Monday, September 27, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: 2021 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited

Álex Palou is IndyCar champion. Lewis Hamilton scored his 100th grand prix victory with a brilliant drive on between the two dry tire compounds and then a brilliant strategy call to switch to the intermediates in the closing laps. Drivers are shuffling seats in IndyCar already. We had an American winner in Formula Three, but both Formula Three and Formula Two lost a race due to weather. There was Cadillac on Cadillac violence at Long Beach. 

Sadly, we start with sad news. Dean Berta Viñales was fatally injured in the Supersport 300 race held at Jerez during of the World Superbike round. Viñales was 15 years old. His cousins Maverick and Isaac Viñales compete in MotoGP and World Superbike respectively. Our thoughts and prayers go to the Viñales family. 

2021 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited
It is our annual tradition! The day after the IndyCar season we look back at the predictions made on New Year's Eve to close out the year before. How did this year shape up and how did it compare to previous years?

1. Will Power will at least match Mario Andretti's record of 67 pole positions

Five pole positions might have sound ambitious for a driver at the start of a season, but Power is not any driver when it comes to qualifying. He had won at least five pole positions in seven of his 14 full-time IndyCar seasons. It might have been a stretch to expect him to do it again, especially after he did it in 2020, but you can never count Power out in qualifying. 

Except this year was Power's second worst year in qualifying. The only year worst was 2008, the reunification season when he drove for KV Racing, also transitioning over from Champ Car, 14 of the tracks were new to him and ten of the tracks were ovals and he had one oval start to his name, the 2006 Champ Car race at Milwaukee. 

This year was surprisingly off for Power. He didn't qualify on a front row until the August IMS road course race, the 12th race of the season. His first pole position was the 13th race at Gateway, the latest his first pole position has come in a season. He failed to make it out of the first round of qualifying three times this year. He qualified 32nd for the Indianapolis 500. 

It was not his year in terms of qualifying. He is within four of Andretti's record. Maybe 2022 will be the year.
2. Andretti Autosport drivers will combine for at least four victories

Andretti Autosport won three races, both at the hands of Colton Herta at St. Petersburg, Laguna Seca and Long Beach respectively. I have to give Herta credit for nearly doing it all on his own. 

Were four victories realistic for Andretti Autosport this year considering Herta carried much of the weight? 

Yes. Herta could have won six races! He was fourth in the second Belle Isle race, but he was chasing down Josef Newgarden and he looked set to pass Newgarden for the lead at some point in the closing laps. Then Jimmie Johnson brought out a caution and Herta did not have the pace on restarts and in the short run, causing him to drop back. 

If Johnson doesn't bring out a caution, Herta wins that race. 

Nashville saw Herta lead the most laps and 41% of the race was behind the pace car. If Nashville was a normal race, I think Herta runs away with that one. Heck, if Herta was a little more patient, he might have caught Marcus Ericsson in the final laps and made a pass for the victory. 

Then there is Gateway where Herta led 101 of the first 183 laps before a broken driveshaft ended his race. Josef Newgarden was going to push Herta, and there was still one pit stop to go, but if Herta's car had not failed him, I think that is another victory. 

Besides Herta, I think Alexander Rossi's best two chances at victory this season were races where early caution shook it up too much, so we can't say with certainty he would have won, but I think the first Belle Isle race and Portland were the two races. If Belle Isle didn't have the cautions or the red flags, Rossi might pull it out. If Portland start goes differently and he makes the corner, it could have been his day. We will never know. And then there is Laguna Seca, where Rossi spun on lap two after a little nudge from Herta. That would not have added to Andretti's total as Laguna Seca was an Andretti victory with Herta, but it could have been Rossi instead.

The only other race I think Andretti Autosport could have won was the Indianapolis 500. Rossi aside for a second and his early electrical issue after running out of fuel before his first stop, Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the top five coming to his final pit stop. Hunter-Reay was in the running with Hélio Castroneves, Álex Palou and Patricio O'Ward. If Hunter-Reay does not speed entering pit lane for his final pit stop, maybe he pulls out a second victory in the famed race and it isn't the dream outcome for Castroneves. 

We will never know, but we know Andretti only won three times and this prediction was wrong.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing's four cars average an entrants' championship position of 11th or higher
Wrong! Damn... 0-for-3, what a terrible start. 

I didn't see Chip Ganassi Racing being this good. Álex Palou was champion, Scott Dixon was fourth and Marcus Ericsson was fifth. I thought Ganassi could get three cars in the top ten, but two would just make it in. I didn't see three in the top six. 

Add those three up and their sum is ten. To average greater than 11th, the sum of the four cars had to be 44 or higher. Guess what? The #48 Honda was not even close to finishing 34th in the entrants' championship. It was 22nd. The average was 8.25. 

Kudos to Chip Ganassi Racing.

4. A.J. Foyt Racing gets its best championship finish since at least 2010
Wrong! O-fer! Oof! 

It looked great at the start fo the season. Sébastien Bourdais was fifth and tenth. Bourdais was sixth in the championship. Then it all went to pieces. 

Bourdais was spun in race one and caught in the start accident in race two. He left 14th in the championship. Ok, not all hopes were lost as he just had to finish 13th. Unfortunately, Bourdais would not get another top ten finish until he was fifth at Gateway. He bounced between 15th and 18th in the championship for the rest of the season. 

He ended up 16th in the championship and once again A.J. Foyt Racing is ending a season looking to shake things up again. Once again folks, the drivers are not the problem.

5. Patricio O'Ward wins at least one race, but his championship position falls
Wrong! (Pushes laptop across the table and walkaway for 25 minutes). 

It was not crazy to think Patricio O'Ward would win a race and finish fifth in the championship. At the start of 2021, fifth in the championship would have been a respectable year for O'Ward. Who would have thought in his second full season he would get better? No one could guarantee that. Have you seen IndyCar? Anyone can win a race and no would have been surprised if Team Penske took the top three in the championship with Scott Dixon in fourth. In that case, O'Ward finishing fifth with at least one race victory would have been a stellar year. 

Instead, O'Ward was better than last year. He rarely made a mistake. There were a few times he was off pace, and he had two penalties at Nashville, but O'Ward was fantastic this season. He won twice. He had five podium finishes and he had nine top five finishes. 

A top five championship season was never going to be a surprise, but O'Ward stood out while others were not as great. 

6. Rinus VeeKay will not be the top ECR finisher in at least five races
Correct! Finally! 

VeeKay was rolling in the first half fo the season. He was the top finisher in five of the first seven races. He was trending where it would be close. Then VeeKay broke his collarbone in a cycling accident, and he was not the same this year. 

Prior to the injury, he had already not been the top ECR finisher in three races. Road America was a gift as VeeKay didn't run so that was four. Conor Daly would be the top ECR finisher in the next three races after VeeKay's return. VeeKay topped Gateway, but Daly got the final three races. 

VeeKay was not the top ECR driver in ten of 15 races

7. Jack Harvey will set a career-high in top five finishes
Correct! Hey! Two in a row! 

Although, this wasn't that impressive as all Harvey needed was two top five finishes. This one was making me sweat after Gateway and then Harvey went out and finished fourth at Portland to confirm this as a correct prediction. His other top five finish was fourth at St. Petersburg. 

The problem is I thought Harvey would get four or five top five finishes this year and he would compete for the top ten in the championship. He wasn't terribly far off the top ten, but he wasn't threatening for it. Too many races were lost due to driver error, mechanical issue, or poor strategy from the team. 

He lost a wheel bearing in the second Texas race and could have gotten a top five finish there. The team had a botched pit stop and suffered a tire puncture on the out lap after that pit stop in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Harvey was battling for a podium finish in that IMS road course race. The team made a baffling strategy choice at Road America and Harvey was in sixth at the team. That could have been a top five finish. The team went off-strategy again at Nashville after starting sixth and it did not work out. 

Harvey has something positive to draw from this year, but it was not a spectacular year.

8. At least two winless droughts over 30 starts will come to an end
Wrong! And the correct streak ends at two. 

We had Marcus Ericsson, whose first career victory came in his 37th start, but we didn't get another long-awaited winner.

Graham Rahal fell short of victory. Ryan Hunter-Reay was never a major threat. James Hinchcliffe was further from victory than Hunter-Reay. Tony Kanaan didn't get a magical day like fellow countryman Hélio Castroneves. Harvey, Conor Daly, and Max Chilton didn't get first career victories. It just didn't happen.

The number of first-time winners and this swing of young winners prevented it from happening.

9. There will be no repeat winners on the ovals

Scott Dixon and Patricio O'Ward split the Texas races, Hélio Castroneves took a surprise Indianapolis 500 victory, and Josef Newgarden got his annual short oval race victory at Gateway. 

Four drivers, two from each manufacture, and each oval winner came from a different team. That is good distribution for IndyCar.

10. More than 36 drivers compete in a race
Correct! And this one was blown out of the water!

Forty-three drivers started an IndyCar race this year. We had ten drivers compete in an IndyCar race other than the Indianapolis 500. Two of those were Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson, both of which only committed to the road and street course races at the start of the year and then Grosjean sampled Gateway. 

Both drivers who failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 started another race. Charlie Kimball had already run the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then added Long Beach. RC Enerson made his IndyCar return in the August IMS road course race and it was Top Gun Racing's debut race. 

Oliver Askew was a substitute on two occasions with two different teams and then ran the final three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. 

Then we had plenty of surprise debutants. Kevin Magnussen made his debut filling in for the injured Felix Rosenqvist at Road America and Magnussen led on debut, albeit during a pit cycle, but Magnussen did well. Ryan Norman ran his home race of Mid-Ohio. Cody Ware got to play IndyCar driver for three races. 

And then you had Alpine F1 Academy driver Christian Lundgaard run the August IMS road course race with RLLR, as the Formula Two schedule had a two-month gap in its schedule and Lundgaard could do it with no conflicts. On top of all that, Ferrari test driver and Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott started the final three races with Juncos Hollinger Racing, returning to IndyCar for the first time since 2019. Now Ilott will be full-time with JHR in 2022!

You cannot say 2021 was boring. We had at least two-dozen cars start every race and there were six races outside the Indianapolis 500 that had 26 starters or more! 

11. There will be one minor issue that leads to a circuit alteration in Nashville

The Nashville track might not have been perfect, but I don't recall any circuit alteration. There were a few worrisome areas, but nothing happened that caused a scramble for a track change. I think IndyCar was one incident in turn five away from a logjam that would have caused a circuit re-think. 

Even though the race went off with a hitch that doesn't mean there should not be any adjustments for 2022.

12. Marco Andretti improves his average finish by at least 5.5 positions

I made this prediction before we knew Andretti was not going to be full-time. He only race the Indianapolis 500 and he finished 19th. He could have still made this prediction correct if he had finished 13th or better. He never had it and seeing at how Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe drove this year, I doubt Andretti would have lowered his average finish enough in a fifth full-time Andretti car to make this prediction correct. 

This is my worst year by far... four for 12. 

This was a step backward

2020: 8/11 (one prediction was about Richmond, which never happened)
2019: 5.5/12
2018: 6/12
2017: 8/12
2016: 6/12
2015: 8/12
2014: 10/14

That is bad. You have to hit on at least half of these. I don't feel as bad for the Andretti one because he didn't run full-time, and how was I supposed to know Ganassi would put three cars in the top six of the championship, something the team had never done before and it would have to do it with a new driver to the organization in his sophomore IndyCar season? 

I must be better next year. This is plenty of motivation to get back on track. 

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Álex Palou, but did you know...

Dennis Hauger clinched the FIA Formula Three championship with a runner-up finish in the first race from Sochi.

The #32 Team WRT Audi of Charlie Weerts and Dries Vanthoor won the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup championship. The #32 Audi won four of ten races with seven podium finishes.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Colton Herta and Lewis Hamilton, but did you know...

Dan Ticktum and Oscar Piastri split the Formula Two races from Sochi. Logan Sargeant and Jack Doohan split the Formula Three races.

The #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac of Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy won in GTLM. The #1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow won in GTD.

Denny Hamlin won the NASCAR Cup race from Las Vegas, his second victory of the season. Josh Berry won the Grand National Series race, his second victory of the season. Christian Eckes won the Truck race, his first career victory.

Toprak Razgatlioglu swept the World Superbike races from Jerez and extended his championship lead over Jonathan Rea. Dominique Aegerter won the World Supersport race, his tenth victory of the season. World Superbike's SuperPole race and the Saturday World Supersport race were cancelled after Dean Berta Viñales' accident. 

The #6 Mercedes-AMG Team Toksport WRT Mercedes of Luca Stolz and Maro Engel swept the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup races from Valencia.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP will be in the United States and returns to the Circuit of the Americas. 
NASCAR hits the halfway point of the playoffs at Talladega.
World Superbike concludes its three consecutive weeks of races at Portimão. 
World Rally Championship returns to Finland about two months later than usual. 
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters has its penultimate round at Hockenheim.