Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thoughts about IndyCar schedule

The IndyCar season ended over two weeks ago, which is very early given that e.g. NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup started only last weekend and will finish in mid-November. IndyCar wanted to have the season finale in late August to get the season finished before the American football season begins.

The early season finish has been criticized a lot but I can understand the reasons behind it. One can say the IndyCar fans would watch IndyCar also after the football season has started but that argument doesn't take casual fans into account. Once the football season has started, it is harder to make casual fans watch IndyCar as well as it is harder to get attention for IndyCar. The season ending in late August can help to get more attention for the season finish.

But the early season finish has also its disadvantages. Even if it enabled to get more attention for the season finish, it means the offseason will be longer than the race season if the next season begins in March.

I think the season should be seven to eight months long. Usually that means a season from March to October or November. But I think the season could also begin earlier to shorten the offseason after an August finish. In that case, even a February start would be too early but the season could begin in January or December. A longer season would allow more time between races. I think two weeks is ideal for the gap between races. A race every week feels too often; a race doesn't feel so special when there was one in the previous week and another in the following one. A race every two weeks feels right; it would feel more special yet the races would be often enough to keep the interest up. Yet, a winter start wouldn't completely be without problems. There are IndyCar drivers participating the 24 Hours of Daytona so a January start would be problematic. Besides weather would rule out many tracks for races in winter.

Weather leads to another topic. Should IndyCar expand overseas? There could be races e.g. in South America during winter.

I think IndyCar should concentrate on the USA, their key market is there. But there could be some overseas races to increase the series' international recognition. I think Latin America would be a good option for international races. The races would be in the same time zones as the USA so it wouldn't make much difference for an American TV viewer. Brazil had a race in Sao Paulo until last year and next year there will probably be a race in the city of Brasilia. Another Latin American country where I would like to see a race is Colombia as they have three drivers in the series. Mexico as the USA's neighboring country would also be quite a natural option for an abroad race. Yet, the former Champ Car venue Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigues in Mexico City will be hosting F1 starting from the next year, so that track obviously isn't an option for IndyCar.

As for overseas races, I think Australia and Japan could also be good additions to the calendar. Surfers Paradise and Motegi have already previously hosted IndyCar and CART races. Those races' time zones might be somewhat problematic for the American TV audience but I am pretty sure late Saturday night is better than early Sunday morning. Because of the difficult time zone, I don't think IndyCar should consider expansion to Europe. Another reason is that IndyCar isn't very popular in Europe and I doubt the races would draw enough audience to be worth flying the cars to Europe.

All in all, I think the season ending in late August may have some advantages but the long offseason has its disadvantages. Starting the season earlier could be a solution to avoid the long offseason of the August finish. Yet finding tracks for a winter start might be more difficult than extending the season until October or November with a March start. My opinion is that the offseason must not exceed five months. If you cannot do it with an August finish, then extend the season into October or November.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My review of the 2014 men's US Open and some thoughts on the future

The most memorable thing of this year's US Open was two first-time Grand Slam finalists with Marin Cilic winning his first Grand Slam title. This was the first time since the 2005 Australian Open when none of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic made the final at a Grand Slam tournament. Unfortunately this wasn't otherwise a particularly interesting tournament, and despite an interesting match-up, the final was pretty one-sided.

In my preview, I pointed out a player who has been troubling the best players during this summer, yet hasn't achieved big success. He was Marin Cilic. After a five-setter against Gilles Simon on the round of 16, he was superb in the last three matches and is a deserving champion. It is always nice to see an offensive player succeeding instead of a player who rather waits for the opponent's errors. But there is a stain in Cilic's career. Last year he failed a drug test during the tournament in Munich. The substance was nikethamide which Cilic said was from incautious use of glucose tablets. As I am not an expert in doping, I cannot question the decision to reduce his ban to only four months because the use was said to be unintended and not to enhance performance. But how the ATP/ITF were hiding his doping case didn't give a good image of the transparency of their anti-doping work.

The runner-up Nishikori had a great tournament despite not winning the title. He beat three top 6 players on his way to the final. On the round of 16, he beat the World No. 6 Milos Raonic in five sets. In the quarterfinal, he beat the No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in five sets, and in the semifinal he beat the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in four sets. Those long matches may account for his lame performance in the final, even though Cilic was so good that Nishikori would have had trouble even if he had been completely fresh.

It was a pity that the final was so one-sided, it was nice to have two fresh faces in the final. After the final, some people might have said to have actually preferred a final involving two of the big four. While I must say that I preferred the Djokovic-Federer final at Wimbledon, having two big names doesn't always guarantee a great final. From recent years, the 2013 Australian Open final Djokovic-Murray wasn't particularly exciting whereas Nishikori's first 500-level final in Tokyo in 2012 against another first-time 500 finalist Milos Raonic was one of the matches I enjoyed the most that year. I want to see fresh faces on the top of the tour. Nishikori was already in the Madrid Masters final but an injury cost him that match after being a set and a break up against Nadal. That injury forced him aside from the French Open, after having a great start to the clay season with a 500 title in Barcelona. If he could avoid injuries, he would have potential to be on the top of the tour. Cilic is yet to prove he can stay on the top of the tour. Low ranking and tough draws had made it difficult for him to make it to the late rounds in big events. Now with his improved ranking, he should be able to have deep runs more often and he definitely has the potential to win more big titles.

Novak Djokovic is the World No. 1 but he hasn't been playing his best tennis this summer after winning Wimbledon. It is hard to say what was wrong with him on North America's hard courts. He had just won Wimbledon so he should be in a good form but maybe getting married has taken some focus away from tennis. As his fan, I wouldn't be worried yet. He still has a great chance to finish this year as the World No. 1. And at this point of his career, his big goal should be to complete the Career Grand Slam at the French Open. He can still play great tennis and only Nadal has a better peak level on clay. It is hard for Novak to reach Nadal's peak level on clay but if he can avoid heavy decline longer than Nadal, he should have a great chance to win the French Open.

Roger Federer was the player with the best results in the pre-US Open Masters tournaments. But as I said in the preview, he isn't way above the field. I think his current peak level isn't anymore among the very best on the tour. Otherwise he is just another top 10 player but with his consistency he is No. 3 and being the most successful player of all time puts pressure on his opponents. This tournament with Djokovic not playing his best tennis, Nadal aside, and Andy Murray being hardly on top-10 level, was a great opportunity for Roger to win his 18th Grand Slam title but he wasn't just good enough. And maybe this was his last chance, at least outside Wimbledon. I can't see him anymore improving for the next season. On Wimbledon's grass he might still win a title if Djokovic has a bad tournament and Murray cannot anymore find his best level. And if Roger himself plays his best tennis. That may be too many ifs.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka were the players I expected to be the most dangerous title rivals for Federer and Djokovic. Tsonga was playing decently on the first three rounds but on the round of 16, he didn't have enough consistency against well-defending Andy Murray. Wawrinka was like he has been most of the season. Great at his best but sloppy at times. That was enough to make the quarterfinals but in the quarters he lost a tight five-setter to Nishikori. Wawrinka's season has been a bit disappointing after winning the Australian Open and the Monte Carlo Masters which made him the No. 1 in the Race to London. After Monte Carlo he is yet to win a title and has had some big disappointments like losing on the first round at the French Open. But with a Grand Slam and a Masters title, I don't consider his season as a disappointment. He has taken a step forward this season, now he can win big titles. He will most likely never dominate the tour but he can win any event he enters if he manages to play his best tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if he won some of the remaining Masters events this year or the World Tour Finals. Tsonga's season has also turned into a good one as he won his second Masters title in Toronto after a bad first half of the season. My expectations for him for the rest of the season are pretty similar to Wawrinka. If he had a great week, he could win some big event.

This season has been a breakthrough for Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. They have made the top 10 and they both made their first Grand Slam semifinals at Wimbledon. The US Open was a decent performance by both. Neither of them can be happy with a round of 16 exit but they weren't really underperforming. Raonic took the eventual finalist Nishikori to five sets whereas Dimitrov lost to well-playing Gael Monfils.

Monfils was a positive surprise at the US Open. He was yet to drop a set after the second set of his quarterfinal match against Federer. Unfortunately he couldn't keep his level up to win the match but he lost it in five sets, after having match points in Federer's serve in the fourth set. He is such an interesting player that I would love him to succeed but he is already 28, so the time is running out for him to achieve something big. Still, this was his first season with two Grand Slam quarterfinals, so hopefully he can have some good results in the near future.

All in all, it was very nice to see fresh faces succeeding. Unfortunately there weren't particularly memorable matches. Nishikori beating unusually bad Djokovic or Cilic beating 33-year-old Federer isn't as impressive as Robin Söderling beating Nadal at Roland Garros or Wawrinka beating Djokovic at the Australian Open, beating players at a tournament that they have dominated in the previous years. But it is nice that each slam had a different champion this year, not only on men's but also on women's side. And it is also nice that this is the first season since 2003 with two new Grand Slam champions.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Should F1 go to three-car teams?

Yesterday there was an interesting tweet by Adam Parr:
"This is the last year of F1 as we know it. In 2015 eight teams will contest the championship, with several teams entering three cars."
There were also other tweets confirming this possibility. (link 1, link 2) Of course, I am not sure how credible that F1 Paddock Pass is but Adam Parr would feel pretty credible a source. I would say "no smoke without fire".

F1 going to three-car teams feels like a major change as there has been no three-car teams since the 80s, and since the 90s, there has been no one-car teams. Two-car teams have been the standard of F1 for about the last twenty years. The grid reducing to eight teams isn't completely out of question after this year. Caterham is stuck on the back of the grid and isn't doing financially well. The Caterham Group of the team founder Tony Fernandes sold the team earlier this year, and the future prospects of the team don't look good. Marussia is another of the new teams of 2010 and still stuck to the back of the grid, despite scoring two points this year and being ahead of Sauber in the constructors' standings. Besides, Marussia's road car business is now defunct so running an F1 team might not make so much sense for them. Sauber is a team that has struggled financially in the last years, yet the rumoured takeover by the Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll would secure the future of the team. Lotus have also had financial issues in the last years, so one cannot be sure about their future. And if F1 went to three-car teams, I am not so sure Red Bull would like to continue Toro Rosso as their main team would already have three cars.

Meanwhile, there are new team projects aiming to join F1 in 2016, so a plan to reduce the number of teams sounds surprising. Then again, I doubt those teams woud have a lot to give to F1. We saw in 2010 how difficult it is to come to F1 as a brand-new team. Caterham and Marussia have struggled throughout their entire existence, HRT went bust after three seasons, and the USF1 team never made the grid. It seems like to start from scratch and be competitive in F1, a team must have the resources of a big car manufacturer, Toyota as an example. Even they couldn't make it to the top during their eight-year stay in F1 but at least they were competitive. Still, most of the time they were competing in the midfield against teams with smaller budgets but more experience.

Entering F1 has got very difficult. It is hard to get the financing to have a competitive budget. Besides, the lack of other resources makes it hard for new teams to be competitive in F1. But how to make it easier to enter F1? Reducing the costs would make it easier to join the series as well as it would be easier for the midfield teams to challenge the top teams. A budget cap has sometimes been proposed but it would be difficult to police. Car manufacturer affiliated teams could have their R&D done in the road car division to hide it from the F1 team's budget. Restrictions like engine development freeze have been introduced to reduce costs. But even if engines didn't cost so much, teams can use the saved money to something else. With enough standardization in components, teams could save money but developing F1 towards a spec series would be bad for the series. The competition between constructors has always been a part of F1 so it must remain like that. Also, teams with better resources would oppose more standardization and might leave F1 because of it. Also, the richer teams might not even like to cut their budgets enabling financially less strong teams to challenge them more easily. That would be another reason for them to leave F1. And with big teams leaving F1, there might be a possibility of another series surpassing F1 as the most important series in car racing. Because of that risk, F1 couldn't afford losing its top teams.

So, I think there is little to be done to reduce the cost of new manufacturers entering F1. But is there then any way to help new teams entering F1 as well as to reduce the performance gap between the better and worse teams? Is going to less teams with more cars the only way to make the back of the grid more competitive?

To be honest, I think less manufacturers with more cars would make the competition tighter. The backmarker teams don't have the resources of the big teams and the big teams won't voluntarily give up their advantage over the smaller teams to make the competition tighter. But I wouldn't go to a grid of three-car teams. A three-car team withdrawing from F1 would be a bigger loss than a two-car team. Two three-car teams withdrawing would be disastrous for the series, there would be six cars less. Instead of three-car teams, I would allow buying components from other teams and even customer cars. Privateer constructors like Williams have opposed the idea of customer cars because a team with a customer car of a dominant team might beat them with a fraction of their budget. But customer cars could also be a way of financing the operations of privateer constructors by selling their cars to customer teams. To ensure more constructors having customers, each constructor could be allowed only one customer team. Of course, customer cars could enable some teams practically having four cars by entering the series as two teams. To prevent teams from having financial advantage by operating as two teams with the same car, teams with customer cars, or cars mostly consisting of customer components, could be excluded from the constructors' championship and thus from getting their share of the series' revenue. That would also protect constructor teams from losing to customer teams in the constructors' championship, being an incentive for the teams to have own cars. After all, I think allowing customer cars would make the competition tighter. But I also think F1 needs more constructors than only the top teams. In case of customer cars being allowed, F1 should ensure own cars being the preferred option for midfield teams.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why is IndyCar getting more interesting than F1? What could F1 learn from North America?

Current IndyCar and former Formula One and NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya has said F1 should copy American racing to re-engage fans. Actually, I must say my motorsports interest has been switching from F1 to IndyCar in the recent years, so maybe Montoya has a point.

Why I have started to get interested in IndyCar is that it offers better entertainment than F1. Actually, I preferred F1 when it didn't go too far with its attempts to be entertaining. Back then it seemed like American racing was the one going too far with attempts to make races more entertaining with excessive use of pace car, push-to-pass in IndyCar, or green-white-checker finish in NASCAR. But in recent years in F1, safety car rules have been changed to make safety car periods spice up the race more as well as the DRS is even more artificial than push-to-pass in IndyCar. The use of push-to-pass in IndyCar is in the driver's discretion plus one can use it also to defend, yet one can use it only ten times in a race. In F1, a driver can use DRS always when he is within one second of the car ahead in the DRS zone, yet one cannot use it to defend. That produces more exciting wheel-to-wheel racing in IndyCar as opposed to F1's DRS passes that can hardly be called overtakes. Another thing I dislike in F1 is the amount of tarmac run-offs. Tarmac is more forgiving compared to gravel, taking away challenge as going wide isn't punished the way it used to be. Instead going wide may even gain some time, leading to uncertainty if a qualifying lap is valid or if an overtake happened withing the track limits. In North America, tarmac run-offs are still quite uncommon with run-offs being mostly gravel or street circuits having no run-off between the track and the wall like in F1. IndyCar also provides more variety with tracks by having races on not only road courses and street circuits but also on ovals. Also, I dislike F1 having double points in the final race of the season. IndyCar also introduced that for this year but I prefer their system. They give double points in the 500-mile races of Indianapolis, Pocono, and Fontana which is the final race of the season. That makes more sense as they are the longest races of the season whereas in F1 the Abu Dhabi GP isn't any different to the other Grands Prix.

But what could F1 learn from North America in that regard? I think F1's overtaking aids have gone too far. Just introduce similar rules like with push-to-pass in IndyCar; first you try to overtake without push-to-pass, then if you are still stuck behind a slower car, you can use push-to-pass, yet cannot do it lap after lap. Of course, I am not sure that would make racing in F1 as tight as in IndyCar; also cars play a role here and I will return on that later. As for run-offs, there is no return to gravel in fast corners where it would be dangerous. But I think there shouldn't be tarmac runoffs in slow corners where gravel traps or grass wouldn't be dangerous. When it comes to oval racing, I think it is a nice addition to IndyCar but has no place in F1. Ovals haven't been a part of F1 excluding the series' early years when Indianapolis 500 was a World Championship race and the Monza circuit also included the oval section. Besides, given the high emphasis of safety in F1, it would be difficult to see F1 racing on dangerous ovals.

One major difference between F1 and IndyCar is F1 teams designing and building their own cars whereas IndyCar teams use single-make cars. The difference between IndyCar teams is which engine they use plus there will be different aerokits starting from the next season. The single-make chassis is obviously one reason for the tighter racing in IndyCar. And of course it means much lower costs. Then again, I think each team having their own car has become an essential part of F1 and is a part of the series' attractiveness as it is unique among single-seaters. In that regard, IndyCar will never be like F1, yet I would like it to be more like CART in the 90s with multiple different chassis and engine manufacturers. More manufacturers would mean more technical competition. But F1 shouldn't go for customer cars, each team having their own car has been a part of the series for such a long time. One aim of F1 regulations should be to enable tight racing but not to limit teams' technical freedom. That is challenging; too much freedom and the differences between teams can get too big. But too restrictive rules take away the attractiveness of technical competition in F1, even if that enabled tighter racing.

Montoya spoke about American series being more fan-friendly. I cannot speak a lot about the fan experience at the track as I have never been to a race. Also, I don't know about IndyCar's televising in its home market in the USA. In Europe, it is mostly a pay channel sport but so is also F1 these days. But a big difference is the use of the new media. F1's Twitter account is just links to articles on the series' website, IndyCar and NASCAR, on the other hand, tweet photos and videos on the series' Twitter accounts. Of course, teams tweet actively in F1 so there isn't so much need of an active series account. There is also a difference in the series' YouTube policy. F1 removes videos from YouTube in order to protect their material. IndyCar and NASCAR don't remove videos and even have own YouTube accounts, in order to promote the series. Exclusive TV rights may be a problem for F1 but their approach still seems outdated.

One more thing I prefer in IndyCar is how everything seems more relaxed there. It is hard to describe but I think there are less controversies in IndyCar than in F1. Maybe it is just because I haven't followed it as much as F1. Controversies obviously help to keep F1 in headlines between races but I am tired of them. And maybe it is that more relaxed attitude why tough racing leads to less complaining in IndyCar, making it more enjoyable to watch.

But to the main question, what could F1 learn from North America? I think completely copying North American racing wouldn't work. Not all existing fans would like American-style F1, and for people liking American-style open-wheel racing, there is already IndyCar. F1 has always been more about sport and less about show than American racing. That is what it should be like also nowadays, even though DRS, double-points final race, and proposed standing restarts are even bigger show elements than what there is in American racing. Also, F1 must not lose the aspect of technical competition that makes it special. F1 could copy some elements from American racing or other series as long as it doesn't lose its own nature. For example, I think DRS in the way it is used in F1 has not been a good addition whereas IndyCar-style push-to-pass would be an improvement. To retain the existing fanbase, F1 must retain its essence as well as improve the fan experience, e.g. with new media, to comply with the standards set by other series. A better fan experience would also help to get new fans. And American series could be a model of the use of new media.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Some thoughts about the CHL and European ice hockey

In recent years, there have been attempts to have inter-European ice hockey matches and create a pan-European league. That would be important to grow hockey in Europe. With more money in European hockey, Europe would be more attractive for top players. The latest attempt for a pan-European league is the second incarnation of the Champions Hockey League (CHL).

The 2008-09 season saw the first incarnation of the CHL; 12 clubs from the top European leagues in a competition reminiscent of the UEFA Champions League. For the following season, there were plans to increase the number of teams by including clubs from smaller hockey countries' leagues. But the future editions of the CHL were cancelled because of lack of financing.

Since 2010 there was another tournament for European leagues' clubs, the European Trophy. That was expanded from Finnish and Swedish clubs' pre-season Nordic Trophy. The European Trophy was mostly a pre-season event but since 2011 its playoffs were played in December. Starting from 2014, the European Trophy was replaced by the new Champions Hockey League.

Champions Hockey League and European Trophy haven't been the only ways for teams to go international. The Russia-based KHL has expanded to West, with Jokerit from Helsinki, Finland as their latest new foreign team. They have also had teams from e.g. Slovakia, Latvia, and the Czech Republic, even though the Czech team Lev Prague withdrew from the league after the last season, despite having made the finals.

The difference between the CHL and the KHL is that the CHL is played alongside national leagues whereas the KHL is the only league for its teams. The CHL's format is like the UEFA Champions League whereas the KHL's format is like the NHL.

The critics of the CHL say it is like a pre-season exhibition competition. I wouldn't say the teams take it as exhibition matches but the timing of the CHL is difficult. The CHL season must be started before the national leagues begin, so the level of hockey isn't at its best. And as the national leagues finish with playoffs, unlike in football, the hockey season cannot finish with the Champions League final like in football but the CHL final must be played before the national playoffs. That makes it more difficult to make winning the CHL the pinnacle of the season as there are still the national playoffs ahead.

Some critics also say that the CHL is no true Champions League as not all teams are national league champions or even top 4 clubs. I don't think it is such a huge problem. Obviously some clubs with commitment were needed. And in my opinion it is good to have many teams from the big hockey nations. I think the big number of e.g. Finnish, Swedish, or Czech teams helps to generate interest in the CHL. With two teams from each country, the fans of non-CHL clubs might be ignorant towards the CHL whereas with more teams from each country, a bigger part of the fanbase in each country has their favorite clubs playing. I think it is better to have more teams from strong hockey countries than to have teams from more leagues that are weaker. Winning the title by beating top European clubs adds to its prestige in comparison to winning the title by beating clubs from weaker leagues.

One big point of criticism is the absence of KHL teams. It may devaluate the CHL title's status as the European club championship but I don't see it as a problem as the KHL teams have way bigger budgets than the teams in other European top leagues. I don't think it makes sense to have teams with so different budgets playing in the same competition. Also, as the KHL aims to be the pan-European top league, I think the inclusion of KHL teams would undermine the CHL's aims to be the pan-European top competition.

It is obvious that the national leagues are still the priority of the CHL teams. The national leagues make the most of their season and the national playoffs are the culmination of the season. But if the CHL gets going also after this season, it will help to establish the tradition of international club matches in European hockey. That might make it easier to abandon the national leagues in the future to play in a pan-European league.

As for Jokerit, the Finnish team that didn't go the CHL route but instead joined the KHL, I think they are taking a risk. Can the higher level of KHL hockey attract their fans as much as the familiar opponents from the Finnish League, especially their local rival HIFK? And can they afford the higher budget of KHL, especially remembering the first non-Russian finalist team, Lev Prague, had to withdraw from the league after their finalist season because of financial difficulties. Besides, I think it is hard for existing teams to increase their fanbase by joining the KHL as they used to be rivals of other teams and will remain as that even after joining the KHL. Then again, a brand new KHL team might not be a rival for existing teams but it wouldn't have an existing fanbase to start with.

The CHL format reminds me of football in Europe. There are the national leagues with familiar opponents and long-time rivalries as well as the inter-European matches. I think any football fan in e.g. England or Italy would be upset for a suggestion to abandon the national league for an international league. That is how I think it is also in European hockey. Then again, if Jokerit have success in the KHL, I think more Western European teams might be willing to join the KHL, especially if the international CHL matches are well-welcomed but they don't see enough potential in the CHL.

I doubt the CHL could challenge the KHL; there is more money in the KHL unless the KHL faced some crisis. But if the CHL is here to stay, with more tradition it could become a meaningful European title for fans. If there were a serious European title, I am pretty sure fans would appreciate it. If football has League, Cup, and European titles, why couldn't hockey have national and European titles?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My preview of the 2014 men's US Open

The field at this year's men's US Open may seem weak. Rafael Nadal is injured and aside. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic underperformed in the two pre-US Open Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati. Roger Federer had great success in Toronto and Cincinnati, yet isn't playing his best game. Andy Murray is having a difficult season and hasn't won any titles or even achieved finals. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Toronto Masters but lost on the first round of the the Cincinnati Masters. The Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has been very inconsistent this year and anything between a title and a first-round loss is possible. David Ferrer and Milos Raonic have been having good runs in the previous weeks, yet they seem unable to win big matches.

Then again, the struggles of big names make this US Open maybe the most unpredictable Grand Slam tournament in years. None of Djokovic, Federer, and Murray are unbeatable, so this is a big chance to get a non-Big Four Grand Slam champion. If Tsonga can bring his form from Toronto, he is in the contention, and Wawrinka showed in Australia he can win a slam. And unless the big names improve their games, there will be more players who could beat them.

Roger Federer has obviously been in the best form in recent weeks. A final on Wimbledon's grass, then a final in Toronto and a title in Cincinnati in Masters events on DecoTurf. But he isn't way above the field, as shown by his loss to Tsonga in the Toronto final as well as by some tight matches in the recent weeks. We have seen this year that he isn't unbeatable. Then again, his performances in Toronto and Cincinnati show he can win the US Open.

Novak Djokovic hasn't been too impressive after winning Wimbledon. Both Toronto and Cincinnati ended with a round-of-16 loss, to Tsonga and Robredo. I think it all comes down to if he can find his best level; if he can, he is the favorite as he is the most consistent player on the top. But if he can't find his best level, there will be players with the abilities to beat him.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Masters event in Toronto but lost on the first round in the Masters event in Cincinnati the following week. The title in Toronto showed he can still succeed, something one could doubt after his poor first half of the season. When he is playing his best tennis, he can beat anybody on the tour. He definitely has a chance to win the US Open. Then again, he isn't the most consistent player on the tour so we must see if he can bring his best game. Also, he still lacks a Grand Slam title, so winning the US Open might be a big task mentally.

Stan Wawrinka has been very inconsistent this year. After his Australian Open title, he had difficult tournaments before winning the Masters event of Monte Carlo, propelling him to the top of the Race to London. After that, he has been unable to win titles and the French Open was a huge disappointment with a first-round loss. At Wimbledon, he made the quarterfinals, which was his career-best result there. His performances in Toronto and Cincinnati were mediocre, round of 16 and quarterfinals. He needs to play better at the US Open if he wants to win there. If he could bring his best game, then he would be one of the biggest favorites to win the title; he has been great in the hardcourt slams in the last two seasons. And the Australian Open and Monte Carlo titles show he has the mental abilities to win big titles.

A few words about Andy Murray. His level after the back surgery hasn't been on the level it used to be. His best performance so far has been the semifinal at the French Open. I believe he will go through the early rounds with his consistency but at some point in the second week, he will face a player who is better than him. Let's face it, he is only ninth in the rankings, there are players who are playing better than him. I just can't see him winning the US Open.

David Ferrer made the final in Cincinnati. With the big names underperforming, Ferrer might have a chance to win a slam at the US Open. Unfortunately, he seems to lack the ability, or maybe just the faith, to win big matches against big names. Of the nine significant finals he has played in his career, he has won only one, the only one without a Big Four opponent. I wouldn't be surprised if he made the final in New York but I would be (very positively) surprised if he won the title.

Milos Raonic has been playing a solid season. Then again, he seems to be able to make the most of his draws but is unable to beat the best players. That's why I think he isn't ready to win a slam. Grigor Dimitrov is another youngster who has made the top 10 this season, yet also he doesn't seem able to beat the best players yet. Besides, Dimitrov has been more inconsistent, so a first-week exit by Dimitrov wouldn't be as much of an upset as by Raonic.

A player who might have abilities to trouble big names is Marin Cilic. His current ranking of 16 means harder draws for him, though, as seen recently. He lost on the round of 16 in Toronto to Federer and in Cincinnati to Wawrinka. Both times he lost in three sets. In the Wimbledon quarterfinals, he lost in five to Djokovic. Also at the French Open, his tournament ended against Djokovic; four-set loss on the round of 32. Cilic might have the skills and the form to succeed at the US Open but the question is if he has the mentality. He is still to prove he has the mental abilities to win big matches. That is what he needs to do if he is to win the US Open. Plus he may have a tough draw.

So, I think Federer and Djokovic are the favourites at the US Open. Tsonga and Wawrinka are the players who have the abilities to challenge and even outplay them; then again they may underperform badly. And if Federer and Djokovic underperform, there are lots of players with a chance to win the title.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rule changes in F1 in the past ten years and my opinion on them

Niki Lauda has suggested that the rule changes of the last ten years should be reconsidered. (Original article in German) The article lists the 77 rule changes of the last ten years. 45 of them were in the Technical Regulations and 32 in Sporting Regulations. Here are the changes and what I think about them.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2005

  • The engines must last 2 Grand Prix weekends (instead of one)
  • The front wing must be at the height of 15cm (instead of 10cm)
  • The rear wing must be moved 15cm closer to the car
  • The diffuser may be at maximum 12.5cm high
The longlife engines have been something I have never really liked. In my opinion, racing cars should be build so that they can just finish the race but could hardly last any longer. Finishing the race should be a technical challenge. As the engines are nowadays build to last multiple races, technical retirements have become quite rare in recent years. I would really like to see the return for new engines for each GP weekend but that is obviously very unlikely to happen. That would increase costs too much.

As for the aerodynamic changes for 2005, I don't have much to say. Obviously they were intented to help overtaking as the cars' aerodynamic sensitivity has made following another car so difficult.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2005

  • The qualification consists of two single laps the times of which will be aggregated
  • Tyre changes during the race are banned
  • Teams from the fifth place in the Constructors' Championship may run a third car on Friday
The single-lap qualifying didn't work too well in F1. The previous format with 12 laps in 60 minutes didn't have much action early in the session but the single lap qualifying lacked the intensity of the last minutes in the previous format.

Banning tyre changes was a bad decision in my opinion. Having one set of tyres for the race forced drivers to look more after their tyres, and I don't think that kind of tyre management belongs to F1.

Allowing a third car for lower-placed teams wasn't a good rule in my opinion. After a weak 2004 season, McLaren had a third car for Friday practices whereas their title rival Renault didn't have one. That sounds like un unfair rule.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2006

  • Engines with 8 cylinders and 2.4 liter capacity
That was obviously not a very popular rule change back then after 3-litre V10s. But now people are missing even those V8s and their sound.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2006

  • Qualification with a three-phase knockout system
  • Tyre changes are again allowed
The single-lap qualifying wasn't very popular as it lacked the intensity of the former qualifying format. The three-phase qualifying brought that intensity back but the knockout system means there is action on track already early in the qualifying.

Reintroducing the tyre changes was a good thing in my opinion. As I wrote above, I think one set of tyres for a race required too much tyre management.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2007

  • Maximum RPM of engines 19,000, development frozen
I was sceptical after 2006 about how the engine homologation will work out. I was afraid that one manufacturer will have a better engine than others and the others can't catch up in the following seasons. Well, the same engines in 2013 were pretty equal in performance, even though Renault had been given a permission to develop their engine before 2009 because they were behind others because of a different rule interpretation. But now there are new engines and their development for next seasons is restricted. My fear from 2006 may happen now; it is unsure if other manufacturers can catch Mercedes as they can't design a completely new engine.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2007

  • The Friday practice consists of two 90min sessions (instead of two 60min sessions)
  • During a Safety Car period, the pit lane remains closed until all cars are in queue behind the Safety Car
  • Single supply tyres: During the race, both tyre compounds must be used
  • Maximum of 14 tyre sets per driver per race
  • Maximum of 30,000 testing kilometers per team
Costs have been tried to cut by limiting testing outside race weekends and the practice sessions were made longer to offer more testing during the race weekends.

I have had mixed feelings about single-supply tyres. On one hand, I think the tyre war belongs to F1. On the other hand, tyres may have played a bit too big role. In 2006, there were some obvious Bridgestone races and some obvious Michelin races. That was a bit too predictable. When it comes to the mandatory use of both compounds, I am not completely sure it improves racing. Most drivers will have the same optimal tyre strategy, even though it enables some gambles with strategy. But it means there are some drivers with different tyre compounds so that should create some overtaking. I wouldn't say the mandatory use of both compounds is such a bad rule. The limited number of tyre sets per weekend obviously helps to cut costs.

The Safety Car rules for 2007 were changed to prevent the race to pits during yellow flags before the Safety Car. The downside of those rules was that you can't exploit the lead you had before the Safety Car to have a pitstop plus if you had to pit for refuelling before pitting was allowed again, you got a penalty. Luckily that rule isn't anymore in effect.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2008

  • Introduction of standard electronics, no more traction control
  • Gearbox must last 4 GP weekends
A reason for introducing the previously banned traction control in 2001 was that it was impossible to police. Standard electorics enabled banning it again. I think the ban of traction control is a good thing. You can hear how people say that today's F1 cars are too easy to drive, the lack of traction control makes them at least a bit more difficult.

My opinion on longlife gearboxes is similar to my opinion on longlife engines. In my opinion, no components should be required to last more than one weekend. But the longlife gearboxes are to restrict costs so they are there to stay.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2008

  • Spare cars are banned
Not a big deal in my opinion. That may have reduced the number of mechanics needed so would cut costs a bit.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2009

  • The big aero reform with 180cm wide front wings (instead of 140cm)
  • 75cm wide rear wings (instead of 100cm)
  • 95cm high rear wings (instead of 80cm)
  • Diffuser height 17.5cm in center, 12.5cm outside
  • Winglets and fins on the bodywork banned
  • Return of slick tyres
  • Maximum RPM of engines 18,000
  • Maximum of 8 engines per year
  • KERS allowed, 82 hp for 6.7 seconds per lap
The new aerodynamics rules were aimed to help overtaking by enabling to follow a car ahead closer than previously. Unfortunately it is still difficult to follow a car ahead in fast corners where you could gain more time than in slow corners, so overtaking is still difficult. One downside of the 2009 regulations was that in tight racing, the wide front wings got easier damaged than previously. The return to slicks was aimed to compensate the loss of downforce by having more mechanical grip.

As it has became obvious, I don't really like the idea of longlife components but I have preferred the rules for engine life since 2009. Now you don't automatically get a penalty from an engine change unless you have used too many engines during the season or the car is in Parc Ferme after the qualifying.

The introduction of KERS was obviously something F1 had to do. They had to bring some eco aspect to F1, even though the road relevance of F1 KERS is debatable.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2009

  • Pit lane during Safety Car periods again open, delta time for the inlap
  • Maximum of 15,000 testing kilometers and 20 test days
  • Maximum of 60 wind tunnel hours per week, 60% models at maximum, maximum of 40 teraflops computer capacity
The pit lane could again be kept open during a Safety Car period as with the delta time for pit stops, drivers were prevented from racing to the pits under yellow flags.

In order to cut costs, testing as well as the use of wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics has been restricted. Personally I must say, I don't miss in-season testing so much. The downside of restricted on-track testing is that it favours teams with better wind tunnel and CFD facilities whereas smaller teams would be more in line with the big teams in on-track testing. On the other hand, unlimited track testing would mean that the richest teams could spend huge amounts of money in developing the car what smaller teams couldn't do.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2010

  • Tyre width restricted to 245mm (front) and 325mm (rear)
  • Minimum weight 620kg (instead of 605kg)
  • KERS voluntarily abandoned
The front tyres were too wide in relation to the rear tyres in 2009, so they were made narrower. But as a reason to return to slicks was to provide more mechanical grip, why did the FIA make the front tyres narrower and not make the rear tyres wider? Wider rear tyres would have brought more mechanical grip and made the cars less aero-dependent.

In 2009, KERS didn't bring much advantage; the two best cars of 2009 didn't even have KERS. The weight of KERS affected to the weight distribution of the car and to reduce that disadvantage, the minimum weight was increased, even though the teams had agreed not to use KERS in 2010.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2010

  • New points system 25-18-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 (instead of 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1)
  • Refuelling banned
  • 11 tyre sets per driver per GP weekend (instead of 14)
  • Maximum cost of customer engines €9 million
  • 15 testing days (before the season) + 3 (after the season) with 1 car per team
  • At a restart after a Safety Car period, overtaking allowed after the SC line at pit entry (instead after the start/finish line)
  • Maximum of 47 staff members per team at track
The aim of the new points system was to increase the value of race wins. The previous system had the opposite aim, to reduce the points difference between winning and finishing second, in order to reduce team orders. But the problem was that the incentive to risk a second place for a win was too small. Now there is more incentive for that. Also, given the great reliability of the cars, getting points had gotten harder, so it is justifiable to give points to two more cars.

Refuelling was banned for safety reasons. I must say, I miss refuelling. It brough more tactical aspects to racing, even though that may have meant less action on track as the drivers were relying on the pit strategy.

Once again, costs were tried to cut with some rules: reduced number of tyre sets, cap on engine price, restrictions on testing, and restrictions on staff.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2011

  • Double diffuser banned. Maximal diffuser height over the whole width 12.5cm
  • F-duct banned
  • Introduction of the Drag Reduction System. Free use in practice and qualifying, in race in certain places
  • KERS again allowed
  • Minimum weight 640kg (instead of 620kg)
  • Fixed weight distribution +/- 1%
  • Gearbox must last 5 GP weekends
Unintented loopholes in aerodynamic regulations were removed, like double diffuser and F-duct. KERS was introduced again, and with the higher minimum weight, carrying KERS wasn't anymore such a disadvantage but an advantage because of its extra horsepowers. Gearboxes must last one more race longer, obviously to cut costs.

Drag Reduction System was an easy solution to increase overtaking. When you are close enough, you get a speed advantage helping you to get past the car ahead. But that kind of passing isn't very spectacular. I would have regulations that would make the cars such that you can overtake with them more easily, without aids like DRS. And if there must be an overtaking aid, I would prefer IndyCar-style push-to-pass. You can use it only for a certain number of times during a race, so you must manage push-to-passes, and you can use it also to defend.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2011

  • Team orders allowed
Ferrari's team order at Hockenheim in 2010 showed that the ban on team orders doesn't work so there is no need for that ban, even if team orders aren't good PR for the sport.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2012

  • Chassis height at the front axle 55cm (instead of 62.5cm)
  • Regulations for the position of the exhaust tailpipe
  • Retarted ignition with all 8 cylinders banned
The FIA wanted to prevent teams from using exhaust gases to improve downforce. Quite understandable when the series aims towards fuel efficiency.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2012

  • Race duration with breaks 4 hours at maximum
  • When overtaking, both drivers must leave a car's widh space
  • Unlapping during Safety Car periods
I don't like the unlapping rule during Safety Car periods. People were complaining when there were lapped cars between cars fighting for the same position preventing the driver behind attacking at the restart. But why should he be able to attack at the restart; he was so much behind before the Safety Car that there were some lapped cars between. This seems like a rule intented to improve the show. Of course, there was a safety aspect, some slow lapped cars might have been dangerous at restarts. But this unlapping also takes some time, why do those lapped cars have to unlap themselves, why couldn't they just be told to let the cars behind lap them? That would take much less time.

With standing restarts in 2015, it seems like Safety Car periods are being used to bring some action. I much prefer how they do at Le Mans where they try to avoid safety car periods with yellow flag zones where you must slow down noticeably. Le Mans wants the Safety Car to affect to the race as little as possible, F1 as much as possible.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2013

  • Double DRS banned
  • DRS use also in practice and qualifying only in the DRS zone
  • Minimum weight 642kg (instead of 640kg)
An obvious reason to allow the use of DRS only in the DRS zone also in the practice and qualifying sessions was to avoid using it in dangerous places. On the other hand, less opportunities to use DRS may lead to teams going for shorter gears. Then the advantage from DRS in the race is smaller.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2013

  • Maximum of 12 testing days (instead of 15)
  • Maximum of 60 staff members at track
These regulations were obviously aimed to control costs.

Changes to the Technical Regulations for 2014

  • The big engine reform with 1.6-litre turbo V6, direct injection, and  two electric units MGU-K and MGU-H
  • Maximal fuel flow of 100kg per hour
  • 8-speed gearbox (previous maximum 7-speed)
  • Maximum of 5 engines per driver per year
  • Exhaust position central in rear, only one exhaust
  • Maximal nose height 18.5cm
  • Front wing width 165cm (instead of 180cm)
  • Rear wing with two elements at maximum (previously three)
  • Minimum weight 691kg (previously 642kg), brake-by-wire allowed
  • Gearbox must last 6 GP weekends
  • Introduction of a standard side crash structure
The new engins have been criticized a lot, mostly because they are too silent. I can imagine it takes something away from the live viewing experience. But I think the new engines were a step to right direction. Hybrid technology is getting more and more important for car manufacturers, and for them to participate in F1, F1 must have some road relevance. But I think the fuel flow maximum could be abolished, I don't think saving fuel belongs to F1.

Changes to the Sporting Regulations for 2014

  • Maximum of 100kg of fuel for a race
  • Double points in the season finale
  • Introduction of penalty points: with 12 points during 365 days a race ban
  • Personal numbers for drivers for their entire career
  • Ban of FRIC?
The double points in the last race are another rule to improve the show. I don't think that belongs to F1. F1 has always been about who is the best driver throughout the season, not who is the best driver at the end of the season. I'm afraid F1 may be going towards a NASCAR-style Chase for the Championship where the last races decide the champion and early races don't have much importance for the outcome.

The personal numbers aren't such a big deal but I would have preferred assigning the permanent numbers to teams. In car racing, the numbers usually belong to the car owners, and the number system used in F1 until 1995 basically had semi-permanent numbers for teams, so there would have been legendary numbers like 27 and 28 for Ferrari or 5 and 6 for Williams.

How would I change regulations?

As for the Technical Regulations, I would go for more road relevance, that would bring more car manufacturers to F1. Maybe more freedom in the regulations. At Le Mans, Audi, Toyota, and Porsche have completely different engines. If you think about F1, Ferrari and Renault are completely different car manufacturers. What is relevant for one of them is not necessarily for another of them. Allow more freedom and F1 would be more attractive for car manufacturers. As for the Sporting Regulations, I would prefer less gimmicks to improve the show and I would like the rules to promote more pure racing.

And moreover, I would prefer more stability with the rules. At the same time, F1 wants to cut costs but is constantly changing rules, which brings costs to teams. More stable rules would make F1 more attractive for new teams and engine manufacturers.