Since selling the Brabham team at the end of 1987, Bernie Ecclestone appears devoid of emotion when it comes to drivers racing in his branch of the sport – a necessary quality in his position. While he allowed his team to become very Nelson Piquet-centric, since devoting himself to the position of F1 supremo, Ecclestone has shown not a trace of favoritism. Asked each season who will be World Champion at year's end, he promptly deadpans: “The driver with the most points.”
This deadly accurate observation partly comes as a result of Ecclestone not caring who wins. He knows that the F1 circus keeps rolling whatever happens; its sum is far greater than its parts. Michael Schumacher's domination from 2000-'04 hurt TV figures only a little and only in some countries. The fact that Schuey was dominating on behalf of the world's most iconic brand, Ferrari, and already had a love-me-or-hate-me image helped keep people tuned in. Besides, Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya and Fernando Alonso all had strong stabs at overturning the German within that five-year period before Alonso/Renault finally did the trick in '05.
In the 21st century, neither the IZOD IndyCar Series nor its teams nor its drivers have the same resonance as their F1 counterparts. Therefore the series' ultimate success depends on a wider array of assets. From this writer's perspective, how does it measure up currently?
Of course the biggest boost that IndyCar could receive would be making NBC Sports Network's excellent coverage available on every American's TV. (One driver was aghast when he first heard of IndyCar's deal with what was then called Versus and realized what a small network footprint it had. He told me morosely: “How the hell are new fans supposed to find us now? I filmed a TV spot the other day where we had to turn to the camera and say, ‘You're watching IndyCar on Versus' – and I wanted to add, ‘…and to be honest, that's a ****ing miracle.'”)
But there can be few gripes with the actual broadcast of IndyCar races on the NBC Sports Network (the ABC broadcasts are a different matter). NBCSN's dedication to IndyCar is increasing and there's a polished feel to the race broadcasts thanks to much of the personnel lineup. The directors know when to switch to pit lane, when to follow battles on track, when to use the onboard cameras and when to flick to slo-mo replays. Kevin Lee is conscientious and increasingly comfortable in front of a camera, Townsend Bell is at total ease speaking to anyone with his customary wry humor and Jan Beekhuis' technical explanations are very informative to both the casual and tech-savvy fans. Further improvements could be made by giving Robin Miller more air time and adding the excellent Jamie Howe to the roving reporter lineup.
Next on the agenda is the racing and there's little to worry about there, either. OK, so the delayed push-to-pass idea was lame, and the cars need more power. And there have also been times when you wish the whole field was as professional as the front-runners: yellows have bred yellows when drivers' ambition and ego have proven larger than the amount of track available to them and stronger than the stopping force provided by carbon brakes. In comparison with Formula 1, IndyCar has far more accidents and “incidents under investigation by the stewards.” But this year, IndyCar's racing has been, generally, superb. On the couple occasions when it hasn't been, the results have still been surprising and have had an interesting effect on the championship standings.
There are still plenty of armchair critics who watch IndyCars race on street or road courses and complain when there aren't as many passes as there are in an oval race. But then, there are even those who moaned after this year's Texas race that they missed pack racing, and I have nothing to say to them. These people are of course under the delusion that pack racing was real racing which, when grip/downforce far exceeds power, is not the case. Period. I'd like to see a three or four more ovals on the schedule but only if it's real racing. If it's 100 percent full throttle all the way around so there's no differentiation between a Dixon and a Duno, forget it.
As for the 10-place grid penalties for cars requiring an engine change before their mileage has been exceeded, I can safely say I'm in the majority when I say I despise them. 1) It's a draconian punishment given that this is the first year of a new formula. 2) It punishes the drivers and teams for something outside of their control. 3) It scarcely affects the engine manufacturers themselves who caused the issue. 4) Even new fans will agree with those three former points and will find it unfair. Remedying it isn't easy, but if you make the Manufacturers Championship really worth something, restructure the points system and then make all those requiring an unscheduled engine change ineligible for scoring manufacturer points at that race, then you still have a situation where Chevrolet or Honda (OK, or Lotus) get punished while the drivers and teams don't.