Archive for August, 2012

F1: What can be learnt from American racing (part 1)

August 21, 2012

The recent wild finish at the NASCAR Watkins Glen road course brings memories of what happened in Hockenheim, where Sebastian Vettel was penalised for overtaking Jenson Button while going off track and was demoted from second to fourth as a result.

The NASCAR race at the Glen produced one of the best finishes in recent times with Marcos Ambrose moving from third to first in a short period of time, including an amazing battle with Brad Keselowski and an overtaking move that included, er, going off the track and back. But this is NASCAR and there wasn’t even a suggestion of a penalty.

NASCAR gets it right. Why?

Because as long as we have a level playing field, it’s fine. Drivers should be able to use all the track and a bit more, because that will generate more spectacular moments. Those magic moments where fans at the circuit or at home stand up and cheer. Moments they remember years later. They may even want to watch a video replay and pay for that content.

Of course, tracks should be designed in a way such that going off track does not yield an unreasonable advantage, like a massive shortcut. Most of them already are.

F1 should be much more pragmatic and less purist in its approach to racing. Penalising moves such as Vettel’s will make others think twice before trying something audacious, although in this instance Vettel had the chance to try and get out of it when it was clear he was going to run off track.

There is already a strong incentive to wait for a super safe opportunity to overtake in the DRS zone (curiously, that is where this incident occurred). Penalising ambitious but not unsafe moves isn’t exactly a good way to promote overtaking and the show.

Over-penalising also brings incentives for rival teams to protest as soon as there is something vaguely unusual about an overtaking move. For example, Button took less than a lap to complain to his team on the radio. Whilst these protests are within the rules, they are not positive for the sport, just as it is not positive when football players pressure the referee for a penalty as soon as something unusual takes place in the box.

Finally, the biggest negative of all is F1’s inability to deal with
incidents promptly. Even of Vettel were to be penalised, someone in race control should have demanded him to give up the position immediately back to Button. If teams have an army of dedicated strategists following the race, it is not unreasonable to have one dedicated individual to each driver in race control that would make this call within seconds of the incident. In this case, Vettel would have dropped back to third place which was still a fair outcome.

Instead, stewards added an arbitrary amount of time to his race, promoting Romain Grosjean, a man who was never in contention, to the podium.

That’s definitely not right.

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NASCAR: More road courses please

August 12, 2012

As it’s widely known, the first tier of NASCAR racing, the Sprint Cup, is run mostly on oval courses. To the foreign eye, all ovals look pretty much the same (“all they have to do is to turn left” etc.) but the reality is that oval racing is incredibly difficult and technical and there are in fact at least 4 types of ovals: 1) superspeedways which are run with a restrictor plate as otherwise racing becomes too dangerous (Daytona, Talladega), 2) other “long” ovals (Indianapolis, Fontana), 3) 1.5 mile ovals (Texas, Las Vegas) and 4) short tracks (Richmond, Bristol) – this last format is particularly weird for the European taste but has a massive following, not least because the races provide a unique fan experience (I.e. fans can often see the whole track and the effect of 43 cars spread within 0.5 miles is overwhelming).

So there’s more to oval racing than meets the eye but that doesn’t mean that NASCAR has the perfect race calendar…

There are some road courses in NASCAR but too few and far in between. However, both the Sonoma and Watkins Glen events have provided excellent racing in 2012 – eg the last lap of today’s race.

It would be a very smart move by NASCAR to expand the number of road courses as this would appeal to a large fan base outside the United States who enjoy V8 Supercars, DTM and other forms of powerful touring car racing. With a 36 race schedule this would be perfectly doable. It’s with steps like this NASCAR can move from a very successful US business to a more global series.

INDYCAR: Ramblings

August 11, 2012

The Indycar 2012 season has reached a critical stage with 3 races to go and 4 drivers separated by 28 points, the equivalent of a sixth place. The season has taken some interesting turns with Helio Castroneves winning the opening round after a winless 2011, and then Will Power looking dominant over the following 3 rounds. However, the oval courses saw the return of Will’s lacklustre performances (which surprisingly started happening in road and street courses as well) and this allowed Dario Franchitti to win his third Indy 500 (frankly the only positive thing he has done all season) and then Ryan Hunter-Reay to come out of nowhere, win 3 consecutive races and take the points lead. Scott Dixon also stepped up a gear and won at Detroit and Mid-Ohio whilst Castroneves returned to winning ways in Edmonton. So now Power leads from Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Dixon with 3 to go. As usual, Indycar is providing good entertainment even if most races have not been spectacular.

Interestingly, the last three races are at Sonoma (road course), Baltimore (street) and Auto Club Speedway (oval). Sonoma is one of those Indycar tracks that looks great on TV and (located in the California wine region) provides good booze to the fans, but unfortunately tends to produce extremely boring races with little overtaking. In 2010 the only highlight was an entertaining first lap incident whilst last year the race was so boring that Indycar threw a caution with a few laps to go as Chinese driver Ho Pin Tung parked his car in a perfectly safe manner. Both races were won by Will Power, last year’s also being a Penske 1-2-3. Surely Power is again favourite to win this one.

Baltimore is the typical modern Indycar street course, i.e. absolutely uninteresting and almost amateurish – one of the hairpins is so tight and narrow that it generated a traffic jam last year.

Will Power was last year’s winner but both Dixon, Castroneves and Hunter-Reay have won street courses this year, so it’s a difficult call.

The final race is at the Fontana superspeedway, nowadays known as Auto Club Speedway. This event marks the return of Indycar to superspeedways and it has been recently extended to a 500-mile race. The track is notorious for two things: producing incredibly boring NASCAR races and for those 1990s Indycar races run at 380+ km/h with drivers endlessly slipstreaming each other until their engines blew up in spectacular fashion. Brazilian Gil de Ferran set the closed course speed record on this track in 2000 lapping it during qualifying at an amazing 388.537 km/h. The video below shows that the track is so wide and the car looks so slow, almost as if de Ferran is on a Sunday drive.

It will be interesting to see how the modern cars and engines will perform, especially over 500 miles, and suspect that a few drivers will conclude that it is better to start the race with a new engine and take a 10 place grid penalty. It’s very difficult to predict this race and it has the potential to be either exciting and random or extremely boring. It seems a good idea to tune in to the Japanese commentary feed (the action below is not from Fontana but from a similarly shaped superspeedway oval course – the last lap provides the best entertainment).

The four title contenders will need to play to their strenghts and minimise the damage on bad days. Scott Dixon appears to be the best package overall as Power can be very strong in road and street races only for his title hopes to vanish with a DNF in Fontana. Castroneves has had ups and downs and it is difficult to see him doing 3 consecutive strong performances. Hunter-Reay has a decent chance and it would be really good to see a new Indycar champion, especially an American one. All in all a fascinating climax is shaping up in the 2012 Indycar season.