Monday, October 31, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Protecting the Ladder

A record was broken and one of the most absurd drives occurred. It honestly feels like the motorsports world will never be the same after Sunday. Somebody lost the respect of an entire series at Martinsville. A few championships were awarded. Scott McLaughlin dressed up early for Halloween. There were a few traffic jams in Surfers Paradise. Fernando Alonso said some words. Many disagreed. Some old guys raced. A title defense was successful. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking. 

Protecting the Ladder
When another Indy Lights season concluded a little under two months ago at Laguna Seca, there was another young driver and another family excited about the future. A champion was crowned best of the level below IndyCar. There was only one way to move, and with it comes greater potential future earnings and possibly spending the next two decades making a living as a race car driver. 

The same way college graduates are celebrated after a cap has been tossed in the air, Linus Lundqvist climbing out his IL-15 chassis and raising his arms to the Northern Californian sky was a release after years of painstaking work to better his future and set him up for a long and prosperous career. 

Indy Lights and the Road to Indy system has long promoted its scholarship program, which awards champions of the three series, as a functional ladder system that helps talented young drivers get a shot at IndyCar and not get left behind in the junior series, no matter the financial background of the driver and his or her family. The system has brought many drivers to IndyCar, including the likes of Josef Newgarden, Patricio O'Ward, Rinus VeeKay and Kyle Kirkwood, all drivers on the 2022 IndyCar grid. 

Lundqvist was prepared for his prize, not a full ride in IndyCar, but a starting point, three races including the Indianapolis 500. When it was time to receive the check, it was less than anticipated. Instead of a $1.2 million prize that had await those before him, Lundqvist received $500,000 after Penske Entertainment, owner and promoter of the series, changed its prize structure for the 2022 season without publicly addressing the issue. 

Instead of looking to IndyCar, Lundqvist's 2023 prospects have gone rather chilly as October is about to turn to November and open seats are vanishing quick. 

The prize money decrease isn't the only Road to Indy issue at hand. One of the issues is the "Road to Indy" moniker is about to cease to exist. With Indy Lights fully under the Penske Entertainment/IndyCar banner and no longer organized in association with Andersen Promotions, which fully sanctions Indy Pro 2000 and U.S. F2000, the ladder system is effectively split, two companies with two different agendas, but it isn't clear if they are working toward the same goal, though that is what both are saying on paper. 

The "Road to Indy" name will likely change ahead of the 2023 season. "Indy Pro 2000" is now "USF Pro 2000." Looking to 2023, there will be two USF Pro 2000 and U.S. F2000 weekends not run with or around an IndyCar event, a trip to Sebring in late-March and a trip to Austin in late-August. Each series will still share the bill on seven IndyCar race weekends, but the IndyCar ladder system is fractured greater than it has ever been over the last decade-plus. I fear we have forgotten what life was like prior to the Road to Indy.

Prior to the Road to Indy, champions died on the vine. The only champions from Star Mazda/Pro Mazda/Indy Pro 2000/USF Pro 2000 from 1991 to 2009 to make an IndyCar start were Michael McDowell and Raphael Matos. McDowell only made two starts at the end of the 2005 Champ Car season before moving to sports cars which led to a NASCAR career. Joey Hand and Guy Comso never got a sniff of IndyCar. Neither did Dane Cameron nor John Edwards, though those four made good livings in sports cars. 

Since the creation of the Road to Indy, seven of 13 champions from the third rung of the ladder system have started an IndyCar race, and three of those drivers, the last three champions at this level, are still in the ladder system. Of the champions from 2010 to 2019 only Santiago Urrutia, Aaron Telitz and Victor Franzoni have not started an IndyCar race. 

Between Indy Lights and the Atlantics championship, there were a number of champions and race winners who could not get full-time rides. Wade Cunningham dominated Indy Lights, but it wasn't until six years after his championship he made his first IndyCar start, and only made five starts over two seasons. Alex Lloyd broke records at the Indy Lights level but only had one full season in IndyCar, three years after his Indy Lights championship. 

The ladder system was busted at the start of the 21st century and there wasn't a path for young American drivers to make it to IndyCar. In 2010, there were only four Americans regularly on the IndyCar grid. Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, who started 12 of 17 races driving for four different teams. Even Hunter-Reay wasn't sure if he would be full-time that season, only having a deal through the Indianapolis 500 until a strong start to the season, which included a victory at Long Beach, got him funding for the full year.

The Road to Indy changed that. It has allowed many young drivers to get to IndyCar, but it has benefited Americans. The 2022 season had eight American regulars. The 2020 season had 11 American regulars. Every season since 2016 has had at least seven American regulars, and four of the last seven seasons have at least nine American regulars. 

It feels like a step back to decrease the opportunity for young drivers, especially for those who do not come from wealthy backgrounds. Lundqvist went from IndyCar hopeful to IndyCar afterthought not because of what he did on-track but because of the size of his bank account. 

There seems to be a disconnection under the Penske leadership for Indy Lights. It is worrying that a regression occurred in prizing. Lundqvist received less than half of his predecessors. That isn’t a strong side of support for a development series. After Lundqvist's light payday, Indy Lights and the Road to Indy’s reputation took a hit. It has long been seen as a place of opportunity and a chance for talent to earn its way to the top. But if the prizes are going to be slashed, talent means less. It might be a good slice of funding, but more work now has to be done for a driver to reach the next level. 

Many were frustrated when it became public Lundqvist earned significantly less money for his championship. It felt like a larger hurdle was put in front of the Swedish talent when he had done nothing but what he had to do. Hopefully, the Indy Lights prize returns to its previous size and it allows the top driver from the Road to Indy to get a greater shot at IndyCar. On top of that, IndyCar and Andersen Promotions must remain on the same page for the greater good of the North American open-wheel system. 

I fear the change in IndyCar leadership and the absorption of Indy Lights back into the IndyCar offices has caused some friction among the two parties responsible for the development system. If these two sides do not get along, young drivers will lose out and in turn we will get a weaker IndyCar Series. A serious discussion must occur this offseason to make sure the Road to Indy or whatever it will be called remains an enticing path for talent drivers.

Champions From the Weekend
Tomoki Nojiri clinched the Super Formula championship with a runner-up finish in the first race from Suzuka.

Shane van Gisbergen clinched the Supercars championship with his victory in the first race from Surfers Paradise. It is van Gisbergen's second consecutive Supercars championship and the third in his career. Van Gisbergen completed the weekend with a victory on Sunday as well, a record-extending 21st victory this season.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Shane van Gisbergen, but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Mexican Grand Prix, a record-breaking 14th victory this season. 

Christopher Bell won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville, his third victory of the season. Ty Gibbs won the Grand National Series race, his sixth victory of the season.

Ukyo Sasahara and Tomoki Nojiri split the Super Formula races from Suzuka.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP season finale weekend from Valencia.
NASCAR season finale weekend from Phoenix. 
Super GT season finale weekend from Motegi.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Best of the Month: October 2022

Boy, does it get late early? A month ago, it felt like there was a lot of racing left. Now, not so much. The races are running out. The championships are being claimed. October is a tough time. There is the excitement of championships being decided, but the sadness in an extended break from some series about to begin. It is a cycle. It gets better from here. 

To pick ourselves up, we should look at some positive aspects from this season and some positives of what is to come.

DTM: The GT Drivers' Championship
This was the second season for the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters contesting GT3-spec automobiles, and after a contentious ending to the 2021 season that soured the competition on track, there was some apprehension entering the 2022 season, but what we saw on track eases all nerves and DTM is again one of the hidden gems of the motorsports world. 

The 2022 season was a who's who of the top GT drivers from around the world competing in this series. You look down the top 15 in the championship and there is no weak driver in that group, and the grid was regularly over two-dozen entries. 

Sheldon van der Linde was champion, still a young driver, but van der Linde has been emerging in recent seasons, including competing in DTM prior to the GT3 switch. 

Who did he finish ahead of? 

Lucas Auer, another DTM race winner who was also successful in junior single-seater race. 

René Rast, a three-time Porsche Supercup champion and a ADAC GT Masters champion and a race winner in the 24 Hours of Daytona and Nürburgring 24 Hours and Spa 24 Hours before becoming a three-time DTM champion.

Mirko Bortolotti, who is a Blancpain GT Endurance Cup champion as well as a multi-time class winner in the 24 Hours of Daytona and a class winner in the 12 Hours of Sebring. 

Thomas Preining, a Porsche Carrera Cup Germany champion who has won in the European Le Mans Series and competed in the FIA World Endurance Championship. 

And that was just the rest of the top five in the championship. 

That isn't taking considering... 

Luca Stolz, a GT World Challenge Europe champion...

Nico Müller, a multi-time DTM vice-champion...

Marco Wittmann, a two-time DTM champion...

Kelvin van der Linde, a two-time ADAC GT Masters champion and Nürburgring 24 Hour winner... 

Dennis Olsen, an Intercontinental GT Challenge champion...

Maximilian Götz, a champion in ADAC GT Masters, Blancpain GT Sprint Cup and DTM...

Maro Engel, a Blancpain GT Endurance Cup champion...

Nick Cassidy, a champion in Super GT and Super Formula and a Formula E race winner... 

Philipp Eng, a Porsche Supercup champion...

Ricardo Feller, an ADAC GT Masters champion...

Felipe Fraga, a Stock Car Brasil champion and a regular winner in sports cars...

And Laurens Vanthoor, a Blancpain GT Endurance Cup and Overall champion, an Intercontinental GT Series champion, an IMSA GTLM champion and an IMSA GTD champion, plus a winner in the Nürburgring 24 Hour, Spa 24 Hour, and a class winner in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

And Vanthoor was 18th in the championship! 

Are all the big GT names there? No, but it is as healthy of a GT grid as you can ask for, and it is an individual sprint series. When DTM was switching to GT3-specs, many wondered if we needed another GT3 series, but there wasn't a pure GT3 sprint series where a single driver drove a car. There was a vacuum in the GT3 world, one that was left after Pirelli World Challenge morphed into GT World Challenge America and even went away from an all-pro classification in the top series. 

DTM is a driver's championship. Yes, the manufactures will still try to pull the strings, but this is the healthiest DTM has been in 20 years. Six manufactures participated in this series. There were 11 race winners in 16 races. The grid is rounded out with some slower drivers, but it is nearly a dozen-and-a-half drivers deep. 

The series is still evolving. The 2023 calendar is trending toward being mostly Germany and Austria based with maybe one trip to Vila Real, Portugal, but this series, this format, could expand beyond the center of Europe. I don't think the DTM teams want to become a world championship of sorts, I think that range has gotten the series in trouble in the past, but this could definitely be a European-based championship with a German center, what DTM has practically always been since its revival in 2000. 

I hope DTM continues in its current form and becomes a little more refined. It has found a good space in the motorsports landscape and hopefully more people will start to notice it. 

Ode to IMSA
On the first day of this month, the IMSA season ended with five championships being claimed. It was an extraordinary season for the North American sports car championship. Every class was breathtakingly competitive. There was never a race weekend where you felt you knew the result before the cars hit the track. On top of it, this was the final season for the Daytona Prototype international class. 

Before moving to 2023, I wanted to celebrate the best of the IMSA season. 

Which begins with Meyer Shank Racing taking the DPi championship. MSR won the 24 Hours of Daytona, its second victory in that event, a decade after its first, and it won Petit Le Mans, its second victory in that event as well. 

But in-between, it was runner-up in five races. Driver Tom Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis never finished outside the top five. Jarvis, a veteran of the Audi LMP1 program, who was twice runner-up in the world championship, claimed his first title since the 2005 Formula Renault 2.0 UK Championship. It was Blomqvist's first championship since the 2010 Formula Renault 2.0 UK Championship... oh and Blomqvist's father Stig Blomqvist won the 1984 World Rally Championship driving for Audi. Talk about symmetry in this lineup. 

Like MSR in DPi, Pfaff Motorsports won the GT Daytona Pro championship and never finished worse than fifth this season. Matt Campbell and Mathieu Jaminet ended the season with seven consecutive podium finishes and started the season with a thrilling victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona. 

Meanwhile, in the GTD Pro class, Antonio García and Jordan Taylor dropped to third in the final standings, but this is the 11th consecutive season García has finished either first or third in the championship dating back to the American Le Mans Series GT class in the 2012 season. 

García's championship finishes as a Corvette factory driver are third, first, third, third, third, first, first, third, first, first, third. 

Also, it was a great year for Canada in IMSA. John Farano won the LMP2 championship, the Canadian-based Pfaff Motorsports won the GTD Pro title, and Roman De Angelis won the GTD championship. This was the second consecutive season a Canadian won the GTD championship after Zacharie Robichon took the title with Laurens Vanthoor driving for Pfaff Motorsports. 

Jon Bennett and Colin Braun won the IMSA LMP3 championship, their third championship together as co-drivers after they won the 2014 and 2015 Prototype Challenge class championship, which also negates to mention they were runners-up in the 2018 Prototype championship and they were second in LMP3 last year. 

GT Daytona had seven manufactures win a race, but one of the two that did not win was Lamborghini, the first time the Italian manufacture has not won in IMSA since full GT3-specs were adopted for the GTD class ahead of the 2016 season. The other manufacture that did not win in GTD this season was McLaren, which was second on two occasions. I would say Balance of Performance is working in this class.

We did have BMW win the GT Daytona manufactures' championship, its first manufactures' championship in the class. It was also the fourth consecutive year with a different manufacture winning the GTD manufactures' title after Lamborghini, Acura and Porsche won it the three prior seasons. 

The 2023 season and the introduction of the LMDh category has been highly anticipated. We will see Porsche and BMW join Acura and Cadillac in the renamed GTP class. The GTD classes should remain highly competitive. IMSA could not be entering this new era at a higher level.

November Preview
Keeping the sports car theme, the FIA World Endurance Championship season will conclude on Saturday November 12 with the 8 Hours of Bahrain. All four class championships are undecided but this is how the picture looks in each class. 

Hypercar World Endurance Drivers' Championship: The #8 Toyota and the #36 Alpine are tied on 121 points with the #7 Toyota 26 points back. All three cars could win the championship as Bahrain pays 38 points to win, plus a point for pole position. With the two Peugeot entries on the track, the lowest points a finishing car can score is 15. The #7 Toyota can only win the championship if the #8 Toyota and #36 Alpine both finish unclassified, which constitutes completing less than 70% of the overall winner's race distance. 

Toyota does have 147 points in the manufactures' championship, 26 points ahead of Alpine. The only way Alpine can win the manufactures' championship is if both Toyota finish unclassified. 

LMP2: There are five teams competing for the LMP2 championship. 

The #38 Jota Oreca-Gibson of António Félix da Costa, Roberto González and Will Stevens leads with 114 points, 28 points clear of Josh Pierson and Oliver Jarvis in the #23 United Autosports Oreca-Gibson and 34 points ahead of the the #41 RealTeam by WRT Oreca-Gibson of Ferdinand Habsburg, Norman Nato and Rui Andrade. The #31 WRT Oreca-Gibson is the only LMP2 car to have multiple victories this season, but two non-points finishes has Robin Frijns and Sean Gelael 36 points back. Prema Orlen Team has its #9 Oreca-Gibson of Lorenzo Colombo, Louis Delétraz and Robert Kubica 38 points off Jota. 

Jota will clinch the championship with a finish of sixth or better. 

World Endurance GTE Drivers' Championship: It is Ferrari vs. Porsche. The #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi is looking for its second consecutive title and lead the championship with 120 points, 11 points over #92 Porsche of Kévin Estre and Michael Christensen. Gianmaria Bruni is 14 points back with Richard Leitz 24 points back. Leitz missed the Monza round due to a COVID-positive test.The #52 AF Corse Ferrari of Antonio Fuoco and Miguel Molina are 27 points off the sister car. 

The only way the #51 Ferrari can clinch the championship is to finish second with the #92 Porsche not winning from pole position. If the #51 Ferrari finishes second and the #92 Porsche wins the race but does not win pole position, the #51 Ferrari would hold the tiebreaker with two victories and two runner-up finishes to the #92 Porsche's two victories and one runner-up finish. 

GTE Am: It is an all-Aston Martin championship battle in GTE Am. The #33 TF Sport Aston Martin versus the #98 Northwest AMR Aston Martin. Ben Keating and Marco Sørensen have scored 123 points in the #33 Aston Martin, 20 points more than David Pittard, Nicki Thiim and Paul Dalla Lana in the #98 Aston Martin. 

TF Sport clinch the championship with a podium finish or a finish of fourth and the #98 Aston Martin not winning pole position. TF Sport owns the tiebreaker with two victories and two runner-up finishes while the best Northwest AMR can do is two victories and one runner-up finish. 

The 8 Hours of Bahrain will start at 6:00 a.m. ET on Saturday November 12.

Other events of note in November
NASCAR championships will be decided in Phoenix. 
Formula One has a few races left.
MotoGP will have the championship decided at Valencia.
World Superbike has a few rounds left.
And the FIFA World Cup begins.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Missed Talent

Francesco Bagnaia has a hand on the world championship, though Ducati couldn't make up its damn mind in Sepang. The Moto2 championship saw another massive pendulum swing, as Ai Ogura fell while battling for the lead on the final lap, handing the championship lead back to Augusto Fernández entering the Valencia finale. There was a lot of downtime in Austin before Max Verstappen won a single-season record-tying 13th grand prix in comeback fashion after a slow pit stop. A few drivers are more egomaniacal than we first thought. A familiar name won in the World Rally Championship. You can spin cars on pit lane in NASCAR with no reprimand. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking. 

Missed Talent
Nyck de Vries will be full-time next year in Formula One driving for AlphaTauri. It was a long-time coming.

Results suggested de Vries was always capable of reaching the highest level. He won the 2014 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship, 137 points ahead of Alexander Albon, who was third in that championship. De Vries also won the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps Series that year, 101 points clear of Charles Leclerc and 177 points clear of George Russell in fourth.

Leclerc made his Formula One debut in 2018. Albon and Russell debuted in 2019. What took de Vries so long to get his test of Formula One?

He had won the 2019 Formula Two championship, but as a Mercedes junior driver, there was no room on the Formula One grid, leaving him to be placed in Mercedes' Formula E program while also competing in sports cars. 

But persistence paid off. The opportunity finally came to de Vries when Albon was ruled out of this year's Italian Grand Prix after undergoing an emergency appendectomy prior to the race. A ninth-place finish on debut led to greater interest in de Vries' future service. Enter AlphaTauri, and now de Vries will get a full-time shot. 

If Albon's appendix had not burst, would the same fervor had been there for de Vries? Probably not. Maybe de Vries would have settled for a Williams seat in 2023 or maybe he would continue to be a Mercedes reserve driver, racing in other series, and we would still be wondering what he is capable of. 

All it took to change perceptions was one race, the least thing any driver can ask for, but even that is something most do not get. If Italy doesn't happen, de Vries might never run a grand prix. His career could take him elsewhere and we would never know what he could do in a Formula One car. 

Is Formula One the collection of the best drivers in the world or the collection of the best drivers trying to be there? 

There are thousands of drivers competing in motorsports in a variety series, from tin-tops to open-wheels, electric to petrol, off-road to asphalt, ovals to street courses. Only 22 drivers have started a Formula One race this year. Dating back to the start of the turbo-hybrid era beginning in 2014, only 53 drivers have started a Formula One race. 

In nine seasons, just under five-dozen drivers have started a Formula One race. That is not many. For comparison, shift 50 years in the past and from 1964 to 1972, 122 drivers started a Formula One race. There were 112 races in that nine-season period. In the turbo-hybrid era, 162 races have been contested with three more left to run in the 2022 season. About 36% more races and yet about 53% fewer drivers competing. 

De Vries got his chance. Many will never get even a straight-line test in a Formula One car let alone a race. 

Nearly all the drivers in Formula One were champions at some level, but all of them have also been defeated at some level. None of these drivers have spotless junior records. Some went years without championships before getting that one title. Some won early and didn't win as they moved up the ranks, but were still competitive enough to justify a chance at the highest level. Some never quite got a championship, but were constantly in the top five.

Other drivers had near identical records to de Vries, but never got that call. Never became a reserve driver. Never got a testing opportunity. Never was on the Formula One radar. It doesn't mean they weren't capable of reaching Formula One. They just didn't attract such an offer, and there are numerous drivers who stand out as missed talent. 

Take Max Verstappen. His only season in Formula Three saw Verstappen finish third in the championship. Esteban Ocon won the championship. In the middle of those two was Tom Blomqvist, whose career took him to Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters and then Formula E, and this year Blomqvist became the IMSA Prototype championship with Meyer Shank Racing while also testing an IndyCar.

Motorsports is filled with drivers that we wonder what they could have done if they had gotten a call to drive in Formula One. 

António Félix da Costa basically lost a coin flip with Daniil Kvyat for the second Scuderia Toro Rosso seat in the 2014 Formula One season. Da Costa never ran in Formula One, but he has been a winner in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, a Formula E champion and a winner in sports cars.

Sam Bird was 20 points shy of the 2013 GP2 Series championship. Bird was a Mercedes development driver and did some testing for the team, but he never even got a Friday practice. Onto sports cars he went. He won the FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 championship. He has been a regular Formula E race winner. 

Bird's Jaguar Racing Formula E teammate Mitch Evans was the 2013 GP3 Series championship and won races in GP2, but Evans couldn't get a sniff of Formula One. To Formula E he went and he is coming off a vice-championship season in 2022.

Nick Cassidy has won practically everywhere he has raced. Cassidy only had one season in the European Formula Three championship and he was fourth behind Lance Stroll, Maximilian Günther and George Russell. But from there Cassidy went to Japan and won a Super GT and Super Formula championship, and he has since own in DTM and Formula E. 

Felix Rosenqvist might be the greatest of the misses. Rosenqvist was in the top three of the European Formula Three championship in three of four seasons, including the 2015 championship ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi, Charles Leclerc, Lance Stroll, George Russell and Alexander Albon. He has since won in Formula E, was third in the Super Formula championship, 4.5 points behind Pierre Gasly, and Rosenqvist has since won in IndyCar.

Then there is Álex Palou, an IndyCar champion who took his first laps in a Formula One weekend this past Friday at Circuit of the Americas driving for McLaren. Palou was never a highly sought after when in European junior series. He won in GP3, significantly performing better than his equipment, but his career took him to Japan where he won in Super Formula and challenged for a championship before moving to IndyCar. 

Confined to the medium tire compound, Palou's time were never going to be blisteringly quick in the first free practice, but the Spaniard ran comparable lap times to McLaren's Lando Norris on the same compound. He was in the ballpark. It was one 60-minute session, but for one hour, Palou showed he belonged. Whether he gets more opportunities or greater opportunities remains to be seen. Whether or not other drivers like Palou and de Vries get that Formula One taste is a matter of time. Some will, most will not.

Based on numbers alone, it is unfathomable that Formula One, a series of 20 drivers has the best 20 drivers in the world competing in each race. Is it realistic that the top 20 landed in these 20 cars? Basic logic suggests the top 20 are spread among many different series? Formula One has some, probably a good number of the top 20, but not the top 20, especially when teams are employing drivers for payment to keep the team on the grid. 

If Formula One really was the collection of the top 20 drivers on the planet, the hiring practices would be more open than what we currently see. We would see more drivers like de Vries getting hired after a few years in Formula E and sports cars. Scott Dixon would have gotten a call years ago. Shane van Gisbergen would be on teams' radars. Sébastien Buemi would have made a comeback around 2017. Honda would have made sure Naoki Yamamoto was on the grid. We wouldn't still be wondering about what Da Costa, Bird, Evans, Cassidy, Rosenqvist and many more could have done in Formula One. We would have already seen it.

It is fantastical to believe Formula One is the motorsports Mount Olympus, a collection of the best that exist, but it isn't. It never will be. Plenty are forgotten in the world of Formula One. Nothing suggests Formula One teams will become more critical in their driver selection process in the future. As much as they want the best drivers, they really want the best driver they can develop under their own thumb, a driver they can meticulously condition into learning the team's method and vocabulary and falling in line when the master snaps his fingers. 

As with most things in life, decisions are made about control. Driver selection is about control as much as it is about winning. In the 21st century, the team managers at the back of the garage or on the pit wall are less inclined to hire an outsider who has succeeded elsewhere and has his own recipe for success. They want to win, but they want to minimize headaches as well. 

This ethos isn't changing anytime soon, and we are more likely going to see drivers missed because they weren't selected for a team's driver academy at 15 years old, because as you know 15 years old is the ripe age for a driver's potential, or because they didn't have a multi-billionaire father who never said no because, again avoiding headaches. When you have the money, it is easier, and quicker, to throw $80 million at your child than to deal with a temper-tantrum. 

A few will get their chance, but they will remain few, as few as we are accustomed to seeing. Most will find careers elsewhere, winning championships elsewhere. They will make comfortable livings and find happiness, even if they will always have that thought of what could have been had a Formula One team ever given them a call. 

Champions From the Weekend
Red Bull Racing clinched the World Constructors' Championship with Max Verstappen's victory and Sergio Pérez's fourth-place finish in the United States Grand Prix.

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

Francesco Bagnaia won MotoGP's Malaysian Grand Prix, his seventh victory of the season. Tony Arbolino won the Moto2 race, his third victory of the season. John McPhee won the Moto3 race, his first victory since September 13, 2020 at Misano. 

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup race from Homestead, his third victory of the season. Noah Gragson won the Grand National Series race, his eighth victory of the season. Ty Majeski won the Truck race, his second victory of the season.

Álvaro Bautista (race one and race two) and Toprak Razgatlioglu (SuperPole race) split the World Superbike races from San Juan Villicum. Dominique Aegerter swept the World Supersport races.

Sébastien Ogier won Rally Catalunya, his first victory of the season, his 55th career victory, and this is the tenth consecutive season Ogier has won a World Rally Championship round. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One heads south to Mexico. 
NASCAR heads north to Martinsville. 
Super Formula concludes its season with a doubleheader at Suzuka.
Supercars has its penultimate round at Surfers Paradise.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2022 Season

The final IndyCar Wrap-Up takes us to the champions, Team Penske. The 2021 season was a big letdown for Team Penske in comparison to most seasons for the team. It won multiple times and had a driver in the championship fight, but it was a less prolific season. The 2022 season was a massive turnaround and Penske stood head and shoulders above the field.

Will Power
Eight years removed from his one and only championship, Power entered 2022 coming off his worst championship finish as a full-time Team Penske driver. After only one victory and four total podium finishes, the 41-year-old Australian had a shot at multiple milestones this season. Though still a threat, Power was never considered the top contender. We saw the best Will Power this season, and it ended with Power cementing his place in IndyCar history.
What objectively was his best race?
It is Power's only victory of the season, a victory at Belle Isle from 16th starting position after making up many positions early in the first stint on primary tires before executing a two-stop strategy and holding off a charging Alexander Rossi in the closing laps.

What subjectively was his best race?
Belle Isle was impressive and a pivotal moment in the season. It wasn't the race where Power took the championship lead and never looked back, but he had five top five finishes in the six races prior to Belle Isle. Power wasn't finding any whammies, and even when he did, he bounced back and made up for it in the next race. Power lived on the podium this season and no one could match that output, leading to a championship for Power.

Laguna Seca deserves a note because it is where Power not only claimed his second championship, but he started that race on pole position, the 68th of his career, and it put him in sole possession of first all-time in IndyCar pole positions. 

What objectively was his worst race?
Power was 19th at Road America after Devlin DeFrancesco ran over Power entering turn five, setting back the Australian and making 19th the best he could have hoped for.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Power was 15th in the Indianapolis 500 and Toronto. In both races, he was just average, stuck in the middle of the field. In each race, he made up some spots early but couldn't keep up the momentum and make up anymore positions.

Will Power's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 1st (214 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 9
Top Fives: 12
Top Tens: 13
Laps Led: 335
Poles: 5
Fast Sixes: 5
Fast Twelves: 8 
Average Start: 7.6471
Average Finish: 5.9412

Josef Newgarden
A regular title favorite, Newgarden looked to avenge a difficult break in the 2021 season that saw him end up second in the championship for a second consecutive season.With a third championship in his sights, Newgarden looked strong from the get go, but results became a little scattered. It was either a great day or a tough day for Newgarden. It looked like the Tennessean was going to power his way through, but a few breaks didn't go his way. 
What objectively was his best race?
Newgarden led IndyCar with five victories this season. It started in Texas with a breathtaking pass to the outside of Scott McLaughlin on the exit of turn four coming to the checkered flag. In the next race at Long Beach, Newgarden leaped ahead of Álex Palou in the second pit cycle and held off Romain Grosjean. At Road America, Newgarden rode in Alexander Rossi's shadow in the opening stint, but took the top spot after traffic held up Rossi during the first pit cycle and Newgarden won with relative comfort. 

In Iowa, Newgarden led 208 of 250 laps in the first race of the doubleheader weekend and took his fourth victory of the season. At Gateway, Newgarden had another incredible battle with McLaughlin, and after it appeared Newgarden lost the race in traffic, a restart after a lengthy rain delay saw Newgarden pounce and strengthen his championship hopes.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is Laguna Seca. Newgarden shot himself in the foot in qualifying, spinning in the corkscrew and stalling, causing a red flag and leaving him to start 25th. Needing the drive of his life, Newgarden picked apart the field on an aggressive strategy, and he made at least four staggering passes into the corkscrew. The pace got him up to second place, but he could not catch Álex Palou, and Power did enough to cover off Newgarden and prevent the American from claiming his third championship.
What objectively was his worst race?
Newgarden was 25th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after Power pushed Newgarden off the road and Jack Harvey ran into Newgarden, spinning him off course and leading to laps lost for repairs to the car. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
When you have led 148 of 235 laps only for a right rear suspension to end your race from a leading position, that might be the worst race of your career. Newgarden looked set to sweep the Iowa weekend, take the championship lead and be the clear championship favorite with five races remaining. There were only 65 laps remaining. It was an uncharacteristic failure, especially for a Penske car. 

Newgarden went from leading the championship by 11 points to trailing by 34 points with five races remaining in that one moment. He would have been 24 points ahead of Power. Instead, he was 26 points behind his teammate. The final margin in the championship was 16 points. For the second consecutive year, there is one clear moment where not only a race victory slipped from Newgarden's hands, but also a championship.

Josef Newgarden's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 2nd (544 points)
Wins: 5
Podiums: 6
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 527
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 8
Fast Twelves: 10
Average Start: 6.6471
Average Finish: 8.1765

Scott McLaughlin
After winning Rookie of the Year, McLaughlin looked to become more competitive in his sophomore season. It was a stunning turn in performance for McLaughlin, who was only in his third season competing in any open-wheel series. With all the pressure of driving for the best team in IndyCar, McLaughlin rose to the level of a Penske driver, and the IndyCar field became a little deeper with his rise. 
What objectively was his best race?
There were thee victories for McLaughlin, a stunning drive in the season opener at St. Petersburg, a more contested driver at Mid-Ohio, and a shear thrashing in Portland. 

What subjectively was his best race?
All three victories were brilliant. Portland was tremendous. McLaughlin led 104 of 110 laps from pole position. Nobody touched him. Nobody. He was gone from practically the drop of the green flag. That victory kept his championship hopes alive into the Laguna Seca season finale. It could have been just a good day, McLaughlin running hard, getting a good finish but ending up mathematically eliminated from the championship. With his title hopes on the line, McLaughlin completed a drive most could only dream of achieving.
The victories deserve praise, but McLaughlin's oval results should be acknowledged. He dominated Texas before Newgarden completed a brave move on the outside. He was on the podium in the second Iowa race, and at Gateway he again went at it with Newgarden, but again Newgarden came out on top while McLaughlin settled for a podium position. The man has only been running ovals for two years. He has nine oval starts to his name. He has four podium finishes and five top five finishes. McLaughlin has taken to ovals like a duck to water. 

What objectively was his worst race?
It was the Indianapolis 500 where McLaughlin had an accident exiting turn three and wound up 29th. It had been a marginally good day for McLaughlin. He was stuck in the middle of the pack but was a car moving forward. He was arguably the best Penske driver in this race.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Indianapolis was bad, but I think it is the first Iowa race because a loose wheel forced an extra pit stop just before the final restart and it took him for a top five finish to a 22nd-place finish. 

McLaughlin had a tough stretch in May and through the first weekend of June. Sandwiching the Indianapolis 500 was a tough day in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis when he changed to wet tires late and spun coming to a restart, and then at Belle Isle he blew turn three, and was caught in the runoff area, taking him out of the running for the top ten.

Scott McLaughlin's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 4th (510 points)
Wins: 3
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 433
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 5
Fast Twelves: 11
Average Start: 6.8824
Average Finish: 8.7647

An Early Look Ahead
Team Penske is fine. 

Will Power is rejuvenated for this next part of his career. Josef Newgarden is frustrated but still quick and he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Scott McLaughlin came to life in IndyCar and it looks like he will win many more races in his career. 

Penske may win ten races, lead 1,300 laps and have three of the top five in the championship again with another championship in 2023. It is Team Penske. Complete and utter dominance is the expectation for this group. 

Each driver wants to achieve more. Power has achieve the most with the team. He has two championships. He has an Indianapolis 500 victory. He has 41 career victories. Power would like a little more of everything to plump up his career. Fourth all-time in victories is within sight. He just needs two more to surpass Michael Andretti, but 50 victories is possible and if he gets to 50, he can get 53 and surpass Mario Andretti. There is plenty of motivation still out there for Power.

Newgarden has been vice-champion the last three seasons. In each one, he has a good claim as being the best driver in the series. This year likely stings more than the previous two because he won five times, probably should have had a sixth, and no one else was close to matching that output. The issue is Newgarden was either on, or just slightly off. We can look to the second Iowa race as a massive loss in points that swung the championship. He was 14th at Barber, which was a slightly off day. If he doesn't have the Grand Prix of Indianapolis from hell and finish 12th instead of 25th, that is a 13-point swing right there. Even in the case of Portland. Being caught out on the primary tires dropped him from fourth to eighth, an eight-point drop.

McLaughlin could be the best driver in the world. He dominated Supercars and has become an IndyCar race winner and championship contender in two seasons. Anymore success and he will make a great claim for himself. He very well could be champion in 2023. 

The biggest motivation for Newgarden and McLaughlin is the Indianapolis 500. A Penske driver's career is not complete until he or she has won the Indianapolis 500. As Newgarden wins more races everywhere else, the lack of an Indianapolis 500 victory stands out. He is still a great driver without it. Another championship would still be a spectacular achievement, but as much as Newgarden wouldn't mind being included with the likes of Michael Andretti, Lloyd Ruby, Ted Horn and Jackie Stewart, he doesn't want to be in the group of greatest drivers to never win the Indianapolis 500. 

Indianapolis is motivation for all three drivers, but it feels like the Team Penske lineup is set for most of the next decade. Power turns 42 just ahead of the 2023 season opener, but he should have another four or five seasons in him. Newgarden is still early in his prime, and it looks like McLaughlin is going to fit in for some time to come. Newgarden and McLaughlin could be the leading duo of this team for the next decade or more. After a transitional phase at the end of the 2010s, it feels like Penske is ready for the future and with the drivers set it can focus even more on winning races, a dangerous thing for the rest of the competition. 

Every team can improve somewhere, but Team Penske is the only one that I think could have zero improvement and still be the class of the field. They are going to shoot for more, but really it is on someone else to step up than to expect Team Penske taking a step back.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Chip Ganassi Racing's 2022 Season

The penultimate IndyCar Wrap-Up looks at Chip Ganassi Racing. The team had won consecutive championships and was looking to add a third on the spin in 2022. It was a unrevised lineup except for the fourth car no longer being split between two drivers. The team performed at the highest level but had turmoil over its future driver lineup embroil the second half of the season. It was still a good year, but there were plenty of distractions although none appear to have cost the team.

Scott Dixon
The 2022 season started with Dixon in an unfamiliar position: on a slump and not the top dog in the Ganassi pack. A new season didn't spark much of a change either, and we even saw Dixon suffer one of the worst defeats in his IndyCar career on its biggest stage. But Dixon rallied and re-wrote the record book in the process. He showed he had not lost it and regained his rightful spot at the head of the organization. 

What objectively was his best race?
Dixon won two races. His victory in Toronto saw him go level with Mario Andretti on 52 victories. His victory in Nashville saw him ascend to second alone. 

At Toronto, he started second and took the lead from Colton Herta through the first pit cycle. From there, he really went unchallenged. At Nashville, he started 14th, but made his final pit stop before a caution, allowing him to take the lead and he held on for victory.

What subjectively was his best race?
It will be surprising to hear such history does not warrant such acclaim, because neither victory was Dixon's best race. Dixon's best was also his worst race. It was the Indianapolis 500. He started on pole position for the fifth time in the Indianapolis 500 and he led 95 laps ahead of his lap 175 pit stop. It was Dixon's race. He faced pressure all race long but kept holding it off and a second Indianapolis 500 victory was in his hand...
What objectively was his worst race?
... until he sped on pit entry and was forced to serve a penalty, relegating him to 21st, the second to last car on the lead lap.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Instead of scoring the maximum 115 points for an Indianapolis 500 victory, 100 for victory plus the 12 points for pole position plus the three bonus points for the most laps led, Dixon wound up scoring 33 points, an 82-point swing. Dixon only lost the championship by 39 points in third. This wasn't Dixon's greatest season. He left a lot of points on the table, mostly in this race. For a driver that had 15 top ten finishes from 17 races, not much can get worse than this, a phenomenal performance with only one mistake but a costly one at that.

Scott Dixon's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 3rd (521 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 15
Laps Led: 177
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 11.059
Average Finish: 6.7059

Álex Palou
The 2021 champion looked poised to repeat in 2022. It wasn't long until Palou was back on top in the championship and ready to cause problems for the field. However, he ended up causing problems for more than the field and his own team as well as the summer was embroiled in a contract dispute between Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing. The disagreement ended up in court as the season wore on in a delicate situation. The off-track distraction did not carry over to the racetrack, but it will be what the 2022 season is remembered for.
What objectively was his best race?
Victory didn't come until the season finale, but Palou won at Laguna Seca in an authoritative fashion, over 30 seconds clear of the rest of the field and he did it from 11th starting position nonetheless.

What subjectively was his best race?
Laguna Seca was an historic victory. It was the largest margin of victory in an IndyCar race since Mark Dismore lapped the field in the 1999 Indy Racing League finale from Texas. It was the largest margin of victory in a race where the field wasn't lapped since Alex Zanardi won at Michigan in July 1997, and Palou won it from 11th. This wasn't a pole-sitter getting clear track and settling sail into the distance. Palou had to pass cars on track and then runaway.

What objectively was his worst race?
Palou and his teammate Marcus Ericsson came together in turn five on lap three at Road America, damaging Palou's suspension and causing him to finish 27th. Palou had qualified third. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
At the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Palou spun on lap six after switching to slick tires when the track was drying out. Though every driver was tiptoeing through the conditions, Palou was the driver to spin after dancing on the damp surface. He was in the grass but was able to pull out of it only to stall on the asphalt between turns ten and 11. This put Palou a lap down and he was trapped a lap down the entire race, ending up 18th at the checkered flag, wasting a front row starting position. 

He also didn't have a great car at Portland and took a gamble on strategy that didn't pay off, ending his championship defense in the Pacific Northwest.

Álex Palou's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 5th (510 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 6
Top Fives: 6
Top Tens: 13
Laps Led: 173
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 8
Fast Twelves: 11 
Average Start: 8.0588
Average Finish: 8.0

Marcus Ericsson
Back for his third season with Chip Ganassi Racing, Ericsson looked to improve upon his two victories and sixth-place championship finish in 2021. He improved in neither category, but he had a wonderful and memorable season. Being a championship leader for most of the year showed Ericsson is more than capable competing at a high level in IndyCar, though room from improve still exists. 
What objectively was his best race?
Ericsson won the Indianapolis 500.

What subjectively was his best race?
Ericsson won the Indianapolis 500. That is enough. In all seriousness, Ericsson looked good in every session on the 2.5-mile oval. He never showed he was the top driver, but Ericsson was always in the background and a threat. When Scott Dixon fell out of picture with his speeding penalty, Ericsson stepped up, drove to the front around the Arrow McLaren SP duo of Patricio O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and Ericsson held off O'Ward in the late restart to take a career-changing victory.
What objectively was his worst race?
Ericsson was 22nd at Long Beach after slapping the barrier exiting turn four when in position for a podium result.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Long Beach is really the only bad race Ericsson had all year. The only other negative from his season is he didn't finish good enough to maximize the double points he scored at Indianapolis. After scoring three top five finishes in the first six races, he had only two in the next 11 races. He was a top ten regular but couldn't quite reach that championship level despite leading the championship after six of 17 races.
Marcus Ericsson's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 6th (506 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 37
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 8
Average Start: 11.647
Average Finish: 8.0855

Jimmie Johnson
After dipping his toes in the IndyCar waters running all the road and street course races in 2021, Johnson was ready for the full season and the ovals in 2022. Of course, the road and street courses made up majority of the season and Johnson had much room for improvement. There were some better days, but many looked similar to what we saw in 2021. He made notable gains and positive runs on ovals elevated his sophomore season.
What objectively was his best race?
Johnson took a fifth-place finish in the second Iowa race. He made some notable passes on the high line of the racetrack and used the top lane better than any driver that weekend at Iowa.

What subjectively was his best race?
The entire Iowa weekend was great for Johnson, but I was more impressed with his drive in the first Iowa race than the second. In the first race, Johnson spun early, avoided the barrier and came back to drive into the top ten and look ready for a top five result, but he didn't have the tire life at the end of the race and faded to 11th. That was not a fair representation of the race he had. 

What objectively was his worst race?
Strangely enough, his worst result was 28th in the Indianapolis 500 after having an accident with seven laps remaining.

What subjectively was his worst race?
The Indianapolis 500 wasn't good, especially when considering how he had done in practice and qualifying. Johnson was a top ten driver in practice, made the Fast 12, started 12th and he lost some spots at the start. The cautions didn't fall his way and his lost more track position. He may have led two laps but that was taking a gamble on strategy and trying to stop as late as possible in the race. Then he has an accident with the finish in sight. 

Johnson had some rough days on the road and street courses, but in the one race we had waited to see him drive the most, he had a bad day.

Jimmie Johnson's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 21st (214 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 2
Laps Led: 21
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1 
Average Start: 21.941
Average Finish: 18.588

An Early Look Ahead
We know Johnson will not return as a full-time driver in 2023. Whether he returns at all is a mystery, but Ganassi would be as good a spot as any for him to run the Indianapolis 500 again if he so pleases, and what Johnson decides to do could decide how Ganassi fills out that fourth car. 

It is a good seat and considering the other three full-time drivers won and they were third, fifth and sixth in the championship, that could fourth car is probably capable of vying for the championship if in the right pair of hands. The problem is does Johnson want to do more than Indianapolis? Does Ganassi have Johnson in a fifth car and drop Tony Kanaan, who just finished third in the Indianapolis 500 in that fifth Ganassi entry? Could we see Johnson complete a 180 and go from road/street course-only driver to full-time driver to oval-only driver in three seasons? If that is the case, then what happens with this car on road/street courses?

I would guess Chip Ganassi would rather have four drivers going for the championship then three with a rotating seat based on track discipline. But Ganassi also once had Sage Karam and Sebastián Saavedra split a seat, so what do I know? 

Regardless of the fourth Ganassi car, we also know it is likely 2023 will be the final season with Palou in the fold. Palou had a contentious situation over his contract for the 2023 season and Palou wanted to move to McLaren while Ganassi exercised the option to retain the driver for 2023. The two sides came to an agreement and Palou will stay, but Palou is a free agent for 2024. He will likely leave the team, and likely head to the Arrow McLaren SP program a year delayed. 

For the discord between a driver and car owner, Palou and Ganassi still performed in the second half of the season. It took a while for Palou to get a victory, but he still put up competitive results when the situation must have been tense considering Ganassi isn't known for his patience and understanding. If the 2022 season could end the way it did for these two, I don't see why 2023 will not be another successful season and possibly a championship push. 

But now we have Ganassi with an open seat and another seat that will likely be open soon. Ericsson should be set with this group. He definitely needs to find that next level but as long as Husky Chocolate doesn't mind sponsoring a car in a country it doesn't do business in, Ericsson should be at Ganassi. Dixon is fine. After a lengthy winless streak, Dixon found his form and turned what was only a good season into a championship contending year. Not many other drivers in IndyCar could do that. 

There is some pause that Dixon could hit such a rough patch again. For two victories and ending up third in the championship, there were plenty of races when Dixon looked like he could do no better than fifth or sixth. Those days were quite regular in 2022. But in one way, it wasn't a case of Dixon topping out in fifth or sixth while Palou and Ericsson were constantly winning races. Those two drivers started well but dropped off in the second half of the season while Dixon ascended above them. 

I think that points to a minor flaw in the Ganassi group. The team went from six victories in 2021 to four in 2022, a good season but still a decline. Team Penske also massive improved from 2021, going from three victories to nine. Things can be two things. Penske stepped forward while Ganassi took a slight step back. It isn't a cause for crisis, but it does show a deficiency that must be address ahead of the 2023 season for the Ganassi group. 

Whatever Ganassi decides to do with that fourth entry could speak volumes for the team's direction for the next three to five seasons. If the team decides to allow Johnson to run the ovals and split it with another driver it could tell us the team isn't worried about the next few years. If Ganassi makes a splashy signing, it could be the group setting the table for the future. Something in-between could be just that, a stop gap for a few seasons and then deciding where to go after that. 

The IndyCar grid is getting more competitive. Team Penske took three of the top four spots in the championship. Arrow McLaren SP is in the verge of constructing a super team with Patricio O'Ward, Felix Rosenqvist, Alexander Rossi and potentially Palou in 2024. It would be wise of Ganassi to stock up in this arms race for talent and not fall behind. That would mean filling that fourth entry with someone impressive now and prepare to do the same in 2024 should Palou leave. 

Ganassi is one of two teams that has won every championship over the last ten seasons. Anything it decides to do with drivers it worth our attention, but this feels like a regular thing where we are entering an offseason and have questions about Ganassi's future. It always seems to work out, but as IndyCar becomes more hotly contested, Ganassi faces possibly taking a big swing to keep its place at the top.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Wasted Talent

Wildlife stole the show in Phillip Island. Mario Andretti drove a McLaren F1 car. Colton Herta will not be driving a McLaren, at least not in any upcoming Friday practices. Álex Palou and Patricio O'Ward will compete in some Friday practices, Palou in Austin and O'Ward in Mexico City. Kurt Busch is stepping back from full-time racing. Some drivers sampled IndyCars in a test at Sebring. The World Touring Car Cup will be ending after this season. European Le Mans Series had a slight delay to its season finale. One of Formula E's worst teams is getting two of the series' best drivers. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking. 


Wasted Talent

Daniel Ricciardo will not be on the Formula One grid in 2023. The Australian confirmed that reality ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix. We will likely not see Ricciardo compete anywhere in 2023. Ricciardo has made it clear he is focused on taking his sabbatical with an eye toward a return to the grid in the future. 


A winner of eight grand prix, the 33-year-old has become a maligned figured in recent seasons. While becoming a fan favorite for his personality, Ricciardo's results have fallen off from his Red Bull years where he won in a car while four-time world championship Sebastien Vettel couldn't, and Ricciardo looked like a potential future world champion. 


Though he won the Italian Grand Prix last season, Ricciardo currently sits 12th in the World Drivers' Championship with four races to go. It would be his worst championship finish since he was 14th in the 2013 season with Scuderia Toro Rosso. He has only scored points in five races this season after scoring in 13 races last year and 15 races in 2020. Five points finishes would be his fewest in a full-time Formula One season. 


Despite the results, many believe Ricciardo is still a talented driver. Some of his recent success suggests he is still capable, but he has not come close to replicating what he did at Red Bull. 


Between demand for a high salary, wearing out his welcome at another team and a wave of development drivers, Ricciardo is off the grid. His only options were steps backward. In his mind, choosing not to race is better than racing anywhere, including in a different series. 


The 2023 season is off the table, but his sights are set on 2024, and for that return to come, he hopes to be involved around Formula One next year. Racing elsewhere would be stepping out of the bubble and signaling he has moved on. 


It is the danger of the "Formula One or bust" mentality. Out of sight and out of mind. Once you are gone, no one will be interested to call you back. It is a limitation to a driver's career. 


Ricciardo can race anywhere. He is already a proven Formula One race winner. The victory total might not be as high as he would like and that championship didn't happen, but there is plenty Ricciardo could still achieve. He could pave his own path and leave a different legacy on the motorsports world. 


However, Ricciardo doesn't want to give up on Formula One. It is admirable. He believes in himself and believes he can still be the best in the top series in the world. Thirty-three isn't as old as it once was. Many drivers are racing into their 40s in Formula One when it was once uncommon to see. A year out doesn't always end a career, but it normally requires some backing for a driver to return to the grid. 


Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso each took multi-year sabbaticals and returned to Formula One. Esteban Ocon was out for the 2019 season before he returned with Renault in 2020, coincidentally teaming with Ricciardo. 


But Räikkönen and Alonso were past world champions. Ocon was a Mercedes reserve driver in 2019. At the moment, Ricciardo has no official affiliation with any team. Any return to the grid in 2024 would be off teams seeing Ricciardo available and figuring it wouldn't hurt to give him a shot... provided they present the Australian with a salary he deemed worth of his services. 


Ricciardo is betting staying in the bubble will be enough to warrant another opportunity. 


What if that doesn't work? Ricciardo is 33 years old. His number of seasons are running out. He still has plenty left but he is at the point where they are becoming a little scarcer. 


There is a world where Ricciardo sits out and nobody calls him for a 2024 ride. Does he double down and bet on 2025 when he will be 36 years old? At some point, doing nothing doesn't pay off. 


Everyone dreams of Formula One and being a world champion. Ricciardo got closer than most and achieved a respectable career. But there is more to motorsports than Formula One. Many historic and career changing races are out there to conquer. These series might not present $20 million annual salaries, but they are comfortable livings and with the chance of additional prestige. It is ok to love Formula One and want to be there, but confining oneself to "Formula One or bust" is a disappointingly narrow mindset to carry. 


We do not all have Ricciardo's ability. This God-given gift of race car driver is something only a handful are blessed with. If you are able to reach Formula One and win there, the world is your oyster. Every series is open to you. You can run all the great races. 


Drivers constantly say how much they love racing and would do it for nothing and do it just for the love of it. There is a fair expectation that no driver will truly do it for nothing. Every person should make a sufficient wage, but to have this ability, want to race and then choose to do nothing is wasting what many would never take for granted. 


This comes down to the individual, and Ricciardo may not like what he finds down the road. Ricciardo isn't taking a year off after being a mid-field driver. He has been to the top and made changes hoping to fly a little higher. Those choices didn't pan out. There is no reason to believe he will ever get a call from a top team every again. Even with a year off, the offers on the table could be the same ones presented for the 2023 season, only this time served with a side of crow. 


Ricciardo can find happiness competing outside of Formula One, and it wouldn't necessarily be the end of his career. Kevin Magnussen went to IMSA in 2021 after leaving Haas F1. Magnussen won and was competitive again while also getting to experience a handful of new racetracks. He loved the experience and despite leaving to run sports cars in the United States, Magnussen ended up back in Formula One in 2022. 


Even if it doesn't work out for Ricciardo, he could reignite his passion for competing while also finding a healthier balance in his life. There are so many experiences out there that are not obtainable in a Formula One career. A different taste of life could be what Ricciardo's soul is looking for. And if team's believe in Ricciardo's ability and want to give him an opportunity, they will call him up regardless of where he is competing. 


Many drivers are Formula One or bust, and it isn't just the ones that are race seats. There are plenty of names that disappear for a year or two or more because they are test drivers or simulator drivers or reserve drivers. They are seen more standing at the back of the garage and in a team's kit than behind the wheel of a race car. What a devastating life that must be. A horse tied up in its barn stall but never allowed out to run through the pasture. 


Everyone wants to be in Formula One, but it should not dictate career decisions that leads to missed opportunities elsewhere. You never hear a driver saying they wished they raced less when a career is over. With many prime years ahead of Ricciardo, does he really want to burn one waiting for something that may never return? 


Champions From the Weekend

The #9 Prema Racing Oreca-Gibson of Louis Delétraz and Ferdinand Habsburg clinched the European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship with a victory in the 4 Hours of Portimão with third driver Juan Manuel Correa. 


The #17 Cool Racing Ligier-Nissan of Mike Benham, Malthe Jakobsen and Maurice Smith clinched the ELMS LMP3 championship with a victory in Portimão.


The #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni, Lorenzo Ferrari and Christian Reid clinched the ELMS GTE championship with a fifth-place finish in Portimão.


Ivan Guevara clinched the Moto3 World Championship with his victory at Phillip Island, his sixth victory of the season.


Winners From the Weekend

You know about some results from Portugal and Ivan Guevara, but did you know...


Álex Rins won MotoGP's Australian Grand Prix, his first victory since the 2020 Aragón Grand Prix. Alonso López won the Moto2 race, his second victory of the season.


Joey Logano won the NASCAR Cup race from Las Vegas, his third victory of the season. Josh Berry won the Grand National Series race, his third victory of the season. 


The #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Doraine Pin won the GTE class at the 4 Hours of Portimão.


Coming Up This Weekend

Formula One races in Austin. 

MotoGP's penultimate round in Malaysia.

World Superbike visits Argentina. 

World Rally Championship has its final round in Europe with Rally Catalunya.

NASCAR's antepenultimate round at Homestead.




Thursday, October 13, 2022

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Arrow McLaren SP's 2022 Season

Our eighth and antepenultimate IndyCar Wrap-Up focuses on Arrow McLaren SP. After finding itself go to the final day of the 2021 season with a shot at the championship, the AMSP group was looking to come home with the largest piece of silverware in 2022. The team showed great pace and had a more rounded program with two drivers performing at a high level, but AMSP did not take that final step forward. 

Patricio O'Ward
O'Ward was a championship contender until he suffered his first and only retirement of the 2021 seaosn in the season finale. In 2022, O'Ward was ready for a breakthrough, especially after testing for McLaren's F1 team during the offseason. It started promising, but O'Ward could not maintain consistency to even match his 2021 output. It was a good season, but not good enough.

What objectively was his best race?
O'Ward won twice this season. The first victory was at Barber Motorsports Park after having great in laps and out laps leap him ahead of Rinus VeeKay during the final pit cycle. The second victory was at Iowa after Josef Newgarden's right rear suspension failed while leading, handing the lead to O'Ward, who held on for the victory. 

What subjectively was his best race?
Would it be strange to say neither victory and the Indianapolis 500 instead? O'Ward was in the top five for a great majority of the race and it was clear he was going to be fighting until the final lap for victory. He made it so Scott Dixon couldn't breathe and Dixon sped entering the pit lane on his final stop, setting up O'Ward to take the top position. 

Unfortunately, Marcus Ericsson had a fire lit underneath him in that closing stint and left O'Ward in the dust. O'Ward had one more chance with the final restart with two laps to go, but he had to settle for second. 

What objectively was his worst race?
An engine failure ended O'Ward's day with nine laps remaining at Road America, placing him in 26th. It ended what was going to be a top ten day.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Mid-Ohio because O'Ward started on pole position and it looked like this was going to be a race that could swing his championship. He was fourth in the championship entering Mid-Ohio, 45 points off the championship lead after the Road America retirement. It looked like Mid-Ohio would be the race that showed he was a serious contender. He led the first 28 laps, but lost the lead in the first pit cycle as his car started experiencing fuel pressure issues. He kept losing positions and then the car crapped out on him. He left with a 24th-place finish and he dropped to fifth, 65 points off the championship lead. 

Patricio O'Ward's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 7th (480 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 9
Laps Led: 165
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 8
Fast Twelves: 11
Average Start: 6.6471
Average Finish: 9.1176

Felix Rosenqvist
Coming in needing an improvement Rosenqvist stepped up to the plate and got the job done. The season opened slow, but the Swede made AMSP a formidable 1-2 punch for the entire season, keeping pace with his teammate O'Ward and having both AMSP drivers in the conversation at nearly every race. With uncertainty over his future at the start of the season, Rosenqvist's results likely saved his job.

What objectively was his best race?
Rosenqvist got third in Toronto after spending much of the race in the top five. Some contact with Alexander Rossi help secure third for the Swede.

What subjectively was his best race?
After only one top ten finish in the first five races, Rosenqvist looked like one of the best drivers in the Indianapolis 500, on par with his teammate O'Ward. After having only one good oval race in his first three IndyCar seasons, Rosenqvist looked capable of winning of Indianapolis and even pushed O'Ward in the final stint as O'Ward was in second. It ended with a fourth-place finish for Rosenqvist, but this was a big race that turned around the Swede’s perception.

What objectively was his worst race?
Rosenqvist brushed the wall exiting turn two on lap 111 of the first Iowa race and it left him in 26th position. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Mechanical issues ruined Rosenqvist's only pole position this season. He took a surprise pole position at Texas. He didn't lead a lap as Scott McLaughlin took the point from the jump. Rosenqvist didn't really pressure of the lead, but he spent much of the race in the top ten before suffering a driveshaft failure. 

Felix Rosenqvist's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 8th (53 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 10
Laps Led: 25
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 11
Average Start: 9.7647
Average Finish: 11.765

An Early Look Ahead
This team has gotten better with Alexander Rossi signed to the expanding operation. It already has one race winner. It has another driver who is competitive and sniffing victories. Rossi only makes this team a triple threat. 

AMSP lost the championship in 2021. It was hard to take but it was still a respectable year and one that every team would take if offered on day one of the season. I don't think it was a major disappointment it didn't have a driver in the title discussion at the season finale in 2022. O'Ward was alive into the penultimate race and he just fell short of making it to the final day of the season. There were more technical issues that cost this team in 2022. Those weren't on the drivers. The drivers are more than good enough for the team. 

Not remaining alive for the championship into the finale and falling out of the top five might come off as a failure, but I think 2022 was a great season because Rosenqvist stepped up and the team had seventh and eighth in the championship. I don't think O'Ward took a step back for the sake of Rosenqvist. I think O'Ward's decline was more on the team and Rosenqvist suffered just as many mechanical problems as well this season. I think the team hit on something. The only difference is a result or two that was mostly out of the drivers’ control. 

It is nerve-wracking expanding to three cars after this season. It was a good year, but any step back raises a concern of a trend. Adding another car spreads resources. We have seen teams struggle with expansion, and though Rosenqvist is coming off a rejuvenated season, it is only one season. We have two years where he was struggling and many questioned his capabilities to be a top IndyCar driver. 

McLaren has enough money to make sure this will not be an issue, and it has brought Brian Barnhart over from Andretti Autosport as well, who worked with Alexander Rossi as strategist the last two seasons. Rossi is coming in motivated. He said he wants to win championships and applied AMSP gives him that opportunity while Andretti Autosport no longer could. This is a big shift for him as we will see how much of his results were down to his own deficiencies and how many were on the team. It is going to be a new group and I think it would make sense to have some hesitation over whether Rossi can enter and immediately lead this group. 

But in 2021 Álex Palou joined Chip Ganassi Racing and immediately won the championship, so we cannot rule it out for Rossi and AMSP.

Each driver will push the others next year. O'Ward had a championship within touching distance and he has interest in Formula One in a highly congested McLaren program. Not long ago Rossi had his fingertips on a championship and he knows he can win it, but needs to find a way to surround himself with the people to get him there. Rosenqvist saved his job, but he will be third of the three from the start of the 2023 season. Rosenqvist knows AMSP has a short leash, and the team will not be afraid to make a change if it feels it must. We know Palou was already on the team's radar and Palou will be a free agent at the end of the 2023 season. In all likelihood, this will be a four-car team with another stout member. 

There will be a healthy amount of fear in this team next season. Whether that leads to great success or more failure, we will find out later. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2022 Season

The seventh 2022 IndyCar Wrap-Up is Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The 2022 season was set up to be a big year for the RLLR group. They had committed early to expansion with a third full-time car and even auditioned a few drivers for this season in 2021. After a hotly contested driver search, the team settled on a young European-developed talent to pair with its stalwart, and an IndyCar regular looking for a break. This team was pretty even across the board with the lows being equally as low and the highs being equally as high for its trio of drivers.

Graham Rahal
The IndyCar veteran has long scored respectable results in the series and Rahal was looking to continue a streak of seven consecutive top ten championship finishes. It was a typical Rahal season, scoring respectable results but also being set behind the eight-ball with difficulties in qualifying. Though he had plenty of drives forward, those races did not end up with the same number of top five results as we saw in past seasons. With a dip in results, a dip in the championship followed. 

What objectively was his best race?
Rahal was fourth at Toronto, a race where Rahal started 14th and made up a few positions, while also taking advantage of going long on the first stint of the race while others were stuck behind slower traffic. He wasn't quite good enough for the podium, but fourth was his best ever finish at Toronto.

What subjectively was his best race?
Portland saw a good balance in the car for Rahal. He was moving forward on each stint. He found longevity in the tires without sacrificing pace. It turned an 11th-place grid position into a fifth-place result. 

He also had a good day in the second IMS road course race, going from 17th to seventh. 

What objectively was his worst race?
At Belle Isle, Rahal qualified 23rd and then banged the wall on the second lap, ending his race and leaving him classified in 26th. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
Belle Isle was bad, but I wonder how Texas would have turned out if Rahal was not taken out from an overambitious move from Devlin DeFrancesco. None of the RLLR cars started in the top twenty that day. Rahal wasn't in a great position on track when it happened, but that race ended with Santino Ferrucci finishing ninth in the #45 HyVee Honda for the RLLR, and Christian Lundgaard was running well before retiring from the race. If Rahal had been able to see the checkered flag, I feel he would have possibly been around where Ferrucci finished.
Rahal was also unfortunately caught up in the lap 26, turn six traffic jam at Nashville and it ended his race. Nashville was the only race Rahal started in the top ten having qualified ninth. 

Graham Rahal's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 11th (331 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 9
Laps Led: 10
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 15.375
Average Finish: 12.353

Christian Lundgaard
Lundgaard made a great first impression in IndyCar during the 2021 season, showing up for the second race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, qualifying in the top five and spending much of the race in the top ten before finishing 12th. Everyone waited eagerly for the Dane to become a permanent fixture on the IndyCar grid. There were teething issues, but the full season matched what we saw on day one, and IndyCar has another exciting young driver on its hands.

What objectively was his best race?
Second in the second IMS road course race this season. A year after making his debut in this exact race, Lundgaard had his best performance in an IndyCar. Starting sixth, Lundgaard had a great handle on the car throughout the entire race and moved into a podium position as the race went along. He kept Alexander Rossi honest, but never showed the speed to get the victory. Second was fitting for his performance.

What subjectively was his best race?
Lundgaard was sniffing a podium in Portland. He was one of the quickest cars all race and went toe-to-toe with the Penske entries. Unfortunately for Lundgaard, things went haywire in the final stint. He stalled on his final pit stop, taking away any shot of the podium. Then he blew the first corner chicane and hit a sponsorship board, which was then stuck on his first wing and forced him to make an extra stop.

Goodbye top ten finish, hello 21st!
However, Lundgaard did rebound in the next race at Laguna Seca going from 16th on the grid to fifth in a sneaky drive as many were fixated on the championship battle. He had great speed as the tires wore and made up 11 positions on a three-stop strategy. 

What objectively was his worst race?
Lundgaard retired from the second Iowa race due to brake issues after 112 laps, leaving him in 26th.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Portland because it was a stellar day and the final result doesn't show it. I can't even say he made rookie mistakes. Stalls happen on pit stops and he didn't miss the first chicane due to overaggressive driving. He was getting some pressure from Alexander Rossi, but Lundgaard was trying to limit the damage and ended up catching one of the many sponsorship boards that were in that area. If IndyCar didn't have to create such a deterrent for drivers missing that chicane, Lundgaard is seventh or eighth at worse in this race and not forced to make an extra stop.  

Christian Lundgaard's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 14th (323 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 2
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 3
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 16.648
Average Finish: 13.176

Jack Harvey
After being an early driver signing during the 2021 silly season, Harvey joined RLLR with expectations of greater success than he achieved at Meyer Shank Racing. While there were plenty bursts of speed, the results didn't always follow at MSR. A change of scenery was hoped to bring out the best of the driver and team. Unfortunately, Harvey didn't quite find his stride and never looked the driver we saw in the previous few seasons. 

What objectively was his best race?
A tenth-place finish at Nashville, which was flattering because Harvey easily was handed five or six positions due to the number or retirements. 

What subjectively was his best race?
Uh.... not many good days stand out. He went from 23rd to 13th at St. Petersburg, and that was a recovery drive after he was forced to make an extra pit stop early in the race. He also went from 20th to 13th at Road America. 
There was never a race where during or afterward I thought, "Man, Jack Harvey had a good day." That is a bad thing.

What objectively was his worst race?
Twice Jack Harvey finished 24th. The first was the Indianapolis 500 where Harvey rolled the dice going long on fuel in the final stint. The Jimmie Johnson caution caught him a lap down and Harvey was 24th. The next was Gateway where Harvey was running in the top ten when he got in the turn four wall on lap 145.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Gateway was bad because that was actually the one day I thought Harvey was doing well and was in for a great finish and then he tossed it away. He was the best RLLR car that night and he wound up the worst finisher of the three cars. Adding more salt to that wound, Harvey was never the top RLLR finisher in a race this season. 

The #45 Honda was the top RLLR finisher once though, and it was the race Harvey wasn't in because of a practice accident. It was Texas where Santino Ferrucci stepped in the last minute, was allowed a few laps Sunday morning before the race to check the seatbelts and the car and then Ferrucci went from 27th, last on the grid, to ninth.

Neither look good for Mr. Harvey.

Jack Harvey's 2022 Statistics
Championship Position: 22nd (209 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 16.625
Average Finish: 17.313

An Early Look Ahead
The foundation is there, but RLLR just has to find that next 10-15%.

Graham Rahal looked like Graham Rahal, and that is a good place to be. Rahal is going to be a regular in the top ten, but when the qualifying woes are what they are that means it will be tougher to get into the top five or on the podium and victories are largely unfathomable unless everything clicks. 

Qualifying is the team's biggest weakness and it was across the board. The cars were all slow together. It was never one driver dragging the team down or one driver outshining the other two on a weekly basis. They were all pretty much around each other. If one was good, they were all somewhat good. If they were lost, they were all in the dark. 

The good news is Lundgaard can do what Rahal does and take a lackluster qualifying run and turn it into a top ten. We also saw great pace out of Lundgaard and the team looked to have found something later in the season. If RLLR keeps it up, there is no reason why it cannot be winning races again. It would take a lot to get back in the championship fight, but there is no reason why Rahal and Lundgaard couldn't have a race victory take either or both into the top ten of the championship. 

As for Harvey, this was stunning. He has been good in IndyCar. He did really well with Meyer Shank Racing considering it was pretty much a single-car team and Harvey was the driver the team grew with from Indianapolis 500 one-off in 2017 to full-time team and starting to experiment with a second car in 2021. Harvey was 15th and 13th in the championship in his two full seasons with MSR, good results for a single-car operation.

Harvey dropped to 22nd this year. He did miss the Texas race but even if he matched his average results in that one event he only would have been 20th in the championship. I believe Harvey has great pace. It could have been the first year as a three-car program meant someone was going to draw the short straw but that ended up being Harvey for nearly every race. There wasn't one weekend where he was the RLLR driver leading the way. He cannot afford that happening again in 2023. RLLR is taking a big chance with three cars and these are three funded programs. The team cannot afford to blow that money, and if results don't turn around it will find someone else. They collected a lot of phone numbers in 2021 and they know those drivers can get results.

Even with Harvey's worries, I am optimistic for RLLR in 2023, but it is difficult to break into the top ten of the championship. The top ten in 2022 was three Penske cars, three Ganassi cars, two Arrow McLaren SP cars and two Andrettis. RLLR was best of the rest, but a rest that is packed together. RLLR does have more resources than most of the rest and it should challenge for more. It will be interesting to see how this program does as RLLR expands to run the BMW LMDh program in IMSA. It has already run two successful programs in two different series concurrently, but the LMDh move is a big leap for the team and added pressure as it takes on Porsche, Acura and Cadillac. The team should be able to handle it, but it is not unprecedented for an organization to be down across the board.

It is clear where this team must improve. The biggest concern is it is some of the same areas we have been waiting for RLLR to clean up for the last few seasons. If it can make 2023 the year it lines all the pieces up then wonderful. Until that happens, this is at least a good team that just cannot get a handle on being great.