Sunday, October 22, 2017

New motorsports blog

As motorsports make up most of my blog texts, I have started a separate blog for them. From now on, my new motorsports texts are in the FINdyCar blog (findycar.blogspot.com). Old motorsports texts can still be found here but they are also imported into the new blog.

I will continue blogging about other sports here.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Glen's departure opens possibilities for INDYCAR in Pacific Northwest

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule has been released. There is only one change, though a very significant one. Portland International Raceway will replace Watkins Glen International which was not satisfied with the Labor Day weekend date.

It is very unfortunate that INDYCAR's latest return to Watkins Glen lasted only for two races and ended one year before the contract was set to expire. The Glen is one of the greatest road courses in North America and in the entire world. It was the iconic host of the United States Grand Prix in the 1960s and '70s.

However, the Glen never became a permanent fixture for Indy car racing like other former F1 venues Long Beach and Detroit did. Indy car races at the Glen have always been short-lived and the latest incarnation was not an exception. If anything, the Glen has become a NASCAR venue in the last decades.

I am not sure the Labor Day weekend date explains the poor attendance. Maybe Watkins Glen just isn't the right kind of a venue for INDYCAR. The location of the Glen is distant from major cities and NASCAR is the big draw there.

While it's unfortunate to see Watkins Glen not in the 2018 schedule, I'm excited to see INDYCAR returning to Portland. Portland hosted American open-wheel racing for over 20 years before it was left out of the schedule following the re-unification in 2008. It may not be as iconic of a track as the Glen, yet Portland has more Indy car history.

I think there are factors that can make Portland a better event than what the Glen would ever have become. Firstly, the location in a city of the size of Portland is better than Watkins Glen's hours away from major cities. Secondly, INDYCAR will be the only major series at Portland International Raceway or even in the entire Pacific Northwest. While the Glen has become a NASCAR venue, Portland used to be an Indy car venue.

Portland kind of reminds of Gateway Motorsports Park as an INDYCAR venue. Both are just outside a major city, both have some previous Indy car history, and INDYCAR is the biggest series at both venues. Gateway had a great attendance for the return of INDYCAR last season, hopefully Portland will be able to replicate that. However, it will require also great marketing like Gateway had.

Maybe that should be INDYCAR's strategy; instead of fighting a losing battle in NASCAR's territory, INDYCAR should look for growth in new markets. That growth would help to make the series more mainstream, making it easier to break through also in NASCAR-dominated areas.

As much as I liked seeing INDYCAR at Watkins Glen, I am fine with Portland replacing it. After two years, the event wasn't working at the Glen and something had to change. I think it's the right move to go to Portland where there is more hope of getting a good crowd. It would be great to have a track like the Glen in the schedule, though most important is having good events.

As for a potential return to Watkins Glen in the future, I'd like it but I am not overly positive. There may not be better calendar slots opening for the Glen in the near future, and even if there was, the crowd might still not be there. The Glen is a great track for Indy cars, yet the series doesn't necessarily need it; CART was great even without the Glen.

Hopefully INDYCAR will get a good crowd next September and Portland will become a successful event in the schedule. With previous racing history but no other major series there, Portland looks like a venue with potential for INDYCAR.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Laver Cup is no replacement for Davis Cup

The inaugural Laver Cup has got a mixed reception. The points system where Friday's matches have little importance to keep the Cup open until Sunday makes the event look like an exhibition, and the disparity between the Team Europe and the Team World didn't make it look very exciting. Despite that it has been a competitive event as opposed to an exhibition and it has featured a field of a high quality.

The way I see the Laver Cup it's an all-star event for men's tennis but not a World Cup. The Davis Cup is the World Cup but it's in a crisis.

There are so many great things in the Davis Cup. I like how it rewards quality over quantity. No matter how many top-100 players your country produces, you can choose only four players into the team. You can succeed even with an effectively two-player team, like Switzerland when Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka play both singles and doubles.

The Davis Cup also has the atmosphere of team sports because each tie has a home team and an away team. There is lots of variety in surfaces as the home team tries to choose a favorable surface. It is the only event outside the Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic final to feature the best-of-five format. The fifth rubbers are special matches, often the biggest matches in the career of those nations' No. 2 ranked players. And the Davis Cup is one of those rare events where the top singles players play in doubles.

Yet the lack of big names is the problem of the Davis Cup. Given the heavy schedule of the ATP World Tour, the early rounds of the Davis Cup are not high in the priorities of the big names.

There have been proposals to change the format of the Davis Cup to make it more attractive for players. The ITF's board's proposal to make the singles rubbers best-of-three, yet the annual general meeting voted against it. I don't think the best-of-five format is such a big problem in the Davis Cup; the calendar slots and the surface transitions are bigger problems.

There have also been proposals for a neutral venue for a Davis Cup tournament. I am not a huge fan of that idea. If the Davis Cup was condensed to a one-week event, best-of-five would probably be gone, ties might be only three-rubbers like in the Hopman Cup, and the event would lose the atmosphere of a home team facing an away team. Even if all the big names participated in the Davis Cup at a neutral venue, the final might still feature none of the biggest names. That would be hard to sell unless one of the final teams would be playing in their home country.

What I think the Davis Cup needs is better scheduling. There are four months between the Australian Open and the French Open; that should be enough for the first two rounds of the Davis Cup without needing to schedule the first round for the week after the Australian Open. Give players some time after the major events before a Davis Cup tie and a possible surface transition. The semifinals after the US Open or the final after the ATP Finals aren't quite as bad as players don't want to miss those ties. Though some big names were missing from the World Group playoffs after the US Open, especially as the Laver Cup was only a week away.

I would also reinstate the ranking points for the World Group. Playing in the Davis Cup is away from playing elsewhere; the ranking points would make it more worthwhile to play in the Davis Cup. Those players who didn't make the Davis Cup team can't score points that week, though they have the advantage of getting an off week from the tour. Very much the only problem with the World Group ranking points is that players from countries in the lower groups can't score points even if they play in the Davis Cup.

Individual prize money is my third idea to make the Davis Cup more attractive. While individual prize money goes against the ideals of playing for your country, it may be needed to make the Davis Cup more attractive. If you don't play in the Davis Cup, you can probably play more tournaments and earn prize money and gain ranking points there. The Davis Cup needs points and individual prize money to remain attractive for players.

Time will tell if the Laver Cup becomes a fixture in the tennis calendar. The Laver Cup surely features two great teams of players, though fans don't cheer for their home continents like the cheer for their home countries. The Laver Cup is the all-star event of men's tennis, the Davis Cup is the World Cup. Even if the Laver Cup becomes a success, the traditions of the 117-year old Davis Cup need to be honored and protected.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Solid summer ratings for IndyCar on NBCSN

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series saw its viewership growing throughout the season. The viewership was down early in the season and the ratings were down for ABC's free-to-air telecasts, yet solid ratings throughout the summer boosted the viewership on NBC's cable channels over the previous years' averages.

The table below shows the viewership in thousands for NBC's cable telecasts.

Click to enlarge

Total Audience Delivery for NBC's telecasts in 2017: 507,000.
  • Up three percent on 2016 (492,000; excludes the rain-delayed Texas and Pocono races)
  • Down one percent on 2015 (510,000)
Overall average viewership for ABC, NBCSN, and CNBC in 2017: 1.14 million (17 races)
  • Down 11 percent on 2016 (1.28 million; 15 races)
  • Down 1.7 percent on 2015 (1.16 million; 16 races)

Early 2017 did not look positive for the Verizon IndyCar Series' TV ratings. The ratings for the free-to-air telecasts on ABC were down, as well as the ratings for Long Beach and Phoenix on NBCSN was down. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park was an exception, showing growth of over 60 percent in audience, though it was aided by a NASCAR race having a rain delay.

The Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway was the first race back on NBCSN after ABC's coverage from Indianapolis and Detroit. The Texas race started a strong streak for IndyCar's TV ratings for the rest of the season; eight of the last nine races had over 500 thousand viewers.

The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio was the most-viewed IndyCar race on cable in 2017; the live telecast on CNBC had 200 thousand viewers and the tape delayed NBCSN telecast had 576 thousand viewers following a NASCAR race. The most-viewed live telecast was the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono with 618 thousand viewers.

None of the 2017 races could match the most viewed races of the previous two seasons; in 2016 Mid-Ohio had 1.0 million viewers, thanks to the rain delay at a NASCAR race. In 2015 Sonoma had 841 thousand viewers, though the 2015 race took place three years earlier when the football season had not started and there was no NASCAR Cup race that weekend.

Although IndyCar could not achieve its previous top ratings on cable in 2017, the solid ratings since June improved the average audience compared to previous years. The Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park was the only race since June with less than 500 thousand viewers as it took place in the same night as the Mayweather-McGregor fight.

Attracting younger generations IndyCar's challenge


While the average audience for the Verizon IndyCar Series on NBC's cable channels grew by eight percent from 2016, the average for those aged between 18 and 49 went down by four percent. Over the full season on ABC and NBC's channels, the 18-49 age group's viewership was down 10 percent. The 18-49 age group made up 22 percent of the IndyCar audience both on NBC's cable channels and on ABC.

The percentage of viewers aged 18-49 is slightly lower for IndyCar than it is for the NASCAR Cup Series or NHRA, for both of which it is around 25 percent. However, IndyCar's open-wheel rival Formula One has over 30 percent of its American viewers aged between 18 and 49. While IndyCar has a slightly higher average audience, F1 has more viewers in the 18-49 age group.

An obvious explanation for the growth of the viewership in the older generations may be that there are fans of Indy car racing that were lost in the split. INDYCAR's aim was to make those lost fans interested in the series again, and the audience growth implies it has succeeded in it. However, there is a younger generation of fans who grew up during the split and were never into Indy car racing. Gaining new fans from the younger generations is the next challenge for INDYCAR.

Gaining young fans is crucial for the long-term future of the series. A series with a good future outlook is also more attractive for sponsors, which in turn will help the series to grow. IndyCar already gets overshadowed by NASCAR in American media; if it can't attract young fans, it will be overshadowed by F1 as well. Then again, if IndyCar could attract young fans like F1 does, it could outnumber NASCAR's Trucks and possibly the Xfinity Series in the 18-49 audience.

Numbers via Awful AnnouncingShowbuzz DailySports Media Watch, NBC Sports Pressbox, and Adam Stern on Twitter.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Youngster beats veterans for IndyCar championship

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series finished with Josef Newgarden winning the championship. The 26-year-old from Tennessee became the youngest champion since the reunification of American open-wheel racing in 2008 and only the second American to win the title in the reunified era.

Newgarden finds success at Penske right away


Josef Newgarden couldn't have hoped for a better first season at Team Penske. He won already in his third start for the team at Barber Motorsports Park. He returned to the victory lane at Toronto, followed by an impressive victory at Mid-Ohio.

Teammate Will Power denied a third victory in a row at Pocono Raceway, yet Newgarden won once again as the Verizon IndyCar Series returned to Gateway Motorsports Park. The race-winning move on Simon Pagenaud at Gateway ultimately decided the championship in favor of Newgarden.



Team Penske didn't have the pace to win the penultimate race of the season in the mixed weather conditions of Watkins Glen, though Newgarden was on his way to a top-10 finish before his title campaign suffered a major setback. Coming off pit road, Newgarden crashed into the barrier at the pit exit and the lead over Scott Dixon went down from 33 to mere three points.

The season finale at Sonoma Raceway was a dominant performance by Team Penske, presenting Newgarden the perfect opportunity to clinch his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship. He might have had the pace to challenge Pagenaud for the race victory in the final stint, yet the second place was enough for Newgarden to win the series championship.

The only major disappointment in Newgarden's season was the Month of May. Newgarden lacked the pace at the Indianapolis 500 and his race got eventually destroyed in a multi-car crash in a late-race restart.

Defending champion closest rival for new champion


The defending champion Simon Pagenaud completed all laps of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series, yet came 13 points short from Newgarden.

Despite the consistency, Pagenaud couldn't repeat 2016's dominant performance of five wins. Pagenaud achieved his first career oval win at Phoenix in April, yet could not win another race before the season finale at Sonoma.

Pagenaud had a chance to win at Gateway, leading the race with 31 laps to go when Newgarden made the aggressive pass on him. The championship could have been different without that pass; Pagenaud lost also the second place to Dixon and lost 15 points to Newgarden. Had Pagenaud won, he would have gained 10 points on Newgarden.

Dixon Honda's lead contender


Chip Ganassi Racing's switch from Chevrolet's package gave Honda its best chance for the championship in years. After his worst season in over a decade in 2016, Scott Dixon was again a contender for his fifth Verizon IndyCar Series title.

Dixon's consistency was comparable to Pagenaud's. The only race where Dixon didn't finish in the top 10 was the Indy 500 where a heavy crash with the lapped Jay Howard ended his race early. Thanks to the safety of today's Indy cars, Dixon didn't suffer major injuries, though the polesitter's hunt for his second 500 victory was over.

The 500 crash was a major blow for Dixon's title campaign as there were double points on offer at Indy. Dixon was still able to enter the season finale at Sonoma only three points behind the leader Newgarden but didn't have the pace to challenge him for the title.

Dixon achieved only one victory in 2017 but it came after a great performance. Having qualified fifth behind the four Chevy-powered Penske cars, Dixon beat them all for the win at Road America.

Castroneves and Power complete Penske's strong effort


All four drivers in Penske's lineup came into the season finale as title contenders. Once again, the series title eluded the three-time Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves in what may have been his last full-time season in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Castroneves came close to matching A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears with a fourth 500 victory this may, yet instead he was the runner-up for the second time in the last four 500s. The second place still gave him the points lead as he was aiming to win the first series title in his Indy car career of 20 seasons.

Castroneves' title campaign got a boost as he won at Iowa Speedway, ending the drought of over three years. Yet road courses are his weakness; a third place at Road America was Castroneves' best result on road courses.

Even if Castroneves returns for one more full season, his chances to win the elusive series title look slim; his teammates at Penske are all better on road courses and also well capable on ovals. However, the fourth place in the season standings shows Castroneves still deserves a full-time seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Only Newgarden won more races in 2017 than Will Power who celebrated at the Indianapolis road course, Texas Motor Speedway, and Pocono Raceway. Power also claimed six pole positions, more than any other driver.

Power's title campaign suffered many setbacks, many of them not through his own fault. At Barber slow puncture cost him a likely win, and at Gateway the first-lap crash with Ed Carpenter took him out of the race. Despite the three wins, the setbacks were too costly and Power couldn't finish the season higher than fifth in the championship.

Once again Indy 500 victory for Andretti Autosport


For the first time since 2014, three Andretti Autosport drivers finished the season in the top 10; Alexander Rossi in seventh, Takuma Sato in eighth, and Ryan Hunter-Reay in ninth place.

Having won two of the previous three Indy 500s, Andretti once again had a strong effort in the Month of May, strengthened by the two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso. Yet it was another F1 veteran that claimed the 500 victory for Andretti this year. Having crashed out of the victory battle in 2012, Takuma Sato beat Hélio Castroneves to become the first Japanese Indy 500 winner this year.

As has been the case throughout his career, inconsistency kept Sato out of the title contention. Outside the 500, his best results were two fourth places, and in 10 of the 17 races he missed the top 10.

The 2016 Indy 500 rookie winner Alexander Rossi kept on developing as an Indy car racer. At the penultimate race of the season at Watkins Glen, Rossi achieved his second career INDYCAR victory and the first on a road course as he went on to finish the season as the highest-placed Andretti driver.

For the 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2017 was the second winless season in a row. His best chance for the win could have been at Indianapolis, yet an engine failure ended his hunt of a second 500 victory.

Rahal turns poor start into solid finish


Takuma Sato will leave Andretti to drive the second car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2018. That should help the team which has struggled at times with setups when running a single car.

RLL's Graham Rahal had a poor start to the 2017 season as his best result in the first four races was a 10th place. The performance improved in the Month of May. Without a late-race puncture, Rahal would have been in contention for the Indy 500 victory.

A week after Indy, Rahal won both of the doubleheader races at Detroit to get back into the title contention. Although he failed to win more races to remain as a title contender, he missed the top 10 only once after Detroit to finish the season sixth in the points after a poor early season.

Chevy outnumbered but not defeated by Honda


Ever since returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2012, Chevrolet has won the manufacturer championship. 2017 was the sixth straight title, even though Honda outnumbered Chevy-powered cars in the field.

The 10 wins of Chevy in 2017 were achieved by the four Penske drivers whereas Honda's seven wins were achieved by six drivers from five different teams. Besides Ganassi, Andretti, and RLL, Dale Coyne Racing achieved a win with Sébastien Bourdais and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with James Hinchcliffe using Honda power.

Ed Carpenter Racing's J.R. Hildebrand came closest to winning for other team than Penske in a Chevy-powered car as he finished second at Iowa and third at Phoenix. However, his first full-time season since 2012 did not match the expectations set by Josef Newgarden in the same car in the previous seasons. While he had strong results on ovals, he was disappointing on road courses and will be replaced by the Spencer Pigot who showed more promise when driving Ed Carpenter's car on road courses.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises was the third full-time team running the Chevy package. While the team had a poor early season after switching to Chevy from the Honda package, the team improved by the end of the season. The highlight of the season for Foyt was Conor Daly finishing fifth at Gateway, showing competitive pace.

As Honda will continue with all its current teams in 2018, it seems like Chevy's hopes will again rely mostly on Penske. That may play a big role for the future of Castroneves' career. Given that Penske may be the only Chevy team able to beat Honda's top teams, Chevy would surely like Penske keeping the fourth car.

Newgarden leads the next generation of IndyCar


Josef Newgarden winning the series championship is a great finish for the 2017 season. While Fernando Alonso's participation and Takuma Sato's victory in the Indy 500 were great for the international exposure, a young American winning the championship is a great result for a series that needs local stars to succeed in its home market.

As most of the top drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series are in their late 30s or even 40s, many of whom likely retiring from full-time racing within the next five years, it's good to have top drivers like Newgarden who have 15 years or so left in the sport. And Newgarden is not the only young American star in the series; Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi are both under 30 and have proven their capability to win.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Strong IndyCar benefits all racing fans

There are not many racing series as prestigious as the Verizon IndyCar Series in the world. Granted, Formula One is the leading series worldwide and NASCAR dominates the American market. Formula E and Super Formula have attracted some of the best open-wheel talent outside F1, though neither of those have the long traditions of Indy car racing.

This year the Verizon IndyCar Series got big worldwide attention as the two-time world champion Fernando Alonso came from F1 to participate in the Indianapolis 500 with McLaren and missed the Monaco Grand Prix. Alonso's participation showed the Indy 500 is still one of the most prestigious races in the world as he aims to complete the Triple Crown with the Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans victories, having previously won the Monaco GP twice.

As F1 dominates global motorsports and NASCAR the American motorsports, it's the Indy 500 that presents the best opportunity to see big names of those categories in the same race. The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kurt Busch participated in the Indy 500 in 2014. As the Verizon IndyCar Series is showing signs of growth, one can expect the 500 to become more attractive for crossover entries. Ideally the IndyCar regulars are joined by F1 and NASCAR champions in the 500.

While it's the Indy 500 and not the full series that attracts some of the big names in F1 and NASCAR, it would be great if F1 and NASCAR fans had interest in the Verizon IndyCar Series even when a familiar name isn't running at the 500. I find it unfortunate how some F1 and NASCAR fans ignore IndyCar, yet have time to watch F2 and GP3 or Xfinity and Truck Series.

While F1 and NASCAR don't have a lot in common, the Verizon IndyCar Series has a lot to offer to both F1 and NASCAR fans. It combines open-wheel road racing like in F1 with oval races like in NASCAR. It is always good to have alternatives; IndyCar is an alternative for both F1 and NASCAR. If you're losing interest in F1 or NASCAR, I recommend to you give IndyCar a try, maybe you'll find something you've been missing. And even if you're enjoying F1 or NASCAR, you should give IndyCar a try, maybe you'll find something new that you'll enjoy even more.

Monopolies are hardly ever a good thing; F1 and NASCAR need alternatives. The Verizon IndyCar Series seems like the ideal alternative; it can appeal to both F1 and NASCAR fans, and it has one of the most prestigious races in the world. For example, Formula E appeals to open-wheel but not stock car fans, and it has nothing like the Indy 500. And while endurance racing has famous events, the long races and the emphasis on teams instead of drivers don't really make it appealing to masses. MotoGP is probably the biggest series worldwide behind F1 and offers great racing, though bike racing doesn't appeal to all car racing fans.

If the Verizon IndyCar Series became more of a genuine alternative for F1 and NASCAR, all racing fans would be winners. IndyCar fans would surely love to see their series attracting top talent from F1 and NASCAR. But even F1 and NASCAR fans would benefit from strong IndyCar. With a serious rival, those two series would be forced to keep their fans entertained or the fans would be lost to a rival series. Besides, strong IndyCar should increase the driver crossover with F1 or NASCAR, which would be exciting for fans of all series.

In order to become a strong alternative for F1 and NASCAR, the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to expand its fanbase. There are surely potential IndyCar fans among F1 and NASCAR fans. I hope fans of those series give up any preconception of IndyCar as a minor league and give it a try with an open mind. If you find the unique greatness of Indy car racing, it can even become your favorite series regardless of its status compared to F1 or NASCAR. Trust me, it can happen, I've experienced it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

INDYCAR needs to do away with double points

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series goes into the final race with six drivers with a title chance thanks to the double points at the season finale. Despite the excitement they generate for the season finale, double points are one of the most controversial INDYCAR rules.

2014 saw double points introduced for the Formula One World Championship's season finale to keep the championship battle more open until the final race. In the footsteps of F1, double points were also introduced in the Verizon IndyCar Series for the Triple Crown 500-mile races, of which Fontana was the season finale.

A key difference between F1's and INDYCAR's systems was that F1's season finale at Abu Dhabi was a regular race by all means whereas the Triple Crown races were the longest races in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Awarding points based on the race length was not unprecedented in Indy car racing; CART's points system was based on the race length until 1982.

Following lots of criticism, Formula One dropped the double points for 2015 whereas they remained in the Verizon IndyCar Series but with modifications. As Sonoma Raceway became the new venue for the season finale, double points were awarded at Sonoma and at the Indianapolis 500 but no longer at the other Triple Crown 500-mile races.

The 2014 points system with double points for the Triple Crown races had a mixed reception. While many felt it was just a gimmick to keep the championship open in the final race, it was still less controversial than F1's system as the double-points races were the longest ones. The double points, as well as the Indy 500 qualification points, also helped to balance the championship where only six of the 18 races were held on ovals.

The 2015 system, however, was generally disliked. While there were some legitimate arguments in favor of the 2014 double points rule, those arguments were gone with the 2015 rule. It no longer helped to balance the disparity of ovals and road courses as Sonoma was a road course, and it was no longer a system based on the race distance as Sonoma was a regular-distance road race.

Thanks to the double points, six drivers entered the 2015 season finale with a title chance. The season got a controversial finish as Scott Dixon beat Juan Pablo Montoya for the title thanks to his double-points victory at Sonoma.

As Sonoma has remained as the season finale, the double points rule has remained unchanged since 2015. This year, six drivers have a title chance at the final race, and even the third-placed Hélio Castroneves can win the title from 22 points behind Josef Newgarden regardless of other contenders' performances by scoring full points.

Besides Sonoma's double points, the Indy 500's double points and qualification points have a big impact on the championship. The 500 runner-up Castroneves would be out of title contention without Indy's and Sonoma's special points. And while Scott Dixon suffered a heavy crash at the 500 and was classified only 32nd, 42 points for the pole position limited the damage on his championship campaign.

If regular points were awarded at the Indy 500 and Sonoma, Newgarden's lead over Dixon would be 26 points instead of the slim three-point gap. Simon Pagenaud would be 38 points behind Newgarden instead of 34 points, and Castroneves would be 54 points behind instead of 22 points. A top-six finish without double points at Sonoma would secure the title for Newgarden regardless of others' results. Yet because of the double points and the top three within 22 points, anything but winning at Sonoma will put Newgarden at a risk of losing the championship.

I think INDYCAR needs to do away with rules that undermine the series' credibility. Closing the pits when a caution comes out is an example of rules like that, double points is another. As an analogy to team sports, INDYCAR tries to make the season finale a Game Seven of a kind with the double points. But sometimes playoff series get decided in the Game Six and INDYCAR should not create a Game Seven at the expense of credibility.

I would be fine with the double points if the season finished with a 500-mile race on an oval like it did in 2014 when the double points were introduced. A longer race awarding more points is a legitimate reasoning. And while it wouldn't balance the disparity of the ovals and the road courses in the schedule, it would help to achieve a better balance between those in the championship.

Then again, the season finale may well be going nowhere from Sonoma, especially as INDYCAR doesn't want to schedule races further into the fall when the football season has started. A 500-kilometer race at a road course could be equivalent to a 500-mile oval race. Then again, such a long race would hardly boost TV ratings, especially at a track like Sonoma which rarely produces exciting racing, and the double points are exactly intended to increase the viewership.

As for the Indy 500 points system, I'm not a huge fan of the double points if they are not awarded at the other 500-mile races. The Indy 500 is prestigious enough without the double points. Even more I think INDYCAR must abandon or at least reduce the 500 qualification points. 42 points for the 500 pole is more than for a second-place finish at regular-points races, which feels like too much.

The points are a way to bring some excitement into the 500 qualifications, especially as the last two races have had exactly 33 entries and thus no bumping in the qualifications. Though if the car count increased above 33, bumping would bring the sort of excitement that is currently missing from the qualifications, and there would be even less need for the points.

I think INDYCAR needs to do away with the current double points rule, for the sake of credibility. I'm fine with a points system based on the race distance, like awarding double points for all 500-mile races. But as long as the season-finale isn't a 500-mile race, it should not award double points.

If you want to keep the championship open until the final weekend of the season without double points, there is a simple solution, make the season finale a doubleheader. Instead of having a possibly controversial finish to the season, rather give fans one more race to finish the season.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Four strong contenders, three outsiders in IndyCar championship

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series heads to its final race, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, with Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon separated by only three points on top of the championship standings. Hélio Castroneves, 22 points behind Newgarden, is the third driver who can secure the championship regardless of his rivals' performances. Defending champion Simon Pagenaud will attempt to overcome a 34-point deficit to retain the title.

Besides the close top four, three more drivers have a mathematical title chance. While Will Power and Alexander Rossi may hope for a miracle, Graham Rahal's title chances will likely be gone as the green flag waves as Newgarden and Dixon will outscore him by starting the race.

The tables below show the championship points scenarios for each of the title contenders.

Click to enlarge.

Scott Dixon needs to beat Josef Newgarden to win the title. Then again, Newgarden needs to beat Dixon as well unless they finish in consecutive positions below 10th place. However, Hélio Castroneves can win the title outright by winning the race and scoring full bonus points by starting on the pole position and leading most laps. Even if Castroneves won but not with full bonus points, Newgarden and Dixon would need to finish second and the bonus points would decide the title.

If Simon Pagenaud repeats his performance from last year at Sonoma and wins with full bonus points, then he would need Newgarden finishing lower than third and Dixon finishing lower than second to repeat his championship triumph. Even a second place wouldn't be enough for Castroneves to stay ahead of Pagenaud.

Both Castroneves' and Pagenaud's title hopes need badly a victory at Sonoma; a second place would be 20 points less. Depending on the bonus points, even a sixth place could be enough for Newgarden to beat a second-placed Castroneves, and a ninth place to beat a second-placed Newgarden.

Besides Newgarden with four victories, his Team Penske teammate Will Power is the only driver to have scored three victories this season. Still, he is only fourth in the championship and 68 points behind Newgarden. Even if he won at Sonoma with the maximum points, Newgarden would need only a 12th place to beat him in the championship.

Alexander Rossi's title chance is even more unrealistic. He can't win the championship if Newgarden finishes inside the top 20 and Dixon inside the top 18. Graham Rahal is the third repeat winner of the season, though his mathematical title chance would require Newgarden and Dixon not starting at Sonoma.

Sonoma a successful venue for both Penske and Ganassi


The last 10 editions of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma have been won by Team Penske (six victories) and Chip Ganassi Racing (four victories). Chevrolet has achieved the victory at Sonoma every year since its comeback to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2012, though this year Honda has been more competitive against Chevy than in the previous two years of the aero kit era.

Last year Simon Pagenaud won the race for Penske and the team had claimed the top four spots in the qualifying. Scott Dixon is the winner of the 2014 and 2015 races for Ganassi, securing the championship with the 2015 victory. Of the championship top five, all others but the leader Josef Newgarden have won previously at Sonoma.

Newgarden came into the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen leading Scott Dixon by 31 points. He seemed set for a top-10 finish, yet a crash at the pit exit and the damage from it dropped him down to 18th place and the gap to Dixon shrank to mere three points.

Newgarden needs to get over the disappointment of Watkins Glen and race on his normal level at Sonoma. He's had a brilliant first season with Team Penske, having scored four victories so far to lead the championship. However, Sonoma Raceway has not been a particularly successful venue for Newgarden in his five previous appearances. His best results are two sixth places when he drove for Sarah Fisher's and Ed Carpenter's teams.

Scott Dixon has good memories from Sonoma, having won twice and secured the 2015 title there. After his worst season in a decade last year when he finished in sixth place, Dixon is once again a title contender. He has achieved only one victory this season but the only time he missed the top 10 was at the Indy 500 where his race ended after a horror crash with Jay Howard. Yet crucially for the championship, he was racing again a week after the crash, achieving a second place in Detroit despite an injured ankle.

Following his victory at Road America, Dixon didn't make the podium in the following four races, though the second places of the last two races have put him only three points behind Newgarden. Especially the second place of Gateway was particularly impressive as short ovals have been difficult for Honda. Dixon's recent form allows us to expect yet another great performance from him at Sonoma, and Newgarden will face a strong challenge from him.

20 years after his CART debut, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Hélio Castroneves' full-time career in the Verizon IndyCar Series may be over after Sonoma. Team Penske may move him into the team's new Acura DPi program and downsize the IndyCar program to three full-time cars with an 500-only seat for Castroneves. Castroneves may now have his last chance to win the elusive series title, though he badly needs a victory at Sonoma to achieve it.

Castroneves ended his victory drought this year when he won at Iowa Speedway. However, his last road course victory was at Detroit in 2014, so winning at Sonoma is a a lot to ask for. Despite the lack of victories on road courses, he is still a great qualifier, having achieved two poles on road courses this year. Qualifying is important at a track like Sonoma where passing comes at a premium.

The defending champion Simon Pagenaud has had a consistent season if we look at top-10 finishes. Only twice has Pagenaud missed the top 10 this season. However, his performances have not been up to last year's level; Pagenaud won five races on his way to last year's title, this year he has only one victory so far.

Pagenaud secured the championship last year at Sonoma after a dominant performance. A similar performance would give him a chance to celebrate the title again, though his championship outcome will also depend on Newgarden and Dixon's results.

It is those four who have a realistic title chance. Will Power in fifth place is 68 points down and Alexander Rossi in sixth place is 84 points down. While those two have a mathematical chance and are strong contenders for the victory, there are too many drivers that are too much ahead of them to have a realistic title chance.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Separate Sebring races highlight need for aligned WEC and IMSA rules

Among the changes the ACO has announced for the FIA World Endurance Championship was a return to Sebring, Florida for a 12-hour race for the first time since the series' inaugural season in 2012. However, unlike in 2012 when it was a combined race with the American Le Mans Series, the 2019 race will be run separately from 12-hour race of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the same weekend.

The American Le Mans Series featured LMP1, LMP2, and GTE from ACO's classes with the addition of the PC and GTC classes. That made it easy to include Sebring in the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup schedule, the predecessor for the FIA WEC. All ILMC classes apart from GTE-Am had their counterparts in the ALMS class structure.

The classes remained the same from the ILMC to the FIA WEC for 2012, yet the class structure for Sebring was more complicated. LMP1, LMP2, and GTE-Pro were split to separate classes for the WEC and the ALMS teams, despite sharing common regulations.

2012 was the last race for the WEC at Sebring, though LMP1 machines returned for one more time in the 2013 ALMS race. In 2014 the ALMS merged with the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and LMP1 was dropped from the united series' class structure. WEC teams have still returned to Sebring from the LMP2 and GTE classes that remain in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship.

2019 will see the WEC and the LMP1 machines returning to Sebring. But the WEC and the IMSA series have grown too much apart to run alongside each other. WEC's LMP2 would fall into IMSA's P class and WEC's GTE-Pro would fall into IMSA's GTLM class, though there are some significant differences in the race procedures, like pit stops and caution periods, in the two organizations' rule books. And most importantly, IMSA's prototype teams could hardly race for the overall victories against WEC's LMP1 teams, so the two series will race separately.

I have mixed feelings about the WEC's return to Sebring. Back in the ALMS days when the Rolex 24 was for Daytona Prototypes in the Grand-Am series, Sebring was the second-most important race for Le Mans Prototypes, only behind Le Mans itself. As great as the re-unification was for American sportscar racing, Sebring lost the global top class prototypes. Sebring will get them back in 2019, though the separate races are only a poor compromise. When there are two races, which one will crown the overall winner?

The need for separate IMSA and WEC races showcases what I think is a big problem in sportscar racing, the conflicting regulations in different organizations. The competition between different organizations' series is already a bit destructive for the sportscar racing overall. Sebring and Daytona will probably never be as big as Le Mans is but a top class with limited international relevancy doesn't help either. Yet those two are bigger races than any WEC race outside Le Mans but the WEC's top class wouldn't be sustainable in IMSA competition.

The WEC needs all the classics of prototype racing. It needs Sebring and it would also need Daytona. And not as separate races for the WEC and IMSA but as combined races. The ACO needs to acknowledge IMSA controls the two biggest races after Le Mans, and the two organizations need to create a compatible class structure. Something that is affordable for privateers, what ACO is trying to achieve for LMP1, but not controlled by the balance of performance like DPi is. I wrote earlier about what I think the LMP1 class should be like.

I even go as far as suggesting the ACO and the SRO should align the GT regulations. While both GTE and GT3 are looking healthy at the moment, nobody benefits from the separation of such similar classes. GTE was initially the class for factory teams and GT3 for the privateers, yet there are factory teams in GT3 racing and privateer teams in GTE-Am. Who wouldn't like to see a Ford GT or a Corvette racing for the Spa 24 Hours overall victory, or a Mercedes-AMG GT3 or a McLaren for the Le Mans GTE-Pro victory? At the same time, the class must remain affordable for privateer teams.

Of course, aligning the classes isn't so easy because of all the ongoing projects. Privateers enter LMP1 assuming manufacturers can't enter the class with non-hybrid machines like DPis. Manufacturers have built their DPis for a BoP class so running them unrestricted wouldn't be fair. And a GT convergence wouldn't be fair for those manufacturers that have just launched a new car in either of the current classes.

I have some hope the WEC's return to one of IMSA's major events signifies the start of aligning the regulations of the two organizations. Yet March 2019 may come too soon to abandon the idea of the dual race in favor of a combined race at Sebring.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Is the ATP schedule too taxing?

The ATP World Tour continues next week with a Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal. Of the top six in the ATP ranking, four players will be missing from Montreal. Of those, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic will be aside for the rest of the season.

Wawrinka and Djokovic are in a similar situation as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal last year as those missed the US Open and the rest of the season. Yet this year, those two have swept the Grand Slam titles and Nadal, followed by Federer, leads the Race to London ranking.

At the age of 35, Federer needs smart scheduling to allow his body more years on the top of the game. This year he skipped the entire clay season, including the French Open, to be fresh for the grass season. That worked for him as he won the record eighth Wimbledon title. Yet the cost of missing the clay season was three zero-pointers for his ranking.

Tennis has a short offseason. The season ends in late November and the new season begins at the beginning of January with the Australian Open starting in the third week of the season. In that one month of offseason, players play in the IPTL and exhibitions.

Once the season has started, it is hard for the players to have a longer break from the tour without compromising their ranking. February and April are the only months without mandatory events. As most of the Masters 1000s are back-to-back events, it's hard to have a longer break from the tour without multiple zero-pointers for the ranking.

I think the ATP World Tour schedule is too taxing for the players. The rankings should show who can play the best, not who can play the most. I would give the players more freedom in making their schedules and reduce the number of mandatory tournaments. Most top players would probably still play the Masters 1000s in Montreal and Cincinnati as a preparation for the US Open even if those were not mandatory.

I'd leave only the Grand Slam tournaments and some selected Masters 1000s as mandatory events. Indian Wells is a special Masters 1000 event. It's not preceding a bigger tournament, instead it's over a month after the Australian Open and over two months before the French Open. Given it's considered to be the biggest non-major, it could be mandatory. The following Masters 1000 event in Miami gets overshadowed by Indian Wells and I don't think it should be mandatory. Shanghai is another Masters 1000 I think should be mandatory. It may have the shortest history but is important for the ATP to attract new fans in Asia.

Making most of the Masters 1000s non-mandatory wouldn't probably change players' schedules a lot, players would still play them to prepare for the following Grand Slam tournaments. In addition to reducing mandatory events, I think the season needs to allow a longer offseason. Apart from the ranking points available, the European late-season indoor events serve little purpose. I think the ATP Finals could take place right after the Shanghai Masters 1000. As the season would be shorter, the number of tournaments included in the ranking should be reduced by one or two from the current 18.

Davis Cup suffers from the heavy season


The Davis Cup suffers from the absence of star players, especially in the early rounds. In a season that takes players to their physical limits, the star players are not particularly willing to play anything additional, possibly involving a transition to another surface for a single weekend and traveling to another continent.

The ITF Board proposed a switch from best-of-five to best-of-three in Davis Cup singles. The proposal got the support from the majority in the ITF annual general meeting but not the required majority of two thirds. However, the AGM gave the Board the authority to change the Davis Cup format without AGM voting. So the Davis Cup may still eventually become best-of-three in singles.

One must not underestimate the physical demands of Davis Cup ties. A Davis Cup tie with best-of-five singles means six to ten sets in singles, comparable to three or four best-of-three matches. Add to that possibly playing a best-of-five doubles match. A Davis Cup tie is comparable to playing a regular tournament, and away from playing elsewhere. But even with best-of-three singles, a Davis Cup tie would still be away from playing elsewhere. And you can't play more than your body allows to.

I doubt a change from best-of-five to best-of-three would bring the big names into Davis Cup ties. The traveling and the surface transitions are the problem. To make the Davis Cup flourish again, the ITF and the ATP need to find weeks where the ties are not too close to important tournaments. That's important especially for the early rounds; the chance of the title motivates the players more in the semifinal and final stages.

I'd also re-introduce the ranking points for the Davis Cup World Group. Winning two singles rubbers is comparable to making the semifinals or the final in a 250- or 500-point tournament, it should also be rewarded respectively. That was very much the case with the points system from 2009 to 2015 when there were 80 to 275 points available in World Group ties depending on the round.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

LMP1 needs a rethink following Porsche's departure

Porsche is about to leave the LMP1 class of the FIA World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, leaving Toyota as the only factory team in the class. Porsche will be the third major manufacturer in three years to leave the class; of the four manufacturers in 2015, Nissan ended its short-lived program after the first year, Audi ended its 18-year Le Mans involvement in 2016, and now Porsche is set to leave the LMP1 class in the fourth season of the program.

There are multiple privateer LMP1 projects so the 2018 grid may well have more cars than six this year at Le Mans. Another thing is if the privateer teams with more limited resources can challenge the only remaining factory team of Toyota. Also, privateer teams don't bring the publicity that a major manufacturer like Porsche or Audi did.

DPi machines from the IMSA WeatherTeach SportsCar Championship could be a way to get more manufacturers in the prototype classes at Le Mans. Cadillac, Nissan, and Mazda are already involved in the DPi class and Acura will join next year. However, DPis can't match the pace of the hybrid-engined factory LMP1 cars. Besides, the DPi class relies on the Balance of Performance. That's fine for IMSA where you don't want an expensive development war, though I prefer the top class of Le Mans is be free from BoP.

What the LMP1 class needs is competitive privateer entries but also factory teams. I'm not a fan of two-tier rules where the cash-strapped privateers have more open rules to be able to challenge the factory teams with bigger resources. Instead I'd like to see rules where it's affordable for privateers to build a winning LMP1 car or to buy one from a factory team and run independently.

The planned LMP1 hybrid rules for 2020 are very much opposite of what I'm hoping for. The hybrid technology will be even more advanced, featuring plug-in recharging during pit stops and running the first kilometer after the stop with electric power. As car manufacturers aim for better fuel efficiency and develop hybrid and electric vehicles, hybrid technology helps to attract manufacturers.

Still, expensive hybrid technology may also drive manufacturers away from the LMP1 class and prevent privateers from having success. LMP1 needs to be open for hybrid technology but it must not be mandatory.

The idea of hybrid technology is to improve the efficiency of the cars. My idea of LMP1 rules would be a maximum amount of fuel, hybrid technology allowed but not required. Set the minimum weight for a car without any hybrid systems; hybrid systems would add to the weight of the car but also to the fuel efficiency. As a result, we might see a manufacturer with an advanced hybrid system, another manufacturer with a less advanced hybrid system but also a lighter and more reliable car, and a light car with no hybrid system.

It would be up to the manufacturer to decide how much it wants to concentrate on the development of hybrid systems and how much it wants to concentrate on the development of a fuel-efficient internal combustion engine. It would be the most efficient technology winning, not the favored technology.

To make LMP1 more affordable, I think the rules in certain areas should be restrictive. In areas with road relevance, like engines, the rules must be open enough to attract manufacturers. But spending on areas with little road relevance doesn't make much sense. Limiting bodywork sets to one per season instead of current two is a welcome change in the planned 2020 rules. Advanced race car aerodynamics don't have that much relevance with most road cars, furthermore advanced aerodynamics only tend to hurt on-track racing.

No ruleset removes the issue of factory teams having more money than privateers. Yet if the rules made it harder to make gains in performance by overspending, privateers would be better able to challenge the factory teams of automotive giants. Making LMP1 less expensive would also attract more manufacturers. If privateers could build competitive chassis, a manufacturer might choose to supply (hybrid) engines to two privateer teams rather than run an own factory team.

To make privateers able to succeed in LMP1, I'd also like to see customer cars. The current LMP1 hybrid cars require factory support, having prevented privateer-run Audi R18s after Audi's departure. I'd like to see a rule where a manufacturer must sell a car of a previous generation to a potential customer at a maximum price. Five million dollars would be a good price for a car that would no longer have any use outside exhibitions, and the price should include the factory support needed. Customer cars would help to bring hybrid technology into privateer racing.

In short, the level of hybrid technology should not be determined in the rules, instead let the manufacturers choose it themselves based on their budgets. With a given amount of fuel, it's the most efficient car that wins, regardless of if it has advanced hybrid technology or no hybrid technology at all.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Federer favorite vs. Cilic in Wimbledon final

The men's singles final at Wimbledon will have the two best grass-courters of 2017 facing each other. After skipping the clay season, Roger Federer returned with an upset loss to Tommy Haas. Yet since then he won the Gerry Weber Open title in Halle and reached the record-improving 11th final at Wimbledon, extending his streak of consecutive sets won to 28.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer will be facing the 2014 US Open champion Marin Čilić in the final. Čilić's grass season has been showing an upward trend. A week after making the semifinals in 's-Hertogenbosch, Čilić  made the final at Queen's Club, losing to Feliciano López in three close sets. At Wimbledon, Čilić was yet to drop a set before the quarterfinals where he was taken into five sets by Gilles Müller who had beaten Rafal Nadal in an epic, long five-setter the previous round. Čilić made the final by defeating Sam Querrey in four sets in a semifinal battle of two tall, big-serving players.

Federer leads the head-to-head against Čilić 6-1. In their only meeting on grass, Federer beat Čilić in five sets in last year's Wimbledon quarterfinals, after which these two have not faced each other. Čilić's only win is from maybe the biggest match of this rivalry when he beat Federer in straight sets in the 2014 US Open semifinals, on his way to his only Grand Slam title so far.

As it's grass, this should be on Federer's racquet. Grass may suit the big-serving, big-hitting Čilić's game, yet it also suits Federer's aggressive game. It's usually the slower surfaces where Federer is vulnerable against big-hitters who have the firepower to hit through. Yet on the faster surfaces like grass, Federer is able to keep up the tempo and take away the time from his opponents. Both players serve well so there may not be many break opportunities.

Federer lost his last two Wimbledon finals against Novak Djokovic. Though Čilić is a different player to Djokovic. Djokovic has a great return of serve and a great defense. What Čilić can do is to outpower Federer from the baseline, though Federer can take away the time from him.

I give the advantage to Federer. His semifinal win over Tomáš Berdych, even though in straight sets, appears closer on the scoreboard than it was in reality. I expect a similar performance in the final. Both players serve well so the sets will be close, yet I expect Federer to have the upper hand. My pick is Federer, maybe in four close sets, to achieve the record-breaking eighth men's singles title at Wimbledon.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Are IndyCar's ratings on ABC a reason to be worried?

The doubleheader Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix concluded ABC's coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series for this season as the remaining nine races will be broadcast by NBC Sports Network. Five races and two qualifying days for the Indianapolis 500 had in total 11.5 million viewers on ABC. That is 11 percent down from 12.9 million last year, and seven percent down from 12.3 million viewers in 2015.

Click to enlarge

Excluding the Indy 500 and its qualifying, the four regular races had 980 thousand viewers on average on ABC. That is down 16 percent from 1.2 million last year and the same as in 2015. Only the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis road course was up in viewership compared to last year whereas only the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had more viewers than in 2015.

There were many positives for INDYCAR from the Month of May. However, the 101st Indianapolis 500 was the lowest-rated 500 with a final rating of 3.4 with 5.5 million viewers, down 12 percent in ratings and nine percent in viewers from last year (3.9 rating, 6.0m viewers). The drop wasn't such a big surprise as last year was the celebrated 100th Running and the local blackout was lifted. However, the 2015 Indy 500 had earned a final rating of 4.2 with 6.5 million viewers, despite the local blackout.

The drop in the Indy 500's American ratings was compensated by increased viewership in Europe, thanks to F1 star Fernando Alonso's participation. The viewership in Alonso's native country Spain averaged at 361,000 viewers with a share of 2.9 percent. That was above F1's Monaco Grand Prix the same day which averaged 212 thousand viewers and 302 thousand a year earlier. In the United Kingdom, the 500 averaged at 129 thousand viewers and a share of 0.91 percent, up 975 percent from 12 thousand a year earlier. The Indy 500 was broadcast on a pay channel in both Spain and the UK.

Declining viewership isn't only IndyCar's problem, in fact NASCAR and NHRA are experiencing even more dramatic drops in viewing figures. Also Formula One suffers from declining viewership worldwide, though in the USA its ratings have improved so far this year.

IndyCar behind F1 in the 18-49 age group


The Monaco Grand Prix in the Memorial Day weekend earned a 1.0 final rating with 1.4 million viewers. It was the most-viewed F1 race on NBC's channels since the group became the American F1 broadcaster in 2013. Excluding the Indy 500, no free-to-air IndyCar telecast on ABC could match those numbers.

While the difference in the viewership isn't particularly big between F1 and IndyCar, F1 has considerably more viewers aged between 18 and 49 years. 31 percent of the viewers of the Monaco GP were from the 18-49 age group. For the five earlier F1 races this season on NBCSN, the average is 33 percent. Excluding the 500, the four races shown on ABC had only 24 percent of viewers from that 18-49 age group, and on NBCSN the average so far is 23 percent.

The Indy 500 didn't see an increase in the share of viewers aged between 18 and 49 years. The last two years, 22 percent of the 500's viewers have been from that age group, below the average of the other races shown on ABC. That is opposite to NASCAR's flagship race, the Daytona 500, which had 30 percent of its viewers in the 18-49 age group whereas the average for the other races on Fox this year was 26 percent.

Also, while the gap in the viewership of the Indy 500 (5.5 million) and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 (4.6 million) was the biggest since 2000 in favor of the 500, they both had the same viewership of 1.2 million in the 18-49 age group. Though a year ago, the Coke 600 had more 18-49 viewers despite the 500 having more viewers in total.

Given that IndyCar and F1 have lots of similarities but also certain differences, a good question is why F1 gets more viewers in the USA, especially in the 18-49 age group.

Formula One is known as the pinnacle of motorsports for a reason. It has the fastest cars for road courses, the F1 cars are technically the most advanced race machines alongside Le Mans Prototypes, and most of the top talent in open-wheel racing are in F1. If anything, F1 is relatively unknown in the USA compared to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, the Verizon IndyCar Series has the fastest race cars in the USA, apart from F1's annual visit to the States. While IndyCar lacks the technical competition of F1, its closer field provides better racing, and ovals add to the versatility of the series. Nine of the 21 full-season cars are driven by Americans whereas there are no American drivers in F1 despite an American team. The F1 races are mostly early in Sunday morning whereas IndyCar races are in the afternoon or evening. And IndyCar offers more chances for American fans to go and see races live.

If I had to make an assumption on why F1 gets more viewers than IndyCar in the USA excluding the 500, I'd say that's because of F1's status as the pinnacle of motorsports. No matter how great racing IndyCar provides, there will always be people who insist on F1's supremacy because it draws most of the open-wheel talent and has the higher levels of engineering.

The 18-49 age group was probably the most impacted by the split of American open-wheel racing. The younger generations of that group were still teens or even kids during the split years. With the American open-wheel racing split in two, F1 may have been the most attractive open-wheel series to start following back then.

Also, the technological skills of the younger generations may be behind F1's popularity in the 18-49 age group. If you follow the international motorsports press, F1 dominates there. Thanks to Internet, you can follow series that don't get much coverage in your local sports news. Probably no other series has so much coverage between the races as F1, making it easy to stay engaged with it.

If there's any major flaw in the Verizon IndyCar Series, I'd say it's the length of the season, or rather the offseason. Hardly any major series in motorsports goes away for half of a year. I get the INDYCAR management's point of avoiding the football season but the long offseason kills the momentum the series had gained during the season. INDYCAR leaves the fans craving for other racing, like NASCAR or F1 that already dominate the media. Even if TV ratings for fall races were hit by football, the longer season would keep fans more engaged with the series.

Alonso's running at Indy generated lots of interest among F1 fans. Given that, I was disappointed the Indy 500 viewership declined also in the 18-49 age group. Maybe Alonso's participation had very little effect on the American viewership of the 500 or maybe it saved it from even bigger of a decline.

I'm not so worried about IndyCar's declines ratings on ABC this year. While the ratings were down on ABC, the three first races on NBCSN have averaged 378 viewers on average, up nine percent from last year and up 15 percent from 2015. Yet the age structure of IndyCar's fanbase is worrying. IndyCar has a smaller part of its viewers in the 18-49 age group than F1 or NASCAR have. It's important IndyCar can attract younger fans to ensure the series' long-term health.

The future of IndyCar broadcasting


As ESPN, which produces ABC's IndyCar coverage, has laid off their motorsports staff, it seems like INDYCAR will need to find another broadcaster for the races they want to have broadcast free-to-air. ESPN still is under contract of showing five races on ABC in 2018, though the layoffs imply they may give up those rights a year before the contract expires. And anyway, INDYCAR needs to negotiate a new over-the-air broadcast contract for 2019 onwards.

NBC would seem like a logical choice for the over-to-air coverage as they already broadcast 12 races on cable. Broadcasting the full season, NBC might put more effort in promotion than ABC which shows only five races. A single broadcaster might also be more flexible in their choices to show races free-to-air; currently ABC's coverage is centered around the Month of May and the entire second half of the season is on cable on NBCSN.

INDYCAR also needs to have a look into the streaming services. MotoGP already offers a streaming service, and F1 might as well if the contracts with local broadcasters didn't prevent it. If INDYCAR or its broadcast partner offered a streaming service without having to pay for other content, that could be a way to make cord cutters watching the Verizon IndyCar Series. But streaming can't completely replace the TV coverage of the series; streams reach only the hardcore fans, TV enables reaching the big crowd.

Numbers via Awful AnnouncingShowbuzz DailySports Media WatchThe F1 Broadcasting Blog, and FormulaTV.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Great Month of May for IndyCar

The 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is behind, concluding such a great Month of May for INDYCAR. Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso joining Andretti Autosport with McLaren Honda brought lots of worldwide attention to the showpiece race of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the month concluded with Alonso's teammate Takuma Sato becoming the first Japanese Indy 500 winner.

Alonso's participation was a huge boost for the global interest in the Indy 500. One of Formula One's biggest stars missing F1's showpiece race at Monaco was something no F1 fan could miss. Alonso's participation surely brought new viewers for the 500.

For his own and his fans' disappointment, Alonso's race at Indy ended in such a familiar way for him in F1, a Honda engine failure. Indy 500 victory was surely Alonso's only aim in his American adventure, yet there are lots of positives from his performances at the Brickyard.

Qualifying in fifth place and being a strong contender in his first oval race showed how great a driver he is. He was warmly welcomed to the IndyCar paddock, and will surely be welcomed again if he wants to have another chance at Indy. With the skill he showed this month, it would be disappointing if he didn't return to the Brickyard in the future.

If Alonso was warmly welcomed to Indy, so was also McLaren. It is great to see McLaren's current management appreciating the brand's legacy at Indy and they are considering a continued involvement in Indy car racing, be it 500-only or the full Verizon IndyCar Series. Having an F1 team in Indy might enable more crossover between the two series, promoting Indy car racing to a wider audience like Alonso's running showed.

Alonso suffering an engine failure was probably the outcome Honda wanted to see the least, given Alonso and McLaren's poor success in F1 has very much been caused by the unreliable and underpowered Honda engines. But Honda also has a big reason for joy after this Indy 500.

The Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato has been a Honda protege throughout his career. He raced for Honda-powered teams in F1, and the Honda connection brought him into IndyCar. Honda has wanted a successful Japanese driver; now Takuma Sato became the first Japanese winner at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The was some talk about whether Alonso winning the 500 would be good for IndyCar. While Alonso's victory would've dominated the global motorsports media, the 500 winner wouldn't have been there to promote the series. Besides, people might have made ignorant assessments on the skill level of the full-time IndyCar drivers, like F1 star Lewis Hamilton did already after the Indy qualifying.

Sato's victory may not get the attention as Alonso's victory would've. But I think Sato's victory is great for IndyCar. Sato is a full-time IndyCar driver you'll see racing again next weekend at the Detroit doubleheader, though he's also familiar to the F1 crowd that watched the 500 because of Alonso.

While Sato's F1 career lacked the greatest success, F1 was a worse environment than IndyCar for him. In his F1 days, Sato showed he can be as fast as anybody but lacked the consistency. You don't get into a winning team if you can't show the consistency. But in IndyCar almost any car can be a winning car because of the limited technical competition. Sato can be as fast as anybody, in IndyCar he's got the machinery to win. He had already showed his skills at the Brickyard in 2012 when he crashed on the final lap when trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead.

Sato's Indy 500 victory will hopefully increase IndyCar's popularity in Japan. Honda-owned Twin Ring Motegi hosted Indy car races from 1998 to 2011. Maybe after Sato's 500 victory, Honda would have some desire to bring the Verizon IndyCar Series back to Japan. With rumors about a Chinese IndyCar race, it would make sense for IndyCar to visit also Japan in the Asian trip.

Alonso was the rookie who got the biggest attention at Indy and he did impress in his oval debut. But one must not forget another impressive rookie performance by Ed Jones. Last year's Indy Lights champion qualified in 11th place and achieved his young Verizon IndyCar Series career's best result by finishing in third place. Even without the engine failure, the double F1 world champion Alonso might not have beaten  Jones who was running higher when Alonso's engine failed. The Indy Light champion Jones' great results in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season showcase the talent of the Mazda Road to Indy graduates.

Jones' third place was also a nice finish for Dale Coyne Racing's dramatic month. The team lost their biggest ace as pole contender Sébastien Bourdais suffered pelvis and hip fractures in a heavy qualifying crash. James Davison did great job as a substitute driver, making his way to the front with the help of strategy before getting involved in a late-race multi-car crash. Like in Davison's case, strategy helped also Jones to get to the front in the end of the race, though Jones did solid job staying among the frontrunners on his way to the third place.

The heavy crashes of Bourdais as well as Scott Dixon and Jay Howard showed the dangers of oval racing. Oval racing is inherently dangerous and there's not much you can do to prevent crashes like those. But the crashes also showed how safe the current Indy cars are. The crash where Bourdais fractured his pelvis and hip was measured at 118 G. After crashing into Howard in the race, Dixon went airborne into the catch fence and the SAFER Barrier, yet the car protected the drivers like it's supposed to, and both drivers survived without injuries. While you can't eliminate the crashes from oval racing, INDYCAR and the chassis manufacturer Dallara have done great job to make the crashes less serious. Improving safety must continue, yet INDYCAR has showed you can do it without hurting the spectacle.

I think this was a great Month of May for INDYCAR. Alonso brought lots of global attention for the 500 and it got a globally recognized winner in Sato. It was also great to see an impressive performance from a MRTI graduate. It might take a NASCAR star for the 500 to get more attention in the USA, though this year's race must surely have attracted the biggest global attention in years.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Why could Rossi victory be greater than Alonso victory?

Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso has created lots of worldwide interest around this year's Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. While Indy has had former F1 drivers like last two years's winners Alexander Rossi and Juan Pablo Montoya, it's been ages since an active F1 driver has participated in the 500, let alone a world champion and by missing the Monaco Grand Prix.

Qualifying in fifth place showed Alonso has the pace to race even for the victory. How he'll perform in the traffic against drivers with lots of oval racing experience remains to be seen, however his impressive quaifying and practice performaces have made his running at Indy even bigger of a story.

There has been some talk on whether Alonso winning the Indy 500 would be good for INDYCAR or not. If that happened, the 500 might overshadow F1's Monaco Grand Prix, and still dominate the F1 press in the build-up to the next race. On the other hand, the winner of the biggest race wouldn't be there promoting the other Verizon IndyCar Series races. Besides, a rookie winning his first oval race might give an impression of a weak series.

Alonso winning could have a long-term impact if it motivated more F1 stars to race at the 500 or even in the full Verizon IndyCar Series. Then again, seeing an F1 star in the 500 would probably need a partner already involved in IndyCar. Honda supplying engines in IndyCar as well as for McLaren in F1 worked perfectly to enable Alonso's participation. Even if there were F1 drivers with some Indy 500 ambitions, they would need the right circumstances to participate.

I'm a bit skeptical about seeing many more F1 stars at Indy in the near future. Alonso may be the most likely also in the upcoming years as he's stated he's aiming for the Triple Crown of Monaco GP, Indy 500, and Le Mans 24 Hours victories. But if he wins at Indy, he may not come back again. He'd unlikely leave F1 again for a race he's already won. Besides, once he's won at Indy, the Le Mans victory would be his big aim outside F1.

I want to see Alonso running at Indy again in the future, and I believe the pace he's showed so far will encourage him to do it, unless he achieves his aim of the Indy 500 victory already this year. That's why I do hope somebody else wins this Sunday. Alonso winning would be a great and popular storyline, yet I can imagine also other great storylines. While the attention was on the F1 star Alonso, I found it sweet that Scott Dixon won the pole; he may be the best active driver who's never raced in F1.

One of the nicest storylines for the race I could imagine would be Alexander Rossi winning his second consecutive Indy 500. Rossi was the USA's best prospect to have a career in F1, though being unable to secure an F1 seat made him make a switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series where he won the Indy 500 as a rookie.

I wasn't a huge fan of Rossi last year. I didn't like his comments where he said he would rather have raced for (the backmarker team) Manor in F1 than in IndyCar, even though he was racing for one of IndyCar's top organizations. His 500 victory was quite underwhelming, enabled by a fuel-mileage run to the checkered flag while others had to stop for fuel. While he had shown competitive pace throughout the month, so had the entire Andretti Autosport team and Rossi hadn't been the fastest of the teammates.

While the 500 still remains his only victory, he's been improving ever since. A mechanical retirement may have cost him the victory at this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He qualified on the front row in third place for this year's Indy 500, eight places higher than last year. His comments about racing Indy cars have become more positive and the 25-year-old American may become one of the Verizon IndyCar Series' biggest stars.

The five races for the backmarker Manor didn't allow Rossi to make an impression in F1. But what a nice storyline it would be if he won his second consecutive Indy 500, beating two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso among others. He is in a great position to do it, having qualified in third place as the best of the Andretti Autosport drivers, one of which Alonso is. A young American succeeding would be great for the Verizon IndyCar Series with ageing stars.

The F1 world is following this Indy 500 closer than usually. If Rossi won his second consecutive Indy 500, maybe it might open F1 doors for him. While losing a young American would be a blow for the Verizon IndyCar Series, I would be happy to see a top IndyCar driver going to F1. Rossi is still young enough to be attractive for F1 teams. And anyway, if Rossi won, Alonso would have a reason to return to Indy, which would be great for Indy car racing.

Anyway, my favorites for the victory are Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Team Penske's Will Power. Dixon must be the favorite after his impressive pole but his teammate Kanaan is always a strong contender on ovals. Although Hunter-Reay missed the Fast 9 qualifying, I think he's the best oval racer of the Andretti team and even the entire series.

If Chevrolet has the better package, then you can't overlook Penske, despite their poor qualifying. Not only Power was the only Penske driver to make the Fast 9 but he's also become very competitive on ovals; he's the Indy 500 runner-up from two years ago and he won last year at Pocono, the track most similar to Indy. Penske of course has the three-time Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves, yet I see Power as a stronger contender than Castroneves who hasn't won a race in almost three years.

Both Alonso and Rossi can also be expected to have competitive cars prepared by Andretti Autosport. How Alonso performs in the traffic remains to be seen after the practice he's had this month. Rossi has now one year of oval experience under his belt; if he's to win the 500 again, he probably needs to do it racing wheel-to-wheel and not by strategy like last year.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

NHL's Olympic decision disappointing but understandable

The National Hockey League has announced it won't break the 2017-18 season to allow its players participate in the Winter Olympics in February. This will be the first time since 1998 when the NHL players won't participate in the Olympics, ending the streak of five Winter Games with nations represented by their best players.

The Olympics in February have seen the players in a good form playing for their nations. The same can't be said about the World Cup of Hockey which is played in the preseason. However, the Olympic dates have been problematic for the NHL. With less than two months to the playoffs, a key player's injury from the Olympics can derail a team's Stanley Cup bid. Also, February is an important month for the NHL as the NFL season has ended and the MLB season hasn't started yet.

With NHL participation, the Olympics have been the best possible international tournament for hockey. The best players playing for their nations at an event as prestigious as the Olympics with global coverage. However the Olympics have not increased the NHL's viewership, making the league not willing to break the season.

The International Olympic Committee has previously paid the insurance and travel expenses of the NHL players in order to get them to the Olympics. A practice unique to hockey among Olympic sports, the IOC isn't willing to pay those expenses in 2018, making the NHL reluctant to have the Olympic break. The International Ice Hockey Federation offered to pay those fees, yet the NHL doesn't want to use IIHF's money for the Olympic participation but wants the IOC to pay for it. In addition to that, the NHL wanted additional monetary compensation from the IOC for the lose revenue during the Olympics. Alternatively the NHL would have liked the official Olympic partner status to use it for commercial purposes.

The NHL players want to play at the Olympics. The NHL has acknowledged that and offered the Olympic participation if the NHLPA eliminated the opt-out clause in the collective bargaining agreement, extending it to 2022. However the NHLPA didn't accept that.

NHL has all the rights to ask for compensation for its players Olympic participation. While the ideal of the Olympics is a festival of sports without business interests, the reality is different. The IOC may officially be a nonprofit organization but it's a huge business, and probably second only to the FIFA in most corrupt major sports organizations. Why should the NHL sacrifice their own business interests to support an event that generates money for the IOC? The NHL did the right thing by not making the IIHF pay for NHL's Olympic participation; that money would have been away from developing hockey worldwide.

Olympics with NHL participation have been the ideal international hockey tournament and it's a pity if the NHL participation ends. But I can't blame the NHL for not participating the Olympics since there is not that much for the NHL to benefit. It's up to the IOC if they want the Olympics to be a pseudo-amateur event with no participation compensation, or if they want to have all the best athletes and are willing to share the revenue with other organizations to make that happen.

The NHL may be more willing to participate the 2022 Olympics, in order to promote itself in the Chinese market. However what I want to see the least is the NHL deciding case-by-case which Olympics to participate. I want to see NHL either committing long-term to the Olympics or starting to build up the brand of the World Cup of Hockey to make it the most important international hockey tournament. Then again, hardly anything can prevent the NHL from participating certain Olympics it feels important if the NHL pays all expenses itself.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Radical changes proposed for the Alpine Skiing World Cup

The FIS race director Markus Waldner is suggesting some radical changes for the Alpine Skiing World Cup, as reported by skionline.ch. His ideas include finishing the season with the World Championships, removing super-G and adding sprint downhills, and increasing the number of the parallel races.

World Championships after the World Cup?


Having the World Championships once the World Cup has finished sounds sensible; Waldner compares it the domestic soccer leagues finishing before the FIFA World Cup. However, I can see two problems.

World Cup races in March are often harmed by warm temperature. Do we want to see the Worlds' medals decided in unfair conditions?

Secondly, what about the Olympic seasons or the seasons with no championships? The Olympics are usually in mid-February; would the World Cup season finish in early February then or continue past the Olympics? And in a non-championship season, would the World Cup season continue till mid-March like it currently does?

Finishing the season with the World Championships sounds cool but you can't have it every season. On the other hand, with the current schedule you have the World Cup Finals concluding every season, no matter if there were the Olympics or the Worlds or neither that season.

The future of speed disciplines


I don't get the point of Waldner's idea of dropping super-G altogether from the World Cup. The number of the speed races is already an issue, handicapping speed specialists in the overall standings against the technical specialists. Getting rid of super-G would only skew the schedule even more in favor of tech specialists, even though Waldner's suggested sprint downhills would balance it.

One of the ideas is also to have the technical races in weekdays to give more flexibility for the speed races in weekends. More scheduling flexibility is definitely needed as showcased by this season's downhill cancellations. Yet I'm not sure moving races to weekdays is a good idea unless you can have them as night races when people have come home from work.


More parallel races


Waldner is pushing for more parallel races since they are easy for the audience to understand, even if they aren't into ski racing. He is suggesting a crystal globe with four to five parallel races, which would end the criticized practice of counting them towards the slalom or giant slalom standings.

Personally I'm not a huge fan of the parallel races but obviously their reception has been mostly positive. No longer counting them towards slalom or parallel slalom standings would be an improvement since parallel races require somewhat different skills.

However, increasing the number of parallel races makes the schedule even more tech-favoring, even though speed specialists have occasionally had success in parallel races. What I think is the biggest problem of the Ski World Cup is the speed vs. tech disparity; Waldner's suggestions only seem to increase it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to balance the Alpine Skiing World Cup schedule?

Only two of the scheduled five men's downhill races so far have taken place this World Cup season, and it is unsure if all canceled races will get a replacement date. That has caused criticism of this season's schedule which was tech-favoring already before the downhill cancellations.

The men's schedule for this season features 15 speed races, nine in downhill and only six in super-G. In technical disciplines, there are 18 races, 10 in slalom and eight in giant slalom. In addition to that, there is one parallel race both in giant slalom and slalom, though parallel racing is almost a separate discipline. Of the two combined races, one had super-G and the other had downhill as the speed leg.

Women also have 15 speed races as opposed to 18 technical races, though the distribution is more even. There are eight races in downhill, seven in super-G, nine in giant slalom, and nine in slalom. Women have only one parallel race, that is in slalom. Of the three combined races, one has downhill as the speed leg, two have super-G.

Having a balanced schedule would be important to keep the overall title battle fair for both speed and tech specialists. To illustrate that, here's an example. If a tech specialist scores 60 points on average in those disciplines' races, he'll score 1080 points in the season. A speed specialist needs an average of 72 points per speed race for that. Or 77 if one race gets canceled without a replacement as it currently seems for men.

The schedules don't look much better for the next three seasons from that perspective. The women's schedules aren't that bad but the men's schedules schedules always have two or three races more in the technical side and parallel races are still more of technical races. Still, looking at those schedules, you could achieve well-balanced schedules with minimal changes.

Firstly, I'd exclude the parallel races that have increased the number of tech races in the World Cup. Those are not real slalom and giant slalom races so they shouldn't be included in the discipline standings either. I acknowledge their importance in attracting new audiences and you want to have the big names racing there. But the incentive should be something else than World Cup overall points; instead give a cash prize or even a separate crystal globe for parallel races.

Secondly, I'd drop the separate combined races from the schedule. You could use those days for speed races. If you still want to have combined races, you can have some downhill races followed by a slalom run to complete the alpine combined. Wengen would be the only exception; the long Lauberhorn course needs to be shortened for combined.

Now let's have a look into how the next seasons' schedules could be balanced.


Women 2017-18 (DH: 8 races, SG: 8, GS: 8, SL: 9, AC: 3)


This is the best-balanced schedule of the next three years and wouldn't really need any changes. If one slalom got canceled, just don't reschedule it, then you'll have eight races in all disciplines but combined.


Men 2017-18 (DH: 9, SG: 6, GS: 8, SL: 10, AC: 2)


This is similar to the current season, though with two changes you could balance the speed and tech races. Val d'Isère is a venue capable of hosting any discipline. Replace the slalom with a super-G there. Bormio (the Italian TBD venue) could increase the number of super-Gs to eight by replacing the alpine combined. That way you'd have a 9-8-8-9 distribution of races in the four disciplines.

Women 2018-19 (DH: 9, SG: 6, GS: 8, SL: 9, AC: 3)


This is the least balanced of the women's schedules in next three seasons. But still, you could achieve a 9-8-8-9 distribution by replacing two of the combined races with super-G races.


Men 2018-19 (DH: 9, SG: 7, GS: 9, SL: 10, AC: 3)


Once again men will have three more tech races compared to speed races. Though similarly to the previous season, by replacing the slalom of Val d'Isère and the combined of Bormio, you could balance the schedule and get nine races in all four disciplines.

Women 2019-20 (DH: 10, SG: 8, GS: 9, SL: 10, AC: 3)


This schedule is easy to balance. Replace two combined races with super-G races and one combined race with a giant slalom. That way you'll get 10 races in all four disciplines.


Men 2019-20 (DH: 11, SG: 8, GS: 10, SL: 11, AC: 3)


You can get a 11-10-10-11 schedule and speed vs. tech balance by replacing the combined races of Bormio and Chamonix with super-G races.

2020 and beyond


I hope the FIS will pay more attention to the distribution of races between each discipline, to give both speed and tech specialists a fair chance to race for the overall title. The trouble in rescheduling the canceled downhill races shows also another problem of the current schedule; the ever-growing schedule is getting too full. For that reason, I wouldn't mind having less races than there currently are.

An alternative for balancing speed vs. tech


If balancing the schedule isn't an option, maybe alpine skiing should have a look at freestyle skiing. In the Freestyle World Cup where athletes usually compete only in one or two disciplines, the overall standings are the aggregate of the average points in each discipline.

Or to make it easier for fans, count only a certain number of races from each discipline into the overall standings, like six as that's the number of men's super-G races this and next season. That would still favor the disciplines with more races as you could afford some bad results, yet still it would be an improvement to the current situation.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Three-way battle on top of the Four Hills Tournament

Daniel-André Tande opened the new year with a victory in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Kamil Stoch achieved a second consecutive second place and became the new Four Hills Tournament leader over the Oberstdorf winner Stefan Kraft. Less than seven points separate the top three at the halfway of the Four Hills while Markus Eisenbichler in fourth place is already 20 points from the lead.

Kraft loses the tournament lead in Garmisch-Partenkirchen


Stefan Kraft started the Four Hills Tournament in Oberstdorf with a victory over Kamil Stoch by 2.8 points, leaving Michael Hayböck in third place 11.8 points behind. Kraft was able to extend his tournament lead over Stoch to 6.1 points in the first round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen; however a second jump three meters shorter to Stoch's saw Kraft losing the tournament lead by 0.8 points as he finished third in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.


Stoch leads the Four Hills after two second places


Kamil Stoch has won the World Cup title and Olympic and World gold medals in his successful career but has never had major success at the Four Hills. A victory in any Four Hills competition is still eluding him but he is leading the tournament standings following the second places of the first two competitions.

The battle between Stoch and Kraft has been very close in the first two competitions, as implied by the 0.8-point gap between them. After the first round in Oberstdorf, Kraft was leading Stoch by 4.3 points, yet Stoch reduced the gap to 2.8 points in the second round. In the first round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the gap extended to 6.1 points as Stoch had his worst jump of the tournament. Yet with a jump of 143.0, Stoch climbed from fifth into second place and took the tournament lead from Kraft by 0.8 points.


Tande recovers into title battle after Oberstdorf's first round


After topping the qualification in Oberstdorf, Daniel-André Tande had a mediocre first competition jump. Only ninth in the first round in Oberstdorf, Tande was trailing Kraft already by 14.8 points. However, the second round started his recovery in the Four Hills title battle. With the best second jump, he finished fourth in Oberstdorf and reduced the gap to Kraft to 12.6 points. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen he topped the first round ahead of Kraft, reducing the gap to Kraft further by two points and trailing the tournament second-placed Stoch by 4.5 points. With a second jump one meter shorter to Stoch's, he claimed his second career World Cup victory in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and is in Four Hills' third place, 6.6 points behind the leader Stoch.


Tande in best form but does he have the consistency?


Tande has shown tremendous form in recovering from the poor first jump in Oberstdorf. He had the best second jump in Oberstdorf and the best first jump in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and his second jump in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was second only to Stoch's. 6.6 points isn't a big gap for the remaining two competitions, equivalent for less than four meters.

However, Tande can't afford another mediocre jump if Stoch and Kraft continue their consistently excellent performances. Especially Stoch has been very solid in all his jumps at the Four Hills, including qualifications and trainings. Fifth in the first round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was the first time in a competition round when he wasn't in the top two. Including training and qualification rounds, that was his second-worst round; in the trial round he was down in 12th place. Skipping the qualification in Garmisch-Partenkirchen showcased the self-confidence Stoch currently has.

Kraft hasn't impressed with his training jumps but he's been very solid when it matters the most, in the competitions but also in the qualifications. Fourth in the second round in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was his first non-top-three round ranking in competitions and qualifications in the tournament.


Kraft only former champion in the top three


Stefan Kraft is the only former Four Hills champion in the top three, which may make the situation easier for him. In addition to that, the tournament finishes with competitions in Innsbruck and Bischofshofen. Those hills are surely familiar for the Austrian Kraft, even though at least Stoch also has experience of them.

Kamil Stoch is one of the most successful ski jumpers of the 2010s with a World Cup title, two Olympic gold medals, and one World gold medal, yet still his best Four Hills result is fourth from 2013. Now he is finally in his best form at the Four Hills, and his earlier championship success implies that he can perform at his best under the pressure of a title battle.

Daniel-André Tande is the contender with no previous experience of being among major title favorites. The first jump in Oberstdorf looked like he was folding under the pressure, yet he recovered from it with a brilliant second jump and two days later he celebrated his second career World Cup victory in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, exactly when his Four Hills campaign needed it.


Challengers for the top three far behind


Markus Eisenbichler topped the qualification in Garmisch-Partenkirchen but had to settle for a fourth place in the competition, missing the podium by 3.5 points. Eisenbichler's gap to the tournament leader Stoch is 29.2 points which is too much for the remaining two competitions given how solid the top three is.

Piotr Żyła climbed from seventh into fifth place past two Austrians who had a disappointing competition in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Third in Oberstdorf and 11.2 points from the lead, Michael Hayböck needed at least to match the lead contenders in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to stay in the Four Hills title contention. However, he was only 10th and the gap to the tournament lead extended into 29.7 points.

Manuel Fettner is having a career-best season at the age of 31. He opened the Four Hills with a fifth place in Oberstdorf and a third place in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen qualification increased the expectations. However, he achieved only a disappointing 10th place, dropping him down to seventh place in the tournament standings, 36.8 points from the tournament lead.

Four Hills leaders closing on World Cup leader Prevc


Domen Prevc came into the Four Hills as the World Cup leader, 158 points ahead of Tande in second place. However, the 17-year-old sensation couldn't meet the high expectations in Oberstdorf where he was only 26th, 53.3 points behind the winner Kraft. Although his Four Hills title chance has gone, he needs to get quickly back to his former level to retain the World Cup standings' lead.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen was more successful for Prevc. Eighth after the first round, Prevc had the third-best second jump and finished in fifth place. However, the Four Hills' leading trio are Prevc's closest rivals in the World Cup standings. Tande has reduced Prevc's lead to 58 points while Kraft is 99 points and Stoch 107 points behind.