Thursday, November 30, 2023

Best of the Month: November 2023

And the final month of the year is upon us. It goes quick. It was not long ago we were waiting for the seasons to begin. The days were getting longer and slightly warmer. Plenty of plans were made to attend and watch races. There were many unknowns. Now, it is history. We know about 92% of what happened this year. There is still a little bit left to learn, but soon the calendar will flip and it will be back to a mystery. For this moment, we reflect.

Max Verstappen
You would think winning 19 out of 22 races would get somebody enough attention, and it gets you quite a bit, but to close out November, Max Verstappen deserves a little more recognition. 

Love him or hate him, like or despise Red Bull, Verstappen crushed the competition in 2023 in historic fashion. 

A year after setting the record for most grand prix victories in a season, Verstappen reset it. A year after setting the record for most podium finishes in a season, Verstappen reset it. On top of that he shattered the record for highest winning percentage in a season. He set the record for most consecutive victories. He reset the record for points scored in a season, laps led in a season, he even broke the record for highest percentage of laps led in a season. Verstappen broken the record for most races won from pole position in a single season and no one even mentioned that. 

These aren't just modern record he is breaking. Verstappen surpassed marks Alberto Ascari and Jim Clark held, records that were 60 and 71 years old. Some would have thought these records were untouchable, and yet they were broken with ease.

If it was any other driver at any other point in time, Verstappen's accomplishments would be marveled. That has not been the case. 

Call it the curse of 2021 or general malaise over this dominance, completely mooted as the car and dismissing the driver's ability, these records are being viewed as meaningless, but they shouldn't be. As good as the Red Bull RB19 was this year, it wasn't guaranteed to do any of this. No ordinary rum-dum would slide behind the wheel and match that level of success. A few others could have come close, some may have equalled it, but it still required the abilities of Max Verstappen to win those races and flip the record book upside down. 

As Verstappen has been accomplishing one of the greatest seasons in Formula One history, he has been expressing his personality. It has not been without criticism, but Verstappen has been making it clear he is a driver through and through. He has made it known he is not there for the pomp and pageantry, not being one for the parties and flavor of some of the newer rounds, especially in Miami and Las Vegas. Verstappen does not hold his tongue when it comes to sporting changes with the introduction of the sprint race either. He expresses his distain for some of these changes even suggesting he would sooner walk away from competing than continue on should Formula One stray more into show and away from sport. 

For decades, drivers have been celebrated when appreciating their craft, whether it be the immense skill of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, the precision of Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost or the tenacity of Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher. Verstappen is cut from the same cloth, dedicated to the profession and driven to succeed. His biggest concern each time he is at the track is getting the most out of the race car. The rest is needless.

Combined with the masterful Red Bull program, Verstappen has claimed his stake in history at only 26 years old. He already has three world championships and he is already third all-time in victories. His 19 victories alone in 2023 would rank 18th all-time, more than Moss, Jenson Button, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham and Emerson Fittipaldi had in their entire careers. The numbers are a tad inflated with calendar being at a record length, but that is something Verstappen cannot control. What he can control is making sure he has his RB19 come out on top, and he regularly made sure that was the case. 

There is a curse to success at a young age. Once you reach the mountaintop, what is the point of staying there for long? Why wait to get knocked off when you can leave on your own accord? Verstappen is at the age of when many drivers were still early in their careers. Jackie Stewart had just completed his first season when he was 26 years old. Jim Clark had just completed his third season, won his first grand prix that year but he had only 23 career starts at the end of that season. Verstappen ended this year with 185 starts, more than double Clark's career total. Even Ayrton Senna was only in year three at Verstappen's age. Michael Schumacher was only two world championship in at the age of 26, but Schumacher was still getting going, and a move to Ferrari was on his horizon.

For Verstappen, it is no longer a challenge, and it doesn't appear it will be a challenge next year either. A fourth title and at least 70 career grand prix victories look realistically at this time a year from now. 

The fight is not strong and the fire goes out. 

But where would Verstappen go? Even if it is fulfilling from a competitive standpoint and he decides the glitz is too much for him, what is he going to do? Money will not be an issue but he has been blessed with a skill that will not last forever. As great as the greatest drivers are, most aren't succeeding at their highest levels deep into their 40s. Max Verstappen as Max Verstappen has a finite time existing. Does he really want to waste it by walking away? 

He is a racer but he has not expressed much interest in racing elsewhere. No one in Formula One does, but is he really going to run sports cars and the 24 Hours of Le Mans with his father once? He isn't going to move to America and run IndyCar or IMSA. There is no way a 36-race NASCAR schedule interests him. Does it appear the man has any interest of taking a swing at rallying? As much as Verstappen says he will walkaway, there is nothing that appears as an alternative to satisfy his desires. He might be the best at racing video games and enjoys doing that but I doubt that will give him the same kind of juice if he wasn't stepping behind the wheel of a real race car on a regular basis.

Perhaps he leaves but returns, needing two years, like Niki Lauda, or more, to recharge his battery and returning when it looks like a proper challenge is before him. He has enough time. He could walkaway at 30 and return at 35 and still have almost another decade in Formula One. That could be the story only Max Verstappen could write and we watch come to life. We are a few years from finding out.

I sense many would not miss Verstappen if he walked away, at least not initially. Appreciation could come with time, but too often we take for granted what we see. We should be marveling now, not when it is too late. That has proven to be hard to do for this character. His triumphs have come during an era when the average spectator is less interested with sporting success. They are not watching because they are in awe of his great ability. This is not the burst of NBA popularity with Michael Jordan or soccer with Lionel Messi for the past 15 years. The current viewer reluctantly accepts Verstappen's success, hoping it will pass soon enough. 

Verstappen doesn't care either way. He is doing this for himself. When he says he would leave Formula One, he isn't looking for someone to stop him, hoping someone is out there that cares. He races for himself in a world where drivers are constantly racing for others. The day he is satisfied Verstappen will leave and not regret the decision for a second. 

December Preview
Like most years, there is a little bit of something to give you your motorsports fix in December. This year it is the season opener of the 2023-24 Asian Le Mans Series season from Sepang. There is also the Gulf 12 Hours from Abu Dhabi, which doubles as the Intercontinental GT Challenge season finale on December 9. 

To whom it may concern, Jules Gounon leads the IGTC championship with 76 points, eight points ahead of Philipp Eng and 14 points clear of Sheldon van der Linde and Dries Vanthoor. Luca Stolz on 58 points and Raffaele Marciello on 57 points are the final two drivers mathematically eligible for the championship.

Gounon will be in the #14 Mercedes-AMG Team 2 Seas AMG GT3 with Maximilian Götz and Fabian Schiller. Eng and van der Linde will be co-drivers in the #32 Team WRT BMW with Charles Weerts. Vanthoor will be in the #46 Team WRT BMW with Valentino Rossi and Nick Yelloly. Stolz will be in the #99 Team GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG with Mikaël Grenier and Maro Engel. Marciello is not entered for this race as he announced he would be leaving Mercedes-AMG to join BMW in 2024. 

After these few endurance races, we will close out this year with some awards recognizing the best of 2023 before making predictions for 2024.  

Monday, November 27, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: The Death of the One-Time Champion

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

The MotoGP season ended with a chaotic Valencia round. Marc Márquez ended his time with Honda in the gravel, but not because of his own fault. For the first time since the inaugural world championship season, the premier class did not have a repeat winner this season. Trackhouse is apparently purchase a MotoGP team. Shane van Gisbergen called time on his Supercars career on a low note. Something happened for the first time since 1952. Max Verstappen closed the 2023 Formula One season with his 19th victory of his season, but that is not what is on my mind...

The Death of the One-Time Champion
This was the season of Max Verstappen, but this title and the last decade or so of Formula One has me thinking: Will any driver end a Formula One career with only one championship again?

Three drivers have combined to win 13 of the last 14 world championships. Two constructors have won all 14 of those championships. Three of the last four drivers to win a world championship won at least three consecutive titles during this 14-year period. 

It appears Formula One has changed to where one team can have a stranglehold on the competition for an extended period of time and the top driver from that team can collect championships like they are going out of style. After the last two seasons from Red Bull, is there any reason to believe it will not dominate and win again with Verstappen? Sergio Pérez isn't going to be able to keep up and steal a championship. Until proven otherwise, we are kind of resigned to Max Verstappen claim every championship for the foreseeable future.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Michael Schumacher eventually did not win a championship. Sebastian Vettel lost his luster rather quickly. Mercedes is on a slump. There will be a day where Verstappen and Red Bull is not dominating and not claiming the world titles. But we could be a few years away from that. 

Mercedes won seven consecutive titles before Verstappen and Red Bull broke through. The Dutch-Austrian combination isn't even halfway to that mark. If they do match that output, we are talking about every title through 2025 going in one direction. In that case, Verstappen would go level with Schuacher and Hamilton on world championships and at that point Verstappen will likely have become the second driver to break 100 grand prix victories and at that point have surpassed Hamilton for first all-time. 

It might play out that way, but in two decades Formula One will have changed drastically compared to its first 60 seasons. 

Formula One has always been streaky, but there were always moments when someone else could breakthrough. The sport was cyclical, but there were periods when one group could hit on something, even if it wasn't for a season or two. There have always been a handful of top quality drivers competing, and at one time there was a good chance a few of them could reach the ultimate goal and win a world championship. 

In contemporary Formula One, we almost have a skewed record book where only two drivers were capable of claiming a title. Unfortunately, people are not getting smarter either, and the average viewer will believe there were only two or three great drivers and the rest were rather rubbish. 

Of course, that isn't the case, but the way things have turned, the record book doesn't reflect the skill we have seen.

Consider it this way:

From 1962, the year of Graham Hill's first of two world championships, to 1993, the year of Alain Prost's fourth and final championship, there were nine one-time champions in 32 seasons.

From 1994, the year of Michael Schumacher's first world championship, to 2023, the year of Verstappen's third consecutive championship, there have only been five one-time champions in 30 seasons. 

At one point, there were five one-time champions in a seven-year period, and those weren't a bunch of rum-dums. Those were James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Alain Jones and Keke Rosberg. Also remember the likes of Gilles Villeneuve, Ronnie Peterson, Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite raced during that era as well and none of those drivers won championships. 

In the last 30 seasons, the one-time champions have been Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Kimi Räikkönen, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg. 

Under past circumstances, we likely would have seen Daniel Riccardo win one championship. Maybe Valtteri Bottas gets the rub of a green and wins a title. Perhaps Ferrari would have won with Charles Leclerc already. Going back a little further, Mark Webber fits the criteria. Heck, if Juan Pablo Montoya stays in Formula One for another ten years, he likely would have been fighting for a title as well. 

The current top-heaviness of Formula One worryingly changes the perception of this era and makes it look like there were only two or three great drivers. It is hard to argue against the record book, race winners and champions, but it is never that simple. 

It isn't going to change overnight. We aren't going to see Red Bull fall far if they fall at all in the next season or two. The same way we aren't going to see Alfa Romeo or Williams shoot up out of nowhere, but the lack of competitiveness in Formula One does have greater ramifications down the line. Most drivers risk becoming afterthoughts to history because it appears they were never good enough to achieve anything rather than speak to an era where so few could readily compete at the top.

When compared to past eras, it will appear everyone was better in the past, but that is not necessarily the case. Success was spread around more. There were greater opportunities to win with multiple teams. It allowed a dozen drivers to have moderately respectable careers. That is harder to come by in the 2020s, and does not appear to be getting easier anytime soon. As much as we are talking about the death of the one-time champion, we could be writing about the death of the eight-to-12-time grand prix winner as well where it will either be a driver wins 40 races in a career or only ends up winning once or twice.

I fear many current drivers will only be viewed as laughing stocks, when that isn't an accurate representation of their ability. Charles Leclerc has been a victim to rotten luck and poor team mismanagement. Lando Norris has now exceeded 100 starts and is still looking for his first career victory, but Norris has been competitive and likely should have a victory to his name already. Sergio Pérez battled through mid-field teams to end up at Red Bull, a career of perseverance that was once commonplace. 

Those drivers should not be reduced to caricatures of their careers and becoming punching bags. They might not be all-time greats but they are better than being beaten down for no reason.

Perhaps things will change and the one-time champion will become common again, but based on the last 14 years, there seems little reason to believe that will be the case. Without a change, Formula One loses a more accurate representation of those who competed and risks having the common fan undermine otherwise talented drivers. 

Champions From the Weekend

Francesco Bagnaia clinched the MotoGP World Championship with victory in Valencia.

Théo Pourchaire clinched the Formula Two championship with a seventh and a fifth in the Abu Dhabi round.

Brodie Kostecki clinched the Supercars championship with a sixth-place finishin the first race of the weekend from Adeliade.

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

Jorge Martín won the MotoGP sprint race from Valencia, his ninth sprint victory this season. Fermín Aldeguer won the Moto2 race, his fourth consecutive victory and his fifth of the season. Ayumu Sasaki won the Moto3 race, his first victory of the season.

Frederik Vesti (sprint) and Jack Doohan (feature) split the Formula Two races from Abu Dhabi.

Cam Waters and Matt Payne split the Supercars races from Adeliade.

Kyle Larson won the Turkey Night Grand Prix from Ventura Raceway, Larson's fourth victory in the event.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Asian Le Mans Series season opener from Sepang.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

2023 Sports Car Predictions: Revisited

The sports car seasons have just ended, but they will begin soon as the 2023-24 Asian Le Mans Series begins in ten days from Sepang. With the next season so close to starting, we must review what happened in 2023 and all the seasons that have since closed. It was an exciting year as the LMDh class made its debut in WEC and IMSA. It was also a sad season as the GTE class bid adieu in the world championship. How did these predictions turn out? Well...

World Endurance Championship
1. Toyota will not finish on the podium at Le Mans

This was always an ambitious prediction, hoping the new wave of Hypercar and LMDh cars would bring an abundance of competition and Toyota would have some rough days, including at Le Mans. Well, Toyota never had that much adversity. It did have the #7 Toyota retire from Le Mans due to an accident, but the #8 Toyota finished second and on the lead lap. It was the second best car in the race. 

Cadillac was third and fourth, but didn't really have the pace to beat Toyota. The only hope was a mechanical issue. That didn't happen and Toyota remained on the Le Mans podium for another year.

2. At least three different manufacturers win overall

This one did not quite happen, and was not that close. Toyota won six of seven races. Ferrari's Le Mans triumph will be remember, but no other manufacturer was close. Cadillac had respectable pace, but not race winning pace. Porsche was slower than Cadillac. Peugeot is behind despite the program have more track time than the other three mentioned. 

Either way, Toyota was the best. If anything, Ferrari maybe should have had one or two more victories, but that is it. Perhaps 2024 sees a little more variety on the top step of the podium. 

3. At least eight drivers with Formula One experience score a class victory

This was close, and fell disappointingly short. 

We got one in the first race of the season at Sebring with Kamui Kobayashi. 

We got halfway there in the second race at Portimão when Sébastien Buemi and Brandon Hartley won overall and Giedo van der Garde won in LMP2. Van der Garde only won because he was a substitute at United Autosport because Tom Blomqvist had IMSA responsibilities at Long Beach.That is four in two races. Good pace.

We hit five when Robert Kubica won in LMP2 at the third round at Spa-Francorchamps. 

Antonio Giovinazzi made it six with his victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In four races, we hit six and needed two more in the final three races.

Pietro Fittipaldi made it seven in five races when he won at Monza in LMP2. 

However, we didn't get one more Formula One-experienced driver to win in the final two races. This despite having the likes of André Lotterer, Paul di Resta, Jean-Éric Vergne, Will Stevens, Stoffel Vandoorne, Jacques Villeneuve, Gianmaria Bruni and Daniil Kvyat competing at some point.

4. An overall winner will have a double-digit odd-number

Hey! We got one! It was the #51 Ferrari of Antonio Giovinazzi, Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado winning at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We went 50 races between double-digit odd-number winning car numbers in WEC, from Shanghai 2015 to Le Mans 2023. 

5. At least one manufacturer in GTP does not win a race

If it wasn't for one post-race technical infraction at Watkins Glen, this prediction would have been correct, because if the #6 Porsche was above board then the #25 BMW would not have inherited the Watkins Glen victory, meaning BMW would not have won a race in 2023. 

To be fair, BMW was much more competitive than we expected, especially after the first race of the season. BMW already had two runner-up finishes prior to that Watkins Glen victory. 

6. No team in any of the classes has more than three runner-up finishes

It felt like there was no way this one would happen again. No way! Then Vasser Sullivan had one of the most consistent seasons in IMSA history and the #14 Lexus of Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth finished runner-up not once, not twice, not three times but five times as the #14 Lexus had nine podium finishes in 11 races.

7. There will be a winning driver in the Indianapolis race that has won at Indianapolis before

And you would never guess who fulfilled this prediction! It wasn't a past Indianapolis 500 winner or a past United States Grand Prix winner. There were none in this race. It wasn't a past Brickyard 400 winner. Again, none in this race. There were a few past winners from first time Grand-Am/IMSA raced on the IMS road course, but none of those won.

So who was it? 

Daniel Juncadella, who won the 2022 Indianapolis 8 Hour! In 2023, Juncadella won with Jules Gounon in the #79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG. Who would have thought of all the drivers, Juncadella would have been the one?

8. Italian manufacturers combine for at least four class victories

I am not even going to get technical and count the Dallara-built Cadillac V-Series.R in GTP because that was not in the spirit of this prediction. I was talking about Ferrari and Lamborghini, and they won once, with a surprise winner nonetheless. 

Who had the only Lamborghini victory as being the #78 Forte Racing Powered by US RaceTronics of Misha Goikhberg, Patrick Liddy and Loris Spinelli in GTD at Petit Le Mans? 

Risi Competizione was second at Watkins Glen in GTD Pro with the #62 Ferrari. That was the closest a Ferrari got to a victory in 2023. Lamborghini was second at Indianapolis in GTD with the same #78 Forte Racing entry.

European Le Mans Series
9. The GTE Class will have a repeat winner before LMP2 and LMP3

Not including the LMP2 Pro-Am subclass, the first repeat winner was the #17 Cool Racing Ligier-Nissan of Adrien Chila, Alex García and Marcos Siebert in LMP3, which was victories in the season opener at Barcelona and the third round at Aragón. 

GTE had two repeat winners, the #77 Proton Competition Porsche won the second round at Circuit Paul Ricard and the penultimate round at Portimão. The #16 Proton Competition Porsche won the bookends to the season at Barcelona and Portimão. 

10. There will be an Iberian winner in one of the Iberian races

Not only was this wrong and there were no Iberian winners in any of the FOUR Iberian races, one more than originally scheduled after the Imola round was lost due to pit and paddock renovations and Portimão was made a doubleheader, but there wasn't even a Spaniard that competed in ELMS this year. 

There were a few Portuguese drivers. Miguel Cristóvão was runner-up at the season opener in Barcelona. That is as close as we got.

11. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion will be a non-German from continental Europe

It was Austria's Thomas Preining! The first non-German champion from continental Europe since Mattias Ekström in 2007. The good news is if Preining fell short, there were a few other drivers on the doorstep to fulfill this prediction. Italian Mirko Bortolotti was second and Swiss Ricardo Feller was third. The top German driver was René Rast in fifth.

12. No Belgian will in the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup championship

Speaking of Feller, Ricardo Feller was the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup co-champion along with Sammarinese Mattia Drudi. The #40 Tresor Orange1 Audi won four of ten races and finished on the podium seven times. In second was the #88 AKKodis ASP Team Mercedes-AMG of Swiss-Italian Raffaele Marciello and Russian-bor Timur Boguslavskiy, 19 points behind Feller and Drudi. The all-Belgian duo and 2022 champions of Dries Vanthoor and Charles Weerts were third in the #32 Team WRT BMW, 23 points back. 

Not great. Four out of 12. If I was a baseball player, .333 is a great season, but this isn't baseball and one out of three is quite bad.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: Formula One's Vanity Project

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

The 24 Hours of Daytona entry list already came out and there are many exciting names in exciting places. Jenson Button will drive a WTRAndretti Acura. Josef Newgarden will get another shot in a Porsche Penske. Alexander Rossi will drive alongside friend and podcast co-host James Hinchcliffe in the Pfaff Motorsports McLaren. Corvette announced a bunch of drivers. Ben Keating is going to run in GTP and LMP2. That's just one entry list worth of news. MotoGP saw its championship tighten and nearly claimed a race early within 24 hours in Qatar. Formula Three returned to Macau. Japan closed out the World Rally Championship season, but there was only one race really worth taking about after this weekend...

Formula One's Vanity Project
This was the big weekend for Formula One. Las Vegas. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent for this inaugural event that saw Formula One shut down one of the largest parts of this travel destination and create an event that felt more like a race written into a racing movie than a grand prix that would take place in the real world. 

There was plenty of hype, but it brought a mixture of excitement and disdain for this race. For some, they could not wait to see the fabulous Formula One machines blast down the Las Vegas Strip under the artificial lighting and between the spectacle of hotel and casinos. For others, they could not stand this race, a bloated event with unreasonable prices that didn't care about what happened on track but what happened on the perimeter. Even Max Verstappen vocally opposed the race.

We got through this weekend, and it saw both ends of the spectrum. It could not have started worse with a drain coverage tearing a hole in the bottom of Carlos Sainz, Jr.'s Ferrari less than eight minutes into the opening practice session on Thursday night bringing out a red flag that ended the session and delayed the start of the second practice session by over three hours, not starting until 2:30 a.m. local time Friday morning. 

In the wake of track issues, security cleared spectators during the early hours of Friday morning, causing anger among those who spent hundreds of dollars, or perhaps even thousands of dollars for one practice days and then being thrown out before any on-track session had ever taken place. 

Formula One's statement to the track issues has been panned and could not be more tone deaf as not once did the organization apologize for the delays, the clearing of the grandstands and the best it could do to compensate the spectators was offer a $200 merchandise voucher, not even offering people their money back for the lost day at the racetrack. A Nevada law firm has already brought on legal action over the ejection of spectators on the first day of the race weekend. 

It could not have been a worse start to an event that already had many rooting against it and wanted to see Formula One humbled after over a year of thumbing its nose to the average person with the cost of tickets and late start times. It is a black eye everyone will remember.

And yet, it turned out to be a great race.

For all the concerns that more focus was put on what happened on the grandstands, what happened on the racetrack was brilliant once repairs were made. 

This race had the second-most number of overtakes this season with 82, behind only the changing conditions at the Dutch Grand Prix over three months ago. There were great battles throughout the field, including for the lead, as Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc fought for first while Sergio Pérez was also in contention. Only 2.241 seconds covered the podium finishers. Less than two seconds covered Lance Stroll in fifth, Sainz, Jr. in sixth and Lewis Hamilton in seventh. Oscar Piastri had a recovery drive from a tire puncture late in the race to finish tenth and pick up fastest lap in the process. 

In the wake of Thursday night, this race was the rouge Formula One needed to cover the contusion everyone saw. Those calling the circuit uninspired have gone quiet. The drivers enjoyed themselves. Even Max Verstappen was pleased when it was all said and done, and it wasn't because he won for the 18th time this season. The Dutchman showed genuine joy for what he experienced, and he is only there for the racing. 

We will still have to wait a little longer to get an accurate read on how year one went. Locals will re-group over the next few weeks, but it should not be ignored that this race was not an unblemished success. 

Besides the track issues and disgruntled spectators that were shown no compassion, it should be noted that this race regularly slashed its ticket prices in the weeks and months leading up to race day because the demand was not there for $25,000 tickets. This race clearly made less than the organizers first planned even if it broke a profit. It caused massive disruptions around that part of the city, some of which will only be a year-one thing as the paddock building was constructed and roads were repaved, but a good amount of those delays will become yearly things. Formula One does have a high standard for its circuits, temporary ones include. Those roads will be constantly worked on as long as a race is being held.

Many are asking for the start times to be addressed as drivers pointed out how thrown they were with the late start, and crew members were working later than the cars were on circuit. Daniel Ricciardo told The Athletic's Luke Smith people in the paddock were "delirious" especially after the late hours pulled with the delayed second practice. 

There are also the concerns of having Las Vegas be ahead of another race halfway around the world, as now everyone must hurry to Abu Dhabi with their body clocks even more out of whack than had the race occurred at a more reasonable and suitable hour. Ricciardo was shocked to hear Las Vegas will be the first race of a three-consecutive week stretch of races next year to close out the 2024 season with Qatar and Abu Dhabi and Ricciardo said Las Vegas should be moved to prevent the three-week slog to end the season. 

However, we cannot ignore that a proper race was held and removing the pomp it was a fabulous race. Had this race occurred at Barcelona, Monza, Montreal or Austin, everyone would be singing praise and at no point would the extracurricular activities happening around the circuit be mentioned. This was one of the best races of the season if not the best race of the season. It was even punctuated with a sensational final lap overtake for second when Leclerc threw his car up the inside of Pérez at the end of the Strip and made it stick. 

There was great competition throughout the field. Ferrari swept the front row in qualifying. Pierre Gasly qualified fifth for Alpine. Both Williams made the final round of qualifying, as did the Alfa Romeo of Valtteri Bottas and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen. McLaren had both its cars fail to make it out of the first round of qualifying, and yet both showed pace to score points before Lando Norris' accident. Piastri should have been better than tenth. The field will likely spread out in year two and we will not see eight constructors in the mix for points, but it was nice to see a race where basically everyone was competing for something tangible from this event.

You must step back for a second and digest what Formula One pulled off. The sights were incredible with millions of colors shining and reflecting from the casinos and hotel that lined the circuit. We are all tired of The Sphere, but talk about racing around a recognizable landmark! For years, ideas have been floated to race in London or Rome or New York City, but it has always been seen as pure fantasy to race pass Buckingham Palace, the Colosseum or through Times Square. Las Vegas shut down its most notable road, arguably one of the most notable stretches of asphalt in the United States, if not the world, and held a race.  

It is unlikely Las Vegas will now mean Formula One will get dream street races in every other famed city around the globe, but it pulled off this one, racing pass the Eiffel Tower, something even Paris could never make happen. It was extravagant to the point of unbearable, and yet, it must be acknowledged how cool it was to happen. 

There were plenty of flaws. Formula One looked terrible after Thursday night and it should do better to recompense those who lost out due to the track issues. The circuit will be massaged for year two to make sure a repeat does not happen. It would also be prudent to make some adjustments in terms of timing. However, it is difficult not to look forward to next year's race because year one was that damn good. For those worrying about the "show" receiving too much attention, the race stole the spotlight. 

Champions From the Weekend

Jaume Masià clinched the Moto3 world championship with a victory in Qatar.

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

Fabio Di Giannantonio won MotoGP's Qatar Grand Prix, his first career MotoGP victory. Jorge Martïn won the sprint race. Formín Aldeguer won the Moto2 race, his third consecutive victory and his fourth of the season.

Elfyn Evans won Rally Japan, his third victory of the season.

Luke Browning won the 70th Macau Grand Prix.

Raffaele Marciello won the FIA GT World Cup fro Macau.

Norbert Michelisz and Frédéric Vervisch split the Guia Race.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One ends its season in Abu Dhabi. 
MotoGP crowns a champion in Valencia.
Supercars has its final act of 2023 in Adelaide.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Career Retrospective: Gil de Ferran

For the third IndyCar offseason, we will look at a series of drivers through a Career Retrospective, taking into consideration how their careers and IndyCar changed from their first start to their last. We will look at where these drivers came from and what impression they have left on the North American based open-wheel series. 

The final part of this year's series brings us to a driver many quietly forget. There is entire generation of the fanbase that will have never seen this driver race, just missing his illustrious but brief career. Considering some of his Brazilian contemporaries, the record book could have looked much different if this two-time champion had not decided to walk away from IndyCar with arguably a decade of a career ahead of him.

It is Gil de Ferran.

Where was de Ferran coming from?
Unlike many drivers, de Ferran balanced a budding racing career with university studies in his native Brazil, which caused him to miss races in Formula Ford competition. It wasn't until he won the Brazilian Formula Ford championship that he started considering becoming a full-time driver.

After success in Brazil, de Ferran earned a move to the United Kingdom to compete in the British Formula Three championship in 1991 where he was third in points driving for Edenbridge Racing behind West Surrey Racing's Rubens Barrichello and Paul Stewart Racing's David Coulthard. De Ferran won three races that season, taking only five races to get his first victory. With that success, and with Coulthard moving to International Formula 3000, Paul Stewart Racing hired de Ferran for the 1992 season.

De Ferran went on to have a dominant season, winning six races and standing on the podium 14 times with his next worst finish being fifth and he had one retirement. De Ferran's season was so strong that a third-place result and that fifth were dropped from his championship total as only a driver's best 13 results counted to the championship. Despite dropped points, he still claimed the title by 46 points over Belgian Philippe Adams. This championship led to a test in the 1992 world championship winning Williams FW14 while Alain Prost tested the FW15C.

It did not take long for de Ferran to find success in International Formula 3000, winning in his second start of the 1993 season at Silverstone. However, retirements hampered his season and he only scored points in three of nine races, but a victory and two runner-up results still earned him fifth in the championship.

De Ferran's junior formula pedigree did earn him a Formula One test with Footwork Arrows at Estoril, but this experience did not go well. He struggled to fit into the cockpit, and he split his head open on a locker door on the side of the transporter. It also did not help that Jos Verstappen was also testing for Footwork Arrows at that time and Verstappen was significantly quicker. 

However, de Ferran's focus was not only on Formula One. During the summer of 1993 he visited the CART weekend at Michigan and was awestruck at the speed and the likes of Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti competing. He also met team owners Jim Hall and Derrick Walker.

With no move to Formula One, de Ferran returned to International Formula 3000 and improved. He did suffer a neck injury in testing, but remained alive for the championship into the Magny-Cours finale. However, a retirement left him settling for third in the championship. Though he lost the title, his future was set. Jim Hall had called him up and locked him up for the 1995 CART season.

What did IndyCar look like when de Ferran started in the series?
It was 1995, so unified. CART was the only series in town. There were over two-dozen full-time entries and the drivers were predominantly from the Western Hemisphere. 

Eight American drivers were regulars while the number of Brazilian drivers were increasing to six drivers. Emerson Fittipaldi had been around for a decade and he was over two decades removed from his second and final World Drivers' Champion. Maurício Gugelmin had found a home after driving in Formula One for Leyton House and Jordan. Raul Boesel had made 120 starts and yet to win a race.

Entering the fray was also Christian Fittipaldi, Emerson's nephew, who spent the previous three seasons driving for Minardi and Footwork in Formula One. Fittipaldi picked up three fourth-place finishes in those machines. André Ribeiro was also new to IndyCar after finishing second in Indy Lights the year prior. There was even Marco Greco as a regular, competing in 12 races between Galles Racing and Rick Simon Racing.

Of the top 21 drivers from the 1995 championship, 19 were from the Americas. The only European drivers mixed in there were Italy's Teo Fabi and Sweden's Stefan Johansson. Arie Luyendyk had stepped away from full-time competition that season. No driver from the United Kingdom nor Spain started a race that season. Franck Fréon was the only Frenchman to start a race. There were no Australians nor New Zealanders in the series. A Dane had never started an IndyCar race up to that point. 

Forty-six drivers started a race over the 17 events that season. Nineteen of those drivers called the United States home. Fifteen different nationalities were represented on an IndyCar starting grid that season. Four different nationalities were represented in the championship top ten. 

How does IndyCar look now?
One Brazilian competed in the entire 2023 IndyCar season: Hélio Castroneves. Only one other Brazilian competed in another event: Tony Kanaan. 

Seven different nationalities were represented in the championship top ten, including four different ones in the championship top five. Fifteen nationalities were represented at some point over the 2023 season, but 13 of those countries had a full-time participant. 

There were eight American drivers that completed every race. Of the top 21 in the championship, only ten were from the Americas. The countries that had been represented in the 1995 CART season that were not represented in the 2023 season include Italy, Chile, Belgium, Germany, Colombia and Austria. 

No past World Drivers' Champion was on the grid, and only four drivers who started a race in 2023 have made at least one Formula One grand prix start prior. Of those four drivers, none of them have won a grand prix. 

Thirty-seven drivers competed in one race this past season. 

What did de Ferran do in-between?
Competing in a Reynard-Mercedes, de Ferran had growing pains, though he showed speed. He qualified in the top ten in each of the first four races, but suffered two accidents and a transmission failure. He had accidents in four of his first six starts, including one that saw him only complete a single lap in his first Indianapolis 500. Things turned in Milwaukee, finishing eighth though five laps down. 

The speed remained there. In the final nine races, he started in the top ten seven times. He won his first career pole position at Cleveland, however, he was still plagued with accidents. The final three races were a swing in the right direction with a seventh at Loudon, though two laps down, but he was second at Vancouver and he won the finale at Laguna Seca, leading 54 of 84 laps. This three-race stretch left de Ferran with 56 points, two more than Christian Fittipaldi, and narrowly handing de Ferran rookie of the year honors. 

De Ferran's sophomore season started like gangbusters, second at Homestead and he had four podium finishes and eight top ten finishes in the first ten races, including his second career victory at Cleveland. He was third in the championship, ten points off Jimmy Vasser at that point. He did suffer a rough spell to end the season, five finishes of 17th or worse in the final six races, leaving him sixth in the championship.

After 1996, Jim Hall retired from team ownership, and de Ferran was rumored for a ride at Stewart Grand Prix in Formula One, but de Ferran moved to Walker Racing for1997. Though he didn't win in his first season at Walker, de Ferran's seven podium finishes were tied for the most with Alex Zanardi, and de Ferran ended up second, 33 points behind Zanardi, in the championship.

There was a lull in 1998. His podium finishes dipped to two, and he had a dozen finishes outside the top ten, including ten finishes worse than 15th. There was a rebound in 1999. De Ferran won at Portland and he had four podium finishes. That July, Roger Penske contacted de Ferran for a ride in 2000, and the duo agreed to terms. Despite this good news, de Ferran's season ended on a sour note. He failed to finish six of the final 11 races and ended up eighth in the championship. 

Team Penske had gone through two seasons of futile when de Ferran joined along with Hélio Castroneves in place of the late Greg Moore. De Ferran set the tone with two pole positions in his first two starts. He won his fifth start with the team at Nazareth and then won three races later at Portland. De Ferran rattled off good results and he took the championship lead at Laguna Seca. He ended the season with five podium finishes in the final nine races and he claimed the title by ten points over Adrián Fernández. 

The title defense began on a strong note with finishes of second and third in the first two races. De Ferran did get to run his first Indianapolis 500 in six years and was competitive with teammate Hélio Castroneves as the two drivers combined to lead 79 laps. Castroneves had the better car that day as de Ferran settled for second. 

Indianapolis success aside, after starting the CART season with two podium finishes, de Ferran had only one top five finishes over the next eight races. He began the final ten races fifth in the championship, 31 points off leader Kenny Bräck. De Ferran went on a tear with four consecutive top five finishes, including three trips to the podium, and he took the championship after Vancouver despite having not won yet that season. 

De Ferran lost the championship lead after the Lausitzring round, but what followed was one of the greatest battles in IndyCar history between him and Bräck on the 1.5-mile Rockingham Motor Speedway in England. They were the only two drivers to lead over the entire race and were nose to tail in the closing laps. Bräck took the lead with two to go, but de Ferran made an emphatic pass on the final lap to claim the victory. Bräck still led the championship after this race with five points between him and de Ferran, but it swung the tide in the title. 

De Ferran led every lap in the next race at Houston and took an 11-point championship lead. A suspension issue ended Bräck's race after only six laps at Laguna Seca while de Ferran was third and saw his championship lead increase to 27 points. A fourth at Surfers Paradise while Bräck finished fifth allowed de Ferran to clinch his second consecutive championship with a race to spare. 

Off-track, Team Penske decided it would move to the Indy Racing League in 2002, meaning de Ferran could not properly defend his championship. It didn't seem to bother him as he began his IRL career with finishes of second, second, fourth and third. He had nine top five finishes in his first 11 starts, including a victory at Pikes Peak. He led the championship entering the final four rounds, but an accident at Kentucky knocked him down to third. He won at Gateway and was a point out of the championship lead with two races remaining. 

The hopes of a third championship in three seasons were dashed at Chicagoland when an accident in turn two gave him a concussion and fractured wrist, ruling him out for the Texas finale though still mathematically alive for the championship. 

De Ferran recovered for the 2003 season and started again with a runner-up result, but an accident at Phoenix in the second race left him with fractures in his neck and back and caused him to miss the Motegi round. He recovers in time for the start of Indianapolis 500 practice, but he struggled getting comfortable in the car. He qualified tenth, but battled pain the entire race. Roger Penske called strategy and placed de Ferran at the front behind Castroneves. De Ferran took the lead while the Penske drivers negotiated lapped traffic in the closing stages. After going through three restarts in the final 31 laps, de Ferran took the Indianapolis 500 over Castroneves.

Keeping up the form, de Ferran had nine consecutive top ten finishes after Indianapolis, including another victory at Nashville. While in great form and working his way to second in points with three races remaining, de Ferran announced he would retire at the end of the season on August 25. Team Penske announced Sam Hornish, Jr. as his replacement in 2004 the same day. 

De Ferran's championship hopes were stunted after two consecutive results outside the top ten prior to the Texas finale. Five drivers were mathematically alive for the 2003 IRL championship entering Texas. Scott Dixon and Castroneves were tied while Tony Kanaan was seven points back in third with Hornish, Jr. 19 points back. De Ferran had a slim hope at 30 points off the top. 

Things started on the right note with a pole position. De Ferran's hope slipped when he was caught in an accident on the front straightaway on lap 98, but he continued with only minor damage. He was able to cycle back to the lead through pit stops as other title contenders started to experience problems. Hornish started leaking fluid and retired. Castroneves and Kanaan had slight contact take each other out of the fight though both cars kept running. De Ferran led but Dixon remained on his heels with an 18-point cushion. 

With 13 laps remaining, Kenny Bräck and Tomas Scheckter made contact entering turn three, sending Bräck's car into the catchfence. Due to the catchfence damage, the race ended after 195 of the scheduled 200 laps. De Ferran ended up 18 points behind Dixon in the championship, good enough for second after all the troubles from the other drivers, but de Ferran ended his career with a victory, though in a sober setting.

What impression did de Ferran leave on IndyCar?
To be honest, this isn't going to be about what impression de Ferran left, but what impression de Ferran could have left. 

I grouped these three drivers, Kanaan, Castroneves and de Ferran, together, one, because they are Brazilians, but they were also contemporaries and the other two are kind of a measuring stick for the career de Ferran could have had. 

De Ferran retired about a month before he turned 36 years old. Kanaan and Castroneves both competed this season at 48 years old. The 1990s and the 2000s were a different era where drivers didn't regularly race deep into their 40s. It was a period where it wasn't uncommon for a driver to step away in his late 30s and move to sports cars, which de Ferran did, but Kanaan and Castroneves are torchbearers for a changing trend, one where it is now normal to see IndyCar drivers competing into their 40s. 

Scott Dixon is still competing and doesn't appear to be going anywhere and he is 43 years old. Will Power is 42 years old. Ryan Hunter-Reay returned to regular IndyCar competition in his 40s. Juan Pablo Montoya returned to IndyCar after 14 years away at age 39! 

De Ferran wasn't forced into retirements, though I suspect the injuries from the 2002 and 2003 seasons, along with accidents like Bräck's, likely helped de Ferran decide to walk away at that moment rather than hang on any longer. His skill wasn't diminishing. This wasn't a driver who had gone years without a victory and been a shadow of his former self. De Ferran was on top of his game. 

There is a world where de Ferran competes for another decade and he is the forerunner for Kanaan and Castroneves. Based on what we were seeing in his mid-30s, the record would likely look vastly different if de Ferran had continued, especially if he had continued with Team Penske. 

De Ferran ran nine full seasons in IndyCar. He won 12 times in 160 starts. If he competed for ten more seasons, de Ferran would have had 166 points starts. He would have been looking at 24 career victories, but that is taking into consideration his Hall/VDS Racing and Walker Racing years. His numbers were better at Penske alone. In 71 Penske starts, he won nine times, a winning percentage of 12.67%. That wouldn't have lasted for a decade, but if it did hold, we could have been looking at 21 more victories, a career total of 33, and considering Hélio Castroneves' numbers and that Castroneves began at Penske at the same time as de Ferran, it is conceivable de Ferran could have achieved that. 

And that is just talking about race victories. This is forgetting de Ferran was already a two-time champion and had just won an Indianapolis 500. Give him another ten years and the numbers in those two categories likely increase as well. 

There are many things to take into consideration. The IRL was still oval-heavy, but it was starting to add road and street courses two years later. It would become a spec-series. De Ferran already had his share of injuries, but I don't think any of that would have slowed him down. 

I am writing this because I believe de Ferran's impression on IndyCar is he is a forgotten driver and yet he is one of 15 drivers to win consecutive championships, and those two championship came during a highly contested, though fractured, era. In his final four seasons, his championship finishes were first, first, third and second and he went to the final with a mathematically shot in the two years he did not come out on top. 

The reverence for de Ferran is not there like it is for Kanaan or Castroneves, and it should be. De Ferran is arguably the best of this Brazilian bunch. 

Some of it is because he lost part of his career to the split. He only made four Indianapolis 500 starts with a five-year gap in the middle. His career was only nine seasons to begin with, but part of the lack of recognition is because de Ferran has been gone for so long. He did have a stint in the television booth and briefly owned part of an IndyCar team. He was recently brought back as a consultant for McLaren, but over 20 years after his final start, it is safe to say de Ferran wasn't a regular around IndyCar, and why would he be? He stepped away from driving and was free to do whatever he wanted. There are many other more important places to be in this world than at a racetrack. He wasn't a stranger but he didn’t have a weekly presence that entire time.

It would be right to recognize de Ferran differently than we do now. I am not saying he must be seen as an undisputed all-time great, someone that should be held higher than 99% of those that came before him, but he should be recognized more than he currently is. He did more with less and it earned him a shot at Team Penske at the right time. De Ferran made the most of it. It was a brief career when taken into consideration, but we saw enough to know how special a driver Gil de Ferran was. 

Thursday, November 16, 2023

2023 NASCAR Predictions: Revisited

It was an anniversary season for NASCAR, as the 75th Cup season took place. It felt like many that came before it, but there were some differences. There was a street race in Chicago. North Wilkesboro returned and hosted the All-Star Race. Both those events occurred in wet conditions, one was just damp and the other was during historic rainfall. Add to it, we had a debutant winner for the first time in over 60 years! There was also a first-time champion and the fifth different champion in the last five seasons.

With the season behind us, let's review some predictions made about 2023 prior to the season and see how those turned out.

1. At least three winless drivers make the Cup playoffs

Three winless drivers made the Cup playoffs, and even in a season where 15 drivers ended up winning a Cup race, those three winless drivers remained winless through the end of the season. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Bubba Wallace all made the playoffs despite no victories. This happened one year after 15 drivers made the playoffs with a victory and a record-tying 19 different drivers won a race. 

2. At least two new teams make the Cup playoffs

Welcome to the playoffs Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, Front Row Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing! There were three new playoff teams this year compared to 2022. JTG Daugherty got this prediction halfway there in the first race of the season when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. won the the Daytona 500.

RFK Racing had both its cars in a comfortable position on points to make the playoffs but Chris Buescher assured the team's participation with a victory at Richmond. Brad Keselowski made it anyway on points. For good measure, Front Row Motorsports made it when Michael McDowell won a beatdown on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

3. Kyle Busch wins at least two pole positions in the Cup Series

Busch did win a pole position, it came at Gateway in June and he won that race from pole position, but it was Busch's only pole position of 2023. He came close to a second pole position. He started second in both Richmond races. He did start first at Dover, but qualifying was washed out, so that doesn't count. He had eight top five starting positions this season, but this was his fifth consecutive season without winning multiple pole positions.

4. Every driver that makes the round of eight will have double-digit top ten finish totals entering that round

The final eight drivers were William Byron, Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney. Here were there top ten finish totals entering the semifinal round:

Byron - 18
Truex - 15
Hamlin - 16
Larson - 15
Buescher - 15
Bell - 16
Reddick - 14
Blaney - 14

There you have it. They were all on 14 or more top ten finishes entering the final four races. Bubba Wallace nearly spoiled this prediction, as he had only eight top ten finishes at the time the semifinal round began and he was knocking on the door of a final eight position.

5. Denny Hamlin will be in the top five on raw points for at least 15 races

This did not get off on the right note. Hamlin's penalty for deliberate contact at Phoenix with Ross Chastain knocked him down to 15th in the championship. Hamlin would not progress into the top five in the championship until he won at Kansas in May. He remained in the top five after Dover, but he dropped out after Charlotte when Hamlin was taken out of the race from contact with Chase Elliott.

Hamlin would not get back into the top five on raw points until Loudon in July. On raw points, Hamlin remained in the top five from Loudon through the end of the season, 17 races. Add that to the two races in May and Hamlin was in the top five on raw points after 19 of 36 races.

6. A.J. Allmendinger makes it to at least the round of 12 in the Cup playoffs

Allmendinger did not make the playoffs in what was a rather underwhelming season for him and the Kaulig Racing operation. The season started well with a sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500, but Allmendinger did not have another top ten finish until sixth at Sonoma in June. That spark an early summer bump in results with a tenth at Nashville and a third at Atlanta, but his only other top ten finish in there regular season was fourth at Watkins Glen. 

He ended the regular season 21st in points but 96 points off making the playoffs. Of course, Allmendinger went on to win the Charlotte playoff race, meaning if he had made the round of 12 he would have advanced to the round of eight. Funny how these things play out.

7. Project 91 will start fewer than six races

It is hard to deny Trackhouse's Project 91, an initiative to get drivers from other motorsports disciplines into a NASCAR Cup race has not been a success, considering it won a race, but the program has not lived up to what team owner Justin Marks sold us. Marks said the plan was to run the Project 91 car at "six to eight races."

We got three with two drivers. Kimi Räikkönen came back after running at Watkins Glen in 2022 and Räikkönen was 29th at Austin this year. 

The big one was Shane van Gisbergen, who showed up and won on debut in a sensational drive in the inaugural Chicago street race. Van Gisbergen returned for the IMS road course race and finished tenth, becoming the first driver to finish in the top ten of his first two Cup Series starts since Terry Labonte in 1978. 

However, Indianapolis was the final race for Project 91 in 2023, running only three events, half of the minimum that was initially hoped for. It has led to van Gisbergen signing a NASCAR contract with Trackhouse, so it has worked as a recruiting tool, but I believe I had this one.

8. At least one championship ineligible driver wins multiple times in NASCAR's second division

Back in December, when I wrote these predictions, I listed six drivers as possible options to get this prediction correct. The driver that did it was none of those six drivers. If you made me list the drivers most likely to make this prediction a successful prediction back in December, the driver that did it likely would not have made my top ten and I don't think I would have had him in my top twenty. 

Who was it?

It was A.J. Allmendinger! 

Allmendinger won twice in Kaulig Racing's #10 entry. He won at Austin and then he won at Nashville. Allmendinger was the only championship ineligible driver to win multiple times in NASCAR's second division this season.

9. Sheldon Creed has at least five top five finishes in the first 17 races of the Grand National Series

Creed only had seven top five finishes this season, only two of which were in the first 17 races this season.  He was third at Phoenix in March and second at Talladega in May, meaning he was on pace for falling just short of five top five finishes in the first 17 races through the first nine events. Creed did end the season with five top five finishes in the final 11 races, four of which were runner-up results. Strange year.

10. Chase Elliott does not win the SRX season finale

Not only did Elliott did not win the SRX finale this season, he didn't even run an SRX race after winning the finale in each of the first two seasons of the series. Of course, Elliott had his own off-track issues this year, which likely made a one-night extracurricular unlikely to be approved this year from Rick Hendrick. At least it is the offseason and Elliott has more time to get back on the slopes.

11. Layne Riggs averages 27 points or more per Truck start

The official record book will say Layne Riggs had no points in three Truck starts this season. However, Riggs changed championship eligibility midseason. Prior to sacrificing those points, Riggs had 62 points for an average of 20.667. It was a shame he didn't get more starts, but it was nice that Riggs ran three races in NASCAR's second division and he scored 71 points, an average of 23.667. 

12. Jimmie Johnson's average finish in the Cup Series will be worse than 18.588

In Johnson's part-time return to Cup racing driving for Legacy Motor Club, he made three starts with finishes of 31st, 38th and 37th an average of 35.333. Most Cup races only have a starting grid of 36 cars, so it is quite impressive for Johnson to have such a poor average finish. He went to IndyCar and came back to NASCAR a worse driver. Such a shame. 

Please recognize sarcasm. 

Eight for 12 this year, slightly down from the year before, but still not a bad showing. Hitting on two-thirds is kind of the minimum standard. It is better than half, but not too low to be disappointing. It isn't high enough to flip for joy over. It is perfectly adequate. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: Did NASCAR Really Have a Problem?

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

MotoGP has started its final leg of the season, and the championship remained tight at the top, though it has dwindled to the final two rides standing. One category had its champion sealed in Sepang. James Hinchcliffe is going to run some endurance races. Brendon Hartley and Colton Herta will be third drivers for Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Autosport. Zak Brown showed off his toys at Sonoma. Colin Braun is going back to LMP2 competition. Las Vegas is preparing for Formula One. However, there was a recent championship decider that was on my mind.

Did NASCAR Really Have a Problem?
I was really thinking about this last week after Ryan Blaney's NASCAR Cup championship and looking over the numbers, some of which we already covered

It wasn't a brilliant season by any means. There were three victories, but only eight top five finishes. Blaney went the entire summer, and then some, without a top five finish. He won races at the right time though and ended up the best of four drivers on one given Phoenix afternoon. It is the recipe to a championship in contemporary NASCAR. 

Should that be the recipe to a title though?

Looking at past seasons and how we got here, I noticed it might not have been as bad as we thought 20 years ago. 

When NASCAR adopted a playoff-style championship, it was in an effort to have more competitive championship battles that went to the final race of the season. However, NASCAR had that more times than not prior to 2004. 

When the points system NASCAR administrator Bob Latford devised ahead of the 1975 was adopted, it was the first time NASCAR had a uniform points system no matter the length of the race or the size of the track. Prior to that, NASCAR had weird championship situations due 500-mile races at larger tracks being worth more compared to a 500-lap race on a half-mile. All races were now weighed equally with a full season aggregate deciding who would be champion. 

After the 2003 season, it was led to believe there was a flaw to this system, mostly because Matt Kenseth won the championship with a race to spare despite having only one race victory, which occurred in the third race of that 36-race season. Kenseth won the championship through consistency. Beyond the race victory, he had 11 top five finishes, less than a third of the races, while he had 25 top ten finishes, but of the 29 champions between 1975 and 2003, that was the sixth-lowest top ten finish percentage. 

Kenseth's 354 laps led were the fewest for a champion during that span, and the fewest for a champion in NASCAR's modern era (since 1972). Three of the four champions from 2000 to 2003 had the fewest laps led among those 29 championship seasons, Kenseth's 354 laps led were the fourth fewest all-time for a Cup champion ahead of only Rex White in 1960 (340 laps led) and the first two Cup champions, Red Byron in 1949 (118 laps led) and Bill Rexford in 1950 (98 laps led).
Kenseth's 2003 season was good, but not earth-shattering, not something that really left anyone impressive, but it was good enough to win the championship, but that was the recipe then. The hope was the new system would force drivers to race for more victories and attempt to do more than settle for seventh or eighth-place finishes. 

The hope was drivers would be going for more race victories, but this was ultimately a decision to change how the champion was decided and effectively making sure the championship would be decided in the final race of the season. 

However, that wasn't a problem for NASCAR.

As much as you may think the championship rarely went to the finale prior to the adoption of the "Chase for the Nextel Cup" in 2004, that wasn't the case.

In the 29 seasons with an aggregate champion under the Latford points system, 17 of those seasons had the championship undecided entering the season finale. 

The first four seasons with the Latford points system were decided early, three were monstrous championship margins, but for 16 of the next 19 seasons, the championship went to the finale. Not all of those were climactic finals. Some were where one driver had a healthy lead and just had to avoid a nightmare of a race to ensure himself the trophy. Some were close. In eight of those 16 seasons, the margin between the championship leader and second entering the finale was less than 50 points. In six of those 16 seasons, at least three drivers had a chance at the championship.

This might be the one thing that surprises you when reading all this. Only once did the championship lead change in the season finale during this entire 29-year period. That was Alan Kulwicki's famous championship in 1992 after Davey Allison was caught in an accident and Kulwicki led one more lap than race winner Bill Elliott to claim the title. 

What led to this championship format change? In retrospect, the answer is probably more than Kenseth's season but when Kenseth's season occurred. 

From 1979 to 1997, the championship went to the finale 16 times, but from 1998 to 2003 was a strong shift in championship outcomes. 

The only season in that six-year stretch not decided early was the 2002 season. Kenseth's season occurred at the end of a dominant stretch. Jeff Gordon had a historic 1998 season. Dale Jarrett had a great season and had more top ten finishes in 1999 than Gordon had in 1998. Bobby Labonte won with a solid season as did Gordon again in 2001. 

Kenseth's 2003 season was the final straw during a period when NASCAR was expanding, more money was coming in and the fear was the champion could be diminished he was not a regular winner.

If 2003 wasn't the fifth time in six years the title was decided early, who knows what 2004 was going to look like, but NASCAR made a change hoping to earn legitimacy from causal sports fans that the best driver, the driver that won the most, was champion. It wanted the recipe for what it took to change. Here we are, 20 years later, and it doesn't feel like the combinations of ingredients are still not leaving us with a satisfying Cup champion. 

NASCAR didn't really have a problem with the championship going to the final race. It was fine. The years 1998 to 2003 might have been a market correction for the prior 19 years, but without this system the next 20 years likely level out. But in this effort to ensure the title goes to the final race, but more specifically to the final lap of the final race, NASCAR lost sight of what it was trying to do 20 years ago. It is no longer about what it takes for a driver to be champion. This is no longer about making sure the best driver is more likely to win but making it so the champion is a complete unknown until the last possible moment. NASCAR has lost the plot. It doesn't seem to notice. 

It has made it so the championship will go to the final race, giving a viewer a reason to watch all 36 Cup races from February to November, but in no way has the system rectified the concerns from 2003 and what it takes to be the champion still feels questionable.

Champions From the Weekend

Pedro Acosta clinched the Moto2 world championship with a second-place finish in Malaysia.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Pedro Acosta, but did you know...

Enea Bastianini won MotoGP's Malaysian Grand Prix, his first victory of the season. Álex Márquez won the sprint race, his second sprint victory of the season. Fermín Aldeguer won the Moto2 race, his third victory of the season. Collin Veijer won the Moto3 race, his first career victory

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One's long-anticipated Las Vegas return. 
MotoGP makes it to Qatar.
Macau hosts some races.
The World Rally Championship closes its season in Japan.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Career Retrospective: Hélio Castroneves

For the third IndyCar offseason, we will look at a series of drivers through a Career Retrospective, taking into consideration how their careers and IndyCar changed from their first start to their last. We will look at where these drivers came from and what impression they have left on the North American based open-wheel series. 

Part two of this year's series takes us to one of the most recognizable names in IndyCar ever. Forget the 21st century, forget the last five years, this name will be said for decades, perhaps for centuries to come. Success on many different levels has raised this driver above most, but for all of his success, there will always be that one missing part to his career, as unfathomable as it is to think about. 

It is Hélio Castroneves.

Where was Castroneves coming from?
A successful kart driver in his native Brazil, Castroneves moved up to Brazilian Formula Three in 1994 where he was second in the championship to Cristiano da Matta. These results led to Castroneves moving to the United Kingdom to run in the British Formula Three championship with Paul Stewart Racing. 

Paul Stewart Racing had produced the likes of David Coutlhad and Gil de Ferran up to that point and the team had won three consecutive British Formula Three titles with de Ferran, Kelvin Burt and Jan Magnussen entering 1995. Magnussen won the title with Dario Franchitti as his teammate and finishing fourth in the championship.

Castroneves was paired with Ralph Firman at Paul Stewart Racing. Da Matta also made the move and was racing with West Surrey Racing. Castroneves won his fifth race at Donington Park. Consistency earned him third in the championship, only 15 points off champion Oliver Gavin and only seven points off Firman, who won six of 18 races. Castroneves was third in the Masters of Formula Three race held at Zandvoort behind Norberto Fontana and Ralf Schumacher.

Phillip Morris brought Castroneves to the United States to run in Indy Lights with Tasman Racing to join Tony Kanaan and José Luis Di Palma. Castroneves had spotty results in 1996, but eh ended up on the podium three times, including a victory at Trois-Rivières. Castroneves and Kanaan returned to Tasman for the 1997 season. Castroneves won two of the first four races, but Kanaan had better consistency over the second half of the season, going on a seven-race podium streak while castroneves finished 12th or worse in three of those seven races. Kanaan took the title by four points. 

Despite falling short of the championship, Castroneves drew some attention after his two Indy Lights seasons.

What did IndyCar look like when Castroneves started in the series?
Entering his first CART season, Chip Ganassi Racing had just won its first two championships. In 1996, it was with the experienced Jimmy Vasser. In 1997, it was the sophomore Alex Zanardi. Reynard was the dominant chassis while Honda battled Mercedes-Benz with Ford-Cosworth and Toyota hanging in the background. 

Though Ganassi had won two consecutive championships, five different teams had won the CART championship in six seasons.

Team Penske was a few seasons removed from its immaculate PC-23 chassis, which ran the show and won the championship in 1994. The team had gone winless in 1996 and had a slightly better 1997 as Paul Tracy won three consecutive races, but Al Unser, Jr. ended up 13th in the championship. Walker Racing was winning races. PacWest Racing was leading the fray. Forsythe Racing had a young hotshot named Greg Moore. Dario Franchitti was entering his sophomore season. Patrick Carpentier was the reigning rookie of the year. 

The Bettenhausen name was still on the grid as was Patrick Racing, All American Racing and Walter Payton was still a part-owner in Dale Coyne Racing. 

At that time, we were only seven years removed from Rick Mears' fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. We were 32 years removed from the most recent rookie winner at Indianapolis, Graham Hill. Team Penske was the all-time leader in Indianapolis 500 victories with ten while no other team had won more than five. 

The only driver in IndyCar history with ten victories or more and no championship was Paul Tracy, who had 13 career victories at that time.

How does IndyCar look now?
We are coming off Chip Ganassi Racing's 15th championship and third in four seasons. Ganassi's last two titles have come at the hands of a Catalan driver named Álex Palou, who completed his fourth IndyCar season this September. 

Chevrolet somehow won the manufacturers' championship over Honda despite Honda winning 12 of 17 races. Dallara has been the only chassis on the IndyCar grid since the start of the 2008 season.

Ganassi and Team Penske have combined to win 11 consecutive championships. The two teams have combined to win 15 of 16 championships since reunification.

The Andretti name is now on the grid in an ownership role. McLaren is on the IndyCar grid. There is an owner-driver in Ed Carpenter, though part-time on the driving part while full-time on the ownership side. IndyCar has a foreign-born owner in Ricardo Juncos. One of IMSA's best teams for last decade, Meyer Shank Racing runs a two-car IndyCar program, and Dale Coyne Racing is still around, but runs one car in partnership with Rick Ware Racing.

It has only been a little more than two years since we had our fourth four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Sadly, Al Unser and Bobby Unser have passed away. It has been seven years since a rookie winner. Team Penske has won 19 Indianapolis 500s. Still, no other team has won more than five. 

Castroneves is all the all-time leader in victories without a championship, having won 31 times. The only other driver with at least ten victories and no championships is Adrián Fernández with 11 victories. 

What did Castroneves do in-between?
Before marking his spot in IndyCar history, Castroneves got his break with Bettenhausen Motorsports, replacing the 1997 rookie of the year Patrick Carpentier. Compared to Carpentier and previous Bettenhausen drivers, Castroneves ran on par with them, making the most of mid-pack equipment. He found early success on ovals, finishing seventh at Gateway and a second at Milwaukee. His rookie season ended on a rough patch of retirements, but he moved to Hogan Racing for the 1999 season.

Reliability was Castroneves' downfall in 1999. He showed great speed, qualifying fourth at Homestead and second at Nazareth, but mechanical issues he could not escape. Everything held together at Gateway. After qualifying third, Castroneves ran most of the race in the top five and had a shot at victory before Michael Andretti held on for the victory, leaving Castroneves second. 

After Gateway, he finished outside the top twenty in eight of the final 14 races. He retired ten times, nine of which were down to mechanical issues. Off the track, Castroneves was having funding issues as he was working with Emerson Fittipaldi to raise sponsorship. However, the two-time world champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was falling short fundraising and this led to a breakdown between him and Castroneves. Castroneves was left attempting to negotiation his own ride for the 2000 season, but continuing his career proved difficult. Many top tier riders were taken at the time Castroneves and Fittipaldi ended their partnership. 

Greg Moore lost his life in the 1999 season finale at Fontana. Moore had signed to drive with Team Penske starting in the 2000 season. Due to sponsorship pressure, which would lead to legal trouble for Castroneves almost a decade later, Penske hired Castroneves less than a week after Moore's passing. 

Joining Gil de Ferran at Team Penske, Castroneves' arrival also coincided with Penske adopting the Reynard chassis, abandoning building its own cars for over 20 years. Penske had gone winless in the two previous seasons and failed to have a top ten championship finisher in either as well. 

The 21st century started on a bright note. De Ferran won twice and the championship, but Castroneves won three times, his firstvictory coing at Belle Isle in his seventh race with the team. He would win at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca as well. And so started the rise of Penske and Castroneves. The following year saw Penske return to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1995. The De Ferran-Castroneves duo were more than up for the occasion, and though the speed was not shown in qualifying, Penske had the pace in the race. In his first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Castroneves proved to be the car to beat and led a Penske 1-2. 

In CART that year, Castroneves again won three races, but he could not match de Ferran's consistency as he won a second consecutive championship. After the 2001 season, Penske switched to the Indy Racing League, and the team immediately went to the front. Castroneves won the second race of the season at Phoenix. The two drivers finished in the top five in each of the first four races. Castroneves won his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 in controversial fashion as race control ruled he was leading when the final caution came out though Paul Tracy was slightly ahead. 

Castroneves had seven consecutive top five to open the season, but a 17th at Richmond set him back in the championship against Sam Hornish, Jr. Castroneves ended the season on strong form and took the championship after a runner-up result at Gateway, being him a point ahead of Hornish, Jr. with two races to go. However, Hornish, Jr. won the final two races to snatch the title for Panther Racing over the mighty Team Penske. 

Over the following seasons, Castroneves remained a championship contender. Outside of 2004 and 2005 where Penske made the most of a substandard Toyota engine, Castroneves was in the mix. He led the championship into the final race in 2006, only to finish fourth in the race and drop to third in the final championship standings, two points off the Hornish, Jr.-Dan Wheldon draw with Hornish, Jr. winning on count back. 

Castroneves continued to be a regular race winner. In 2008, he had eight runner-up finishes, the second-most all-time. He became the sixth driver with at least 15 top five finishes in a season, and yet, Castroneves fell short in the championship to Scott Dixon, who won six times.

As Castroneves was winding down his glorious championship effort, the Internal Revenue Service charged Castroneves with tax evasions relating to income earned from his first contract with Team Penske signed in wake of Greg Moore's death. The trial forced Castroneves out of the car for the start of the 2009 season with Will Power hired to substitute for the Brazilian. 

Castroneves was acquitted in April, and a little over a month later, he won his third Indianapolis 500, but his absence for only one race opened the door for increased competition at Team Penske. Power became a full-time driver in 2010 and immediate was fighting for championships. Castroneves struggled for a few years as Power took over the spot as team leader. Castroneves rebounded in 2013, keeping up consistency though not winning an abundance of races. It left him with the championship lead with three races remaining, but a disastrous Houston doubleheader cost him the lead to Dixon. In the finale, Castroneves could not overtake the New Zealander.

Though he finished second in the championship in 2014, form started to drop off for Castroneves. He went winless in 2015 and 2016 while Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud were two of the top drivers in each of those seasons. Josef Newgarden joined Team Penske in 2017. Castroneves continued to rattle off top ten finishes, and he even won at Iowa, his first victory in over three years, but he was third-best in the team as Newgarden took the title. 

Penske created a succession plan and announced Castroneves would move to the organization's IMSA sports car program with Acura starting in 2018, reducing his IndyCar appearances to Indianapolis one-offs. 

In IMSA, Castroneves, paired with Ricky Taylor, took a season to work out the bugs though they won at Mid-Ohio. Year two saw consistent finishes but no victories. Year three started poorly with three consecutive retirements. Castroneves and Taylor then went on a tear winning four of five races with a second mixed in. Despite another last place finish in the 12 Hours of Sebring finale, the Brazilian-American duo won the 2020 IMSA Daytona Prototype international championship by one points. 

While succeeding in sports cars, Castroneves still had a fondness to be in IndyCar. He had a few good days in his cameo appearances at Indianapolis, but it wasn't enough. After 21 years together, Penske granted Castroneves a release and the Brazilian moved to Meyer Shank Racing, starting out as a part-time driver in 2021 before a full-time role beginning in 2022. 

The MSR-Castroneves partnership would begin at Indianapolis with about 135,000 spectators allowed into the facility during the pandemic. Qualifying eighth, Castroneves quietly hung in the background in the top five. He slowly picked off the positions one at a time and after the final round of pit stop he was running in the top two with Álex Palou. Castroneves remained on Palou's backside and on the penultimate lap, Castroneves took the lead into turn one. He was able to hold off Palou and became the fourth driver to win four Indianapolis 500, the fastest Indianapolis 500 at an average of 190.690 mph. 

It started well, and Castroneves was confirmed for full-time in 2022. The magic did not continue beyond Indianapolis. In two seasons, his best finish was seventh and he finished outside in 30 of 34 races, including 15 consecutive finishes worse than tenth to close out his full-time career.

What impression did Castroneves leave on IndyCar?
Castroneves is the last IndyCar superstar. He is the last driver the causal viewer could pick out if they saw him on television. Times have changed and television viewership habits have changed, but Castroneves being invited to participate on Dancing with the Stars meant something in 2007. No driver in 2023 is getting on the current equivalent. Castroneves had that pull. 

It wasn't revolutionary. Castroneves wasn't on billboards all across the country and on every other commercials. Castroneves wasn't bringing two million additional viewers to each race and when he stepped away from full-time competition the viewership dropped off. That did not happen, but he had some standing beyond the IndyCar bubble, something no current driver could pull off. 

That is beyond the racetrack. On the racetrack, Castroneves amassed a terrific career, and yet something is lacking. 

Four Indianapolis 500 victories will never be denied. That milestone is the dream for every driver. Joining the likes of A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears is company no one would turn down. Castroneves did it and then some with 31 victories, one of 12 drivers to break 30 career victories, and yet Castroneves never won a championship. 

The careers of Hélio Castroneves and Denny Hamlin in NASCAR are rather identical. Both drivers won each series' most historic race at a historic level. In the overall victory totals, they are at the top, but a championship has not quite gone their way. 

It wasn't for a lack of trying. Castroneves as championship runner-up four times. He lost a toe-to-toe battle with Sam Hornish, Jr., ran a historically good season concurrently with Scott Dixon running a historically good season and then threw a championship away in 2013 before being a distant second to his teammate Will Power in 2014. 

Though a championship is missing, Castroneves had 14 top five championship finishes in 22 seasons. He was in the top ten of the championship 18 times. The only time he wasn't in the top ten were his first two seasons as a full-time driver and his final two seasons as a full-time driver. It was rather remarkable his level of consistency for two decades. 

A lack of a championship hurts him in the overall discussion of drivers, especially when teammates were beating him. During his time at Team Penske, five teammates won a championship. After reunification, his winning percentage dropped off, from 11.578% from 2002 to 2007 to 7.05% from 2008 through 2017. The only season he won multiples time after the introduction of the DW12 chassis was 2012, the first season of the chassis. He had a pair of winless seasons in 2015 and 2016.

Compared to contemporaries like Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Will Power and even Josef Newgarden, and Juan Pablo Montoya, and perhaps soon even Álex Palou, it is hard to make an argument Castroneves is ahead of any of them. Indianapolis 500s alone cannot solve all problems. Yet, when he stepped away from IndyCar, Castroneves still was on the top of his game. The IMSA title and subsequent sports car success confirms that. The man won four Indianapolis 500s and three 24 Hours of Daytona. The only other drivers to win each race multiple times are Montoya, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, Jr. 

Considering his consistency and that consistency occurring at the highest level, one cannot help but imagine what Castroneves' career was like if the funding was there to remain in Europe after the 1995 season. Perhaps he was good enough to make it to Formula One. There was stiff competition on the rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but everywhere Castroneves has gone he has made a living at the front and his speed has been undeniable. 

What ifs aside, Castroneves had a wonderful career, and no one would turn down four Indianapolis 500 victories if offered, but it is rather perplexing puzzle of blemished greatness.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: Who Is This For?

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

There were many championship awarded this weekend. It was the final act for two classes in Bahrain, and one of the winners closed out an era with a tremendous bit of history. Romain Grosjean announced his third team in four IndyCar seasons. Brazil had quite a storm and then more of the same. Formula One is considering overhauling the sprint. NASCAR ended it seasons, but it did not necessarily end on the highest of notes. One question comes to mind. 

Who Is This For?
Two major series were questioning themselves over whether or not they are making the right decisions after this weekend.

For Formula One, another sprint weekend had it questioning whether or not this was the format was benefitting the series. For NASCAR, another championship weekend with the elimination format closed a season and skepticism remains over if this is the right way to decide a champion, especially after the events of Friday night. 

Both Formula One and NASCAR made these changes for the viewers. The idea was these changes were done for the fan bases. It was meant to give the supporters more and also hopefully attract more to watch. But as this has played out, the question must be asked, who is this for? 

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was essentially asking the same thing after Brazil. Horner told over the weekend that the current sprint format does not work for anyone, fans, drivers, teams. Last month, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein said the sprint weekend did not sell more tickets for the Saturday activities in Austin. A few drivers, Max Verstappen being the most notable of the bunch, has expressed opposition to sprint weekend. Formula One is now openly exploring overhauling the sprint format for 2024.

In Phoenix, NASCAR's three national touring series each decided their champions, but we were provided the model example of all the flaws with the elimination format. When Carson Hocevar spun Corey Heim out, it took Heim out of position to control the championship with under 25 laps remaining. This left it to be Grant Enfinger against Ben Rhodes for the title. Enfinger was ahead of Rhodes and leading the championship with three laps remaining before Heim collided Hocevar in what was an obvious act of retaliation, setting up restart after restart as the race continued beyond the scheduled distance but could not end with two consecutive green flag laps. 

Enfinger suffered a tire puncture on one of the restarts, and that practically handed Rhodes the championship. The multiple green-white-checkered attempts allowed Enfinger one final gasp on fresh tires to win the championship but he fell a position short, finishing sixth to Rhodes in fifth. 

Who is this for? Any of this for that matter? 

The sprint races do not show us anything different than what we will see in the grand prix on Sunday. It is effectively the same drivers start at the front and finishing at the front. There might be some battles for sixth, seventh and eighth, but at some point a battle for sixth, seventh and eighth are just a battle for sixth, seventh and eighth. Those same battles will happen on Sunday likely between the same drivers. That isn't a reason to tune in on Saturday in that case. 

A sense of dissatisfaction hung in the air over Friday night and into Saturday morning in Phoenix. I am not sure who the right driver should have been championship, but the general sense was we didn't see a race fitting to crown a champion. It doesn't seem like the way to decide a champion at all.

Corey Heim entered the Phoenix Truck finale with five consecutive top five finishes and nine consecutive top ten finishes. Illness forced Heim out of his truck for Gateway in June, but he had top ten finishes in 15 consecutive starts. He had 19 top ten finishes in his first 21 starts, 12 of which were top five results. The history book will say Heim was third in the championship after finishing 18th at Phoenix. 

Ben Rhodes won once this year, back in May, smack-dab in the middle of the calendar. Rhodes had more finishes outside the top ten (eight) than inside the top five (seven). That is your champion. 

On the Cup side of things, Ryan Blaney won the championship after finishing seecond in the Phoenix race, but his eight top five finishes are the fewest for a NASCAR Cup champion in NASCAR's modern era (since 1972). It is the third fewest number of top five finishes ever for a Cup champion behind Red Byron in 1949 and Bill Rexford in 1950, the first two seasons of NASCAR Cup Series competition, which had eight races and 19 races respectively. Blaney did not have a top five finish in June, July, August or September. His top five finish percentage of 22.22% is the lowest all-time among Cup champions. That is your champion.

But this was all done for the fans. This is what the fans want, or so we have told. Yet, the grandstands were not overflowing with people on Friday night in Phoenix and the Truck Series finale didn't start until after 10:00 p.m. Eastern. Viewership has constantly declined for the NASCAR Cup Series with this playoff system. The finale receives no viewership bump as guaranteed the championship decider, suggesting there is no any increased interest of who will win the title though the goal has been to create "game seven" moments.

Each series is hoping to attract more viewers and increase revenue. That is why these changes have occurred though neither has accomplished their goals. Formula One saw more viewership just from having a docuseries on Netflix, not because of the sprint races. NASCAR is trying to do the same, but if a streaming series is what increases viewership by 10%, 20% or 30%, then the playoff format and deciding the champions this way is not the answer.

These changes have been a step away from tradition, not that change is a bad thing, but when change isn't solving a problem, it must be asked if it was ever warranted. Formula One could abandon the sprint format tomorrow and no one would realize it was gone, yet it seem insistent on making it work. The same goes for NASCAR and its championship format. NASCAR could revert to a season-long aggregate and no one outside those who are already watching, who are arguably already unsatisfied, would notice the change. 

Neither are working as intended. Instead of continuing onward and calling either a success, it is time for re-valuation even if it means abandoning ship altogether. 

There does not seem to be fanfare for either the sprint format in Formula One or the elimination, winner-take-all finale in NASCAR. Isn't it time to start listening to what people actually want instead of making a change and hoping people will like it out of the blue with no evidence to suggest otherwise?

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Ryan Blaney and Ben Rhodes, but did you know...

Cole Custer clinched the NASCAR Grand National Series championship with a victory in the Phoenix finale

The #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryō Hirakawa clinched the World Endurance Drviers' Championship with victory in the 8 Hours of Bahrain. 

The #41 Team WRT Oreca-Gibson of Louis Delétraz, Robert Kubica and Rui Andrade clinched the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers championship with victory in the LMP2 class at Bahrain.

The #36 TGT Team au TOM's Toyota of Sho Tsuboi and Ritomo Miyata clinched the Super GT GT500 championship with victory in the Motegi finale.

The #52 Saitama Tooyopet GreenBrave Toyota of Hiroki Yoshida and Kohta Kawaai clinched the Super GT GT300 championship with a seventh in the Motegi finale.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about plenty of winners already, but did you know...

Max Verstappen won the Brazilian Grand Prix and won the sprint race.

The #85 Iron Dames Porsche of Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gattting won GTE-Am class in the 8 Hours of Bahrain.

Ross Chastain won the NASCAR Cup race from Phoenix, his second victory of the season. Christian Eckes won the Truck race, his fourth victory of the season.

The #88 JLOC Lamborghini of Takashi Kogure and Yuya Motojima won in GT300 in the Super GT race from Motegi.

Coming Up This Weekend
One more race in the Asia-Pacific for MotoGP, a round in Malaysia... and that is it. No really, that is all I have on my calendar. There must be some other series out there competing.