Friday, July 30, 2021

Best of the Month: July 2021

Seven months down and five months remain in 2021. After the last 16 months, life continues to feel a little more normal. There have been nine MotoGP races, ten IndyCar races, 11 Formula One races, 20 NASCAR races, half the FIA World Endurance Championship season and we are currently in an Olympic break for many series. 

We are still battling restrictions around the world, the Supercars schedule keeps being adjusted, Bathurst will be in November, and some events still look different than before, but it feels better than a year ago. There is even one championship that has started and finished already this summer and it deserves a little attention after considering the season it just had.

SRX Season Review
The inaugural Superstar Racing Experience season concluded this month, and the six-week series was a smashing success. It provided memorable races and drew sustained interest over the entire season. Each race was something new and worth tuning in for. 

With the season complete, it is time to look back on the season, from the drivers and the races, to what worked and where improvements could be made. 

What Worked?
1. The timing
    A six-week series at the start of summer was a highly successful idea. It was a perfect time, and it could kind of shine on its own. It is the middle of the NASCAR season, far from when the championship gets interesting. IndyCar is also in the middle of the season. The SRX season began after the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. SRX could be the event of the summer each year. 

2. The length
    Six races were plenty. It was long enough that it would not be quickly forgotten, but it was short enough that it was not a major commitment. You almost couldn't miss a race. Once you get three races in, there were only three left. 

3. The venues 
    Length aside, you couldn't afford to miss a race because of where SRX raced. Stafford Springs was fun place to start the season. The dirt races of Knoxville and Eldora followed. Then there was the national return to Indianapolis Raceway Park before the quarter-mile Slinger Speedway and it ended at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Half these tracks haven't had a national profile. The other half are known but haven't had a significant national television stage in a long-time or ever. They were all tracks people wanted to see. There was no weak venue in terms of crowd or on-track action. 

4. The television window
    Every Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET you could count on SRX being on CBS, and it took an otherwise unwanted television window drew a sizable audience. SRX bucked a trend that races had to be on at a certain hour of the day for success. It filled a gap and became one of the most successful series in the United States in terms of television ratings. 

5. It wasn't too serious
    As much as SRX was billed as an entertainment series, SRX was a serious racing series. It was more than an exhibition. It had a random draw set the initial heat race and then had invert for the second race, but that doesn't mean it is scripted or not meant to be taken seriously. This is the format the series used. Even the green flag stint limit, while unconventional, was a part of the series. It was in the rulebook and couldn't be a surprise to anyone. 

6. Flexibility to change
    After the opening night, which had pacing issues, the series adjusted the race weekends. Heat races were shortened and so were main events. The series worked to make sure each event was completed within the two-hour time window. I don't think anything was lost because some main events were only 76 laps and others were 100 laps. I think the series made a smart choice shortening the dirt races to 50-lap features. There is such a thing as too much of something and we have seen plenty of stock car races on dirt this year that were too damn long for their own good. The good news is neither SRX dirt race fit that category.

7. The top of the driver pool
    The drivers at the top of the championship did a fantastic job. Tony Stewart came out on top, which wasn't a surprise, but Ernie Francis, Jr. had the coming out party we expected, Marco Andretti looked strong, Bobby Labonte still has something in the tank, and Hélio Castroneves was constantly quick. 

The local short track car added talent to each race. Doug Coby won the Stafford season opener and Chase Elliott won the finale. Slinger Nationals winners Luke Fenhaus and Kody Swanson were runner-up in the two races they were the local favorite. Bobby Santos III was fifth at Slinger. The only local driver not to finish in the top five was Brian Brown at Knoxville. Credit the series for getting drivers who would raise the stakes. SRX also put a national spotlight on some drivers who are often overlook. That is positive should not be overstated. 

What didn't work?
1. The green flag lap limit in the heat races
    The heat races were only 12-15 minutes. I think we have long enough attention spans that the field doesn't have to be bunched up in such a short race. I understand those cautions allowed a commercial break to get in without going to a commercial break, but in most cases, it seemed like we would get seven to eight minutes in, have a caution, and then return and restart with about two or three minutes to go. If that is the case, why not just have three eight-minute heat races, invert for the second race and have the cars line up during the commercial break and go green when back from break and then the third heat could be an invert of just the top six or that lineup could be decided another way? 

The green flag lap limit wasn't terrible, but it did kind of get in the way of a great race at Slinger. Stewart, Labonte, Andretti and Fenhaus had a great battle all race. Those cautions weren't warranted and dampened the race a little. I would rather have seen that race be left unaltered. I know the officials shouldn't do that, especially if it is in the rulebook, but there were times when we should have just let the racing continue uninterrupted. 

2. Championship conversation
    Too often was SRX mislabeled as an exhibition series. It wasn't. There was a championship table, points awarded for every race and a prize to the champion and race winners. This wasn't some fun show drivers decided to put on at smaller short tracks. This was a legitimate series, but too often was the championship ignored. Some of it was down to timing. A race would end and there wouldn't be enough time to show the standings at the end of it. But the series never made sure to make the standings known at the start of the broadcast for the next race either. 

    Unless you were closely following the series, I doubt many knew Stewart, Ernie Francis, Jr. and Andretti were the three drivers alive for the championship entering the finale. It doesn't have to make the championship out to be the greatest prize in motorsports, but it shouldn't have been acknowledged more than it was. 

3. Post-race coverage
    SRX wants to make the most of its two-hour television window, but too frequently was it scrambling to get off air and could only interview the winner. That was a damn shame because some of the local drivers would drive in the top five and be the darling of the evening. The only problem we didn't get to hear from that driver. Some races are going to run long, but the goal should be to leave the final ten minutes to recap the race and talk to the field. 

4. Were the local drivers too successful?
    As I said before, the local drivers took five top five finishes from six races. Two of them won and the only full-time driver to win multiple races was Stewart, who won both dirt races. My one concern after Coby won at Stafford and part-timer Greg Biffle was second was, what if all the races are won by non-full-time drivers? I feared SRX would lack an identity or an interesting battle if the local guy or the ringer won every race. It would be hard to keep an audience if the previous race winner was never in the race. I like featuring a local driver, but it runs the risk of overshadowing the entire series. 

5. The back of the grid
    Someone must be at the rear of the grid, but with SRX you could pencil in the bottom three or four drivers each time. It was my one concern that it would be the field of two halves. The good news is the bottom wasn't as large as I first thought. It was really a top half, a quarter that could provide a surprise result every now and then and then the bottom. That is not a bad mix but there is room for improvement. Will SRX make the adjustments and raise its own profile? 
    How much does this series want to balance living on past reputation and introducing new names? While there were a few local stars that got one shot, Francis, Jr. was the only full-time unknown. Everyone else had a past or a present. It is great to live on Stewart, Castroneves, Kanaan, Andretti, Labonte and Waltrip, but most of those guys have a shelf life. At some point your 50-somethings look begin to look like 50-somethings. While it was nice to see some of these guys again, most of these guys we have seen for decades. Eventually, they lose their appeal. 

I think there are four drivers that arguably can be told "thank you for the service" and not invited back for 2022. It is also likely Castroneves will not return as a full-time SRX driver, as he will be full-time in IndyCar with Meyer Shank Racing. Let's say there are five open spots. How does SRX fill those? Does it look for another batch of retirees in their 50s? Does it lean more into short track racers and overlooked talent? Does it find a medium between the two? 

SRX should lean into short track races and overlooked talent, the Francis, Jrs of the world. It should grab Bubba Pollard, Josh Berry, Oliver Askew, Spencer Pigot, Joey Hand, Kody Swanson and raise the bar. Hell, Matt DiBenedetto and James Hinchcliffe both might be looking for work next year. Talent is what will take SRX to the next level. It should not waste any more time and grab it now.

Some SRX Facts
1. Tony Stewart won the championship and he had five top five finishes, the most of any driver. 

2. Tony Stewart won the championship with 237 points. The six local drivers aggregated 205 points, the second most in the series. 

3. Ernie Francis, Jr. was second in the championship, but only had two top five finishes. 

4. The driver with the second most top five finishes this season was Bobby Labonte, but Labonte was ten points behind Francis, Jr. for second. Labonte was also the top driver in the championship without a race victory or a heat race victory. 

5. Marco Andretti's worst result of the season in the finale dropped him to fourth on 171 points. He did win two heat races, one of four drivers with multiple heat races this season. 

6. Hélio Castroneves opened the season with three consecutive top five finishes and proceeded to finish ninth, tenth and ninth in the final three races. Coincidentally, Castroneves won heat races in the two races he finished ninth. 

7. Thirteen of 20 drivers finished on the podium this season. 

8. Of the drivers to run multiple races this season, the only ones without a top five finish were Tony Kanaan and Willy T. Ribbs.

9. Nine drivers won a heat race this season, including five local/ringer drivers. The only races where two full-time drivers won each heat race were Eldora and Nashville. 

10. Only twice did a heat winner not win the feature. One was IRP where Scott Speed and Castroneves won the heat races and Francis, Jr. won the race. The other was Nashville where Bill Elliott and Castroneves won the heat races and Chase Elliott won the feature. 

August Preview
With the Olympics concluding, motorsports will blow up in the month of August. It is difficult to pick out one event, but it has to be the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

We will have dedicated 24 Hours of Le Mans preview later, but for now we need to celebrate the return of the world's greatest endurance race. This will be the second consecutive year the race is not taking place in June. There are a few interesting entries. 

Ricky Taylor will be in a High Class Racing Oreca-Gibson while Jan and Kevin Magnussen will drive together in the other High Class Racing Oreca. Defending IMSA LMP2 champion Patrick Kelly will make his Le Mans debut with PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports with Gabriel Aubry and Simon Trummer. Risi Competizione will have Oliver Jarvis and Felipe Nasr lead its LMP2 effort. 

Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor will reunite in the WeatherTech Racing Porsche with Cooper MacNeil in GTE-Pro. Vanthoor will also have a familiar rival in the GTE-Pro class. Dries Vanthoor returns to Le Mans for the first time since 2017 in the HubAuto Racing Porsche alongside Álvaro Parente and Maxime Martin. Dries Vanthoor won in the GTE-Am class that year. Laurens won in GTE-Pro the following year.

GTE-Am will have a few debutants. Antonio Fuoco will drive a Ferrari for Cetilar Racing. Callum Illott will drive a Ferrari for Iron Lynx. Jaxon Evans won the Porsche Carrera Cup France championship in 2020 and now he will drive for Dempsey-Proton Racing alongside Matt Campbell and Christian Ried. Dylan Pereira was runner-up in Porsche Supercup last year and he will drive for TF Sport Aston Martin with Ben Keating and Felipe Fraga. IMSA race winner Robby Foley gets his first trip to Circuit de la Sarthe in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari. 

Other notable events in August:
IndyCar will have three consecutive races: Nashville, IMS road course and Gateway. 
NASCAR rounds out its regular season with races at Watkins Glen, the IMS road course, Michigan and Daytona. 
Formula E ends its season with a Berlin doubleheader.
IMSA returns to competition at Road America. 
MotoGP is back in action with two races in Austria and then Silverstone. 
Formula One will run at Spa-Francorchamps on the final Sunday of the month. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

2021 Premature Formula E Season Review

August is going to be a busy month. Between IndyCar's three-race stretch before the stretch run, the end of NASCAR's regular season, MotoGP returning and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there is almost too many motorsports events crammed in the final full month of summer. 

There is not going to be enough time for a Formula E review immediately after the season finale, but with 13 of 15 races in the books and the final two being at the Berlin doubleheader, we are going to review the season now. With over 86% of the races complete, the season is pretty set. Two races will change a lot this year because 18 drivers are still mathematically alive for the champion and ten of 12 teams are still alive for the Teams' championship, but the truth is we know how everyone's season has been. We know who has been good and who has been bad. We know who has been surprisingly good and we know who has been disappointing. 

We will go through each entrant via the Teams' Championship standings after the London round. 

Envision Virgin Racing - 165 points
Robin Frijns: #4 Audi e-Tron FE07 (2nd - 89 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Pretty wrong seeing as Frijns is second in the championship with two races to go. There is a chance he could fall to eighth, as he is 14 points clear of that spot. The Dutchman has not won this season, but he has two runner-up finishes, five top five finishes and seven points finishes, as he is six points off the championship lead entering the final round. This hasn't been a stellar year for him, but it has been good enough.

Nick Cassidy: #37 Audi e-Tron FE07 (7th - 76 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Cassidy has stood on the podium twice and he has four top five finishes. He is second in the Virgin squad, but the British team is leading the Teams' Championship and it will likely not have its worst Teams' Championship result. The team has not won a race this season though. It has left it late and the finale is as good a time as any for this operation to pull out a win.

Mercedes-EQ Formula E Team - 158 points
Nyck de Vries: #17 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (1st - 95 points)
What was expected 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. "

How wrong was it: De Vries leads the championship and Mercedes is second in the Teams' fight. De Vries was the first with multiple victories this season, taking the Saudi Arabia season opener and the first Valencia round. He does enter Berlin off the back of a pair of runner-up finishes in London, which earned him the championship lead entering the final, but he has been streaky. He has his four podium finishes but his only other points finishes were a pair of ninths. 

Stoffel Vandoorne: #5 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (13th - 63 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Vandoorne is 17 points outside the top five with two races to go. It is not impossible, but it is unlikely. He did win the second Rome race and was third in the first Valencia race, but he has only three other points finishes, with his next best result being seventh.

Jaguar Racing - 156 points
Sam Bird: #10 Jaguar I-Type 5 (3rd - 81 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Sam Bird won the second race of the season and he was runner-up in the third race of the season. His only other top five finish was his victory in Brooklyn. Three podium finishes is a good total, but this has not been a spectacular season for Bird. He does find himself with a great shot at the championship, but Brooklyn is the only time he has scored points in both races of a doubleheader, and that other result was ninth. Bird will need his best weekend of the season if he were to win the championship.

Mitch Evans: #20 Jaguar I-Type 5 (8th - 75 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Evans has four podium finishes, but they were all third-place results. I would say Evans has just been off that championship level. He could still win it, but I do not expect it. Eighth might be a little misconceiving of his season as he has finished in the points seven times and the only other driver with at least four podium results is the championship leader.

DS Techeetah - 148 points
António Félix da Costa: #13 DS E-TENSE FE20/DS E-TENSE FE21 (5th - 80 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Da Costa clings to fifth with a victory at Monaco and a pair of thirds being his only top five results this season. He has not scored in both races of a doubleheader this season and he has three retirements with a disqualification for energy usage in the infamous first Valencia race. 

Jean-Éric Vergne: #25 DS E-TENSE FE20/DS E-TENSE FE21 (12th - 68 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Vergne won the third race of the season in Rome but he does not have a pole position. He was runner-up in the first Brooklyn race and he has the same number of points finishes as his teammate da Costa, yet the Portuguese driver is 12 points and seven positions clear of the Frenchman. I wouldn't say the two have been taking points off of one another. Only once this season has both Teecheetah drivers finished in the points and that was Monaco.

BMW i Andretti Motorsport - 143 points
Jake Dennis: #27 BMW IFE.21 (4th - 81 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: In a season where I lowered the bar for BMW, it has its best shot at a title. Dennis has two victories, but is fourth because Bird owns the tiebreaker as Bird's next best finish is second to Dennis' fifth. While some drivers have not had great doubleheaders, Dennis has scored in both Valencia races, both Puebla races and both London races. A good opening race in Berlin could springboard him to something greater in race two.

Maximilian Günther: #28 BMW IFE.21 (15th - 62 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Günther has not been a serious title contender, but he did take a surprise victory in the first Brooklyn race after Cassidy faded in the late stages. Günther has scored points in seven races but outside of his victory he has only two other top five finishes.

Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler Formula E Team - 134 points
René Rast: #33 Audi e-Tron FE07 (10th - 72 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Rast has not won at all this season, but he was runner-up in the first Puebla race, has four top five finishes and finished in the points eight times. It has been good year, but not a great one for Audi.

Lucas di Grassi: #11 Audi e-Tron FE07 (14th - 62 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Di Grassi scored a victory in the first Puebla race and he was third in the first Brooklyn race, but those are his only top five finishes this year. He has eight points-scoring results, like his teammate, but he has finished eighth or worse in three of those.

Mahindra Racing - 122 points
Alex Lynn: #94 Mahindra M7Electro (6th - 78 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Lynn is seven positions ahead of that predicted preseason range. A maiden Formula E victory paired with a third in London lifted him from 17th to sixth in the championship. He does have nine points-scoring results this year, and he was third in the second Valencia race. This is weird where I don't think 17th was a true representation of Lynn's year, but sixth feels a little better than it has been. 

Alexander Sims: #29 Mahindra M7Electro (18th - 44 points)
What was expected 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." 

How wrong was it: Sims was one spot ahead of Lynn before the London round. Now there are 12 spots between them. While 17th might have been too harsh on Lynn, 18th sounds right for Sims. He has had two good races, second in the second Rome race and fourth in the second Puebla race. He hasn't been a factor this season and he has only finished in the points in two other races.

TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team - 116 points
Pascal Wehrlein: #99 Porsche 99X Electric (11th - 71 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Wehrlein has scored the same exact number of points as Lotterer did last year, and there are still two races remaining in 2021, and Wehrlein is ahead of Lotterer. Neither driver has won, although Wehrlein was first across the line in the first Puebla race, but disqualified due to a technical infringement. He has five top five finishes with his best result being third. I would say he has led the Porsche camp.

André Lotterer: #36 Porsche 99X Electric (17th - 45 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Lotterer's uncertainty accurately foreshadowed Porsche's season. He was second in the second Valencia race, but he has three other points finishes this year. He is 30 points away from eighth. He is likely going to finish behind his teammate.

ROKiT Venturi Racing - 91 points
Edoardo Mortara: #48 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (9th - 74 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Mortara heads to the finale ninth in the championship, which is in the range of a slight improvement, but he is only 11 points ahead of 13th and 12 points ahead of 14th and 15th. One tough weekend and he could fall right where we expected him. He did win the second Puebla race, was third in the first race of that weekend and he opened the season with a runner-up result. He has scored points in six of 13 races, slightly below a .500 batting average, but his highs were higher than expected and more frequent than I imagined. 

Norman Nato: #71 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02 (21st - 17 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Nato scored in two races, a fifth in the second Valencia race and a seventh in the second Brooklyn race. He is 55 points away from tenth. He is not going to sweep the Berlin weekend and get into the top ten. Cracking the top twenty would be surprising.

Nissan e.dams - 79 points
Oliver Rowland: #22 Nissan IM02 (16th - 59 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Rowland leads the way but Nissan has been abysmal this year. One podium finish between its two drivers. Rowland has at least been respectable. He was third from pole position in the second Puebla race and he has finished in the points six times. Nissan has had its share of technical issues, leading to three disqualifications this year, more than any other driver. Those costed him 19 points and those 19 points would have him seventh in the championship. I would say Nissan has beat itself. 

Sébastien Buemi: #23 Nissan IM02 (20th - 20 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Buemi wasn't close this year, though he was disqualified twice, but those only costed him 12 points. Those 12 points would only put him 19th in the championship. Buemi has three points finishes. His best finish was fifth. Nissan continues to slide and one of Formula E's first great drivers continues to go down with it. 

Dragon/Penske Autosport - 47 points
Nico Müller: #6 Penske EV-4/EV-5 (19th - 30 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Dragon/Penske must have had a finger on the scales in testing. Müller was second in the first Valencia race and ended up on 30 points, but he bolted to focus on his Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season. 

Sérgio Sette Câmara: #7 Penske EV-4/EV-5 (22nd - 16 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Things looked good when Câmara finished fourth in the second race in Saudi Arabia. He would not score again until he was eighth in the second London race. He has only retired from one race, but Câmara was outside the top fifteen in seven of 13 races this year. 

Joel Eriksson: #6 Penske EV-5 (25th - 1 point)
What was expected this season: Eriksson was a midseason replacement for Müller and Eriksson has been the only midseason driver change this year, which is unusual considering Formula E's history.

How wrong was it: Eriksson has run the final four rounds, eight races in total, and his only point was tenth in the second London race. Dragon/Penske has increased its points total from two in 2019-20 to 47 in 2021, but it is still 11th in the championship and is one of those teams eliminated from the Teams' championship before the finale. 

NIO 333 FE Team - 18 points 
Oliver Turvey: #8 NIO 333 001 (23rd - 13 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Turvey opened 2021 with nine points at the Saudi Arabia doubleheader after going scoreless in 2019-20. He has since only scored four points, an eighth in the second Valencia race. I would say 13 is a few points and NIO made the marginal, but far from earth-shattering, improvement we expected. 

Tom Blomqvist: #88 NIO 333 001 (24th - 5 points)
What was expected 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."

How wrong was it: Blomqvist scored points in both Rome races, a tenth and an eighth, and hasn't scored again. This prediction was pretty accurate, but we still got two races to go, not that expect much to change. 

How are 18 drivers still alive for the championship?
Qualifying! And it isn't even qualifying but the qualifying groups. 

The championship standings determine the qualifying groups, but the top six take to the track first with the next six of the championship following and so on through the four-group first round. With the leaders in the championship going out first, they face the worst track conditions and face a long shot advancing to the Super Pole round for pole position. 

Meanwhile, the bottom of the championship gets favorable track conditions during qualifying, increasing the likelihood the bottom of the championship qualify further up the starting grid and ahead of the drivers who went out early in the session. Suddenly, the top drivers are in the middle of the pack and have to fight just to get into the points. 

With a Formula E race only being 45 minutes, with no real pit stops, no tire strategy, few instances of safety car periods and races predominantly held on tighter street circuits, parity is bound to happen. The bottom of the championship gets lifted up and the top drivers get pushed down. 

Consider that only four drivers average a top ten starting position this season and three of those are outside the top ten in the championship (Wehrlein at 7.0, Rowland at 8.2 and Buemi at 9.8). Only Lynn averaging a 7.5 starting position is in the top ten. Meanwhile, 14 drivers average between a 10.8 and 14.0. Four of the top five in the championship average 12.8 or worse. 

With average starting positions leveled out, so are average finishing positions. Only two drivers average a top ten finish, Frijns at 9.6 and Mortara at 9.8. De Vries leads the championship but averages an 11.8. A dozen drivers have an average finish between 10.5 and 12.5. Bird is the only top ten championship driver with an average finish worse than 12.5 and he is at 13.2. Günther is tied for the sixth-best average finish and he is tied for the fifth-best average starting position and yet he is 15th in the championship. 

The difference between the best average finish and the worst average finish (Eriksson) is 6.6. When it comes to starting position, the difference between Wehrlein at the top and Eriksson on the bottom is 11.3, but Eriksson is the only driver whose average starting position is more than ten positions behind Wehrlein's. 

It might not be a case of we don't truly know who is the best in Formula E, but rather we might not actually know how great the best are. I think the top five in the championship are the top five drivers, but I don't necessarily believe tenth is within 23 points of first or 18th should still be alive for the championship with two races to go. 

While the qualifying format keeps it tight, I wish we get to see the best get a chance to pull away and show how great they are. Maybe Virgin is the best team, but with a more favorable qualifying format it would have a few victories this season instead of heading into the finale winless and as the clubhouse leader. 

Overall Thoughts
Championship parity aside, this has been a stellar Formula E season. I think the second-generation car lends to good racing and the 45-minute race keeps it close and prevents the intensity from ever dropping. I think we have seen three or four of the best Formula E races all-time this season. 

It is a young series and there haven't been that many races, but the second Saudi Arabia race was outstanding. The opening race from Rome was fantastic. For as flawed as the first Valencia race was, it was an extraordinary set of circumstances and a race that you will not be able to forget. Formula E needs those wacky races from time to time, every series does. It showed a fault in the regulations, but it at least led to something memorable and not completely embarrassing. 

I think Monaco was the best race the series has ever had and what makes Monaco even more spectacular is the top six starters finished exactly where they started and the box score does not come close to telling an accurate story. The first race around the full Monaco course was sensational. It could have been underwhelming, and yet we got the liveliest race of the year, one filled with passing and most notably with six lead changes, including one on the final lap into the harbor chicane. 

While Formula E doesn't have pit stops, attack mode is effectively a pit stop. Twice a race a driver has to purposing run wide in a corner, take a longer radius in a corner and expose themselves to losing ground. Sometimes, a driver does it and keeps the position. Other times a driver loses spots, but have the power advantage and like a car emerging from a pit lane on fresh tires, can immediately get a spot back. And then there are times when a driver loses a spot and cannot get it back. There are the attack mode laps where the car fails to activate it and a driver has to try again, akin to a botched pit stop or a speeding penalty. 

It adds a wrinkle without being completely loony. It is not traditional to purposely make a driver run wide, but it is a simple thing to do that can make a race livelier. 

We look to the 2021 finale and see another change on the horizon for Formula E. Next year will see the introduction of the third-generation car. There should be more power, and we are expecting flash-charging to possibly introduce pit stops into the races. However, we will see Audi and BMW exit the championship and no new teams are entering in the first season of the new regulations. 

Formula E is approaching a full decade of competition, but the landscape is only becoming more complicated. All-electric vehicles are becoming more popular, but there are still plenty of hang ups preventing them from becoming the pre-dominant vehicle on roadways. Manufactures are committed to electrification, but infrastructure for charging stations remains a hurdle. Formula E is the forbearer for all-electric motorsports, but that alone will not be enough for it to become the top series in the eyes of manufactures, drivers, sponsors and spectators. 

In the clustered 21st century, Formula E has done remarkable. Many thought it wouldn't get through the first two seasons. It will start its eighth in 2022. But it hasn't become a global sensation. It is still a fringe series compared to Formula One. It lacks a signature event like the Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans. Drivers are not dreaming of racing in Formula E. It is an alternate option when the primary ones run out. 

But it continues to be a functioning series. There are plenty of drivers interested and happy with the pay. It still feels like a series that is a little distant to the masses. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, but we have yet to see a place embrace Formula E and make a race weekend an event. It might require more time for those to develop, but we need to start seeing these races become a part of the fabric of the cities it visits. 

With the third-generation car coming, this should be the time Formula E moves away from being a fad with a constant rotation of events and establish a core of a dozen global cities where it can continue to build upon. 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Two Series, A Similar Problem

The Brits swept the London Formula E round with Jake Dennis winning race one and Alex Lynn taking race two. Yamaha riders are not getting along. IndyCar killed a lot of squirrels at Laguna Seca. Hélio Castroneves is returning to IndyCar full-time in 2022, but Jack Harvey will not be his teammate. MotoGP will not be going to Thailand. Dani Pedrosa will make a wild card appearance at the Red Bull Ring for KTM. Hendrick Motorsports had an engine mix up. Monza confirmed it will host sprint qualifying. Toyota has reliability concerns ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Two Series, A Similar Problem
It is startling that the two major series in the world with an oval racing identity have an oval problem. Albeit these problems are on different ends of the spectrum. IndyCar lacks oval races. NASCAR is not racing at enough of the right kind of ovals. 

IndyCar's problem has existed for a decade and 2021 hit a new low, with only three oval tracks representing four races on the schedule. The series has always been coy about the number of ovals. For most of the DW12-era, IndyCar has lived with five or six oval races, and depending on how you looked at the deck of cards, ovals were an equal proportion to road and street courses. At one point, depending how you looked at it, ovals were on top with six races compared to five road courses and five street courses. 

The series could live with this split even though it could have probably benefitted from an additional two or three ovals. With the series down to three oval tracks in 2021, IndyCar is now two or three ovals away from being two or three ovals away and throughout this season IndyCar management has been more vocal than previous administrations about increasing that total iin the near future. 

There are two obvious options that could bolster IndyCar's oval total, and both were recently on the calendar: Iowa and Richmond. 

Iowa hosted races from 2007 through 2020, but was dropped for the 2021 season as the NASCAR-owned track goes through uncertain times. Richmond was initially on the 2020 schedule, its first IndyCar date since 2008, but the pandemic caused the race to be removed from the schedule. When the 2021 calendar came out, Richmond again was not included. 

Over the first half of this year, there has been a lot of talk about an Iowa revival for 2022. Richmond has not been getting the same kind of buzz, but it does feel like a possible venue. 

Again, Iowa and Richmond only get IndyCar back to a sufficient level, and the series would still be two or three ovals away from comfort. While there are plenty of ovals out there, IndyCar's biggest issue becomes some of its old stomping grounds are no longer functional. 

Unfortunately, Milwaukee is not a viable option. Chicagoland and Kentucky are two tracks in IndyCar's backyard and both have been shuttered after they each lost NASCAR Cup Series races this year. Neither is officially closed, but neither NASCAR nor Speedway Motorsports Inc. has any plans to use them as racetracks. Fontana is likely going to be converted into a half-mile oval, meaning the two-mile's high banks will be bulldozed. Roger Penske has already ruled out a possible race at Michigan. 

Those are five venues with notable IndyCar history and none of them are on the table for 2022 or beyond. IndyCar's choices are few and there aren't that many venues knocking on the door. I guess Pocono could be an option. It was interested in keeping IndyCar beyond the 2019 season but the two parties could not agree on terms. But IndyCar needs more than one more oval. It is hard to see what else is a realistic option. 

One place where IndyCar could find some oval help is with NASCAR. The two series will have another companion weekend this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, but the truth is IndyCar doesn't need a second road course race on the IMS road course. If IndyCar is going to run a companion weekend anywhere, it needs to be on an oval. IndyCar cannot be too choosy, but it needs to accept a Saturday evening or Saturday night race on a NASCAR weekend or it could be a lead-in race starting at noon on Sunday. We have already seen IndyCar benefit from being the lead-in to a NASCAR Cup race. Why not just do it at the same track? 

But NASCAR's ovals might not mesh with IndyCar. IndyCar has its own schedule and this companion oval weekend could only work when NBC takes over the NASCAR schedule. Nashville conflicted with IndyCar at Road America. NASCAR already has a doubleheader at Pocono and I am not sure where IndyCar could fit. Atlanta was supposed to clash with the Toronto IndyCar race, but with Atlanta about to reconfigure the track might no longer be suitable for IndyCar. IndyCar is not running Daytona. 

With those ovals out of the question, that leaves Loudon and Michigan as the ovals within the NASCAR regular season for IndyCar to join, and Roger Penske already ruled out Michigan, which is foolish by the way. Penske runs the joint but to completely rule out a racetrack, one that is arguably in IndyCar territory, is foolish, even if IndyCar already runs at Belle Isle and that is a Penske promoted event. 

Loudon would not be a bad option. IndyCar had a good race there in 2011, but the infamous finish spoiled that show, and we have yet to see how the DW12 would race there. I think it would be a good show and NASCAR did not put down PJ1 for its most recent race weekend there. Saturday could be a modified/NASCAR Grand National Series doubleheader and Sunday could be an IndyCar/NASCAR Cup doubleheader with a 225-lap IndyCar race ahead of the 301-lap Cup race later in the afternoon. 

But that is only one oval, and if Iowa returned to its familiar date, it would actually clash with Loudon. Let's not forget Loudon battled through rain on Sunday. One rainstorm spoils any IndyCar/NASCAR companion weekend at an oval.  

There are a lot of moving pieces in the way of IndyCar's oval search, and it is more than NASCAR as well. Richmond was supposed to be the last week of June in 2020. If Richmond were to be the last week of June in 2022 and Iowa were to return to its mid-July date, IndyCar would be looking at five consecutive weekends with races as Mid-Ohio moved to Independence Day weekend from early August this year. Richmond or Iowa could move to early August, but August has brutal weather in Richmond, and the Knoxville Nationals are in early August, which wouldn't work for an Iowa IndyCar event. 

The problem evolves from IndyCar having an oval problem to IndyCar having a timing issue. IndyCar moved races around before and for worse. Kentucky moved from August to Labor Day weekend to October and then it died. Fontana moved from mid-September to mid-October to late-August to the end of June and then it died. IndyCar's oval issue is as much its own fault as it is the tracks themselves. How does the series fit in these races and keep its existing events healthy while also making sure the teams are not run ragged? 


On the flip side, NASCAR has all the ovals in the world and yet it still doesn't have the right ones. 

After a few underwhelming races on ovals, and off the back of the announced Atlanta reconfiguration, those in NASCAR circles are re-evaluating what its schedule looks like and it has always been planning a schedule shakeup in 2022. While the Cup Series had seven road course events on the 2021 calendar, short tracks are what a great majority of fans, teams and drivers want. 

Meanwhile, the Superstar Racing Experience recently finished its season and SRX ran six short track races, two on dirt, but four on pavement from Stafford to Indianapolis Raceway Park to Slinger Speedway with the Nashville Fairgrounds hosting the finale. 

Efforts are ongoing to have the NASCAR Cup Series return to the Nashville Fairgrounds, but as it stands none of those four SRX paved ovals could host a NASCAR Cup race. Perhaps IRP could, but that is it. 

Like IndyCar with timing, NASCAR needs the infrastructure for its events. I am not talking about suites and fancy garages, I am just talking about space, a suitable pit lane and SAFER Barriers. As much of a wet dream it might be for the NASCAR Cup Series to run at Slinger, Slinger is not big enough. There are existing short tracks that are big enough for a NASCAR Cup Series event. 

For starters, any racetrack that has hosted NASCAR Grand National Series or Truck race is suitable for a Cup race. That means Iowa is suitable, and the Cup Series could make IRP work and even a forgotten track like the 3/4-mile Memphis Motorsports Park could host a race. Gateway isn't a short track per se, but it would be a different venue for the NASCAR Cup Series. Those tracks could host a Cup race tomorrow, but NASCAR's choice is to convert Fontana into a half-mile, spend tens of millions of dollars and wait two years to add a short track race. 

NASCAR could have eight or nine true short track races each year, which might not sound like much, but when you look at NASCAR's history, it is in line with past schedule proportions. 

In NASCAR's modern-era, only one season were short tracks (less than a mile in length) more than a third of the races. The last time short tracks were at least a quarter of the Cup schedule was in 1996. The current balance is a little too low with only five paved short track races, plus the Bristol dirt race, which was on a half-mile track, but NASCAR should let go of trying to be everything for everyone. The NASCAR dirt races are not good. It is ok if NASCAR is on dirt. Regular Bristol is better. 

If Bristol has two paved events, plus once Fontana is converted that track could get two races (goodbye to Kansas' second race), and if Iowa is added, we would be looking at nine short track races, exactly a quarter of the schedule. That is a better balance, but NASCAR has to now do it. Too many times NASCAR is disconnected from its needs. No one asked for a second Atlanta race and yet it happened this year. Darlington can live with a second date, but Atlanta? Come on! 

IndyCar and NASCAR are the only major series with oval woven into their fabric and both are somehow suffering an identity crisis. The United States is the only oval predominant country and yet those events are struggling the most. IndyCar and NASCAR both have successful races at Road America, and yet both had oval events in nearby major metropolitan area flunk out. Why Road America can draw a crowd but Milwaukee and Chicagoland couldn't is a mystery. Why over 50,000 people will drive an hour out of the way to go to Road America but Milwaukee couldn't draw better than 15,000 people and Chicagoland dipped substantially over recent years is almost inexplicable, and yet it happened.

North America's top two series have soul searching in their future. Only time will tell if they find an answer to their oval problems. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Jake Dennis and Alex Lynn, but did you know...

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races from Assen and retook the championship lead. Dominique Aegerter swept the World Supersport races and Aegerter has won five consecutive races.

Philip Ellis and Maximilian Götz split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from the Lausitzring. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One will head into the summer break after a round in Hungary.
The first round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge season will be the Spa 24 Hours.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

2021 Formula One Midseason Report

We are not quite at Formula One's summer break. We haven't even hit the midway point of the season yet, but with ten races complete and at least 12 races remaining, this is a good time to look at the sample size of the 2021 season. 

Two teams have split every race, which is no surprise, but the top two drivers in the championship come from two different teams and less than ten points separate the two. While only two teams have won a race, the top three in the championship come from three different teams and nine drivers from six teams have stood on the podium this season. Eight teams have scored points and 16 drivers have a score on the board. 

This season has felt simultaneously familiar and yet refreshing considering how the turbo-hybrid has typically played out. It has not been a wide-open competition with unexpected winners and the championship being completely unpredictable, but this is the closest inter-team battle Formula One has seen since 2012, and in all likelihood the world championship will go to the wire.

So... we have a championship fight?
Apparently so, and the events of the British Grand Prix have only made it closer. With Max Verstappen exiting the race on the opening lap after contact with Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen suffered a significant blow after the Dutchman had won three consecutive races and four in the previous five. While Hamilton was handed a ten-second penalty during the race, Verstappen was guaranteed zero points. Hamilton overcame the obstacle and pulled out a thrilling victory at Silverstone. 

That result closed the gap between Verstappen and Hamilton down to eight points with possibly 12 or 13 races remaining in the 2021 season. 

And more than one championship is in play after Silverstone. With Verstappen's opening lap retirement, on top of Sergio Pérez having to start from the pit lane after his sprint qualifying incident, Mercedes took a first and third, scoring 40 points, plus three points from sprint qualifying and has closed the gap to four points between Red Bull and Mercedes. 

Add to it, Helmut Marko believes Hamilton should be suspended for the incident with Verstappen at Silverstone. Hamilton does not believe he needs to apologize for the contact. Verstappen believes Hamilton showed poor sportsmanship for his celebration while Verstappen was in hospital as a precaution. After Silverstone, it is clear these two parties will not get along down the stretch, and after Hamilton was only handed a ten-second penalty for the contact, I bet Verstappen is willing to resort to contact if he has to in a race later this season.

We are going to see more sparks and conflicts in the final half of this season.

Who has the upper hand?
Prior to the British Grand Prix, this question was going to be "Is this Red Bull's to lose?" 

How one race can change everything?

Through ten races, Red Bull has won six races to Mercedes' four. Verstappen is up five to Hamilton's four with Pérez on one. When Verstappen has reached the checkered flag, he has been first or second. Verstappen has started on pole position five times. Valtteri Bottas does not have a victory, but Bottas has been on the podium six times in the first ten races.

I am leaning toward advantage Red Bull. Hamilton's British Grand Prix victory will come with a footnote, but at Bahrain, Verstappen was charging down Hamilton with Hamilton holding on late. At Spain, Hamilton used a two-stop strategy that Red Bull chose not to counter. Verstappen was clearly the better driver at Monaco, France and both Austria races. 

You can look back on this season and have a reasonable argument Hamilton was the better driver at only Portimão. If it wasn't for his spin at Azerbaijan, Verstappen would likely have six victories. 

However, after seeing how Red Bull has responded after the Silverstone accident, the pressure could get to Verstappen. I don't think he will crater, but Hamilton is not going to give an inch. We don't see Hamilton stumble often. It wasn't look ago Hamilton got under the skin of Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari and took away a championship when Ferrari had the upper hand through the first half of the season. 

I think Verstappen is more likely to beat himself than Hamilton. Hamilton and Mercedes are built to overcome adversity. These will be the highest stakes Verstappen has ever faced and it has been nine years since Red Bull has been in a championship fight with another team. Verstappen and Red Bull should feel confident, but it is not an underdog. Losing this championship will not bring any moral victories.

Does Mercedes need a shakeup?
Before Silverstone, I was ready to say it is time to get George Russell in the second Mercedes, and nothing has changed that thought even though Mercedes had a wonderful points haul. Bottas really had nothing to do with it. 

Bottas lost ground at the initial start and fell behind Charles Leclerc, who in turn led the first 49 laps before Hamilton's late pass. Bottas lost ground on the restart, falling behind Lando Norris and only getting that position back through the first pit cycle when Norris had a significantly slow stop. It all worked out for Mercedes, and Hamilton pulled out the victory, but it had to do more work because of what Bottas was unable to accomplish. 

Red Bull is known for pulling the trigger and making a driver change to get the most out of the team. I think it would do Mercedes wonders if it made the same call and flipped Russell and Bottas.

Russell is putting the Williams in Q3. He is ready to be the number two and maximize Mercedes' point total. Bottas has been good, but too many times when Mercedes has needed him to step up and be there, he hasn't been present. 

Nobody thinks Mercedes will make the switch midseason. We are ready for Russell to make the move ahead of the 2022 season, but I think it wouldn't hurt Mercedes if it made the change now. 

Could McLaren have its day?
One driver has scored points in every race this season. That would be Lando Norris. 

Ten-for-ten has Norris on 113 points, third in the championship, five points ahead of Bottas and nine points ahead of Pérez. This is already the most points Norris has scored in a season and he has stood on the podium three times. 

Norris started on the front row at the Styrian Grand Prix, he started third for the Austrian Grand Prix and he has finished in the top five in nine of ten races. The exception is an eighth at Barcelona. 

Yeah, McLaren could have its day. We all remember the Sakhir Grand Prix last year, don't we? There were a few thoughts at Silverstone that with Verstappen out, Pérez mired at the rear, Hamilton on a ten-second penalty and Charles Leclerc already leading, Norris would have a shot at victory, especially after he jumped ahead of Bottas on the restart. Norris ended up falling to fourth, but if we have another crazy race where at least one Mercedes and one Red Bull fall out and the other Mercedes and Red Bull have to serve a penalty or have to make an extra pit stop, it could fall for Norris to win. 

As for Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian has struggled through the first half of the season. Ricciardo is on 50 points, eighth in the championship. His fifth at Silverstone was his first top five result of the season. Ricciardo does have a history of a tough first season with a new team. He was ninth in his first year with Renault on 54 points. The next season he was fifth on 119 points and stood on the podium two times. 

This year has not been as rough as Ricciardo's first Renault season, and he has looked better in recent races. The surprising thing is how wide the gap is between the two McLaren drivers. I thought there would be an edge to Ricciardo, but I didn't expect him to be over 50 points behind Norris through ten races. I thought if Ricciardo was trailing, it would be about 15 or 20 points at the most through ten races. 

We could see Ricciardo flip the script in the second half of the season and there could be a few races where he is the lead McLaren. For now, it is Norris' team and Norris is most likely to get McLaren its first grand prix victory since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix. 

What is the Drive to Survive storyline I want to see most from the first ten races?
There are a few, and Silverstone aside, I put Charles Leclerc's Monaco Grand Prix is at the top, and Leclerc didn't even start the race. 

Performing better than expectations, Leclerc had his Ferrari set for pole position when he collided with the barriers in turn 15 and 16. The red flag ended the session, but Leclerc's accident affectively clinched him pole position, as long as the team did not need to take any grid penalties for a gearbox change. 

Ferrari worked overnight to assure the Monegasque driver would retain the freedom of the front row for his home race and when it came time for the reconnaissance lap, it looked like Ferrari had done. The car was set, no grid penalties had to be assessed and Ferrari was looking to be in contention for a race victory with a less compelling race car. 

When Leclerc exited the car, it was discovered the left driveshaft was damaged and with not enough time to repair, Leclerc could not start his home race. 

It was a crushing blow for Leclerc and the team. A hint of drama was removed from the race as the Ferrari would not be at the front battling Verstappen and Red Bull into turn one, in what could have decided how the race played out. Instead, Verstappen had a clean and clear line into turn one and the Dutchman would lead all 78 laps and win nearly nine seconds clear of Leclerc's teammate Carlos Sainz, Jr. 

There are a few other moments we would like to see. Valtteri Bottas' blow up after the French Grand Prix, Imola after Bottas and George Russell came together, Azerbaijan from Verstappen's tire failure to Hamilton's mistake, but there is something about Ferrari find new ways to stub its toe. 

Which midfield team should be the happiest?
This is a tough question because the three teams in the middle each have been a little underwhelming, but have had bright spots. 

AlphaTauri had Pierre Gasly finish third at Azerbaijan and the team has scored points in every race, but it has had both drivers score points only once, Azerbaijan and Yuki Tsunoda has only ten points with four points finishes. 

Aston Martin had Sebastian Vettel finish second at Azerbaijan, but Vettel has scored points in only three races and Lance Stroll has not finished better than eighth this season. 

Alpine has scored points in the last nine races, but it has yet to have a top five finisher this season.

I would say AlphaTauri should be happiest because it leads this mid-pack triad in the championship, but Gasly's third is also the team's only top five result. Aston Martin has not been great and Vettel's runner-up at Baku covers up a lot of the cracks. This team is nowhere near its final seaosn as Racing Point. Alpine has been good, but just when it looks like Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon are going to be regular point scorers and carry Alpine up the standings, Ocon hits a rut. 

AlphaTauri has at least shown better pace and could put together a race weekend where Gasly finishes in the top five and no one would be surprised. Alpine should be next happiest because both drivers have a respectable number of points finishes. Aston Martin is at the bottom because it was Racing Point last year and was consistently putting both cars in the points with the occasional podium finish. A victory even fell to the team. A victory is likely not falling Aston Martin's way this year unless the top nine cars all retire from a race and an Aston Martin is in tenth.

It will be a fun fight for fifth in the championship. Only nine points separate the top three. AlphaTauri is only a point ahead of Aston Martin. Alpine will make this a fight and it would not be surprising if Alpine ended up fifth, especially if Alonso and Ocon continue to both score points. 

Should we say anything about Alfa Romeo?
Alfa Romeo has two points and is taking up space on the grid. It isn't competing for points. It isn't a threat for a good day. Kimi Räikkönen is collecting a paycheck and Antonio Giovinazzi is collecting Formula One starts. 

There is nothing to take away from Alfa Romeo. Räikkönen is just there and there is a moronic sect who believe his deadpanned presence is needed at every race, even if he is adding nothing to the event. Giovinazzi is not moving up the Formula One ladder. Ferrari is never going to call. Red Bull is never going to call. Mercedes probably doesn't even know he is on the grid. 

Alfa Romeo isn't going to become a respectable team anytime soon. We all wish it would. We wish the middle was tighter and we could see it end up with a top six result because everything click that weekend, but that will not happen.

And Haas?
Haas has not improved the car and it is finishing 19th and 20th unless other cars retire. The cars might be 18th and 19th or 17th and 18th. Or Azerbaijan happens where a half-dozen cars fall out of the race and Hamilton blows the first corner on the final restart and the cars end up 13th or 14th, but they are not competitive. 

Mick Schumacher is getting some experience and Nikita Mazepin is bringing a paycheck. Schumacher is 18th in the championship with his best finish being 13th at Azerbaijan. Mazepin is 20th, but he only dropped to 20th at Silverstone. Mazepin and Nicholas Latifi have both had a best finish of 14th, but Latifi's second best finish is 15th while Mazepin's next best finish is 17th, hence why the tiebreaker goes to Latifi. Latifi only finished 14th at Silverstone. Prior to the British Grand Prix, Mazepin was ahead of the Williams driver.

Has Schumacher done anything spectacular? No. Has Mazepin had his low moments? Yes. 

But I will slightly defend Mazepin because he has not been some disaster. Look up Yuji Ide or Sakon Yamamoto. Mazepin is not a likable driver, but we cannot ignore that he was fifth in Formula Two last year and had a respectable number of podium finishes. He also was second in the 2018 GP3 championship and won four races. Mazepin is certainly there because he brings money, but he is not the most unqualified driver in Formula One history. Does he spin regularly? Does he come off as completely unaware or completely ignorant of his surroundings? Yes. 

Eventually the money will run out and Mazepin will gone... and then the next spoiled rich kid will be here.

Will technical changes swing the second half of the season?
Possibly, but I don't think there will be any changes that cut the legs out from a top team. 

The most notable change we will see at Hungary and it is the removal of automated release systems on pit stops. Red Bull was the team in the crosshairs with this change, as the team had sensors to determine when a pit stop was complete and a driver could exit the pit box. This allowed for faster pit stops, but does increase the likelihood of an error and a possible safety concern. 

Pit stops have been hovering just about two seconds for most of the last decade, but Red Bull has already gone sub-two seconds and could be on the verge of doing it regularly. 

The removal of this system will only add a few tenths to each pit stop, about three to five from the sounds of it, nothing that debilitating to Red Bull, but those tenths could decide whether or not a car gets out ahead of another competitor on track. It could decide whether or not a car gets out within DRS range or not.

Is that enough to take the championship from Red Bull? It shouldn't be. Could it cost Red Bull a race or two? Yes, but it is not going to relegate Red Bull from top of the pile to fighting Alpine for ninth. 

The other article that could be addressed is flexible aerodynamic pieces, which were a big deal back in May after Lewis Hamilton noted the bendy rear wings on the Red Bull.

While the stewards have said the Red Bull car is compliant, that doesn't mean the FIA will not change the rules and make it more stringent. I think it is too late in the season to tighten the flexibility allowance, but it could be something of note heading into 2022. 

How will the second half play out?
The high downforce nature of Hungary tends to mean Monaco is used as the measuring stick and Red Bull looked good at Monaco. Mercedes did not look good at Monaco. Belgium has long straightaways and high speed. Azerbaijan has long straightaways and high speed. Red Bull won at Azerbaijan and Verstappen dominated that race. Hamilton was close at Azerbaijan, but not good enough. That blown restart late makes Hamilton's defeat look worse, but he was only going to finish third in that restart had it not been for Verstappen's tire failure and subsequent restart. Mercedes has won four of the last six races at Spa-Francorchamps. Red Bull has not won in Belgium since 2014

Zandvoort is a wild card before Monza, another high speed circuit, which has historically played into Mercedes' favor. Mercedes had won five consecutive Italian Grand Prix before Charles Leclerc's victory in 2019 and Pierre Gasly's surprise victory last year. Hamilton dominated the opening segment at Monza last year before safety car periods and a penalty for making a pit stop when the pit lane was closed derailed his race. 

Mercedes is unbeaten at Sochi. Turkey remains a wild card because last year's race was on a wet surface and the asphalt still hadn't cured when Formula One returned to Istanbul. Suzuka is still on the schedule and Mercedes has won six consecutive Japanese Grand Prix. Mercedes has won five of six United States Grand Prix in the turbo-hybrid era. 

Mexico has been a toss-up between Mercedes and Red Bull since it returned to the calendar in 2015, but Mexico has yet to carry this kind of championship implications between two different teams. The same could be said of Interlagos. There remains a TBD spot on the calendar after the Australian Grand Prix was canceled.

Saudi Arabia will host its inaugural grand prix in the penultimate round and Abu Dhubi closes the season. Mercedes had won six consecutive races at Yas Marina before Verstappen won last year. Abu Dhubi is also undergoing a reconfiguration that will see a single hairpin in place of turns four, five and six. A banked corner will be introduced in place of turns 11 through 14. The hotel corners will be opened up to allowed for greater speed. 

I feel comfortable saying Red Bull has the edge at four races with Mercedes having four in its favor, Abu Dhabi is split between the two and the reconfiguration only makes it more unclear, and Zandvoort, Istanbul and Saudi Arabia are complete toss ups.

The next two races are in Red Bull's favor and if it wins both, it could carry the momentum into the final portion of the season. Though Red Bull has arguably been the best team through ten races, I feel like it is more imperative that Red Bull win the races that are in its favor on paper than Mercedes. 

As for the rest of the championship, I think Pérez will get third and Bottas will get fourth, sliding Norris down to fifth. Ricciardo will split the Ferrari drivers. Alonso will move into the top ten in the championship. Tsunoda will find his groove. Russell will score points with Williams and win Driver of the Day in whatever race he scores. 

Verstappen and Hamilton will win majority of the races, but I will leave the door open for a surprise winner and I am not talking about their teammates. We will also see at least one race expanded into a doubleheader.  

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

IndyCar's Television Future: 2022 and Beyond

We do not get many spur-of-the-moment reasons to write these days, but Tuesday's news about IndyCar's new television deal starting in 2022 is worthy of our immediate attention. 

On the surface, it appears not much will change as IndyCar will remain on the NBC airwaves, but this extension will not be status quo for the series. A few changes need to be highlighted. 

The Deal At-A-Glance
IndyCar and NBC agreed to a multi-year extension starting with the 2022 season. The two sides were in the final year of a three-year exclusive agreement. 

Starting in 2022, NBC will broadcast at least 13 races with the remaining events being shown on USA Network and the streaming platform Peacock Premium. Peacock Premium will show two races exclusively in 2022, but every race, regardless of if it is broadcasted on NBC or USA, will also be available on Peacock Premium. 

Peacock Premium will continue broadcasting IndyCar practice and qualifying as well as the Indy Lights races.

Also new is Telemundo Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage of the season opener, Indianapolis 500, and season finale next year. The door was also left open for more races being shown on Telemundo.

How is this different from the current deal?
The number of races on big NBC will increase from nine in 2021 to 13 in 2022. We will go from just over half the races on network television to over 75% of the races in one year. Let's not forget it was only three years ago when only five races were on network television. IndyCar has almost tripled its network television profile in a four-year span. 

All the races will be available on Peacock, a big change as currently the only thing available on Peacock were the practice and qualifying sessions. A person will no longer need a cable subscription to see the entire IndyCar season. If you have Peacock, you can see all the races, and they will likely be available commercial-free. You will not have to worry about pre-empted races or races rushed off the air due to running long. 

What should we make of the length?
When IndyCar and NBC first agreed to its exclusive partnership it was introduced as a multi-year deal and multi-year turned out to be three years. The number three was not mentioned with this new contract, but I think it is safe to say this will either be a two-year or three-year deal and NBC will be IndyCar's home until at least 2023 or 2024. I fully expect it is a three-year agreement.

Should I be concerned with Peacock?
The one thing that people have dwelled on with this new contract is two races will exclusively be on Peacock. That means they will not be on NBC or USA. The only way to see them are on Peacock. Those angriest at this can't seem to see beyond the fact that 13 RACES!!! will be on network television and to these people two Peacock races are the worst crime against humanity. 

It is tough to accept that two races will only be available via a streaming platform, but the same people who are upset that IndyCar races have commercials are now upset two IndyCar races will only be available commercial-free on Peacock. In fact, every race will be available commercial-free on Peacock, and these are the same people who for the longest time have been saying they wish IndyCar would leave NBC and have its own streaming platform that they would pay for. 

Guess what hypocrites? Everything your heart desires will be on Peacock. There are no more reasons to bitch and moan about it. Your wish has come true, stop being so upset about getting what you want. 

In all seriousness, I am not sure how successful two Peacock races will be, and it does look like a step back, even in this increasingly digital world. We still measure popularity and success based on television channels and availability. Peacock races feel like IndyCar is removing itself from the landscape. These races will go on and, unless you are in-tune with the series, most people will miss these races. It is only two races and not five or eight or ten, but it is hiding enough from the masses that it isn't a great thing. The last thing IndyCar should want is to have a thrilling race that no one knows happened. 

But if we are living in an evolving digital world, we have to accept this day was always coming. We see a lot of events available only via streaming platforms. Thursday Night Football games for the NFL will only be available via Amazon Prime starting in 2022. Major League Baseball has a game of the week available only on YouTube. This is a big change for IndyCar, but it is only two races, and two races is a good trial size. They might try it in 2022, see it is not a success, and abandon it for 2023. It could turn out these two races draw respectable audiences and everyone, from the series to the teams, sponsors to NBC, deem it a success. 

Streaming-only races were bound to happen and I believe this is the best time for it. We must at least find out if they are viable. 

Is this for the best of IndyCar?
As of right now, yes, because I don't think IndyCar can demand much more from any broadcast company. 

The ratings have seen an increase with NBC, especially this season, but it is still a series drawing just over a million viewers per race. Those aren't incredible numbers. The series is not able to demand $200 million a year from a broadcaster with only a million viewers per race. That transformational wealth is not coming to the series to pump it up and lead to nine new teams and 20 new entries at every race. As much as the series was hoping to see a raise from this television deal, the gains are too incremental to really warrant an increase in cash flow. 

It also didn't help that there didn't appear to be any major pursuer outside of NBC. CBS was mentioned at one point but quickly withdrew itself without even an offer becoming public. It is not a good thing that there wasn't a bidding war, but a two or three-year commitment with NBC suggests IndyCar is hoping it can get a big pay day after the 2023 or 2024 season. At that point we will have a new set of regulations and hopefully another manufacture or two in the series. There could be more for the series to sell and draw more interest.

Staying with NBC for another two or three years is a positive for IndyCar, especially for the Indianapolis 500. After spending over 50 years on one network, IndyCar needed to build some longevity with NBC and the Indianapolis 500. IndyCar cannot afford to be bouncing from network to network and lacking an established platform. I think if you change networks too often, viewers lose track of where to find the races and that hurts a series. 

A second contract is a good thing. NBC sees value in IndyCar. The Indianapolis 500 has received major event treatment on NBC, as the race has had extended pre-race coverage and it is valued as a major piece to NBC Sports along with the Kentucky Derby, French Open tennis tournament and golf's U.S. Open and The Open Championship. 

We also cannot overstate 13 races will be on network television! That is much more exposure for the sponsors, the teams, the drivers, and the manufactures. That is a significant number for IndyCar, and I don't believe there has been a season with this many races on network television, not even during the hey-days of CART in the 1990s. 

The Telemundo portion of the deal should also not be overlooked, and I am surprised it has taken this long for IndyCar to have a Spanish-language broadcaster. Back in 2011, Telemundo was on the side of Oriol Servià's car when Servià drove for Newman/Haas Racing, and I thought IndyCar needed that Spanish-language component then. Within three years, IndyCar had Juan Pablo Montoya back in the series and leading a Colombian charge with Carlos Muñoz, Carlos Huertas and Sébastien Saavedra in the series. E.J. Viso was also a series regular during that time. Gabby Chaves would join the series not long after that. Patricio O'Ward is IndyCar's first big Mexican star in over 15 years and the series even had Esteban Gutiérrez compete for a few races.

Spanish-speaking drivers are common in the series, and I have felt IndyCar has been missing the Spanish-speaking audience for some time. I am not sure what kind of numbers IndyCar could draw with a Spanish-language broadcast. It depends who is on the grid but consider that the Mexico-El Salvador CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer game on Sunday night drew 3.79 million viewers on Univision. I know that is soccer between two Spanish-speaking countries, but if O'Ward can become a star and another driver emerges from Central America or South America or perhaps Álex Palou gathers a following, who is to say IndyCar couldn't draw 500,000 people watching in Spanish? That would be a great thing for the series, especially if those 500,000 people are in addition to the 1.3 million people already watching.  

For the last few seasons, many have mentioned IndyCar has been in a golden era. Some of the best drivers we have ever seen are on the grid, the field is more competitive than it has ever been and the races themselves have had more action and been more compelling. Now the series has arguably more exposure than any previous television contract. I am not sure how long things will continue to go up, but the last five or six years have paid off for IndyCar with this contract.