Friday, January 27, 2017

The Bizarre Events of the 2016 Auto Racing Season

Photo Credit: Foto Studio Columbo Per Pirelli Media



By many people, by many respects, the 2016 year will be remembered in an oddly unpleasant way. As there have been so many bad events in history in previous years, we have found this recently completed one being a period of collective sadness, mourning and a time where unforseen occurrences were far too common. In auto racing, 2016 was not immune to perceived wackiest the year apparently brought.

Ahead of a 2017 year of memorable and potentially shocking racing moments (a year that has already included the hiatus of Carl Edwards in NASCAR), there’s time to reflect on some most astoundingly wacky 2016 events.


No Tea Party For IndyCar in Boston


Ryan Hunter-Reay #28 Car Being Rolled Out of Paddock Area
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

If you are a fan of IndyCar racing, you would be aware of the surrealistic sight of seeing everyday city streets or urban areas converted into high-speed thrill zones. For those who also pay attention to the frequency of new venues being added while others are taken away, you would be aware how challenging it could be for promoters to maintain a temporary city race course appeasing fans, competitors, sponsors as well as the city itself. Even the most earnest attempts by promoters can conclude short of being an annual event like the Long Beach Grand Prix or the Honda Indy Toronto.

The Grand Prix of Boston was intent to be a labour day weekend party headlined by the Verizon IndyCar Series. After building up the event as a prominent penultimate round for the 2016 season, the Grand Prix of Boston was abruptly cancelled in late April after the race organizer Grand Prix Boston failed to get approval from city departments for the 2.25-mile course planned for the race weekend.

In recent months, the plot has thickened behind the failed Grand Prix of Boston as the local news focus has turned towards the use of funds by the organizer and CEO. Under bankruptcy filings, spending by the Boston Grand Prix has been heavily scrutinized with allegations money was being misused. Wild local news stories with assets being frozen by a bankruptcy judge and Boston Grand Prix CEO John Casey defending himself against charges of wrongdoing are definitely not the show race fans were expecting to see. IndyCar needed to provide $925,000 of its own funds to partially refund advance ticket holders.

As a silver lining to the cancellation of the Grand Prix of Boston street race, IndyCar replaced the date with a popular return to the Watkins Glen road course in 2016.



Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sidelined for Half a NASCAR Season 

Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images



A form of auto racing that has a reputation for on-track competition, stock car racing within the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is often the most guaranteed to provide entertainment value to spectators. However, recent years have seen that reputation tarnished with 2016 delivering several less than enjoyable moments within the lengthy 36-race regular season. We had several races that lacked suspense such as Martin Truex Jr’s win in the Coca-Cola 600 and Kyle Busch’s uneventful Brickyard 400 victory allowing the series to be classified as a sleep remedy even as V-8 engines roared. The first two rounds of this season’s Chase (a 10-race elimination-style playoff NASCAR bills as a climactic conclusion) proved dull. Finally, third difficulty in watching the full NASCAR Sprint Cup season in 2016 was the absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr in the second part of the tour.
Following two heavy impacts at Talladega and Michigan races, Earnhardt Jr was diagnosed with the symptoms of a concussion. Following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Kentucky race, the news broke that Alex Bowman would drive the #88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports. Initially dealt as temporary a couple races in the 2016 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr’s concussion-like injury would sideline the driver for the remainder of the year’s competition.

Before withdrawing from competition for the remainder of the year due to the concussion symptoms, the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup was not shaping up to be a banner season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Uncharacteristic moments where the restrictor plate ace loss control in the Daytona 500 and Talladega were themselves a surreal sight.

Even though Earnhardt’s season was cut short, NASCAR fans remained extremely loyal to the driver. Pinpointing the importance of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s appearance on the NASCAR Cup Series starting grid, the regular driver of the #88 Chevrolet was crowned the NMPA Most Popular Driver award for the 14th consecutive occasion.


Rookie Rossi Captures 100th Running of Indy 500

Photo Credit: John Cote/IndyCar



In every case of conventional auto racing, the general object is to reach a distance before all competitors to win. Although the distances are not set in endurance matches such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, other events such as the Daytona 500 or the classic Indianapolis 500 feature a prescribed race length. Sometimes to win you can completely outpace a competitor or simply use strategy. Fuel can become a manner where some winners can prosper. While the concept of winning a race on a fuel mileage gamble doesn’t sit right with all racing fans, the action decided the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 leading to a popular rookie winner.  

In an event where 2014 Indy 500 victor Ryan Hunter-Reay and pole sitter James Hinchcliffe led a sizable portion of the 200 laps, the majority of the front-running IndyCar machines required a stop for fuel. Deciding to push every last drop of E85 from their fuel cell, the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian team’s #98 entry driven by Alexander Rossi stayed on track emerging in the lead with three laps remaining in the 500-mile race. Through aggressive fuel management on the final laps, the American driver succeeded in winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

The 24-year-old Rossi pulled off an accomplishment in his young career many highly-experienced drivers have stride to claim. A win that came from a practical long-shot, Alexander Rossi was supported by a race team that fielded another surprise win in 2011 when the late Dan Wheldon entered victory lane after a dramatic finish.

On-loan to the United States Verizon IndyCar Series from Formula 1's Minor Racing, Alexander Rossi’s victory in his first Indy 500 as well as his 5th IndyCar race has left the American driver with a bright open wheel racing future for 2017 and beyond.


New Ford GT Wins Le Mans in Debut Appearance 

Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company



In United States automotive history, the creation of Ford’s revenge attack on Ferrari at the Le Mans 24-Hour race is a legendary story. In the 1960s, a failed purchase of Italian sports car company led Ford to create their own race car called the GT40. Winning the race in 1966 on route to what would be a total of 3 consecutive victories, the Ford GT40 is enshrined as one of greatest vehicles built by the blue oval. Paying tribute to the car in the mid-2000s with the Ford GT, a 2017 revival of the supercar was accompanied by a race effort that included a return to Le Mans as a production-based GTE entrant.

A factory-supported effort with Chip Ganassi Racing at the helm, the Ford GT’s presence at its first race on Daytona International Speedway was immediately high-profile. By the way the media talked up the Ford GT race car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona debut, it gave the impression the car would have won the race overall. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s  two-car effort with the Ford GT was complicated in its first race but the #67 car would find victory lane in its fourth event driven by Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. The effort would win again at Detroit’s Belle Isle before focus was turned to France for the 24-hour race.

On the 50th anniversary of the famous first GT40 win at the classic endurance event, the four-car Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team took the pole in the LMGTE Pro category with the #68 vehicle. At the end of 24 hours, the #68 Ford GT crossed the line first ahead of Risi Competizione who ironically fielded a Ferrari. While the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team celebrated the on-track result, the outcome would not be finalized until days after the race. Ferrari filed a protest against the Ford GT claiming the car exceeded a so-called performance window set by the ACO sanctioning body of the race. Ford countered with charges against the runner-up #82 Ferrari 488 GTE. The conclusion was two penalties for the #68 Ford GT connected to a faulty wheel speed sensor and speeding through a Slow Zone. Resulting in a total 70 seconds lost on track, the penalty would have shifted the win to the Risi Competizione Ferrari if not for 20-second penalty assessed against the team in post-race for broken leader lights. The Ford GT retained the victory after some resorting after the checkered flag.

As the performance window violation resulted in no affect to the race outcome, there has been some suspicion uttered on Internet message boards Ford was allowed to compete with an overpowered race car. Some suggested there was a desire to see the Ford GT win Le Mans on the anniversary of its first win.


Audi Cuts Prototype Program For 2017

Photo Credit: Ferdi Kräling Motorsport-Bild GmbH



When the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship ended in Bahrain on November 19th, an era of a motorsport juggernaut concluded. After operating as one of the most successful factory Le Mans prototype teams, Audi Sport put an end to their top-tiered sports car racing program. First endeavouring into the sports car prototype category in 1999 with a closed-cockpit R8C and R8R roadster, Audi’s sophomore effort with the R8 race car laid the foundation for a dynasty. The Audi R8 proved a dominating force that steamrolled the competition on almost any track in 2000 and would maintain its reign until the car was retired in favour of the R10. After the R10, Audi competed with the R15, R15 plus and several variations of the R18 all obtaining a high level of success.

Over the course of 18 years, the Audi Sport prototype effort captured 13 wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 11 victories at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. As a fitting end to the Audi Sport R18 e-tron quattro’s success, the team won its final race at Bahrain in a one-two finish amounting to the squad’s 107th victory.

Through Audi Sport’s reign in the prototype category, their vehicles would become previews for a considerable amount of groundbreaking automotive technologies that shortly found its way into production cars. Victories at the 24 Hours of  Le Mans allowed Audi Sport to claim  several firsts in the deployment of new technologies. Gasoline direct injection in 2001, TDI diesel power in 2006, LED headlights in 2010 and hybrid propelled car in 2012 with a diesel/electric powertrain.

While the factory-based Audi Sport effort in prototype is dropped following the 2016 season, there remains an understanding that the R18 e-tron quattro race car could be campaigned by a private team able to afford the vehicle.


Chris Buescher Wins Pocono & Qualifies For Cup Series Chase

Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images



2016 was the third season where the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was settled by a multi-tier chase format involving 16 drivers. Through the first 26 races, the object for drivers is to win at lease one event and maintain a points position inside the top-30 in the standings. Often an easy feat among full-time top teams, the second aspect was an obstacle for Kyle Busch in the 2015 season after missing the first 11 races due to injury at Daytona. In that case, the driver of the #18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing recovered, won several races, entered the top-30 in points and proceeded to become the champion through the Chase. For the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tour, an outcome at Pocono Raceway July race brought a similar scenario that served as both an underdog’s triumph and a wacky assembly for the Sprint Cup Chase.

The Pennsylvania 400 was settled not by 160 laps but by an onset of fog past the halfway point. In a gamble, the James Buescher driven #34 Ford Fusion owned by Front Row Motorsports decided to remain on the race track while many teams have already made pit stops. When the caution came out on lap 133 for weather, it was a gamble to take the lead as the fuel load onboard for #34 car ran lower. Luckily for Buescher and the Front Row Motorsports group, the fog only intensified to the point the race was called at lap 138 resulting in a pure upset victory. A rookie win by Chris Buescher, it was the second time in victory lane for Front Row Motorsports who also captured the 2013 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Unlike the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup victory by Front Row Motorsports, the 2016 trophy at Ponoco also represented a chance to take part in the Chase playoffs. Despite the surprise win, the #34 Ford Fusion was largely a mediocre contender on track through the 2016 season leaving a big question of whether the team can break into the top 30 in points before Chicagoland. A 5th place at the Bristol short track and a 17th at Darlington served as meaningful efforts that insured the underdog race organization were able to obtain their playoff berth.

Within the Chase, a Cinderella story ended as the Front Row Motorsports #34 team was little match against front-running cars from competitors such as Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing. With the best finish being a 23rd at Dover, Buescher was out of the Chase in the first round.

For 2017, Chris Buescher and the Front Row Motorsports team have separated with the driver named to a new second car at JTG Daugherty Racing. Landon Cassill is taking over the #34 machine.  


Nico Rosberg Wins F1 Championship; Makes Surprise Retirement

Photo Credit: Mercedes AMG



The 2016 Formula 1 season provided one of the most engaging driver title battles in years. For the first time since 2012, the championship came down to the final grand prix of the season. Among the favoured Mercedes AMG cars, drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg proceeded to test their equal equipment as well as the nerves of their team’s personnel with a testy back-and-forth battle all season.

In the very contested 2016 championship battle, it would have appeared the reigning champion Hamilton would have the advantage. Frankly, there seemed to have been a preference of Hamilton to Rosberg by British motorsport media outlets (but far be it for me to criticize falling victim to national pride). Many regarded Lewis Hamilton as a superior driver and Nico Rosberg as lacking the ability to outmatch his teammate prior to the season starting. However, Nico Rosberg’s four consecutive victories kicking off 2016 followed by three straight wins closing out 2015 silenced naysaying until the midpoint of this past Formula 1 season. Some miscues by Rosberg and Hamilton’s return to championship form during the early part of the summer allowed an actual fight for the title to develop. An advantage Nico Rosberg obtained for several races following the Formula 1 summer break was just enough to fend off Hamilton for the World Drivers’ Championship by a five-point margin.

Claiming the greatest treasure in the Formula 1 world in a stunningly hotly-contested title race, Nico Rosberg shocked the world again by announcing his retirement. Stating that his dream has been fulfilled by the Formula 1 championship, Rosberg also commented stresses related to battling for the title and balancing his family influenced the choice to back away from the sport. The decision to quit racing for the German is a rare moment where the reigning World Champion will not be part of an upcoming season.

Mercedes AMG recruited Williams Martini Racing’s Valtteri Bottas to join Lewis Hamilton for the 2017 season.

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