IndyCar and Texas have an identity crisis to sort out


The Verizon IndyCar Series has raced at Texas Motor Speedway since 1997, but right now, the balance of what the racing is and what some think it should be appears out of whack – at least compared to past expectations.

TMS is a bit of a “lone wolf” on the current IndyCar calendar. As the single remaining 1.5-mile oval – in part because it’s a “legacy” event from the prior Indy Racing League era – figuring out a gratifying balance between driver and fan appreciation remains a perplexing conundrum.

Texas was rarely a “pack race” in the traditional sense during the IRL era, and even during the first few years of the merged championship where INDYCAR absorbed the assets of the Champ Car World Series. But mainly, there were still one or two dominant teams and a wealth of consistent side-by-side, or occasional three-wide racing.

Now, while this was a jaw dropping, edge of your seat phenomenon at the time, IndyCar did get lucky that two of its biggest accidents in the last dozen years at TMS occurred where they did and didn’t produce serious, life-threatening injuries.

Both Davey Hamilton (2001) and Kenny Brack (2003) had savage accidents on the backstraight, and in both cases got up into the catch-fencing. Fortunately, there were no fans seated either side of the straight for those incidents. And fortunately, debris from either incident didn’t cause major damage or injury to track safety workers or other drivers.

The racing at TMS didn’t change after either instance; it continued on the path of tight, almost pack but not exactly full pack racing for roughly seven more years. So did the danger element.

Exciting? Sure, to a higher percentage of those who attended or watched on TV. But to some, the TMS racing back then always felt in part like you were playing with fire – perhaps that’s a fair assessment given that the winner shoots six-shooters in victory lane and fire comes out of the backdrop there as well.

Then Las Vegas 2011 happened, and the concept of IndyCars racing on 1.5-milers was placed into the crosshairs. Texas survived the cuts while Vegas and Kentucky joined a scrap heap of 1.5-milers including Chicago and Kansas, among others that have not yet held another IndyCar race since.

Vegas wasn’t the single catalyst for the drawdown of IndyCar on 1.5-milers, but the events of that day certainly didn’t help matters going forward.

Anyway, it’s been left for Texas to carry the torch from 2012 onwards. And while the 2012 is hailed as the last “great” Texas race, the reasons for it going off as well as it did are threefold.

For one, there was a one-off wing package for that Texas race that has not been used since. The rear wing elements were a hybrid of the road course and superspeedway wing endplates, on top of the rear wheel guards. That helped increase downforce much more than what was there in 2013, and again this Saturday night.

Second, the tire fall-off was right in the window where it needed to be. Drivers wanted a car that was harder to drive after Vegas and could easily spread out – remember, there was angst at the time about returning to Texas beforehand, and Oriol Servia even tweeted an expletive to TMS president Eddie Gossage – yet the tire package delivered in harmony with the aero one.

Third, that year did not have Derrick Walker as INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations yet. Walker was almost placed into a no-win situation for the 2013 Texas race, where the aero element was changed to the superspeedway rear wings and downforce taken off the car, and to boot, it was his first race on the job. For all his accolades and what he’s brought to the position, Walker wasn’t in a position to influence the 2012 race and his first crack at 2013 was one of his rare missteps.

What happened this past Saturday night, then, was the medium between 2012 and 2013. Cars fell off, drivers still had to fight and hang onto their cars, and manage the tires.

At the end of the day you had a product that was decent – yet failed to measure up to the expectations of what Texas was rather than what it is now.

The funny thing is that as IndyCar fans and observers, we’ve been spoiled since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 ahead of 2012.

If a race is even remotely “boring” – or perceived as such – we decry it thusly: Sham! Abomination! Snoozefest! Some expletive combination!

The biggest thing going forward is that Texas has to figure out a way to sort out its identity from here.

What it has become is an event reminiscent of the early 1990s in North American open-wheel racing, which is to say, not a bad thing. The strategic elements still are fascinating, and in making the steps INDYCAR has done over the last couple years, the danger level for drivers has been greatly reduced.

And from nearly all the post-race quotes, you can tell the drivers like “new Texas.”

But the user expectation is still one of past Texas – the glory of NASCAR-ized open-wheel racing that often produced photo finishes and was basically the hallmark for the IRL. Consider the IRL-level crowds and consider the current ones, and it’s obvious which one the local crowd prefers.

TMS is still an integral part of the IndyCar schedule… but it needs to sort out what it wants to be from a perception standpoint.

It ain’t as good as it once was. But it can still be as good once, as it ever was.

Rossi: A time to be thankful

2015 GP2 Series Round 10.
Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain
Friday 20 November 2015.
Alexander Rossi (USA, Racing Engineering) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C0782
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It’s Thanksgiving Day back home this week, and I’m very thankful for so many good things in my life.

On the racing front, my GP2 team Racing Engineering deserve every bit of thanks and praise for preparing and delivering me a race car this year that has been an utter joy to drive, even when the fates conspire against us as they did in Bahrain last weekend.

Even on those odd weekends, we’ve been able to show incredible pace and as a true team we work through the good and bad days. My sincere thanks to them!

To the organizers of the GP2 series, I am very thankful. They have yet again staged a spectacular championship. The GP2 family is tight, friendly and competitive, and the ideal environment in which to work for drivers, engineers, mechanics and everyone involved pushing towards the highest level of motorsport. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of the GP2 family.

This past race in Bahrain, we had one of those weekends which you want to hit restart on. Practice was great – we were immediately quick and then went faster still and maintained P1 as everyone went onto their long runs. In qualifying we had some braking issues and ended up ninth, not what we had targeted at all and that meant race one would be a fight. However, it was still a decent position from which to fight for points and a good starting position for the sprint race.

Our long run race pace had been really good in practice, so we knew we had a good shot in the feature race. I was pushing hard right up to my stop, and when I came out I was within reach of second place, but then had contact with Mitch Evans and had to pit for a new nose. There wasn’t anything I could do from that point and finished up 18th. Starting ninth and being very close to second showed yet again that we had a very good race car and our strategy for the race, starting from ninth, was good.

Finishing 18th on Friday meant I started the Sprint Race in the same position. With a strong field ahead it was always going to be a challenge to finish in a high points-scoring position. I had a mega start and the car was great again and I ended up ninth – not too bad considering where we started. Obviously this was not the goal for the weekend, but we maintain a strong second position in the driver’s championship.

I’m thankful to immediately have another weekend in Abu Dhabi to cement second place in the GP2 championship. I’ve had a lot of success racing around Yas Marina Circuit and my thanks must go to the people behind the circuit. They’ve made a true racer’s paradise! The track is very flat with some extremely challenging sections – some high speed, a few heavy braking zones and a technical section under the Yas Viceroy Hotel, where traction is very important to really maximize performance.

Around the circuit you have an amazing environment, all built to put on a great show for the fans. If you haven’t been before, you should try. This is especially true in late November with mild weather and there’s always an incredibly warm reception from everyone who works or comes to the events.

Next up my sincere thanks to Manor Marussia F1 Team who helped make my 2015 F1 debut happen, and I look forward to more good things with them in 2016. I could not have asked to race with a better group of people, many of whom I know from last year, in 2014 when I first started working with them.

This year the opportunity to race with Manor F1 came up quite fast and without a lot of time to prepare. Singapore was my first F1 race and everyone at the team did everything they could to make my transition from GP2 to F1 seamless. I hope to have repaid them with my performances, as these past five F1 races were important leading into 2016. I enjoyed every second with them and am very thankful for the opportunity.

Finally, I must thank the group of people that are around me, allowing me to focus on racing and my fitness. Every driver has a similar team and 99% of the time they are not seen or mentioned. My team work tirelessly both physically and mentally to help me achieve my goals. I am very blessed to have such good people on my side.

Enjoy this weekend’s races in Abu Dhabi, the finale for both the F1 and GP2 Championships. Thank you all for your support and for everyone back home, have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day celebrating with family.

Many Blessings,


Raikkonen: 2015 an improved but “average” year

xxxx during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen has called 2015 an “average” year and said that his performances are still far from where he wants them to be.

After a miserable 2014 campaign that saw him finish 12th in the drivers’ championship, Raikkonen has enjoyed an upturn in fortunes this year partly in thanks to the improvements made to the Ferrari car.

However, the Finn has still failed to match the results of teammate Sebastian Vettel, scoring 131 fewer points and 12 fewer podium finishes than the German driver this year.

When asked ahead of this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix how he would sum up the year, Raikkonen was his usual blunt self, saying that his performances were still a far cry from where he wanted them to be.

“Pretty average, I must say,” Raikkonen said. “Better than last year but still far away from what it should be.

“But there’s life and next year we’ll try again. Obviously this year has been a lot stronger year from the team than previous year and you can easily see it from whichever way you look at it and it all comes to next year.

“Obviously that’s the aim: the aim is always to try to be in the front and Mercedes has always been very strong last years and everybody else tries to beat them. Is it going to happen? Are we going to be in a position next year? We hope so at least.”

Much has been said about a possible challenge to pace-setters Mercedes by Ferrari in 2016, but Raikkonen is waiting to reserve judgement until the 2016 car has hit the track.

“We have to wait until we put the cars on the circuit in a test and the first few races, then we really see where we are,” Raikkonen said.

“Obviously there’s a lot of work being done at the factory, number and stuff but it’s never the same until we’re really on the circuit. Then we can see it pretty well, or feel it quite quickly, after a few laps, if it’s going to a good one or not so good one.

“I’m sure we’re going to have a strong package, but is it strong enough? Time will only tell.”

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview

xxxx during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Veteran Formula 1 journalist Joe Saward raised quite an interesting point in his most recent blog post ahead of this weekend’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

“There are times when one wonders whether NASCAR is smarter than F1 by making sure that every championship showdown has four contenders,” he wrote.

“Why is F1 so stuck in its own mud that it will not consider any kind of play-off format? I know that it was not like that ‘in my father’s day’, but a scoring system is a scoring system – and teams deal with the rules they are given. In any case, points systems have changed in F1 many times, so comparing the different eras is of no great value.”

Indeed, Joe is right. The Chase, while having its critics, does ensure that the NASCAR season has a dramatic and exciting finale – something that F1 risks not having, and so frequently misses out on.

2015 is one such example. The championship was mathematically settled in Austin one month ago, yet there has been little doubt since Italy who would be winning the title. In fact, some may say that Lewis Hamilton had the championship in the bag as early as Hungary last year when he crushed Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes mind-games.

And yet we arrive in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year with so much to play for and plenty still waiting to be settled. There are engine dramas still ongoing, two seats on the 2016 grid to be confirmed, and a revival from Rosberg that Hamilton will be so very keen to put a stop to.

For one last time in 2015, here is your complete weekend preview featuring talking points, track stats and TV times ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Talking Points

Nico’s charge continues

Five straight pole positions and two comfortable victories in Mexico and Brazil not only confirmed that Rosberg will finish this year as runner-up to Hamilton once again, but have set the German up nicely for a renewed charge in 2016.

Rosberg was wry when told on the podium in Brazil that he needed to drive like this earlier in the year, but knows it to be true. If this form is anything to go by though, at a time when Hamilton seems to have become almost too comfortable, Rosberg may yet be a genuine candidate for the championship once again next year.

Victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday would also act as some kind of pain relief for Rosberg at the site of his bitter loss last year. The demons of 2014 are slowly being chased away. It may have taken him a year to do so, but Rosberg looks to be turning a corner.

Catch me if you can

Ferrari’s performance in Brazil once again stoked the fire for a close fight at the front of the pack in 2016 between F1’s two biggest manufacturers as Sebastian Vettel applied pressure on Rosberg and Hamilton throughout the race.

We therefore arrive in Abu Dhabi with hopes of a repeat, which at at track where the SF15-T should fare better still and in a race with a knack of the unexpected could offer a tremendous battle at the head of the field.

Just as Rosberg is banishing the misery of last year and suggesting that the best is still to come in 2016, Ferrari will want to do exactly the same thing on Sunday.

Fight to the Finnish

Apologies for re-using this pun, but the fight for supremacy between Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen has rumbled on for many weeks now. Their rivalry – if such a thing is possible between Finns – has been one of the interesting subplots in F1 of late thanks to their clashes in Russia and Mexico.

It’ll finally be settled this weekend in Abu Dhabi, but we all know that Bottas is the real winner. Beating Raikkonen in an inferior car is an impressive feat. However, not beating Felipe Massa with comfort in the same car may have ended his hopes of replacing Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2017.

A year changes plenty

Lots has changed in F1 over the past 12 months. Last year, there was no sign of Marussia, yet it outlived Caterham who did race at Yas Marina. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have both added to their greatness with impressive seasons, while the stock of others – mainly those powered by Honda – has fallen.

It’ll be interesting to see where we stand in one year’s time. The 2017 driver market promises to be one of the most active and eventful in years with plenty of top seats up for grabs, while we’ll have been back to Germany and even to Azerbaijan at this point in 2016.

And we’ll most probably either have a four or five-time world champion on our hands. Either way, we’re witnessing greatness in this period.

Say hello, wave goodbye?

On the same day that a number of teams have announced new sponsorship deals, we must also consider those who we may be waving goodbye to following this weekend’s race in Abu Dhabi.

Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s future may still not be totally sewn up, but both will be on the grid next year. The same cannot be said of Roberto Merhi, though, who is likely to lose his seat at Manor, while the team itself faces an uncertain winter after the exits of Graeme Lowdon and John Booth.

We’re also not sure what the future holds for Lotus. Autosport reported on Thursday that the team needed help to make it to Abu Dhabi from Bernie Ecclestone, as the deal with Renault is still being finalized.

One thing we do know for sure is that Haas F1 Team will be joining the grid next year – they’ve even got a pit gantry – without a toaster in sight (props if you get that US F1 joke…).

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Yas Marina Circuit
Laps: 55
Corners: 21
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:40.279 (Red Bull, 2009)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft (Option); Soft (Prime)
2014 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:40.480
2014 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:44.496
DRS Zone: T7 to T8; T10 to T11

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 4am ET 11/27
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 11/27
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 5am ET 11/28
: CNBC 8am ET 11/28
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 11/29

Lance Stroll joins Williams F1 development programme

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Williams has confirmed the signing of Lance Stroll to its development programme ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 season.

Stroll, 17, raced in the FIA F3 European Championship throughout 2015 after winning the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand over the winter and has enjoyed backing from Ferrari as a member of its driver academy.

However, the Canadian has now moved to Williams to take up a development role similar to that enjoyed by Valtteri Bottas in 2011.

“The programme includes extensive simulator time, work placements in several departments throughout the factory, as well as specific training in the fields of race engineering and marketing,” the team said via a press release on Thursday.

Williams also confirmed that Stroll will continue to race in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship in 2016, ending suggestions of a possible move into GP3 or GP2.

“I’m really honored to be part of such a great team and one with so much history and success,” Stroll said. “I cannot wait to start working with Williams and very much hope we can achieve great things together in the coming years.

“It’s a very exciting and crucial time in my short motor racing career. Reaching F1 was always the ultimate goal, I suppose ever since driving a go-kart my father had bought me for my fifth birthday.

“Williams has a long history of nurturing young drivers at the start of their F1 careers. David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hülkenberg and most recently Valtteri [Bottas]. This element was something that was important to me in making the decision to join Williams.

“I won the Italian Formula 4 Championship last season in my first year of car racing after karts, won the Toyota Racing Series at the beginning of 2015 and finished fifth in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship in my first year which, having also won a race, hit my pre-season target. My future is now with Williams, which I’m very excited about.”

Deputy team principal Claire Williams was pleased to welcome Stroll to the team: “At Williams, we are committed to using our resource and expertise to help talented young drivers to reach their potential.

“We have a track record of success in this area, having supported Valtteri Bottas in his growth from a development driver role to a race driver and one of the most respected talents in Formula One.

“We have identified Lance as a promising talent for the future and we are happy to provide our support to his development as a driver. We look forward to working with Lance in 2016 and to the success he can achieve in the future.”