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.