First complete week of 2013 and it's that time when, having made some ambitious new year resolutions, we wonder whether we'll be able to abide by them in the medium and long term. But one important resolution I'm determined to keep is to cease getting annoyed at things that can't be changed.
Examples: Some race team owners will choose rich drivers over talented ones and then have the temerity to bemoan their lack of success; Stirling Moss, Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve will never have a Formula 1 World Championship between them; Vittorio Brambilla has an F1 grand prix win to his name, yet Chris Amon does not; Randy Bernard is no longer at IndyCar; Dodge is no longer in NASCAR; Road America has a NASCAR race but not an IndyCar race; during F1 broadcasts, Steve Matchett will continue to use the word “chassis” when he means “car”; TV channels will continue to broadcast “reality” shows that celebrate mediocrity, idiocy and spite. (Oops! Allowed a non-racing one to creep in there…and it may prove the most difficult to accept.)
But as well as new year's resolutions, this is also a time when hopes can still surge before being drawn back by the riptide of reality. The most fundamental of these is that all motorsports participants remain healthy in what will always be a dangerous sport. But another one that applies to all series, for me, is the hope that the reigning champions can put up strong defenses of their crowns. It's a pet gripe of mine when a champion driver or team has a terrible year immediately after. This was taken to extremes by reigning double World Champion Alberto Ascari in 1954: admittedly, he only started five of the eight rounds held to F1 regs, but he was a DNF in all five. The result was a solitary point for fastest lap at Pedralbes, and one seventh of a point – I kid you not – for a fastest lap shared with six others at Silverstone. He was classified 25th in the World Championship.
To my mind, someone who has clearly been capable of winning the championship in the immediate past must have a strong season otherwise it usually means something fundamental is amiss and, by implication, it cheapens a would-be successor's achievement. To this end, I hope to see Sebastian Vettel, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Brad Keselowski, and drivers from the Muscle Milk, Corvette Racing and Telmex Ganassi teams, etc. all able to put Ws on the board this year.
However, we're guaranteed a new champion in the World Rally Championship with the partial retirement of Sebastien Loeb. Whenever someone retires at the very top of their profession, we all tend to hang question marks over his or her successors – would Y have won if X was still driving and had been his/her teammate? Given that Citroen is now pairing two drivers who have been, in the recent past, comprehensively outperformed while teammates to Loeb, those question marks are large. This is Mikko Hirvonen's prime chance to capitalize and win the WRC crown that eluded him by just one point three years ago. His teammate Dani Sordo can do a decent job, as he demonstrated in Mini's rally campaign, but the idea of an all-Citroen battle between two not-quite champs is not what the struggling WRC needs. Should Loeb defeat the pair of them on the four rallies in which he will guest star, then those dangling question marks will turn into swords of Damocles.
For the sake of the series, then, I hope the Qatar M-Sport team is competitive and that, as a result, Ford rethinks its decision to end its works program. Mads Ostberg appears capable of being a champion if the M-Sport-prepared Fiesta is, and his two young teammates Thierry Neuville and Evgeny Novikov may be more promising still. But I hope, too that VW's cool-looking Polo is swift and reliable. In the five seasons since Marcus Gronholm's retirement from full-time rallying, Sebastien Ogier is the one emergent driver who appears to possess all the necessary components a star rally driver needs – other than experience – to fight Loeb on equal terms.
It wouldn't be a surprise if we're about to witness what will later be described as the “Ogier era” of WRC; the 29-year-old Frenchman is that good. His new teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala, is of course very quick but had a tendency to hit things, while driving for Ford. At VW, I wonder if trying to match Ogier's times will exacerbate Latvala's tendency to overreach himself; wonder too, how their teammate Andreas Mikkelsen will measure up to these two talents.
Still, providing these three teams are roughly on par, the WRC will provide great storylines and great entertainment, and the same can be said for Global Rallycross, which has similar appeal – super-fast cars with far more power than grip – but brings them to a more spectator-accessible environment. My hopes for GRC are both wide-ranging and roughly in line with that of its organizers – I want more works teams, more guest drivers, more full-time ex-WRC drivers (Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg, in particular) and more demanding courses. And I hope that OSE's Andreas Eriksson finds a way to get his concept of a junior version – Super Car Lites – on the GRC schedule. The cars are barely slower and should provide a fertile breeding ground for young homegrown stars who cannot yet be let loose in the 600hp monsters of the top echelon.
In a few weeks, we'll get to see our first Grand Am Rolex Series race of the season, the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona. In recent years, the Daytona Prototypes have created some thrilling closing stages in this event and, to be honest, some of the best season-long racing anywhere in the world. Thanks to some careful equalization by the rule-makers, that competition wasn't affected as the DPs became sleeker and more modern-looking last year, and there's no reason why this fierce competition won't continue. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates will be expecting to once more fight with Starworks, Action Express, GAINSCO/Stallings, Michael Shank, Spirit of Daytona and of course Wayne Taylor. All have the capability of winning the title and therefore fighting for every race win. That's why we love it.
Why we love the American Le Mans Series is because of its GT battles, although on the basis that it only takes two cars to make a race, there are battles in all three prototype classes that have the potential to get closer – in P1, Muscle Milk Pickett Racing and Dyson Racing; in P2, Level 5 and Conquest; in PC, CORE, RSR, and PR1 Mathiasen. The arrival of FIA WEC privateer champs Rebellion Racing in LMP1 with the Lola B12/60-Toyota can only help, and the Swiss team's victory at Petit Le Mans last October signals the team's intent. Petit Le Mans also proved that the DeltaWing has the pace to slot into P2, so I sincerely hope to see it in a full campaign. I'm ashamed to admit I was once skeptical of that car's credentials. It was Dan Gurney's faith in it that persuaded me to trust the judgment of those more mentally agile than myself.
But for sheer depth of competition, yes, the GTs are looking good as usual. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying I'll miss the presence of the BMW M3s, nor that I hope the Z4 GTE comes up to speed quickly enough to give the Corvettes, Ferraris and Porsches a hard time right from the start of the year. I hope to see Dodge's handsome SRT Viper sneak (snake?) some podiums in its first full year and that Aston Martin's exciting decision to enter the fray with TRG is rewarded. But we don't play favorites at RACER: so long as the racing is as good as it's been since…forever, we'll be happy.
However, sparkling the sports car action on track, though, it won't be a surprise if it's slightly overshadowed by the impending unification of the Rolex Series and ALMS. I know there is a barrel-load of issues to work through right now – car class regulations, contracts with tire manufacturers, contracts with racetracks, and the exact nature of its relationship to the FIA's World Endurance Championship regulations, going forward – but we're as firmly behind this unification as we were behind the Champ Car/Indy Racing League merger five years ago. (And we're called RACER, not Racing Politics, so I'm not getting into the semantics of what constitutes a merger, a buyout or a rescue package…).
Suffice to say that we believe Richard Buck, Grand-Am's MD of competition, has the right intention in going for a “best of both worlds approach.” We appreciate that an exciting race series that few bothered to watch in person but which had a strong TV package has merged with a series that had a bigger grandstand audience, contained more aspirational machinery yet had fewer topline competitors in each class.
Meshing the two while keeping participants and fans happy will occasionally feel as intimidating as riding a Segway into oncoming traffic on the interstate, and I am among those who sincerely hope that the Daytona Prototypes can be made faster – through both increased power output and tire technology – to come close to P2 times, rather than have P2 cars heavily restricted. I also hope that in this brave new world, manufacturers activate their marketing departments so that Chevrolet, Porsche, Ferrari, Audi, etc. make the most out of their achievements on track and once more heed the creed of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Yes, I'm getting ahead of myself in that these are hopes directed more toward the 2014 season, but the decisions over all such matters will be made in the coming months. With commonsense from both sides, and their ability to see the big picture, I'm hopeful that this country's deep-rooted love of sports car racing will bloom once more.
Common sense has also prevailed at NASCAR, whose Sprint Cup Series will feature vehicles that actually look like real cars this year. You only need to watch a NASCAR documentary from as recently as six years ago – or look to the Nationwide Series cars' silhouettes – to realize how welcome and necessary that change is. For five seasons, the fastest-looking car in Sprint Cup has been the pace car; whenever it pulled off, we had 43 examples of something that resembled a Pontiac Aztek with a trunk, an unlovely outline that no strategic placement of transfers could fool anyone into identifying with a Camry, Impala or Fusion. Now we have cars that look butch rather than butchered and, particularly from the front, genuinely appear to be hypercar versions of their roadcar offspring. That's how it should be and how Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford need it to be.
Personally, I'm going to miss Dodge's presence because I like seeing Mopar take on Ford and GM in any motorsport or road car arena; I'm something of a traditionalist and the idea of Detroit's Big Three slugging it out is something to be savored. But departing after winning the Sprint Cup title with Keselowski and Penske Racing is pretty classy!
What caused many to reassess their perception of NASCAR in 2012 is how many talented drivers/crew chief/teams went MIA on racedays. Some welcome this reshuffle in the order, and I can't argue against the fact that Michael Waltrip Racing's surge toward the front is a welcome sight. You have to give Clint Bowyer a lot of credit for being a contender at pretty much every track, and I hope that Martin Truex Jr. gets a sliver of his teammate's good fortune should he again get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup next year.
But if Truex, outgoing champ Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and (for obvious reasons) Dale Earnhardt Jr faded away having made it into the top 12, it's even more astounding who didn't make it into the Chase at all. I firmly believe that both Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are among the top eight drivers in NASCAR, and yet KyBu scored a solitary win and missed grabbing a place in the Chase by a cat's whisker, while Edwards missed by a whole cat. It's staggering that a guy who came so close to winning the NSCS in 2011 and drives for a team as good as Roush Fenway Racing could score only three top-five finishes in 36 races.
So as someone who always wishes to see talent and application rewarded with results, I hope No. 99 will be in Victory Lanes this coming season. I hope also to see Earnhardt Ganassi Racing take an MWR-style leap in performance now that it's using Hendrick engines, for Stewart-Haas Racing to rediscover its mojo and for Matt Kenseth's understated personality to fit in well at Joe Gibbs Racing and start earning the results that we know he and the No. 20 team are capable of. I hope the man he replaced, Joey Logano, is not overwhelmed with being directly compared with new champ Brad Keselowski at Penske Racing. Special K truly is special in and out of the cockpit, and has that boyish spark that will surely always appeal to Roger Penske. Logano desperately needs to reprove his worth after disappointing seasons at JGR, but if any team can be even handed in spreading the love, it is Penske, and Logano should bloom.
Former No. 22 Penske driver, AJ Allmendinger, doesn't yet have a full-time ride, and it would be a crime to see his talents go to waste.…which is what some of us feel has happened since he switched to NASCAR in 2007. It wouldn't be the worst scenario in the world to see him get back into road racing in time for the U.S. sports car world's rebirth in 2014….
The NHRA Nitro Classes are sure to be as exciting as ever in 2013, and it's great to see Coca-Cola's Mello Yello brand being reintroduced to motorsports (hey, I still prefer Days of Thunder to Talladega Nights, OK?). But there's no question that other teams need to threaten Don Schumacher Racing in the Nitro classes on a more consistent basis than they managed last year. I'm as happy as anyone that Antron Brown and Jack Beckman have the Top Fuel and Funny Car titles; Brown, in particular, is a superbly eloquent spokesperson for drag racing as a whole, a guy who so clearly is still in love with the sport and doesn't see it as a business. But I hope to see him and Beckman face opposition from outside the DSR brotherhood in the final rounds of the year – and I'm confident this can happen.
In Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon is surely going to be in title contention and his Al-Anabi Racing teammate Khalid alBalooshi will only get better as he racks up the seat time. But I also think Morgan Lucas – who led the championship at one stage last year, on the back of three wins – should be able to take the fight down to (or near) the wire. In Funny Car, John Force Racing, has pooled some incredible talents but its four-car operation finishing third, fifth, seventh and ninth in the 2012 standings was less than expected – especially considering John Force, Robert Hight and Mike Neff won the first six races between them!
There were only four more wins for JFR in the remaining 17 events, and most peculiar of all was Hight's sudden slump. Having won four in a row (rounds two through five), the 2009 champion didn't make it past the second round in the final 14 events. The thing about Force's squad, though, is that after a season like 2012 – and let's face it, 10 wins is hardly a disaster – there's always a sharp assessment, regroup and rebuild, so that the following season is an improvement. That should help ensure Courtney Force continues to bloom, having scored her first win last season.
Outside the powerhouses, though, NHRA has always been a fertile ground for underdogs, and while it seems odd to throw 2008 FC champ, Cruz Pedregon into that category, there's no question that his sheer consistency last year was a lesson to all the better-funded teams. Johnny Gray's wins were proof that he also still has potential (at the age of 59!) while in Top Fuel, Steve Torrence's first three nitro wins proved that he too, can slay some of the giants of drag racing. I hope all three continue their momentum – and that Larry Dixon, Melanie Troxel, Cory McClenathan and Doug Herbert are on the scene full-time. It's no less than they deserve.
In Pro Stock, it's going to be great to see reigning champ Allen Johnson and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr as teammates, and observe how they compare to KB Racing's duo of Jason Line and Greg Anderson whose super-sexy Camaro bodyshells will enter their first full season. Other storylines worth watching are how Vincent Nobile and Erica Enders perform, while in the Pro Stock Motorcycles, I hope 2010 champion L.E. Tonglet can find enough dollars to take on the Vance & Hines Harley Davidsons of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines as well as both junior and senior Hector Aranas. At 23 years of age, Tonglet should have decades of racing ahead of him, but he needs financial support. A familiar plight.
• World Rally Championship – Monte Carlo, Jan. 16-19
• Grand-Am Rolex Series, Daytona, Jan. 26-27
• NHRA, Pomona, Feb. 14-17
• NASCAR, Daytona, Feb. 17-24
• American Le Mans Series, Sebring, March 16