Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Best of the Month: November 2021

We are down to the final month of the year. November brought us champions in NASCAR, IMSA, World Superbike, World Touring Car Cup and Super GT. Now, there are only a few pieces of hardware left to hand out and then we will get a break, but competition will return soon enough. We can look toward the New Year later, but it is almost here.

Best of the Year
We are at the end of the year, and this is the final best of the month, as December will be filled with 2022 predictions and an award show. I thought this would be a great time to look at some of the highlights of the year, the little things that might have been missed. 

I have gone over the last 11 months and picked out two bright spots to highlight. 

Midweek Supercross races: With the Supercross season being slightly delayed and with the pandemic restrictions in affect, Supercross ran a few condensed shows with three races in eight days, a Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday schedule. 

It was just nice to have competition back, but it was also a different way to spend a Tuesday night. It is likely midweek Supercross races will not return, but they could work. These races are at stadiums, people are used to attending baseball games on Tuesday nights. Television could work something out. I don't think it has to be a regular thing, but one or two events have promise.

24 Hours of Daytona: It felt normal to have the 24 Hours of Daytona on its scheduled weekend. Plenty of races had been moved around at the start of 2021. Daytona was far enough ahead of time that it could be scheduled for its normal weekend and take place. 

The only change was the Roar test moved to the weekend before instead of at the start of the month, but it makes sense to have the 24 Hours of Daytona be ten days at the track than to have a three-day weekend at the start of the month and then a five-day weekend at the end of the month. The consecutive weekends will stay in place for 2022 and that is a good thing.

Condensed Speedweeks: Staying in Daytona, NASCAR changed its Speedweeks schedule, and it wasn't even a week. Instead of opening on the weekend before the Daytona 500, the Clash opened the festivities on Tuesday, Daytona 500 qualifying was held on Wednesday, the Daytona 500 qualifying races were on Thursday with the Truck race Friday, Grand National Series race Saturday and Cup race Sunday. 

It was six consecutive days of on-track action. Every day had a meaningful event. Of course, that changes in 2022 with the Clash moving to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum two weeks prior to the Daytona 500. I am fine with the Clash moving to the LA Memorial Coliseum and using it as a test event at a stadium. It is a non-championship race. It doesn't matter. If it isn't good, we can move on to something else, but if there was a year to run the Clash on the Daytona road course, it was this one with the new car. 

I am not sure what a temporary quarter-mile oval will show us with the new car. NASCAR will not race at a track this small and this flat during the season. The Daytona road course would at least give us a taste of what to expect in the six road course races this season and there is expected improvement on road courses with these new cars.

Formula E season opener: Formula E opened its season with a pair of night races in Saudi Arabia and the season started with two thrilling races. Nyck de Vries dominated the first race, leading lights to flag, but there were some great battles in the back half of the points.

But race two stood out. Sam Bird and Robin Frijns traded the lead. António Félix da Costa climbed his way to a podium spot. De Vries started 20th and finished ninth. It was a lively race and set the tone for the season.

Shane van Gisbergen: There are some drivers that are just on it, and van Gisbergen had a showing during the month of March. He already swept the Supercars season opener from the Mount Panorama Circuit, but he suffered a broken collarbone in a cycling accident after the season opener. 

However, van Gisbergen did not miss a round and competed at Sandown a week later, sweeping the races and completing one of the passes of the season on his way to victory in the first race in the damp. It was a sign of the season to come.

Sonoma in green: I think because Sonoma's big events have been in summer, whether it is NASCAR in June, the NHRA in July or IndyCar in August or September, we have this picture of a dry, dusty place that is not as appealing, but when it hosts a race in March, as what happened this year with GT World Challenge America, it is one of the most beautiful circuits in the world. 

I think NASCAR should move its Sonoma race to March with all the other West Coast races. It doesn't make sense to run Sonoma in June between Gateway and Nashville. I also like a road course early in the season, which we had in 2021 with the Daytona road course as the second race filling in for Fontana. In 2022, Austin will be the sixth race of the year, which is fine considering a sixth of the schedule is road courses, but NASCAR should take advantage of Sonoma in March and ease the travel for the teams. Austin would be better in May anyway. 

Racetracks hosting Supercross events: Daytona is normally the only racetrack that hosts a Supercross round with dirt spread on its front straightaway, but Atlanta joined the club and it held a triple-header in April. Each race was pretty good and played a crucial role in the championship. 

I like racetracks because there is more space for the Supercross track. It allows for faster racetracks. Some stadiums are too tight, and the courses can be too choppy. Other tracks have hosted Supercross before, including Charlotte and Talladega. Supercross has a good thing going in stadiums, but Atlanta will return to the Supercross schedule in 2022 and I think two or three other tracks could host rounds. 

Texas Motor Speedway might have the time in 2023 if IndyCar doesn't return. Its spring schedule will be quite open. It would be cool if Bristol could host a round. That might be too tight, but if Bristol keeps doing a dirt race, it will be perfectly set up for a Supercross round. It will just need to add the jumps.

Formula E at real racetracks: Though there was some controversy, the Formula E races at Valencia were pretty good and isn't it funny that Formula E put on a good show at course meant for race cars? Weird. 

Mexico City is the same way, and Puebla, another purpose-built racetrack was just as good this year. Formula E will stick to the street circuits, but I sense if it starts running out of cities, it will open up to more purpose-built tracks. We are approaching the tenth Formula E season. It will be interesting to see how the series evolves in its second decade.

Bumping: There were 35 cars entered for the Indianapolis 500 and bumping makes the event better. Everyone must raise their game. Every year someone we do not expect is in the fight to make the show. 

Indianapolis 500 qualifying has evolved and though it isn't what it was during the glory days, I think the current set up is good. This year we had Team Penske's Will Power, a Penske-supported car for Simona de Silvestro, Indianapolis 500 veteran Sage Karam, a fourth Foyt car for Charlie Kimball and a new team with RC Enerson fighting for the final three spots. 

None of them felt safe. Power and Penske struggled for qualifying speed. De Silvestro never looked great, but never appeared to be in danger during practice. Karam was rolling the dice for a Dreyer & Reinbold Racing again. Kimball was slow in a car that was used in the road course race the weekend before. Enerson needed a miracle. 

No one is guaranteed a spot. It doesn't matter how many races you have won or how many people know your name. You need to make the race based on your qualifying time.

Indianapolis 500: It wasn't a full crowd, but after one Indianapolis 500 in August behind closed doors, this year's race was the reset we needed. We now know what 135,000 people look like at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But it felt like a full house. It felt like that when Conor Daly took the lead and in the closing laps with three cars in the battle. 

After everything we went through, the reward was a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. It had been 30 years since Rick Mears did it. For a generation, this will their story, their four-time winner. We will have 60 years of stories thanks to Hélio Castroneves until a fifth member joins the club. 

Belle Isle: Next year will be the final Belle Isle race, but we need to appreciate the track. It had its detractors, but since 2013, it became a suitable street course. It expanded back to the longer course. It was repaved but it quickly wore down. And there were some strong races at the track. This year's doubleheader was memorable for multiple races, but the Sunday race was a strong example of what Belle Isle became. 

It was tire compound gamble, alternate tires versus primary tires in the closing stint and whether one could last longer than the other. Josef Newgarden tried his best to hold on. If the cautions did not fall late, Colton Herta might have been on top, but the race allowed Patricio O'Ward to charge from fifth to first. 

I am not sure how the downtown Detroit circuit will be. It honestly looks boring. I just hope IndyCar isn't trading away a good thing for something that is shiny but has no substance.

Marc Márquez at Sachsenring: Death, taxes, and Marc Márquez winning at the Sachsenring. The Spaniard has a fondness for Germany, but he entered the German Grand Prix without a victory this season. Márquez missed the opening two rounds as he continued to recover from his arm injury. He had a few good chances but gave away a race in the wet at Le Mans. If there was any place for Márquez to show he has still got it, it was Germany. 

Sure enough, Márquez dominated, from fifth on the grid no less and he led every lap. It was Márquez's 11th consecutive Germany victory. He has not stood on the top step of the podium since 2009 in 125cc. He is two behind Giacomo Agostini's record of 13 German Grand Prix victories. This might not have been the season Márquez had hoped for, but a German victory was enough to show he still has it. 

Friday Evening IMSA: Hopefully one of IMSA's final make up races, IMSA remained at Watkins Glen after the 6 Hours of the Glen to run a normal two-hour and 40-minute race on the following Friday evening. It reminded me of those days when Grand-Am would run Friday evening of the NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen or the Montreal weekend. 

I understand why IMSA doesn't run with NASCAR anymore, but those Friday night races were fun shows, and I don't think we appreciated what those weekends were back in the day. Sports car racing was broken up and some didn't like that Grand-Am was a support race to NASCAR, but it was a full weekend and fans got to see multiple top categories racing on the same weekend at the same track. We even saw a few NASCAR guys from in IMSA and some IMSA guys would run as road course ringers in the Cup race.

Now everyone wants to share weekends. IndyCar and NASCAR are now sharing weekends. If it were to return in 2022, everyone would go nuts if IMSA was running with NASCAR at Austin or Road America. Maybe one weekend a year would work. I would like to see NASCAR run at Road Atlanta. Perhaps it could be a sprint weekend with a sprint race for IMSA and then a NASCAR race.

Marco Andretti wins at Slinger: The Superstar Racing Experience was an overall success but one of the highlights of the season was the Slinger Speedway round was arguably the best of the season and it featured a four-way fight between Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Slinger Nationals winner Luke Fenhaus and Andretti.

Andretti won the opening heat and started on the front row for the feature with Fenhaus. Andretti led early but Fenhaus and Stewart ended up occupying the top position for most of the night. Andretti stayed in touch with Labonte. A few late cautions bunched the field and allowed Andretti to get to second with ten laps to go. There was a green-white-checkered finish and in the two-lap dash, Andretti came out on top with Stewart in third.

For Andretti, it was his first victory in just over two years. It might not have been an IndyCar race or a major sports car race, but at a 1/4-mile oval against the local hero, Andretti pulled it out. Andretti did well in SRX, and it was nice to see him happy.

Olympic Break: I will admit, I loved the Olympic break that was taken this year. IndyCar and NASCAR were both off to allow broadcast partner NBC to show the Olympics without having to squeeze in races. Part of the Formula One summer break overlapped with the Olympics. MotoGP was off.

We need a break every now and then even during summer, when we believe motorsports should not take a break. We need to get away from it and do something different. There is an entire world out there that doesn't revolve around motorsports. 

Robin Miller's Final Weekend at the Speedway: The IndyCar/NASCAR combination weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was a sentimental weekend. Robin Miller had been battling cancer and had quite a fight in July. He stepped away from writing to focus on his health. 

However, Miller was good enough to pop out to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see everyone at the track, and he got to see everyone from IndyCar and NASCAR. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America that weekend in a special ceremony. But it was a historic weekend when you look closer at the races.

Will Power won the IndyCar race, his 40th victory, the fifth driver to reach 40 IndyCar victories. It was the first NASCAR Cup race on the IMS road course, and it ended with A.J. Allmendinger scoring a surprise victory for Kaulig Racing in a part-time Cup program. Fittingly, Allmendinger dedicated the victory to Miller in his post-race interview. 

Ten days later, Miller passed away, aged 71. 

We are all navigating a world without Robin Miller. We are in good hands, but it tough when such a legend is no longer there. 

McLaren wins the Italian Grand Prix: The 2021 Formula One season had been crazy enough entering Monza, but Italy hosted the second sprint qualifying weekend. Valtteri Bottas won the race, but a power unit changed sent Bottas to the rear of the field. Max Verstappen inherited pole position with Daniel Ricciardo in second. 

Ricciardo took the lead from the start and a botched first pit stop for Verstappen knocked the Dutch driver down the order and in danger of falling behind Lewis Hamilton during the pit cycle. Hamilton made his pit stop and emerged ahead of Verstappen, but the two drivers would be side-by-side entering the chicane. Neither gave an inch and both ended the race in the gravel.

It allowed Ricciardo to take an easy victory with Lando Norris making it a McLaren 1-2. It was McLaren's first victory since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix and it was the first McLaren 1-2 since the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix. It had been a long time coming for McLaren and it has been the toughest nine years for the organization. It was great to see the team back on the top step. It could be a sign of brighter days ahead. 

Return of Long Beach: We weren't sure Long Beach would take place in 2021 when the season began. It had already been lost in 2020 when a new date and public gathering restrictions prevented it from happened. In 2021, it was moved from April to the final weekend in September in hopes of maximizing the crowd, but no one could be sure it would work out. 

The good news is the vaccine roll out allowed for eased restrictions and most races in the second half of the season were run with limited restrictions. Long Beach was able to take place. We had a good IMSA race and a fun IndyCar race where Colton Herta charged from 14th to first. The IndyCar championship finish was not the most thrilling we had ever seen, but it was great to be back at Long Beach and it was a great crowd even if it was limited. 

Long Beach returns to April in 2022, which is where it should be. This one season finale was nice, but we know what works with Long Beach. April is where it belongs. 

Indianapolis 8 Hours: People keep asking for an endurance race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway... well IMS has an endurance race, damn it! 

It might not be IMSA. It might not be the FIA World Endurance Championship. There are no prototypes, but the Intercontinental GT Challenge's Indianapolis 8 Hour is a fine event and this year's race broke out. There were 41 entries and attracted drivers from all over the world. This year's race was a little clunky with caution periods, but it was a thrilling finish. 

We need to embrace what we have, and we a respectable race in 2021. Many more American teams competed. A lot of notable names showed up. It is a different race with the eight-hour length. It is ok that it is a GT3/GT4 race that the SRO organizes. Let's turn this into a mid-autumn classic.

Friendly start times: Because of the pandemic, we haven't had many races around the globe due to travel restrictions and I was thinking about how I haven't had to stay up late or wake up early for any races on the other side of the globe in basically two years. 

October was always the month of Formula One's Asia-Pacific swing. There was always the Japanese Grand Prix, but then there was the Chinese Grand Prix for a period and then Korea and Malaysia. October would become the month of little sleep. MotoGP also runs in the Asia-Pacific region during October with races in Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and Australia. 

I haven't minded the change, but it does have me wondering if it has changed my viewing habits. Will I get up for races like I once did, or will I settle to record the races and watch them first thing in the morning? Unless the schedule doesn't allow it, I always get up for a race. I will change my sleep schedule to watch a race. Will I continue to do that? I will have to wait until next year to find out.

Thursday Night Blunder: We are at the end of the season and the end of the season has brought idle time, which means we can fill it with meaningless events. In this case, the Dinner with Racers crew has revived the Thursday Night Blunder iRacing series, and it is a great source of weekly joy. 

In the simulated world, you can do the unthinkable, and so Dinner with Racers does it. Through three events, Thursday Night Blunder has had NASCAR stock cars circa 2009 versus IndyCars versus Formula Vees around the generic iRacing Superspeedway, then it ran the McLaren F1 car versus GT3 cars versus jumpy trucks around the Irwindale Speedway Figure-Eight, and then it held an all-Formula Vee race around the combined Monza circuit, road course and oval, no chicanes on the road course.

There is no reason these events need to be overly serious. Make it crazy. Make it unpredictable. Fill the track with chaos and enjoy the show.

Thanksgiving: Like the Olympic break, I like Thanksgiving weekend. It is normally a down weekend for motorsports. Sometimes there is a Formula One race, but NASCAR is finished, IndyCar has been off for months, MotoGP is set, and we can start looking to the New Year and not feel overeager. 

There are a few events left, just enough to hold you over, but it is good to get some time off. There are other things to spend time on. We can live without motorsports, and it will be waiting for us when it is ready. 

December Preview
There are a few key events to end December: The final two Formula One races and the Bathurst 1000

It is Max Verstappen versus Lewis Hamilton for the World Drivers' Championship. Verstappen holds the eight-point championship lead over Hamilton. Verstappen could clinch the world championship at Saudi Arabia. There are four clinching scenarios:

Verstappen victory with fastest lap with Hamilton finished sixth or worse. 

Verstappen victory without fastest lap with Hamilton seventh or worse. 

Verstappen finishes second with fastest lap with Hamilton finishing tenth or worse. 

Verstappen finishes second without fastest lap with Hamilton finishing outside the top ten. 

The title could also go to the wire, which would be for the first time since 2016 and it would be the 30th time the championship was decided in the final race. 

At Bathurst, the Supercars championship is already decided. Shane van Gisbergen clinched it in the penultimate round at Sydney Motorsports Park. 

Van Gisbergen won the Bathurst 1000 last year with Garth Tander and they could become the first drivers to win consecutive Bathurst 1000s since Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup won three consecutive years from 2006-08. Tander could become the seventh driver with five Bathurst 1000 victories. 

Speaking of Whincup, it will be his final race as a full-time Supercars driver. The 38-year-old has made 526 Supercars starts, won seven championship and 124 races. He is also looking for his fifth Bathurst 1000 victory, but he has not won The Great Race since 2012. Whincup is second in the championship behind his Tripe Eight Race Engineering teammate. Craig Lowndes is back as Whincup's co-driver and Lowndes is looking for his eighth Bathurst 1000 victory. 

Will Davison is the top Ford in the championship in third and Davison shares the #17 Dick Johnson Racing Ford with his younger brother Alex. Will has two Bathurst victories (2009 and 2016). Alex's best finish was fourth in 2014 when he and Will were co-drivers for the Erebus Motorsport Mercedes-Benz. This is the fifth time the brothers have been Bathurst co-drivers.

Porsche factory driver Matt Campbell will make his third Bathurst 1000 start, his first appearance since 2017, as co-driver to Andre Heimgarnter in the #7 Kelly Grove Racing Ford. Campbell won the 2019 Bathurst 12 Hour. 

Sadly, the Kyalami 9 Hours has been postponed due to the new COVID-19 variant and travel restrictions to South Africa. I had written a little preview, but that has disappeared like snows of yesteryears. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Where are We Now?

Unfortunately, the Kyalami 9 Hours has been postponed due to a new COVID variant. There were a few suspensions in the world of NASCAR. Formula One and MotoGP will remain in Barcelona through 2026. The Formula E grid is filling out. Some familiar faces will be at Race of Champions in February. Patricio O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist have plans for early January. A few more championships were decided. 

Sadly, Sir Frank Williams passed away on Sunday morning. Williams was 79 years old. Under Williams' stewardship, Williams F1 won seven World Drivers' Championships, nine World Constructors' Championships and the team won 114 grand prix. The team ranks second all-time in Constructors' Championships behind only Ferrari and fourth all-time in victories behind Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes.  

Where are We Now?
It was Thanksgiving and I am mailing it in. That might sound off-putting, but who doesn't like a run over of the 2022 IndyCar grid? People love talking about theoretical possibilities! 

It has been just over two months, 64 days to be specific, since the most recent IndyCar race and we are 90 days away from the 2022 season opener from St. Petersburg.

There has been plenty of movement already and there are a few moves that still need to be made. Drivers have been testing, some in legitimate auditions and others sampling for possible future IndyCar opportunities. The leftovers are in the fridge and shopping plans are about to be made. How does the IndyCar grid look ahead of December? 

Let's start with the champions!

Chip Ganassi Racing
Not much changes at Chip Ganassi Racing from the driver seat. Álex Palou is going to defend his title in the #10 Honda. Scott Dixon will return for his 22nd IndyCar season. Marcus Ericsson will return. 

The question is whether Jimmie Johnson is full-time or not. The team is going to run four cars and if it must keep the Johnson-Tony Kanaan partnership in the #48 Honda, it is prepared to do so. Ganassi has already committed to five cars for the Indianapolis 500. Johnson will either be full-time, all the road/street courses and the Indianapolis 500 or just road and street courses for a second season. 

Johnson started rookie orientation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indianapolis 500 in an October test. If he is doing Indianapolis, he mind as well do the entire schedule. He will have to hold his breath for Texas, but he shouldn't have many or any safety concerns for Iowa and Gateway. Both are quick tracks, but much slower than Texas and Indianapolis. Iowa and Gateway do not have an extensive history of serious driver injuries. 

If Johnson isn't full-time, Kanaan will fill in on the oval races. We should know shortly because Johnson will have to decide if he continues participation in the IMSA Endurance Cup entry with Action Express Racing. Texas and the 12 Hours of Sebring weekend clash. The Texas race is on Sunday, the day after Sebring, but I don't think Johnson is comfortable enough to split time with his first IndyCar oval weekend and one of the most physical endurance races. If he is doing the Endurance Cup then he is at least not doing Texas, which will seem weird to run 16 IndyCar races and only skip one, and I would bet it means his only oval start will be Indianapolis or he is not doing any ovals again in 2022. 

However, since he started rookie orientation, it feels like he will try Indianapolis. 

For Kanaan, he will at least have Indianapolis in the fifth car if Johnson is full-time.

Scoreboard: Four full-time entries plus one Indianapolis 500 entry.

Team Penske
Downsizing is the key word. Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Scott McLaughlin remain. The team will not fill the #22 Chevrolet and it sounds like the team will not run an extra car for the Indianapolis 500, as Penske prepares for its IMSA LMDh program with Porsche and the team is reportedly planning an FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 effort with two cars. 

Scoreboard: Seven full-time entries plus one Indianapolis 500 entry. 

Andretti Autosport
Four cars remain. Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi stay. Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco are in. 

We do not know if the team will run a fifth car for Indianapolis, but it likely will for Marco Andretti if Andretti wants it. If Andretti doesn't, it will still likely field five cars. It ran six cars last year with Stefan Wilson. I would say six is still possible, but we should feel good about five. 

Someone else could slide into one of Andretti's extra Indianapolis seats. James Hinchcliffe might have lost his full-time seat, but he could still be in the running for an Indianapolis 500 entry, as he occupied in 2020.

Scoreboard: 11 full-time entries plus two, but possibly three Indianapolis 500 entries.

Arrow McLaren SP
Patricio O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist will be back, but AMSP has been open to expanding to three cars. Expansion might wait a season, but AMSP could run out a third car at a few races. It will likely have a third car at Indianapolis, which it had last year for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya. 

It is unclear if Montoya remains the option. Nico Hülkenberg tested for AMSP at Barber Motorsports Park in October, but Hülkenberg later said he would not be pursuing a full-time IndyCar switch. 

Stoffel Vandoorne will test for the team on December 5 at Sebring. Vandoorne is committed to Mercedes' Formula E program in 2022, which season ends in the middle of August. Vandoorne was a McLaren development driver and drove for the Woking-based organization in two Formula One seasons, where he scored points on debut substituting for the injured Fernando Alonso in the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix, but he only scored 25 points in his next 40 starts.

Scoreboard: 13 full-time entries, plus likely three but possibly four Indianapolis 500 entries.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing:
The team is expanding and shaking up the lineup. Graham Rahal continues to lead in the #15 Honda with Christian Lundgaard returning after a one-off debut in 2021 to drive the #30 Honda in 2022 and Jack Harvey joins the team in the #45 Honda. 

All three cars will be full-time. Lundgaard is bringing Alpine funding for the seat. However, I don't think RLLR will run an additional Indianapolis 500 entry now that it is full-time, will be taking on a full-time return to IMSA with BMW's M4 GT3 in addition to RLLR moving to LMDh in 2023. 

Scoreboard: 16 full-time entries, plus likely three but possibly four Indianapolis 500 entries. 

Ed Carpenter Racing:
Rinus VeeKay will return in the #21 Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter is still committed to running ovals in the #20 Chevrolet, but the road/street course portion of the #20 Chevrolet is a mystery, and it might not have one solution. 

The United States Air Force sponsorship is gone, which means Conor Daly is out unless he finds some other funding. Ryan Hunter-Reay tested at Barber for ECR in October. Hunter-Reay has announced no plans for 2022. The 2012 IndyCar champion was thought to be in contention for a full-time IMSA seat, but most of the 2022 teams have filled their full-time seats. 

I am not sure Hunter-Reay is ready for a demotion to road/street course driver. If he takes the demotion, he will likely have an Indianapolis 500 seat as well. I don't see ECR running VeeKay and Hunter-Reay full-time with Carpenter in a third car for all the ovals. I am not sure the team has the funding to do that now that the Air Force is gone, and I am not sure Hunter-Reay has the funding to run the 12 road and street course races plus Indianapolis. 

ECR might be the toughest nut to crack of the 2022 lineups. It needs funding but there are no clear drivers out there with money. There isn't an available Indy Lights driver worth taking a chance on. Linus Lundqvist was third in Indy Lights but kept losing ground to Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas as the season went along even though he won three races and had 11 podium finishes from 20 races. 

The team might have to look to Europe, which wouldn't be a bad thing. VeeKay won a race last year. The 2021 season didn't end great for the team, but maybe it could attract a Formula Two driver, although I am not sure ECR has the connections to land someone from Europe. It does come off as one of IndyCar's most insular teams, battling A.J. Foyt Racing for that dubious title. 

Scoreboard: Likely 18 full-time entries, plus likely four but possibly five Indianapolis 500 entries.

Meyer Shank Racing:
This team is set with Simon Pagenaud taking over the #60 Honda and Hélio Castroneves returning to full-time competition in the #06 Honda. MSR keeps its technical alliance with Andretti Autosport for another season. 

It does not seem likely MSR would run an extra car for the Indianapolis 500, but never say never. Meyer Shank Racing will be testing reigning Formula E champion Nyck de Vries at Sebring on December 5. De Vries drives for Mercedes in Formula E, is contracted through 2022, and he has ties to the Formula One program. He was linked to the Williams Formula One opening before the team signed Alexander Albon to replace George Russell. 

Scoreboard: Likely 20 full-time entries, plus likely four but possibly five Indianapolis 500 entries. 

Dale Coyne Racing
Nothing official has been announced yet, but everyone has been working under the assumption Takuma Sato and David Malukas will fill the team's two seats for a little over a month now. It is unclear if Vasser/Sullivan and Rick Ware Racing are still involved. Malukas' family team HMD Motorsports was believed to be interested in partnering with the team. That could still change. Keep this in pencil.

I think we can feel comfortable about this team running two cars, it is just a matter of who is partnering with Coyne to get these cars on the grid, if Coyne partners with anyone. 

As for additional Indianapolis 500 entries, the team didn't run one last year, but it could run one this year. 

Scoreboard: Likely 22 full-time entries, plus likely four but possibly six Indianapolis 500 entries. 

A.J. Foyt Racing
Kyle Kirkwood will be in the #14 Chevrolet. Dalton Kellett is believed to be returning to the #4 Chevrolet. A third car is still a rumored possibility, especially with ROKiT Phones sponsorship. Tatiana Calderón tested for Foyt in July at Mid-Ohio. 

The team entered four cars for the Indianapolis 500 last year. It will have at least one car there in 2022 and two wouldn't surprise me either. 

Scoreboard: Likely 24 full-time entries, plus likely five but possibly seven Indianapolis 500 entries. 

Juncos Hollinger Racing/Carlin
These two teams are going to be married at the hip until they confirmed what they are doing. 

We know Juncos Hollinger Racing will attempt a full season with Callum Ilott. We do not know if Carlin will return with the #59 Chevrolet and Max Chilton on the road and street courses, plus Indianapolis and with another driver filling in at the other ovals. 

There have been talks of the teams merging and there have been talks about Carlin getting completely out of IndyCar. A Carlin truck was photographed at Juncos' shop. That could mean many things, but it doesn't mean nothing. 

If it is a merger or a partnership, then we could be looking at two cars. If Carlin is selling its equipment off, then I think JHR will still only be a one-car team and have plenty of spares. If it is a merger or partnership, I could see this group running an Indianapolis 500-only entry, but I do not think JHR will spread itself thin and run an extra car if it is a single-car full-time organization... unless someone is throwing a stupid amount of cash at them. 

Scoreboard: Likely 25 full-time entries, possibly 26 full-time entries, plus likely five but possibly seven Indianapolis 500 entries. 

What else do we need to know?
Even on the light end, we are at 30 Indianapolis 500 entries. I think 25 full-time entries is what we are going to get. As for Indianapolis 500 entries, give me extra from Ganassi, Andretti, AMSP, Coyne, ECR and Foyt. That gets us to 31 entries. 

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will likely be back. That has been a two-car operation, but I think it will stick to one. Paretta Autosport would like to return, and I think it will return. Top Gun Racing is another possibility. If those three one-off entries return then we are at 34 entries and then a possible sixth Andretti entry plus a possible fourth Foyt and we are easily at 36 entries again, with Honda carrying the weight 19 to 17. 

What about the drivers? 
We know Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe are out of rides and are currently not lined up for anything. 

Max Chilton could be done for good.

Conor Daly could be going to the NASCAR Truck Series full time with occasional IndyCar appearances. 

Sébastien Bourdais will be full-time in IMSA with Chip Ganassi Racing in the Daytona Prototype international class. Bourdais' IndyCar career could be over. 

Ed Jones' plans are unknown. 

Santino Ferrucci's plans are unknown, but it sounds like it could be some split of NASCAR/IndyCar like we saw this year. 

Oliver Askew has landed a Formula E seat with Andretti Autosport. Askew's 2022 season should be accounted for, but I guess there is a slim chance we could see him in a few IndyCar races next year. The month of May schedule would allow Askew to run the Indianapolis 500.

Sage Karam should still be in the Dreyer & Reinbold fold for Indianapolis, but he is also possibly going to run more NASCAR races and rallycross events.

Pietro Fittipaldi continues to waste his younger years as a reserve driver for a Formula One team that will never give him a full-time ride. 

Stefan Wilson is still trying to piece together a program for possibly more than the Indianapolis 500. 

Plenty of things will become clearer in the next month or so. With a late-February start, these unattended seats will be accounted for soon.

Champions From the Weekend

The #36 TGR Team au TOM'S Toyota Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi won the Super GT GT500 championship with victory in the Fuji season finale.

The #61 R&D Sport Subaru of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi clinched the Super GT GT300 championship with a third-place finish at Fuji. 

Yann Ehrlacher clinched his second consecutive World Touring Car Cup championship with a pair of sixth-place finishes in Sochi. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi, but did you know...

The #60 LM Corsa Toyota Supra of Hiroki Yoshimoto and Shunsuke Kohno won in GT300 in the Super GT race from Fuji. 

Mikel Azcona and Rob Huff split the World Touring Car Cup races from Sochi.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Bathurst 1000
The inaugural Saudi Arabia Grand Prix.

Friday, November 26, 2021

2021 Motorcycle Predictions: Revisited

The two-wheel seasons are complete and it was a somewhat normal season for each of the major international road racing championships. Both had slight delays and slightly compacted schedules. There were a few extra trips to the Iberian peninsula. A couple of tracks hosted multiple rounds in MotoGP, but there was some branching out. MotoGP returned to the United States. World Superbike returned to South America and Asia, and a new track in Asia at that. The 2021 season was a step in the right direction, there were even a few new champions, but how many preseason predictions went the same way?

1. Marc Márquez will be in sole possession of third all-time in grand prix victories
Wrong! And this one was a little ambitious on second view. 

Márquez had to win nine races to fulfill this. He won three races, but he was never quite at 100% this season and missed the final two races after suffering a training accident. Márquez was fighting fitness all season. He was good, and he did let a few races get away from him, most notably the French Grand Prix and the Austrian Grand Prix. 

He is on 85 victories, six away from sole possession of third all-time. He could do it in 2022. He needs to come back healthy and stay healthy. It felt like he was getting better over the course of the season, and he did win consecutive races at Austin and the second Misano race. The second victory was aided with Francesco Bagnaia going down, but Márquez also pushed Bagnaia until the final corner at Aragón. 

Hopefully, Márquez is back and faces no more hiccups. All things considered, 2021 was a pretty strong year.

2. Fabio Quartararo will have at least two podium finishes that are not victories

Quartararo's first two podium finishes were victories at Losail and Portimão, but he was then third at Le Mans, won at Mugello and then had a third at Sachsenring and a third at the Red Bull Ring with a victory in the Dutch TT in-between. 

He even had a pair of runner-up finishes at Misano and Austin. 

Quartararo scored points in the first 16 races before he went down in turn five in the penultimate race of the season at Portimão. He ended the season with a fifth-place result at Valencia, the same position he started the season in at Qatar.

It was as close to a flawless season as you can get from Quartararo. After the disappointment of 2020, where inconsistency ruled his season, the Frenchman kept scoring points and nobody matched his results. 

3. Suzuki falls at least one position in the constructors' championship and finishes at least 100 points off the champion
Wrong and correct!

Suzuki was third in the constructors' championship again, but it did finish 117 points behind champions Ducati. Honda was fourth in the constructors' championship, 36 points behind Suzuki. If Márquez was healthy for the entire season, Honda likely tops Suzuki. Márquez scored 142 points in 14 starts, averaging 10.142 points per start. Extrapolate that to 18 races and Márquez finishes with about 182 points. That extra 40 points would have gotten Honda ahead of Suzuki. 

But, it wasn't meant to be. 

4. There will be at least three first-time winners

There were two first-time winners. Jorge Martín took a surprise victory at Red Bull Ring in the Styrian Grand Prix and Francesco Bagnaia won at Aragón. But, that third first-time winner never came. 

What makes it worse is Johann Zarco was runner-up in the first two races of the season from Qatar. Zarco was runner-up in four of the first seven races and then he didn't finish on the podium for the rest of the season. 

Enea Bastianini was third in both Misano races, but distant thirds in each. Pol Espargaró made it a Honda 1-2 in the second Misano race, but he was well behind teammate Márquez. Aleix Espargaró was third at Silverstone.

Those five riders all have yet to win in MotoGP and stood on the podium this season, but not the right step to fulfill this prediction.

5. The American drivers combine for at least 150 points
Wrong! Oof, this is getting tough. 

The American riders combined for 109 points this season. Joe Roberts had 59 points in 13th and Cameron Beaubier was 15th on 50 points. 

Roberts started well, but he was banged up for the second half of the season and did not start two of the final three races and he scored zero points in the final five events. He also had a terrible stretch in the middle of the season, with retirements in Germany, Netherlands, the Styrian Grand Prix and he was then 16th in the Austrian Grand Prix. He scored 50 points in the first seven races, 7.142 points per start at that point. If he kept that up, he was looking at 128 points. 

I did not anticipate Beaubier to score a significant points total, and he performed better than I expected. He led the American Racing with teammate Marcos Ramírez in 17th on 39 points, only two more points than Ramírez scored in 15 races last year. Beaubier stood out at Austin and the second Portimão race where he picked up fastest lap. 

Hopefully, Beaubier continues trending upward and Roberts can be fully fit for 2022.

6. The Moto3 championship will have at least 100 career starts
Wrong! And we went in the opposite direction of veteran. We had a rookie champion. 

Pedro Acosta clinched the Moto3 championship in the 17th and penultimate race of the season with his sixth victory. Acosta started spectacularly. Second on debut, victory from a pit lane start in the second race of the season, a grand prix racing first, and then two victories to follow that. He scored points in the first 12 races and won five of those races. 

Acosta did face a larger challenge in the second-third of the season, but his consistency won him the championship. While Dennis Foggia went on a tear throughout summer, Foggia had too many retirements and when Darryn Binder ran into Foggia on the final lap in the second Portimão race, it ended the Italian's championship hippies and it allowed Acosta to take the title a race early. 

World Superbike
7. At least four riders pick up at least three victories.

No surprise here, Jonathan Rea was the first to win three races and he did it in the first five races of the season. Toprak Razgatlioglu was the next to three victories, reaching it at the 12th race of the season. Scott Redding was the next to three, but after he won the third and fourth races of the season, he would not win again until the 18th race. Michael Ruben Rinaldi won the seventh and eighth races of the season and his third came in the 27th race. 

8. Garrett Gerloff at least doubles his number of podium finishes in full races

Not only did Gerloff not fulfill this prediction, but his total podium finishes went down. He had only two podium finishes all season, a third in the SuperPole race in the opening weekend at Aragón and his only full race podium was the 12th race of the season at Donington Park. It was a better season than 2020 for Gerloff, but it was not enough of an improvement to really celebrate, especially since he was only the third best Yamaha rider. 

9. BMW scores at least 250 points

BMW broke out a bit, scoring 315 points and Michael van der Mark won the SuperPole race from Portimão. BMW had five total podium finishes this season and Tom Sykes won pole position at the Barcelona round. It isn't the greatest results in the world, but it was BMW's most competitive season in a longtime. 

10. Andrea Locatelii will have the best WSBK championship finish for a reigning World Supersport champion since Cal Crutchlow
Correct! Locatelli had to finish sixth or better to fulfill this prediction, and the Italian ended the season fourth in the championship, taking fourth on the final day of the season from Ducati's Michael Ruben Rinaldi. 

Locatelli did not win a race this season, but he was third-place in four races and he finished fourth in 11 times in 37 races. He scored 291 points, 210 points behind Scott Redding in third.

World Supersport
11. Can Öncü leaps into the top five of the championship
Wrong! Öncü was just short of the top five. He was sixth in the championship with 182 points, 70 points outside the top five. 

Öncü did not win a race and he had three podium finishes. 

12. Jules Cluzel will have more victories than runner-up finishes
Correct! After having six runner-up finishes in 11 starts last year, Cluzel won four times in 2021, all in the final six races, with only one runner-up finish this season, which also came in the final six races of the season. He did finish third-place in four races. 

5.5 out of 12. Oof. There were a couple of close ones. A couple would have gone my way if one or two things went differently. It happens. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

2021 Sports Car Predictions: Revisited

Now that Petit Le Mans is complete and the IMSA season is over, we can look at our sports car predictions. This is an exciting period for sports car racing. The Hypercar class made its debut. More manufactures are committing to Hypercar and LMDh. It is hard not to look ahead, but staying in the moment, we had a Le Mans in August, IMSA introduced LMP3 to its top series and the European Le Mans Series continued to have strong grids. How did these predictions shake out?

1. A Cadillac team does not win the DPi Endurance Cup championship
Correct! General Motors' dominance in the DPi Endurance Cup has ended, and a former Cadillac entrant is the reason. 

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura of Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Alexander Rossi took the Endurance Cup championship. It all started with a victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona with Hélio Castroneves, but they were big scorers in Daytona, as the #10 Acura led at the 12-hour and 18-hour marks, netting five points each time. 

Daytona alone carried the team as it did not score the maximum five points until the four-hour mark at Petit Le Mans. However, it was first at four hours and second at eight hours into Petit Le Mans, securing Endurance Cup for the team as the #55 Mazda was outside the top three at each point in the race. Mazda's victory was not going to be enough to top Wayne Taylor Racing, finishing six points back with 39 markers. 

Dane Cameron was alone in third on 34 points driving Meyer Shank Racing's #60 Acura. 

The top Cadillac team? The #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac and the #5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac were tied on 32 points. I am not sure how a tie is broken, but the #5 Cadillac did win the 12 Hours of Sebring and was the leading car at the six-hour mark in the 24 Hours of Daytona. The only time the #31 Cadillac topped a points-paying time during the Endurance Cup season was the three-hour mark at Watkins Glen.

To add insult to injury, Acura also won the Endurance Cup for manufactures with 51 points to Cadillac's 48 points and Mazda's 45 points. 

2. There will be at least one notable incident involving an LMP3 car

I must say this was an impressively clean year from the LMP3 entrants. Were LMP3 cars in cautions? Yes. Was there an abundance of incidents at Petit Le Mans? Yes. But none of these were that notable and I mean an incident that became a headline story that basically overshadowed the weekend. 

All credit to LMP3. I am not sure where it fits in with IMSA once the 2023 season rolls around and the LMDh class is introduced. It was added to pad car count after the GTLM class was dwindled to three full-time cars. I don't think it will carry on but it is a proper class with many top-notch drivers. I think next year will be just as clean as this year. 

3. There will be one GTLM race where the winning team did not compete in the GTLM class in 2020
Correct! And this one was not as much as a slam dunk as it first appeared, but the #79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche won three times, and it did not take long to get that first victory. 

Cooper MacNeil, Matt Campbell and Mathieu Jaminet won the 12 Hours of Sebring, the second race of the season. MacNeil and Campbell then won at Road America before the American-Australian-French trio took Petit Le Mans victory. 

4. At least two manufactures win in GTD that did not win in 2020
Correct! And this one did not take long either. 

HTP Winward Motorsport won the 24 Hours of Daytona with the #57 Mercedes-AMG. A one-off entry got us halfway there in the first race of the season. 

The #23 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin of Romain De Angelis and Ross Gunn won the fourth race of the season at Belle Isle. Heart of Racing Team won two more races this season, Lime Rock Park and Petit Le Mans where De Angelis and Gunn had Ian James join them. 

FIA World Endurance Championship
5. Toyota does not sweep the overall victories
Wrong! Toyota swept them all. 

Six-or-six, and there were a few close occasions.

In the season opener at Spa-Francorchamps, the #36 Alpine was on the lead lap until the end and finished second to the #8 Toyota. One slip in the final hour and Alpine was going to be on the top step of the podium. 

At the second race in Portimão, Alpine was on pole position, but Toyota took a 1-2 finish with Alpine in third. All three cars were on the lead lap, but Alpine was over a minute behind the Toyotas. 

It was a minute between the #7 Toyota and the Alpine at the Monza finish and Toyota had a few problems. The #7 Toyota ground to a halt in the penultimate hour, but Kamui Kobayashi was able to restart the car. He climbed back to the front, but what helped Toyota gain victory was a late caution, which leapfrogged the #7 Toyota ahead of the Alpine. 

In the final three races, Toyota went 1-2 in each with the #7 Toyota winning at Le Mans and the 6 Hours of Bahrain. The #8 Toyota won the 8 Hours of Bahrain season finale.

6. Signatech Alpine wins at least two races

What I did not account for with Alpine's grandfathered LMP1 entry in the Hypercar class was the LMP2 program going away. Signatech continued in LMP2 fielding the #1 Richard Mille Racing Team Oreca, but the best finish for that entry was sixth. 

Either way, this was a bust of a prediction. 
7. At least one full-time GTE-Pro entry does not win a race
Correct! Not only did one full-time GTE-Pro entry not win a race, but two went winless. 

The #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi and the #92 Porsche of Kévin Estre and Neel Jani each won three races, meaning each of their sister cars were winless. 

The #52 Ferrari of Miguel Molina and Daniel Serra was runner-up at Portimão while the #91 Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz was second in the 6 Hours of Bahrain. 

It was really a two-horse race. 

8. A Dempsey-Proton Racing entrant scores at least 90 points
Wrong! But damn was this close. 

Entering the final two WEC races in Bahrain, the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche was on 34 points and the #88 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche was on 30 points. Neither were all that close, but with the 8 Hours of Bahrain there were more points on the table, 65 points to be specific, so both cars were alive. 

The #77 Porsche was second in the 6 Hours of Bahrain and the #88 Porsche only got a half-point for finishing 12th. That meant only the #77 Porsche was alive with 52 points and 39 points on the table. A victory would get us there. The #77 Porsche finished second in the season finale, falling 11 points short! 

What makes it hurt more is the #77 Porsche retired from the first two races. Eleven points from two races is completely practical, also when considering the second round was the 8 Hours of Portimão where the points are more heavily weighed. A seventh and an eighth in the first two races would have been enough. A fourth in Spa-Francorchamps or a sixth in Portimão would have been enough as well. 

Those runner-up finishes got the #77 Porsche up to third in the final championship standings but fell short of fulfilling this prediction. 

European Le Mans Series
9. There will be one race where one nationality is represented by at least one driver in all three class winners
Wrong! But there were a few close calls, and the French did their best.

The second round was at the Red Bull Ring. LMP3 had Frenchman Nicolas Maulini win with Cool Racing while AF Corse won in GTE with French drivers Emmanuel Collard and François Perrodo, but LMP2 did not feature a Frenchman. There was Swiss driver Louis Delétraz, Pole Robert Kubica and Chinese Ye Yifei. 

Two rounds later at Monza, France had Julien Canal win in LMP2, and Mathieu de Barbuat won in LMP3, but GTE had Briton Duncan Cameron, Italian Alessandro Pier Guidi and South African David Perel on its top step. 

One round later at Spa-Francorchamps, de Barbuat was victorious again in LMP3 with Collard and Perrodo again on top in GTE, but it was Delétraz, Kubica and Yifei on top in LMP2. To add insult to injury, second in LMP2 was Tristan Gommendy, third in LMP2 was Canal, fourth in LMP2 was Nicolas Lapierre and Charles Milesi, fifth was Nico Jamin and sixth was an all-French lineup of Paul Lafargue, Paul-Loup Chatin and Patrick Pilet. There was at least one Frenchman in five of the top six finishers but none of them were first! 

Maybe next year it will happen!

10. United Autosports wins fewer combined races across the LMP2 and LMP3 classes

After winning seven races between LMP2 and LMP3 last year in ELMS, United Autosports had only one victory. The #22 United Autosports Oreca-Gibson of Jonathan Aberdein, Tom Gamble and Philip Hanson won the season finale at Portimão. The team was shutout in LMP3.

The #2 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan was on the LMP3 podium in the final four races, including runner-up results at Monza and Portimão.

I knew it would be fewer than seven victories, but I wasn't thinking only one. I was thinking four, maybe five tops, but one? All credit to Team WRT in LMP2 and DKR Engineering in LMP3. Both those teams won the respective class championships, and each won three races. 

11. There will be at least one class winner that has no other podium finishes but its one victory

Every class winner was on the podium multiple times. 

G-Drive Racing won in LMP2 at Circuit Paul Ricard, but it was second at Red Bull Ring in the previous round. All the winners in LMP3 were on the podium at least three times. DKR Engineering won three times in LMP3, but those were the team's only podium results. In GTE, the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari was on the podium in all six races and won three of them on its way to the championship. The other two race winners were both on the podium four times. 

The #93 Proton Competition Porsche was close to fulfilling this prediction. It was second at Portimão behind the #80 Ferrari and it was the #93 Porsche's only podium finish of the season. 

12. There will not be a tie for any of the championship after the final race of the season

Team WRT won the LMP2 championship with 118 points, 32 points ahead of United Autosports. 

In LMP3, DKR Engineering won the championship by a point over Cool Racing! 

Iron Lynx had 126 points in GTE, 37 points ahead of the Spirit of Race Ferrari. 

That makes its six out of 12, 50%. Same as last year. It didn't get any better, but at least it didn't get any worse. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: The Almighty Bonus

It was a big weekend for weather, and it effectively helped two people claim championships. The weather did hold off for Formula One's inaugural Qatar Grand Prix. A record was matched in Italy. A streak was broken in Indonesia. It was the 68th Macau Grand Prix weekend, but it was still a domestic weekend and still Formula Four race. Rob Huff did not make it to Macau this year. NASCAR did some oval testing at Charlotte. NASCAR also announced its new practice and qualifying format and it continues to try too hard. The United States has its driver pairing for the February's Race of Champions from Sweden and it is Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana. A Belgian and a Dutchman will be testing for IndyCar teams at Sebring next month. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking. 

The Almighty Bonus
This fierce Formula One battle for the world championship is unlike many that have come before it. 

It is not different because it is Lewis Hamilton vs. Max Verstappen. It is not different because it is Mercedes vs. Red Bull. The regulations have nothing to do with it, nor does the schedule length or where races are held. It isn't different because it is 2021 and we live in an instantaneous society where everything happening now is the most special and greatest thing in human history. 

This championship is different because it is one of the few Formula One seasons where bonus points could be the deciding factor in champion. 

Bonus points are not entirely new to Formula One. Fastest lap awarded one point from 1950 through 1959, and that bonus point was reintroduced in 2019. However, the 2021 season has seen the introduction of sprint qualifying, the 100-kilometer race held on Saturday to determine the grid for the grand prix. Sprint qualifying was used at three rounds, Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos, and with the new session came points for the top three finishers, three points to first, two to second and one to third. 

With the fastest lap point out, 19 races have a maximum of 26 points, but sprint qualifying means three rounds are worth a maximum of 29 points. With these extra points floating around not tied to a finishing position, it allows for greater permutations at the end of a grand prix on Sunday. A winner could be the winner, but second might not be as big of a loser as it was in the previous race. The championship lead can change before we even get into a race and the number of points a race winner has could change until the final car takes the checkered flag. 

Bonus points have already shaped this battle between Verstappen and Hamilton as we have two races remaining in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.  

After Hamilton's victory ahead of Verstappen in the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix, Verstappen holds the championship lead with 351.5 points, eight points of clear Hamilton' 343.5 points, but Verstappen has been the biggest benefactor from the three sprint qualifying weekends. The Dutchman has scored seven points from those three weekends. He won the inaugural sprint at Silverstone and was runner-up in the other two. Hamilton meanwhile was second at Silverstone, but fourth at Monza and he was sent to the rear of the field at Interlagos due to a DRS infraction. Starting 20th, he was able to climb to fifth but added no points to his coffer, leaving Hamiltn with two sprint qualifying points this season. 

It is true the rules are the same for everyone, but sprint qualifying affectively made the British Grand Prix, Italian Grand Prix and Brazilian Grand Prix more valuable than all the other races. The same number of points are not on offer in the other 19 races. All the opportunities are gone to score sprint qualifying points this season, and Verstappen handily won that battle. 

For this introduction and trial year of sprint qualifying, it would have been fairer if no points whatsoever were awarded. Every grand prix weekend should be worth the same or be in proportion with all the other races. It is too late to retroactively add points and opportunities to grand prix weekends lost. 

With sprint qualifying points removed, Verstappen is on 344.5 points and Hamilton is on 341.5 points and the gap is down to three points! 

Now let's look at fastest lap, which has a more strategical element to it. It is common for a manufacture to pull a driver in for a pit stop late to take fastest lap away from a rival. Red Bull employed this at Interlagos, having Sergio Pérez stop on the penultimate lap to take fastest lap away from Hamilton on the final lap of the race. Mercedes used the same strategy the previous week at Mexico City, with Valtteri Bottas making a late pit stop and nicking fastest lap away from Verstappen. After it was clear Verstappen was not going to win in Qatar, Red Bull could employ a strategy to finish second and get the fastest lap, and he did.

After Qatar, Verstappen and Hamilton are level on fastest laps with five each. It is a wash if you remove the points, as the gap remains at three, but with Verstappen is on 339.5 points to Hamilton's 336.5 points.

But factoring in the World Constructors' Championship, Mercedes leads currently with 546.5 points while Red Bull is on 541.5 points. Removing all the fastest laps and sprint qualifying points earned between the teams' four drivers, Mercedes would lose 18 points and Red Bull would lose 14 points, as Pérez did not score a single sprint qualifying point this year. Without bonus points, Mercedes would lead by a point, 528.5 points to Red Bull's 527.5 points! 

Of course, the most glaring numbers on the 2021 championship tables are those that come behind the decimal points. These decimals will long be a mark in the history book of one of Formula One's most controversial weekends and decisions. 

The 2021 Belgian Grand Prix officially took place, but it was hardly an attempt to race, more fill a spot in the record book and avoid having to cancel a grand prix on race day. Heavy rains made it difficult for any race attempt. The race started behind the safety car and two formation laps were made before the cars were brought into the garage. 

For hours people sat, waiting for a decision. Daylight began to disappear in the Ardennes and a full distance race was impractical, even reaching the 75% distance to award full points was highly unlikely. The stewards did not call the race but made one more attempt. They said the first pair of pace laps did not count and when the safety car left the grid again with the field in tow, these were the first laps of the race. Two laps were completed behind the safety car. On the third lap, the red flag was unveiled, and race control declared the race official, because by definition it was official. The minimum requirement for a race to be declared official is two laps, regardless if green or behind the safety car. 

With the minimum requirement met, points were awarded as stated in the regulations, and since the race failed to reach the 75% mark, half points were awarded to the ten points-paying positions, but no point nor half-point was awarded for fastest lap, as no green flag lap was created. 

Just as it is too late to add sprint qualifying to the 19 race weekends that will not have it, it is too late to reverse course on the Belgian Grand Prix decision and Max Verstappen is credited as the winner and was awarded 12.5 points. Lewis Hamilton received 7.5 points for finishing third and the only other driver picking up a decimal point because of the strange lack of odd-number point-paying positions, was Carlos Sainz, Jr., who received a half-point for tenth-place classification. 

Remove all the bonus points and remove the Belgian Grand Prix, Hamilton would lead with 329 points to Verstappen's 327 points. Mercedes would have 521 points to Red Bull's 515 points. 

The last 20 months have been different. Last year's Formula One season was unprecedented. Though returning to almost complete normalcy, this year's Formula One season has somehow been even crazier than the year prior and we can see it in the points. And we will likely see it in the points until the final lap of the season. 

The championship could be decided earlier than it would because of the extra points counted toward the championship. The champion could be different because of the extra points at some rounds over others. But even more likely is the champion could come down not to the final lap of the season, but the final car crossing the finish line, possibly finish fourth, the final car on the lead lap and the championship could hang in the balance on who earns that fastest lap point. 

With how this championship battle between Verstappen and Hamilton, Red Bull and Mercedes, has gone in the first 20 races, we need to prepare for the championship coming down to Sergio Pérez and Valtteri Bottas, two drivers were mathematically eliminated from the championship after the Mexican Grand Prix. It might not even be Pérez or Bottas. AlphaTauri could be the spoiler with Pierre Gasly. Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren could be the fly in the ointment. It could be Fernando Alonso and Alpine! The champion might not be known until everyone has completed the final race of the season, something that arguably has never happened before. 

If that is the case, bonus points will a bigger winner than anyone in Formula One ever imagined. 

Champions From the Weekend

Toprak Razgatlioglu clinched the World Superbike Championship with finishes of second and fourth at Mandalika.

Sébastien Ogier clinched his eighth World Rally Championship with a victory in the ACI Rally Monza. 

Shane van Gisbergen clinched his second Supercars championship with a victory in the first Supercars race from Sydney Motorsports Park and the cancellation of the second race due to weather.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton, Sébastien Ogier and Shane van Gisbergen, but did you know...

Jonathan Rea swept the two World Superbike races from Mandalika, as weather forced the cancellation of the SuperPole race. Raffaele De Rosa and Jules Cluzel split the World Supersport races.

Hon Chio Leong won the Macau Grand Prix for the second consecutive year. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Super GT wraps up its season at Fuji.
World Touring Car Cup concludes in Sochi.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Career Retrospective: Ryan Hunter-Reay

This offseason I thought was the best time to look at a few of IndyCar's veterans as the series is going through a generational shift. A group of experienced drivers are approaching their final days in the series, and many are reaching that finish line at once. While IndyCar is going through a shake up the likes of which it has not been seen since the early 1990s, we need to take this time to appreciate these drivers but also look at how IndyCar has changed since these drivers started in the series.

This is our second in a four-part series. After looking at Takuma Sato, we will look at another past Indianapolis 500 winner, but this driver also won a championship. He also is one of Sato's former teammates and one of the most experienced drivers in IndyCar history. 

It is Ryan Hunter-Reay. 

Where was Hunter-Reay coming from?
The Texas-born driver had a quick rise to IndyCar. He spent two full seasons Barber Dodge Pro Series and each season he was fifth in the championship. He was the top rookie in 2000 and he won twice in 2001.

In 2002, he moved to the Toyota Atlantic Championship with Hylton Motorsports where his teammate was Roger Yasukawa. He started slowly but won the fourth race of the season at Laguna Seca. Two more victories would follow at Chicago Motor Speedway and Cleveland and his three victories were tied with Michael Valiante for most that season. However, four retirements from 12 races dropped Hunter-Reay to sixth in the championship behind Jon Fogarty, Valiante, Alex Gurney, Luis Díaz and Rocky Moran, Jr. 

What did IndyCar look like when Hunter-Reay started in the series?
It was split and not at the greatest place. The 2003 season was a pivotal shift in the CART/IRL war. Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing had left CART to join the Indy Racing League, as had Team Green, which Michael Andretti purchased and the team re-branded as Andretti Green Racing.

The teams weren't the only things to leave CART. Honda and Toyota went to the IRL leaving Ford-Cosworth as the only engine manufacture in the series. Chassis were split between Lola and Reynard, but the Lola was heavily preferred with about 14 on the grid each race compared to six Reynards. 

CART was floundering. Teams were broke, national coverage was minimal and the schedule was a mess. Road America nearly fell off the schedule until Mario Andretti stepped in and negotiated a compromise. Brands Hatch and EuroSpeedway Lausitz each hosted a round. Laguna Seca was in the middle of June. Canada had three races, Mexico had two and a new circuit opened the season, St. Petersburg. Nineteen races made up the 2003 CART schedule, nine street/temporary circuits, seven natural-terrain road courses and three ovals, however, only two oval races took place. The Fontana finale was cancelled due to wildfires in the area. 

Newman/Haas Racing and Forsythe Racing led the way in CART with Penske, Ganassi and Team Green leaving. Team Rahal and Fernández Racing split the dividing line, each with one car in CART and one in the IRL. Dale Coyne Racing had been on the grid for nearly 20 years and yet to win a race. Walker Racing fielded two cars. Patrick Racing was still around. 

The 2003 CART season was full of new teams: PK Racing, Conquest Racing, Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing and American Spirit Team Johansson, which saw past champion Jimmy Vasser paired with the rookie Hunter-Reay. 

Across the battle lines, with the inclusion of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Green, the IRL had about 21 regular entries with 16 oval races on 15 different circuits. 

How does IndyCar look now?
The split is over, and that is a good thing. Ending in 2008, IndyCar has been one series and the reunited series is one of the large reasons why IndyCar is as healthy as it is today. Just because it is healthy, does not mean there have not been some losses. 

Between the two series, there were 34 races held on 33 different circuits in 2003. The 2022 season has 17 races scheduled on 15 different circuits and ten of those circuits were around in 2003. Seven were on the CART schedule and three were on the IRL schedule. There were 18 oval races for American open-wheel racing's highest level in 2003. Five races at four circuits are on the 2022 schedule. 

It would be easy to look at the two series and the combined 40-plus regular entries and say IndyCar has lost out there as well, but IndyCar has one of its strongest grids today with 24-28 high quality entries. Both CART and the IRL suffered, and the rear of each series has far from the top. 

Hunter-Reay and Vasser were the only regular American drivers in CART that year. Geoff Boss ran majority of the races and Bryan Herta was a fill-in for PK Racing at Laguna Seca. In the IRL, there were ten American regulars, plus Herta who ran majority of the races for an injured Dario Franchitti, and Alex Barron, who ran ten of 16 races and won at Nashville.

Between CART and the IRL, American drivers combined to win eight of 34 races. 

There were only seven American regulars in the 2021 IndyCar season, and they only won five races, but five out of 16, 31.25% of the schedule. There were also two Americans in the top five of the championship compared to one between CART and the IRL in 2003 and there were four Americans in the top ten in 2021 compared to three between the two series 18 years earlier. 

Only six of the current 11 IndyCar teams were around in 2003, and Dale Coyne Racing is the only CART-dedicated team left. While Team Rahal straddled the divide, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and A.J. Foyt Racing were all IRL teams. 

Some of the teams lost in the last 18 years were Newman/Haas Racing, which closed after the 2011 season. Forsythe Racing closed its doors with reunification as the team chose not to participate in the united series. Patrick Racing closed for good in 2004. Walker Racing also did not make it over with reunification but turned its attention to sports car racing before closing in 2015. PK Racing became PKV Racing and then just KV Racing. It lasted until 2016 and won six races post-reunification, including the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with Tony Kanaan. 

Notable IRL teams that did not make it include Panther Racing, which had won the previous two championships before the 2003 season. Hemelgarn Racing was reduced to a part-time operation starting in 2006 and its final appearance was the 2009 Indianapolis 500 when Buddy Lazier failed to qualify for the race. Fernández Racing turned to sports car racing in 2007 and lasted until 2009. Team Menard withdrew from IndyCar after the 2003 season. 

It should be noted Sam Schmidt Motorsports was an Indianapolis-only entry in 2003. It became a full-time team in 2011 and laid the groundwork for the current Arrow McLaren SP organization. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is still around, and it shows up every May for Indianapolis. D&R stepped back from a full-time operation in the middle of the 2013 season. 

What did Hunter-Reay do in-between?
Experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. 

Hunter-Reay had flashes of good results in his rookie season. He was sixth at Vancouver and then scored his first podium with a third in Mid-Ohio. The Reynard chassis was the weaker of the two options in CART that season. Entering Surfers Paradise, no Reynard team had won a race and Hunter-Reay's third at Mid-Ohio was the chassis manufacture's only podium result. 

For the second consecutive year, bad weather significantly affected the Gold Coast race. A hailstorm caused a red flag 20 minutes into the race. Rain continued throughout and there were an abundance of caution periods. Hunter-Reay took the lead under caution on lap 33 after starting 12th. The race was shortened due to all the delays and Hunter-Reay led the final 15 laps on his way to his first career victory, a Reynard 1-2-3 with Darren Manning for Walker Racing and Hunter-Reay teammate Vasser in third. 

When CART was resurrected as Champ Car for 2004, Hunter-Reay moved to HVM Racing-operated Herdez Competition, where he teamed with Mario Domínguez. He won the third race of the season at Milwaukee, leading all 250 laps from pole position. It was his only podium finish of the season, but he was ninth in the championship, a five-spot jump from his rookie year. 

Things took a turn for the worse in 2005. Hunter-Reay moved to Rocketsports where he was teamed with Timo Glock, who made four Formula One starts the previous year with Jordan, which included a seventh on debut at Montreal. Neither driver was running particularly well. Through nine races, neither had a top five finish. Glock was ninth in the championship while Hunter-Reay was 13th with 27 points between them. Hunter-Reay ran the next two races and then was dropped from the team, which led to a wrongful termination lawsuit and saw Hunter-Reay awarded $3.3 million in 2017. 

Hunter-Reay was completely out of American open-wheel racing in 2006. He made four Grand-Am starts that year, three in GT competition and one in a Daytona Prototype with Wayne Taylor Racing for the 1000-kilometer finale at Miller Motorsports Park. In January 2007, he ran the A1GP Team USA entry at Taupo Motorsports Park in New Zealand. Outside of a GT class podium in his first Grand-Am start, there was not much to celebrate in those results. He started 2007 again without a ride. 

His second break came late in the 2007 IRL season when Rahal Letterman Racing made a driver change, replacing Jeff Simmons with Hunter-Reay at Mid-Ohio, where Hunter-Reay finished seventh. He scored three top ten finishes in the final six races and won rookie of the year honors away from Milka Duno, the only other rookie to make multiple starts that season. These results earned Hunter-Reay the full-time RLR seat for 2008. 

The reunification season started with three top ten finishes from the first five races, including a sixth on his Indianapolis 500 debut, earning him Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors. By the middle of the season, Hunter-Reay picked up Izod sponsorship and he won at Watkins Glen. He finished the season with five top ten finishes from the final six races and ended up eighth in the championship, the best championship finish of his career. 

Unfortunately, American Ethanol pulled its sponsorship from RLR and the team had to withdraw from full-time competition. Hunter-Reay was again without a ride. Vision Racing stepped up late to provide him with a seat for the start of the 2009 season. He took a surprise second in the St. Petersburg season opener, but it was a flash in the pan. The team struggled, Hunter-Reay barely made the Indianapolis 500 and Vision Racing was ready shrink to one car after Texas. 

Hunter-Reay's saving grace was A.J. Foyt Racing needed a driver after Vitor Meira suffered fractured vertebrae in the Indianapolis 500. Hunter-Reay stepped in for the final 11 races with his bright spot being a fourth at Mid-Ohio. Once Meira was healed, Hunter-Reay was out of a seat again. 

Down to his last roll of the dice, Hunter-Reay's Izod sponsorship would get him through the first portion of the 2010 season with Andretti Autosport. The only commitment was to get him through Indianapolis. The season opened with a near victory at São Paulo, finishing second to Will Power after a late pass. Three races later, Hunter-Reay took a convincing victory at Long Beach, leading 64 of 85 laps. A fifth at Kansas followed and with Hunter-Reay fourth in the championship entering Indianapolis, the team was able to secure funding for a full season. He would finish seventh in the championship.

However, Hunter-Reay's high moment could not come without a crushing low. Izod left him for Team Penske ahead of the 2011 season. The good news was Andretti Autosport was able to get DHL onboard for the season. The year did not start well, and Hunter-Reay infamously failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 only for the team to buyout A.J. Foyt Racing's second entry to put Hunter-Reay in the car over Bruno Junqueira. Hunter-Reay had one top ten finish through the first eight races. 

But he bounced back. He went on a tear with eight top ten finishes in the final nine races, including a victory at Loudon and another two podium results at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. This got Hunter-Reay up to seventh in the championship despite his retched start. 

With the introduction of the DW12-chassis, Hunter-Reay continued riding his wave of momentum from the 2011 season. He scored two podium finishes in the first four races, but a pair of mechanical failures at Indianapolis and Texas slowed him down. He bounced back with a three-race winning streak at Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto and asserted himself in the championship fight. Another pair of rough results at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma put his back against the wall heading into the final two races, but he won at Baltimore, giving him a shot in the arm for the Fontana finale. 

Hunter-Reay did not have great pace around the two-mile oval, and it looked like all Will Power would have to do was finish to win the championship, but Power spun in turn two barely a fifth of the way into the race. Hunter-Reay still needed to make up positions, specifically needing to finish fifth or better to win the championship. While still not great, Hunter-Reay's car improved, and other cars dropped out of the race. In the closing laps, Hunter-Reay found himself as one of the final eight cars on the lead lap. He restarted third with seven laps to go, but dropped to fourth and battled Takuma Sato in the final laps. Sato spun while running underneath Hunter-Reay in turn two on the final lap. The American avoided the carnage and fourth was enough to claim the title by three points over Power. 

From there, Hunter-Reay was set for the next decade after spending the first ten years in fluctuation. He became a regular race winner and won the 2014 Indianapolis 500 in a terrific drive from 19th on the grid in an incredible race, arguably one of the greatest in the event's 105 editions. After bouncing between seven teams in his first seven seasons, Hunter-Reay made 197 starts with Andretti Autosport and ended the 2021 season with 282 IndyCar starts, putting him tenth all-time.

What impression did Hunter-Reay leave on IndyCar?
Hunter-Reay's story is one of perseverance and a career that nearly didn't happen. 

There have been plenty of drivers who get into IndyCar, get a season or two and then are gone because the funding isn't there no matter how good the results are. Hunter-Reay's career nearly ended on three different occasions. He was out of IndyCar for nearly two years. Six years after that he was a champion and eight years later, he was an Indianapolis 500 winner. 

Not many other drivers can say they won both a championship and Indianapolis 500 after such a forced sabbatical. Not many return to full-time competition after all that. 

Hunter-Reay became a sentimental favorite because of all he went through even years after his success. People wanted to see Hunter-Reay to continue to succeed. Even in the races he lost due to unfortunate mechanical failures, he would still win sympathy. For all the races he did lose because off-track reasons, losing races on-track was more than the man deserved. 

But even with all the races he lost, Hunter-Reay still won 18 IndyCar races in his career. On top of his Indianapolis 500 victory, he won at Pocono, he won three times at Iowa, three times at Milwaukee, twice at Barber with one victory at Surfers Paradise, Watkins Glen and Long Beach. 

He is short of the 20-victory milestone, he should probably have at least one more if not two more Indianapolis 500 victories, and he had only one other top five championship finish after his 2012 championship but getting close to those milestones and having one championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory is enough to justify his career. 

There is still a chance he will be around in 2022. It could be in a full-time or regular capacity. We have already seen one part-timer win the Indianapolis 500 out of nowhere. We couldn't count out Hunter-Reay of doing the same. Maybe in the right circumstances he gets one final shot to prove himself and get to 20 victories. If not, he had a career that he more than deserved.

Nine times out of ten, Hunter-Reay's IndyCar would have ended after 2005, three seasons and two victories to his name, remembered more for what could have been than what he accomplished. Hunter-Reay has had 19 seasons in IndyCar. He is going to be remembered for decades for the right reasons. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Career Retrospective: Takuma Sato

The atmosphere felt different at the end of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. It was actually changing throughout the season. A shift was occurring in our midst, and it was noticed. 

Time is growing shorter for some of IndyCar's best from the early 21st century. For others, time is almost up. You forget how long some of these drivers have been in IndyCar, but the starts add up and the memories become more distant. 

We are already looking at 2021 as a pivotal point, the same way the early 1990s were the final days of IndyCar's golden generation. A few from this era have already moved on or are slowing down. Others have a few years left but the finish line is approaching. 

It is important to remember these long-standing drivers, but it is also important to see how their careers shaped IndyCar. Few drivers stay around for a decade and do not leave an impression on a series. Before these drivers are out of sight and not competing on a regular basis, we should take a moment and absorb the totality of a career, see how a career developed, where it started, where it ended up and what that driver meant to IndyCar.

Before this year ends, we are going to look at four drivers who are nearing the end of their IndyCar careers. Each has been around and been on top. The fan base can recite their highlights without thinking twice. 

Each part of this series will ask the following questions:

Where was this driver coming from when he entered IndyCar?

What did IndyCar look like when he started in the series?

How does IndyCar look now? 

What did he do in-between? 

What impression did he live on IndyCar?

Our first driver? A two-time Indianapolis 500 winner: Takuma Sato.

Where was Sato coming from?
Heading to Europe with Honda support, Sato was a late-bloomer and a Formula One hopeful. 

Sato was 21 years old when he made his first Japanese junior formula start. The following year he was racing in British Formula Three. 

In 2001, Sato won the famed championship over a stacked field that included Anthony Davidson, James Courtney, Gianmaria Bruni, Andy Priaulx, André Lotterer, Ryan Dalziel and Alex Gurney. That championship led to a Jordan Formula One seat in 2002 where he scored his first points in the final race of the season at Suzuka. 

He made one start for BAR-Honda in 2003 and finished sixth in the Japanese Grand Prix before returning to full-time competition in 2004. Sato scored 34 points with his best finish being third in the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis behind the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, and Sato was eighth in the championship. However, 2004 was the high-water mark for his career. He would only score five points over the next four seasons and made his final of 90 starts in the 2008 Spanish Grand Prix with Super Aguri. 

Sato did not compete in 2009 but was in contention for a seat at Scuderia Toro Rosso.

What did IndyCar look like when Sato started in the series?
IndyCar was fresh off reunification heading into the 2010 season, but it was still a period of transition for the Champ Car teams, and IndyCar was trying to transition as well, moving to a new chassis and new engine formula hoping to attract more manufactures. 

While all the teams had the same chassis and engines, IndyCar was coming off a season where only three teams split the victories in the 17 races in 2009: Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Coyne Racing with Justin Wilson at Watkins Glen.

Honda was the only engine supplier in the series, as it had been since the start of the 2006 season. Honda was key on having a Japanese driver competing in IndyCar, and after moving to the Indy Racing League Tora Takagi, Kosuka Matsuura and Hideki Mutoh were a few of its homeland representatives. Sato was Honda's biggest driver at the time, and with Honda out of Formula One, IndyCar was the biggest international stage for the manufacture at the time. 

The 2010 season was set to be the first year in IRL history with more road and street courses than ovals. The twisty circuits out-numbered ovals nine to eight. While 13 races were in the United States, four races were international events. There were two races in Canada, Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, which had been hosting American open-wheel races since 1998, and 2010 marked the first trip to the São Paulo street course.

How does IndyCar look now?
A lot has changed since 2010. IndyCar has a new chassis, but still only one chassis option. It does not appear folks mind, as Dallara's DW12 chassis has been beloved for nearly a decade. The chassis has undergone a few aerodynamic tweaks, moving from the original aero kit in 2012 to manufacture-specific aero kits developed for the 2015 season. The manufacture aero kits cost a lot of money and did tilt the competitive balance in favor of Chevrolet teams for three seasons. In 2018, IndyCar adopted a new universal aero kit, which focused on ground effects more than downforce on the top of the car. 

Honda has a competitor in the engine department. Chevrolet has been around since the DW12-era began in 2012. Lotus also entered the series in 2012, but that program collapsed after one season. 

After having a 9-8 advantage, road courses have firmly taken control of the schedule with the 2022 season preparing to have 12 road course races on 11 different circuits while there will be five oval races on four different circuits. 

IndyCar no longer visits three continents, and it no longer needs those frequent flyer miles. Its only international trip is a drive up to Toronto and even that is on thin ice. While it is mostly domestic, IndyCar does visit Road America, Portland, Laguna Seca and Gateway, four notable and historic IndyCar tracks that were not on the 2010 schedule. 

What did Sato do in-between?
Sato had two distinctly different careers in IndyCar. There is his crash-prone, accident-waiting to happen career and then there is his successful, Indianapolis 500 winning career. 

Starting with the bad, Sato had one top ten finish in his rookie season. Results improved but the top five finishes and pole positions were quickly cancelled out with spins and clattered barriers. After two seasons with the Lotus-sponsored KV Racing, Sato moved to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for 2012, which was returning to IndyCar full-time after three years as an Indianapolis-only entry. 

Sato picked up his first podium finish with RLLR, a third at São Paulo, but that season is best remembered for Sato going to the wire with a chance at an Indianapolis 500 victory. Battling with the Chip Ganassi Racing entries of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, Sato was second at the start of the final lap when he attempted a move on the inside of Franchitti into turn one. Sato lost the back end of the car and spun into the barrier. Later that season he would finish second at Edmonton, but he had only five top ten finishes from 15 races with five finishes outside the top twenty as well. 

For 2013, Sato moved to A.J. Foyt Racing and quickly showed promise. He won in his third start with the organization at Long Beach and was second in the next race at São Paulo after losing the lead in the final corner to James Hinchcliffe. These results had Sato leading the championship entering the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately, Sato's apex with Foyt was four races into his time with the team. He only had one podium finish and five top five finishes in his final 65 starts with the organization with championship finishes of 17th, 18th, 14th and 17th in four years with the team. 

Despite those results, Sato's relationship with Honda led him to Andretti Autosport for the 2017 season. This saw a shift in Sato's career and perception in IndyCar. He was fifth in his first start with the team and then he won the Indianapolis 500. He set a personal best with four top five finishes, a personal best average finish of 12.4, and Sato was in the top twenty in all 17 races, leading him to eighth in the championship, another personal best. 

With Andretti Autosport continuing to evolve, Sato returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for 2018. He scored a victory at Portland. He won twice the following year, at Barber and Gateway, with four total podium finishes, a personal best, and he was ninth in the championship. 

Sato started all 169 races that took place in the 2010s, but when the pandemic-delayed 2020 season finally got started at Texas in June, Sato spun in qualifying and was unable to participate in the season opener, the first race missed in his IndyCar career. He did bounce back with four consecutive top ten finishes before winning his second Indianapolis 500 in August after leapfrogging Scott Dixon during a late pit cycle. Another Indianapolis 500 victory led to another personal best championship finish in seventh. 

In 2021, Sato did not win a race for the first time since 2016, but he did pick up eight top ten finishes in 16 races but fell just shy of a top ten championship finish in 11th. 

What impression did Sato leave on IndyCar?
Sato has been overwhelmingly embraced after being dismissed for the first half of his career. We saw plenty of speed from Sato, but he was inconsistent and regularly tore up equipment. It was common theme during his time in Formula One as well. It didn't help that he was with Foyt for most of that time, but he didn't do himself any favors. 

Winning cures most ills. Sato found success in quality cars. He stepped into an exceptional Andretti Autosport lineup and held his own. His second stint with RLLR came at a time when the organization was asserting itself as a regular challenger. Graham Rahal might have been the better driver over their four years as teammates, but Sato won races, something Rahal did not do. 

Sato will be remembered for two Indianapolis 500 victories, but more so for the redemption after his 2012 defeat. Not many drivers get as close as Sato did to victory a second time. He got his second bite at the apple and made it count. Then he added another, which hopefully is the only Indianapolis 500 held in the month of August.  

For how Sato ran, he never got down. At no point did it ever look like he was on the verge of leaving IndyCar even when the results were most discouraging. He stuck out the bad times and always enjoyed IndyCar. I don't recall him ever complaining about having to run Iowa in the middle of summer or running five consecutive weekends with doubleheaders sprinkled in. 

We forget that Sato came from Formula One that is how long he has been in IndyCar, and he came to IndyCar at a time when not many drivers were moving to IndyCar from Formula One. Most Formula One drivers weren't going near IndyCar as an alternative option when they couldn't find a seat. He was not a trendsetter for what we are seeing now with Marcus Ericsson, Romain Grosjean and others looking to IndyCar, but depending on how the next five to ten years go Sato could be viewed as ahead of his time. 

While having two Indianapolis 500 victories, Sato is not one of the greatest IndyCar drivers of all-time. He has only six victories and he never finished in the top five of the championship. The easy comparison is Arie Luyendyk, another driver with two Indianapolis 500 victories, seven career victories and who never finished in the top five of the championship. 

Luyendyk has a special place in IndyCar history, which is also aided because the Dutchman holds the track record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While Sato might not have a 236 mph four-lap average on his record, he also will have a special place in IndyCar history. Sato will be remembered with fondness. 

It sounds like Sato's time is not quite up yet. Dale Coyne Racing is his rumored destination for 2022, but he turns 45 years old in January. I don't get the sense he will hang around until he is 50. We are seeing his final days. He is two starts away from the 200-start milestone. Maybe he will only get to 215 starts. Perhaps he breaks 230 or maybe he gets to 250. There could be another victory or two ahead of him. Regardless of what comes next, I don't think anyone expected Sato to hang around IndyCar for over decade and win two Indianapolis 500s. 

Sato defied our expectations and reinvented himself. He has mostly shaken his crash-prone past and will be remembered for his triumphs, all of which came driving to the limit and no less than that.