This post can be found at WF OpenWheel.com
Indycar has a number of significant sponsors. Verizon sponsors two cars and the series itself. Honda and Chevrolet lease engines and sponsors races (even if they sponsors some awful tracks). Target, Dr. Pepper, ABC Warehouse, Firestone, and others also are heavily involved in Indycar. National Guard has been involved in Indycar since they first sponsored Panther Racing and Vitor Miera in 2008. National Guard now resides at Rahal Letterman Racing with American driver Graham Rahal. National Guard’s Indycar sponsorship faces a number of issues, but Indycar cannot afford to lose them. Indycar struggles with its lack of an American identity which National Guard helps offset. One could argue that National Guard is Indycar’s most important sponsor.
National Guard has been involved in a number of sponsorship roles. They sponsor competitive fishing and Dale Junior in NASCAR. For many years they sponsored Micheal Jordan’s (yes, that one) AMA Superbike team, but this relationship has ended. Politically though, National Guard’s sponsorship can become controversial. Government spending and priorities are very controversial and political issues. Some on both the political left (anti-war) and political right (anti-spending) are against National Guard in racing. The main complaint is that the money used could go to another program, perhaps education or salary for soldiers. While that is technically true, I would argue it is a mistake to itemize government spending that way. This is getting political, but those types of one on one comparisons disregard the subtly and complexity of the government. There are bridges to nowhere which should be called out, but the reality is that not everyone is going to get everything they want out of every dollar the government spends. Anyways, this is a side issue. Irregardless of whether National Guard should be sponsoring racing, Indycar needs it.
Indycar lacks real sponsors. Although most cars have some sort of sponsors many are brought in by drivers, or are not spending enough to actually fund the car (in which case driver or owner fronts the costs). National Guard is one of the highest spending sponsors in Indycar; their deals are over ten million dollars per year (Rahal gets 12, Panther wanted 17). National Guard’s sponsorship in Indycar (I don’t get the feeling their NASCAR sponsorship is like this but I could be wrong) is not a traditional sponsorship however. The National Guard does not active their Indycar sponsorship as Target or Verizon does. Instead the money which National Guard provides a team is used not only to run the team, but also to promote the National Guard. This helps explain why the amount offered is so large.
National Guard is valuable to Indycar because it has an unmistakably American identity. Indycar lacks an American identity; despite the fact that most races are run in the USA, a majority of drivers are not Americans. Overall I think the general lack of an American identity is one of the main reasons why Indycar is struggling to attract a fanbase. In many ways it is the opposite to the problem NASCAR has. NASCAR is probably too country and rural, too much like the Republican Party (and too attached to said political party), and so it turns off a lot of people who are not into that. On the other hand Indycar is way too international and not able to connect either. Having National Guard helps though; it is an undeniably American sponsor and one which is instantly recognizable as that.
National Guard in Indycar has had a number of issues. One of the biggest has been the lack of performance. National Guard has never won an Indycar race despite a number of close calls, including some at the Indy 500. Sadly the start of this season has not seen that change as Graham Rahal has struggled greatly. National Guard has also been given mostly non-American drivers. JR Hildebrand and Graham Rahal are the only two Americans to drive for National Guard. Dan Wheldon, Vitor Miera, and a random assortment of drivers last season have driven the car. Had National Guard returned to Panther this season would have seen Ryan Briscoe as the National Guard driver. While Wheldon and Miera were great drivers who I was a fan of, neither one really screams National Guard. Of course technically non-citizens can join the United States military and get their citizenship out of it (though I don’t know of that can be done with the National Guard). This system hearkens back to the auxiliary system in the Roman Empire, where non-citizens would join the military and upon discharge get their citizenship. But that is splitting hairs. When you think National Guard in racing, you expect an American piloting it. Dale Junior, not Juan Pablo Montoya, Aaron Yates, not Mat Maladin. The move to Rahal Letterman fixes this issue while not solving the issue of results on track.
National Guard faces more problems and challenges. Like every Indycar sponsor they must deal with horrifically low television ratings and questionable return on investment. The even bigger problem though comes in the form of John Barnes’s lawsuit against them over the decision to move to Rahal Letterman. In my opinion this lawsuit is insane (Indycar surely is not dumb enough to give someone a contract in the fanzone not contingent upon actually having said sponsor, right?) and much more importantly destructive towards the continuation of National Guard in Indycar. Indycar and Rahal Letterman have to do whatever it takes to end this lawsuit and to placate National Guard. I also see National Guard as a sponsor which “tethers” Indycar to America in the sense they clearly do not benefit from international races and thus can help pressure Indycar to not do a European/South American/Middle Eastern tour.
With all of the negative things National Guard has had to deal with it is a miracle that they have remained in Indycar. I really hope they continue on; otherwise not only does Indycar lose a significant sponsor and another chip against their American identity, but they may lose Rahal Letterman and Graham Rahal as well. Is National Guard actually Indycar’s most important sponsor? Maybe, maybe not. Chevrolet and Verizon are both very important sponsors; Firestone, Honda, and Target as well. But National Guard is still incredibly important. It is an instantly recognizable sponsor, and even more importantly than that it is instantly recognizable as American. That’s the type of thing Indycar cannot simply buy. I have noticed some people like to snark about Graham Rahal, and seem to hope that he fails. But if you want Indycar to become successful you should root for Rahal, his team, and National Guard, because Indycar needs them to succeed.
Here is the super late TLR podcast. It was recorded the week after the Grand Prix of St. Pete so no mention of any of the more recent races. We should have another podcast up within the week. Enjoy!
Before anyone freaks out I am aware St. Pete was not the first street race for Indycars. According to Eric Hall (the Official American Open Wheel Blogging Historian) the Vanderbilt Cup ran a race at Santa Monica in 1916. Other road and street races were also ran by earlier USAC/CART including a race at the IRP roval in 1965 and Pikes Peaks Hill Climb was raced on during the 1940′s and 50′s. CART ran Ceasar’s Palace in 1983. Cleveland’s airport track was in use even before that. Eric would also like me to mention that various other road and street courses were ran by the various series (including a dirt road course) that can (should) be considered part of Indycar. For the purposes of this article and discussion however we are going to ignore USAC/Vanderbilt/CART/Champcar and focus on Indycar/IRL. The IRL was formed in 1996 to race on only ovals. By 2003 CART/Champcar teams started to defect to Indycar (IRL for this purposes). 2005 saw the introduction of road and street courses into this series with St. Pete, Infineon, and Watkins Glen.
St. Petersburg, Florida has seen a number of street course races in the past. IMSA and the SCCA both raced on a different street course during the 1980′s and 1990′s. In 2003 CART ran their lone race at St. Pete which was won by Paul Tracy. The course was similar to the one used today. CART/Champcar never returned. 2005 saw the beginning of the current St Pete Grand Prix with Indycar; it was the first time the IRL raced on a non oval. The race was won by Andretti Green driver Dan Wheldon. Team Penske has been dominate at St. Pete. They have won 5/9 races and Helio Castroneves has won 3 of those. Andretti has two wins, Ganassi has one, and Newman Haas has the win from 2008. Otherwise no other teams have won here. The race today (3/30/2014) has the potential to change this as Takuma Sato is on pole with AJ Foyt’s team.
As has been well documented the IRL cars were never meant for road or street courses. St. Petersburg was never as bad of race as say Infineon, but it was not the best race on the schedule. The introduction of the DW-12 in 2012 has dramatically improved the quality of the racing at St. Pete. St. Pete’s best feature is the integration of the local airport in the front stretch, and the new car has the ability to pass there.
I have had an interesting relationship with St. Pete. I enjoyed Rahal’s victory in 2008 but beyond that was not much of a fan. 2011 saw me become a little more positive about St. Pete with Simona De Silvestro’s strong run. 2012 and 2013 have caused me to re-evaluate St. Pete. The racing has improved enough that I no longer classify St. Pete alongside tracks like Infineon and Belle Isle. In truth my other reason for disliking St. Pete had more to do with my desire for the road course at Sebring and oval at Homestead. I still desperately want those two tracks in Indycar, but at the same time I also think St. Pete is a track which on its own merits deserves a spot on the schedule.
St. Pete is an undeniably good looking race track. The track is on the coast with the skyline on one end of the track. As someone who lives in Michigan the warmth and palm trees are very appealing. I watched the highlights from yesterday’s qualifying and was struck by how the track looked. The combination of clouds, setting sun, and skyline produced a very dramatic backdrop for qualifying.
This does not mean the track cannot be improved. The two best changes which could be made would be to make the track longer and wider. Indycar’s non oval tracks are very short compared to most other road/street racing series tracks. St. Pete has some good passing zones but could use a few more. In practice the best way to accomplish both goals would be to add more of the airport into the track. I am not sure what the logistical challenges would accompany this move. On a personal level I would love to see this race run under the lights. This may not actually be a good idea, but it would look incredible.
I still believe Indycar should start its season with an oval race. There’s enough hype behind this race that if it was scheduled on a NASCAR off weekend I think a fair number of NASCAR fans would watch. Despite this St. Petersburg is not a bad place to start the season. Although a bit wet, Florida is also warm. If you were going to introduce someone who had never watched a street course to them St. Pete is probably one of the better tracks to attempt that. The racing can be good, and the track looks nice. I am looking forward to the race. Hopefully today’s race lives up to the hype. It would be awfully ironic if the weekend I write a relatively positive article on an Indycar street course the race ended up being a snoozefest.
American drivers and American Open Wheel racing have a complicated history. The Split happened partly due to the lack of Americans. Jeff Gordon is a NASCAR driver because Indycar teams ignored him. American drivers in Indycar have fluctuated from 2008 through now. Hildebrand, Karem, Daly and many others have struggled for rides. Five Americans have full time rides; Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Joseph Newgarden, Charlie Kimball, and Ryan-Hunter Reay. Ed Carpenter has reduced his schedule to run all six ovals, and for all intents and purposes Canadian Joseph Newgarden can count as an American driver. That’s seven drivers. Which I think is too few, but at least all seven have a reasonable shot at winning a race.
Andretti Autosports fields Marco, Ryan, and Hinchcliffe. How Andretti and Honda preforms will largely determine how successful those 3 drivers are. Marco Andretti began his Indycar career with great fanfare. However he has struggled to live up to his name and hype. Two career wins (Infineon in 2006, Iowa in 2011) represent his only trips to victory lane. 2013 was a good season for Marco; he went winless but finished 5th in the championship. That made him the highest Andretti driver in points. James Hinchcliffe was inconsistent but won three races; these included two street courses and an oval. 2012 champion Ryan Hunter Reay struggled a bit; but he still won both Barber and Milwaukee. All three of these drivers can win races and contend for the title. Of the three my favorite is Hinchcliffe. I am a huge believer in him (See the Indycar Preview Podcast) and I really want him to be the 2014 series champion. I would not object to either a Marco title or another for Ryan. Marco winning a title would be great to see, but I must admit I have been let down by Marco too many times to believe he’ll actually do it.
Graham Rahal enters 2014 with the National Guard. An American with the most American sponsor. That is good news. The bad news is Graham is coming off of a terrible 2013 season which saw him finish 18th in points. That is a rather troubling result; Ed Carpenter never finished higher than 13th at a road or street course (which make up a majority of the schedule) and he finished 16th in points. EJ Viso and Dario Franchitti both missed the final race and still finished ahead of Graham. Many have started to doubt Rahal’s talent. Again, listen to the TLR Podcast. I still hold on to the hope that the Graham who won St. Pete in 2008 will one day return and start running up front. I still believe, but he has to preform. Graham can’t struggle like he did last year if he wants anyone to consider him a potential savior for Indycar. Rahal’s team is a one and a half car team which could hurt them. A title is unlikely, but a win or two would be a great way to entice National Guard to stay in Indycar.
Joseph Newgarden is one of Indycar’s up and coming stars. Sarah Fisher has stuck with him as he tries to learn how to become a winning Indycar driver on a small, single car team. It is true SFR lost some important personel over the off season. Despite this SFR is a sponsored team and is becoming a very competent one. Newgarden and the team appear to have great chemistry; Joseph scored a podium last year along side numerous top 5′s and top 10′s. He is capable of contending on both twisties and ovals. If SFR ever becomes a top tier team, or if Newgarden joins a bigger team, I expect he may be the next superstar driver. Although a championship seems impossible (if he did it I would be unbelievably excited) a win is not out of the question. Newgarden has a ton of talent; can his team deliver for him?
I used to dislike Charlie Kimball. Out of all of the American’s he was the one I didn’t like. Last year was a breakout year for Kimball. He finished 2nd at Pocono and won Mid Ohio. I also became a slight fan of his. Although he is not my favorite driver any successful American is a good thing. I wish him the best in 2014. A title is unlikely but not completely impossible. At least one win can be expected out of him.
Ed Carpenter is a driver I am a huge fan of now who until 2009 I didn’t like either. Ed developed into an oval specialist and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. This season he has reduced his schedule to run only the ovals. As an oval specialist this makes sense. Although the new double points for the Triple Crown makes me wish he was in full time; he’d have a good shot at finishing in the top ten in points. Still what is done is done. Ed can’t win the title but he can win on any oval, up to and including the Indy 500. Ed’s team is very good for being a single car team and has full sponsorship.
Indycar needs more American drivers. That is a fact, not an opinion. What is even sadder is losing guys like Kyle Larson who legitimately wanted to be Indycar drivers but who Ganassi turned to NASCAR. Larson even ran the 24 Hours of Daytona, showing he has interest and talent on road and street courses. Despite being few in number the American drivers left in Indycar are all on competent teams. More importantly every one of them has at least a shot at winning a race. Out of all of the American’s (plus Hinchcliffe) I believe Hinchcliffe is the most likely to win the title, but the rest will hopefully win races.
If you haven’t already read it, go read what I wrote yesterday about the DW-12. I evaluated the engine/chassis change from 2012 through now!
Everyone knows that I have a conflicted history with Dallara’s DW-12. I was a supporter of Swift Engineering, and I still am. I later came around to aero kits, and those still have not appeared. A lot of time has passed since then. 2010 (when the car was selected) was four years ago; 2012 was two full seasons ago. The passage of time has allowed me to move on, and the two seasons have given me enough races to give what I believe is a fair assessment of what Indycar has developed.
The DW-12 is not a good looking car. It is not quite as ugly as some of the current F1 cars, but it is still an unattractive car. Time has not changed that. The sidepod and rear pods are still very unusual compared to most other race cars. They were part of an attempt to prevent wheel to wheel contact sending a car into the air. Whether that was successful or not remains an open question. The car still gets airborne, just in different ways than the old car did. Whether intentional or not the same elements which were designed to keep the car out of the air have helped improve the on track performance of the car. The new Indycar is able to handle some contact (especially side to side) which has allowed for closer and more exciting racing.
Overall the new car and engine package has been a major improvement for Indycar’s on track product. Indycar runs too many small, narrow, road and street courses. However the DW-12 is probably one of the best open wheel cars for those types of tracks. Unlike some I would not say all of the races are suddenly great or even good. But it is undeniable that races from Houston to Barber to Mid Ohio and Belle Isle are much better with the DW-12 than without it. Drivers can pass in places where in the old car they simply ran single file. I am really curious to see what would happen with the DW-12 on a better road course like Road America or Watkins Glen. Even Austin could be an interesting test of the current car’s true road racing potential.
I worried that the DW-12 would not be a good oval racing car. I worried that the emphasis on road and street courses would mean that too little development would go into the oval portion of the car. Luckily the current car is capable of producing great racing on the ovals. It all comes down to the downforce level allowed. With the right amount of downforce tracks like Indianapolis and Fontana have seen great races with an incredible amount of passing. On the other hand Texas and to a point Iowa have suffered from too low of downforce levels. Some prefer lower downforce for safety; some prefer it for the increased emphasis on car control. However as NASCAR has demonstrated time and time again, too little downforce on ovals and the racing becomes very spread out. Indycar’s last few races at Texas have shown that. If you want to avoid pack racing, the new car has returned to the era of draft and pass. Fear of pack racing is no defense for the horrific “racing” out of Texas. And the desire to take away downforce at the .75 mile track of Iowa is insane. I also am aware some do not like the draft and pass at Indy; I love it. I have watched a lot of very processional Indy 500′s from 2007-2010 so I am for anything that improves the racing. It is not like plate racing; setup and talent still matter. I really hope Indycar allows the 500 to continue to be one of the best ovals of the year and not return it to the state it was in during the end of the last car’s reign.
2012 saw more than just a new chassis. It also saw the introduction of new engines. Chevrolet, Honda, and Lotus joined with turbo-charged V6 engines. Lotus was a disaster which likely killed a number of teams. Chevrolet and Honda have both been successful, and mercifully very close to one another. The engines sound good (unlike the new F1 engines) and the fact is the old engine package had grown stale. Horsepower has steadily increased since 2012 and the lap times continue to fall. Rumor’s abound that Cosworth is planning on joining with an undisclosed automaker. Generally speaking the 2012 engine format has been successful.However it has had some major issues. Personally I think the engine limit is too restrictive. At least this year the 10 place starting position penalty for engine changes has gone away. The biggest issue with the engines involves the engine supply. Due to the way the rulebook was written a number of teams in 2012 were unable to get engines and thus disappeared. During the 2012 off season there was a belief that 28-31 cars would race full time in Indycar. Instead car count was between 25-26. 2013 saw a number of teams leave and 2014 has seen even more team and car loss. 2014 will see only 22 full time cars at the start of the season. This is the smallest field since 2009.
Related to car count issues have been the Indianapolis 500 issues. The new car and chassis package has made Indy one of the best races of the year. It has also resulted in a frantic race for 33 cars not seen since the era of the Split. Due to a combination of cost and availability getting 33-35 cars for the Indianapolis 500 has been a struggle. From Unification in 2008 through 2011 Indianapolis 500 fields grew. Their growth cumulated in 2011 with a number of Andretti cars missing the race. 2012 and beyond has seen this process reverse. There is hope that car counts, both for the season and the 500 will increase as time goes on, and there is also hope it will increase if and when another engine manufacturer joins. Until this happens the car count crisis has to go down as the most negative legacy of the new cars and engines.
2012 brought change into a stagnating Indycar. Much of the change was positive. Racing has overall improved across the board. The places where it has not dramatically improved are either tracks that are hopeless (RE: Infineon), or situations where the series has reduced downforce to levels which create terrible racing (RE: Texas). Other than that the new cars and engines have done their job in improving the racing. The changes have also brought unintended consequences which have drastically reduced car count. Although some want to ignore the problems, they are real and need to be addressed. Still after almost a decade of the old car and engine package, Indycar needed a change. While I still would have prefered Swift, the new cars and engines have worked well. They have improved the racing and appear fairly safe. Next year may (emphasize the word may) see the introduction of aero kits which have the potential to be a great thing and improve the cars looks, or be a disaster which ruins the parity and close competition the new car has created. Two seasons in and the new Indycar chassis and engine package is a drastic improvement from the past. Equally important is that it has gone over better than Formula One’s new engine package or the trainwreck that is NASCAR and the COT.
Today’s podcast is a very special Indycar focused podcast. James and I are joined by two special guests, Brian from AutoRacing1.com and Eric Hall from AnotherIndycarBlog. We discuss all things Indycar, from normal stuff like who we think will be the champion to much more unique discussions which come from having four very different writers/bloggers conversing with one another. If you are a fan of Indycar and looking forward to the season you have got to listen to this, and then go and read what Brian and Eric write. If you are not an Indycar fan, give the podcast a listen and give Indycar a shot as well!
Welcome to the 9th edition of the Triple League Racing Podcast. We cover NASCAR, Sebring, F1, and Indycar. It is a long podcast and focuses a lot on NASCAR and F1. We do talk about Indycar as well, so Indycar fans should still listen. Next week we are planning on having a special Indycar Preview Show which will include some special guests.
Today Indycar and Verizon confirmed Verizon’s new role as title sponsor. This sponsorship will thankfully be in addition to the company’s sponsorship of Team Penske. The deal lasts for ten years and includes ten million dollars a year for Indycar (or does it?). The deal will include a significant amount of promotion and marketing alongside the financial contributions. There will also be technical partnerships that will include new technology in Race Control and improved phone service at the Indianapolis 500. Verizon’s deal comes after Izod’s contract expired and means that Indycar will be able to claim to have had a title sponsor since 2010, which is a pretty big accomplishment in American Open Wheel Racing. It must be said that title sponsorship and American Open Wheel Racing have had a rough history, so can Verizon break the trend?
Probably. Verizon’s advantage over everyone except for Izod is two-fold. It is a major and established company that has a long time presence in Indycar. The idea that Verizon might become the title sponsor has been around for awhile. Indeed throughout the off season Indycar CEO Mark Miles claimed that a title sponsor announcement was coming and most journalists, bloggers, and insiders believed Verizon was the most likely choice. The deal has a lot of potential to improve Indycar. Verizon is a major partner which can help promote the series, especially those races on NBC Sports whose TV ratings are terrible. Lack of money is claimed as an excuse for many of Indycar’s problems; the money from Verizon will not fix everything but it will add some cash to the series. I would hope that this will be re-invested either in a lower sanctioning fee, more TEAM money, or stronger Indycar marketing and promotions on top of Verizon’s. On top of that as a previously existing sponsor nothing is going to shock Verizon about Indycar. They have been involved since 2009 through good times and bad. They will not be scared off.
Just how much money is Indycar getting and just how long is the deal? As expected Verizon and Indycar did not say how much money the were going to give Indycar or for how long. Most reports say it is a ten million dollar deal for ten years. However the IBJ suggests that this is not true, or at least it is not the whole truth. According to them, the deal is a five year deal with an option for five more years. The deal gives Indycar five million dollars and Verizon will use the other five million for marketing and promotion. IBJ also says that this deal has very few out clauses and so is fairly concrete. Curt Cavin at Indystar on the other hand suggests that the deal totals twelve million dollars per year, with six million for Indycar and six million for activation.
One has to wonder how much the extra money is going to do for Indycar. They clearly could use some extra cash, and there are a wide variety of projects which it could be expended on. Yet at the same time this sponsorship is likely only going to directly increase Indycar’s revenue by five to six million dollars. This may be significant, especially for balancing the budget, but how much will it improve marketing? How much will it help TEAM money or lower the sanctioning fees? The other question raised is whether or not the five to six million dollars Verizon is going to use to promote Indycar means that’s the only money they will spend on promotions, or if they will also spend some more on it, or at least do some extra stuff to tie in (featuring Indycar in their non-Indycar related ads, for example). The reason this question must be raised is how far five to six million dollars will go for promoting the series? I don’t have an answer for either question about money. It certainly is a good thing and it certainly will help Indycar. That is clear. But how much good will it do, how big of change will it create? To put this deal in better context, depending on who you believe the Verizon deal costs the same or even less than the National Guard deal with Rahal Letterman per year.
What is interesting is that many of the words used to describe the Verizon announcement are the same ones used to describe Izod’s title sponsorship a few years ago. Although some are using this announcement to kick Izod on the way out, I am not one of them. I believe Izod and Macy’s had a great deal of potential as the title sponsorship, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out. What they did in 2010 and 2011 was great. Over the last two years Izod gave up on Indycar. Its a tragedy because Macy’s and Izod had so much potential to market Indycar. I will have more to say about Izod in a latter post.
Mark Miles described Verizon becoming Indycar’s title sponsor as “game changing.” Miles is right, or at least he should be. Verizon becoming Indycar’s title sponsor should be a game changing moment. My only concern is Izod should have been game changing. Versus/NBC Sports seemed like it could be game changing. I truly believed Chevrolet’s entry would be game changing. All of these events and more appeared to be game changing and yet here we are in March of 2014, still waiting for the real game changing moment. Verizon should be the start of a true game changing moment. Yet what happened with Izod is a warning that no matter how good this deal looks on paper and no matter how committed Verizon is today that things can change, and that change can be for the worse.
Verizon becoming the title sponsor is a big deal. It deserves the hype and attention it is getting. I just hope that the Verizon deal can live up to its hype. Verizon is a big sponsor and a great partner for Indycar. This deal should work. It should be the best title sponsor Indycar has ever had. I personally like this deal and think it is a great thing for Indycar to have. I’ve also been an Indycar fan long enough to learn to worry. The deal has been made and now the real test begins. Can Indycar and Verizon help turn Indycar around? Over the next five to ten years we will find out.
After almost a year away the Triple League Racing Podcast is back and better than ever! We now have intro music and are now on Itunes! Make sure to subscribe, rate, and review! Our intro music is “The Grind” by Justin Mahar which can be found here. We discuss the John Barnes lawsuit against Indycar, Long Beach, Eliminations in the Chase, Cosworth, Dale Junior, an Indianapolis based supercar, and much more!
Welcome to the third and final part of the Formula E special feature. The last two parts can be read here and here. At this point we know what Formula E is. We have at least a baseline idea of what the plan for the 2014-2015 season of Formula E. Ten races will be run on a variety of unnamed street circuits in ten major cities. Formula E is an intriguing concept, but will it end up creating a fun and exciting racing series?
The marketing and promotion of Formula E focuses heavily on the environment, innovation, and safety. To a point that makes sense; the electric engines are what differentiates Formula E from F1, GP2, and Indycar. On the other hand racing is suppose to be exciting, it is suppose to be fast and a bit crazy. Automotive safety is important, but when the first things you see on the Formula E website are an advertisement for FIA Rules for Road Safety, and Michelin 4 Golden Rules that’s not particularly fast, exciting, or crazy. To be honest it’s a bit dull. I am politically on the left, but I have to admit I am not a huge electric car fan so some of the hardcore environmentalism/electric car propaganda used in promoting the series rings rather hollow. At least for me. I would really like to see something on the website which focuses more on speed, adventure, and on track action. Formula E does need to talk about how it is an electric racing series, but it also needs to be talk speed, excitement, and about being a fun racing series.
Formula E simply needs to be faster. I’ve already mentioned it before, but I cannot emphasize how pathetically slow a 140mph limit on an open wheel racing car is. And just like I wrote earlier Formula E needs to overcome the range issues associated with electric vehicles or it will have a hard time establishing itself as anything credible. Car changes in the middle of every race? Come one, get serious. It is early in the development cycle of Formula E so it will be interesting to see if the series improves these issues as time goes by.
One of the most controversial aspects of Formula E hasn’t been touched by me yet so I might as well start now. Formula E is considering allowing an online fan vote to determine whether or not cars have Push to Pass. Most objections to this plan focus on the issue of the purity of competition. My objection has to do with the fact that the cars are underpowered, especially in race trim. They need every ounce of power possible. Push to Pass should not be based upon a fan vote because the drivers will need all the power they can get to pass each other.
I also am not a huge fan of the track mix, or rather, lack of tracks. If you follow me on twitter or have read my blog you know that I have some unkind thoughts towards street courses. I would say however as Formula E is something new I am willing to give its street courses a chance. I don’t feel as negatively towards it as I would if Indycar, F1, or Tudor Sports Cars ran an all street course schedule. Still it would be really nice to see F/E car’s on a real race track. They are being tested at Donington Park; would it be too much to see them at Monza, Silverstone, Road America, or even a place like Brands Hatch or Zandervort??? Again, I hope this is an area which is changed as Formula E goes forward.
I think the street courses will be interesting however. Formula E’s website implies that these street courses will be in ten major cities. One has to wonder how true this is. Look at existing street courses in the world. Some are run in the heart of major metropolitans while many take place on the outskirts of the city they represent. I find it unlikely that Formula E will get prime spots in Beijing, Berlin, London, Miami, or Los Angles, but I could be wrong. I certainly hope I am wrong because if Formula E actually gets what it seems to want it would be an unprecedented backdrop for a modern racing series. I just hope we do not see the “London Grand Prix” run in a parking lot somewhere near London. September 13th is the first race at Beijing; where will they really race though? I also wonder how big the tracks will be. Will they be around Indycar size? Or will they as long as an F1 track? Or will they be much shorter than anything most people have thought of?
The drivers and teams are the most interesting aspect of Formula E to me. There are a lot of Indycar people who appear to be planning on racing and running the teams. I think they will be competitive. If you like Indycar I really believe you have to watch Formula E. There’s just too many of our drivers and teams there to ignore it. The setup of Formula E appears to me to heavily favor Indycar drivers as it will be on street courses with very little track time. I think a driver like Sebastien Bourdais or Oriol Servia will be very hard to beat. It seems unlikely Conor Daly will have a full time Indycar ride, but he will get a shot to show how good he is in Formula E.
Formula E has a lot of buzz. Leonardo DiCaprio is involved in one of the teams! They even have a plan for their second season! There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, but the hard truth is that a lot of different racing series have had a lot of buzz and still failed to be successful. A1GP had plenty of buzz and was set up as an off-season racing series. Andretti Autosport also participated in it. A1GP died an ignominious death. The American Le Mans series had buzz, it had automotive manufacturers, it had environmentalism! Grand Am won the American sports car civil war. As much potential as Formula E has, as much of a media darling as it may become the fact remains that it is facing an uphill battle.
Another oddity about Formula E is that although it runs during the off season compared to other racing series it starts a bit early and ends a bit late. In other words how are some of the Indycar drivers going to run both series? This brings up an interesting question of what Formula E wants to be? Does it want to be A1GP reborn, or does it want to be a standalone series. If it want’s to be a series where Indycar/DTM/F1 drivers come in and compete against one another the schedule has to fit into the off season. If it wants to be a standalone series then it must demonstrate that it is viable enough for drivers to stake their careers on it.
I have already hinted what I want to see out of Formula E. I want to see an emphasis on the on-track racing. I want to hear more talk about passing. I want the next press release to talk about how Formula E plans on creating the best street racing we have ever seen! I want a greater focus on the drivers. We may get to see Champcar champion Sebastien Bourdais face off against a third generation Andretti and the ex-Stig. Talk about that! I want to see a greater emphasis on the drivers and the racing, and less emphasis on safety, the “events,” and the environment. Ultimately, Formula E needs to have an interesting on track product to become a real and viable racing series. Sadly this is the area where Formula E is currently lagging behind.
I really want Formula E to succeed. I will admit that one reason for this is that I hope Formula E corners the International Street Racing Market and keeps Indycar where it belongs. In America. Beyond that I enjoy open wheel racing and having another major televised series is a good thing. A chance to watch Indycar drivers in more races is a positive. Formula E has a great deal of potential, and it still has time to work out some of the kinks between now and September. That said there are a ton of potential pitfalls; anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves. I hope Formula E navigates these challenges and rises to become a major racing series alongside Indycar, F1, MotoGP, and WEC, and WSBK, but it will be an incredible challenge. Formula E has buzz now, but how long will it last? What Formula E does while it has everyones attention will go a long way in determining whether it really is the next big thing in racing, or just another A1GP. Finally, please focus a little more on the racing and creating an exciting on track product!!!!
As a little postscript, I do plan on having more article series after this one. I have not decided on what the next series will be however I do have some ideas. I am planning on reviving the Triple League Racing Podcast with James, and we will hopefully be on Itunes! The re-launch should happen latter this week. You also should check out Indycar Minnesota as I will be participating in Matt’s Around the Horn feature. Finally if you are interested in electric vehicles I do plan on reviewing Charge in the near future.