Thursday, March 31, 2022

Best of the Month: March 2022

We have made it to spring and pretty much every series is in action. Formula One had a back-to-back to open its season. NASCAR is in full momentum. IndyCar has already completed an oval race. There has been plenty of sports car racing. March is proving to be the launchpad for the 2022 season, as we have seen for pretty much every season before. 

There is a lot to celebrate from the past month and it gives us a lot to look forward to for the remainder of the year. 

"Mini Memorial Day Weekend"
During the March 20 podcast episode of The Teardown from The Athletic, Jeff Gluck mentioned that weekend was a "mini Memorial Day weekend" of sorts as Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR all competed on the same day and virtually avoided overlapping. The Bahrain Grand Prix and Texas IndyCar race might have overlapped a tad, but the IndyCar race was over before NASCAR got started in Atlanta and went four hours around the reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. 

While it was the opening weekend for the Formula One season and only the second round for IndyCar, this happens more often than we likely realize. Memorial Day weekend isn't the only time all three series compete on the same day. It is the most notable day because for each series one of their biggest races takes place, usually Monaco for Formula One with the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600. But it happens a more often only with less sexy races. 

For starters, let's go back to 2008. The first season of IndyCar reunification, Lewis Hamilton's first world championship season and the first full season of the Car of Tomorrow for the NASCAR Cup Series. On four occasions there were "mini Memorial Day weekends" including Memorial Day weekend. 

April 6: Bahrain/St. Petersburg/Texas
April 27: Spain/Kansas/Talladega
May 25: Monaco/Indianapolis/Charlotte
June 22: France/Iowa/Sonoma

This is not including the weekend when IndyCar race on Saturday while Formula One and NASCAR were on Sunday or NASCAR was on Saturday and Formula and IndyCar were on Sunday. 

How does that compare to 2022?

We already had one "mini Memorial day weekend" in March. How many more are there?


May 29: Monaco/Indianapolis/Charlotte
June 12: Azerbaijan/Road America/Sonoma
July 3: Silverstone/Mid-Ohio/Road America
July 24: France/Iowa/Pocono
September 4: Zandvoort/Portland/Darlington
September 11: Monza/Laguna Seca/Kansas

Make sure to rotate your couch cushions accordingly. 

Super Sebring
It took three years, but the second edition of Super Sebring finally took place with the FIA World Endurance Championship returning to central Florida for its 1000-mile (or eight-hour) season opener the day before the 12 Hours of Sebring. 

Everyone is still learning to live with one another, but it is working out. Sebring reported an attendance increase from 2019. They have figured out to spread out the races with Michelin Pilot Challenge on Thursday, WEC on Friday and IMSA on Saturday. They moved the WEC race up in the day to a noon start time. We still didn't come close to the 1000-mile mark due to multiple red flags for accidents and weather. 

I still don't think the WEC Sebring race has to be special and be 1000 miles or eight hours. I think a six-hour race would be perfectly fine and I think it works better. The race could start a little later. It could be a 3:00 p.m. Sebring start and be half a day race and half a night race. But this is working. 

We had Alpine win the WEC race overall with a grandfathered LMP1 car. I thought SportsCar365's John Dagy said it best that it was fitting an LMP1 car won on its final visit to Sebring considering how synonymous the track and class were for nearly 20 years. I was happy that Nicolas Lapierre won considering his LMP1 pedigree and his unceremonious exit from the Toyota program not so long ago. Kudos to André Negrão and Matthieu Vaxivière for also being in the Alpine.

We had some cross-pollination between the 1000 miles and the 12 hours. Some drivers couldn't do both. Sébastien Bourdais was told no. Ricky Taylor didn't, but his co-drivers Filipe Albuquerque and Will Stevens did. Ben Keating did both. Loïc Duval only did the 12 hours. Nicolas Lapierre only ran the 1000 miles. Twenty-one drivers did both events. 

Since the convergence regulations were announced I have wondered what this weekend will look like moving forward. The Hypercars and LMDh cars can run against each other. The LMP2 classes are identical. No one would dare run both races with the same car, but I am interested in seeing what teams choose to do which race. We cannot have one race with all IMSA and WEC competitors participating. There were 36 cars in the 1000 miles. There were 53 cars in the 12 hours. We cannot have one race with 89 cars on track. Even if we took the LMP3 cars off track there would still be 79 cars out there. 

Ultimately, world championship teams will run the 1000 miles. We will see fewer IMSA/American-based teams attempt the WEC race, which is a little sad, but it is the best of both worlds coming together. Some drivers will double-dip. Of course, with both races we will not see every driver in each. I guess the one small hope is a manufacture like Toyota would run its full WEC program but then have a spare car for the 12 hours, and Peugeot and Ferrari could theoretically do the same. Each team could put together a mix of three drivers. It would be similar to what Corvette did during the Lone Star Le Mans weekends at Austin. It is unlikely, but there is nothing wrong with wishing for it.

April Preview
In North America, Japan's Super GT series does not get much coverage, but it is a highly competitive series and high-class drivers have populated the grid through the years. This year's season begins in the middle of the month and there have been some changes ahead of the 2022 season. 

Eight races, but the race distances will either be 300km or 450km, with no longer endurance races.

Okayama opens the season on April 17 before the first of three 450-kilometer events at Fuji on May 4. Suzuka closes the month with a round on May 29. After two months off, Super GT returns with a pair of 450km races. First at Fuji on August 7 and then at Suzuka on August 28. 

Sportsland SUGO will be on September 18, as the season closes with three rounds over three months. Autopolis hosts the penultimate round on October 2 before Motegi hosts the finale on November 6.

Grid Changes
The GT500 champions have split. Sho Tsuboi will remain in the #36 Team au TOM's Toyota but Giuliano Alesi will join him while Yuhi Sekiguchi moves to the #39 Team SARD Toyota replacing Heikki Kovalainen alongside Yuichi Nakayama. Sacha Fenestraz and Ritomo Miyata will share the #37 Team KeePer TOM's Toyota. Sena Sakaguchi continues the game of Toyota musical chairs, moving to the #19 Team WedSport Bandoh with Yuji Kunimoto.

Bertrand Baguette has left Honda to drive the #12 Team Impul Nissan alongside Kazuki Hiramine. Baguette replaces Nobuharu Matsushita, and Matsushita moves to the #17 Real Racing Honda, the entry Baguette occupied in 2021. Koudai Tsukakoshi remains in the #17 Honda.

Nissan is also making a change in the car. The Nissan Fairlady Z GT500 replaces the Nissan GT-R GT500, which had been Nissan's model of choice since 2008. Nissan has also flipped Mitsunori Takaboshi and Kohei Hirate, with Takaboshi moving to the #3 NDDP Racing entry joining Katsumasa Chiyo and Hirate in the #24 Kondo Racing entry with Daiki Sasaki. Nissan has not won the GT500 title since 2015 when the #23 NISMO entry of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli took the title. Matsuda and Quintarelli are back in the #23 Nissan.

In GT300, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri will have Hideki Mutoh and Iori Kimura in the #55 Honda NSX GT3. Shinchi Takagi moves from ARTA to the #96 K-Tunes Racing Lexus joining Morio Nitta, reuniting the two drivers, who were co-drivers from the middle of the 2000 season through 2010. Takagi and Nitta won the 2002 GT300 championship. Augusto Farfus will run the #7 BMW Team Studie x CSL BMW M4 GT3 with past Le Mans winner Seiji Ara, and Tsubasa Kondo.

Other events in April:
IndyCar has one race: Long Beach.
Formula One has two races: Australia and Imola.
MotoGP visits the Americas before starting its European season. 
NASCAR is short track heavy: Richmond, Martinsville and the Bristol dirt race, before Talladega closes the month.
World Superbike and the European Le Mans Series each begin their seasons.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Yeah... It's About IndyCar on Ovals

Everyone was on their toes in Saudi Arabia. Max Verstappen won the race after a late pass on Charles Leclerc. Formula One might be making Thanksgiving plans for Las Vegas. Track limits have come to NASCAR, and they were officiated questionably. RFK Racing went over the limit and paid dearly. One man is re-writing the Supercross record book, and now Supercross gets a week off. Milwaukee is somehow back in the IndyCar schedule conversation. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Yeah... It's About IndyCar on Ovals
Texas Motor Speedway has been a flashpoint for conversation recently. Unfortunately, these have not been good conversations. 

After IndyCar's most recent event at Texas, there were plenty of discussions over the racetrack, promotion and whether it was time for IndyCar to make a change. It was not too dissimilar from NASCAR's most recent trip to Texas. NASCAR went last October and raced in front of mostly empty grandstands for one of its final races of the season on an overcast autumnal Sunday. To make matters worse, one week later Formula One was at Circuit of the Americas in Austin and competing in front of one of its largest crowds in the last ten years. Meanwhile, in Kansas, NASCAR was again competing in front of mostly empty grandstands while allegedly in a dramatic championship battle. 

There was much to be pleased about after IndyCar's most recent trip to Texas. The race was a vast improvement over the last few seasons. A final corner pass for the victory helped. IndyCar made an effort to develop a higher lane despite the grip challenges with the PJ1 stained surface in the corners. The extra practice session helped though didn't completely eliminate the issue. After two hours, nine minutes and 29 seconds of racing, the general consensus was there was something worth saving in Texas. But a lot of work remains to be done. 

Attendance must increase significantly, and from the sounds of those at the event, more has to be done promotionally. Labeled as a glorified tire test, awareness is one potential answer. Dallas is the fourth largest market in the United States. Texas is the second largest state. With just over seven million people in the market alone, a respectable five-figure crowd should be the least of both the track and IndyCar's concerns. 

There is a playbook to success. Formula E finds a way to put on respectable races, one-day shows nonetheless, on temporary circuits around the globe. Texas Motor Speedway is one track in a larger multi-million dollar company that has been around for 25 years, not to mention a track that was led by a self-professed marketing marvel. There are no excuses why Texas cannot turn around one of its events to break even. 

With how many seats the place has, 50,000 might not be enough to have a good looking crowd, but it would be a lot better financially and at least feel like an event. 

It is not all on Texas Motor Speedway. IndyCar has plenty of oval issues since reunification. Crowds have shrunk at many tracks from different parts of the country. IndyCar has its own work to do. But is it willing to do what is necessary for oval races to survive? 

Iowa is pulling out all the stops. It has a sponsor in Hy-Vee willing to throw its support behind the event. With a doubleheader capped with concerts featuring four notable performers, Iowa is getting the treatment we have only seen for the likes of the Indianapolis 500 and Long Beach. There is no guarantee we will have two successful days, but if Iowa can get 25,000 or 30,000 each day, it will be the revival the event needed after dwindling crowds and falling off the schedule in 2021. 

Can IndyCar do that at every oval event?

There was only one series on track at Texas. The Road of Indy series do not run Texas. The NASCAR Truck Series is now on the NASCAR weekend at Texas. Iowa will at least have Indy Lights as an additional series, but when it comes to on-track action, that second IndyCar race fills a massive hole. 

IndyCar has been wearied to expand the schedule and doubleheaders are far from popular, but doubleheaders might be the only answer for ovals outside the Indianapolis 500. Texas wanted to be a doubleheader again in 2022, but with Iowa returning as a doubleheader and IndyCar's scheduling philosophy, contraction was forced upon Texas.

Power is something IndyCar doesn't really get to wheeled in any relationship with any track. If Texas needs a doubleheader to survive, IndyCar has to meet it in the middle and accommodate another race. Margins might be tight, but one more race shouldn't be a matter of life or death for IndyCar. If that is the case, IndyCar is in far greater trouble than we realize. Not to forget mentioning, a doubleheader might be exactly what IndyCar needs if it is only having three race weekends in a seven-week period and four race weekends in a ten-week period to open the season. 

Whether Texas remains in the game is to be determined, but for IndyCar's sake it might be better if it does. Texas wants to stick around from the sounds of it. No other track is knocking on IndyCar's door, not even after a last lap pass for the win in its most recent race. The devil IndyCar knows is better than the devil it doesn't. There is a working relationship with Texas. They can play off one another and try to revive this event fresh off an improved race. Any new track would have the motivation to at least make its money back, but it and the series would be starting at zero. Does IndyCar have the time to waste building a relationship?

IndyCar is in a difficult state when it comes to oval events. After two terrible years at Texas, this year's race was doomed before a ticket was even sold. Everyone expected a dog of a race. This year's outing wasn't the greatest race in Texas history, but it was acceptable. Not every race can light the world on fire, but in the 21st century, the tolerance for a bad race is non-existent. Texas had two bad years and there was no saving it. There was no proof this year's race was better. No number of tests in the world was going to persuade 60,000 people to show up at Texas Motor Speedway for race day. 

This is why Iowa is trying to be more than a race weekend and that might be the only recipe going forward. No racetrack can bank on the race being the main draw. A bad race is too much to overcome, but if people can forget the race with two concerts and loads food trucks or whatever other carnival aspect is at the race weekend, then fantastic. 

The Indianapolis 500 had a solid period of lackluster races, but Indianapolis is more than a race. It is an entire weekend with concerts on three consecutive days including the Snake Pit on race day. Even as the race has risen in competition, the weekend has continued to grow beyond the race and attract spectators for multiple reasons.

Race fans might not like to hear it, but it needs to be more than a race. It needs to be an event. That doesn't mean the race doesn't matter, but the weekend or race day needs to be enough to justify the time at the facility. One IndyCar race starting at 11:40 a.m. local time and ending before 2:00 p.m. isn't enough, no matter how many passes there are and if it is five-wide across the line for victory.

Seeing the steps Iowa is taking, it feels like IndyCar has a game plan for future oval events. If it is successful, we could see race weekends evolve after decades of stagnation. But if it doesn't, well then it is more of the same and we continue to scratch our heads. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Max Verstappen, but did you know...

Liam Lawson and Felipe Drugovich split the Formula Two races from Jeddah.

Ross Chastain won the NASCAR Cup race from Austin, his first career victory. A.J. Allmendinger won the Grand National Series race. Zane Smith won the Truck race, his second victory of the season. 

Shane Van Gisbergen swept the three Supercars races from Symmons Plains.

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Seattle, his fifth consecutive victory, his seventh of the season, and his 44th career victory, tying him with Chad Reed for fourth all-time.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR returns to Richmond.
MotoGP is back in Argentina.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Survey Says... IndyCar's 2022 Survey Results

We have some time until the next IndyCar race, and we have a chance to look through some other things going on around the early portion of the 2022 season. 

One thing that was released just prior to the 2022 season opener at St. Petersburg but has been since swept under the rug is the survey results released from the partnered study between IndyCar, Motorsport Network and Nielsen Sports.

A total of 53,579 responses were filed from 147 countries in what is the largest global IndyCar fan survey ever put comprised. 

Overall, there were eight key categories to the survey, giving a glimpse of the IndyCar fanbase and the perception of the series. Since we do not have another race in the near future, and since we have had a little time to go over the data, it is a good time to look over the report and digest what the fan base has said. 

We will look over each category, what was said, what stood out and anything else important relating to the survey. 

A vast majority of the respondents were based in North America, 61% to be exact with 23% respondents from Europe. South and Central America and the Asia-Pacific region had near identical respondents, accounting for 8% and 7% respectively. The rest of the world made the final percentage point. These five regions were used for informational breakdowns. 

The average age of respondents was 42 years and three months old, which isn't that surprising. IndyCar has an older fan base. Taking the average literally to the time the surveys were completed from January 10 to January 31, 2022, that means the average IndyCar fan was born sometime around 1980. 

That would account for the 50-year-olds, who grew up with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears as their childhood stars while being the same age as Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. and growing into their early adult years with all those drivers plus Bobby Rahal, Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi in the series. As for the respondents who were born around 1980, they were in their teenage years at the height of CART. The international appeal was at its highest with Mansell and Fittipaldi participating.

While the average age was just over 42 years old, majority of the respondents were over 55 years old, close to 30%. Most respondents were born in 1967 or earlier. That is not a great sign for a series, but if there is any silver lining, the second largest respondent age group was between the ages of 16-24 years old at just over 20%. Though far off the eldest group, it is a good sign the next largest age group is the youngest one. The series still needs to increase its viewership, but it might have a healthy young base to build on for hopefully the next 30 years. 

With most respondents over the age of 55, it is no surprise a great number of respondents said they have been an IndyCar fan for ten years or more. In North America alone, that night was over 70%. In four of five regions did majority of the respondents say they have been watching for ten years or more, but the one region that did not might surprise you. 

It was Europe. 

Over 40% of European respondents said they have been following IndyCar for one to five years. The ten years or greater crowd was second somewhere north of 30%. 

What accounts for this? Fernando Alonso. With no strong data to back it up, but five years ago Fernando Alonso attempted the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. Alonso was likely the first driver to expose IndyCar to the European audience. It was only one race, but it clearly did more. It also has helped that in the last five years Marcus Ericsson also came to IndyCar, Takuma Sato won that Indianapolis 500 Alonso first participated in and Sato is a driver the European fanbase knows, and over 10% of European respondents started watching in the last season, the year Romain Grosjean joined the series. 

The rest of the world also had over 30% of respondents say they have started watching IndyCar in the last five years while the Asia-Pacific region was the only other one to have over 20% of respondents say they started watching in the last five years.

The rest of the world did have the highest percentage of viewers in the last year, somewhere over 15% while South and Central America and Europe were both over 10%. Asia-Pacific was fourth while North American rank last.

Brand Health
The key point IndyCar made known in this section was majority of fans believe IndyCar is healthier than it was three years ago. Numbers suggest that is the case. Car count is up. More sponsors are in the series. More races are on network television. The depth of the field has gotten deeper, and the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean are now full-time competitors. It is tough to be negative when presented with those facts.

Three brand attributes were said by over 50% of respondents: competitive, exciting and entertaining.

Competitive was said by over 80% of respondents. 

Growing, dangerous and fun all were in over 20% of respondents. 

As for future success, close competition and exciting racing were both listed as key features in over 70% of responses. Lots of different winners was around 65% and overtaking and on-track action was just shy of 60%, but the only other key feature on over 50% of responses.

While 72.5% of respondents said they felt IndyCar was healthier than it was three years ago, 70% believe IndyCar does have to do more to attract new fans. 

That is a fair assessment of the series as television rating series remain low, though growing (we will cover those in a moment), and from how Texas Motor Speedway looked there are plenty of seats available at races, too many to be proud about.

Media Landscape
In the 21st century, television is still king for IndyCar, cable television to be specific. 

Cable/pay television accounted for 43.6% of media frequently accessed over a race weekend with 70% using free-to-air or cable/pay television each race weekend.

However, pay television has led to a negative viewership trends. 

Forty percent of respondents said pay television has forced them to watch less IndyCar with nearly 50% of Central and South American respondents saying pay television has forced them to watch less and 68% of Canadian respondents to say they have watched less IndyCar because of pay television. 

The good news is in North America, Europe, Asia Pacific and the rest of the world, pay television has caused no change in viewership, but in only one region has pay television caused at least 20% of respondents to watch more IndyCar and that was Europe. Overall, pay television has only caused a little over 10% of respondents to watch more IndyCar.

The problem is pay television pays the bills. When it comes to international television partners, if one is going to put more money on the table than another then IndyCar is going to maximize profits over viewership. Pay television outlets traditional will shell out more money for these series to boost their portfolios, but they are usually a channel that a vast majority do not get and cost more money than the average person wants to spend on a television package. 

It puts IndyCar in a corner. How does it balance drawing its largest possible audience worldwide while also earning its greatest amount of revenue? The series needs the money. It needs it for race purses, pay the teams and make IndyCar a more financially viable series. But it also needs viewers. It is one thing to make money but if the series is hidden to the viewers, how will anyone come to love and identify with the series and its drivers? 

There is no easy solution. 

Teams and Drivers
"IndyCar is non-tribal." 

Meaning, respondents did not root for one specific driver, they pulled for multiple competitors. Fans have favorite, but there is no clear favorite. The top five most popular driver combined for 42% of all responses. The top ten covered 62% of responses. Nearly 10% did not have a favorite driver and about a quarter of respondents had a favorite that did not crack the top ten. 

Romain Grosjean topped the chart with nearly 12%, the only driver to receive over 10% of votes. Patricio O'Ward was second overall and only slightly ahead of "no favorite" while Hélio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five. Josef Newgarden, Takuma Sato and Colton Herta all hung around 5%.

The four main regions each had a different favorite driver. Grosjean was the top driver in the European region, O'Ward topped Central and South America, Castroneves topped North America and Sato topped the Asia Pacific. Grosjean was also the top drive about 16-24-year-olds. 

Among teams, Team Penske was the favorite at 19.4% with Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren SP each tied on 17%. "No favorite" was next at 16%. Chip Ganassi Racing was the only other team to exceed 10% with every other team below 5%. 

Race Experience
Nearly half of all respondents attended a race in the last five years, 48.3% to be specific. Respondents were more likely to have been to an IndyCar race than a Formula One race. 

That makes sense. IndyCar races are far more affordable than a Formula One race, but it should also be noted majority of respondents were in North America. Every IndyCar race over the last five years were in North America, Canada, the United States and Mexico are the local races for the North American continent. Greater opportunity means greater IndyCar attendance, and 70% of North American respondents have been to an IndyCar race in the last five years compared to less than 20% having been to a Formula One race.

Opportunity goes a long way. Three quarters of respondents who have not been to a race said lack of a local race was the main reason. When nearly 40% of respondents were from outside North America, it is no surprise so many say lack of a local race is the main reason they haven't been to a race.

Though geography may not be favorable, many are hopeful. Over 60% of Central and South American respondents and Asia Pacific respondents who have not attended a race since 2016 said they will attend in the future. The rest of the world was slightly around 50%. 

Europeans were most pessimistic. While just under 50% of European respondents who have not attended a race since 2016 said they will in the future, just over 40% of European respondents who have not attended a race since 2016 said they will not attend in the future. In comparison, that number was just over 20% in Central and South America, just over a quarter in the Asia Pacific and just over 30% in the rest of the world.

The survey also asked for its ideal schedule, which it should be noted wasn't an open free-for-all. The survey did have a limited selection of tracks to choose from, but of the 16 tracks selected in this survey, 13 are on the current schedule. Interestingly, there are 15 tracks on the 2022 schedule. The two that did not make the cut were Nashville and Portland. The three non-active tracks added were Austin, Watkins Glen and Pocono. 

Even more interesting is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Laguna Seca ranked the highest among the 16-24 crowd while Texas and Road America were the least favorite among that age group. 

Among respondents, the Indianapolis 500 was the most attended race. The IMS road course was second. Mid-Ohio, Road America and St. Petersburg rounded out the top five. Long Beach, Gateway, Texas, Belle Isle and Pocono rounded out the top ten.

When it comes to key features, good vantage points, track amenities (grandstands, parking, restrooms, concessions) and extra amenities (WiFi and big screens) were the top three, all being important to over 60% of respondents. Ironically, the three least important features were music concerts and entertainment at the track, camping facilities at the track and great nightlife/off track attractions. Of course, Iowa is banking on concerts to attract spectators and Nashville has banked on being more than a race while Mid-Ohio and Road America are known for their camping crowds. 

One thing that stood out from this section was female respondents were 10% more likely to attend a race than male respondents. I think that is fascinating and female respondents accounted for 12.2% of the survey. It could be that female respondents are more likely to be hardcore IndyCar supporters than male respondents. 

Sporting Spectacle
When it comes to the race format, a great majority are pleased with IndyCar's current format and do not want many changes. 

What respondents did support were multiple tire and chassis suppliers (49%), double points in the Indianapolis 500 (47.2%), and minimal steward involvement over the course of a race (42.8%).

Considering how polarizing double points has been, it is surprising nearly half of respondents were in favor of it. I think people want the Indianapolis 500 to stand out. It is the most important race of the season and having it worth more is seen as good for the series. 

Other popular ideas with respondents are maintaining cost controls for the long-term health of IndyCar (38.2%), prioritizing close racing over technological innovation (35.2%), avoiding ending races under caution (32.6%) and hybrid engines are an important and constructive step for the future (29.5%). 

It is interesting that so many people would like multiple tire and chassis suppliers and want costs controlled. Those are almost competing ideas. In theory, multiple chassis suppliers would drive costs down, but that will not necessarily be how it works, especially if one chassis is far superior than another. Meanwhile, while close racing should be prioritized over technological innovations, with such a good chunk of respondents seeing the importance in hybrid technology, that is almost a wash of contrasting wants. 

Respondents were only significant against one idea, changing the race format to "improve excitement." Forty-nine percent of respondents disapproved and that was strongest among 16-34 years old. However, when you consider almost a third of people would like to avoid races finishing under caution, it is again a set of contrasting wants. Unless a third of people are against the idea of ending races under caution but understand it is a necessary evil of motorsports the same way rain can end a baseball game after six innings or how one team may not get possession during overtime in a football game.

One other fascinating thing that was on the survey that I never heard anyone mention as a problem was modifying oval qualifying outside the Indianapolis 500. I think one option on the survey was to have oval qualifying be a four-lap average at every track, just like the Indianapolis 500. I remember not long ago IndyCar did four-lap averages at every oval and I thought it was over the top. That thought hasn't changed now. 

Changing oval qualifying isn't going to bring more people to the racetrack nor increase viewership. The two-lap average works and I like what IndyCar has done for doubleheader oval weekends with one qualifying session, a two-lap run for each driver with the first lap deciding starting position in the first race and the second lap deciding the starting position in the second race. It is an efficient qualifying session. We have seen variety with some guys nailing lap one and starting up front but losing a few spots for the second race or vice versa. It has also been fun to have two pole-sitters on the hot seat. One might breathe a sigh of relief after lap one and then another on the hot seat. It is a lively session and every lap matters.

This is an important category for IndyCar, as it hopes to release its first dedicated video game in nearly two decades.

Eighty percent of respondents aged 16-34 spent at least 90 minutes playing video games each week, and they are playing racing video games. 

The Formula One video game is the most popular at 53.2% with Gran Turismo and Forza tied at 31.9%. Console-based gaming was most popular at 83% while neither PC nor mobile gaming exceeding 50%. 

What companies did respondents associate with IndyCar? It is unsurprising that is the companies that have sponsored the series or been around the longest 

The top five companies associated with IndyCar are DHL, Firestone, Honda, NTT and Verizon. 

NTT and Verizon are the last two title sponsors. Firestone and Honda have long been suppliers of tires and engines respectively. DHL has been a car sponsor for over a decade, just like Verizon. All five of these companies were in the top five for the North American, European and Asia Pacific regions. 

DHL led European responses while Verizon and Firestone were the top two in North America and NTT and Honda led the Asia Pacific region.

What Did We Learn and What Does It Mean Going Forward?
I would say IndyCar is on the same page as its fan base. 

How fans describe the series is similar to what IndyCar has pushed: A competitive series where any team can win with plenty of talent drivers spread among the ten teams on the grid. What IndyCar is trying to put on track is what respondents want to see. It goes back to the introduction of the universal aero kit, something that has made close racing more possible at road and street courses, and we have seen staggering passing numbers at places such as St. Petersburg, Mid-Ohio and even Laguna Seca, partially because of the lack of disturbed air with this bodywork.

I think we have known for the last few years that IndyCar has a lot of popular drivers and this survey reflects that. One driver does not have a vast majority of the fan base in his or her corner, which is a good thing, but the results also suggests that IndyCar does not have a standout star, and I think that is true. While Grosjean is known, there isn't one driver that truly represents IndyCar and who when people see him or her they know he or she drives in IndyCar, races in the Indianapolis 500, has been a champion and is a person worth knowing. 

Also, with the four big regions of the world each having a different most popular driver, it means IndyCar has to have a more diverse promotional campaign, which sounds great on paper, but it requires more creativity, more resources and more work period. At the present moment, IndyCar does not have the bandwidth for a four-prong global marketing campaign. It must be one-size fits all, which could limit the series exposure and people reached. 

It will be interesting to see how media distribution changes in the next three to five years. In the United States, we are already going to see a massive change in how races are viewed as 14 of 17 races this year are on network NBC. Only two races are on cable television and the Toronto race is scheduled to be the one streaming only race on Peacock. 

Viewership trends are going to change because presentation is changing. At least in the United States, cable/pay television is going to drop significantly, which should also bring down the overall number as well. All the races are also available on Peacock, the first year all the races are available on an over-the-top streaming platform. In the United States, it will not necessarily be one big swing toward network viewership, though that number should go up significantly, but streaming should also see a bump upward. 

As for partnerships, it is interesting to see if any new companies become identifiable with IndyCar. If you look at the current top five, other than NTT, those four companies have been with IndyCar for more than a decade. Even NTT has been around for a while, dating back to the 2014 season when it started sponsoring the #8 Chip Ganassi Racing entry with Ryan Briscoe. The other companies in the top ten were Chevrolet, NAPA Auto Parts, Penske, Arrow and Pennzoil. Three of those five have deep history in IndyCar. NAPA and Arrow are two of the newer sponsors, both entering the series since the start of the 2015 season. 

No company stays in IndyCar forever. It appeared DHL was on its way out after the 2021 season, but with Romain Grosjean now as its driver, DHL might have a face it can promote internationally. It might stay in IndyCar for a few more years. But all companies max out on IndyCar. Who will be there when the opportunity presents itself? 

There is an overall optimism in IndyCar. It has been at this high level I would say since the 2017 Indianapolis 500 when Fernando Alonso showed up out of nowhere. In the near five years since that race, IndyCar has made some good strides forward, but there has been this underlying sense of it needs to be much better for the long-term health of the series. 

While the number are moving in the right direction for IndyCar, it is still marginal gains and not significantly yearly growth that is turning heads. IndyCar is growing, but so is Formula One, especially in the United States and in the last three years Formula One has become the cultural flashpoint. It has overtaken IndyCar in the United States in a way the series could not have imagined it happening and Formula One has done it without an American driver and without a successful American team. IndyCar held serve and was completely overmatched with a flashier product that was willing to expose its background business that was once inaccessible to the average viewer. It took a chance and was rewarded brilliantly. 

IndyCar has to take its chance. It has been down in the gutter for the entire 21st century. The time to take chances has been now for that entire time. But it might have missed its moment. It has to find a way to present itself that is enthralling to non-viewers and turn them into regular race viewers. The biggest thing out of IndyCar's hands is whether or not anyone will care no matter what the series does. That has been IndyCar's greatest problem ever since 1996. Will anything IndyCar actually does even matter? 


Monday, March 21, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: IndyCar Without Texas

It took only 1,281 days for Team Penske to go from 500 victories to 600 victories, and it was Josef Newgarden who achieved the milestone victory at Texas Motor Speedway. Kevin Mangussen traded a 12 Hours of Sebring victory for points in his Formula One return. I guess that is worth it. Super Sebring was back, and it is a weekend that was worth it. Marc Márquez went over the edge in Indonesia before the rain and the delay came. Ferrari had a banner day while it went sideways for Red Bull in the closing laps. Atlanta Motor Speedway has been transformed, though the tunnels exiting the track have remained the same. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

IndyCar Without Texas
IndyCar is accustomed to goodbyes. 

It is a near yearly basis IndyCar finds itself visiting a racetrack knowing no matter what happens it will be the series' final time competing there for the near future. Fortunately, history shows that we can never say never, but some places will be gone for a while. Perhaps it is only a year or two, but it could be a decade or an entire generation before IndyCar races at a place again. 

This weekend at Texas did not feel like a surefire farewell, but it was borderline. 

After a rough three-year period at the 1.5-mile oval where IndyCar struggled to race on the track due to the reconfiguration and the PJ1 traction compound stains in the corners, laid down on the asphalt for the NASCAR races, this year's race had a hint of being the final visit from the time IndyCar left from the Texas doubleheader last May. 

Track president Eddie Gossage retiring in the middle of 2021 also didn't help IndyCar's future there. Gossage was long an advocate for IndyCar, with Texas hosting at least one race for over 25 years and at one point hosting two races, including the season finale. With a new sheriff in town, IndyCar does not necessarily have the same guaranteed hospitality moving forward. From the apparent lack of promotion and buzz in the Dallas/Fort-Worth-area ahead of this race, it sounds like this was not the first impression anyone was hoping for. With IndyCar and Texas living on one-year contracts, it would be easy for the series to be escorted out of town and never to return. 

For many of us, it is hard to imagine Texas not being on the IndyCar schedule. It has been here since the infancy of the Indy Racing League and the split. It made its mark in the early 2000s with hyperactive races known for constant side-by-side racing, close finishes, and unfortunately, terrible accidents. It was one of the few definitive marks of the IRL at a time when the series identity was highly polarizing. The IRL stood out because of the racing it had on 1.5-mile ovals and while there were plenty of the schedule, Texas stood out among them all. 

After reunification and during the recession, the number of 1.5-mile ovals dwindled on the IndyCar schedule. In 2008, there were a half-dozen 1.5-mile ovals. Texas was the last one standing in 2012 and since then it has been the only 1.5-mile oval for the last decade. IndyCar will more likely have zero of the intermediate ovals that proliferated around the turn of the 21st century than increase in the immediate future. 

Losing Texas would be a shock to the system even if the race has not been close to its highest level over the last ten years. The track billed itself as IndyCar's second home, and as misguided and incorrect as that tagline is, no other track was flaunting that type of relationship with the series. Texas had clearly diminished in importance to IndyCar and vice versa, but the partnership continued, and it was one of the few venues IndyCar could count on being on the schedule. Schedule consistency is important for the health of the series, and when long-standing races are falling off that is concerning. 

This loss is more than just another track. It is another oval gone for a series that has been unable to build any oval foundation when it has openly expressed waiting to keep it as a part of its identity. Even worse is there is not another oval waiting in the wings to join the IndyCar schedule.

After the 2011 season, Kentucky fell off the schedule after 11 seasons, Loudon was gone after a one-year return and Motegi was already switched to the road course after the oval was damaged in the Tōhoku earthquake, but IndyCar was set to lose three oval races from its original 2011 oval schedule in 2012. But then Fontana returned, and while Fontana didn't cover three lost ovals, it softened the blow. 

Over the last decade, IndyCar has been always had another oval soften the blow. First it was Fontana. Then Pocono was added to the schedule and IndyCar was back up to six oval races. Unfortunately, Fontana only lasted four seasons and it fell off after 2015, the same year as Milwaukee, but Phoenix kept the number of oval races at five in 2016. Gateway brought the oval total back up to six races in 2017. Then Phoenix fell away in 2018. Pocono was gone the year after that, but Richmond was ready to step up in 2020. Then the pandemic came, and Richmond never happened. Iowa let IndyCar go for the 2021 season.

Texas is on the fritz and there isn't another oval around to step up. IndyCar is fortunate to raise Iowa out of the pandemic ashes, but there is a world where the only oval races on the 2023 calendar are Indianapolis and Gateway. No one else is jumping for IndyCar to return. Richmond has been silent. Michigan isn't walking through that door. Chicagoland is not walking through that door. Langhorne is not walking through that door. 

I am not sure when the wakeup call is to come but it should be now and not when the two-oval reality comes to be. 

Beyond ovals, losing Texas is losing Texas, as in the entire state. With the second-highest population, leaving Texas would be withdrawing IndyCar from an important part of the country. Five of the fifteen largest cities are in Texas, each has loads of businesses that could be potential partners for the series and the state population is growing. 

On top of all that, Texas has a large Mexican American population at a time when IndyCar has a Mexican driver that is about to burst as a star. Can IndyCar afford not to be in Texas at all? 

This is about more than running ovals. This is about IndyCar exposure. People went nuts about not having a race in the Pacific Northwest for more than a decade viewing it as an underserved market before Portland returned in 2018. Leaving Texas is even crazier in terms of the future of the series. With nearly 30 million people in the Lone Star State, you have to imagine IndyCar could hold one healthy race there. 

Texas Motor Speedway was once that race. It has decline significantly. Houston failed after three separate short stints on the schedule. There was only one IndyCar race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, and while it would be easy to call the race a failure, it was trending in the correct direction before the pandemic started in March 2020. IndyCar had a successful preseason test at the track. The race had gained AutoNation as a title sponsor. It might not have rivaled the Formula One crowd, but it was respectable for what IndyCar draws. Maybe it was building into something. We will never know.

It will likely be a few months before we know whether or not Texas Motor Speedway will return to the IndyCar schedule for the 27th consecutive season in 2023, but until its fate is finalized, we must ask whether or not IndyCar can afford to lose this track for a variety of reasons.

There were reasons for optimism yesterday. This year's race was far better than the 2020 race and both races in 2021, but the track surface is still unfriendly to IndyCar competition. IndyCar had to really work to put on a half-decent show. If the track is not going to work with IndyCar, nor promote its only visit to the state, IndyCar has to weigh its options. 

Does the series remain at an inhospitable racetrack and use more resources to try and have a respectable race with no guarantee of success just to remain in the state of Texas and keep its roots in the second largest state or is this a sacrifice IndyCar has to accept and potentially leave the state if another venue cannot be found? 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Josef Newgarden, but did you know...

The #02 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Neel Jani won the 12 Hours of Sebring. The #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca-Gibson of Scott Huffaker, Mikel Jensen and Ben Keating won in LMP2. The #33 Sean Creach Motorsport Ligier-Nissan of João Barbosa, Malthe Jakobsen and Lance Willsey won in LMP3. The #3 Corvette of Antonio García, Jordan Taylor and Nicky Catsburg won in GTD Pro. The #47 Cetilar Racing Ferrari of Antonio Fuoco, Roberto Lacorte and Giorgio Sernagiotto won in GTD. 

The #36 Alpine of Andre Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxivière won the 1,000 Miles of Sebring. The #23 United Autosports Oreca-Gibson of Paul di Resta, Olivier Jarvis and Josh Pierson won in LMP2. The #92 Porsche of Michael Christensen and Kévin Estre won in GTE-Pro. The #98 Northwest AMR Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, David Pittard and Nicki Thiim won in GTE-Am. 

Charles Leclerc won the Bahrain Grand Prix, his first victory since the 2019 Italian Grand Prix. 

Richard Verschoor and Théo Pourchaire split the Formula Two races from Bahrain. Isack Hadjar and Victor Martins split the Formula Three races.

Miguel Oliviera won MotoGP's Indonesian Grand Prix, his third consecutive season with a victory. Somkiat Chantra won the Moto2 race, his first career victory. Dennis Foggia won the Moto3 race.

William Byron won the NASCAR Cup race from Atlanta. Ty Gibbs won the Grand National Series race, his second career victory. Corey Heim won the Truck race, his first career victory in his fifth career start. 

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Indianapolis, his fourth consecutive victory and sixth of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One is back in Saudi Arabia. 
NASCAR takes its turn around Texas, but at Circuit of the Americas in Austin.
Supercars has its second round of the season from Symmons Plains.
Supercross visits Seattle for the first time since 2019.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

First Impressions: Texas 2022

1. This might have been the final IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway for the near future, but this was a fitting finish. Scott McLaughlin was masterful from the front row of the grid. He led from the drop of the green flag and proceeded to pull away. For a moment, it appeared McLaughlin would run away with this race. Within 70 laps his lead was up to 13 seconds. But he didn't have to run away with the race, and he was smart with the lead. McLaughlin paced himself. He controlled his lead and took it down to six seconds on his own. 

McLaughlin was the man to beat, and he saved fuel when necessary. He got his car into the final pit window and emerged as the man in control. Everything was going his way, and then he caught traffic on the final lap and Josef Newgarden swung around on the outside of turn four and Newgarden won the race by 0.0669 seconds. 

McLaughlin did nothing wrong all race, and Newgarden was meticulous, just as he was when he won his first Texas race in 2019. In that 2019 race, Newgarden drove to leapfrog the order through pit cycles. That was the case today. Before the first round of pit stops, Newgarden was in the middle of the top ten. After the first round he was second. He wasn't afraid to trade positions for fuel mileage and it led to him in second place in the dying laps.

It appeared McLaughlin had the race won and strategically drove to his advantage, lapping Colton Herta into turn one with four laps to go and putting Herta between him and Newgarden. It felt like race over. The lead had been at its largest since the final round of pit stops finished. 

But Newgarden went on the charge and with McLaughlin catching the tail end of the field in the final corner, Newgarden had one move. Newgarden took to the outside, a place where passes kind of worked but was far from 100% success rate today and Newgarden had the momentum to beat McLaughlin to the line. 

You couldn't ask for more from a race. The top two were nose-to-tail in the closing laps and on the final lap there was a move for the lead. It was brilliant.

2. Let's nip this in the bud: This might have been the final Texas race and it was... good? Bad? Great? I am not sure. The upper lane still wasn't there, but there was an extra half a lane, and you could run a little off the bottom, but it was still hair raising for two cars to go side-by-side. There is ground between pack racing and two cars being able to run next to each other in the corner without feeling like an accident is going to happen. IndyCar wasn't close to the middle of it in this race.

But this was better than last year. IndyCar's seven-car upper lane session helped. I think if the entire field or at least two-thirds of the field had been out there it could have been much better. I don't think it would have flipped the track into IndyCar's favor. The surface at Texas is ruined, and it is not even five years old. But considering where the track has been since 2020, this was the best IndyCar has done with it. 

It was better, somewhat good, but still flawed. 

3. Marcus Ericsson finally had a good result at Texas. He should have had a top five finish in at least two of the last three races at this track only for pit lane problems to go extinguish his hopes of a good finish. Ericsson made some passes today and looked comfortable. He didn't quite have the pace of the top two, but he was close. He made up some ground late to finish 1.3537 seconds back. He was there if the leaders had collided. Either way, third is what he needed.

4. Will Power was fourth and that is kind of where he was all race. Third or fourth. There was brief moment in the second half of the race where it felt Power was about to take over and have a dominant finish lead to another oval victory. I feel like that is how at least two of his Pocono victories happened. But Power settled back into fourth and it was just a good day for him. Not great, but still a strong result for him and Team Penske.

5. Scott Dixon was fifth and had a similar race to Power. Dixon was just fifth or sixth the entire time. I was expecting him to maybe use strategy late and jump from fifth into the fight for the victory, as he is known to do. He did have to fight for that fifth-place finish and pass a teammate to get it.

6. And that teammate was Jimmie Johnson, who scores his first top ten finish in IndyCar finishing sixth. Johnson fulfilled the adage to finish first one must first finish. He was five spots off of first, but this is the exact race Johnson needed in his IndyCar oval debut. Many drivers were in accidents today and Johnson benefitted from that. He didn't take an unnecessary chance. Every move he made was calculated. He spent the opening third of the race outside the top twenty. He didn't light the world on fire driving up the field. It is a good result, and he was encouragingly competitive, but as we saw in qualifying, there is more pace to find. However, he did a great job today.

7. We have had many anonymous days from Álex Palou since he joined Chip Ganassi Racing. This was one of them, as he finished seventh. He did nothing wrong, but he was never quite a contender. It is still a solid points day. Championship runs need days like this. He was the worst Ganassi driver on the day, but far from being disappointing. 

8. Simon Pagenaud was saving fuel late and it cost him a possible top five finish. Eighth is a good race, but it sums up his weekend, slightly off from where it felt Pagenaud should be. He was the fastest in the opening practice and then qualified 15th. There are plenty of positives to draw, but also plenty of areas to polish for the Frenchman and Meyer Shank Racing.

9. Jack Harvey was ruled unfit to start this race after his practice accident yesterday, so Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drafted in Santino Ferrucci to fill in the #45 Honda this weekend. With only a handful of sighting laps in the morning, Ferrucci had another impressive oval race. He took his time and stayed out of incidents to finish ninth. He just has a feel for ovals. 

10. Rounding out the top ten was Rinus VeeKay, but the team got the strategy wrong. It stopped right when it thought the final pit window opened. The only problem is the pace was not in VeeKay's favor and the team had to save more fuel than expected. He somehow made it to the finish and held onto the top ten, but he looked like one of the few drivers who could challenge McLaughlin. This is encouraging heading to the Indianapolis 500 in May, but the team has to make sure the car can fight at the end of the race. That wasn't the case today.

11. David Malukas had a good race. He made laps and Dale Coyne had him on an interesting alternate strategy. He made five pit stops and made his final stop with exactly 50 laps to go. It worked out that not only did Malukas lead three laps, but he was just ahead of Scott McLaughlin for the final stint, and Malukas had fresh tires and could drive hard. He could stay on the lead lap and chase down the field. He just missed out on a top ten result, but for his first large oval everyone should be satisfied.

12. Andretti Autosport is no longer a great team. The IndyCar "Big Three" is now a "Big Two." This was a disaster today. Colton Herta took a similar strategy to VeeKay and he had to save more fuel. He ended up a lap down in 12th. Herta should have been competing for a top five finish. The team made a bad strategy call again, just as it did with Alexander Rossi at St. Petersburg. Throw on top of Herta's missed opportunity the mechanical retirements for Romain Grosjean and Rossi, with Rossi out of the race after only 11 laps, and Andretti Autosport is a mess. Its IndyCar results should give Formula One pause because it is clearly a distracted organization and is far from excelling. 

13. Ed Carpenter did nothing and finished 13th. This was a glorified test session before the Indianapolis 500.

14. J.R. Hildebrand tried a few different things and it got him in contention. For a moment a top ten result looked possible, but that wasn't meant to be. It was another smart race from Hildebrand, which is what he is known for doing. A.J. Foyt Racing has some work to do, but Hildebrand is a key asset. 

15. We will cover both Arrow McLaren SP drivers here: Both drivers blew their marks on pit stops under the lap 99 caution for Takuma Sato getting into the wall. Patricio O'Ward hit his front left tire changer and had to serve a penalty. Later, Felix Rosenqvist suffered a mechanical failure. Both drivers should have been in the top ten, possibly the top five. At best, O'Ward was 15th. Not the start to the season AMSP would have liked. 

16. Let's run through some driver: Callum Ilott was only a lap down in 16th, but I think he wasn't the most comfortable out there. He did well, but at the end of multiple stints his lap average were below 200 mph, but Ilott was hitting that range quicker than others. I am not sure he has entirely digested ovals. Dalton Kellett did nothing and was 17th. Conor Daly had two pit lane speeding penalties and was 18th. Keep shooting your toes off, Daly, and see where that gets you. 

17. There is a minor point of controversy in this race and that is with about 15 laps to go, Christian Lundgaard brushed the wall exiting turn four while the leaders were about to lap him. It was a healthy lick, but no caution came. Takuma Sato arguably had a lighter brush with the wall in turn two and a caution came out for the Sato incident about 130 laps earlier. 

I expected the caution to come out when Lundgaard hit the wall. It was clear he hit the wall, but nothing came. When Sato brushed the wall, I thought it was going to stay green because it was a kiss, but he was still able to drive the car, didn't lose much speed, and could have easily gotten to the pit lane with no debris coming off the car. 

It was questionable and all we ask is for IndyCar to be consistent. 

Officiating aside, Lundgaard did a good job today. He was set to finish somewhere in the top fifteen. It wasn't the finish he would have liked, but the day was promising. 

18. Takuma Sato was the first victim of questionable driving from Devlin DeFrancesco. In this case, I think DeFrancesco just walked up the track and Sato just happened to be there. The light contact forced Sato into the barrier. Then DeFrancesco got loose under Kyle Kirkwood and Kirkwood couldn't hold onto the top lane and slammed the barrier. Kirkwood said it wasn't on DeFrancesco and he just ran out of grip. That is how it looked. Nothing wrong from DeFrancesco, he just happened to be the other driver involved.

The final incident is 100% on DeFrancesco. The Canadian attempted to make it three-wide on the inside of Graham Rahal and Hélio Castroneves entering turn three at lap 129, just after the halfway point. DeFrancesco was below the white line in the turn. It was always going to be an accident. It was a dumb move. He was never going to make it stick. It eliminated all three drivers, and it is a shame DeFrancesco couldn't have been smarter.

As for Rahal and Castroneves, with how Ferrucci's race played out, perhaps Rahal could have been competing for a top ten spot. Castroneves looked good at the start and then got stuck in the middle of the field. 

19. Kyle Kirkwood had a great first 114 laps. He went off strategy early, stopping under the lap 12 caution when Alexander Rossi had to be towed back to pit lane. With fresh tires, Kirkwood moved into ninth within the first 15 laps from the lap 16 restart. He looked ready for a top ten push, and he was finding grip in the higher groove. Unfortunately, that groove wasn't that wide, and he was a smidge higher than he could go when to the outside of DeFrancesco. 

Kirkwood has some great support around him. Sébastien Bourdais was on his timing stand at St. Petersburg and J.R. Hildebrand is the kind of teammate you want on ovals. But the best thing is Kirkwood sounded confident even after the accident. The car was comfortable for him, and confidence is not something we have regularly heard from Foyt drivers on ovals in recent seasons. We are all hopeful Kirkwood can have a good season for IndyCar's cellar dweller.

20. Romain Grosjean and Alexander Rossi both broke down. We touched upon it above. Rossi was out of it before it got started. Rossi's only contributions was jumping the start, another retched oval start in an IndyCar race, but that is a story for another day. Seeing how Herta finished, I have little hope Rossi's day was going to be much greater. Maybe Rossi could have pulled out a ninth-place result, but he at least deserved the chance to compete today and all he got was 11 laps. Damn.

As for Grosjean, he looked ok. He was in the middle of the pack, not really showing any potential, but maybe he could have had the car in position for the final laps. 

21. And then we get another three weeks until the next race. It will be Long Beach. We at least are waiting with a great finish on our minds. 

Morning Warm-Up: Texas 2022

Felix Rosenqvist took his second career position and his first on an oval with a two-lap average of 221.110 mph at Texas Motor Speedway. It is Rosenqvist's first pole position since the 2020 Grand Prix of Indianapolis, his fifth career start. This is Rosenqvist's first top five qualifying effort on an oval. His previous best oval start was seventh for the first Iowa race in 2020. Rosenqvist has finished at least two laps down in three of his four Texas starts. He completed all 212 laps in the first race last year. He has finished ahead of his starting position in three of those four Texas starts. 

Championship leader Scott McLaughlin starts next to Rosenqvist on row one. McLaughlin had a two-lap average of 221.096 mph, only 0.0030 seconds off pole position. This is the second consecutive race McLaughlin has started on the front row and it is his first oval front row start. After winning at St. Petersburg, McLaughlin is looking to do something he accomplished on 14 occasions in his Supercars career. That is win consecutive races. Seven of those winning streaks were three races or longer. 

Takuma Sato will be making his 200th IndyCar start this weekend, the 26th driver to reach this milestone, and he will do it from third on the grid. This is the first top ten starting position for Sato since he was on pole position for the second Gateway race in 2020, snapping a 22-race streak. Last season was the first time Sato did not have a top five finish in an oval race since 2016, his final season with A.J. Foyt Racing. His last three podium finishes and six of his last nine podium results have been on ovals. His only top five finish at Texas was fifth in the first race of the 2011 doubleheader.

Will Power was third in the opening race of the season at St. Petersburg, and he will start fourth for the second race of 2022. This will be the 11th time Power has started in the top five at Texas and the 15th time he has started in the top ten in 16 Texas starts. He has not opened a season with consecutive podium finishes since 2014. He also opened the 2007, 2010 and 2011 seasons with consecutive podium finishes. 

Scott Dixon rounds out the top five on the grid. Dixon was the final driver to average over 221 mph over his two-lap qualifying at 221.011 mph. This is the tenth consecutive Texas race Dixon has started in the top ten and the fifth consecutive race he has started in the top fifth. The only other time Dixon has started in fifth position at Texas was October 2004, and he finished sixth. 

Next to Dixon on row three will be Hélio Castroneves. This is Castroneves' first IndyCar oval race outside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Gateway 2017 when he finished fourth. In his six oval starts in 2017, he had a victory, four top five finishes and five top ten finishes, but his worst finish was 20th and that came at Texas. That 20th-place result matched his worst Texas finish. 

Josef Newgarden wound up seventh on the grid. For the second consecutive season, Josef Newgarden finished outside the top ten in the season opener. He has finished on the podium in the second race of the season in four of the last five years. He won the second race of the 2018 season at Phoenix. Newgarden also won from seventh at Texas in 2019. 

Rinus VeeKay qualified eighth for his fourth Texas start. VeeKay started eighth in the first Texas race last year. His best Texas finish was ninth in the second race last year. He has finished in the top ten in the second race of his first two seasons in IndyCar. 

Colton Herta will be making his 50th start this weekend and it will come from ninth on the grid. Herta has three consecutive top five finishes. Herta has never had four consecutive top five finishes in his career. He has had two three-race stretches of top five finishes, both coming in the 2020 season. He was fifth in the second Texas race last year.

Herta's past Indy Lights teammate Patricio O'Ward joins him on row five. O'Ward could become the second driver to win consecutive IndyCar races at Texas. Scott Dixon became the first driver to do it last season when he won the first Texas race after winning the 2020 race. O'Ward enters Texas on a bit of a slump. He has finished outside the top ten in the last two races, his longest drought driving for Arrow McLaren SP.

Álex Palou starts on row six. Palou was champion last year, but he is still looking for his first oval victory. He had three top ten finishes in the four oval races last season. He enters with four consecutive top five finishes, the longest stretch of his IndyCar career. 

Alexander Rossi will be to Palou's outside. Rossi has not had a top five finish on an oval since he was runner-up at Texas in 2019 to Josef Newgarden. That is 13 oval starts since his last top five result. His average finish over those 13 starts is 15.615 with only four top ten results.

Romain Grosjean is making his second career oval start and it will be from 13th on the grid. At Gateway last year, he started and finished 14th. Texas comes after Grosjean finished fifth in the St. Petersburg season opener. He has yet to finish in the top five of consecutive races in his IndyCar career. 

Next to Grosjean will be his good friend Marcus Ericsson in 14th position, his worst oval start since 17th at the 2020 Texas race. He was seventh in his first Texas start back in 2019, but he has finished outside the top ten in the last three Texas races.

Despite being fastest in the opening practice session, Simon Pagenaud finds himself 15th on the grid. Pagenaud has the best average finish driver among all drivers with at least Texas starts at 6.1. He has seven consecutive top ten finishes at Texas. The only driver with a better average finish at Texas and more than three starts is Ryan Briscoe, who had an average finish of 5.2 in nine Texas starts. 

Conor Daly qualified 16th, his best Texas start. His previous best at this track was 19th in 2019 and 2020. While Conor Daly has two top ten finishes at Texas, he has finished outside the top twenty in three Texas starts, including both races of last year's doubleheader.

IndyCar oval debutants occupy row nine on the grid. Devlin DeFrancesco starts on the inside in 17th position. DeFrancesco could become the second Canadian to win at Texas Motor Speedway in IndyCar after Scott Goodyear, who here in June 1999 and October 2000.

Jimmie Johnson's first IndyCar oval start will be from 18th on the grid. Johnson has completed 11,106 laps around Texas Motor Speedway in 35 NASCAR Cup Series starts, the sixth most laps he has completed at a track in his NASCAR career behind Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and Charlotte. His 16,659 miles completed at Texas is third most behind only Charlotte and Talladega.

David Malukas qualified 19th for his first IndyCar oval race. Nine IndyCar races have been won from 19th starting position, most recently was Fontana 2015 with Graham Rahal. Seven of those nine victories from 19th position have come on ovals. One of the two non-oval races won from 19th was by a Dale Coyne Racing driver in the state of Texas. It was Carlos Huertas in the first Houston race in 2014.

Callum Ilott will be making his oval debut this weekend and he rounds out the top twenty. Ilott could become the first British driver to win an IndyCar oval race since Justin Wilson won at Texas in 2012. This will also be Juncos Racing's first Texas appearance.

In a third Ed Carpenter Racing entry, Ed Carpenter will start 21st. Carpenter is making his first IndyCar start outside of car #20 for the first time since his first career victory at Kentucky in 2011 when he won driving the #67 Dollar General Honda for Sarah Fisher Racing. 

Dalton Kellett was the top A.J. Foyt Racing qualifier in 22nd. It is only the second time Kellett has been the top qualifier for a team in his IndyCar career. The other was the second Mid-Ohio race in 2020 when he started 20th to Charlie Kimball's 23rd. Kellett's average finish in five oval starts is 18th with three finishes outside the top twenty. 

Kyle Kirkwood starts 23rd. A.J. Foyt Racing has only two top five finishes on ovals in the DW12-era, both were at Gateway with Conor Daly in fifth in 2017 and Tony Kanaan finishing third in 2019. The last time A.J. Foyt Racing had a top five finish on an oval other than Gateway was Darren Manning finishing fifth at the inaugural Iowa race in 2007. The last time the team had a top five finish on a 1.5-mile oval was the team's most recent oval victory, 2002 at Kansas with Airton Daré. Daré had finished at Texas three races prior to that victory.

Jack Harvey is the top Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing starter back in 24th position. It is the third consecutive race Harvey has started outside the top twenty. This is his worst starting position on an oval outside of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Harvey has five top ten finishes in the last nine IndyCar oval races. Unfortunately, Harvey had an accident in the final practice session and will run his backup car.

Christian Lundgaard was 0.0071 seconds behind his RLLR teammate Harvey qualifying 25th. Danish drivers have combined to start just three IndyCar oval races. Jan Magnussen started the 1999 CART race at Chicago Motor Speedway and only made it 85 laps before exiting the race in an accident. Ronnie Bremer started both Champ Car races in 2005. Bremer was eighth at Milwaukee, one lap down. At Las Vegas, Bremer had a pit lane incident end his race after 41 laps and he was classified 18th, last place.

J.R. Hildebrand will start 26th. Hildebrand is driving the #11 Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing and he will contest all the oval races in this entry. This is his first Texas appearance since 2017 and he has four starts at the track. He was fifth in 2012 from 23rd on the grid and with a torn ACL, which occurred in a promotional event for the Texas race.

Graham Rahal rounds out the grid in 27th position with a two-lap average at 218.410 mph, only 0.5797 seconds off Rosenqvist's time over two laps. It is Rahal's worst starting position since qualifying 30th for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and the third worst starting position of his career. Rahal has six top ten finishes in his last seven Texas starts with five top five finishes in that span. However, he has only led 22 laps combined in those seven Texas races.

NBC's coverage of the XPEL 375 begins at 12:30 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 12:40 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 248 laps.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Track Walk: Texas 2022

The second round of the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season will be at Texas Motor Speedway. After moving from June to the start of May and becoming a doubleheader, Texas is back to a single-race weekend and will now be on the vernal equinox. It is the earliest a Texas race has ever been held on the IndyCar calendar. This is the earliest oval race in a calendar year for IndyCar since the 2005 Indy Racing League season when Homestead opened the season on March 6 and Phoenix was the second race on March 19. Twenty-seven cars are entered for this Texas race, the most at the track since 30 cars were entered for the 2011 Twin-275s doubleheader. This is the most entries for an IndyCar oval race outside the Indianapolis 500 since the cancelled 2011 Las Vegas season finale.

Time: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday March 20 with green flag scheduled for 12:40 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and James Hinchcliffe will be in the booth. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee and Kelli Stavast will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 10:40 a.m. ET (75 minutes)
Qualifying: 2:00 p.m. ET 
Second Practice: 5:00 p.m. ET (60 minutes)
Race: 12:40 p.m. ET (248 laps)

* - All sessions will be available live on Peacock

Scott McLaughlin on Fire
Leading the IndyCar championship, fresh off his first career victory, is Scott McLaughlin. After taking a stunning victory in the St. Petersburg season opener, McLaughlin returns to the location of his first IndyCar podium finish. 

On his oval debut, McLaughlin started 15th after qualifying was rained out, but he entered the top ten before making his first pit stop. He was able to keep his car in the top ten before making his second pit stop earlier than the rest of the field. Emerging with clear racetrack, he moved up to third after the pit cycle. He moved up to second when his final stop came under caution, and he spent much of the closing laps hounding his fellow New Zealander Scott Dixon. Dixon held on, but McLaughlin was 0.2646 seconds back in second position. 

McLaughlin started seventh for the second Texas race and spent the entire race in the back portion of the top ten, coming home in eighth.

Ovals have suited McLaughlin. After Texas, he was the top Penske qualifier at the Indianapolis 500, albeit in 17th as the entire Team Penske organization struggled, but in the race, McLaughlin moved forward and was looking set for a top ten finish before speeding entering pit lane. This error knocked him back to 20th after 500 miles. When he made it to Gateway in August, he started 11th and made up a few spots again. A caution or two might have gone in his favor, but McLaughlin had a good race and ended up finishing fourth.

With three top ten finishes in four oval races, McLaughlin ended up sixth on oval points with 116. He scored more oval points than teammate Will Power, all four Andretti Autosport entries, both Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers and Tony Kanaan last year. 

With his first career victory behind, McLaughlin is looking to become the first driver to have his first two victories happen in consecutive races since A.J. Allmendinger had his first three victories occur in consecutive races between Portland, Cleveland and Toronto. Team Penske leads all teams with eight Texas victories between five different drivers. 

Jimmie Johnson's Anticipated Oval Debut
For the first time since November 8, 2020, Jimmie Johnson is racing on an oval. 

After making 13 IndyCar starts, five IMSA starts and even an appearance in the Race of Champions on ice in Sweden, Johnson will run his first oval race since leaving the NASCAR Cup Series at the end of the 2020 season. 

Ovals were Johnson's stomping grounds for over 20 years. He made 646 ovals starts in NASCAR's top division. Throw in another 89 oval starts in NASCAR's second division, one Truck start, 40 in the American Speed Association, eight IROC starts as well as 19 NASCAR All-Star race appearances, 19 Daytona 500 qualifying races, and 18 Shootout/Unlimited/Clash exhibition race starts, and Johnson has made 840 oval starts in serious stock car racing. 

This weekend will be his first spin around an oval in an IndyCar. 

Eighty-two of Johnson's 83 Cup victories came on ovals, as did his lone victory in NASCAR's second division, as did his two ASA victories, his lone IROC victory was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he won eight NASCAR exhibition races on ovals. That is 94 oval victories.

Johnson's oval debut could not have come at a more comfortable place for the seven-time Cup champion. He has seven Texas victories in the Cup Series, the most all-time at the track. He had 16 top five finishes and 22 top ten finishes in 36 starts on the 1.5-mile oval. Unfortunately for Johnson, his results fell off in his final years at Texas. He had only one top ten finish in his final seven Texas starts with an average finish of 25.428.

Only five of 20 first-time winners since IndyCar reunification have had their first career victory come on an oval, but one of those happened last year at Texas Motor Speedway with Patricio O'Ward. The last two drivers to win on their IndyCar oval debut are Sébastien Bourdais at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in 2003 and Scott Dixon at Nazareth in 2001. 

Scott Dixon Stuck on 51
When IndyCar left Texas Motor Speedway after its 2021 doubleheader, Scott Dixon has fresh off his 51st victory. Returning to Texas in 2022, Dixon is still on 51 career victories ten months later. 

A 14-race winless drought is Dixon's longest since he went 16 races between victories from the first race of the 2013 Houston doubleheader through Mid-Ohio in 2014, the 15th round of that season. Even more concerning is how far Dixon was from getting that 52nd victory over the final three quarters of the 2021 season. 

Dixon had three podium finishes after his Texas victory last year, but he led 32 laps in the final 12 races of the season. Only once did he lead more than ten laps in a race, 16 in the first Belle Isle race. The good news is if there was ever a place for Dixon to bounce back it is Texas. 

He was first and fourth last year in the doubleheader, but he led a combined 369 laps over the two races. Dixon has won three of the last five Texas races and four of the last eight Texas races. In those eight races, he has led a combined 787 laps. His 1,043 laps led at Texas are more than double second all-time, Hélio Castroneves on 506. 

Dixon has the most Texas victories with five, most top five finishes with 13, and he is tied with Tony Kanaan for most top ten finishes with 16. Dixon has started no worse than seventh in the last nine Texas races and he started in the top ten in 19 of 23 Texas starts. Another victory at Texas would make it the second track where Dixon has at least a half-dozen victories at, joining Mid-Ohio. 

First Oval of the Season
This will be the third consecutive season Texas Motor Speedway has hosted the first oval race of the season. Two years ago was due to a pandemic delay. Last year, Texas was scheduled as the opening oval round. 

Patricio O'Ward scored his first career IndyCar victory last year in the second Texas and combined with a third in the first Texas race, it launched O'Ward to be the top oval driver of 2021. The Mexican scored 192 points, 34 points more than Josef Newgarden, who was second. O'Ward was the first non-Penske/Ganassi driver to top the oval standings since Josef Newgarden did it in 2016 with Ed Carpenter Racing.

O'Ward was in the top five of all four races last year with three podium finishes. He has six consecutive top five finishes on ovals dating back to the 2020 season, including five podium finishes during that span. O'Ward has seven top five finishes and eight top ten finishes in ten career oval starts in IndyCar. His worst oval result is 12th, which came in his oval debut at Texas in 2020 and in the second Iowa race later that season. 

There were no repeat oval winners last year as Dixon and O'Ward split the Texas races, Hélio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 and Newgarden took his third Gateway victory. Newgarden has won an oval race in the last six consecutive seasons, the longest active streak of seasons with an oval victory. 

The top three in the overall championship last year were in reverse order in points, as Álex Palou had the third most oval points, 155, only three behind Newgarden. Palou opened the year with a fourth and seventh at Texas, and a runner-up finish to Castroneves at Indianapolis. He was caught in an early accident at Gateway and was classified in 20th. 

Quietly, Simon Pagenaud was fourth in oval points. He was in the top ten in all four races, but his only top five result was third at Indianapolis. He has seven consecutive top ten finishes at Texas. Pagenaud ended 2021 with 144 points, nine more than Dixon, who started with a first and a fourth at Texas, but pit lane problems held him to a 17th-place result at Indianapolis and being caught in the same accident as Palou at Gateway knocked him back to 18th. 

Scott McLaughlin was sixth in the oval standings on 116 points, nine points ahead of Ed Carpenter, whose only top ten finish was fifth in the Indianapolis 500. Carpenter has announced he will run all the oval races this season in the #33 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. 

Hélio Castroneves only ran one oval race in 2021, but his Indianapolis 500 victory gave him 103 points and put him eighth in the oval championship, three points ahead of Takuma Sato and five points ahead of Rinus VeeKay, who rounded out the top ten. 

Ganassi drivers Tony Kanaan and Marcus Ericsson just missed out on the top ten with 96 points and 90 points respectively. Kanaan is not entered for Texas, the first time he is not on a Texas entry list since the 2002 Indy Racing League season finale, just prior to Kanaan joining the IRL with Andretti Green Racing. 

Colton Herta was the top Andretti Autosport driver on ovals last year with only 88 points. Andretti Autosport had a combined one top five finishes and four top ten finishes on ovals last year, and that team did not have a top fifteen finisher in the Indianapolis 500. Andretti Autosport has not won an oval race since Pocono 2018. Alexander Rossi finished outside the top fifteen in three of four oval races in 2021 with his best finish being eighth in the first Texas race. 

Graham Rahal was fifth and third at Texas last year, but 32nd at Indianapolis and 23rd at Gateway had him on 84 oval points, one ahead of Jack Harvey and three ahead of Will Power. Power was 14th, 13th, 30th and third in the four oval races last year. It was the second consecutive season Power did not have an oval victory after having won on an oval in four consecutive seasons from 2016 through 2019. 

Romain Grosjean is back for his second career oval start. Grosjean was 14th at Gateway last year after starting 15th. 

Along with Jimmie Johnson, five other drivers will be making their IndyCar oval debuts at Texas. Neither Christian Lundgaard nor Callum Ilott have run on an oval. Kyle Kirkwood, Devlin DeFrancesco and David Malukas made oval starts in the Road to Indy. 

Kirkwood won at Indianapolis Raceway Park in U.S. F2000 but was fourth at IRP in Indy Pro 2000 before winning at Gateway. He was second in both Gateway races last year behind Malukas. Malukas was also third at Gateway in 2019 in Indy Lights. Prior to that, he had only made three oval starts on the Road to Indy with finishes of 11th at IRP and eighth at Gateway in the 2018 Pro Mazda season, and he was 11t in the 2019 Freedom 100. DeFrancesco was fourth and first at IRP and Gateway respectively in Indy Pro 2000 in 2020. He was fourth and fifth in the Gateway Indy Lights races last year. 

And the Surface
The last two years IndyCar has visited Texas Motor Speedway the asphalt has grabbed the headlines. 

The PJ1 stained surface, laid down for the NASCAR races at the facility, has turned the track into a single-lane racetrack, with cars forced to run the bottom as the top lane does not have enough grip for the cars to run safely. 

In 2020, had only 364 passes, 180 of those for position after the prior two seasons had 688 and 579 total passes respectively, and 242 and 200 passes for position as well. The 2020 race was only 200 laps compared to the 248-lap races in 2018 and 2019. For comparison, the 2020 race averaged 1.82 passes per lap while the 2018 race averaged 2.77 and 2019 averaged 2.33 passes per lap.

Last year's races were 212 laps in race one and 248 laps in race two, the same distance we will see this season. 

The first race in 2021 had 282 passes and 140 passes for position over 212 laps or 1.33 passes per lap. The second race dropped even further to 171 total passes and 100 passes for position, an average of 0.689 passes per lap. The second race last year was also marred with the opening accident that took out six drivers. Six drivers out before even reaching turn one on the opening lap does significantly decrease the number of total passes and passes for the position, as there are fewer competitors on track. 

The first race last year had only three lead changes, the fewest ever in an IndyCar Texas race and the 2020 race had only five lead changes, one of four races to feature five lead changes or ever at Texas. Despite the lack of passing, the second race in 2021 did have 12 lead changes

Fast Facts
This will be the fourth IndyCar race held on March 20 and first since 1994 when Michael Andretti scored Chip Ganassi Racing's its first IndyCar victory at Surfers Paradise. 

This will be the 18th time an IndyCar race and the 12 Hours of Sebring have fallen on the same weekend. It is the first time IndyCar and Sebring have shared a weekend since 2005 when Sebring and the Indy Racing League Phoenix round were on the same day. 

Texas will be the fifth different track to host an IndyCar race on the same weekend as the 12 Hours of Sebring. Phoenix was on the same weekend 12 times. Surfers Paradise was on the same weekend four times, Homestead was on the same weekend once, as was the Rio de Janiero oval. 

The 1994 Surfers Paradise round that Michael Andretti won was the same weekend as Sebring. 

The average starting position for a Texas winner is 5.088 with a median of third. 

The last six Texas races have been won from a top ten starting position and the last three races have been won from a top five starting position. 

The pole-sitter has not won at Texas since 2010 when Ryan Briscoe won after leading 102 of 228 laps. 

Twenty-one of 34 Texas races have been won from a top five starting position.

Only five Texas races have been won from outside the top ten, most recently in 2016 when Graham Rahal won from 13th. 

The worst starting position for a Texas winner is 17th in 2012 with Justin Wilson. 

Last year, Patricio O'Ward became the fourth driver to score a first career victory at Texas Motor Speedway. The other three were Billy Boat, Mark Dismore and Jeff Ward, but for these three drivers Texas was their only IndyCar victory.

Team Penske has not won the last three Texas races. Team Penske has never failed to win four consecutive Texas races since it joined the Indy Racing League in the 2002 season. 

The average number of lead changes in a Texas race is 13.441 with a median of 13. 

Eleven of 34 Texas races have had under ten lead changes, including eight of the 16 Texas races since reunification. 

Only two of 16 Texas races since reunification have had 15 lead changes or more. 

The average number of cautions in a Texas race is 4.264 with a median of four. The average number of caution laps is 34.264 with a median of 31.5. 

The most cautions in a Texas race was nine in 2017 after IndyCar implemented competition cautions after any 30-lap green flag run over the final 90 laps of the race due to tire wear concerns. 

Beside the 2017 Texas race, the only other Texas race to have more than five cautions since reunification was in 2008 when there were eight cautions. 

Nine of 34 Texas races have had greater than five cautions. 

Josef Newgarden gets another Texas victory, and he does it with at least 125 laps led. Jimmie Johnson will get a career-best starting position and get at least his first career top ten finish. Johnson will not be the best Ganassi finisher, however. Andretti Autosport will continue to be underwhelming but get at least one car in the top five. Scott McLaughlin will not leave Texas as the championship leader, and he will not be the top New Zealander. Every driver will complete at least one lap. Ed Carpenter will not top the Ed Carpenter Racing intra-team battle. There will be fewer than 325 total passes. A.J. Foyt Racing will have multiple cars in the top fifteen. There will not be a pit stop with a car exiting with a loose wheel.  Sleeper: Marcus Ericsson.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

2022 Formula One Season Preview

Just over three months after a historic season finale, Formula One returns this weekend. With new regulations, the mood has reset among the grid. The prior eight seasons are not tossed out the window, but the past will not dictate our future expectations as we have become accustomed to doing. 

For the first time since 2014, we have a new defending World Drivers' Champion, but the constructors' crown remains squarely in the hands of one manufacture. All ten teams are back on the grid from the 2021 season, but there have been plenty of changes on the grid. Some veterans have changed teams. There are a few new drivers on the grid. Two drivers are even returning after a year away. 

With how 2021 ended, everyone is focused on the fireworks to continue in 2022. 

With 22 rounds on the schedule, Bahrain hosts the season opener on March 20 ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix the following week, only a little over three and a half months after the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. 

Formula One will have an easy period, but one that will see the series hit three continents in three consecutive races. After a week off, Australia hosts the third round on April 10. Two weeks later, Imola hosts the first European round of the season. On May 8, the inaugural Miami Grand Prix takes place. After Miami, every following race will occur in a back-to-back with another round. 

The first European back-to-back will be the Spanish Grand Prix on May 22 before the Monaco Grand Prix. The next back-to-back is a cross-global trek from Baku on June 12 and Montreal on June 19. 

Silverstone hosts the first round of July with the Austrian Grand Prix falling the following weekend on July 10. The French Grand Prix falls back to July 24 with Hungary closing out the month on July 31, and that will bring Formula One to its summer break. 

Everyone will return to the only back-to-back-to-back, starting with the Belgian Grand Prix on August 28 before heading north to Zandvoort on September 4. Monza will be the final European round of the season on September 11. 

October hopefully brings a return to the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore is scheduled for October 2 with Suzuka set for October 9. From Asia will be the Americas. The United States Grand Prix is slated for October 23 ahead of the Mexican Grand Pix on October 30. 

There will be a week off before Interlagos on November 13, the penultimate round of the season. Abu Dhabi will host the finale seven days later on November 20.

Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team
Lewis Hamilton: #44 Mercedes W13
What did he do in 2021: Hamilton won eight races, including his 100th victory in the Russian Grand Prix. He was on the podium 17 times, matching what was the record prior to the 2022 season. He scored points in 20 of 22 races with a 15th at Azerbaijan and retirement at Monza. Hamilton lost the championship by eight points with a second-place result in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after entering the final race level on points. He concluded the season on 387.5 points. 

What to expect in 2022: History tells us Hamilton is going to win many races and compete for the championship, but Hamilton has expressed concerns with the Mercedes. This isn't the first time Mercedes has left a preseason saying it is not the fastest in the last few seasons. But this year feels different. 

It might not be a drastic decline for Mercedes, falling from World Constructors' Champions to seventh, but I think there is a strong chance Mercedes is not the best team. That doesn't mean Mercedes will not be a good team. There is a good chance Mercedes starts on the wrong foot but gathers itself midseason and is competitive. 

For the last eight seasons we have seen Mercedes figure it out when it has gone bad. Even if Mercedes is only the third best team through the first few races, I expect the German outfit to find a solution and have a few races where it is on top. As for Hamilton, I expect he will have his fewest number of victories since 2013. That is not crazy when you consider he has won at least eight races in each of the last eight seasons. 

Can he win an eighth world championship with fewer than eight victories? It depends on how level the grid is. There was once a day where five victories was enough to take a world championship. In recent years, five victories doesn't even keep the championship alive into the finale. There will be some frustrating days, but Hamilton and Mercedes will figure it out and have multiple victories.

George Russell: #63 Mercedes W13
What did he do in 2021: Driving for Williams, Russell scored an eighth-place finish in changing conditions at the Hungary Grand Prix before being credited with a runner-up result at Spa-Francorchamps after a memorable qualifying effort to get him second on the grid. He also scored points at Monza and Sochi, finishing the year with 16 points, 15th in the championship. 

What to expect in 2022: After spending the last three seasons driving a difficult car, Russell finds himself in another challenging machine, but at least it is quicker. 

Russell is remembered for his Mercedes debut in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix when Hamilton was forced out of the car due to COVID-19. Russell qualified second and led 59 of 87 laps, but a botched pit stop and then a tire puncture kept him from his maiden grand prix victory and knocked him down to ninth. The talent is there, but he is joining Mercedes right when the team faces its greatest adversity since 2013. 

It is more likely Hamilton breaks through first. If Hamilton can breakthrough, win races and be a driver to beat, it is more likely Russell will find his way up the order and position himself for podium finishes and possibly victories. If Hamilton is still struggling, Russell will likely be around his fellow Brit. 

Regardless of whether Mercedes develops the car into a world champion or not, this is set to be Russell's best Formula One season. He scored points in four races, one of which was runner-up in the infamous Belgian Grand Prix, last year. He should be regularly scoring points even if Mercedes is not contending for race victories. There should be a few bright days, possibly a race victory, but definitely a proper trip to the podium. 

Oracle Red Bull Racing
Max Verstappen: #1 Red Bull RB18
What did he do in 2021: Verstappen won ten races and stood on a record-setting 18 podium finishes. Verstappen's victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix earned him his first World Drivers' championship with 395.5 points. A few of the other tracks he won at were Imola, Monaco, Zandvoort, Austin and Mexico City. He closed the season with eight consecutive podium finishes. He was in the points for 19 of 22 races with the only time he scored points but was not on the podium being a ninth-place result in Hungary. 

What to expect in 2022: Red Bull has been the most confident of the teams from testing and Verstappen was on top in the Bahrain test last weekend. He won ten races and set the podium record. Do not expect a hangover for Verstappen, but there is a chance he will not be as prolific. He was on the podium for all but four races. No one reached 18 podium finishes before Verstappen last year. He could take a step back and still be on the rostrum 16 times. That would not be a bad year. 

Red Bull could knock it out of the park and show from day one no one is going to top it. If everyone else is battling the porpoising issue with the ground effect at the rear and Red Bull has it squared away, Verstappen could open the season with four or five victories on the spin and really have the title locked up before we hit summer. 

Verstappen is the driver to beat. We know how he and Hamilton raced each other last year, but if there is another driver in the mix, it will be intriguing to see how that driver treats Verstappen and vice versa. Verstappen has been through the championship battle before. He knows what it takes. Besides Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel, no one else has been in a championship fight like this one. Verstappen could prove to have the advantage mentally on the field as well as on the racetrack.

Sergio Pérez: #11 Red Bull RB18
What did he do in 2021: Pérez won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after his teammate Verstappen blew a tire while leading with only a handful of laps to go and Lewis Hamilton botched the restart with two laps to go. Pérez had only four other podium finishes all season and never finished second. He was in the top five for 13 of 22 races and finished fourth in the championship on 190 points. 

What to expect in 2022: Pérez will be second fiddle to Verstappen, and his goal will be to secure Red Bull its first constructors' championship since 2013. 

Last year, Pérez's inability to keep up with Verstappen and beat Valtteri Bottas cost Red Bull doubling up on its silverware. The only race Pérez won was after Verstappen blew a tire while leading. He only led in six races. He never led the most laps in a race and his only front row start was the second race of the season at Imola. He started off one of the first two rows in 12 of 22 races. 

Pérez is not going to challenge Verstappen for top in the team, but he can increase his podium total, be a little better of a wingman, and get Red Bull its fifth World Constructors' Championship.

Scuderia Ferrari
Charles Leclerc: #16 Ferrari F1-75
What did he do in 2021: Leclerc did not get a podium finish in his first nine starts of the season, and infamously was not able to start his home Monaco Grand Prix from pole position after having a broken left driveshaft from a qualifying shunt the day prior. He would finish second at Silverstone, his only podium result of the season, but he had ten top five finishes, including four in the final seven races and six in the final ten races. He was seventh in the championship on 159 points.

What to expect in 2022: Hamilton believed Ferrari would be 1-2 in the Bahrain Grand Prix during testing. Leclerc was quick, and he is already a race winner. Last year was a struggle, and though he came close to victory at Silverstone, there weren't many days where he was close, and he was second in the team last year. 

Ferrari will be better this year. Leclerc has already shown his capability in a respectable car. I expect him to win a race this season. Ferrari should probably win multiple races. Ferrari's biggest problem is inconsistency and that cost the Scuderia a chance to defeat Mercedes in 2018. We have not seen clinical Ferrari since 2008 when Felipe Massa fell short of the world championship a year after Kimi Räikkönen won the title. 

Is Ferrari on a level where it will not slip against the likes of Red Bull and possibly also Mercedes? If Ferrari comes out more buttoned up than it has been for the last decade, it will put up a fight. But, if Ferrari repeats its recent mistakes, it will have a few good days, but not be in the fight every race weekend. 

Carlos Sainz, Jr.: #55 Ferrari F1-75
What did he do in 2021: Sainz, Jr. scored a runner-up finish in the Monaco Grand Prix, his first of four podium results in the season. The Spaniard scored points in 20 of 22 races and he was running at the finish of every event. With 15 consecutive points finishes, Sainz, Jr. ended up fifth in the championship with 164.5 points.

What to expect in 2022: Sainz was arguably the best of the rest last year. He provided the consistency Ferrari has been lacking, though that consistency was mostly in the middle of the points and not fighting for podium positions. 

Sainz has made 140 starts and is still looking for his first career victory. All six of his podium finishes have come in his last 40 starts. He is trending in the right direction, but he has not been in a winning position in Formula One. He has only led 17 laps in his career out of 7,496 circuits completed. If the car is there, Sainz will figure it out and pull out victories, but with a better car, Leclerc could be primed to regain the lead in the team and be another barrier to Sainz's long-awaited victory. 

I sense Leclerc can return to leading the Ferrari duo, but Sainz could stay up there. Both Ferrari drivers ending up in the top five of the championship is conceivable. 

McLaren F1 Team
Daniel Ricciardo: #3 McLaren MCL36
What did he do in 2021: Ricciardo scored his first victory since 2018 when he was first across the line at Monza, McLaren's first triumph since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix. However, Ricciardo spent much of the 2022 season maligned, and his Monza result was his only podium of the season. He did have six top five finishes but failed to score points in seven of the final 12 races, leaving the Australian on 115 points in eighth.

What to expect in 2022: McLaren has shown speed but is still weary of its car. Ricciardo missed Bahrain testing due to COVD-19, but he is cleared for the opening race of the season. It is not the start he could afford considering how 2021 went and where this car is out of the box. 

A bad start could derail any breakthrough for Ricciardo at McLaren. There are already enough people thinking he is on the hottest and could be booted after this season even though he has a contract through 2023. Things were trending in the right way at the end of the year and Ricciardo had a better second season at Renault than his first. 

Ricciardo cannot start this season being regularly beaten in house. He needs to be level with Norris early on. There is a season where these two are near equals and trading top honors in the team each race. If they can do that, McLaren could get back into the top three of the constructors' championship. If McLaren can settle its car, it could be competing for podium finishes and possibly even victories. 

Lando Norris: #3 McLaren MCL36
What did he do in 2021: Opening the season with three podium finishes and nine top five finishes in the first ten races, Norris was third in the championship after the British Grand Prix. He had only one podium finish in the final 12 races and mistiming the change in weather in Sochi cost Norris what should have been his first career victory. With zero top five finishes in the final eight races, Norris ended up sixth in the final championship standing on 160 points, but a seventh in Abu Dhabi actually saved him a spot in the championship.

What to expect in 2022: Considering he was on his own in the Bahrain test, ninth was respectable for Norris. He topped the first day of the Barcelona test. There are reasons for encouragement in this car even if there are concerns. 

Norris is coming off a career year and should have won at least one race. His results did dip in the final third of the season, but there were a few races where Ricciardo made up for Norris' decline. I think Norris can win a race if the car is there. I think the Formula One grid is already broken up with the top four separated from the other six teams. 

McLaren looks ready to win races. Both drivers are capable of it. Both drivers need it. There was a moment where it looked like Norris could end up in the top three of the championship. If McLaren produces its best car in over a decade, I don't think third is crazy, but championship top five is more likely. 

BWT Alpine F1 Team
Fernando Alonso: #14 Alpine A522
What did he do in 2021: Alonso took a popular podium finish in the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix in third, but it was one of two top five finishes he had all season. He was also fourth at Hungary. He scored points in 15 races and ended up tenth in the championship.

What to expect in 2022: Alpine was split in testing. Alonso was fourth in Bahrain. Esteban Ocon was 17th. These two drivers were tenth and 11th in the championship last year with 81 points to Alonso and 74 points to Ocon. 

I really do not see much changing for Alpine. It doesn't feel like it has made up any ground, but it doesn't feel like the team has fallen off either. However, it is more likely stagnation will lead to other teams overtaking Alpine. 

There is nothing to suggest Alonso will be the Alonso of old, winning races and being one of the best in the world, but he will still be far from McLaren-Honda Alonso, a driver shackled with a slow and unreliable car. If anything, Alonso is at taking over the "why is he still here role?" that once belonged to Kimi Räikkönen.

Esteban Ocon: #31 Alpine A522
What did he do in 2021: Pit position aided Ocon at the Hungaroring, as the Frenchman was able to switch to slick tires prior to a restart early in the race and emerge in the lead. Ocon held on and scored his first career victory without much pressure. However, it was one of three top five finishes he had all season and he failed to score in eight races. Ocon ended up 11th, seven points behind his teammate Alonso. 

What to expect in 2022: I don't have a gauge on either Alpine driver. I don't expect Ocon to be Force India Ocon that we all think is Mercedes' future, but I don't think he is going to be poor and think he is destined to fall off the Formula One grid never to be seen from again after this season.

Ocon is going to score some points, he will have good days, he will have bad days and he might break into the top ten of the championship or he will not, and the world will be no different either way.
Scuderia AlphaTauri
Pierre Gasly: #10 AlphaTauri AT03
What did he do in 2021: Off of a third in Azerbaijan, and another four top five finishes, Gasly wound up ninth in the championship on 110 points. He scored in 15 of 22 races and ten picked up a fastest lap in the Hungarian Grand Prix. 

What to expect in 2022: AlphaTauri might be good, or it might be further stuck in the middle. Gasly carried Alpha Tauri last year, responsible for 77.4% of the team's points. He was a consistent points scorer, something he has been over the last three seasons. However, compared to Red Bull, AlphaTauri was not as quick as one would have expected in testing. 

I feel like the middle of the field will be tighter than ever before. AlphaTauri could end up fifth in the constructors' championship. It could be ninth if every other team hits it out of the park. I think AlphaTauri will score fewer points, Gasly will score fewer points, but neither will fall far from their 2021 positions if either fall at all.

Yuki Tsunoda: #22 AlphaTauri AT03
What did he do in 2021: Despite opening the season with a ninth at the Bahrain Grand Prix, Tsunoda only scored points in seven of 22 races, but he did get a sixth in the changing conditions at Hungary and pulled out a fourth-place result in the season finale at Abu Dhabi. However, he only totaled 32 points at the end of the season, leaving him 14th in the championship.

What to expect in 2022: Tsunoda had one of the more discouraging seasons last year. While Gasly was scoring points, Tsunoda wasn't a factor or making mistakes most of the time. Testing started well for him. Tsunoda was seventh at the Bahrain test.

The talent is there, but it is still questionable whether he was getting comfortable toward the end of last season. His points production down in the later portion of the season compared to the first part. Red Bull does not hold on to wayward drivers for long. If he doesn't produce more early in the season, Tsunoda could be removed from the team.

I do not see that happening. I think Tsunoda will do better than his 2021 results. I still do not believe he will be challenging Gasly for best in team. A 50-60 point season will be where he should aim to be. 

Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team
Sebastian Vettel: #4 Aston Martin AMR22
What did he do in 2021: Vettel started the year with zero points through the first four races, but a fifth at Monaco and a second at Baku followed. He looked to be heading in the right direction when he was second on the road at Budapest, but he run out of fuel on the cool down lap and was unable to supply a viable fuel sample leading to a disqualification. The German scored only four points-paying finishes in the final 11 races, ending up 12th on 43 points. 

What to expect in 2022: Aston Martin never was flashy in testing. Outside of Williams, there doesn't appear to be a team with less excitement behind it than Aston Martin. Vettel was 12th at the Bahrain test, and he was a flashy driver in 2021. 

He scored no points in the first four races and then was fifth and second in the next two events. Tire strategy was in his favor at Budapest, but he had a strong run and deserved that runner-up spot. If he had stopped at pit out after taking the checkered flag, he would have scored 18 points and had another podium finish to his name. Then the season ended on a whimper. 

I am not sure Aston Martin can have those same home run results in 2022 like we saw with Vettel last year. It can likely still pull out the low points-paying finishes, but without those chunk points day and with the grid growing more competitive, I fear a step back for Aston Martin.

Lance Stroll: #16 Aston Martin AMR22
What did he do in 2021: Stroll had zero top five finishes,but scored points in nine races. He was 13th on 34 points.

What to expect in 2022: Stroll won the head-to-head battle over Vettel, 13-9, but seven of his nine points finishers were in the bottom three points positions. In five seasons, his one year with the Racing Point RP20, a near copy of the Mercedes from the prior season, is the only time he has looked remotely competitive outside a few races with strange chain of events, such as Azerbaijan 2017 and Germany 2019. 

I cannot see Stroll beating Vettel, or at least not beating him by much. Stroll was 15th at the Bahrain test. He scored nine points fewer than Vettel. If he beats Vettel, neither driver will have scored many points and Aston Martin will likely have taken a step back. I do not see Stroll matching his 2021 output. 

Williams Racing
Nicholas Latifi: #6 Williams FW44
What did he do in 2021: Latifi scored his first career points with a seventh-place finish in the Hungarian Grand Prix. He followed it with a ninth-place classification in Belgium. Those were his only points paying finishes of the season, but he finished 17 of 22 races.

What to expect in 2022: With Russell gone, it appears Williams is back to square one, and square one is the rear of the field. Both cars were at the bottom of the timesheet in Bahrain. It does not appear the team will be a regular points scorer. It could have its day, but those will be few and far between. 

Will Latifi be the driver leading the way for Williams? That seems unlikely. Latifi has been good getting a car to the finish of the race. He does not get in many accidents nor go off course often. But keeping his nose clean will not be enough to finish in the top ten. He will need to show some pace, and I do not think the stars will align for that one day where Latifi has the pace and keeps his nose clean when other falter to allow him a finish in ninth or tenth.

Alexander Albon: #23 Williams FW44
What did he do in 2021: While still a Red Bull/AlphaTauri reserve driver, Albon did not compete in Formula One. He contested seven of eight Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters rounds driving a Ferrari for AF Corse. He won at the Nürburgring and had four podium finishes from 14 starts. He wound up sixth in the final DTM championship standings with 130 points. 

What to expect in 2022: After losing his ride for the 2021 season, Albon finds a second chance at Williams to replace the outgoing George Russell. 

Though falling out of favor with the Red Bull program, Albon had plenty of impressive performances for both Scuderia Toro Rosso and Red Bull programs. He should be leading this team, but it will be the greatest challenge he has experienced in his Formula One career. 

Albon could be a big winner of the season. Strong results and challenging up the order could get him a move to a larger team. If Albon can score on pace, it may have Red Bull reconsider. He should be ahead of Latifi regularly and is the team's best shot for points, but points are difficult to imagine for this bunch. Williams benefited considerably from notable wet races. That is the team's best hope again in 2022. 

Alfa Romeo F1 Team Orlen
Guanyu Zhou: #24 Alfa Romeo C42
What did he do in 2021: In his third Formula Two season, Zhou won four races with nine podium results in 24 races to take third in the championship on 183 points. He was nine points off Robert Shwartzman in second and 69.5 points behind champion Oscar Piastri. Zhou also run the F3 Asian Championship in January and February 2021. He won that championship with four victories and 11 podium finishes in 15 starts.

What to expect in 2022: After three years growing in Formula Two, Zhou is making the leap into Formula One. His Formula Two results improved each season. Last year was definitely his best, but we never saw that ruthlessness we have seen in other two junior drivers before making it to Formula One. 

In 2020, there were plenty of occasions where Zhou was quick, but he threw away results. He was sixth in the championship, but he could have been fourth with a few cleaner races. That is kind of the one thing following Zhou across his entire career. His Formula Three results are not earth-shattering. They really never pointed to a driver strong enough for Formula One. This is a great challenge for him. 

In testing, he was off his senior teammate, which isn't a surprise, but I am not sure he will come close to take the top spot in the team. He should score a few points, but I sense points finishes will not be a regular thing. 

Valtteri Bottas: #77 Alfa Romeo C42
What did he do in 2021: Bottas had one victory at the Turkish Grand Prix while he stood on the podium 11 times for Mercedes. He scored points in 15 races, and he won two of the three sprint qualifying races. Though respectable results and aiding in Mercedes' eighth consecutive World Constructors' Championship, Bottas was a distant third, 169.5 behind the champion Verstappen. 

What to expect in 2022: Bottas had a stellar Bahrain test ending up sixth in the combined results. All the Ferrari's look good. Bottas is the clear leader in this team, something he really hasn't had in his Formula One career. He is a race winner and did an esteeming job for Mercedes. It is pretty clear he grew frustrated with his role. This should rejuvenate his career, and if the Alfa Romeo is competitive for points, Bottas might not be winning races, but he could still be earning praise at the end of race weekends.

The concern for the constructors' championship is Bottas could be carrying too much water. This could be a case where one driver is responsible for 80% of the points haul, and while one driver has a respectable drivers' championship finish, the team is about two spots off in the constructors' championship.

Haas F1 Team
Kevin Magnussen: #20 Haas VF-22
What did he do in 2021: After leaving Haas at the conclusion of the 2020 Formula One season, he joined Chip Ganassi Racing in the IMS SportsCar Championship driving the #01 Cadillac DPi-V.R. In nine starts, Magnussen won at Belle Isle with co-driver Renger van der Zande and had four other podium finishes. Magnussen also ran the IndyCar race at Road America substituting for an injured Felix Rosenqvist and led seven laps but retired due to a mechanical issue and was classified in 24th.

What to expect in 2022: A better season than when Magnussen last drove for Haas in 2020. That would not be hard to top, but Haas had both cars in the top ten at the Bahrain test. Things should be better across the board for Haas. After two woeful seasons, the team should be competing for points occasionally. It will be an improvement, but the team will still be in the midfield. 

For Magnussen, it should be better than one point in 2020, but I am not sure it can get back to his 2018 heights of a handful of top six finishes and scoring points in nearly half the race and cracking the championship top ten. But I think it can be better than 20 points, which he scored in 2019. Thirty points with two or three inspiring results will be a successful return for Magnussen.

Mick Schumacher: #47 Haas VF-22
What did he do in 2021: Schumacher's rookie Formula One season saw his best finish be 12th at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He was running at the finish of 19 of 22 races with all three of his retirements coming in the eight races of the season. 

What to expect in 2022: Schumacher should score points, and he should be leading his senior teammate. Schumacher had the rookie season he needed. He completed laps, kept the car on the track and there were a few races he got exceptional results all things considered. 

Between the two Haas drivers, it is more likely Schumacher is the one getting the rousing result no one sees coming, the stunning qualifying performance that sees him make Q3 and turn it into a top five result. That isn't guaranteed for Haas, but the team is much closer to it than it has been the prior two seasons. Schumacher needs to at least keep up with Magnussen. He cannot be outscored or at least not outscored by a significant margin. If both driver finish around 30-35 points, that is brilliant season for the team. It would be preferred if Schumacher could probably outscore Magnussen by ten points or so with a handful more points scoring finishes.

Haas should be aiming for seventh in the constructors' championship. Aston Martin was seventh last year with 77 points. Williams will be behind Haas and likely be at the bottom. Aston Martin does not appear to have taken a step forward. Alfa Romeo was also competitive in testing and has strong leader in Valtteri Bottas. It should be a tight fight for second-best Ferrari-powered team.

First practice from Bahrain will be at 8:00 a.m. ET on Friday March 18 with second practice following at 11:00 a.m. Third practice will be at 8:00 a.m. ET on Saturday March 19 with qualifying later that day at 11:00 a.m. The 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix will be held at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday March 20.