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.