Monday, September 11, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: 2023 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

Scott Dixon did it again, finding the winning strategy that no one else could have pulled off and winning from outside the top ten on the grid. Dixon ends 2023 with 56 IndyCar victories. MotoGP had a decent weekend at Misano and Dani Pedrosa, who has raced two races all season, has more points than Marc Márquez. A few people lost some tires at Kansas. Toyota had a great homecoming while Porsche showed some muscle. Charlotte Motor Speedway covered its drag strip with dirt. The NFL season started. It is the morning after an IndyCar season, and that means only one thing.

2023 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited
Another IndyCar season is over, and we start our season review that last longer than the season itself looking at predictions made before the calendar even turned to 2023. There were expectations that the competitive level would rise in 2023. A few drivers changed teams. A few teams expanded. There was a new course and a re-pave. Plenty of different things occurred, but how did it shape up based on what was in mind over the holidays?

1. Team Penske will lead fewer than 1,000 laps

It might be hard to believe Team Penske led fewer than 1,000 laps when Josef Newgarden led 602 laps on his own, but Will Power led 180 laps and Scott McLaughlin led 117 laps. That is a combined 899 laps. This prediction was clinched prior to the conclusion of the Portland race, as the most laps Team Penske could lead once Portland was over was 993 laps. 

Scott Dixon's strategy, combined with cautions, might have saved this prediction at Gateway. Josef Newgarden was probably going to lead another 100 laps on his own if Takuma Sato doesn't cause that caution for hitting the wall in turn two. In that case, Team Penske easily would have exceeded 1,000 laps led. 

However, IndyCar was more competitive this season. Chip Ganassi Racing was close to untouchable. Christian Lundgaard won a race with the most laps led. Kyle Kirkwood led the most laps twice. Even Graham Rahal led the most laps in a race. 

As I wrote back in December, Penske could lead fewer than 1,000 laps and it would still be an impressive season. Penske was not quite in Ganassi's zip code this season, but it was still the second best team in IndyCar in 2023.

2. At least five teams win a race

This is a little bit of a surprise, even more so when you consider Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing won a race. Only four teams won a race this season. Chip Ganassi Racing won the season opener at St. Petersburg. That is one team. Team Penske won the second race of the season at Texas. That's two. Andretti Autosport won the third round at Long Beach. 

Three-for-three, this felt like a guarantee with 14 races remaining. Ganassi and Penske split the next six races four to two before Christian Lundgaard won for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Toronto. Ten rounds in and four winners. Seven chances remained for a fifth team to win. 

It never happened. 

If only the plenum event does not happen to Patricio O'Ward's engine in the closing laps of St. Petersburg. Arrow McLaren would have been the first team on the scoreboard. Maybe if that happens the butterfly effect means RLLR doesn't win or Andretti Autosport goes winless, but McLaren had five runner-up finishes, plenty of chances at victory, and it never happened. 

McLaren was the only other team close to victory. I guess you could say Santino Ferrucci with A.J. Foyt Racing at Indianapolis, but this was it. Dale Coyne Racing wasn't close. Meyer Shank Racing was lost. Juncos Hollinger Racing was stuck in the middle. Ed Carpenter Racing couldn't get out of its own way. 

This was lined up to be correct and it just didn't pan out despite all the signs pointing to it happening. 

3. Colton Herta will end the 2023 season with less than 40 Super License points from IndyCar championship results

For Herta to reach 40 Super License points, he had to finish in the top three of the IndyCar championship. Herta was never close to the top three of the championship this season, and he finished this season tenth in the championship, earning him only one Super License point. The best Herta was ever ranked in the championship was eighth, and that was only after Long Beach and the second Iowa race. He was ranked outside the top ten in the championship after four races this season. 

The bad news for Herta is he is about to drop 20 Super License points for finishing third in the 2020 IndyCar championship. That would leave him with only with ten Super License points to his name after next season and, barring any adjustment from the FIA on how many Super License are awarded to the IndyCar championship standings, Herta will still need to finish at least second in the championship next year to qualify for a Super License. 

The mountain just keeps getting a little steeper. 

4. Alexander Rossi will have his best average finish since the 2019 season

But this was not as satisfying as you would think. Rossi's average finish this was 10.941, his best since 6.352 in 2019, but his average finish the last three seasons was 12.142, 12.3125 and 12.058. Rossi was better but he wasn't that much better. Better is better is better is better, but is Rossi's going to do a backflip over averaging slightly better than an 11th place finish? Definitely not. 

There was a chance going into this final race Rossi's average finish could have been worse than last year. When announcing the McLaren move a little over a year ago, Rossi talked about the team being a better place to go chase a championship, and here he is ninth in the championship for the third time in the last four seasons. 

This was better on paper, but not a notable improvement. It is statistically correct, but in spirit, it is far from feeling like Rossi took a step forward. 

5. Patricio O'Ward does not win either race immediately preceding an IMS road course race

Entering this season, O'Ward had won the race preceding an IMS road course race in three of the prior four occasions. What did O'Ward do this year? 

Barber Motorsports Park preceded the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. O'Ward was fourth, but a rather distant fourth as Scott McLaughlin held off Romain Grosjean for victory. That's one down. 

The next concern was Iowa, a race O'Ward won last year, but this year, Josef Newgarden went untouched, sweeping the weekend and capping it with leading 212 of 250 laps in the Sunday race. O'Ward clung to a top ten result, finishing tenth, one-lap down and exasperated.

6. Conor Daly does not finish ten positions or better than his starting position in the Indianapolis 500

Daly started 16th in this year's Indianapolis 500, which meant it was possible Daly could finish ten positions or better than his starting position. He moved up a few spots early, but never looked threatening to finish sixth or better. 

However, in the closing stages, Daly was getting closer, and as a few cars fell out due to accidents, Daly was gaining positions for free. When the checkered flag waved, Daly was eighth, an eight-spot improvement, but not enough to make this prediction incorrect.

7. Kyle Kirkwood outscores Devlin DeFrancesco by at least 75 points

This wasn't even that close. Kirkwood ended up 15  points ahead of DeFrancesco. Seventy-five points alone would have placed Kirkwood 17th in the championship, which would have been a significant improvement from his rookie season, but Kirkwood went beyond that. 

Year one with Andretti Autosport saw Kirkwood shoot upward, well beyond 17th. It was a shaky start, but then Kirkwood won at Long Beach. He had a good run in the Indianapolis 500 end when he was caught in Felix Rosenqvist's accident, but he started picking up more top ten finishes. Then he won again at Nashville.

DeFrancesco did not see much improvement. He had a few good runs, including 13th in the Indianapolis 500, but he was not close to keeping up with Kirkwood. 

8. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has at least four podium finish

But despite this being wrong, it felt like RLLR had a good season. It was a trying season as the team lacked speed on ovals, but it found some strength on road courses. 

Christian Lundgaard's victory at Toronto has been well covered, but it started the race before that at Mid-Ohio when Graham Rahal started second. Rahal ended up seventh in that race, but a pair of slow pit stops cost him more than anything else. Despite Rahal's slip, Lundgaard finished fourth in that race and it was his fifth top ten result in first nine races. The Dane had already won pole position at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. 

Toronto may have been a perfect combination of timing between the rain in qualifying and RLLR hitting its stride that saw Lundgaard take a commanding victory. The team had a few more aches and pains, but Rahal was the fastest at the second IMS road course race, starting on pole position and leading the most laps, only to lose to Scott Dixon executing one of the greatest fuel conservation drives we have ever seen. 

That was it for RLLR. Two podium finishes is double what it had in 2022, but only half of this prediction. The team fell short of this expectation, and yet, I think this was a successful season. Lundgaard went from 14th to eighth in the championship, and the Dane was ranked in the championship top ten after the final eight races of the season and after ten races total. 

Rahal did drop from 11th to 15th in the championship, but showed resolve and that he still had the ability to run at the front. It cannot be ignored the team's struggles with the #30 Honda. Jack Harvey was released before the final three races, however, Jüri Vips showed flashes of speed in his two outings and Vips is believed to be the leading candidate for that seat. 

We said this last year but things are pointing in the right direction for RLLR. Next year should be better.

9. The Detroit street race will have the fewest number of total passes among the five street races

Out of the five street course races, the inaugural Detroit race on this course was right in the middle among street course activity. Here is each race's total number of passes.

Long Beach: 253 (142 for position)
Nashville: 203 (179)
Detroit: 189 (142)
St. Petersburg: 170 (128)
Toronto: 157 (108)

The long straightaway at Detroit produced more passing than I imagine a lot of us expected. It also created opportunities into turn four, the right-hand corner following the turn three hairpin. The course was still uncomfortably tight from turn five onward, but there were still passes being made into turn eight, the penultimate corner on the course. Turn one was not an option despite the length of the main straightaway. The course funneled too much for anyone to try to make a move. 

Detroit was a good race, and on par with the rest of the street course races on the IndyCar schedule. It is going to be difficult overcoming the shadow of Belle Isle, a sentence I would have never imagined writing ten years ago, but it had a good first impression. 

10. A report will come out about the IndyCar video game being delayed, cancelled or that it is horrible

This might have been the first prediction to come correct. Motorsport Games announced in March the planned IndyCar game would not be released in 2023. 

There have been plenty of things going on with Motorsport Games and IndyCar that I really don't care about. It doesn't look like this game is coming at all. Oh well. It would be nice for some to have but it is not going to have a seismic change on IndyCar viewership and attendance. That requires more than just releasing a video game, one of thousands for a young person to choose from, and likely one a young person would have the least connection with. 

11. At least two drivers that start the Indy Lights season with HMD Motorsports do not finish the season with HMD Motorsports

HMD Motorsports started the season fielding nine cars, two on its own, six in partnership with Dale Coyne Racing, and one in partnership with Force Indy. We knew at the start of the season Josh Pierson was also going to be a part-time entry, as Pierson was also going to run the FIA World Endurance Championship in the LMP2 class. Though he missed the Laguna Seca finale due to his Fuji commitments, Pierson does not count.

As for the other drivers, we got one driver leaving after the first race. Rasmus Lindh did the first race and then switched teams, moving to Juncos Hollinger Racing starting at the third race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It was effectively a trade as prior to the IMS road course round, Reece Gold left Juncos Hollinger Racing and joined HMD, taking over the #10 entry Lindh drove. 

That's one driver not finishing the season with HMD Motorsports.

The second driver was Josh Green. Green ran the first six races and started well with three consecutive top ten finishes to open the season. But after three consecutive results of 14th or worse, Green left HMD and did not return to Indy Lights competition. No driver raced the #3 HMD entry either for the remainder of the season.

12. European drivers combine for at least three victories

Not only did European drivers combine for at least three victories, we had three different Europeans win a race this season. 

Álex Palou handled this prediction all on his own. Palou's five victories would have been enough. This prediction was about total victories, not the number of drivers. It was Marcus Ericsson to be the first European on the board, winning the St. Petersburg season opener. Then Palou won four in five races, including three consecutive. This prediction was actually correct once Palou won his second race of the season in Detroit. 

However, Palou won two more after that and then Christian Lundgaard became the third European winner of the season with his first career victory in Toronto. Palou added another victory in Portland for kicks-and-giggles.

Nine for 12! A 50% improvement from last year, and on percentages, my best year in a decade of doing this. Still room for growth, but not bad. 

2022: 6/12
2021: 4/12
2020: 8/11 (one prediction was about Richmond, which never happened)
2019: 5.5/12
2018: 6/12
2017: 8/12
2016: 6/12
2015: 8/12
2014: 10/14

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

Christian Rasmussen clinched the Indy Lights championship by starting the season finale at Laguna Seca.

Mattia Casadei clinched the MotoE championship with a victory and third at Misano.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon and Mattia Casadei, but did you know...

Jorge Martín won MotoGP's San Marino and Rimini Grand Prix, his second victory of the season, and Martín also won the sprint race. Pedro Acosta won the Moto2 race, his fifth victory of the season. David Alonso won the Moto3 race, his second consecutive victory and his third victory in the last four races. Nicholas Spinelli won the second MotoE race of the weekend. 
The #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López won the 6 Hours of Fuji, its fourth victory of the season. The #41 Team WRT Oreca-Gibson of Louis Delétraz, Robert Kubica and Rui Andrade won in LMP2. The #54 AF Corse Ferrari of Davide Rigon, Francesco Castellacci and Thomas Flohr won in GTE-Am.

Tyler Reddick won the NASCAR Cup race from Kansas, his second victory of the season. John Hunter Nemechek won the Grand National Series race, his sixth victory of the season. Christian Eckes won the Truck race, his third victory of the season. 

Hunter McElrea and Christian Rasmussen split the Indy Lights races from Laguna Seca.

Toprak Razgatlioglu (first race and sprint race) and Álvaro Bautista (race two) split the World Superbike races from Magny-Cours. Nicolò Bulega swept the World Supersport races.

Luca Stolz and Mirko Bortolotti split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from the Sachsenring. 

Kalle Rovanperä won the Acropolis Rally, his third victory of the season. 

Chase Sexton swept the SuperMotocross races and won the round from Charlotte.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One has a date night set for Singapore.
NASCAR has a date night set for Bristol.
IMSA is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Supercars has its first endurance race of the season with Sandown 500.
GT World Challanege Europe Sprint Cup as its penultimate round from Valencia.