Pre Race Picks and Predictions: 2015 Indianapolis 500

The 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 is this weekend! The lead-up to the 500 has been the typical Indycar trainwreck, with aero kit issues, injuries, and controversy. The theme of 2015 has been Penske and Ganassi domination. This theme has continued into the Indy 500. Qualifying saw 5 Penske and Ganassi cars sweep the top 5. Almost every practice session has also been led by Penske and Ganassi. Is there any hope for the race Sunday?

Maybe. While Penske and Ganassi have been dominant the practice session Monday afternoon and on Carb Day both saw tons of passing and close racing. As long as the race Sunday mirrors those practices we may still see a good race. The biggest threat to a close race is the potential for the top 5 cars to gap the field. If all of the Penske or Ganassi cars (2 Ganassi, 3 Penske) up front work together there is a distinct risk that they get enough of a gap on the field that the race becomes predictable. However, if the rest of the field can get in the mix there should be enough potential for passing to keep the race interesting. I have already discussed my thoughts on the upcoming race in the TLR Podcast, but here are my thoughts updated from the last few days.

Weather: Initially the weather forecast for this weekend was terrible. Rain was predicted at an over 50% chance Sunday-Wednesday! The forecast has improved significantly and most expect that the race will be run on Sunday. One thing to look out for is the potential for the race to either have a delay due to rain in the middle of the race, or that the race would be called early due to rain. NASCAR is famous for doing whatever they can to get a race in due to rain… but Indycar has not shown that dedication. I also do not believe Indycar has Air Titain’s at IMS. There were no Titian’s during practice, but one would hope that the Air Titian’s have been rented for the Great American Race. Still… if the race is impacted by rain there is a good chance that it will end the race.

Safety: There have been five accidents in practice. 3 cars went into the air, but the drivers were completely unharmed. Pippa Mann crashed hard and suffered busing. James Hinchcliffe crashed and was stabbed by his suspension piece. Despite the life threatening loss of blood, Hinchcliffe is back to walking and expected to make a full recovery. He will not be racing Sunday, or likely for a few races. Due to this there are some concerns about safety. Overall I think most of the concerns are overblown. There is no guarantee the Indy 500 will be safe. In racing there is never a guarantee an event will be held without serious injury or worse. But, there is no reason to be overly concerned about the Indy 500 either. The cars flipping were an issue, but one which Indycar has seen before. Hinchcliffe’s accident was a freak occurrence (though stress on the aero kits via downforce may be a bigger isssue) and Pippa is still able to race.

Yellow Flags: I want the Indy 500 to be safe, and I don’t want to see accidents. However, the Indy 500 needs to have a few yellow flags. It NEEDS to have more than the one or two yellow flags thrown during many of the oval races of 2014. I don’t care if it comes from debris or “debris.” The race needs yellow flags to be close and competitive. With the small number of yellow flags seen at Fontana, Pocono, and Indy last year there is a good chance we’ll get only a few cars (likely Penske and Ganassi) left on the lead lap. If there are only a few yellows then we must hope that they fall like they did at Indy last year. Despite only a couple yellows the 500 was competitive because the yellow flags fell at the right time. Some people prefer yellow free races because they are more pure, or because they are safer. Those two things may be true… but a yellow free race will likely be more boring. Unless you are someone who loves fuel saving and dominance. Then I guess you’re wishing for a yellow free race… but don’t expect the rest of us to agree.

Another yellow flag issue may be a late race yellow. Over the last few years Beaux Barfield started to red flag the race in an attempt to get a green flag finish since Indycar does not have a Green-White-Checkers rules (which they need to change to). However at this years Freedom 100 Lights race there was no red flag despite a late race yellow. Has the change in race control along with apprehension about the race led to the demise of the late race red flag? I’m not sure…. but it is something to keep an eye on in the race.

While I do want more yellows than we’ve seen at many recent ovals, it would be awful to have a majority of the race held under yellow. Indycar often goes too far to one extreme or the other on yellow flags as we saw at NOLA. For a good Indy 500 favorable yellows means hitting the sweet spot between half the race under yellow and no yellows. It is possible to have a good race and finish despite either too many or too few yellows. However, a good yellow balance will make a good race more likely. And with the specter of Penske and Ganassi domination over Indy yellow flags may be instramental in saving excitement and parity in the race.

Drafting: Despite earlier concerns the new aero kits appear to be conducive towards the draft and pass move that we have seen for the last few Indy 500’s. There those who oppose this type of excitement for reasons of purity and safety, but I love it. I got into Indycar for races decided by .05 of a second, not to watch a driver win a race by 10 seconds. Whether dominance shows talent or not is irrelevant to me; I want to be entertained by my racing, and that is not entertaining. Luckily the kits still seem to provide the opportunity for close racing, and we may see another great Indy 500 this year.

The Last Row: The last row of the Indy 500 is filled with drivers who are racing a car they did not qualify. Tristain Vaultier qualified for James Davison’s Dale Coyne car as Davison was at a PWC race. Carlos Huertas pulled out of the Indy 500 and his Dale Coyne car has gone to Vaultier instead. Carlos Huertas apparently has an “inner ear” issue which is keeping him from the 500. There is speculation about either his funding or his comfort level on ovals due to the fact that he has already been pulled from the car at Long Beach for funding, and he has retired from oval races in the past due to ‘headache’s” and “mechanical” issues. James Hinchcliffe’s replacement was, sadly, Ryan Briscoe. He is a talented driver… but also a boring one. I was on Katherine Legge’s side for that one. Davison has actually put up some good speed during practice and Briscoe has experience. While they are unlikely to win the race, for a row filled with people who did not qualify their cars, they may do comparatively well.

The Americans: Indy 500 qualifying was not kind towards American drivers. Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden both struggled a bit due to crashing in practice. Marco Andretti is the first American in line in seventh with Newgarden in eighth. JR Hildebrand is tenth, Ed Carpenter is twelfth, and Charlie Kimball is fourteenth. Other American’s in the field include Ryan Hunter Reay, Graham Rahal, Sage Karam, Conor Daly, and Bryan Clauson. The most competitive American seems likely to be either Hildebrand or Karam. Both drivers have been very fast in drafting practice. Newgarden and Carpenter cannot be counted out and neither can RHR or Marco. Rahal is likely to be in contention due to the fact that he has been the best Honda driver for most of the year.The rest of the American’s are likely to struggle… but a good run by Daly or Clauson would be incredible to see. Clauson has not looked good this month and just barely qualified ahead of another American, Buddy Lazier, who did not qualify. It’s been a rough month for Americans, but the 500 could be a different story.

Honda: The cars entered with Honda aero kits and engines are struggling. Justin Wilson and Marco Andretti are the only Honda drivers starting in the top 10. Andretti Autosport has been strong at Indy the last few years and their five cars represent a significant portion of hope for Honda. Hinchcliffe’s injury hurts Sam Schmitt’s team pretty badly. Rahal should contend and maybe AJ Foyt’s team will find it’s speed on race day. Two things may factor into saving Honda during the race. Fuel saving and tire wear. I hope it doesn’t come down to it… but there is a belief that Honda’s aero kits are lighter on tires and lighter on fuel. If this is the case that may be their best way to get the win. What happens if the Indy 500 comes down to a late race rainout instead of being run for the full 500? Could that befit the Honda’s? Maybe.

The Red Cars: Penske and Ganassi have dominated Indycar in 2015 and they have been dominant this month. Some people are okay with this: they claim that they just want to see the best do well, and that Penske and Ganassi are the best. Perhaps this is true, but I find Penske and Ganassi domination almost unwatchable. The drivers are mostly (excluding Dixon) nice people, but watching them win is nowhere near as exciting as watching Newgarden or Carpenter or Silvestro or Daly or Hinchliffe do well. For the purposes of this I am counting the Red Cars (because in the past Penske and Ganassi both used Red liveries) as the 4 Penske’s plus Ganassi’s A team. Kimball and Karam aren’t counted in this. Penske and Ganassi have held the best lap times most of the practice sessions and start with the top 5 positions. I am hoping that they will be stopped…. but most smart money is on Power, Dixon, Kanaan, Montoya, or Castroneves to win the race. I am not one of them, and my 3 picks will all be outside of the those options.

Parity: Where did it go?

The Picks! 

Winner… Josef Newgarden! The practice crash makes this less likely, but I firmly believe that Newgarden has both the talent and the team to win. A Newgarden win is the best case scenario for Indycar.

Likely…. JR Hildebrand! Hildebrand has been fast both this year and last at the 500. He is the only CFH driver to not have an accident. Hildebrand has a great chance to get redemption for the 2011 Indy 500.

Darkhorse… Graham Rahal! Rahal qualified poorly but he has been the best Honda all year and if a Honda is going to win it will likely be Rahal!

Closing Thoughts: Since the DW-12 has been introduced the Indy 500 has become the most exciting race on the Indycar schedule. Will Aero Kits change that? I hope not. It is hard not to be comprehensive between the crashes and the Penske and Ganassi domination. I really believe we will get a good race on Sunday, but it is less likely than the last few years.  What I hope for the most is that we do not have a race dominated or won by Penske and Ganassi because I would find that hard to watch. Maybe that makes me a bad fan, but I don’t care. Penske and Ganassi are boring, and if they dominate the Indy 500 that will be boring as well! So go everyone else!

 

Indycar’s Boston Street Course: Optimism for a Street Course?

Longtime readers (or listeners or followers) of mine know that I am not the biggest fan of Indycar street circuits. Indycar has (or in many cases had) a lot of street courses, and very few of them produce consistently good racing. The only street course that I have seen (IRL- Unified Indycar, IE: No CART/Champcar) that actually had consistently good racing was Sao Paulo in Brazil. Street course announcements are usually met with tons of fanfare and optimism about the huge number of people who will attend. Often those people do attend, but the races rarely last for long. Even if the race does survive it often ends up as a processional and unexciting drag on the Indycar schedule. Despite these issues I am sort of buying the hype around the Boston Indycar race. I still am not a huge fan of street courses, but this race might be a decent way to end the season. If nothing else it is better to end the season in Boston than Sonoma. Indycar has not announced whether or not Boston will be the season finale, but IF Mark Miles sticks to his incredibly flawed Labor Day rule then it will be. I am writing this article with the expectation that Boston will be the season finale, but that may change.

The new Boston race will begin on Labor Day weekend of 2016. The track is 2.3 miles long and has 11 turns. It will be run around the Boston Convention Center and is on the ocean. I like both aspects of the track. 2.3 miles is longer than most Indycar street courses. Sao Paulo was 2.5 miles long, but Long Beach, Toronto, and St. Petersburg are both under 2 miles long, as was Houston. Belle Isle is actually the same length so that cannot be seen as a guarantee of good racing, but longer road and street courses for Indycar are a good thing. Having only 11 turns is also a positive side. The track has some decent looking straightaway’s and no horrible chicanes. It looks very good; much better and more racy than what we currently have on the schedule.

I looked at the area on Google Earth and tried to trace the track out. It looked pretty good. I wish the straight sections even longer, but I have some hope. The turns probably will be wide enough for passing in a lot of different places. The big issue I noticed is one of the roads has a median dividing the back straightaway section. That could be an issue, or perhaps it will be removed before the race? According to Tony Cotman on twitter, the race will feature a strange, split pitlane, but details are not announced yet. Another unusual feature of the race is that a couple turns will probably cross through an underpass kind of like Monaco. The view of the city in the background of this race should be impressive as well. Great Indycar road and street races tend to have wider turns and longer straight sections. Both increase passing opportunities. Long straightaways allow for drafting which mostly was seen at Sao Paulo. I am not sure if these straight sections are long enough for that. Still… the track has a ton of promise. Without the awful chicanes and with few narrow twisty bits this track might be a really exciting race.

The race has some potential… if it turns out as well as the track map looks today. Execution has long been the bane of Indycar’s street race experiments. Baltimore had a reasonable looking layout which was ruined when a chicane was placed through one of the straights due to light rail tracks. Sao Paulo turned out to be a great race, but the track had serious issues with the quality of the road surface. The asphalt at Belle Isle came up during a race and weather/rain has wreaked havoc on Toronto and Houston. The fact of the matter is that Indycar does not have a great track record with their street races. Compounding these issues are the potential for last minute weather problems. A hurricane/tropical storm (I forget which) caused headaches before a race in Baltimore. Winter can be rough on road surfaces and so keeping the pavement race-able year after year may be a challenge. Until the green flag flies on race day in 2016 it will be hard to tell if Indycar has pulled through a good track or let it fall apart. Indycar has saved a track at the last minute (Sao Paulo’s surface issues), but also seen them fall apart in the end (Baltimore/Belle Isle). Due to the fact that the race is the season finale Indycar also must ensure that they can race the track if it rains. This is obviously a tricky thing to do, but having the season finale fall apart due to rain is unthinkable. Indycar and rain have a history of failure, and so Indycar must be proactive and not just hope for good weather.

Boston is a big media market and makes sense for a season finale. I am sure there will be many people in attendance at the race. But, as Baltimore proved, an alleged 100,000 people does not necessarily help a race last long term. Indycar will need to manage the local politics better than they have in Brazil or Baltimore. To make Boston a long lasting part of the Indycar schedule the race needs to get the goodwill of the locals and find a title sponsor. Indycar must give it a good date (RE: Houston), and it must be run well. They CANNOT afford to have track issues leading up to the race, unsafe catch fences, or fans getting hit by debris. I wish I could say that I was confident in their ability to do so, but I’ve watched Indycar for too long to believe in their ability to do these things. If there ever was a time to get it right, this is it. Many tracks, ovals, road courses, and street courses, have been screwed over by Indycar’s schedule so it will be interesting to see if they can pull this one off. One would hope that after this much time they would be close to getting it right…. but you never know with Indycar.

As season finale’s go, I still prefer the season to end on an oval. From the first IRL season in 1996 through the 2014 Indycar season, all IRL/Unified Indycar seasons have ended on an oval. Ovals tend to be more action packed races than road and street courses, and it makes ovals matter for the championship despite there being significantly less than a 50-50 distribution of races. Despite the attendance woes ending the season at Chicagoland, Fontana, or Homestead helps encourage a close title fight, good racing, and puts Indycar near a major media market. This year has seen Fontana dropped as the season finale for a variety of reasons (heat, date, time of finish, attendance) and so the race is moving deeper into the summer because Indycar’s schedule is a thing of beauty. Instead the season is ending at Sonoma (remember, thing of beauty), which is disturbing to anyone who wants to see an on track battle for the championship. If you want fuel saving to dictate the champion than Sonoma is the right place, but as a race track the Sonoma course leaves a lot to be desired. Which is too bad; Sonoma can be a great race-track. Indycar runs, for safety reasons, a modified version of the course which adds two chicanes and takes away the main hairpin turn which is were most of the passing could take place. Compare the hairpin NASCAR uses before the start/finish line vs. the one Indycar uses. Or fire up Forza 4 or Project Cars and look at the two courses. Sonoma might be a good race, but we’ll never know as long as Indycar continues to avoid the main hairpin. Because Sonoma is the season finale this season anything seems like an improvement for next year.

Despite the reasonable concerns I have about Boston I really like how the course map looks. I really think Indycar might have designed a track which can get closer to the high bar set by Sao Paulo. It looks like a track which could produce good racing for the season finale.  Boston’s GP could become a fixture on the Indcyar schedule as well. These two things are dependent on things working out the right way.  Politics, weather, money, track building, safety, quality of racing, and date equity all need to come together for this to work out both in the long and short term. It’s something Indycar has failed many events on (though they’ve done good things for Belle Isle…) , so being worried about Indycar’s execution at Boston seems reasonable to me. IF they pull it off Indycar may get a pretty cool season finale. It’s no Road America or Chicagoand, but it’s a lot better than Sonoma. If they fail either Boston will disappear after a few years, or it will become a fixture on the schedule but produce disappointing racing (again, think Belle Isle/Sonoma).

Triple League Racing Podcast #17: 2015 Pre-Indy 500 Special

Podcast Cover Image 14X14

Welcome back to the Triple League Racing Podcast! It has been a long time, but James and I are back and ready to talk about the Indy 500. We discuss qualifying, the crashes, our thoughts on the aero kits, and even give our Indy 500 predictions! It’s over an hour of Indycar podcasting goodness! So check it out between now and Sunday!

Triple League Racing Podcast #17

2015 Indianapolis 500 Qualifying: Disaster and Boredom

Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is over. The weekend was a mess from start to finish. Rain caused Saturday to be washed out. That happens at Indy in May. It was no big deal. Sunday was a trainwreck of epic proportions. Morning practice was ended by Ed Carpenter’s crash and flip. Following earlier crashes with airtime by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves the series decided to make a change. After hours of controversy and silence the series came out and reduced boost to race day levels alongside removing aero pieces and regressing to race aero only. Due to time constraints the Fast Nine was removed and everyone did a simple 4 run qualifying run with the bottom four running once more for the final spot. Thankfully the format was safe. Unfortunately there was almost no excitement to be had. Penske and Ganassi lockedown the top 5; Scott Dixon qualified on pole early and no one got anywhere near him all day. There was no drama in the  battle for the 33rd spot because Buddy Lazier was incredibly, off pace and so we had a day with literally no drama on track.

The issues with the flying cars at Indy are the main controversy out of Indy. It appeared that Chevrolet’s aero kits had a tendency to get a car into the air when they spun out. What caused the problem was a matter of some discussion. Many people put the blame on the special qualifying sidepods. AutoRacing1 reported that the issue was with the bumper on the back of the cars and again according to AR1 there was a modification made to remove the piece believed to be responsible for the problem. Alongside this the series mandated that teams use the same setup for qualifying and race day as well as reducing the boost. This meant that the much talked about quest to set the speed record did not happen. These decisions also created controversy due to the fact that Honda’s teams were negatively affected by change despite the possibility that their cars were not as likely to take to the skies as the Chevrolet. As such many felt that it was unfair to Honda to mandate so many changes and that instead only Chevy should have been affected.

Indycar made the right choice. The changes were mostly a good idea, but some have argued rather persuasively that the boost reduction was unnecessary.  Both manufactures had to be affected or else we ran the risk of seeing complete and total domination at Indianapolis and while that might have been “pure” and “fair” it also would have been boring. However, things did not work out to be competitive in the end. Instead the Chevy teams dominated Honda. It is interesting to note that three of the four cars which battled to see who would be the odd man out were Chevrolet’s. As was the only DNQ, Lazier’s Chevy. However, it was disappointing to see how poorly Honda did. Indycar made the right decision for the 500 but they MUST allow some performance balancing so that Honda can catch up. Although it is not “fair” to Chevy to do this, since Indycar locks in their aero kits it has to be done or the parity of Indycar will be destroyed. IF there was open development like in MotoGP I might feel differently, but since the cars are “locked in” changes must be made. The changes need to come soon, or else Honda may have very little reason to stay in Indycar.

What is harder to understand is how the aero kits have been implemented. I still do not understand why only a select few teams were involved in their development. Even worse Indycar had a massive off season from the beginning of September until mid-March and yet oval kits were not debuted to most teams until the last month. I do not understand why there wasn’t more testing done by the series with all the teams during the off season. I suppose the belief that Indycar would race with the stock DW-12 at Brazil had an impact. I also imagine that the aero kits were not developed quickly enough to debut faster. That does not excuse the way the kits have been handled. Why were they not developed faster? Aero kits were intended to be introduced in 2012 and have been delayed for years. Either they should have been developed by this point, or delayed for another year. The shoddy and under-developed process we have seen this year is pathetic. When NASCAR introduces a new rules package or cars they do major tests well in advance. MotoGP teams are already testing their planned 2016 bikes as well as 2016 tires with the switch back to Michelin. These series are testing ahead of time by a year. Indycar had some tests done by Andretti and Penske last year, but no large group testing. There have been no multi-team oval testing either. Why were the teams not at Fontana to test on a high speed oval before the Indy 500? I just do not understand why this was not done. It is possible that the issues would not have been discovered doing that, but I tend to believe that a test at Fontana with 20+ cars would have shown the series the problems we’ve encountered at Indy. It certainly would have been better than what we got. It might have even built hype for the 2015 season.

As for the actual qualifying…. there was basically no point in watching. I want my afternoon back. Ed Carpenter, despite his early day crash, managed to easily lock himself into the field as the third driver to go out. He even held the pole for a minute or two. Scott Dixon grabbed the pole from Carpenter and only faced one serious challenge all day from Will Power. The removal of the Fast Nine made sense from a time standpoint, but the lack of Fast Nine or withdrawing/rerunning times meant that there was almost no drama all day. Making matters worse was the combination of Penske and Ganassi domination and Honda’s lack of pace. Penske and Ganassi captured the top 5 starting spots. Justin Wilson was in 6th as the highest Honda. Sebastion Bourdais qualified 7th, Marco Andretti in 8th is the first American in the race, followed by CFH’s Josef Newgarden and JR Hildebrand. Compared to the last few years qualifying was completely dominated by Penske and Ganassi rather than the more diverse qualifying seen since 2011. Instead qualifying was a complete Penske and Ganassi walk away. Except for Juan Pablo Montoya and Sebastian Saadavera who both failed to crack the top 10. In fact Saadaera qualified 30th. Par for the course…. the fact that he has a Ganassi ride is a travesty.

Parity is dead in Indycar. Penske and Ganassi have won every single pole (5+1 rainout) and led almost every session in practice. Not only have they won every pole but they have led at least 80% of the practices and warm ups. Only on race day have any cracks shown in Penske and Ganassi domination as Josef Newgarden beat them on track and James Hinchcliffe got very lucky at NOLA. Otherwise all we have seen this year has been total domination by Penske and Ganassi. It is hard not to blame the aero kits for the lack of parity. The kits were tested by only a few teams and many teams did not even see the oval kit until the last month. I am not sure how Indycar expected this to work out in an interesting fashion because all the aero kits have brought us has been more Penske and Ganassi wins. I’m bored with Penske and Ganassi winning everything. While I’m sure they are nice people the drivers at Penske and Ganassi (excepting Karam and maybe TK) are not that interesting. JPM and Helio and even Power are okay, but I just don’t feel that much excitement watching them win. Certainly not as much as when Newgarden or Carpenter win or Rahal or Silvestro or Hildebrand are up front.

Indycar qualifying can be summed up as anti-climatic. I am glad no one was injured and there were no major wrecks after Ed’s incident in the morning. That does not excuse how hopelessly dull the qualifying was, nor does it change the fact that Penske and Ganassi domination is reaching the horrible low point of 2009. There was just nothing exciting once Dixon captured the 1st position. I really hope the race is better. There are some concerns that the close racing of the last few years will be less likely as the draft and pass may be more difficult with the aero kits. If that is the case we could be in for a long race. I am really hoping that a great Indy 500 will salvage what has been a rough 2015 season for fans of parity and excitement. Otherwise…. it seems that aero kits are going to join the pantheon of Indycar’s failed ideas. The racing and parity has taken a step back. Is this only a temporary step back, or will it last until the new new car, whenever that is? It’s a long time until then… but it’s not like qualifying produced much of interest or note.

 

Indycar Race Review 2015: Four Vs One

Indycar has raced five times over the course of 2015. The season began with anticipation due to the introduction of aero kits. Whether aero kits are at fault or not is up for debate, but what has been clear through the first five races is that Penske’s and Ganassi’s have a huge advantage over the other teams. Another issue throughout 2015 has been the general lack of passing and action in the races. St. Petersburg, Long Beach, NOLA, and the Indy Grand Prix were all disappointing races. Barber’s race as been the lone bright spot of 2015. A ratio of one good race per four bad ones does not fill me with hope for the rest of the season.

Penske and Ganassi have utterly dominated Indycar from pre-season testing through today (5/16/2015). Almost every practice and qualifying session has been led by a Penske or Ganassi driver. 3/5 races were also won by Penske or Ganassi drivers, and NOLA was only won by James Hinchcliffe due to the strange caution flag issues caused by the rain. Penske or Ganassi have won every single pole for the season (including the one which was rained out and set by points). At the Indy Grand Prix the entire Firestone Fast Six was just Penske and Ganassi cars. Everyone understands that Penske and Ganassi will win a lot of races and lead a lot of sessions. That is a fact of Indycar. However, the domination we have seen out of Penske and Ganassi is reminiscent of the 2009 and 2010 season. After the increased parity seen from 2011 through the 2014 season this development has been especially disappointing. This development was not unexpected due to Indycar’s odd aero kit testing policy. For reasons unknown, Indycar allowed a small number of teams to do the testing and development of the aero kits. This is similar and yet very different to the testing of the DW-12 which was done by a temporarily inactive and small team. By allowing Penske to have a significant role in developing the kits Indycar has given Penske and their drivers a huge edge over other teams. Some other teams were involved in testing, but some teams did not see a kit until pre-season testing. Combined this with a major reduction in testing and the fact that both Penske and Ganassi are fielding four car teams and what we’ve gotten is two team domination. Some people are okay with this… but if I wanted to watch one or two teams dominate I would be watching Formula One. Spoiler alert; I have not watched a single Formula One race this season.

Chevrolet’s advantage over Honda has also contributed to the lack of parity in 2015. Andretti Autosport, Schmitt, Herta, Coyne, and Foyt are all struggling for speed. Coyne is also struggling as they lack any good drivers. Instead they have relied on a menagerie of ride buyers as well as Daly getting one fill in race (which should have become more races) to compete against the Penske and Ganassi juggernaut. Dracone, one of their drivers, has shown Milka Duno levels of speed and tends to get in the way of other drivers. This has not made the racing better, either. Coyne went from a respectable team to a joke in less than a year… all due to the lack of talented drivers at the team. Schmitt’s team has the very talented James Hinchcliffe, but due to the issues with the Honda aero kit neither he nor James Jakes has had much speed. Creative strategy has helped salvage some good results but the team is a far cry from what it was last year. Foyt expanded to two cars and has had some good runs but poor finishes. Andretti Autosports only has three full time cars and they are all struggling. RHR and Munoz have both posted a few good finishes as did Simona De Silvestro at NOLA. Outside of Graham Rahal no driver has been able to preform well with the Honda aero kit. The kit is accused of making the car difficult to control and so most drivers have struggled with it. Rahal is leading the Honda teams and drivers in 2015 which no one expected.

Penske and Ganassi domination has also seen generally poor racing on track. St. Petersburg, Long Beach, and the Indy Grand Prix saw minimal amounts of passing. Most of these races were spent saving fuel and attempting to use strategy to gain position. On track the action was, to me, less than thrilling. Penske or Ganassi cars got out front and stayed there. Power and Montoya had a somewhat interesting battle at St Pete and Rahal tried to close the gap at Indy but in the end neither “battle” saw much action. NOLA’s main issue was rain and the general incompetence Indycar habitually demonstrates when it rains. NOLA saw over half the race run under caution and despite ample television time the race was called early as a timed race. There was also a significant lack of passing and if not for the attrition and strategy it would likely have been a Penske runaway again. Instead James Hinchliffe scored Honda’s sole win up to this point due to saving so much fuel that he only pitted once. Thrilling television.

Barber was by far the best race out of these five. Barber saw Penske and Ganassi lock down five of the top six qualifying spots. Josef Newgarden broke up the Red Car parade on the first lap passing his way from 5th to 2nd in the begging of the race. He later overtook Helio Castroneves after a caution flag and pit stop which allowed him to cycle back to the lead. Graham Rahal pitted in a way which let him run without any fuel saving at the end and he passed a huge number of cars. He closed a massive gap to pass Scott Dixon and then nearly catch Josef Newgarden on the last lap. Newgarden won his first career race, and if nothing else at least 2015 has given us that.

As I wrote about yesterday Graham Rahal has been one of the main highlights of the season. His performance is easily the most impressive of the Honda drivers. Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Scott Dixon appear to be the championship favorites. Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are also preforming strongly. The weakest driver at Penske has been Simon Pagenaud. He has suffered both crashes and mechanical failures as well as a general inability to lead races or win poles. Luca De Fillippi has not been terribly impressive this season as Ed Carpenter’s road racer. But mostly 2015 has been Penske and Ganassi cars leading races with Rahal and Newgarden as the most competitive of the rest of the field. Sebastian Bourdias also has been competitive and represents one of the few drivers who seem close to breaking up Penske and Ganassi’s stranglehold on Indycar.

In my opinion much of Indycar’s problems have to do with caution flags. To put it simply, Indycar has either too few or too many laps run under caution flags. St. Pete and NOLA saw caution periods which were too long and wasted significant portions of the race. On the other hand both the Indy Grand Prix and Long Beach had too few cautions. The field was never brought back together and any attempts to use strategy to break up the Penske/Ganassi stranglehold failed miserably (RE: Hinch at Indy GP). I’m not advocating for phantom yellows, but I do think the lack of cautions has been a serious issue that Indycar has had both this year and last. A lack of cautions was also an issue last year at most of the ovals which in term led to spread out racing with a focus on fuel savings. However Indycar occasionally goes too far and spends much of the race under yellow. I do not want Indycar to manufacturer cautions, but the last year of Indycar at least makes me understand the NASCAR debris cautions. Hopefully luck and cautions fall throughout the rest of the season in a way which produces exciting racing rather than what we’ve seen so far.

I’ve been disappointed with Indycar’s 2015 season up to this point. If you like Penske, Ganassi, fuel saving, and don’t care about passing then perhaps 2015 has been a great season of Indycar. But if you want to see close racing, action, and parity, 2015 has gotten off to a poor start. Barber suggests that better things are possible in Indycar, so we can at least hope for a more interesting second portion of the season. If it is just Penske and Ganassi winning indefinitely then 2015 is going to be the longest 6 month racing series in history. I did enjoy the race at Barber and I really hope to see Newgarden and Rahal win more races this year. If that happens 2015 may still go down as a great season of racing. Otherwise we could be looking at 2009, the sequel. The oval races are coming up and no one knows whether aero kits will make the racing better or worse. There are concerns about drafting and passing at Indy, but if it is any hope the racing was so poor last year at the non Indy/Iowa ovals that almost anything would be an improvement. I think it is possible higher downforce will lead to a better race at Texas if nothing else. In my opinion Indycar has only one good race this season and that was at Barber. St. Pete, Long Beach, and the Indy GP were all boring and processional. Some people enjoyed them… but I am not one of them.

Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal: Breakout Seasons

2015 has seen two young American drivers begin what appears to be their breakout season. Josef Newgarden was expected to have is breakout season this year. Newgarden ended the 2014 season on a high note by contending for wins at Mid Ohio and Milwaukee alongside competitive performances at Fontana, Iowa, and Sonoma. Newgarden spent his first three seasons as the only full time driver at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. For 2015 his team merged with Ed Carpenter’s successful team to form Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing (CFH). This move also gave Newgarden a Chevrolet instead of a Honda. As Ed Carpenter’s team won three races last year the expectation for 2015 was that Newgarden would finally win a race. Four races into 2015 and Josef Newgarden won the only exciting race of this season at Barber!

Graham Rahal has been in a top level of American open wheel racing since he was a rookie in Champcar’s final season (2007). Rahal won in his first IRL/Unified Indycar start at St. Petersburg but has no won since. He initially drove for Newman Haas, but that team had budget problems which eventually forced Rahal out. Graham bounce around with part time rides that were sometimes competitive but often times not. 2011 saw Rahal join the new expansion of Ganassi’s Indycar program alongside rookie Charlie Kimball. This was supposed to be his big break. In his two seasons at Ganassi Rahal preformed somewhat competitively. He finished in the top 10 in points and scored some podiums but never won a race. Tension between Rahal and the team caused Graham to do the unthinkable and return to his fathers team of Rahal Letterman Racing in 2013. The results from the first two years at Rahal Letterman were horrific. Rahal was 18th and 19th in points and outperformed by teammates when he occasionally had them. It should be noted however that Rahal had a second place finish both years, at Long Beach in 2013 and Detroit in 2014. Expectations were low among most fans heading into 2015 especially with the feared weakness of Honda’s aero kit. The Rahal’s claimed that their team would return stronger than ever and some insiders including AutoRacing1 reported that major improvements were being made to the team over incredibly long off season. From testing through the Indy Grand Prix Rahal has been one of the best Honda’s and currently sits 5th in points, the highest non Penske/Ganassi driver in points. Doing the small amount of research that was needed for this article I came away more impressed with Rahal than I expected. He has had a 2nd place race finish in his awful 2013 & 2014 season. In both 2011 and 2012 he was a top 10 driver despite not winning. These are pretty impressive results and in my opinion earn him a bit of a reprieve for his last two poor seasons.

Josef Newgarden spent much of his early career in Europe. He won the 2011 Indy Lights championship and by a miracle got a full season ride at Sarah Fisher’s team. He was fast from the start but struggled to get finishes. Once he qualified up front only to be wrecked by Dario. Bad luck seemed the follow him around as the 2014 Long Beach GP and Mid Ohio race showed. Despite these issues, Newgarden has contended for wins on ovals, road courses, and street courses.  Joseph Newgarden has top tens at Pocono and was in contention to win at Milwaukee last year. He also made the Fast Nine qualifying last year.  Josef Newgarden was the highest finishing single car driver in points (Note ECR’s 20 finished ahead of him with Conway/Carpenter) last season and has shown improvement every year. This season Newgarden has been one of the most competitive drivers outside of Penske and Ganassi alongside James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, and Sebastian Bourdais. Newgarden has the potential to be the next great American driver in terms of talent. What makes Josef Newgarden even more impressive is that alongside his talent is an exciting personality which could make him a star. With Josef Newgarden and James Hinchliffe, Indycar has two of the most fun drivers in the world. If Newgarden can become a consistent winner than he may have enough of an interesting personality to attract fans in a way that Buddy Rice, Sam Hornish Jr, and Ryan-Hunter Reay never have.

New car, new attitude, new sponsor, new success!

 

Graham Rahal’s personality is more controversial. Rahal’s quick win at St. Petersburg brought a lot of attention to him. His subsequent struggles to win again have caused some to lose faith in his abilities. What has really set fans against Rahal has been his social media presence. Around the 2010/2011 time frame Graham Rahal was dating a women (before Courtney Force) and they tweeted about each other a lot. Some people, including Tomas Sheckter, made fun of him for this. In fact Sheckter and Rahal had a pretty nasty and entertaining feud about this as Rahal’s relationship floundered. Over the last few seasons Rahal has made enemies by tweeting pictures of his cars and lavish lifestyle. Along with this Rahal has been accused of being overly sensitive based upon various interviews and comments on Twitter after races. Although the prevailing view is that Rahal’s twitter feed makes him look like a douchebag I enjoy what he posts. You can like it or hate it, but what cannot be denied is that Rahal is showing some genuine emotion. While I understand the concern some people have over his lifestyle photos I also like those. To me the “celebrity” life style he lives is interesting and marketable. Do you want an emotionless, serious, and joyless Scott Dixon/Ryan Hunter-Reay/Jimmie Johnson or do you want Rahal? I’ll take Rahal’s photo’s of sports cars and vacations over Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon at the gym any day of the week. Although Rahal is often compared (negatively) to Marco Andretti one of the big differences between them is Rahal has a much more definable personality than Marco. Continue posting those sports cars Graham!

Although both drivers appear primed for a great season there are some reasons to be concerned. Josef Newgarden had a major mid-season slump last season that started at the Indy Grand Prix. Newgarden had another rough Indy Grand Prix this season and had a major crash in practice for the Indy 500. The new CFH team has more resources and should help him overcome the problems he had last season. However, the Month of May has been a bit ominous for Newgarden fans. That’s a major concern since Newgarden’s success has been by far the best thing about this season. He is one of the few drivers able to compete week in and out with the Penske and Ganassi drivers. The biggest issue for Rahal is that he needs to avoid getting penalties. Graham Rahal has had a lot of penalties over the last few years alongside a few significant driver error incidents. For the most part (excepting St. Pete) Rahal has managed to avoid those issues this year. If he can continue to do so Rahal may be the best Honda driver in Indycar by the end of the year. Rahal’s other potential pitfall is the lack of a teammate. It is generally accepted that a single car team cannot be consistently competitive in most modern forms of racing. While some teams have temporarily had success as a single car team to truly become competitive Rahal will need a teammate. If not this season than at least next season. Funding seemed to be an issue heading into this season but Rahal has secured both Steak and Shake and Maxim to sponsor his car. Can someone else (Servia/Silvestro/Wilson?) join the team next year? Joseph Newgarden could use a major national sponsor as well. His team is funded by a hodgepodge of sponsors alongside Hartman Oil. He does a lot of events and promotions for Indycar already. Imagine what he could do with a big sponsor behind him!

What we don’t need to see

 

Indycar needs to have winning American drivers. Indycar does not need to be an all American series but it is insane to expect American fans to support a sport in large numbers that has no Americans in it. That is not a formula for success as the continued struggles of Champcar/CART/IRL/Indycar ratings and attendance have demonstrated. Some try and point out to the lack of impact RHR’s title and 500 had, or that ratings did not magically triple with Newgarden’s win. What those people are missing is that RHR lacked the personality and Indycar lacked the marketing push to make his wins matter. More importantly for winning American drivers to have an impact it has to be consistent. If only one or two Americans win races sporadically then it’s impossible to build momentum. If the interesting and exciting drivers win only once or twice a year that is no way to build a fanbase. But if they are consistently competitive, if they are the next generation of superstars in both success and personality than there is hope. Indycar’s present has been built upon Helio and Dixon, Dario and Bourdais, Pagenaud and Power. What if the future is built on Pigot and Karam, Rahal and Newgarden, Hildebrand and Daly? The future would be much brighter than the present. Even if I’m wrong… it cannot really be worse. Indycar needs some new winners and it needs American success stories. With Graham Rahal and Josef Newgarden, 2015 appears to be the beginning of their rise to the top. We can only hope that is the case.

 

Ken Block’s GRC Livery!

2014 Red Bull Global Rallycross runner up Ken Block unveiled his new livery for this season. I really enjoy his Monster Energy Drink liveries. They are way cooler than the Monster livery Kyle Busch uses in Nationwide. Monster’s Ken Block style livery is my favorite livery in Grid Autosport. I really enjoyed Global Rallycross last season, and I’m looking forward to some excitement this year!

 

Shocking News! Indycar Won’t Replace the Race in Brazil!

Indycar will not replace the race in Brazil. No COTA, no random brand new Brazil race. Is this disappointing? Yes. Is it shocking? Well, if you were expecting a happy ending, you really hadn’t been paying attention. Indycar almost never replaces a lost race. We may get another test to compensate for the lost race. The long off season got even longer.

Indycar Off Season 2015 Edition: Silence and Horror

This article also appears on http://www.wfopenwheel.com 

A hallmark of the Mark Miles era appears to be silent off seasons for Indycar. After the season ends at Fontana Indycar goes silent and is barely heard from again until the official tests start. While Indycar’s hardcore defenders attempt to rationalize this, the fact remains that going silent for over seven months just doesn’t cut it. Indycar’s 2015 off season has been silent despite the looming prospect of aero kits. These kits are shrouded in a great deal of secrecy, and so any potential marketing opportunities involving aero kits have been lost. Indycar’s silence has been broken somewhat over the last weeks as Brian Barnhart was returned to Race Control. And yes, this is the same Barnhart who’s infamy stretched over a decade of the IRL/Indycar until Randy Bernard put him out of our misery. He’s back. But Brazil is gone.  As we also found out last week the Indycar season opener in Brazil was killed off by the local government. The long off season just got a month longer!

Brian Barnhart’s return to Director of Race Control is horrifying. I am aware that Indycar uses a different system for race control now then they did in 2011. I would also point out that I am not a fan of the three steward system. Besides, if that was the case, just give Derrick Walker the ceremonial title. Granted, with Barnhart back the three steward system makes more sense than with Beaux Barfield. There is no way to put a positive spin on this decision. One of the justification’s argued by people who say Barnhart is a good hire since not many other people want the job. While I would agree that Indycar Race Control Director is not the best job in modern autoracing, I would argue that between the Road To Indy and various sports car people, not to mention retired drivers and team personnel, Indycar could have found someone else. Anyone else! Another defense of Barnhart is that series insiders like him. Which is fantastic for them. The opinions of team owners and drivers should be taken into account, but so to should the opinions of the fans! And while drivers haven’t been condemning him (probably related to them not wanting to be fined?) they are not out there cheer-leading for him either. One of my biggest complaints about Indycar during the Mark Miles era is that it often feels like a club racing series which is focused only on the insiders and not on the fans.

The main defense of Barnhart appears to be that only hardcore fans care about race control, so what does it matter? This totally misses the point. First of all, there are ONLY hardcore Indycar fans left. That’s about it at the moment. You, me, and between 100,000 and 500,000 others are just about it when it comes to Indycar and it’s fanbase. So even if only a quarter of those people are upset about Barnhart, that’s still a pretty significant portion of whatever is left of the Indycar fanbase. More importantly the argument that Barnhart doesn’t matter because only hardcore fans care ignores the fact that Barnhart’s actions will cause negative things that those casual or new fans WILL care about. The infamous spread out starts let the leader easily gap the field. Casual fans will notice that especially in comparison with NASCAR’s close together starts. Any issues with racing in the rain will be noticeable, whether or not a casual fan knows to blame Barnhart. The arbitrary way Barnhart hands out penalties and enforces the rules will have a major impact on the racing that all fans see. While re-hiring Barnhart won’t affect most fans directly, his actions almost certainly will.

I just hope Firestone brings rain tires to the ovals.

The Indycar race at Brazil was canceled. Another Indycar international races goes down the drain. This is the second time (Porto Alegro) Indycar’s attempts to go down to Brazil have failed. It appears that the cause of the race being canceled comes from the local government. However, rumors of problems with the track and the race have been flying since before the race was announced. Indycar had to of known that there might have been some issues. Indycar’s assertion’s against these rumors that the race would go on look a little bit hollow right now. Indycar apparently was given some money in advance and may be able to collect more for breach of contract. Some have thrown around $27 Million dollars as what Indycar will collect without a race. This of course ignores the fact that a racing series needs to have races, not just collect money from failed dates. While Indycar has some money up front, and may get more, it would not surprise me if they did not get as much as they hope. The reality is the contracts are complicated and much of the litigation will be done in Brazilian courts which may not be favorable to Indycar. On top of that, even if they win, too aggressive of litigation could prevent Indycar from ever being allowed back in Brazil.

Considering how Indycar’s international races have gone recently, can we get back to Indycar being an American series? I’m not upset Brazil is gone, but I am upset that the off season got longer. There are some rumors of a replacement race either at COTA (were the Pirelli World Challenge is headlining) or even in Brazil, but both of these rumors are unlikely. When was the last time Indycar replaced a race that was lost? Indycar at COTA would be cool, but don’t hold your breath. I am also a little sad to see the last non-aero kit race disappear. If aero kits end up destroying the parity Indycar has developed in the last few years then we have lost our only opportunity to see that parity in 2015.

Aero kits are happening. Which is a major turn around from the last few years. Aero kits for both Chevy and Honda are homologated and have been tested. However fans have not seen anything besides some early spy photos. Secrecy has dominated the aero kit process which seems like mistake. Aero kits could have been something to spice up the off season. Instead aero kits are a complete unknown. Nissan’s Super Bowl ad is an interesting counterpoint to how Indycar has (not) hyped their aero kits.

I initially thought aero kits were a good idea. I am becoming a lot more skeptical. I really worry that aero kits will destroy the parity in Indycar. There is a lot of potential for one kit to be significantly superior to the other. This threat is at it’s worst on the ovals where even a small difference can have a huge impact. In particular I am concerned for Indianapolis. The Indy 500 has seen great racing the last three years and it would be horrible to lose that. Compounding this issue is that it appears that the aero kits may allow for teams to alter their cars more than the spec DW-12, which will potentially allow for the return of Penske and Ganassi domination. I did not find the end of last season particularly exciting and I am concerned that 2015 will be more of the same. Penske and Ganassi winning less than exciting races with few cautions and fewer cars on the lead lap.

It is true that going back to having less parity would be more like things were in the past. But is that really the part of USAC/CART/IRL/Champcar that we want to hearken back to?

Luca De Fillipi is replacing Mike Conway in Ed Carpenter’s 20 for road and street courses. Insert me yawning here.

Indycar’s off season has been silence plus horrific developments such as Brazil and Barnhart. I am not going to lie, it’s a little tough to get excited about Indycar at this point. Aero kits could be great, or they could ruin the racing. I am still excited for the 2015 season though. I am really hopeful that Joseph Newgarden, Sage Karam?, Conor Daly?, Alex Rossi?, and Simona De Silvestro? will have rides and actually be competitive. Realistically, Newgarden will have a great shot at winning multiple times with his team merging into Ed’s team. That is, if aero kits and Penske/Ganassi domination do not make his 2015 season pointless. If Penske/Ganassi domination returns then hopefully Karam will at least keep it somewhat interesting. I’m looking forward to what 2015 will bring Indycar, but whether I will continue to be so excited as the season goes on, that’s a much bigger question.

Brian Barnhart Is Back!

I have no words. None at all. Brian at AutoRacing1 was able to put his thoughts into words, and they’re worth a read. I will probably write about this later on, but until then I leave you with Barnhart’s finest hour.

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