zero laps on road/street courses.

Avoid a four-race slump without a top ten finish.

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season will begin on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park. NBC will have coverage of the season opener. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

2021 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

Our penultimate IndyCar Team Preview is Andretti Autosport, which will undergo a slight contraction for the 2021 season. Last season, the team expanded to five cars with the Harding Steinbrenner Racing organization officially brought under the Andretti Autosport umbrella with Colton Herta. The team got off to a slow start, one of the few teams caught out due to the season delay. The team found its legs, Herta led the organization, Alexander Rossi fought back from a sluggish opening and Ryan Hunter-Reay held his own, but despite fielding almost a fifth of the grid, the team won only one race.

The team will only run four full-time cars in 2021, with Marco Andretti stepping back to a part-time role. Herta will switch seats within the organization while James Hinchcliffe returns to full-time status. 

2020 Andretti Autosport Review
Wins: 1 (Mid-Ohio II)
Poles: 2 (Indianapolis 500, Mid-Ohio II)
Championship Finishes: 3rd (Colton Herta), 9th (Alexander Rossi), 10th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 20th (Marco Andretti), 21st (Zach Veach), 23rd (James Hinchcliffe)

2021 Drivers:

Colton Herta - #26 Gainbridge Honda
Herta was the only Andretti Autosport driver to start 2020 on a good note. He picked up four consecutive top ten finishes to open the season, including three consecutive top five finishes between Texas and the Road America doubleheader.

Iowa were two difficult nights for him. In the first race, he launched over Rinus VeeKay when a restart was waved off and it ended a possible top five run. He started fifth in the second Iowa race, but never found a good balance in the car and finished 19th, three laps down. 

His second Indianapolis 500 start was much better than his first. He qualified tenth and went the distance, spending much of the race in the top ten, but he didn't get into the lead pack and contend for victory. He ended up finishing eighth. He followed up his Indianapolis success with a pair of strong races at Gateway with finishes of fourth and sixth. 

After a ninth in the first Mid-Ohio race, he won pole position for the second Mid-Ohio race and led 57 of 75 laps on his way to a dominant victory, leading an Andretti Autosport 1-2-3, the team's second podium sweep and first since 2005. At the Harvest Grand Prix, he led 29 laps in the first race, but slid back as his tires faded in the closing stint and finished fourth. In the second race, he spent the entire day in second behind Will Power, pushing the Australian but falling 0.893 seconds short of victory.  

He spent much of the St. Petersburg season finale running second to his teammate Alexander Rossi. When Rossi exited the race due to an accident, Herta inherited the top spot but he experienced a turbo issue. He dropped from the lead and then ended up in the turn four tires, knocking him from a podium position to 11th.

Numbers to Remember:
7.428: Average finish in 2020, third best in IndyCar.

1: Retirement in 2020, down from seven in 2019.

282: If Herta wins the IndyCar championship this season, he would become the youngest champion by 282 days.

After winning two races and finishing seventh in the championship as a rookie and winning one race and finishing third in the championship as a sophomore, little room remains for improvement in Herta's third season. With only first and second remaining, 2021 does have a tinge of championship or bust. That is a very narrow window for success. 

If Herta combines the best parts of his rookie season and sophomore season in year three, he could pull off a championship. It is asking a lot to expect a 21-year-old will win a championship. 

For all of Herta's outstanding accomplishments, he does have areas he has to clean up. Too many times Herta has had the fourth or fifth-best car and only finished fourth or fifth. Champions take a car in that range and win a race or finishes second. Top five finishes are great, but not good enough when Scott Dixon opens a season with three consecutive victories and Josef Newgarden doesn't put a wheel wrong either.

We saw Herta pull the car up a few positions last year, but we also saw days that looked good before sliding back. That's what happened in the first Harvest Grand Prix race, falling off the podium in the closing laps, but the next day he pushed Will Power to the limit after Power had led every lap up to that point. 

If everything goes right, Herta can win a championship. I am not sure that will happen in 2021. I expect him to be between third and seventh, which is still great for a 21-year-old in year three of his career. I expect he will win once or twice, but I am not sure if the killer instinct will be there along with a car that can go from fifth to first. He will also have fierce competition within the Andretti Autosport organization. I cannot say for certain he will be the top Andretti driver; therefore, a championship will be just out of his grasp. 

What does Herta need to do in 2021?

Win at least two races. 

Finish between third and seventh in the championship again. 

Be the top Andretti Autosport driver.

Get at least five podium finishes. 

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda
Electrical gremlins kept Rossi from rolling off from eighth on the grid at the Texas season opener and because he received assistance on the grid, he had to serve a penalty immediately. This knocked him off the lead lap and a penalty for speeding on pit lane while serving his first penalty knocked him two laps down. The race was over before it had begun, and he had to settle for 15th. 

The problems continued. He lost fuel pressure while in the top ten at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he had multiple instances of contact and off-road excursions in the first Road America race. He got off the snide in the second Road America race, driving from tenth to third. The momentum continued at Iowa with finishes of sixth and eighth. The eighth came after starting 21st.

Rossi returned to Indianapolis, a place he has mastered in a way, and again he was one of the best drivers in the Indianapolis 500. He found himself running with Scott Dixon for the lead, but Rossi paced himself. It was all ruined when he made contact with Takuma Sato in the pit lane. While Sato suffered no damage, Rossi was handed a penalty and sent to the back. He could not charge through the field and he ended up in the turn two wall, out of the race after 143 laps. 

It got worse at Gateway, being run over from behind before the start and being handed another last place finish. All he could do in the second race was finish 14th.

With the championship out of reach, Rossi went on a tear with finishes of third, second, second and third between the doubleheaders at Mid-Ohio and the Harvest Grand Prix. He dominated St. Petersburg from second on the grid and he was lining up to end his season with a victory. However, while negotiating lapped traffic, Rossi got into the marbles and hit the barrier exiting turn three, knocking him out of the race after leading 61 of the first 69 laps.

Numbers to Remember:
12.1: Average finish in 2020, the worst of his IndyCar career.

4: Retirements in 2020, the most in a single season of his career.

3: Races led in 2020, tied for the fewest led in a single season of his career.

5: Podium finishes in 2020, tied for third-most in IndyCar behind only Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, and tied with Will Power.

Rossi will see an improvement over his 2020 season. The entire Andretti Autosport organization was slow out of the gates last year. Rossi overcame it and was on fire at the end of the season. Unfortunately, victory was not in the cards and his toughest defeat happened to be the last race of the season, where he dominated before spinning out of the lead. 

Last year, and even the end of 2019, was concerning. He did not lead a lap for 13 consecutive races. He had only three podium finishes and four top five finishes in that span. Four consecutive podium finishes and a victory that slipped away from him has him heading into 2021 in the right direction, but we are going to need him to start on a high note. 

Similar to Herta, Rossi in his best form is a championship contender and because we have twice seen Rossi go to the finale with a chance of leaving with the Astor Cup, none of us would be surprised if he pulled out a championship. He has won on the big ovals of Indianapolis and Pocono. He has won the streets of Long Beach. He has won on America's finest road courses of Road America, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. No place on the 2021 schedule should catch him out, though he struggles at Barber. 

There could be races where it is between him and Herta. Two Andretti drivers could take points off one another and allow a Penske driver or Dixon through. These two should make Andretti a powerhouse. Andretti hasn't had a great one-two combo. Rossi and Hunter-Reay have been suitable, but Rossi might have come just after the highest point of Hunter-Reay's prime. Herta and Rossi both could win three or four races. If they did that, one of them is likely champion and the other is no worse than third.  

I think Rossi will top Herta this year in the championship. This is shaping up to be the bounce back season that could define Rossi's career. Three to five victories, podiums in close to half the races and another shot at a championship, this time at a Long Beach finale.

What does Rossi need to do in 2021?

Be alive for the championship in the finale.

Lower his average finish by at least 4.5 positions from the year before. 

Complete at least 98% of the laps. 

Win a race from a starting position outside the top five.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
Hunter-Reay was one of three Honda drivers kneecapped due to electrical issues on the grid at Texas. He was knocked out of fourth position to a lap down. Fortunately, he cycled back to the lead lap and was able to climb to eighth despite the difficult conditions at Texas for overtaking. 

He had a ho-hum Grand Prix of Indianapolis and spent much of the first Road America race in the top five. He was fighting with Álex Palou for a podium spot but came out in fourth. He started fourth for the second race at Elkhart Lake, but contact with Will Power before reaching turn out took him out. This led a slump and he spun in both Iowa races exiting pit lane. The first time, it only cost him time and he finished three laps down in 16th. The second time, he hit the interior wall and it ended his race. 

He found his legs at Indianapolis, finishing tenth but not being a front-runner in the "500." It was the start of a rebound for him. He finished seventh and 11th at Gateway and was fifth and third in the Mid-Ohio races, rounding out the Andretti podium sweep in the second race. 

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is not Hunter-Reay's cup of tea. Finishes of 19th and 16th in the Harvest Grand Prix supports that prior statement. Qualifying 19th at St. Petersburg suggested Hunter-Reay would end 2020 on a down note, but he went from 19th to fifth, the top Andretti finisher despite the team having occupied the top three spots in most of the race and at no point was Hunter-Reay one of those three drivers.

Numbers to Remember:
4: Laps led in 2020, Hunter-Reay's fewest since zero in 2009.

31: Starts since his last victory.

0: Laps led on road/street courses in the last two seasons.

3: Consecutive seasons averaging a starting position below 10.0. Prior to this three-year stretch, he had only averaged a starting position below 10.0 in three of 14 seasons as a regular IndyCar competitor.

Hunter-Reay is 40 years old and we cannot ignore he has been slipping for the last five years. The 2018 season is looking like an aberration. He has not won a race in four of the last five years. His average championship finish is still 8.6 since 2015. 

There are still good days, but they are not happening at a championship-level. He had one podium finish last year and two the year before that. In four of the last five seasons, his best finish is third. It's good, but it is not good enough. He led only four laps last year. He has led in only two of the last 31 races.

I am not sure he can turn it around, but he's not far off being great. He averaged a starting position of eighth last year. His average finish of 11.5 is respectable. It leaves room for improvement, but it is better than most. The problem is Hunter-Reay is teetering on falling into the back half of the field. 

No career lasts forever. I have hope he will still have those good days, finish on the podium a few times, have a handful of top five finishes and have a race where he is a contender for a victory. I feel like Hunter-Reay has plateaued and the fight is no longer going to be for a championship or a top five championship finish, but rather a scrap for tenth and there are nine guys also thinking they are good enough for tenth. That is a fight you are bound to end up on the wrong side of after a while. 

What does Hunter-Reay need to do in 2021?

Finish in the top ten on all the ovals.

Get a top ten in one of the two IMS road course races.

Lead at least 100 laps spread across at least five races with at least one of those races having him lead at least 45 laps.

Stay in the top ten of the championship. 

James Hinchcliffe - #29 Genesys Honda
After losing his full-time ride at Arrow McLaren SP late in the offseason prior to the 2020 season, Hinchcliffe pieced together a part-time effort with Andretti Autosport, signed on for the first two Indianapolis races and Texas. 

Texas was an uncompetitive night in 18th, but Hinchcliffe picked up the pace at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished 11th. Hinchcliffe had one of his best Indianapolis 500s, qualifying sixth and running much of the race in the top ten. He ended up the best Andretti Autosport finisher in seventh.

When Zach Veach stepped out of the #26 Gainbridge Honda after Mid-Ohio, Hinchcliffe filled in for the final three races. His Harvest Grand Prix was underwhelming, with finishes of 14th and 13th, but he qualified fourth for St. Petersburg and was a part of a three-car Andretti Autosport pack that saw Rossi leading, Herta in second and Hinchcliffe in third. 

However, the St. Petersburg race unraveled in the final quarter. Rossi got into the barrier and under that caution, Hinchcliffe spun on his own in the final corner. Hinchcliffe made contact with Jack Harvey when trying to get his car righted doing more damage than his initial spin had caused. Gone was the podium finish and Hinchcliffe ended the year in 14th.

Numbers to Remember:
10: Consecutive seasons with at least one lap led. Hinchcliffe has led a lap in every season of his IndyCar career.

13.4: Average championship finish.

11: Average championship finish when you remove his two part-time seasons, both of which he finished 23rd in the championship.

I think we are on the verge of accepting Hinchcliffe is just a good driver. There is nothing wrong with being a good driver. He is 34 years old. His best championship finish is eighth. That came in 2012 and 2013. He has had more than three podium finishes in a season only once. He has one pole position, his 2016 Indianapolis 500 pole position. He has one season where he won multiple races. That was 2013. 

He is kind of this generation's Christian Fittipaldi, capable a of solid days, capable of a victory now and then, but it never meshes together in a full season. 

Hinchcliffe ran six races last year, his best was the Indianapolis 500, he coughed up a podium finish in St. Petersburg and he looked pedestrian in his other starts. Pedestrian isn't a bad thing when part-time. 

But he isn't better than Alexander Rossi, he isn't better than Colton Herta and he might not be better than Ryan Hunter-Reay. If I think Hunter-Reay is going to be clawing just to finish in the top ten of the championship, how can I think Hinchcliffe will do any better? I expect him to be in the same fight. A few races might go his way. He could win one, but I don't see him being spectacular with a half-dozen podium finish, top five finishes in half the races and finish a dozen times in the top ten. 

The more realistic season is one or two podium finishes, three or four top five finishes, eight to ten top ten finishes and somewhere between eighth and 12th in the championship for another season. 

What does Hinchcliffe need to do in 2021?

Not finish fourth amongst the Andretti cars in the championship. 

Have at least two top five finishes on road courses.

Be the top Andretti finisher in at least four races.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete Honda
The worst season of Andretti's career actually started on a good note. He was competitive in the Texas season opener. He was running in the top ten, but what hurt him were fumbled pit stops. He lost positions every time he came to pit lane and that dropped him to 14th. 

Good days were hard to come by after that. Despite being in the top ten during practice for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Andretti qualified 25th and finished 22nd. He started tenth for the first Road America race and then lost power 16 laps before the finish. He was 19th the next day. His clutch failed in the first Iowa race and he had to scrap to get tenth in the second Iowa race. 

Indianapolis was set to be a turning point. Andretti was running with his teammates at the top of the practice sheets. When it came time for qualifying Andretti had the fastest car. He was the final car out in the Fast Nine session and won pole position with a four-lap average 231.068 mph.

Momentum was behind Andretti until the green flag waved for the 104th Indianapolis 500. Once the race began, Andretti slid backward. There would be no fairy tale story. It wasn't a bad race, but after winning the pole position and earning the hype, finishing 13th with no laps led felt like a massive letdown. 

His best finish over the final seven races was 15th at Gateway. That was despite starting in the top ten twice and fifth in the first Harvest Grand Prix race. Twice he was taken out of races and an engine failure was not a fitting end to that first Harvest Grand Prix. 
Andretti was set to end the season on a good note. He drove into the top ten at St. Petersburg and looked confident. Then he got hit him from behind and his season ended 26 laps early.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Finishes outside the top twenty in 2020.

19.285: Average finish position in 2020, the worst of his career.

4.785: Positions worse his 2020 average finish was compared to his previous worst, 14.5 in 2012.

8.8: Average championship finish in Andretti's first ten seasons.

14.6 Average championship finish in Andretti's last five seasons.

There are no expectations for Andretti's part-time campaign. Mostly because we don't know how many races outside of Indianapolis he will attempt, but also because there is a good chance whatever he accomplishes will be better than his 2020 season. 

Andretti's career continues to be perplexing. He can be in the top ten of every practice and then qualify 18th and can only get to 15th. He is an oval sleeper and then he is bringing up the rear. He is fifth in the championship with at least two victories slipping away from him, a top ten championship regular for the first two-thirds of his career and for the next third he is regularly outside the top fifteen. 

He qualified on pole position for the Indianapolis 500 at over 231 mph and then couldn't stay in the top ten in the race. 

People love tearing Andretti apart, yet they do not listen to respect he has gotten from his peers. 

There is a fair description for Andretti's career, somewhere between saying he is not good enough to be champion and casting him as the worst driver in series history. He is a competent driver. He doesn't tear up equipment. He has never been a liability on track. Why the last five seasons have been so frustrating are a mystery. 

I hope that in however many races Andretti runs in 2021, he has balanced results. I don't want to see him bouncing from sixth in practice to 19th in the race. I want him to practice and qualifying 12th and then finish tenth. I want him to find a groove and be happy. 

I want him to run more than Indianapolis. Every track discipline has been giving him troubles. Ovals aren't his specialty. His last top five on an oval was third at Fontana in 2015. He has only six top ten finishes on ovals since the start of 2016 and three of those (the last three coincidentally) are tenth-place finishes.

My hope is he runs Indianapolis and then runs three or four more races. I hope he finds that spark and he is able to return full-time in 2022. If that doesn't happen, then I want Andretti to be able to move on and find success down that next road. It could be a different form of motorsports with a yearly one-off entry for the Indianapolis 500, or maybe that success comes in a different walk of life.  

His happiness is more important than however any spectators feels about him.

The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season will begin on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park. NBC will have coverage of the season opener.