Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thoughts about IndyCar schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Should F1 go to three-car teams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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