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DiZinno: A hope the sun rises again for Japan’s manufacturers in 2016

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One of the bigger stories of the year, across the board, in motorsports over the 2015 season was the respective issues for three major Japanese manufacturers – Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

Let’s face facts, the more we wrote about these manufacturers in particular, it was not in positive light.

Yet considering all three have had their highlights in motorsports, the hope is that 2015 was merely a blip on the radar, and not a harbinger of more negativity to come for the foreseeable future.

Here’s a look back at the year that was for these three, in particular:

HONDA – NO RETURN TO GLORY DAYS WITH MCLAREN, YET

Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne. Photo: Associated Press
Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne. Photo: Associated Press

McLaren Honda. Memories of glories past were conjured upon the driver announcement, all the way from the initial press images of Fernando Alonso alongside that all-conquering MP4/4 Honda chassis Ayrton Senna took to his first World Championship in 1988, edging teammate and ultimate rival Alain Prost.

Sadly, the memories of issues present were created throughout the course of the 2015 season. You rarely went through a Grand Prix weekend where Alonso, or fellow World Champion Jenson Button, wasn’t in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Not through any fault of their own, mind you. The regulations stipulate that only so many upgrades can be made over the course of the season – by way of “tokens” – and it seemed Honda had used theirs early and often. It became a question/running joke not of if Alonso or Button would have a grid penalty, but rather how many places the grid penalty would be. And that was just on Saturdays.

Once it got to Sundays, retirements were the norm. When either chassis made it home, it was several laps down. Alonso’s radio transmission calling it a “GP2 engine” at one point was the nadir. Even though Alonso scored the car’s best result of the year, fifth at Hungary, had it not been such a bizarre or abnormal Grand Prix, chances were strong he might not have finished that high.

Give Alonso and Button credit for putting a brave face on it, in particular Alonso’s glorious sunbathing moment in Sao Paulo that gave rise to the #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe meme, which was one of our highest trafficked stories all year here on MotorSportsTalk.

The problem was that we saw these two greats essentially wasting away at the back of the grid. It was a bit like seeing a great band return for a comeback tour, only they weren’t at the same caliber or level they were at their peak… you just hoped they could recapture the glory days.

There was also a great piece by NBC’s Will Buxton, noting that McLaren’s Ron Dennis inadvertently might be causing more harm than good to the team’s future progress.

McLaren Honda will be better in 2016. It would be almost impossible to be worse. But you do wonder whether it will be a mere step forward, or a quantum leap to vault all involved back to a level of accolades they deserve.

HONDA – INDYCAR’S TOUGH STEP BACK, MIXED BAG IN SPORTS CARS

Ryan Hunter-Reay. Photo: Associated Press
Ryan Hunter-Reay. Photo: Associated Press

On the domestic front, Honda Performance Development’s North American arm of its program had its fortunes tied to Wirth Research – for better or worse – throughout 2015.

Nick Wirth was involved with the creation of both Honda’s new-for-2015 aero kit in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and its HPD ARX-04b that was intended to be campaigned for a full season by the Tequila Patron ESM in the FIA World Endurance Championship season. Key word there, of course, is “intended.”

The IndyCar was particularly draggy – drivers mentioned a term called “pitch sensitivity” as one of the issues on road and street courses – and a clear cut performance deficit at the Indianapolis 500 left Honda high and dry more often than not. They still won races, and Graham Rahal mounted a surprise but welcome championship challenge with his revamped Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, but were rarely the match of Chevrolet throughout the course of the year.

Much-discussed although a more behind-the-scenes story in the grand scheme of things, INDYCAR has allowed Honda to make upgrades to close the performance deficit via Rule 9.3. The clause in the rulebook isn’t quite a “Balance of Performance” adjustment, but it was left as a catch-all to prevent any manufacturer from getting too far behind, as Lotus had been in its lone season as a manufacturer 2012. Chevrolet, unsurprisingly, is not a fan – the line here is “build a better car,” rather than rely somewhat on the sanctioning body to close the gap.

Fact was though, Honda’s performance gap was as much down to a weakened driver and team roster compared to Chevrolet’s arsenal, and the gap was never that big as the 9.3 rule would make it indicate. Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden moved from Honda to Chevrolet over the winter, and at the start of the year, Andretti Autosport was theoretically the best fighting team by comparison. Still, RLL emerged, Schmidt Peterson had its moments although James Hinchcliffe’s injury was a blow, and Gabby Chaves occasionally overachieved at Bryan Herta Autosport.

Photo: Extreme Speed Motorsports
Photo: Extreme Speed Motorsports

In sports cars, the root cause of the issues for HPD’s new wholly designed prototype, as opposed to one that had evolved from the same base Courage tub that spawned the litany of Acura/HPD ARX-01 and 03 iterations (not the 02a, Wirth’s previous LMP1 creation that was one-and-done in 2009), was a substantial lack of front downforce, and a misplaced weight balance from front to rear.

The new car ran only once, at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, before ESM reverted to its old car – the open-top 03b (right) – for two races and then switched to a Ligier JS P2 chassis for the balance of the WEC season. The 04b was also supposed to race at Pikes Peak with the late Justin Wilson, but didn’t due to turbo issues. Whether another revised version of the 04b ever races again remains to be seen.

To Honda/Acura’s credit, the four-wheel drive Acura TLX-GT succeeded against the mights of FIA GT3-spec cars in Pirelli World Challenge, with Ryan Eversley in particular standing out in the early parts of the year in wet conditions. A pole and win on the streets of St. Petersburg was no less than what he and the RealTime Racing team deserved.

TOYOTA – EVOLUTION HAPPENS, BUT PERFORMANCE GAINS DON’T

Toyota's 2014 challenger, prior to 2015. Photo: Getty Images
Toyota’s 2014 challenger, prior to 2015. Photo: Getty Images

It was a welcome treat to see the Toyota Gazoo Racing team win the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship, with Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi earning deserved accolades after their timing and opportunities didn’t bear proper fruit in Formula 1. The reason these two didn’t star in F1 was not for a lack of talent.

However, as Audi and Porsche relaunched their efforts – each made a step up in respective energy levels – Toyota instead remained in the 6 MJ subclass for harvesting energy and didn’t make quite as substantial a leap forward. Reliability wasn’t an issue so much as outright pace, and a year after winning races galore and the title, the two cars barely even made the podium this season.

It had the feel, once more, of Toyota’s F1 efforts. For while the program got better and better progressively each year from 2012 to 2014, 2015 was an undoubted step back. With a new car and at least one new driver replacing the retiring Alexander Wurz for 2016, look for Toyota to come back to form by the second half of the season at the latest.

NISSAN – THE YEAR THAT COULD HAVE BEEN

The bright side of Nissan’s 2015 campaign first: there was an incredible effort by Katsumasa Chiyo, Florian Strauss and Wolfgang Reip to win the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours, courtesy of Chiyo’s late-race pass for the win. Meanwhile Always Evolving and JRM did well in the Blancpain Endurance Series, and James Davison and Bryan Heitkotter starred throughout the year in the Always Evolving/AIM/JRM mashup in Pirelli World Challenge.

The sad part of Nissan’s 2015 campaign? Nissan North America withdraws from IMSA. But that was the first blow this month.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 11: The Nissan NISMO GT-R LM of Harry Tincknell, Michael Krumm and Alex Buncombe drives during qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 11, 2015 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
The Nissan NISMO GT-R LM in Le Mans, France. Photo: Getty Images

The very sad part of Nissan’s 2015 campaign was of course, the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO. The LMP1 challenger was certainly different, but it wasn’t dynamic.

Persistent technical issues, running without a hybrid, race delays, management shakeups and a vast gap between the marketing of the car versus its on-track performance were all among the items that came up over the course of the year. And that was just before the brutal, cold, classless way the final hammer came down to staff – reportedly via email mere moments before a press release.

I’d refer you to other more detailed accounts of the car’s – and program’s – demise from some of my counterparts (Sportscar365, RACER, DailySportsCar) for more information beyond the Cliff notes.

But as for my brief thoughts? It sucks for all the people involved. It sucks to see the innovative, outside-the-box philosophy go bad. It sucks to see the corporate structure defeat the power of people, who worked their damnedest to make the thing work. And it sucks that it will overshadow the manufacturer’s other accolades in motorsport, and potentially hinder other manufacturers from making the plunge into a full-on LMP1 program.

MAZDA – LOTS OF GOODS ON A DIFFERENT LEVEL

I’d be remiss to forget Mazda in this synopsis, but Mazda’s year was different to the other three Japanese manufacturers. Which is probably how the John Doonan-led manufacturer would like it.

Weiron Tan leading in Pro Mazda. Photo: IMS Photography, LLC
Weiron Tan leading in Pro Mazda. Photo: IMS Photography, LLC

On an IMSA level, the Prototype program failed to generate significant results – the majority of the year was dominated by an internal battle as to whether the SKYACTIV-D diesel powerplant would continue or whether a gas-based power unit would re-enter the venerable Lola/Multimatic chassis, branded as a Mazda Prototype.

But things were good in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, where two MX-5s battled for the ST class title. Emerging sports car stars Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer for CJ Wilson Racing won out over Freedom Autosport’s likable pairing of Andrew Carbonell and U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer, who is a certifiable badass.

The Mazda Road to Indy featured its own stars – Spencer Pigot, Santi Urrutia and Nico Jamin won the three series titles – and others stood out over the course of the year.

Arguably the most important moment of the season for Mazda came with the launch of its new 2016 Global MX-5 Cup car, with a full price of $53,000 for purchase. More than 50 had been sold as of early October, providing a launch pad for plenty of new talent.

2016 – WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The hope, of course, is that after this season of strife – more often than not – for the Japanese manufacturers that the good days return in 2016.

In Honda’s case, one thing that will be key to watch even beyond its IndyCar and sports car programs will be the launch of the new U.S. F4 Championship, sanctioned by SCCA and featuring Pirelli tires. From a political standpoint, and from a long-term view, the launch of F4 could be a way for the FIA to make moves into the North American open-wheel ladder system.

For its established programs, seeing Honda be more competitive in qualifying in IndyCar, more competitive overall in F1 and more present in sports cars must be the goal and trajectory.

With a clean slate in the FIA WEC, will a new car be the boon that Toyota seeks? One can hope.

Meanwhile for Nissan, success with its GT3-spec GT3-R is the lone realistic target, with its most high profile program now resigned to the dustbin of history.

Mazda will keep plugging away as it always does. But it must be mindful of Honda’s continuous developing presence in open-wheel, and also seek success in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, not merely participate.

The Mazda Road to Indy remains the established road to IndyCar at the moment, and progressive action must be taken by the manufacturer – and by Andersen Promotions, which operates all three series – if it wants to ensure it stays that way.

Fernando Alonso arrives stateside to begin his latest Indy 500 odyssey

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Despite some nervous moments prior to departure for his Arrow McLaren SP team, Fernando Alonso officially is stateside to begin his third attempt at the Indy 500.

Alonso posted a photo Tuesday from his flight to the United States, where he will be through the Aug. 23 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, NBC).

On Friday, he officially was in the Ruoff Mortgage-emblazoned firesuit he will wear while piloting the No. 66 Dallara-Chevrolet as a teammate to full-time drivers Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew in the Indianapolis 500.

Travel to the United States has been a hassle for NTT IndyCar Series drivers from abroad. Rookies Alex Palou and Rinus VeeKay both faced some hurdles in arriving in time for the June 6 opener, and Felix Rosenqvist’s girlfriend was stuck in Sweden for a few months (returning the night of his Road America victory) because of COVID-19 red tape.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown told Motorsport.com last week that Alonso’s travel from his native Spain had been delayed because of restrictions during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Brown described a “nerve-wracking” process in which Alonso had to visit the U.S. embassy in Madrid to get special documents approved.

“It was never a problem; it was more that you can imagine with the state of play right now in America, it’s a bit chaotic,” Brown told Motorsport.com. “To just go through all the government hoops, it was taking some time. But he now has everything that he needs.”

During a July media availability, Arrow McLaren SP managing director Taylor Kiel said the postponement of the Indy 500 from May 24 had provided ample time to adjust with the COVID-19 protocols.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500 ON NBCDetails for the Aug. 23 race

DAILY INDY 500 SCHEDULEClick here for all on-track activity in August at Indy

“His car is prepared along with Pato and Oliver’s in the same manner,” Kiel said. “His team is all full-time employees with Arrow McLaren SP. So they’re involved in all processes and procedures, the car builds, the pit stop practices. In terms of the package at IMS, I’m 100 percent confident.”

Having arrived a week ahead of the track opening with an Aug. 12 practice, Alonso should have the opportunity for simulator time and getting acclimated to the team at its Indianapolis shop. Kiel said Arrow McLaren SP “will do everything we can to get him up to speed. The caveat to all of that is that he has done this before in this car. Obviously with different teams, but he’s got experience. He’s a professional, world-champion caliber driver. If anybody can show up and just drive, it would probably be him.

“So anything we can do beforehand is icing on the cake.”

After failing to qualify with an ill-prepared car last year, Alonso is walking into a situation that’s on par with his rookie attempt in 2017. He led 27 laps for Andretti Autosport before finishing 24th because of an engine failure.

With the youthful tandem of O’Ward (second at Road America; fourth at Iowa) and Askew (third and sixth at Iowa) proving capable of winning — and with new race engineer Craig Hampson — Alonso should have a legitimate shot at a victory to complete motorsports’ “Triple Crown.”

Fernando Alonso won the first two legs in Formula One (the Monaco Grand Prix in 2006-07) and sports cars (the 24 Hours of Le Mans) but needs the Indy 500 to join the legendary Graham Hill as only the second driver to complete the feat.

“I think the Indy 500 is one of the most impressive races, and the Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso told Leigh Diffey during a February interview to announce his Arrow McLaren SP deal. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.”