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.