Autumn is here in the Northern Hemisphere. Championships are winding down. Many series, if not all series, have single-digit events remaining or are complete, as is the case with IndyCar. I guess Supercars is the exception, but they are working out their 2021 schedule and it now spring in Australia. It has been an odd three months for Supercars. Anyway, Australia aside, we are looking at the end of the year, shorter days, colder nights, and silverware being awarded.
We just put a bow on the IndyCar season but there was a lot that happened this season. There was some history made. There were things we had never seen before! We also had some changes in this season that we need to discuss. Let's get to it!
Álex Palou won the championships in his sophomore season and Palou became the first driver to win his first race and his first championship in the same season since Sam Hornish, Jr. in the 2001 Indy Racing League season.
Palou scored 549 points of a possible 922 points, 59.544%. That is the lowest percentage since Scott Dixon's fourth championship in 2015. Dixon had 57.736% that season and won the championship on tiebreaker over Juan Pablo Montoya. The advantage was Dixon had three victories to Montoya's two victories. Palou this year also had only three victories, but Palou had eight podium finishes, double Dixon's 2015 total, but Colton Herta also won three races this season.
Palou became the fifth champion in the last six season with at least ten top five finishes, but his 12 top ten finishes were the fewest since Simon Pagenaud had the same amount in 2016. Palou is the eighth consecutive champion to finish in the top ten in at least 75% of the races. Dixon's 2013 championship season is the last time a driver was not in the top ten for at least 75% at 63.157%, but Dixon also had 12 top ten finishes in a 19-race season. The last champion with fewer than 12 top ten finishes is Ryan Hunter-Reay's ten in 2012, a 15-race season.
One thing of note is how long Palou spent at the top of the championship. He led the championship after 11 of 16 races, he was second after four races, including with three races remaining, and he was third after the fourth race of the season, the second Texas race. Recent champions have been on top from the start.
2020: Dixon led wire-to-wire.
2019: Josef Newgarden led after 16 of 17 races and he was second after the Indianapolis 500, one point behind Simon Pagenaud.
2018: Dixon was sixth, seventh, sixth, seventh after the first four races, fourth after the next two races, second after the next two races and then won Texas and led the championship for the final nine races.
2017: Newgarden was a little more all over the place, but he was never worse than eighth. He was in the top five after 13 of 17 races. He did not take the championship lead until his victory in the 13th race at Mid-Ohio and he led after the final five events.
2016: Pagenaud was second after the first race, eight points behind Juan Pablo Montoya and then led after the final 15 races.
2015: We forget that Montoya never trailed in the 2015 championship. He led from start to finish and only lost on tiebreaker. Dixon however is the last champion to be outside the top ten at some point in the season. He was 15th after St. Petersburg and 14th after NOLA Motorsports Park. He jumped up to fourth after winning Long Beach, was third and fourth after the next two races and was never worse than third for after the final 11 races. The only time he was second in the championship was after the 12th race at Milwaukee and then he won the championship in the final race.
2014: Will Power was never worse than second in the championship. He led the championship after 13 of 18 races and he was second with four races to go.
2013: Dixon did not get the championship lead until after the penultimate race. He did bounce around more. He was never worse than eighth and he was in the top five of the championship after 15 of 19 races.
2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay was seventh in the championship with eight races to go in a 15-race season. He was in the top five of the championship after 11 races, led after the two Canadian races before dropping to second, where he remained after the next three races entering the finale, and he then won the championship in the final race.
2011: Dario Franchitti was never worse than second in the championship. He led after 11 of 17 races, but he was second entering the finale, albeit we didn't know Kentucky was going to be the finale at the time. He took the lead after Kentucky and then won the championship. He did lead the championship after eight consecutive races before he was second after the penultimate race at Motegi.
2010: Franchitti was sixth after the first race but in the top five in the final 16 races. He was fifth after the fifth race and then in the top three for the final 12 races. He led after Texas, dropped to third after a mechanical issue cost him a victory at Iowa and was then back to second after Watkins Glen. He was second after the next eight races and won the championship in the final race at Homestead.
2009: The underrated 2009 season saw Franchitti in fourth after the first race and he was never worse than fourth. His championship position was different after the first 12 races. He was then third after Kentucky and Mid-Ohio and then second after Sonoma, Chicago and Motegi before he won the championship in the final race at Homestead with his fifth victory of the season.
2008: Dixon won the first race, was second in the championship after the next three races, and then led the championship for the final 13 races.
For those keeping score at home, after the 232 races held since reunification, the series champion has been leading after 121 of them, in the top two after 172 races, top three after 195 races, top five after 215 races and in the top ten after 232 of 234 races!
Let's keep those numbers in mind for 2022, especially for those who finish outside the top ten in the opening race.
Bad News For Next Year
Palou became the third consecutive driver to win the season opener and go onto win the championship. Newgarden won at St. Petersburg in 2019. Dixon won at Texas in 2020 and Dixon also won the next two races.
Why is this bad news for next year? Since 1946, there has never been a period where the season opener winner has gone onto win the championship in four consecutive seasons.
The only other period with three consecutive season opener winners going on to win the championship was the 2001 through 2003 IRL seasons. Sam Hornish, Jr. won the first two years and Dixon won in 2003.
Drivers might be trying to not win at St. Petersburg last year. Either that or someone will be trying to make history.
Palou's Little Place in History
We know by now that Palou is the first Spaniard to win the IndyCar championship. He was already only one of four Spaniards to start an IndyCar race and only one of two Spaniards to win an IndyCar race. But what else has Palou done that no one or few drivers had ever done before?
With Palou's victory in the Barber season opener, he became just the second driver to win in the GP3 Series/FIA Formula Three Championship and IndyCar. The first was Alexander Rossi. Palou is now the first driver to compete in GP3/FIA Formula Three and go on to win an IndyCar championship.
Palou's Barber victory also made him the first driver to win a race in both Super Formula and IndyCar. He won at Fuji in Super Formula in 2019. With Palou the only driver to win in both series, he is the only Super Formula race winner to win an IndyCar championship. However, Palou is not the only IndyCar champion to race in Super Formula. Tony Kanaan made one start in the series when it was still called Formula Nippon in the 2007 season finale and finished sixth at Suzuka.
Palou already belongs to an eclectic list of drivers to win a Super Formula race and start an IndyCar race. The other drivers in that club are Mike Thackwell, Jan Lammers, Ross Cheever, Naoki Hattori, Tora Takagi, Noberto Fontana, André Lotterer, Kosuke Matsuura and João Paulo de Oliveira. I would say Lotterer and Palou are the top two in that club with Lammers, Thackwell and de Oliveira in a second tier and then the bottom five.
Let's look at our local lads for the 2021 season and things ended on a good note for the home team. American drivers won three of the final four races. Overall, American drivers combined to win five races. All those victories came from two drivers, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden.
It was the same number of victories for Americans, the same number of Americans winning the races and the same two Americans winning races as last year. This was the fifth consecutive season where American drivers combined for at least five victories. In the nine seasons prior, American drivers combined to win at least five races only twice (2012 and 2015).
This was the 11th consecutive season with at least two American drivers winning a race, and there has still not been four or more Americans to win an IndyCar race in one season since five American drivers won in the 2003 Indy Racing League season.
Four American drivers were in the top ten of the championship, the fifth consecutive season at least four Americans were in the top ten and the sixth time in the last seven years. This was also the fourth consecutive season there were multiple American drivers in the top five of the championship. Prior to 2018, the only other season since reunification to have multiple Americans in the top five of the championship was 2016.
There were only seven regular Americans in 2021 (drivers who started at least 70% of the races), down from 11 last year, but last year was an aberration of sorts. The 2020 season was the first season with double-figure American regulars since ten in the 2003 IRL season and it was the most since 11 American regulars in the 2002 IRL season.
Overall, 17 American drivers started an IndyCar race this season.
While based in North American, and exclusively running races in the United States since July 2019, IndyCar is an international series.
The top four in the championship represented four different nationalities. That is the first time that has happened since 2017 when each of the top five drivers represented a different country. There were seven different nationalities from four different continents in the top ten of the championship. The only country with multiple representatives was the United States.
Sixteen different countries were represented in an IndyCar race this season, including a record 15 different nationalities represented in the Indianapolis 500. Eight of the 16 nationalities had multiple participants this season, including Denmark, which had two drivers start a race this year after only have two drivers participate in IndyCar prior to the 2021 season. Coincidentally, Denmark was the only country to have an IndyCar participant this season but was not represented in the Indianapolis 500!
Things I Did Not Expect to be Writing at the Start of 2021
Speaking of Denmark, Kevin Magnussen led more laps this IndyCar season than 2021 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Scott McLaughlin, 2012 champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, 1999 CART champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, 2004 IRL champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan and two Canadians who both started all 16 races, James Hinchcliffe and Dalton Kellett.
Who Was Top Qualifier?
Every year we have somewhere around a dozen-and-a-half races on a multitude of different courses. Big ovals, little ovals, street courses, road courses, rough surfaces and smooth. Races are more unpredictable. A driver can have a great day, be miles in the lead and then have an untimely caution catch that driver out before a pit stop and that will shuffle a driver back to 12th. That is not really a true barometer of performance.
Qualifying is a better measuring stick of true pace. It is pretty pure. Go out and set the fastest lap. That's it. No more. No less.
There were 16 races this season. Both Texas races had their grids set via entrants' point because of rain. Throw those two races out and look at the 14 races where there was qualifying. Who had the best qualifying average this season?
It wasn't four-time pole-sitter Josef Newgarden. While Newgarden had the most pole positions, his qualifying average was 7.3571, as a few poor outings, such as 21st in the Indianapolis 500, 20th in the August IMS road course race, 18th at Portland and 17th at Laguna Seca dragged his average down.
It wasn't three-time pole-sitter Patricio O'Ward. O'Ward's average was 8.3571. He didn't have as many poor results as Newgarden, but he was 18th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, 16th in the second Belle Isle race (which he won), and 20th at Mid-Ohio.
It wasn't champion Álex Palou, as he was 25th in the first Belle Isle race after a six-spot grid penalty and 21st at Gateway after a nine-spot grid penalty, knocking his average down to 8.2143.
It was nearly Colton Herta. Herta started in the top ten of every race until the final race when he ended up 14th at Long Beach, 14th after topping both practice sessions. That one qualifying result knocked Herta's average to 4.3571.
So, who was top? This is a trick question because it is a driver who made one start.
It is Denmark's Christian Lundgaard, who qualified fourth in the August IMS road course race.
Now, Lundgaard wouldn't really qualify. Baseball says you need a minimum of 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. In IndyCar, I think you need to run at least 70% of the race to qualify for any statistical category. But on absolute numbers, Lundgaard will have a little footnote in the IndyCar history book.
On the Flip Side...
What about average finish? Who led that?
Well, based on absolutes, it is Sage Karam! Karam was seventh in the Indianapolis 500, his only start this season.
But the real answer among qualified drivers is Josef Newgarden. Newgarden's average finish was 7.25, just ahead of Palou's 7.3125 and Dixon's 7.4375.
Starting on Top, Finishing in the Middle
Setting a minimum standard, Herta had the best average qualifying position this season at 4.3571. He had to qualify ninth to at least finish level with Lundgaard and eighth to win it outright. It just goes to show how close he was. Averaging under a fifth place starting position is incredible. Herta was nearly three spots clear of the next best driver. Only seven regular drivers averaged better than a tenth place starting position. Only two other drivers averaged better than an eighth place starting position.
The next best driver was Alexander Rossi, whose average qualifying position was 7.1429.
Going into the Long Beach finally, especially with Herta starting 14th, it appeared neither of the top two average starters were going to finish in the top five of the championship. Then Herta won the race and Marcus Ericsson was the first retirement, meaning Herta got fifth over the Swede by 20 points.
However, I had already done the research before Long Beach, so I have left the question in here: When was the last time the top two drivers in average starting position did not finish in the top five of the championship?
Let's set it straight that is not a trick. It is looking at driver who qualify with a minimum of 70% of the races started. There aren't going to be some Indianapolis 500 one-off that counts. Fernando Alonso in 2017 does not count, and he had the second-best average starting position in 2017 with his fifth-place start at the Indianapolis 500.
The last time any of top two in average starting position was not in the top five of the championship was 2014 when James Hinchcliffe had the second best average starting position but finished 12th in the championship. Hélio Castroneves topped that season, but he was runner-up in the championship. The year before that, Ryan Hunter-Reay was second in qualifying average but seventh in the championship. Will Power had the top average starting, but Power finished fourth in the championship.
The last time the best average starting position was not in the top five of the championship was 2012 when Dario Franchitti averaged a 5.8 starting position, but he was seventh in the championship. Power was behind Franchitti in average starting position, but Power finished second in the championship behind Hunter-Reay.
But when was the last time you had both the top two outside the top five in the championship?
The 2000 Indy Racing League season. Among qualified drivers, Greg Ray had the best average starting position at 3.1. Ray won pole position five times in nine races. He was 13th in the championship. Jeff Ward was next best at a 6.1 average start. Ward did not win a pole position, but he started in the top ten in eight of nine races, four of which were top five starts, and his worst starting position was 13th. Ward was 11th in the championship.
Both Ray and Ward started all nine races. There were a few Indianapolis 500 interlopers in there. On absolute numbers, Juan Pablo Montoya had the best average starting position as Montoya started second in the Indianapolis 500. Between Ray and Ward was Robby Gordon, who started fourth in the Indianapolis 500. Behind Ward was Jimmy Vasser, who started seventh at Indianapolis.
Coincidentally, Montoya also had the top average starting position in CART's 2000 season, but Montoya was ninth in that championship. Gil de Ferran was second to Montoya in average starting position, and de Ferran won the championship, but four of the top five average starting positions that season in CART were outside the top five in the championship. Montoya was ninth, Hélio Castroneves was seventh in the championship despite his third-best average starting position, Franchitti was fourth in that category but 13th in the championship and Christian Fittipaldi's average starting position was only three-tenths worse than Franchitti, but Fittipaldi was 12th in the championship.
Scott Dixon was third at Long Beach and it is a good thing he was third because Dixon ended one of the worst beatings in his IndyCar career.
While Dixon did finish fourth in the championship, his third-place result at Long Beach was the first time he was the top Chip Ganassi Racing finisher since the second Texas race on May 2. Dixon had not been the top Ganassi finisher in 11 consecutive races before Long Beach. How often had Dixon not been the top finisher in his team for 11 consecutive races?
Before this season, the answer was never! Eleven consecutive intra-team loses is his longest in a season in his IndyCar career. Surprisingly, he was beat in ten consecutive races in 2014. From the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May 2014 through the first Toronto race in July, Dixon was not the top Ganassi finisher. In that ten-race span, Tony Kanaan led the way with four top finishes while Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe were each top in three races.
The only other season where Dixon lost the intra-team battle in at least five consecutive races was the 2002 season when he joined Ganassi in the fourth round of the CART season at Milwaukee after PacWest Racing closed its door. Dixon was the top finisher in his first race with the team, but Bruno Junqueira and Kenny Bräck would split the next eight races, Junqueira on top in five races and Bräck on top in three.
There have been four seasons where Dixon has never lost consecutive races within team, including his rookie year where Dixon was the top PacWest Racing finisher in 16 of 19 races against Maurício Gugelmin. There were 20 races that CART season, but Gugelmin missed Nazareth, Dixon's first career victory, after the passing of his son.
The other three seasons were 2008, Dixon's second championship season and against Dan Wheldon. Dixon went 13-4 that season. In 2017, Dixon was on top of 12 of 16 races with Max Chilton and Kanaan each top finisher twice. The following seasons, Dixon's fifth championship season, he was 15-2 against Ed Jones.
Ganassi Back On Top
Chip Ganassi Racing might have just won its second consecutive championship and fourth in the last seven seasons, but 2021 was the first time Chip Ganassi Racing had the outright most victories in an IndyCar season since 2013. Ganassi had six victories this season, double that of Team Penske, which had at least a share of the most team victories in a season since 2014. Penske and Ganassi shared the top spot in 2015 with three apiece.
Six victories are the most for Ganassi in a season since it won six times in 2011.
About Street Courses
Four of five street course races in 2021 were won from outside a top ten starting position. Four of five!
Colton Herta won the first street course race from pole position at St. Petersburg. That was followed with Marcus Ericsson winning from 15th in the first Belle Isle race, Patricio O'Ward winning from 16th in the second Belle Isle race, Ericsson winning at Nashville from 18th and finished with Herta going from 14th to first at Long Beach.
How many seasons had at least four street course winners start outside the top ten?
Since the first modern street course race in IndyCar history, 1983 Caesars Palace parking lot, this was the fifth season where multiple street course races were won from outside the top ten.
The 2000 CART season, 2002 CART season and 2015 season all had two winners. The 2014 IndyCar season had four street course winners start outside the top ten, but that 2014 season had eight street course races. The only season to have more than eight street course races was 2013, as 2013 and 2014 were the two seasons that each had three doubleheader weekends at Belle Isle, Toronto and Houston respectively. Ironically, none of the ten street course races in 2013 were won from outside the top ten.
Based on percentages, 80% of the street courses in 2021 were won from outside the top ten compared to half in 2014.
The average starting position for a street course winner in 2021 was 12.8, the first season where the average was worse than tenth! The 2015 season was the previously worst at 9.4 while 2014 was only 9.25 despite half the races being won from outside the top ten. This was just the 14th season out of 42 seasons where the average starting position for a street course winner was worse than fifth.
There have been 199 modern street course races in IndyCar. Twenty-two of those 199 have been won from outside the top ten! Thirteen of those 22 have occurred since 2014! To add more surprise to this, in 2019, the most recent season with multiple street courses, the average starting position for street course winners was 2.4, tied for the eighth lowest starting position and four of those five races were won from the front row with the other race won from sixth.
In case you are wondering what the average starting position is for the winners of the 199 modern IndyCar street course races, it is 4.7236. The lowest average starting position for street course winners is 1.8, which occurred in the 2004 Champ Car season. Three races were won from pole position and the other two were won from third.
Definition of Average
The definition of average for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is... Takuma Sato!
Here is Sato's championship position after every race this season: 13th, 11th, 11th, 11th, 12th, 11th, tenth, tenth, tenth, tenth, tenth, 11th, tenth, 11th, 12th, 11th.
He never started in the top ten this season and he had a career worse average qualifying position of 18.571. Sato did not advance from the first round of qualifying once on a road or street circuit. And yet, he had eight top ten finishes! However, only one of those was a top five finish, a fourth in the first Belle Isle race.
Sato did lead 21 laps this season, his fewest since zero in 2016 and the only other time he led fewer than 21 laps was when he led zero in his rookie season back in 2010.
However, Sato was running at the finish of 14 races, his most in a single season and his 13 lead lap finishes were also another personal best.
Oh Canada! (Original, I Know)
There were eight countries that had multiple competitors this season. Only Denmark and Brazil did not have a regular competitor. The other six countries had multiple regular competitors. Here is how those countries ranked based on average championship finish among regular drivers:
New Zealand: 9.0
United States: 12.142
United Kingdom: 18.5
James Hinchcliffe was 20th and Dalton Kellett was 23rd. Kellett scored 148 points in 16 starts. Hélio Castroneves scored 158 points in six starts. Hinchcliffe and Kellett combined to lead zero laps. They were the top two drivers in the championship not to lead a lap. Hell, even Christian Lundgaard led two laps this season! Danish drivers combined to start two races and led a combined eight laps. Canadian combined to start 32 races and led zero laps.
In eight IndyCar seasons, Conor Daly has finished 18th in the championship three times. Daly's best championship finish was 17th in 2002.
Bottom of the Table
I think it is fun to look at the bottom of the standings because it tells a lot about what happened this season.
Dead last was R.C. Enerson, who only completed 12 laps in the August Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race and retired in 28th. Enerson got five points. Five points is the fewest since Jorge Goeters scored three points in the 2005 Champ Car season with an 18th-place finish in the Monterrey race.
However, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League used two different point systems. In the series formerly known as the IRL, Enerson's points total is the lowest since Billy Boat in 2003, but Boat raced with a different points system. From 1996-2003, the point system paid descending points all the way to 29th and then 29th on down to score only one point. In 2004, the IRL changed it so 18th-24th all scored 12 points and 25th onward scored at least ten points.
IndyCar didn't change it points system to pay descending points down to five until 25th and beyond until 2013! Not to mention, since 2014 there has been at least one double-points race.
Since 2013, Enerson has scored the fewest points in a season. Since 2013, six of nine drivers to finish in last place only ran the Indianapolis 500. One of the three exceptions is Enerson this year. Another is Scott McLaughlin last year, who ran the St. Petersburg season finale.
Franck Montagny! Remember him? He ran the #26 Andretti Honda in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished 22nd. This was the entry that Kurt Busch would drive in the Indianapolis 500 two weeks later.
Forty-three drivers started an IndyCar race this season, the most since 46 started a race in 2011, the final season before the DW12-era. Nineteen drivers started every race. Another five started at least 70% of the races.
Of the remaining 19 drivers who started a race this season there were two past champions, three past Indianapolis 500 winners, two drivers who started a Formula One race last season, four past 24 Hours of Daytona winners and six past IndyCar race winners.
There was one driver who started a NASCAR Cup race this season, plus another two who have run in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
One driver had a 24 Hours of Daytona class victory this year. Another driver won in the Superstars Racing Experience on a quarter-mile oval in Wisconsin. One driver is a Scuderia Ferrari test driver and Alfa Romeo F1's reserve driver. One driver is an active Formula Two competitor.
Five of the part-time drivers made their IndyCar debuts this season. A total seven drivers made their debuts in 2021.
The nineteen part-time drivers combined for one victory, which just happened to be the Indianapolis 500, two top five finishes and 11 top ten finishes in their combined 46 starts this season.
Last year's 14-race race, pandemic shifted IndyCar schedule was the fourth shortest in IndyCar history, lasting only 141 days. It did not begin until the first Saturday in June and ended on the final Sunday in October.
This season's 16-race, slightly pandemic delayed schedule but one that saw only one race cancelled completely due to the pandemic and the season finale was a week later than originally scheduled to accommodate the rescheduling of Long Beach, lasted 161 days.
Two more races with fewer hiccups and schedule revisions, and the IndyCar season is only 20 days longer than when in the heat of a global pandemic.
However, this slightly pandemic delayed season was longer than the 2014 and 2015 seasons, which only last 153 days and 154 days respectively, neither of which occurred in the middle of the pandemic. Hooray?
It was also longer than the 1947 (156 days) and 1955 (160 days) championships, so take that IndyCar's roadster-era!
This year was the ninth-shortest IndyCar season.
In case you are wondering, with the 2022 season due to open on February 27 at St. Petersburg and close on September 11 at Laguna Seca, next season is tentatively set to last 196 days, the same length as the 2019 season. The last season to last 200 days or more was the 2013 season, which took 209 days to complete.
Lap Count Management
There is something we need to talk about IndyCar this season and that is the floating lap distances of races. A few races this year had fewer laps than usual. A few races had more laps! In some cases, less is more, and a five-lap reduction on a road course might not be a bad thing. In some cases, more is more.
What is another five laps at Portland or ten laps at Gateway?
In 2020, there were a few scenarios where it made sense for race distances to change. There were doubleheaders at Iowa, Gateway and Mid-Ohio. Races were shortened just because of weekend workload. Texas was shortened because it was a single day show in the early stages of the pandemic when IndyCar was just trying to get a season started. St. Petersburg was also shortened by ten laps.
There were a few changes in 2021 compared to 2019 that raised a few eyebrows. St. Petersburg remained 100 laps this season. It had been 100 laps for many years, but the problem with 100 laps is it is a basic two-stop race at that distance. It was increased to 110 laps in 2013 to encourage three-stop strategies, and it has worked out.
Mid-Ohio was 80 laps in 2021, ten laps shorter than 2019. The 2021 race was a two-stop race for everyone. The 2019 race, and most 90-lap races at Mid-Ohio since adopting that distance in 2013, have been strategy-fluid affairs with three-stoppers and two-stoppers and teams juggling when to take which tire compound. The 2021 race had a good finish, but I fear more times than not an 80-lap race at Mid-Ohio will be underwhelming.
Now, on the reverse side of St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio, Gateway was extended by 10 laps, Portland by five laps and Laguna Seca by five laps.
Part of the reason for St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio lap totals were television. St. Petersburg was ahead of golf and Mid-Ohio was ahead of the NASCAR Cup race at Road America. Next year, 14 of 17 races will be on network NBC. Can IndyCar find middle ground where it can run a race within a dedicated television window and not spill over but also have sufficient race distances that allow for compelling strategy and provide some spice and not a color-by-number approach from the pit stands?
We can only hope. The extension of Portland and Laguna Seca, two races that were on NBC, are an encouraging sign.
In three road/street course races this season, IndyCar used an alternate knockout qualifying. Round one was still split into two groups with the top six advancing, but round two was the final round with 12 drivers fighting for pole position instead of a third round for the fastest six from round two to decide the first three rows.
This format was used at the Belle Isle doubleheader and the August IMS road course race. I think it has legs to become the permanent new format.
One, it would condense qualifying a little bit. It is round one and then the main event.
Two, we would see the fastest times determine pole positions. More often than not, by the team we finish round two, every team has used their new sets of tires and the final round is left to see who is the best on used tires. It can be anti-climactic. Some drivers know they don't have it and cannot put up a serious pole position run. Other drivers clearly have a little more in the tires and can take the top spot with ease.
Three, it would be one fewer opportunity for teams to complain about laps being impeded and race control deciding which times are disallowed and which drivers move on.
A two-round qualifying format would ensure everyone could go for pole position. We would get to see a little more drama in those closing laps. We would see drivers changing tires mid-session and making multiple runs for the top spot. It would be a change from what we have seen in IndyCar since road/street courses were first introduced in the Indy Racing League in 2005. IndyCar's format precedes Formula One's format by a season. However, I think a two-round format would be just as exciting as what we get with three rounds now.
Not all change is bad. This could be one modification everyone would support.
Prior to the Long Beach finale, many lamented double points in the Indianapolis 500 because, without the double points, Palou would have led Newgarden by 26 points and O'Ward by 27 points entering the finale. Just a simple 51-point victory by either driver would require Palou to finish seventh or better if Newgarden won or eighth or better if O'Ward won. If either driver finished second, Palou would need to finish 16th or better with Newgarden or 17th or better with O'Ward.
Palou's margin of error would have shrunk significantly.
But why not argue for the season finale to return to double point? The finale has more recently been double points than the Indianapolis 500 has been regular points. Not to mention, it would have added more levels to the finale.
If Long Beach had been double points this year, the top five in the championship would have been alive for the championship. With 104 points on the table, a maximum points victory for O'Ward would have forced Palou to finish third. For Newgarden, maximum points make Palou finish fifth or sixth with at least one bonus point. For Scott Dixon, his title defense would remain alive to the finale and, though his hopes would be slim, a maximum points victory would mean Palou needed finish 14th. For Marcus Ericsson, he was 87 points back entering the finale and he would need Palou to finish 22nd or worse, so not great odds but Ericsson would have been alive nonetheless.
How would have the championship looked based on the results of Long Beach?
Newgarden would have scored 82 points with bonus points for pole position and leading a lap. Dixon was third and led one lap, so that means he would score 71 points. Palou would have taken 64 points for fourth. O'Ward and Ericsson were the bottom two finishers, so they would have each scored ten points on the day.
Palou would have still been champion with 581 points. Newgarden would have lost by 30 points instead of 38 points. Dixon would jump up to third with 516 points, 65 points back, three points closer than he actually finished behind Palou. Colton Herta would have been the big winner and jumped up to fourth on 505 points thanks to his 103-point victory. O'Ward would drop to fifth based on that one result and finish 91 points behind Palou. Ericsson would still be sixth, but 141 points back.
I am not for double points, but I have opened to the concept, especially if the Indianapolis 500 is going to be double points. A driver can still clinch a championship early with double points, it is just a win-by-two scenario like tennis or volleyball.
With a double points finale, all the drivers eligible would have had a victory this season, and four of the five had multiple victories. The only driver with only one victory was Dixon!
A street course is not ideal for a double points race, especially if it is going to remain its normal race distance. I prefer all the races pay the same points, but if the Indianapolis 500 remains double points, then make the finale a 500-mile race at an oval for symmetry or, if it is on a road or street course, make it the longest road/street course race of the season, a true challenge to end the season.
The IndyCar season might be complete, but the Road to Indy Series have one more weekend left and all three will decide champions this weekend at Mid-Ohio.
Kyle Kirkwood has 488 points and a 15-point lead over David Malukas entering the final weekend. Kirkwood has won the last three races, which followed a three-race winning streak for Malukas. The two drivers have combined to win 16 of 18 races this season with Kirkwood holding the edge nine to seven.
There are 64 points left on the table with two races to play. If Malukas were to sweep the weekend and score the maximum 64 points, Kirkwood would have to finish second in both races to win the championship by one point. Kirkwood has finished second to Malukas four times this season. The other thing against Malukas is Kyle Kirkwood has won all seven of his Road to Indy starts at Mid-Ohio. Kirkwood has also won five of 12 Mid-Ohio starts between United States Formula 4 and F3 Americas with ten podium finishes in those 12 starts.
Indy Lights will race at 1:00 p.m. ET on Saturday October 2 and at noon on Sunday October 3.
Indy Pro 2000 has two races left and mathematically there are five drivers alive for the championship, but it is really a two-horse race.
Christian Rasmussen looks to follow up his U.S. F2000 championship with an Indy Pro 2000 title, and the Dane has 392 points, 18 points ahead of Ohio-native Braden Eves. Rasmussen leads Indy Pro 2000 with six victories this season, but he has not won since the first Mid-Ohio race on July 3rd. Eves has three victories, two of which came in the first three races of the season and then he won at Gateway.
Hunter McElrea is 45 points back and he won the most recent race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. McElrea has finished on the podium in five consecutive races. He won the second Mid-Ohio race back in July. Fifty-five points back is Reece Gold, who picked up his first Indy Pro 2000 victory in the first race of the New Jersey triple-header. Artem Petrov won the second New Jersey race, and he is 63 points back with 66 points on the table. Petrov will be eliminated should Rasmussen start one of the races this weekend.
Indy Pro 2000 races at 2:05 p.m. ET on Saturday October 2 and at 1:10 p.m. ET on Sunday October 3.
It is a two-horse race in U.S. F2000, and this championship is close to decided entering the final weekend.
Kiko Porto has 368 points, 49 points ahead of Michael d'Orlando. Porto can clinch the U.S. F2000 championship with a fourth-place finish in race one Back in July, d'Orlando won two of three Mid-Ohio races with Porto winning the middle race that weekend.
Porto has four victories this season to d'Orlando's three. Yuven Sundaramoorthy is third in the championship, and he won three races this season, but he has not won since the second race of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend back in May.
U.S. F2000 will race at 3:50 p.m. ET on Saturday October 2 and at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 3.
Other events of note in October:
MotoGP will run the Grand Prix of the Americas and then returns to Misano.
Formula One returns to Istanbul and closed the month in Austin.
FIA World Endurance Championship will have its penultimate race, 6 Hours of Bahrain.
NASCAR will complete round two at Talladega and Charlotte before having its semifinal round at Texas, Kansas and Martinsville.
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters completes its first GT3-spec season with rounds at the Hockenheimring and a return of the Norisring.
Super Formula completes is season at Motegi and Suzuka.