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.