2017 was quite the remarkable year in motorsport.
In a way, the racing year mirrored current events outside the racing world, in the sense that any number of things happened during the year, any one of which, had it happened 5 or 10 years ago, would’ve been considered incredible, the big story of the year. And yet some of those stories barely made any headway, so much else was going on. Some was good news and some was bad, all of it made for a hell of an interesting season.
Fernando Alonso, not just an active Formula 1 driver but one who is considered among the very best, chose to miss the Monaco GP to race in the Indianapolis 500. And best of all the story came out of nowhere! That it happened at all was amazing, that they kept it a secret was incredible. This was definitely my favourite story of the year. And he took to it so well, leading for a while, running top 10 most of the race and looking likely to get a top 5 finish, before…. his Honda engine blew. You couldn’t make it up and you just had to laugh.
At Le Mans, the LMP1 Hybrid rules pushed the envelope so far that, in a very hot race which tested reliability to the extreme, all five cars suffered problems of some sort. Instead of a 24-hour sprint race, to which we’ve grown accustomed in all four classes, we instead got a more traditional endurance race in the top class: go as fast as you can without breaking down, just get to the end, the winner is the last car standing.
Except one spoiler was thrown in. The lone privateer non-Hybrid LMP1 out early, the new-for-2017 faster LMP2 cars, as fast as LMP1’s of not so long ago, marched into the picture. The second division nearly walked away with the overall win! OK so the on-track LMP1 action wasn’t a thriller, but waiting to see which car would next hit a problem – and whether the car would even get back to the pits or back into the race – and whether or not the delayed P1’s could catch and pass the LMP2s before the clock ran out, made it one of the most nailbiting Le Mans 24 Hours many had seen.
If you wanted 24 Hour Sprint you looked at the GTE field, sadly often overlooked by the TV pictures, until the end when it came down to a last lap pass for the win!
F1 cars were F1 cars again. Until the end of 2016 drivers had to nurse terrible tyres, with an oversize front wing and crazy narrow rear wing, which caused the rear end to snap around without warning and not in the fun ‘power slide’ kind of way. Drivers say it was not fun to drive, I say it was not fun to watch. Instead, we now had cars that could be pushed hard, new lap records, high cornering speeds and commitment that looked like insanity (the few times FOM used camera shots that showed it off well). That’s how F1 should be.
Unfortunately this came at the cost of less overtaking. Thankfully the overtakes that were lost were of the horribly pointless push-button-to-overtake DRS type. In effect we got the F1 of my childhood but without the refuelling. And we had genuine competition between teams at the front, for a while anyway. As such, as a whole I enjoyed the season more than I’ve done since about 2009 and some races were great tense battles. But then like the ’90s, some were just awful events, the leader driving away from the others and the field spreading out. In the modern era people expect a closer contest every week, they don’t want to watch the equivalent of a 0-0 draw and neither do they want to watch 8-0 walkovers.
The underlying problems still exist. Get some fast cars which can pass each other as a consequence of the underlying regulations, not an extra rule allowing a silly flappy wing. And we also could use Ferrari and Renault – and hopefully one day Honda – catching Mercedes.
What really needs to happen next is for everybody in racing to pay attention to IndyCar, who announced for 2018 a massive reduction in aerodynamic devices including winglets, flickups, bargeboards and so on and an increase in downforce generated from underneath the car. The percentage split between mechanical grip and aero grip has been shifted greatly to the mechanical, to the tyres. I’m fascinated by such a bold move. Many have said for years that this is the answer. Now we get to see if they were right!
F1 has been scared of under-car downforce since the “ground effect era” of the early ’80s, but with modern computer processing and analysis there really is no reason to be. IndyCar 2018 could represent the future of open-wheel single seater design.
That’s not to say the racing in IndyCar was bad with the old rules, the last year of the ‘aero kit’ experiment. I thought it was a fantastic season. Josef Newgarden didn’t wait to announce his arrival at Team Penske, he just got on with it. And it wasn’t an easy walkover, all 3 team-mates as well as others in the field made him work for it. It felt a real privilege to see it.
And if you haven’t seen both the 2017 Indy 500 and the 2017 Pocono IndyCar 500, you absolutely need to. The best car races of the year.
Formula E continued its march forward. I still think it has limited shelf life, maybe about 5 years especially with manufacturers getting involved, so the budgets are about to sky-rocket and it’ll spend itself out of existence. We see it time and again elsewhere: factories come in, spend a fortune, lose, leave. Meantime it is a good, fun series. Taking racing to the cities and proving electric cars are race-able. And the racing is generally very good.
FE too has structural problems, very rarely do you see full stands at FE events, it is as if they are more interested in the VIP tent and tech-style “influencers” than in having actual paying fans. ‘Taking racing to the people’ only works if there are people there. They are going to have be considerably less insular going forward, particular with rival electric series on the horizon.
On the track, FE provided some of the worst – and best – controversy. Not least of which was Buemi nearly being robbed of his points lead when he had to race his Toyota elsewhere, though he’d done enough to win the title if he finished well in Montreal. He didn’t and blamed others for it. Cue meltdown. In many ways it was fitting to see Lucas di Grassi take the title, the man who first tested an FE car and who is such a passionate ambassador for it.
Over on two wheels, has MotoGP has had one of the best seasons ever? It seemed nearly every race was a nailbiter. Phillip Island I think takes the award for Best Race Anywhere (That I Watched) in 2017 and there were several almost as good through all 3 classes, all year long. Marquez we knew about as the favourite, but who really expected Dovizioso on a Ducati to be the one to take it to him? Good rider but not a title contender, was the thinking until now. Well, he proved that wrong! And I do love it when people perform above expectations.
On dirt, the WRC brought back scary-fast cars. Probably too fast. But fun. I must admit I haven’t paid it much attention, it is still difficult to find. I miss the nightly recaps or 1-hour weekend recaps on a Monday night on terrestrial TV. If those are still around I need to find out where they are.
I was watching BTCC again but I was disappointed in the contact. Yes it is very hard to race closely without contact and some is unavoidable, unfortunately some took it too far, as they always do in BTCC. Sorry, not good enough. There’s a reason why some people refer to the championship as ‘bumper cars’.
My plans for 2018?
I’ll keep following F1 but this will likely be my last year watching live, it goes exclusively to subscription TV in 2019, which I cannot afford. I await with interest to see what FOM plans for their ‘over-the-top’ direct package.
IndyCar as I say above will be something to watch with the new aero package. I hope it works. For me this’ll be one of the long-running stories of the year to follow.
Formula E is definitely worth watching.
WEC switches to a winter/summer schedule via a 14-month ‘Super Season’. With the loss of manufacturers there is a push to bring in more privateer LMP1 cars which appears to have been successful. BMW joins the GT ranks, too.
Make sure you watch the Bathurst 12 Hour in February, an annual highlight.
And IMSA will likely have the best prototype sports car racing on the planet this year. Action Express and Taylor Cadillacs and ESM Nissans are being joined by Team Joest (yes, them, who used to run the LMP1 Audis) taking over the Mazda project, and also Team Penske (yes, them) entering with the Acura/Honda prototypes complete with Montoya and Castroneves. Throw in quick LMP2 cars and it’ll be a great season.
Oh and to the last point, also throw in Fernando Alonso at the Daytona 24 Hours. It might not be as big a story as when he raced Indy, but it’s still kind of a big deal.