MotoGP to BT Sport in 2014 (IndyCar & NASCAR too)

UK TV coverage of MotoGP will be switching to the new BT Sport channels from the 2014 season. IndyCar will also be on those channels later this season. I’ll focus on MotoGP as that is by far the bigger series in terms of fans and ratings.

Err, What?

BT Sport is a new venture from the telecoms company after it bought ESPN UK & Ireland, which itself grew out of the ashes of Setanta Sports. The line-up will be BT Sport 1 and BT Sport 2 – each with HD and SD simulcasts – and the existing ESPN channel will be retained, but it’ll be run by BT instead of ESPN. The existing ESPN Classic and ESPN America will be discontinued. MotorsTV has moved on the Sky EPG to make way.

Is this a good thing? The elephant in the room is Sky Sports, the dominant player in subscription-TV sports. If Setanta nor the mighty ESPN could make it work against Sky, could BT, despite little experience operating linear TV? BT already offer an on-demand service via IPTV (it beat Sky to that by a couple of years), could that make the difference?

Given Thursday’s announcements they are certainly giving it a damn good try!

No Free-To-Air MotoGP

Now for the bad news for many – no more BBC or Eurosport MotoGP coverage.

The free-to0-air* BBC2 airs all races live, and Moto2 and Moto3 races, and MotoGP qualifying, are live online and on the red button.

* excluding the Licence Fee but since everyone has to pay it anyway it is moot.

British Eurosport – but I believe not many other branches of Eurosport across the continent – air all sessions live for all 3 classes apart from the MotoGP race, which is delayed to give BBC2 the priority. Eurosport only requires a £5 extra fee on Sky (along with a whole host of other channels in the Entertainment Extra pack), and is on a fairly reasonable tier on Virgin Media cable TV, I think? It also has a very affordable web and app presence costing only £2.99/mth which is how I watch it.

The sharing agreement was set up in 2009 specifically to boost ratings by giving priority to the more widely available BBC2. It seems priorities have changed at Dorna!

As of now the only UK TV coverage is exclusive to BT. Sadly this means, unless a highlights deal is announced, MotoGP will no longer be available on free-to-air to the whole population.

This is a huge loss for MotoGP’s UK fans. I am sure Dorna took this option for their own reasons, possibly financial. The BT deal will inevitably result in far lower viewing figures. BBC2 gets about 1 million people per race, this is sometimes higher than F1 races on Sky! BT would be doing extremely well to reach 20% of that and it might be more like 10%.

There are some people who will get it free-to-air, effectively. More on that in a minute.

What MotoGP Will They Air?

Everything. All sessions and races will be covered live. Tthey’ll be covered live from site and from a London studio, perhaps they’ll send one or two pit reporters (and crew) and keep the presenting team at home? That’s a backwards step, the interaction you get from Matt Roberts, and previously Suzi Perry, is very much worth the investment. Talking heads sitting in a remote studio is not interesting to me.

What is interesting is the promise of extra programming between races, they’ve not given specifics but I imagine that might include profiles of legends of the sport, insights into GP history, a tour of a team HQ.

How.. And How Much?

First things first – the hook:  If you have BT Broadband you will be able to get BT Sport’s channels as a free extra. I’m a BT Broadband subscriber so this makes me quite happy! Effectively MotoGP remains ‘free-to-air’ if you are already with BT.

There are those who complain it isn’t “free” but that is only valid if you are now with a competitor at a lower rate – you’ll end up paying more by switching. That’s fair enough. For those of us already paying BT’s higher rates, this offer makes those prices better value. I’m paying them anyway so anything extra is a bonus. Ok it isn’t ‘free’, it is a new feature that makes my higher cost more bearable. Believe me I was seriously considering switching away at the end of my contract and this deal will heavily influence my decision.

Don’t have BT Broadband? A subscription costs £12 per month or £15 for HD but at the moment you can only get it on Sky.

Here are the four options. They say three but there are four, I consider the web player to be separate from the app. There’s a possible fifth.

Option 1)  Sky. If you have Sky you can ring up BT and give them your viewing card number. You DO NOT have to be an existing BT customer – the difference is only in cost. If you are with BTB you’ll get Sport free, if you’re not you’ll be charged £12 or £15. Seemingly you can only get it direct from BT (don’t call Sky), I bet this is to check you’re a broadband customer which Sky wouldn’t know.

Option 2) BT TV. BT have a couple of TV options of their own. You’ll need their broadband to get either.

They want you to get YouView but that requires some hoops to be jumped: You need to have BT Infinity (“superfast broadband” as they call it), their fibre-optic system which is slowly rolling out across the country.

If like many people you currently can’t get Infinity you can have BT Vision instead. For that you will need normal BT Broadband, or ADSL as most of us may know it. There appear to be no other restrictions on getting Vision. (Annoyingly there’s also a Vision-branded section on YouView – don’t confuse the two).

BT Sport will be delivered by encrypted Freeview channel needing a viewing card in exactly the same way ESPN is currently, but it’ll be the SD channels only and there’s a £10 fee for the card.

Update – more details here.

Both systems are focused on ‘On Demand’ services so I hope BT Sport content will appear there for free.

Option 3) Web Player. Seems to be BT subs only. Go to btsport.com and login with a MyBT username (the one you use to look bills). A big concern here is the use of unreliable Microsoft Silverlight which is my main bugbear with ITV Player.

Option 4) App for tablet or smartphone again needing a BT login.

I hope options 3 and 4 become available to non-subscribers. If BT are serious about bringing sport to the masses at lower rates than Sky, they would surely allow people to subscribe only to the web player and/or the app.

Potential Option 5) Virgin Media cable TV. No deal has been agreed right now but you can bet they are working on it.

Away from BT, another option for fans is the VideoPass on MotoGP.com – real diehards only though, a standard pass costs £85 per year or £21/month! A ‘MultiScreen’ pass is £30/mth.

Existing ESPN subscriber? I’m pretty sure I saw that your subscription will only run until ESPN changes hands at the end of July. If that means you have unused months I suggest you ask ESPN for a refund.

The Takeaway

Depends on what you have already.

++ for anybody with BT broadband and a Sky dish or YouView. Just ring BT and get all this stuff for free. If you currently pay for ESPN you’ll save £10-15 per month.

+ for anybody with BT broadband but no Sky dish. You (and I) will get the web player and the app for no extra fee. Most of us are perfectly used to watching BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD or Eurosport Player so this is a very good thing for us.

~ for people with Sky but not BT. £12-£15 isn’t going to break the bank if you only want BT Sport, but if you want Sky Sports too it’ll soon mount up. If you pay for Sky Sports and ESPN right now nothing will really change, a sport or two will have moved from one place to another as they do every year.

- for those who can and would pay for BT and/or Sky but are currently with other providers – switching is a hassle.

– if you can only afford one set of premium sports channels, do you choose Sky for F1, or BT for MotoGP & IndyCar? It’ll fall on your preference of racing and other sports.

— for anybody without BT or Sky and are unwilling or unable to switch for whatever reason. Cost is likely the main reason as both BT and Sky are expensive. There are a lot of people who just can’t afford it.

MotoGP’s ratings are going to drop substantially in 2014. ESPN’s ratings at the moment are dire and that will not change for a while. Even Sky Sports, the market leader in subscription sport, usually has poor ratings compared to Free-To-Air.

The increase in shoulder programming is a good thing – will anybody watch it?

I applaud BT for not only allowing their current customers access for no further fee – remember how often people complain the sweet deals are only for new customers – and also for keeping the monthly cost at a minimal level for non-broadband customers.

On a Personal Level

I have BT Broadband with BT Vision TV – unfortunately the Freeview part is broken so I can’t get ESPN, but even if the box worked I live in a transmission blackspot – if you pick up a main transmitter you see all Freeview channels but if you use a local repeater transmitter you only see half of them. Guess where I live! I must get an engineer to move the aerial.

I should be able to see a lot On Demand for free with Vision which is good. Anything I want live I can see on my PC or iPad for no extra charge, also brilliant.

Alternatives? I’m in a rented property so I can’t have a Sky dish – I might be allowed at this address but who’s to say how long I’ll be here and if my next landlord would let me? I also live well outside Virgin’s cabled area. These are the reasons I went for BTV in the first place.

Is this deal any good for you? Let me know! It certainly feels better than the Sky F1 deal but is that because I’m now used to that idea, is it because I know I’m getting availability for no extra cost?

Other Racing

IndyCar – BT seem to have taken over ESPN’s current IndyCar deal right off the bat, from channel launch this August. Good news. IndyCar fans were faced with having no coverage at all so it is a very different position to MotoGP which is reducing viewers. I’m *VERY* happy to finally be able to watch one of my favourite series completely legally for the first time since 2002!

NASCAR – There has been mention of NASCAR which I presume to be the 1-hour highlights show of the Sprint Cup. Time will tell. If so it might even mean I’ll stay with Cup for a season for the first time.

At the moment that seems it for motorsport but anything could change between now and the 2014 season.

Other Sport

Football, football, and more football: English Premier League, Scottish Premier League, FA Cup, UEFA Europa League, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, MLS, English Women’s League.
English Premiership Rugby. WTA tennis. Red Bull ‘extreme sports’ (interestingly including Red Bull Crashed Ice!). UFC. And these from the head of digital production: “Our confirmed list of US sports: college basketball, Indy car, NASCAR, college football, MLB, Red Bull, MLS.”

It seems like a very decent line-up if you like those sorts of things. I’m not too into the different types of football so I wouldn’t pay for the channels, but since they are free-to-me I might dip into a few things to see if I like them!

UK’s Coverage Of IndyCar Switches To ESPN

Following several seasons with Sky Sports, in 2013 the IZOD IndyCar Series’ UK coverage will switch to ESPN.

It seems ESPN were taken by surprise after the news was made public on the Sky Sports Facebook page! (The page also confirms there is currently no deal to air NASCAR Sprint Cup highlights, as they have before). After requests from Twitter users ESPN issued this confirmation:

Understandably, details are thin at the moment so we don’t yet know which ESPN channel/s will show IndyCar – whether it’ll be the main ESPN station available across multiple platforms, or the niche ‘ESPN America’ station. Given IndyCar’s lowly status in the Sky Sports structure, languishing down on Sky Sports 4 I would have to guess it will appear on ESPN America, perhaps with the 500 on the main channel. Hopefully ESPN will instead choose to give it a push on their primary channel.

Right now we don’t even know if the coverage will be live or delayed, in full or highlights. ESPN UK covers the DTM but has a habit of airing it on a delayed basis – DTM races happen at 1pm UK time but sometimes aren’t aired until 11pm. Hopefully IndyCar’s schedule will help rather than hinder it.

Previously the UK’s coverage of ‘North American Open Wheel’ was served by Sky Sports (IRL, then post-merger IndyCar) and Eurosport (CART, Champ Car).

Continue reading

Fixing IndyCar & Turbo The Snail

The turmoil in the IndyCar Series seems almost never-ending. Whenever a problem is fixed or a new idea is tested it seems as if there are always two or three clouds following closely behind. Part of it is unhelpful gossip and hearsay, part of it is genuine inanity from various figures inside and outside the series (and by that I mean the organisation itself, the teams, drivers.. well, anybody really). The series doesn’t really deserve it.

IndyCar has come a long way since the ‘split’ and the messy post-unification days of 2008-2010. The racing is good and there are some top-notch drivers and team personnel as well as good people in the ranks of the series, all of whom I’m sure are being let down by others.
The fact some good folks were fired recently, some of them not in the job for all that long, for cost-cutting reasons is a terrible sign particularly as some are in marketing which is a chronic weakness of the series, they hadn’t been around that long and were just starting to make their presence known with some great ideas.

The whole parent organisation seems introspective, in denial, or working to outdated business practices. It feels as though everyone is clinging to the 90s, or even the 70s. I really hope the recent top level management changes bring about a change in attitude even though the early signs (the firings) are not good. Some certainty would be appreciated. New boss Mark Miles keeps talking in management-speak of a ‘deep dive’, which apparently means he’s ordered a data-rich analysis of the whole company (or even the group of companies controlled by the Hulman & George Co. of which he is CEO).

In much the same spirit, Steph at More Front Wing recently performed her own multi-part analysis which is well worth your attention. She has run through all the different factors which need addressing, some of them are pretty fundamental. All the same, they needed pointing out in a rational manner and that is what she’s done.

I don’t agree with all of the answers but that’s fine, what was needed was a dose of realism and some potential suggestions. Do read and comment with your own ideas and observations. I’m afraid I rambled for far too long in the comments sections with my own thoughts!

Turbo

There is some positive news in the pipeline. DreamWorks are working on a feature film connected to the IndyCar Series – it is about ‘Turbo’, a racing snail who wants to go faster and faster, sees the Indy 500 and wants to race in it. Yes, really. At first I was sceptical too because it sounds ridiculous, but then I saw the trailer and saw how well DreamWorks rendered IMS and the IndyCars themselves. I’ll reserve final judgement until I see the film but do you know what? This might work.

Check out the trailer here:

Allen at Grab Bag Sports made a great point: this is going to shift the demographic of the average IndyCar fan, which is currently getting older and fewer in number. If this film works – even if it is only moderately successful – it ought to attract kids and their families and skew the ‘casual’ fanbase in a younger direction. It might even open up interest internationally. Allen also spotted word of a mooted spin-off cartoon series. Let’s hope that happens.

Quite how many people outside the US ‘Mid-West’ will connect the race in the film to the real life Indy 500 and IndyCar Series remains to be seen. IndyCar and the H&G parent company need to be sure their house is in order in the next six months so that they are ready to make the most of this opportunity.

2013 IndyCar Schedule Shows Progress

The 2013 IndyCar Series schedule was announced on Sunday night. The 2012 schedule took the 2011 list and revised the basic structure, the 2013 calendar shows definite progress in building a defined schedule for the medium-term.

As ever there are pros and cons to any race calendar, they are always a balancing act between what the fans want, what the teams and sponsors want, what the series itself wants, and what is actually available.

Most of the IndyCar bloggers have come out with a very similar format to analyse this and I’m not going to stray far from it. I’ve seen at least four splitting it down into ‘Good’, ‘Bad’ and ‘Ugly’. I find that unnecessarily pessimistic as you’ve got two negatives to one positive. I prefer to look at the Good and the Bad then have a little summary.

Good

- 16 solid venues in 2013. Compared with 2012′s 15 solid, 1 vapourware (China) and 1 cancellation (Las Vegas). Good to get firm confirmation rather than have question marks all year. That happened all the time at the end of the CART/ChampCar era and I hope Bernard has learned. And at these 16 venues we get 19 races.

- Doubleheaders. 19 races at 16 venues is achieved by having 3 doubleheaders. I’ll come back to this as there’s not a lot I like, except it is a new idea and that shows IndyCar leadership is willing to try new things. I can’t mark them down for trying even if I don’t like what they try. Shows initiative. I like using these races to trial standing starts. One race with standing starts, one race with rolling. Just like WTCC!

- Early announce. The schedule has been announced at the beginning of October. That’s a miracle by IndyCar standards! Teams can now plan ahead effectively and more easily pitch to sponsors.

- Continuity. Breeding familiarity in the race order is a sign of a maturing schedule, it is good to see after the gutting of 2012. There are big changes but the backbone is the same.

- Pocono! The return of the big triangle. Mixed feelings. I’ve not seen much racing there and I hear frequent complains about NASCAR’s 500-mile events being boring, however everybody who saw them absolutely raves about the old USAC and CART open wheel races there in the 1970s and 80s. We’ve got a 400-mile race there and calls for it to be extended to 500 so it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. As a flat oval it is traditional IndyCar territory so I’m cautiously excited.

- Triple Crown! The Pocono races of old were a part of a Triple Crown: if a driver won all 3 races he’d win a million dollars! Okay so it is a little crass but that is American razzmatazz. The Triple Crown is back! It’ll be take in the Indy 500, Pocono 400 and Fontana 500. Win two to win $250k, win all three to get $1m. It adds an extra layer of storyline to the mix and keeps things interesting so I’m all for it. Okay if it were a top team in the running it won’t be as interesting but imagine a lesser-funded team or driver has won Indy – you can think somebody like Ed Carpenter has his eye on this prize.

- Houston! Another new race is always fun, or should I say a returning race (hey we’re unified, it counts). It’s a big city so should be quite popular. I don’t know what the racing was like in the Champ Car era as it fell into the gap of years I missed, so I’m being cautious on this one.

- Iowa isn’t a night race any more. I know it looked ultra-cool at night but night races in the US start at 2am here. I’m purely selfish in preferring a race starting at 6 or 7pm UK time on Sunday. Of course this happens to be Le Mans weekend so I might’ve been up after all, but at least it moves it until after the 24hrs.

- Fontana is a 500-miler again and is the season-closer again, despite being a month later. Great idea. This year’s race was utterly compelling and was a true championship decider. This series tends to decide champions at the last race. The alternative was to end at Houston, I’m okay with street races but I don’t like ending the season on them, too much of a lottery even against a superspeedway. This isn’t a street vs oval point, it is a point about a big notable race to sign off for winter. Make a statement.

- US TV coverage. The first ABC race is at Indy then they take 5 of the next 6 races. Excellent idea. Grab the audience with the big race then keep hold of them for a few weeks to bump up viewership. I really do like this idea. No offence to an NBCSN crew who do a brilliant job, but their ratings stink at the moment. Plus ABC have the Texas Saturday night race which is a Big Deal ratings-wise, if that doesn’t work little will. This is an incremental improvement rather than wholesale change and it seems the most sensible thing to do with the allocations available.

- Canadians get a better deal too, after years and years of complaining. They listened! Embrace it.
(We may have to wait a little while before finding out the UK deal.)

Bad

- No oval race before Indy. I know they have a ton of practice at Indy, it isn’t the same as racing. Teams, drivers and most importantly the fans need to see cars on an oval before the big one. I am torn though, a part of me thinks the unknowns created drama at Indy and no race does level the playing field for Indy-only teams.

- Deadwood. Some of the more tedious races are still there. I’m thinking specifically of Belle Isle and Sonoma. The DW12 transformed the racing at most tracks this year brilliantly, but not at these two.

- Belle Isle directly after Indy. Not only that, it has one of the double-headers. Buzzkiller. It only seems to be a favourite among attendees – more than one person told me it was great in person. Yet I haven’t seen a good IndyCar or CART race there in any iteration. Is there something wrong with the TV presentation? Maybe that can be looked at along with track layout.
Indy should always be followed directly by Milwaukee anyway, that’s the proper tradition.

- Double-headers. Okay here’s the thing. Double-headers work really well for touring cars, they work really well for ladder open wheel series, they work really well on short oval tracks. The reason they work is because the races are shorter. Two IndyCar-length races in two days is going to be tough on everyone involved in the series. It may be tough on the casual fans too who will probably just watch one of them, they may even think there is only one race that weekend. The hard-cores will probably lap it up, especially Toronto and Houston.

- Race split. One of the quirks of IndyCar not seen anywhere else is the split between ovals, road courses and street races. It’s a Big Deal among fans. This year including doubles we have 6 ovals, 3 roads (ouch) and 10 street races. I’m more okay with streets than most IndyCar commenters I see, but half the schedule is crazy! I’m a fan of natural road courses and ovals with the odd street race. More of the former two in 2014, please. We all know the ‘most wanted’ list so I won’t repeat it here.

- Edmonton. I’m not crying about this loss as I never liked it, even the new layout, but it is a town with a strong supportive fanbase so it gets a minus mark.

- Gaps. There are notable gaps in July, August and especially September. I can easily accept a summer break in August especially after that exceptionally punishing May-June-July stint, and that really is tough with two 500 mile races and two double-header street courses. Unlike most American bloggers I am not suggesting all gaps be filled – that would be crazy and you’d have a mutiny on your hands. The crew guys need a rest and they want to see their families in the school break. Give that to them. Not only that, nobody can watch IndyCar every single week for two or three months! I actually want to make use of summer to have a life if that’s okay with you!
September is less understandable, there’s only one race in the whole month. It is clear something was supposed to go there but fell through. There’s still scope for a little bit of shuffling about.

Summary

On the whole it is a good schedule balancing recent tracks with two returning venues. A lot of tracks which produced awful races with the previous IndyCar came alive with the DW12 chassis, so there’s less of a desire to strike off the Mid-Ohios and Barbers of the world.

Double-headers are an interesting experiment and despite Randy Bernard’s protestations I think they’ll remain an experiment – if we see them at all in 2014 I bet it’ll only be at one event.

Too many street races though. I know that’s where the money is and modern fans seem to prefer things to come to them, but if we’re having them I’d like a review of their designs and some proper resurfacing done.

2013 IndyCar Series Schedule

24 March  – St Petersburg (S)
7 April – Barber Motorsports Park (R)
21 April – Long Beach (S)
5 May – Sao Paulo (S)
26 May – Indianapolis Motor Speedway (O)
1 June – Belle Isle, Detroit (S)
2 June – Belle Isle, Detroit (S)
8 June – Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth (O) (night)
15 June – Milwaukee Mile (O)
23 June – Iowa Speedway (O)
7 July – Pocono Raceway (O)
13 July – Exhibition Place, Toronto (S)
14 July – Exhibition Place, Toronto (S)
4 August – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (R)
25 August – Sonoma (R)
1 September – Baltimore (S)
5 October – Reliant Park, Houston (S)
6 October – Reliant Park, Houston (S)
19 October – Auto Club Speedway, Fontana (O) (night)

I’ve added these dates to my TMR Google/iCal calendars which you can import for your own use. If you subscribed earlier in the year these should be visible to you already.

Feature: IndyCar 2012 – On The Road to Recovery?

It is the middle of September and one series has already wrapped up their 2012 season: the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The apparent need to avoid the NFL, and the NASCAR Chase, meant IndyCar finished racing two full months before F1 and NASCAR – admittedly those series may go longer than they really need to. I tend to think mid/late-October is a good time to stop for the winter break. Just feels right.

With the first IndyCar race of 2013 not due until March we are left with a six month off-season!

A Fresh Start

This was always going to be a tricky year.

The introduction of the new chassis and engine package was fraught with difficulties throughout 2011′s development period and the pre-season of 2012. There was not only a new engine formula but also the return of open competition between manufacturers. Add in a new Race Director, then mix up the schedule by removing favourites with low-attendances and replacing them with gambles.

Do all this while trying to satisfy the most divided and demanding of fans, team owners and media anywhere in the sport. Motorsport fans the world over complain endlessly about the smallest things but they’ve got nothing on the hardcore IndyCar ‘fans’ in the US.  Nowhere else will you find such a bunch of complainers and whiners. The team owners aren’t much different. They were always going to be tough to please.

And Pleased They Were!

Happily it turned out to be a classic year. Most fears were unfounded. The many problems which did emerge over the year were, on the whole, tackled well. The racing was excellent, the cars stood up to the test of the variety of tracks, and they withstood some pretty nasty impacts far better than the old car did.

The early trait of the car to lift into the air mid-spin (noticeably more at the higher speeds of an oval) were ironed out as the year progressed until it didn’t seem to happen at all at Fontana. Compare Indy and Fontana and the rear-to-the-wall spins are very different.

The race director proved to be a revelation, as ALMS fans had expected. Beaux Barfield rearranged the existing rulebook rather than rewrite it completely, though there were many rewrites. The main differences were a change in philosophy and interpretation. Decisions from Race Control were now explained post-race to anyone who would ask, they were even broadcast during the race.
Even if you disagree with the reasoning it is there for us to see it. This is a HUGE change on past years. It cannot be overstated how good a change this is. Transparency is key and now we have it.

The crazy ‘draw an imaginary line on the track’ rule has been thrown out. Racers can race again – within good reason. This has worked really well all year. The drivers have responded to being treated as adults by driving more maturely and with respect. It’s been really, really enjoyable to watch.

Great Competition

The racing all season long was phenomenal. Dallara produced some great aerodynamics packages which meant the cars were very racey on all three classes of course (road, street, oval). It opened up new passing lanes at tracks where the old Dallara couldn’t race at all, Barber Motorsports Park being a notable example – the race was transformed from a snoozefest to being one of the best of the year.

If there wasn’t a lot of passing there was drama in other ways – pit strategy, driver errors, mechanical failures. Unlike past years you never felt like you were marking time, wasting time. Something was always about to happen and you couldn’t switch off in case you missed it. In terms of racing, the new car and engine combo was a hit.

Engine competition was a welcome return. It created winners and losers, just as it should. We saw the return of unreliability (in engines and chassis and software), a classic part of racing which had been engineered out of the last formula. Okay so this engine may be lacking a little in outright power – hopefully that’ll change as development progresses both in technology and in regulations. Remember this is only Year 1.

It was great to have Chevy back in the series and they were on full attack, producing a better unit than incumbent supplier Honda. There wasn’t much in it by the mid-season. You have to think Chevy having more of the ‘powerhouse’ teams helped them enormously, both title protaganists at Fontana used Chevy, and hindered the Ganassi team who were Honda’s only big team.

The only question mark is the engine penalties for failures in testing. Failures in a race weekend I understand, those have been commonplace in racing for a while now. To penalise a team for a failure in a test isn’t on – where’s the incentive to test? This could be solved by saying a team can’t use a race engine on a test day or vice versa, remove the link.

The Lotus Position

As I said, it also created losers and the biggest of those was Lotus. Such is life in open competition. I don’t see it as a downer. Sometimes somebody gets beaten by a big margin. That’s racing. Someone’s got to lose. You can either fight with it and hope they get better next year, and there’s real value and interest in seeing the former underdog bounce back, or you can jump ship to something better. As it turned out by Indy most full-season teams had switched to Chevy or Honda, leaving HVM Racing and the Indy-only Fan Force United with Lotus. All credit to HVM and Simona de Silvestro for sticking out the full year without publically complaining about it.

With Danny Bahar being ousted from Lotus and the company changing focus, they will not return for 2013. Perhaps the engines will be redeveloped by their makers, Judd, into LMP sportscar units. Got to feel for Judd who were completely screwed by Lotus, having to start the programme six months behind the others and not being given the resources to go out testing like the others did. They were up against it from the very beginning.

Schedule

It was a reasonable schedule. There weren’t enough races but we must remember two planned events were dropped. Las Vegas was canned for understandable safety reasons in the wake of the accident last year. A Chinese street race was dropped after financing fell through, not really a surprise. It is a shame replacements weren’t found especially after Bernard was quoted as having a backup plan for China. It turned out either he didn’t or the backup fell through too.

Barber, Long Beach, Indy, Texas (for different reasons to usual), Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Baltimore, Fontana. All good races. Great to see.

St Pete wasn’t covered well by TV, and in any case it was the first race with the new car AND the first race back after Dan Wheldon’s accident, and it was held in his adopted home town. Lots of reasons for everyone to take it easy that weekend.

Sonoma was a near-procession but at least they’d tried something to fix it this year with the circuit layout. I’m not sure what else they can try without a fundamental circuit redesign. It clearly isn’t the car. And Belle Isle came back after a break of many years, the race was surprisingly okay but the track surface was not – it caused a red flag and a reduction in laps.

Much better was the return of Fontana, not only that it was a 500-mile race and the season finale! Inspired decisions. The race length gave it drama and allowed storylines to develop naturally, and teams and drivers had to set up their cars for differing conditions and then bring them home. The only complaint from a UK point of view was the 1.50am start time and the 5am finish!

Diversity

The split of ovals to non-ovals plagues IndyCar discussions and has done for many years, decades even. This year was no different and for once I fall into the ‘more ovals’ camp. Five wasn’t enough. Mind you there were fewer road courses than ovals, just the four this year.

The dominant discipline was street races, six of them. I like some street races but I don’t like them taking over the series. My preference is and has always been natural terrain road courses and oval races at the right venues, with 2 or 3 street races. I understand that’s where the people are though, and that’s the way of racing today. Take the racing to the people because people don’t want to go to the racing at traditional venues. If it were my choice I’d move the Sao Paulo race to Interlagos.

TV

The coverage was better this year. The much-maligned ABC/ESPN improved. Sadly the channel which has the better coverage, NBC Sports, is not being rewarded with good viewing figures which are apparently falling. The only saving grace is IndyCar is now apparently highest-rated sport on the channel. The rebrand from Versus was supposed to bring extra cross-promotion and more viewers – what happened?

Here in the UK the races are on Sky Sports. They’re good at sticking with IndyCar if races run long. During the numourous US ad breaks they’re able to stay with the track – by law they can’t take the same number of breaks as the US but at least they don’t cut back to their studio.

That said, the Sky pre-race is far, far, far too dry. Three blokes in a studio, a few interviews/videos, at least one of the two guests with a monotone voice (much like my own – not saying I’d do better!). It’s all very downbeat. It works well during the US ad breaks when we need discussion to fill the air, but as a pre-race it really doesn’t work at all.

I don’t know why races aren’t run live or at least in replay on Sky Sports F1. It seems a perfect fit to build more of an audience for IndyCar, which Sky must surely want? Perhaps there are contractual reasons, perhaps we’ll see more of it next year.

The Future

After years of neglect and mismanagement, the 2008 ‘unification’ gave IndyCar a chance to regrow. It has taken longer than expected but they’ve finally put in place the building blocks to allow that to happen.

I have no doubt the racing in 2013 will be just as good, even when the ‘big teams’ figure out the tricks and pull away again which they will do. The trick now is to sell this racing to the American public, because their TV ratings will determine the future of the series. If they can be built up elsewhere in the world at the same time, including in the UK, then so much the better!

On The Limit: Addicted To Speed

I used to run a sequence of posts featuring fun or interesting videos which I put into a category called ‘On The Limit’. I was checking the site and I realised the last was over a year ago so it is about time to bring it back. The name was supposed to refer to in-car footage but along the way it got turned into a thread for any interesting racing video. Anyway I’m not going back to change them all now, so enjoy the latest instalment of On The Limit.

This is a bit of fun. Back in 2002 someone put together this pilot for a TV magazine show based around the CART series. I’m not sure if it got turned into a series and some cursory searching suggests it didn’t get any further than this episode, but it was a long time ago now so details are hard to come by. It features upcoming drivers Townsend Bell, Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia as well as one of the big stars of the day, the 1996 CART PPG Indy Car World Series champion Jimmy Vasser. Join them as a fly on the wall as they work through the Long Beach race weekend, round two of what was now the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series.

It was dug out and posted to Townsend Bell’s own YouTube account, and he brought it up on Twitter on Monday.

Things to look for: Great-looking and great-sounding cars. The Long Beach track hasn’t changed at all. Michael Andretti’s goatee looks as stupid now as it did then. Dario’s straight and serious haircut, you can hardly tell it’s him. Back in 2002 I didn’t think much of Kanaan other than that he should be with a big team, otherwise I wasn’t interested but looking at this now it was me that had it wrong because he hasn’t changed a bit – okay he’s more experienced and is wiser now but he’s still the same fun-loving TK we know today!

[ video via @TownsendBell99 / Townsend Bell ]

Where are they now?

Jimmy Vasser retired from driving and bought out Craig ‘BAR’ Pollock’s share of PK Racing, itself a revamp of the old PacWest team. Via a spell as PKV, that team is currently known as KV Racing Technologies and hires Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello and EJ Viso as drivers.

A year after this video Tony Kanaan had switched to what was then the IRL and in 2004 became champion of that series with Andretti-Green. He’s won several races and his dream now is the big one: the Indy 500.

Oriol Servia is better than his career results would suggest. His best year was 2nd in the 2005 Champ Car season but he hasn’t been helped at having to change teams almost every season since 2001. He’s been with some good teams but never seems able to stay with any of them for longer than a season and a bit. I’d lay money that if he stayed at one team for three years we’d see magic happen. He’s currently at Dreyer & Reinbold who’s switch from Lotus to Chevy has helped immensely.

And finally to Townsend himself. 2002 wasn’t a good season – he got fired by Patrick Racing after the series placed him on probation. He spent the following year in F3000 for Arden where he scored a podium in Hungary, before heading back to the US for a part-season in the IRL. Despite regularly cropping up in the entry lists a few times a year in the IRL and then the re-invented IndyCar Series (notably well at the Indy 500), for reasons very few people understand he hasn’t yet landed a full-season ride in IndyCar. This year he switched codes to join the ALMS to develop the Lotus Evora GTE with Alex Job Racing, dovetailing it with IndyCar pit reporter work for NBC where he’s a broadcasting natural.

Thoughts on the Indianapolis 500

The over-use of the slogan ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ and that some appear to take it as a pre-ordained fact rather than the marketing slogan it is, instead of looking at each race objectively, has been a personal pet peeve of mine for some time.

That was until this year’s edition started. This year the race very much lived up to the branding and showed me and others just why the place is revered the way it is. I’ll take some more of the same next year, please!

Working the Air

After the race I saw it tweeted that the DW12 is a keeper. Too right. It may not be the most advanced and it may not feature the chassis competition many of us crave, but really, what a car. Nobody cares that it is slower than the old one now. It races so well at Indy, and what’s more, it didn’t come out of the box that way. The teams have had a lot of work to do to solve a lot of problems it had on ovals – problems that have been overcome and resulted in the best Indy 500 I have seen in six years of watching, and some of the far more experienced veterans were saying it was one of the best they’d seen in years.

Even before the exceptional drama of the last 20 laps which really made this race so nail-biting there had been overtaking and lead changes and drafting and all sorts. Okay granted, some of it was ‘fake’ lead changes as the Ganassi pair – and others – fought not to lead in order to save fuel and not end up as a sitting duck on the next restart. I don’t have a problem with such ‘fake’ or ‘scripted’ passes as they are part and parcel of the strategy of oval racing. Ganassi executed this strategy better than anybody else, with some of the Andretti drivers doing pretty well with it in the early stages as well.

Engines

What a turn around by Honda, Ganassi and RLL. Surely some of those teams were sandbagging in free practice! Very cleverly played if that’s the case, nobody had a clue. I suspect this had more to do with work done by Honda for these race engines, perhaps teams were using older less developed units in practice and qualifying knowing they’d get a ‘special’ for the race. Honda do like their specials, the Japanese department always used to bring out an uprated engine for the Suzuka F1 race.

I loved the unexpected dymanic between the two engine manufacturers. Chevy had run all season with engines which were both more powerful and more fuel efficient than those from Honda. The double-whammy. Race day rolls around and suddenly Honda has a significant fuel efficiency advantage (I’m not sure about power, they seemed roughly equal but if one was ahead of the other it was the Honda), enough of an advantage to allow them to pit a lap, two laps, even three laps later than the Chevy teams.  That was the race-winning difference right there.

The third manufacturer had both entries embarrassingly black flagged barely 10 laps into the event, shockingly early and far earlier than I had expected. Alesi and de Silvestro were running lap averages in the 200-205mph bracket while the leaders were up at 215-218. The eventual fastest lap was 220+. By the numbers it was the right decision but I can’t help feeling they should’ve been allowed to run more than ten minutes. Of course the leaders were bearing down on them rapidly and perhaps the sight of two Lotuses trundling around whilst Chevys and Hondas blew by 15mph per lap faster would’ve been even more embarrassing than simply disappearing whilst eyes were elsewhere.

Highs and Lows

Takuma Sato. What a guy, what a drive. He was passing people all day and he’d been working his way up, picking people off, until the one that counted – the pass for the lead. If it hadn’t been the final lap he’d have made it. As it was I suspect the red mist descended as it often does with Taku and he made the instinctive move to pass when the space wasn’t quite there. Probably lulled into it after making it past Dixon last time around, perhaps forgetting Dixon had left more room because Dario had just gone by him too. Still – good on him for trying! It was the final lap, there were no guarantees he’d get a chance at turns 3 or 4, he had to take it. Classified 17th, first of those a lap down.

Tony Kanaan. That cheer when he took the lead! Such a popular driver, I wish he could’ve won it. The place would’ve erupted. I wondered where he was for a while, then he appeared working his way forward. He made the most of the restarts, perhaps unfairly perhaps not. 3rd is a good result but still he chases that elusive Indy win. In a Q&A last week one journalist said to him he was more famous for not winning at Indy than he would’ve been had he won. True words. I really hope he does win before he retires.

Very pleasing to see James Hinchcliffe run so well early on, I felt for him later after he slipped back. Hunter-Reay and Andretti were up there too and an Andretti Autosport win looked a good in-race bet. RHR hit a mechanical problem and Andretti got a hot head (again), leaving Hinch as their remaining bullet. It wasn’t to be this time and I seem to recall that was due to a slow pitstop, but also down to some of the restarts where the midfield swamped those up front.

Oriol Servia somehow made it up to 4th. I still don’t know how – he was well back in the pack and just appeared from nowhere within the last 5-10 laps! There’s a team and driver glad they switched from Lotus to Chevrolet.

Justin Wilson was running up there too and finished 7th, after the awful season he’s had that’s a well-earned result.

Rubens Barrichello. No doubts about him on an oval now. Solid, consistent, aggressive when needed but mostly drove a careful defensive race, the perfect way to approach a debut oval event. 11th is a very respectable performance in a field this stacked.

Townsend Bell. Once again taking a one-off IndyCar entry to a good finish at the 500. Once again we ask why he hasn’t got a full time IndyCar drive.

Ed Carpenter. A great run came to a sad end when he got too low, clipped the paint and the apron/transition and spun. Frustation for the owner/driver.

Every one of the teams and drivers had an interesting story to tell.

Coverage

I usually find a hooky feed of the US broadcast but this year I was able to ditch the dodgy feeds altogether and watch Sky Sports 4. This might have been an error. I didn’t mind that the program started at half past, the race isn’t as big a deal as it is in the US so I can understand not giving it the full hour of pre-race particularly when the other races on the schedule sometimes seemingly don’t get any more than 10-15 minutes.

I did mind that it started 2 or 3 minutes after the scheduled time because they were showing adverts. It looked like the preceding event (rugby) had run very slightly over and they still needed to fit in their commercial allocation. This meant we missed driver introductions – a little annoying but okay.
It soon became clear the UK coverage was going to stick with the London studio discussion rather than show the pre-race festivities, including driver intros, all of the songs and anthems, balloons, flyover, practically everything. Even Dan’s car was shown in replay. By then I thankfully had the dodgy stream up again so I saw what a great tribute that was.
Part of the whole appeal of Indy is the way the pre-race builds – it has taken six years of watching for me to realise this – and Sky just had no idea that it was important at all.

I commend Sky for having Tomas Scheckter in the studio, he brought the much-needed perspective of someone who has raced many times at Indy. Jonny Kane’s input is always worthwhile but ultimately he is an LMP driver not an IndyCar driver so there is only so much he can relate to – I wouldn’t ask Helio to analyse Le Mans!

The other good thing about Sky’s studio was that when the international ESPN feed went to commercials, some of the time Sky would take their own break but other times they’d cut back to the discussion in London. It was a nice way to sum up the action so far. I just wish they’d not talked all the way through pre-race!

On the whole though, Sky’s effort here has been completely shown up by their own coverage of Formula 1. It really could use just 10% of that magic to liven it up a bit.

The ABC/ESPN portion was good, better than usual. They were very late coming back to show restarts on a couple of occasions but at least they didn’t miss them! The commentary was okay, I didn’t find it grating at all which is a good result for Reid & Co for me. Everyone has their own tastes and usually they aren’t mine but I thought the trio did a good job this time. The pit reporting was mostly very good, the glaring omission being that of Will Power and Mike Conway after their clash, it was a long time before we heard from either team let alone drivers.The number of ad breaks didn’t seem anything like as poor as last year, either they were fewer or better timed, or Sky going to the studio masked how many there were. On the whole the US feed was a vastly improved broadcast compared to 2011. I also saw many, many tweets praising their pre-race features which Sky also missed, I intend to look those up later in the week.

Result

1. Franchitti – Ganassi – Honda
2. Dixon – Ganassi – Honda
3. Kanaan – KV – Chevy
4. Servia – Panther/DRR – Chevy
5. Briscoe – Penske – Chevy
6. Hinchcliffe – Andretti – Chevy
7. Wilson – Coyne – Honda
8. Kimball – Ganassi – Honda
9. Bell – Schmidt/Pelfrey – Honda
10. Castroneves – Penske – Chevy
11. Barrichello – KV – Chevy
12. Tagliani – BHA – Honda
13. Rahal – Ganassi – Honda
14. Hildebrand – Panther – Chevy
15. Jakes – Coyne – Honda
16. Pagenaud – Schmidt/Hamilton – Honda
17. Sato – Rahal Letterman Lanigan – Honda  +1 lap
18. Viso – KV – Chevy  +1 lap
19. Jourdain Jr – Rahal Letterman Lanigan – Honda  +1 lap
20. Bourdais – Dragon – Chevy  +1 lap
21. Carpenter – Carpenter – Chevy  +1 lap
22. Legge – Dragon – Chevy  +1 lap
23. Beatriz – Andretti/Conquest – Chevy  +10 laps
DNF: Andretti, Newgarden, Saavedra, Hunter-Reay, Power, Conway, Clauson, Cunningham, de Silvestro, Alesi

Points

200 – Power (3 wins)
164 – Castroneves (1)
164 – Hinchcliffe
153 – Dixon
143 – Hunter-Reay
136 – Franchitti (1)
136 – Pagenaud
128 – Briscoe
113 – Kanaan
103 – Hildebrand
102 – Barrichello
100 – Sato
99 – Servia
97 – Rahal
96 – Kimball
etc.

Next Race

Sunday June 3rd at 8.30pm BST (GMT+1) – Detroit Belle Isle, a narrow course running through a park with concrete walls and a bumpy street track. It is a bit like Montreal or Melbourne but without usually being as interesting as the track is too narrow and twisty, save for the fast backstraight. It has been a few years since the last race here, I hope the new cars and engines spice things up.