Saturday, June 27, 2015

My vision of the future of IMSA's Prototype class

ACO, the organizers of Le Mans, announced the new rules for Le Mans P2 cars starting from 2017. Without going into details, ACO will approve four chassis suppliers and one engine supplier. IMSA, the sanctioning body of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, is planning to adopt a modified version of the P2 regulations for their Prototype class. But IMSA and ACO have different needs. P2 will be IMSA's lead class with manufacturer involvement and all-pro lineups whereas for ACO it's a pro-am class with no manufacturer involvement. The proposed solution to that issue is allowing multiple engine manufacturers and manufacturer-specific bodykits in IMSA with also ACO-spec P2s being allowed there. ACO would allow multiple engine manufacturers only at Le Mans with their performance balanced and all cars using the ACO-spec bodykits.

Le Mans-compatibility is an issue here. Spec bodykits might make balancing the performance easier but it would also mean IMSA teams using engines that are designed to use with a different bodykit with different air intakes, etc. So probably the teams using ACO's spec engine would be at advantage. Also, ACO requires a pro-am lineup in the P2 class whereas IMSA allows all-pro lineups. That might be another issue for IMSA teams willing to race at Le Mans.

So, obviously racing at Le Mans wouldn't be so appealing for IMSA teams not using the ACO-spec P2. And the ACO-spec P2 with pro-am lineup wouldn't probably be winning against manufacturer-supported P2s with all-pro lineups in the Tudor Championship. How I would do it would be to split IMSA's Prototype class into two: Pro and Pro-Am classes. The Pro-Am class would use the ACO-spec P2s and those Pro-Am teams could get an invitation to Le Mans. In the Pro class, teams would be allowed (but not mandated) to use car manufacturers' engines and bodykits. If the car count is sufficient, then Pro-Am P2 could replace the Pro-Am PC class.

In my opinion that would be the sensible solution given ACO's and IMSA's differing needs for P2. IMSA needs manufacturers to their Prototype class and ACO doesn't want them to P2. A Pro-Am P2 class in IMSA would be an American route to Le Mans for privateer P2 teams. The Pro class would keep manufacturer involvement in IMSA's top class. And if the Pro class were based on the P2 chassis, the ACO-spec Pro-Am cars might be reasonably competitive against them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Porsche win the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans

Porsche have won the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. The winning no. 19 car was driven by Earl Bamber, Nico Hülkenberg, and Nick Tandy. Porsche also got the second place with the no. 17 car driven by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Mark Webber. The third place went to the dominant manufacturer of this century, Audi, with their no. 7 car, driven by the defending winners Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, and Benoit Tréluyer.

Porsche were the dominant team in the qualifying but so were they also in the previous WEC rounds at Silverstone and Spa with Audi still winning the races. Being able to do quadruple stints with the same tyres was helping Audi but they were also facing some adversity. The #7 lost time early in the race when a slow puncture forced them to pit for full service at the beginning of the fourth stint on the same tyres. The #8 Audi lost lots of time when it damaged its front after losing control in a confusing incident with a GT Ferrari when some cars were obviously slowing down for a yellow zone. The safety car periods in Saturday evening gave the #17 Porsche a lead of over a minute, thanks to it having been in an earlier safety car queue compared to its rivals. Like in the previous WEC rounds of this season, Audi again had great race pace. Filipe Albuquerque in the #9 Audi was setting great lap times in the Saturday evening, breaking the old race lap record.

I think the race got decided in late Saturday evening after a safety car period that packed the leading cars. The #17 Porsche that had long been leading got a one-minute penalty for ignoring yellows. And as the #18 Porsche had a couple of incidents under braking to Mulsanne, it was the #19 Porsche racing against the #9 and #7 Audis in the lead. While being soft on tyres had helped Audi to make their tyres last longer, it was hurting them at night when Porsche got their tyres work better and Nick Tandy in the #19 was building a great gap in his stint.

Of course, Porsche's advantage in colder conditions was going to end after the night but I think the gap the #19 built at night would've been enough for them even if the Audis had a clean finish to the race. But the Audis didn't have. The #7 of the defending winners was again Audi's strongest contender in the Sunday morning but then its engine cover blew off and the time spent repairing it cost it the chance to race for win or even for the second place. And the other Audi in the lead battle, the #9, had issues with its hybrid systems so the win was pretty much decided before the final hours of the race, Porsche just had to bring their cars home for a 1-2 win.

Audi may have had the faster car in the race; its three cars were the only ones to go under 3:18 in lap times. But most of the time Porsche was controlling the race and maybe didn't need to go all-out in the race. Last year's WEC champions Toyota have been disappointing this year and they were far from winning pace at Le Mans, finishing 6th and 8th and couldn't have a lap under 3:20 in the race. Their budget is behind Audi and Porsche and that's why they fielded only two cars at Le Mans and possibly the smaller budget can also be seen from their performance this year. Toyota have already announced they will be switching from 6MJ to 8MJ hybrid system subclass for the next year and replace supercapacitors with batteries like Porsche does. I wonder what Audi will be doing as they are currently in the 4MJ subclass, using a flywheel.

Formula One driver Nico Hülkenberg was one of the winning Porsche drivers. He became the first active F1 driver since 1991 and Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert to win at Le Mans. I think an F1 driver winning is great for the race, even though I have also seen opposite opinions fearing this to make the WEC look weak in comparison to F1. While some of the pay drivers in F1 would never become factory drivers in the WEC, you can't deny most of the world's best drivers are in F1 and it's great for the WEC to get them to do even one race. Hülkenberg winning doesn't mean the WEC drivers are bad drivers but it shows the world's best drivers want to do Le Mans. I like seeing IndyCar drivers like Bourdais or Dixon doing American endurance events and similarly I'd like more F1 and also IndyCar drivers joining WEC regulars for Le Mans. Unfortunately, if an F1 team is representing a manufacturer, it is hard to race for another manufacturer at Le Mans. That obviously prevented McLaren-Honda's Fernando Alonso driving for Porsche at Le Mans.

Monday, May 25, 2015

2015 Indianapolis 500 review

The 99th Indianapolis 500 is behind. And what a great race it was! Exactly what the series needed after the practice crashes and difficult weather in the qualifying weekend.

Team Penske's Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career. After qualifying 15th, I was pessimistic about his chances but the qualifying isn't so decisive for the result, rather just an indication of one's pace. Montoya had a difficult start to the race when Simona de Silvestro hit his rear wheel guard during an early caution and he got as low as 30th. But he made his way through the field and was one of the front-runners at the last restart with 15 laps to go. On the fourth-last lap, he passed Ganassi's Scott Dixon for the second place into the turn 3 and half a lap later he passed his teammate Will Power for the lead he'd keep until the finish.

The defending series champion Will Power was aiming for his first Indy 500 win. This was the race he wanted to win and you could hear it in his post-race comments, saying he'd be happy with the second place everywhere else but at the Indy 500. But it was nice to hear how he enjoyed the racing, I'm sure the fans did as well. The outcome might have been different for him had he not lead so many laps in the end but instead learned how his car behaves when running second. That might have been the key to overtake Montoya on the final laps.

It was a Penske vs. Ganassi battle in the front of the field. Team Penske claimed the top 2 positions, Ganassi the 3rd and 4th. Ganassi's Charlie Kimball was the best American, finishing third. He passed teammate Dixon with three laps to go, soon after Montoya's pass on Dixon. The polesitter and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon was one of the front-runners for the whole race but in the end finished only fourth.

Penske's Simon Pagenaud and Ganassi's Tony Kanaan had good cars but they got out of the contention for the win before the end of the race. Kanaan was having a very good race before crashing soon after his pitstop on lap 152. And Pagenaud seemed like the strongest Penske driver before clipping his front wing on the lap 176, costing him the chance to race for the win.

Last year's runner-up, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was one of the favorites for the race. But in the end, he couldn't challenge for the win, finishing only seventh. And it was unfortunate Sage Karam, last year's ninth, had to retire after a first turn incident. Given how well Ganassi's cars were doing, he might have had a strong race.

The race was dominated by Chevrolet with the only Honda drivers in the top 10 being Graham Rahal on the fifth place and Marco Andretti on the sixth place. Besides the last eight finished drivers were all powered by Honda. Honda surely can't be happy with the result; especially given their main focus was in winning the Indy 500.

Safety was a concern before the race because of crashed cars flipping in the practice sessions and James Hinchcliffe's leg getting pierced by a front rocker. Thankfully there were no serious injuries in the race, Sebastian Saavedra suffered a foot contusion in a three-car incident and a Dale Coyne Racing pit crew member broke his ankle in a pit road incident. The practice crashes were worrying but only one serious injury from them shows in my opinion that IndyCar is as safe as open-wheel racing on ovals can be.

The 99th Indianapolis 500 was a great race. Hopefully there will be plenty of other great races during the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. And hopefully the 100th Indy 500 next year will be just as great, preferably with also Honda as a serious contender for the win. And with James Hinchcliffe in the field of 33 drivers.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

2015 Indianapolis 500 preview

In my previous text, I was writing about the crashes that have taken place during the practice for this year's Indianapolis 500. But now it's time to look forward to the race on Sunday.

The front row was occupied by Scott Dixon, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud. This trio was quite dominant, the only ones with a speed of over 226 mph with fourth-placed Tony Kanaan at 225.503. The top 5 was occupied by Chevrolet-powered cars with the fastest Honda driver being Justin Wilson on the sixth place.

The pole went to Scott Dixon. This was his second pole at the 500, the first being in 2008 when he went on to win the race. And this year seems like a good chance for him to repeat that feat. He's been solid in the previous races in the IndyCar Series and he's been constantly among the fastest in the Indy 500 practice days.

Last year's series champion Will Power was second in qualifying. He's also been solid in practice days, even though not as consistent as Dixon. Earlier this year, I wasn't so convinced of his performances, he had some stupid moments like the overly optimistic attempt to overtake Montoya at St. Petersburg or crashing with Sato when exiting the pits at Barber. But he took an impressive win at the GP of Indianapolis, and even though now we're on oval, I expect him to be battling for the win.

I was disappointed with Simon Pagenaud's performances in the early season. But before the technical retirement at the GP of Indy, he was having a solid race, performing like one could expect from him before the season. And he's been one of the best drivers in the practice days. While he's still to win an oval race, he's a strong contender on Sunday. Still, I rank Dixon as the favorite.

The second row has some serious challengers for the win. The 2013 winner Tony Kanaan was fourth in the qualifying and excels on ovals. So does also the fifth-fastest man of the qualifying, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. After his scary flip in the Wednesday practice, he set the fastest lap of the week in the Saturday practice.

The sixth-placed Justin Wilson was the fastest Honda driver. Honda, who have been underdogs on road courses, had obviously their priority in succeeding at the 500. Looking at the practice and qualifying results, a Honda win would be a surprise, though.

The last two years' polesitter, oval specialist Ed Carpenter had a big crash in the morning of the qualification day. Given the circumstances, 12th place with the backup car was a decent performance but he has lots of work in the race. And his practice results weren't so good, apart from that Sunday morning before his crash.

The 2000 winner and the series leader Juan Pablo Montoya was a disappointment in the qualifying, only 15th, especially given his teammates were second, third, and fifth. Actually, I find it a bit surprising Power and Pagenaud were the best Penske drivers in the qualifying. Given how well Montoya and Castroneves have started their seasons, I was expecting those former 500 winners to have an advantage at Indianapolis.

The weather forecast for Speedway doesn't look too good for Sunday with thunderstorms being forecasted for the afternoon. Hopefully they will stay away long enough to let the race finish first. After all the difficulties in this month, I'm hoping for a good and safe race that would help to forget those difficulties and would be great promotion for the series.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A week of crashes behind at Indianapolis

The Indianapolis 500 is approaching; the qualifications are behind as well as all practice sessions but one-hour Carb Day practice on Friday. Then on Sunday, it's time for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.
This year has seen the introduction of the new aerokits. An aim in opening the aerodynamics for competition was to get visible differences between different manufacturers. And it seems that aim was achieved; there are clear differences in the Chevrolet and Honda aerokits and the manufacturers had even designed different parts for the qualifications and the race.

In my previous text, I was carefully positive about the introduction of the aerokits. The aerodynamically more sensitive cars haven't hurt racing, at least too much. But we may have seen another harmful effect of aerodynamically sensitive cars. There have been five crashes on the oval at Indianapolis this year, in four of them the car turned upside down. At first it seemed like it might have been an issue of the Chevrolet aerokit as the first three flips happened with it. But yesterday also a car with the Honda aerokit turned upside down when James Hinchcliffe had a heavy crash and his car was sliding sideways.

Maybe the new aerokits are so sensitive that they have caused the tendency for the cars to flip this year. Or maybe the new aerokits being faster is a reason for crashes and subsequent flips. Or maybe a bit of both, or maybe that could've happened also with the old Dallara aerokit. A thing to be noted is that all flips with the Chevy aerokit happened with the qualifying parts which were abandoned later as it became required to run the qualifying with the race trim.

But what should have been done otherwise, if anything, and what should be done in the future? Well, clearly something should be done to avoid these flips in the future; we don't want that to happen in a race with a group of cars coming behind. And all these flips can't have been a coincidence; there is something wrong at least in the Chevy aerokit. Actually, I'm less worried about the suspension failure that caused the crash of Hinchcliffe, despite it being the only of the crashes where the driver got injured. That crash may just have been a one-off failure and very bad luck for Hinch. There will always be the risk of a mechanical failure, and on an oval it can have severe consequences. 

I think IndyCar should have tested the speedway aerokits already before May. To start testing them only in May meant they didn't have time to fix the arisen issues before the 500, they can only hope the race setup leads to less crashes and isn't so prone to flip. Had they tested the speedway aerokits in winter, they could've addressed and solved their issues before the Month of May.

As for what they should do now, I don't know as I'm not an aerodynamics engineer. But here's a bit radical idea. Make the car less aero-sensitive. Distinctive differences between manufacturers are the only good thing I can imagine of the aerokit competition. Otherwise advanced aerodynamics don't improve racing on track and as we've seen on the past week, they can make a spinning car behave unpredictably. I'd reduce downforce and compensate the loss in lap times with more mechanical grip and power. Of course, this is no short-term solution, rather an idea on what they should do when they set the regulations for the successor of DW12. A short-term solution is just to find what makes the cars flip so easily and how to avoid that from happening without a complete redesign of the car.

Crashes have taken the attention on the first week of this year's Indy 500. But hopefully on Sunday there will be a great race. Later this week I will write a preview of Sunday's race.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Some review of the early 2015 IndyCar season

It's time for some review of the first IndyCar races of the 2015 season. The big change for this season was opening the aerokits for competition. The start wasn't promising. In the first race of the season at St. Petersburg, broken winglets brought many debris cautions plus drivers were already saying it's harder to follow the car ahead. Those were my concerns about the aerokits. The more aerodynamically advanced the cars get, the more they suffer when following another car. And more fragile wings may discourage drivers from overtaking attempts or lead to debris cautions.

Barber was the race I was looking forward the most to see the effects of the aerokits on a road course with fast corners. And it left a good impression, it was a good race. Obviously it's harder to follow the car ahead but it wasn't hurting the racing at Barber too much. And maybe it's only the track characteristics or maybe the drivers have learnt to be more careful with the more fragile wings after St. Petersburg. So, I'm thinking the manufacturer aerokits are a good thing; the cars are a bit more different now. Different aerokits also caused fear of one manufacturer dominating the series. Honda were underdogs in the early season but pretty competitive at Barber, so maybe their car isn't as bad as it seemed earlier. It will be interesting to see how Honda will do at the Indianapolis 500 where they have won 10 of the last 11 races. I hope they could improve their performance on road courses a bit so that we'd have two manufacturers racing for wins all the time. Even better would be if a third manufacturer came to IndyCar soon.

Still, I think IndyCar must ensure the cars don't get aerodynamically too advanced. Aerodynamically advanced cars don't usually provide so great racing plus they put less emphasis on the drivers' skills. Also, while I'd like opening the rules more, it should be done carefully to avoid creating too big performance differences between the manufacturers as well as to avoid costs exploding.

Juan Pablo Montoya is leading the championship by three points to Helio Castroneves. Montoya took a brilliant win at the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. At the second-race of the season at NOLA, his pace wasn't so good but as the qualifying had to be abandoned, he started on pole as the championship leader and finished fifth. Great defensive driving at the end of the Grand Prix of Long Beach gave him the third place there and he retained his championship lead at Barber despite finishing only 14th.

Castroneves took the poles in the last two races at Long Beach and Barber. Having to wait for the traffic on the pit road probably cost him the win at Long Beach and at Barber he finished only 15th after running out of fuel. Still, his pace in the last two races shows he's a strong contender for his first IndyCar Series title and surely one of the favorites for the Indianapolis 500 where he could equal A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Sr., and Rick Mears at four wins.

Scott Dixon is on the third place of the standings. After the difficult first two races, he took his first win at the Grand Prix of Long Beach and then was third at the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber. Everything looks to be set for another great season for the three-time series champion.

Josef Newgarden has had a good start to the season, three times in top 10 and fourth in standings. The 2011 Indy Lights champion took his first career win the in the IndyCar Series in the last race at Barber. He seems to have potential to become the next American superstar in IndyCar, and an American superstar would be great for the series in its home market. I heard some speculation that he might be a candidate for the new Haas F1 Team in 2016, even though he may not fulfill the super licence requirements. While I'd love more crossover between IndyCar and F1, I must say I'd be slightly disappointed if IndyCar lost a potential future American star driver to F1.

The defending series champion Will Power is only fifth in the standings. A pole and a second-place finish at St. Petersburg as well as a fourth-place finish after a collision and drive-through penalty at Barber show he has the pace but he should have been smarter at times. At St. Petersburg, an overly-optimistic dive on Montoya for the lead caused a collision but thankfully didn't take the cars out. At Barber, colliding with Sato when exiting the pits was a stupid mistake. He hasn't lost the championship yet but he needs to drive smarter if he wants to win it.

Simon Pagenaud completed Team Penske's four-car dream team. One might have expected him to be a threat for the veterans Montoya and Castroneves for the 2016 seats unless Penske wants to continue with four cars. But Pagenaud has been a disappointment for me. He's been the weakest Penske driver so far and is only ninth in the standings. That's quite poor given he's been in the top 5 in the last three years and his teammates are first and second in the standings.

And few words about the calendar. As it seems that Formula One is going to start the 2016 season only in April, I think IndyCar should try to fill the void of open-wheel racing. Start the season in the Southern states, Latin America, or Australia right after the Super Bowl and have few races before the F1 season starts. The winter break of F1 might make some F1 fans to watch IndyCar.

Monday, April 6, 2015

How to stop the decline of F1's viewership?

Formula One is struggling with viewing figures. Recently I read the former Mercedes-Benz motorsports director Norbert Haug's comments about how to increase the popularity of the DTM which is also struggling with viewing figures (in German). I think some of his comments would also apply to F1. Especially I liked these:
"When you're once at the track, then you'll surely follow the series in media."
"If I had great TV ratings and the grandstands at the track are half empty, that is not good. Firstly the spectators at the track must be served."
These remind me of the suggestions in Racer's website's IndyCar 2018 article series, where many people emphasized the importance of race events for the series' popularity.

Almost everywhere in the World, the most popular sport is some team sport. You can see it live almost every week during the season, in some sports multiple times per week. A successful team increases the sport's popularity in their city or region. And while tickets are getting more expensive in every sport, the tickets are still affordable for casual fans, who might get hooked and become regular game-visitors.

For a series like F1, or whatever motorsport series, it's different. The series visits a track only once, or twice in some cases in the DTM or NASCAR. Visiting a Grand Prix isn't as casual as visiting a football or hockey game which can be more comparable to going to movies. That's why you don't get those casual fans there so easily. Of course, as a Grand Prix is such a rare event, you get spectators from a larger area. But, with tickets being so expensive, it's hard to fill the stands. If you aren't really into F1, you probably aren't going to spend hundreds of euros for tickets. And even if you're a big fan, you may not be able to afford those tickets. And here's a thing I think F1 has got wrong. As Norbert Haug said about the DTM, when you get people to the track, then you'll begin to follow the series in media. I think F1 needs less expensive tickets to get casual fans there; if they enjoyed the event, they'll come again the following year and follow the series in media. With less expensive tickets, there might be more fans visiting multiple races per year. And less expensive tickets require lower sanctioning fees for tracks, then they can lower the ticket prices.

And make the series seen where they are racing. The only time I have lived in a country where a GP is being held was last summer in Germany. I have to say I hear a lot more about the Rally Finland in the Finnish media than I heard about the German GP in the German media. Maybe I didn't follow the German media enough or maybe the event gets more publicity in regions closer to it, or maybe the FIFA World Cup title took media's attention. But surely a big sports event gets also more TV audience in the host country, offering a chance to get people into that sport. Having a good vibe around the event makes people more interested about it. Positive things like big audience are a way to create that good vibe. When you can say there are well over 100,000 spectators, it's easier to make other people check it on TV. To get a big audience, you need good marketing, affordable tickets, and an attractive event.

As I think experiencing F1 live is a way to market the series, then leaving classic venues where the audience is must have been a mistake. Surely, one can say F1 is trying to expand its fanbase by going to Asia. But I'm sceptical about that having been the main reason for it. F1 has been going to Asia to receive bigger sanctioning fees; expanding fanbase has been a desired side effect of that. And countries like Bahrain and Abu Dhabi don't really offer big opportunities to expand fanbase. I think F1 should put more emphasis on getting crowds than receiving big sanctioning fees. A badly attended Grand Prix doesn't increase viewership, no matter how big the sanctioning fee is. Of course, some attempts to expand into new markets are OK but they should result to getting a well-attended event or leaving the country.

I think NASCAR has got it right; they race in front of big crowds. The races are where there are fans and the tickets are affordable. And I think they have it right with television, too. While I'd prefer all races free-to-air, pay-per-view channels just can pay more for the TV rights. But, the problem with PPV is that then it's mostly the hardcore fans who can watch the races, casual viewers less likely have the pay channels. Even some hardcore fans must stop watching the series as they can't afford the PPV channels. I like how it is with NASCAR in the USA. Certain attractive races like the Daytona 500 and the last races of the Chase are on FTA channels. That helps to keep masses interested in the series but isn't enough for the hardcore fans who will pay for the cable channels to see the other races.

I think F1's willingness to go for money at the expense of viewing figures may undermine its future. Even if F1 got more money from the new Asian host countries than declining viewership costs, the declining viewership is a problem. The huge global audience has justified manufacturers' and sponsors' spending. Is it justifiable anymore when viewership decreases? If F1 lost manufacturers, would it anymore be the top-tier class if the manufacturers joined another series and hired F1's top drivers? And, are those new host countries anymore willing to pay the high sanctioning fees when they get less exposure than before?

I think stopping the declining viewership is important for F1. Surely there are things in the sport that could to be improved to be more attractive to fans. But F1 also needs to be more affordable and accessible for fans. Still, I'd find a big drop in sanctioning fees and TV rights surprising, for sure the commercial-rights holder doesn't want a huge drop in their revenue. Maybe the declining viewership is OK for them as long as they make profit; after all, F1 is owned by an investment company.