How has a month changed things? IndyCar has started. Formula One is in Europe. NASCAR has cracked the double digits in terms of races. We have had our Floridian endurance races. Our European endurance races are just ahead of us. Motorcycles are in action. Junior series are in action. For the next six months we will be enveloped in motorsports. Isn't it lovely?
A Look at the First-Third
We are at the end of April and a third of the year is already complete. Where does the time go?
As spring begins to settle in, and winter should be clear for at least another eight months, the motorsports season also begins to bloom, but plenty events took place over these last four months and I think this is a good time to look back at some of the highlights from this period.
We need to look at the drivers who are standing out, the races that remain in our heads and the moments that left us breathless with excitement.
Mazda MX-5 Cup races from Daytona
For the better part of the last decade, I have been saying the best races are on two-wheels and spec Miatas and little did we know the early gem of 2021 would be MX-5 Cup's maiden trip to Daytona International Speedway.
Nestled into the 24 Hours of Daytona weekend, MX-5 Cup put on not one, but two, incredible races. The first race saw a four-car pack breakaway from the field before a late caution brought the field together for a dash to the line. The two-lap sprint was full of passes all over the place and Gresham Wagner took the victory despite dropping back to 12th at one point in the race. The top seven finishes were covered by 0.399 seconds and less than a second covered the top ten, and this was on the Daytona road course!
And then the second race happened! This saw another breakaway with Wagner leading Michael Carter and Jared Thomas. When an accident occurred in the infield section in the final minutes, Carter made his move on the outside of Wagner off of oval turn two and he completed the pass before the caution came out, giving Carter the victory.
Those two races were great, and neither is the closest finish of the MX-5 Cup season! We will get to that.
24 Hours of Daytona
The main event for that January weekend at Daytona, the 24 Hours was a stunning battle where any of the Daytona Prototype international entries could have taken the victory.
Cadillac looked ready for a fifth-consecutive victory. The #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac led early. Chip Ganassi Racing was threatening in its prototype return with the #01 Cadillac. Even the #5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac led over 100 laps. However, Wayne Taylor Racing, now fielding an Acura, stayed in the mix over the entire race, even though Acura's endurance race record was shoddy.
The #31 Cadillac had mechanical issues in the middle of the night and the #5 Cadillac was knocked out after an accident.
This set up a three-car fight between the #10 WTR Acura, the #01 Ganassi Cadillac and the "all-star" #48 Cadillac of Kamui Kobayashi, Simon Pagenaud, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller. The #01 Cadillac lost a rear tire while leading but kept the car on track and in the fight. This gave the #10 Acura the lead, but the Cadillacs remained close. Ganassi appeared set for a late charge until another tire failure in the final hour knocked the team out of contention.
The #48 Cadillac made a late run for it but Wayne Taylor Racing would pull out its fourth consecutive 24 Hours of Daytona victory.
Diriyah ePrix Race two
Formula E has its detractors, and some of its problems are self-inflicted, but it can put on a smashing race from time to time. The second race of the opening weekend from Saudi Arabia was one of those examples.
Sam Bird and Robin Frijns went toe-to-toe for the entire race, each making daring passes on one another. Meanwhile, defending champion António Félix da Costa was making up ground from ninth on the grid and he made some audacious moves. Da Costa even got into a physical battle with teammate Jean-Éric Vergne.
Bird and Frijns separated from the field, but the battles within the top ten never stopped. Unfortunately, this race was ended prematurely when Alex Lynn flipped on lap 26, within the final five minutes of the race. Lynn was unharmed, and while it was disappointing not to see this race go the distance, it was one of the best races in the series still short history.
Shane van Gisbergen
The Supercars Championship was going to see a shakeup this season as reigning three-time champion Scott McLaughlin moved to IndyCar. The void McLaughlin was quickly filled with fellow New Zealander van Gisbergen.
The Kiwi opened the season sweeping the two sprint races around Bathurst, but van Gisbergen was hurt in a mountain biking accident between the opening round and Sandown. He would miss the GT World Challenge Australia season opener at Phillip Island due to a fractured collarbone. Two weeks after that accident, van Gisbergen showed up to Sandown and ended up 17th on the grid for the first race.
A great start saw van Gisbergen pick up four spots quickly. He continued his charged to the front and found himself in the top five in the closing laps. While the top three battled for the top spot, van Gisbergen closed in, making stellar a pass to go from fourth to second with three laps to go. A smart couple of corners brought him side-by-side with Cameron Waters at the start of the final lap. Van Gisbergen took the lead into turn one and pulled away for the victory
Van Gisbergen would go on to sweep the Sandown weekend, win the first race at Symmons Plains to extend his streak to six consecutive victories and he closed that weekend out with a second and a sixth. He currently leads the Supercars championship with 865 points, 139 points clear of teammate Jamie Whincup. Oh... and van Gisbergen won his first race back in GT World Challenge Australia competition at Bathurst.
It isn't official, but Webb has one hand on his second Supercross championship entering the finale at Salt Lake City. Webb has been the best rider all season. In most races, he can find another level and close out in the final five minutes while others begin to fatigue.
The KTM rider has seven victories, including a few late charges to beat championship rival Ken Roczen. That tipped the championship. While Webb has been riding at a level that saw him run off eight consecutive podium finishes in the middle of the season and 12 from the first 16 races, Roczen lacked that sharpness over the entire season. There is still the Motocross season to come.
Though he has not won a race yet, Hamlin has eight top five finishes from ten NASCAR Cup races this season. He is 87 points clear of Martin Truex, Jr. in the championship and 100 points clear of Ryan Blaney in fifth. He is 229 points clear of the cutline for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
He will likely win a race at some point. He will likely win a handful, but he is currently the only driver to average a top ten finish through the first ten races. He is on pace for 28 top five finishes. None of it really matters in the current NASCAR format, but no one has been close to Hamlin's consistency this season.
It is hard to gauge people at the end of April because most championships are only a few rounds in. Last year, Quartararo won the opening two MotoGP races and then fell off the face of the planet. This year he has won two of the first three races and leads the championship.
I know it is early and we should be sheepish about the Frenchman after last season, but he deserves credit for bouncing back. It is a long season. Yamaha is bound to have some off races. We could see it all unravel a second time, but as of today, Quartararo deserves praise.
It was already a three-car battle in the closing laps of Supercars' third race of the season. With Chaz Mostert leading, Cameron Waters and Jamie Whincup traded shots in the waning laps. Waters took the lead on the front straightaway with three laps to go. Mostert and Whincup continued to battle for second.
As these three fought, van Gisbergen closed in and he saw an opening on the inside of turn two. With Mostert and Whincup side-by-side, van Gisbergen took advantage and on the exit into the left-handed turn three he was able to slide ahead of Mostert, into second position, and continue his run to the lead.
It could have ended in disaster. He could have driven Mostert off the road. It was a clean pass and one he did with a broken collarbone!
As Sam Bird took the lead from Robin Frijns, the Techeetah drivers António Félix da Costa and Jean-Éric Vergne went side-by-side for third into turn 18.
This battle continued through the next four corners. Somehow, the teammate remained side-by-side without it all going horribly wrong. Vergne took the outside and edged ahead of da Costa. In turn 21, da Costa had the inside and made notable contact with Vergne, sliding the Frenchman, but Vergne was able to gather it and keep it straight. The two remained side-by-side on the main straightaway but Vergne had the inside and da Costa had to back out. Third went to the Frenchman.
Unfortunately, because the race ended under the red flag and Vergne had yet to activate his second attack mode, he had a 24-second penalty and dropped from third to 12th. But it was a great pass, and I am not going to let regulations take away what was a great battle.
I am not sure we can call it a pass, but we need to recognize the final lap of the MX-5 Cup's third race of the season from Sebring.
Gresham Wagner took the white flag in the lead before he went wide in turn one and dropped to third after an off-road excursion in turn four. Michael Carter took the lead but did not drive into the sunset. Selin Rollan remained on Carter's bump and Wagner was able to close back on the top two.
Heading down the Ullman Straight, Carter swung wide and Rollan took the lead until Wagner went deep into the final corner and ended up in front. Wagner's deep corner forced him wide and coming to the checkered flag, Rollan got to Wagner's inside. Carter had an exceptional exit off the final corner and was able to get to the inside of Rollan.
The cars were three-wide coming to the line and Rollan in the middle won the race by 0.001 seconds over Carter, to his right along the pit lane wall, and by 0.013 seconds over Wagner on his outside.
I can't say there was one pass that stood out. The entire lap was incredible.
Other encouraging moments:
Not everything fits into a category but here are some other good things that happened so far in 2021.
Marc Márquez is back!
After the final 13 races of 2020 and the first two races of 2021, Márquez returned at Portimão. He qualified a respectable sixth and though he finished seventh, he was the top finishing Honda. I expect he will have some rough days and it will take him a few races to get into shape. It would be crazy to suggest he will win five consecutive races at some point this year and take the championship, but I bet he will win a race at some point and be competitive to the rest of the field.
Formula One might have a championship battle?
There have only been two races, but the victory column has a tally for both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen and Hamilton has a one-point lead over Verstappen thanks to fastest lap at Imola.
There is a lot of time left in this season and if Hamilton went on a nine-race winning streak to the summer break no one would be surprised, but everyone is excited about the possibility of it being Mercedes vs. Red Bull, Hamilton vs. Verstappen for 23 races. It has been a long time since we have seen the championship ebb and flow between two different teams. We are due but nothing is guaranteed.
While a lot of positive events and moments have happened, we need to look a few less fun things from the last four months.
Another Year Without a Canadian Grand Prix
The pandemic continues to cause headaches for the motorsports world and the Canadian Grand Prix will be cancelled for the second consecutive season. Montreal is one of the best venues for Formula One and border restrictions made it impossible for Formula One to enter the country.
It hasn't just been Formula One. IMSA moved its Mosport round to Watkins Glen and the IndyCar race from Toronto could be the next to fall off the calendar. There is also a NASCAR Truck race at Mosport that is uncertain. Things have been improving over the last few months, but we are not in the clear yet and calendar amendments will continue throughout the year.
No Superbike at Phillip Island
Like Canada and Formula One, the World Superbike championship will not return to Phillip Island in 2021 but plans on returning for 2022. Any time you lose a motorcycle race at Phillip Island it is a bad day. Fingers are crossed MotoGP will be able to visit the circuit in autumn.
Hypercar's Weary Debut
The long-awaited Hypercar class is still in its debut weekend at Spa-Francorchamps but the opening few days have been eye-opening. Hypercars are mixed in with the LMP2 cars, which had been purposely slowed so the Hypercars would end up on top. Everyone is unsure of what to do. The LMP2 cars have already been slowed significantly. Toyota isn't happy. Balance of Performance will likely come into play. This is still developing. Let's wait and see how it turns out. I bet someone will be upset.
I have to say it doesn't feel like May is walking through the door tomorrow. It doesn't feel like an Indianapolis 500 is approaching. It doesn't feel familiar.
I can't put my finger on it. It could be the delayed and condensed start to the IndyCar season. Three weekends and four races? There hasn't been time to think about the Indianapolis 500. Add to it the IndyCar grid has a striking amount of talent. The reigning three-time Supercars champion has joined the series. One of three men to win seven NASCAR Cup championships has joined the series. A driver with over 100 Formula One starts and who just walked away from one of the most horrifying accidents in recent memory has joined the series.
Oh... and the series already has a 50-time race winner who is fresh off his sixth championship, a two-time champion driving for Team Penske, possibly the greatest qualifier in series history, a 21-year-old American driver that comes off 15 years older than his age and to wrap it up there are another three past series champions and four past Indianapolis 500 winners and that is not including the other three past Indianapolis 500 winners who are only part-time and two of those three also have a series championship and one also happens to be the greatest driver of his generation.
IndyCar is becoming bigger than the Indianapolis 500 again. I think we are going to need another split. Things are going too well in IndyCar. We need chaos! We need turmoil! Someone must come in and ruin it before IndyCar capitalizes on it!
We have been living through this pandemic for 13 months now and I am sure I am not alone in saying I have returned to "normal" yet. A lot of things have been getting better. Life has become easier in the last few months, but it is still not normal. I am still off, and it is ok to feel this way. When the world goes on lockdown for two or three months it is not going to return to business as usual in quick time. We are still adjusting and maybe in six months we will feel our lives have gotten back on track. It could be longer than that, but it is ok if you are still off from where you were and where you want to be.
While there have been improvements, life is still difficult. Some of us have lost jobs, others have seen significant shifts in our professional lives. I am sure some of us went from settled with clearly mapped out long-term plans to everyday feeling like our jobs could disappear and being left with further uncertainty. I am in that boat. That could be a reason why it doesn't feel like an Indianapolis 500 is approaching. There is too much else to be concerned about.
Despite these concerns, I have been able to find joy in life. I was able to have a lovely Christmas. Super Bowl Sunday still had three pounds of wings and other snacks. When the NCAA tournament started, I was able to fall back immersing myself into four consecutive days of basketball over that final weekend. Each round was compelling. As work has opened up, I have been able to see people for the first time in over a year and the best part of it was it hadn't felt like that long even though the calendar said differently. Seeing these people was not a change in my life but a continuation of my life, though a significantly delayed continuation.
I am sure the Indianapolis 500 will feel the same way. I am sure once Texas is behind us and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis approaches and practice week begins it will start to feel familiar, perhaps even normal.
Other events of note in May:
Monaco is back!
Formula E will run the full Monaco circuit for the first time.
NASCAR will race at Darlington, Austin for the first time and conclude with the Coca-Cola 600.
IMSA has its first race in two months at Mid-Ohio.
The World Superbike season opens its season at Aragón and Estoril.