2016 IndyCar Series Preview

IndyCar racing is brilliant. It is some of the best racing in the world. It remains consistently good on a wide variety of tracks. I fully expect this to continue in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series!

If you aren’t watching because of some preconceived notion you picked up despite having watched it for yourself, do yourself a favour and watch it this year.

Okay, St Petersburg (race 1 this weekend) can often have a lot of safety car periods. That’s the nature of the track, just let this week pass by and judge the series over the course of a year.

Misgivings

Back in August and September I honestly though I’d not watch IndyCar any more. The death of Dan Wheldon a few years ago while a colossal shock and terribly, unbelievably sad, didn’t affect me in the way the death of Justin Wilson did. Although DW’s did affect me JW’s was even harder.

I hadn’t really been a fan of Dan. Nothing against him at all, not saying I was against him in anyway and he seemed a great guy, just that I had my favourites.

I was a fan of Justin Wilson. Had been since the Minardi and Jaguar days. His loss left me morose for a while. It was just so unspeakably sad.

To think we could’ve lost Hinchcliffe as well..

But I’ve been a fan of US single-seater / open-wheel racing since 2000. The racing is fantastic. It’s hard to give up.

And I know they are working on safety all the time. They are working on a solution to protect drivers from flying debris. That injury could’ve happened in any open-top race car including F1 – just ask Felipe Massa. It wasn’t anything inherently dangerous about IndyCar which killed Justin Wilson, it was just sheer damned bad luck. This isn’t necessarily the case with Wheldon’s accident, nor Hinch’s, nor even the accident that meant Dario Franchitti had to retire prematurely.

No, it’s a dangerous game but it is being improved all the time.

Competition

The cars are becoming less ‘spec’ as time goes on. Aero kit and engine competition has promoted development and added a new layer of interest. The better-funded teams have the advantage yet the other teams are still in with a shout. The well-funded teams held the advantage in the ‘spec’ era anyway – even with identical kit the teams with money will always be the best. We see this in GP2 and FR3.5 and other single-make series.

I’m glad there is engine competition and minor aero differences. It adds the possibility the pendulum might swing the other way. Chevy may have the advantage at the moment but that may not always be the case.

I do feel the cars have too many aero devices. You can have aero competition without having a hundred winglets on each car. They look ugly and wings ruin racing. But they’re fast though…

Races

The season was condensed last year, it’s good they spread it a little this year. A 7-month offseason followed by week after week of relentless racing just seems a little crazy. Start a little earlier, finish a little later, spread the same number of races out a little. You don’t want teams and drivers – and definitely not fans – suffering from race fatigue. This isn’t NASCAR and we don’t need a race every weekend.

As I say, the variety is tremendous:  short road courses, long road courses, bumpy street courses, short ovals, large ovals. You name it, they race well on it. Track variety is the name of the game in IndyCar and is one of the great strengths of the series.

The addition of Road America and Phoenix, two classic Indycar venues, can only be a positive! Even at the cost of Milwaukee and Fontana. I love both those races but you can’t sustain an event when nobody attends – or when the series schedules a race in California in mid-August. I really hope Phoenix and Elkhart Lake are as good as they were.

Boston is the latest addition to the revolving door of random street tracks. I’m less convinced on this one, so many street races have come and gone over the years. Only Long Beach and Toronto have ‘stuck’ as successful long-term events, add St Pete now. How many street courses failed in the last 20 years?

Drivers & Teams

Team Penske look almost unstoppable (especially at St Pete). Power, Montoya, Castroneves, Pagenaud. A hell of a line-up in their second year as a group. Part of me is surprised Helio hasn’t retired yet but he’s still fast enough for regular podiums. Montoya and Power should battle for the title and Pagenaud should come into his own this year.

Chip Ganassi is as strong as ever. Dixon is surely their lead charge. Kanaan is as Castroneves and not because of their shared nationality – sadly neither are in their fastest years any more. Kimball is improving all the time though possibly not quickly enough – would that change in one of the ‘primary’ cars? Chilton is the new boy from F1 after a year testing Nissan LMP1, his progress will fascinating and perhaps we’ll finally get a read on his real performance level.

Andretti Autosport is the other big team and should represent the primary Honda charge, but didn’t last year. Hunter-Reay never had the promo his championship and Indy wins deserved. Andretti conversely never really fulfilled his potential – I actually think he needs to race for someone else for a year or two. Munoz is very promising indeed and I think my early impressions of him were wrong.
AA linked up with Herta to run Alex Rossi, another ex Marussia/Manor F1 driver. Unlike Chilton, Rossi doesn’t seem to want to be there and is very obviously hoping to go back to F1.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan are running Graham Rahal along with a 3-race stint for Spencer Pigot, 2015 Indy Lights champion. Rahal was by far the best Honda runner last year and impressed me enormously. I’d mistakenly written him off prior to 2015. Something clicked for Graham and the team last year and I hope and expect that to continue.

KVSH are running one car this year but that is for Sebastien Bourdais. The focus on one car could backfire with a lack of data, or their full attention on one car could make for better results in the way it did for Rahal. He’ll rag the car as he always does.

Schmidt Peterson tend to do well with the budget they have. James Hinchcliffe is back, fully recovered after his terrible crash last year. Judging from test times and free practice at St Pete, he’s fully back on the pace which is incredible! His team-mate is the returning Mikhail Aleshin, who got in the wars in 2014, I’m sure he’ll continue to provide entertainment all season though he was good in the SMP Racing BR01 in the European Le Mans Series last year.

AJ Foyt retains Sato and Hawksworth and bolstered them on the technical side. I’d like to see a much better year for these guys. Let’s say of Sato what has been said already for over a decade: calm down and use your head!

Among the rest, Conor Daly is with the usually-underfunded Dale Coyne but I hope he can spring a few surprises. He is joined by Luca Filippi at round 1 and hopefully more races. Luca ought to have a solid drive somewhere and I hope this is the place to showcase his abilities. DCR sometimes to spread their smaller resources a little thin and that could compromise both drivers. But sometimes they work a small miracle.

I think that is all the full-season drivers. There are one-offs at Indy and elsewhere which I won’t bore you with now.

Predictions!

In general I see the championship again coming down to Montoya versus Power versus Dixon. I’d like to think Pagenaud will be in there as well. Perhaps Rahal and Hunter-Reay too.

Ultimately I think it’ll be Power’s year.

I think the racing will be excellent all season, as it usually is in IndyCar!

Even if the Penske and Ganassi cars jump ahead like they used to, the competition among them will be intense and that’s no bad thing. The racing is such that anyone else could influence the result. The midfield will be so jumbled and the odd surprise result still possible, that you can’t go into any race confidently predicting the outcome.

It’ll be a great season!

To honour Justin, it had better be!

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2016 Formula 1 Preview – Team By Team

Team By Team

Let’s get straight into it! These are just my general impressions. If you would like a detailed rundown there are plenty of professional journalists offering their own previews!

Mercedes AMG:

My pick for the Constructors’ Championship and again easily so. I’m less sure about the Drivers’ Championship. I will pick Hamilton, though I have a feeling Ferrari might be close enough to challenge that Hamilton and Rosberg will be so busy taking points from one another, Vettel might sneak it. I also wonder if Merc have been complacent – in testing they somewhat arrogantly only really used the Medium tyres. They did though do a LOT of laps, so the car is bulletproof. Ferrari won’t be able to count on silver unreliability.

Scuderia Ferrari:

My hope is they are closer to Mercedes. They seem to be throwing everything at it and I’d like to see a hint of a title challenge. (I’m not as anti-Ferrari as some think, especially since the management of 2000-2004 is gone). Kimi now has a front end he should be able to get on with but Vettel will still outscore him. Seb needs this to prove he can win titles with two teams, Kimi needs to prolong his career. Podiums galore and the odd win through the year.

Williams – Mercedes:

I predict 3rd once again. They will have to be a bit more adventurous. The new car looks exactly like the old one. (As does most of the field!) Over the next few years with Renault restructuring and RBR likely to come forward, Williams are going to have to keep on their toes to stay ahead. I hope in ’16 they show evidence of that else they won’t be 3rd for much longer. Massa and Bottas are solid but not particularly spectacular. Very ‘Williams’, in other words! Hard to see them improving on 3rd, which is less about Williams, because the team is in a no-mans land. As a customer team they’re unlikely to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari, but as the frontline Merc customer team they’re ahead of the lesser-funded Force India and Manor or anyone with a Renault or a Honda. I see many podiums.

Red Bull – TAG Heuer (Renault):

Ought to run like clockwork.. The team reckoned to have the best aerodynamic department in the business (as proven in the V8 era) haven’t lost that touch, but they’re heavily reliant on the fortunes of Renault. Relations with Renault have broken down so much RBR can’t even mention them by name any more! Hence the engine-badging deal. Yet this year with token restrictions lessened, the power units should improve all the time. But Red Bull are no longer the factory Renault team, they are but a customer.. They should still get the top upgrades but will it be enough? At least with Ricciardo and Kvyat, we know the car will be running as fast as it can go. They’ll beat the works Renault team probably quite easily.

Force India – Mercedes:

It’s easy to assume FIF1 were 5th purely down to the Mercedes engine and I don’t argue the efficacy of that engine, but don’t also count out how good the guys at Silverstone are. They do a heck of a lot with (relatively) not very much. There’s a lot of spark and agility in this team, a culture developed way back in the Jordan days I’m heartened to see still exists. My real concern is with the funding and ownership. Sahara is in jail and Mallya has his troubles. I just hope it doesn’t impact the team. If it doesn’t, expect them along with Perez and Hulkenberg to do another excellent job to race against and beat teams with more resources. Their fight will perhaps be against the resurgent McLaren. FIF1 may also be able to score well in the early races to pull a gap over Red Bull, for a while.

McLaren – Honda:

I’m going to put McLaren 6th but really nobody knows where they will be! My guess is once again they’ll start the year slow and work hard to pull themselves up the order as the year goes on. But they won’t start as far back as last year, perhaps they might start in the lower midfield and work their way up. McLaren usually improves through the year, even in their good years. Button and Alonso will no doubt be frustrated, but with LMP1 drives closed off it’s hard to see where else they’d go. Meanwhile, Stoffel Vandoorne waits and Ron’s patience runs ever lower.. As indicated by my positioning I do think they’ll get solidly into he midfield in the points standings.

Renault:

A transitional year for the former Lotus team. Renault bought their team back! It’ll take a while for the organisational changes to shake out, and they had to adapt their car back from Mercedes. Last year’s car was pretty good but the team lacked the money to use it and develop it. Development won’t be a problem this year but with the likelihood of new rules for 2017 it may be better to focus wholesale on next season. Magnussen has a point to prove, to Ron Dennis in particular, while Palmer will want to show he’s there on talent and not just because of his dad. More treading water then, but hopefully we’ll see many points finishes.

Toro Rosso – Ferrari (2015):

The new car looks dynamite, better even than the Red Bull. Unlike the parent team they’ve extracted themselves from Renault but only with year-old Ferraris. This gives them a bit more grunt but no power unit development whatsoever, so I expect them to start strongly and gradually drift backwards through the year as everyone else works on their engines and recovery systems. So their new car had better not break down in the first few races, which represent their best chance to build points while everyone else irons out bugs in their 2016 PUs. Sainz and Verstappen were both mightily impressive last year, expect that to continue and Kvyat to sweat heavily.

Manor – Mercedes:

The installation of Mercs should provide an immediate boost. It all depends on the cars now. Manor should finally be able to race with the established teams on merit, or at least the Saubers and STRs. No more excuses. There’s this inescapable feeling though that the new owner has some other motive, is he looking to sell it for profit? Two rookies is an.. interesting choice and not one I would’ve made. Wehrlein did preseason testing a year ago though and as DTM champion should be a solid hire. Haryanto I know less about, he’s spent 4 years in GP2 and for 3 of them was nowhere. If the drivers and cars are up to it, Manor have the real opportunity to out-score both Sauber and Haas, and to worry the Toro Rossos – maybe even get among Renault and McLaren.

Haas – Ferrari:

The new boys are no fools. They’re a professional outfit in NASCAR and they know how to race. They’re also an engineering-led company, the whole point of the team is to promote their engineering machinery to prospective buyers. They elected to defer their entry by a year to prepare and wow has that paid off, immediately setting representative times in testing. They have had help from Ferrari and Dallara of course, quite a lot of it too. Smart thinking. They will be near the back but they possibly won’t be at the very back all of the time, if they are they won’t be the 3 or 4 seconds behind that were the last new entrants. The bigger time losses will come from operational reasons, look for fluffed pit stops and weird pit stop strategies as the team gets used to the ways of F1. Grosjean and Gutierrez are both good drivers needing to get on with their careers, Romain especially, both with an eye on any potential Ferrari drive that might currently be occupied by a Finn. Will they score in year one? With a bit of help from attrition maybe, otherwise not. But there’s plenty of potential here.

Sauber – Ferrari:

Sadly the Swiss team still seems to have money trouble. A late car and stories of late payments to staff are not good signs at any time let alone when about to embark upon a season. When they revealed their new car for the 2nd test it looked so similar to the ’15 car they tested the week before, I wondered if they’d brought the wrong one. I think it is very likely they’ll be last at several GPs and I have a feeling they’ll be last in the points standings, which would be disastrous for their cash supply. That said, Nasr is a hot talent and Ericsson should bring the car home, but both should be in a better car and I wish Sauber could provide it.

 

2016 Formula 1 Preview

In some ways the 2016 F1 season is for me a sort of season-long referendum. You see, for the last couple of years, I’ve been bored. And I’m not alone.

Engines

Not because of the engines. Hybrids are essential for relevance, for technological development and yes, for PR. If anything the hybrid rules aren’t open enough – despite being more advanced than most championships, F1 is currently 2nd to the WEC on both hybrid technology and raceability.

Drivers

Not because of the drivers. The drivers are as good as any set of drivers in history. Not better, not worse. Would I change some? Yes. But ultimately this isn’t like the days of absolute no-hopers, running massively off the pace and/or crashing all the time. Given the opportunity, these drivers would be just as racy and just as exciting as those in any other era. They don’t have that opportunity and probably won’t this year either. Let’s hope they do in 2017. It would be nice if they could say what they think a bit more, but fans have been asking for that for a long time – and actually in the last few months the likes of Alonso, Button and Vettel have been more outspoken.

Teams

I’m a little bored of the teams but they are only playing to the rules of the game.

I’m not even bored by domination. It happens. And dammit I sat through the Ferrari years 2000-2004 so I’ll bloody well sit through this! What I learned in the Ferrari years was to watch the midfield because the midfield is fascinating. Plus any fan who watches sportscar racing should be adept at watching the entire field, the entire story, not just at who is going to win overall. Mercedes or Red Bull or Ferrari running away with it isn’t fun, we’d all like more competition, but ultimately they’ve done the better job and any frustrations should be directed at the other teams for not being as good.

Tyres

I’ve been bored by the tyres. F1 shouldn’t be about conserving tyres. Even 24-hour endurance racing isn’t about conserving tyres these days, they go hell-for-leather the whole way, so why is F1? It would be okay if they were designed to the limit and the drivers were pushing to the edge. But they aren’t. The current F1 tyres are designed to be artificially bad in the hope of improving ‘The Show’. But it doesn’t work. Teams always push the limit, so instead of burning through the tyres and pitting several times, the drivers now cruise to the next stop, well below their own performance and that of the car, to make the tyres last as long as possible and reduce the number of pit stops – this is faster over a race distance. The Bridgestones and Michelins of 10 years ago would run rings around them.

Leadership

I’ve also been bored by the appalling way F1 is being run. Grands Prix in authoritarian dictatorship states. A fundamental lack of marketing from Bernie & FOM, quite the opposite actually when the promoter actively talks the sport down. A terrible financial model which, despite making tens of millions, leaves some teams struggling and circuits making considerable losses even though they have to charge fans hundreds of pounds, euros or dollars just for basic seats.

Oh and DRS, just.. no.

If this carries on, I don’t know how much longer I can keep watching. It would be a tremendously hard wrench to stop watching entirely, but I’m already at the stage where F1 Grands Prix are no longer ‘must-see TV’. Right now I don’t mind whether I miss a race live and watch it later. There are races on the calendar I don’t care if I miss entirely. I never, ever thought I’d get to that stage, let alone contemplate giving up.

Upsides!

Think positively. What has kept me going has been the pure sport. It is still there, if you dig hard enough. The stories. The improvements team to team. The way drivers tackle the races. The new drivers coming through (and sadly the unfortunate talented drivers getting shafted by teams desperate for cash). The differences between teams and cars even if those are ever-shrinking. Despite all the problems, somewhere underneath it all a version of the sport still exists.

2016 is interesting. There’s the very real possibility Mercedes will be challenged by Ferrari. There’s disruption in the midfield among Red Bull, McLaren, Renault (ex-Lotus) which will really mix things up, if not in 1st and 2nd in the race result then certainly from 3rd to 18th.
There are new tyres rules, complicated ones, which should add a variable without affecting things too greatly.
There’s also this weird new qualifying system, I won’t dwell on it but let’s say firstly I’m not (yet) a fan, on paper not at all, but also let’s say we should see it before judging. I’m keeping an open mind.

There are signs things are changing. The sport is finally listening to the fans – for better or for worse. Changes to the cars are coming in 2017 or 2018, they may not be the right changes, it certainly doesn’t look like it, but we’ll find out in due course. At least by then F1 cars ought to be jaw-dropping fast again!

Even Pirelli seems to be getting the message – make better tyres.

TV Deal

The UK has an exciting new TV deal with Channel 4 taking over. I’ll miss the BBC coverage but most of that team has landed at C4 and the number of hours seems about the same as the recent BBC deal, and I’m used to that now. Let’s face it, even hardcore fans don’t need live coverage of 21 races worth of practice sessions. And the highlights give me a chance to do other things in the day before settling in to watch – just as long as I avoid social media (spoilers!). I’m really intrigued to see what C4 can bring to the experience.

Team By Team

My team-by-team preview follows in the next post.

Conclusion

Whilst I agree with the need to go for the hybrid formula, I think it has been done the wrong way, and with the wrong tyres. But the competitiveness side of things should even itself out if the rules remain fairly stable and others catch up, and I hope that’ll show signs of happening this year.

Will 2016 be ‘The Best Year Ever’? No, of course not. But it could be the best year of the 1.6 litre hybrid era, and that’ll be good enough for me.