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.
The turnover of faces contending for race victories is another strong asset for IndyCar. Aside from the six race winners you've seen over the past 14 events, the following drivers have attained or contended for top-three finishes this year legitimately, not just because of weird pit strategies: Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Alex Tagliani, Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti, Mike Conway, Rubens Barrichello, Josef Newgarden, Oriol Servia, Charlie Kimball, Ed Carpenter and Sebastien Bourdais. Now that is more than a healthy selection: that is the majority of the field.
Admittedly, if 2012 hadn't been like that, despite a new car, new engine formula, more than one engine manufacturer, and a new Race Control lineup, then IndyCar's top management would surely have been sorely disappointed. The changes, they predicted, would shake up the order – not just from race to race but also in the final analysis. One longstanding figure in the IndyCar paddock remarked to me recently, “The new car costs us too much and way more than we were told it would, but from an outsider's perspective, I've got to say it's produced decent racing and although it still looks kind of like an anteater to me, it at least looks modern. And we've got a different-looking championship.
He continued: “I think if this had just become Ganassi vs Penske again, [Dario] Franchitti vs [Will] Power for the third year running, then IndyCar would feel it had failed. Or fans would feel IndyCar had failed. Yeah, Power's up there again, as you'd expect, but he has someone new to fight.”
Yup, no question, we've seen a none-too-subtle shift in power this year…if you go by results alone. With one round to go in 2010, Power and Franchitti, driving for Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing respectively, had eight wins between them. At the same point last year, they had 10. This year they have just four. Looking at Chip's Target boys, Franchitti and Scott Dixon combined had six wins in both 2010 and '11 but this year they have just three – and neither of them are in the running for the championship next weekend. That's not to say that they can't do in Fontana what they did in Indy and Detroit this year – namely, score a 1-2. When the red cars are on it, they're still formidable. But engine blow-ups, bad luck and errors inside and outside the cockpit have seen the Target boys lose their traditional consistency, even if there are aspects of racing where they remain supreme.
Into that breach has come Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport, a pairing that over the previous two seasons clocked just two wins. This year alone they have four victories and are strong contenders for the championship crown. Intertwined with them is their back stories. There's the tale of the driver who used to change teams more often than his Nomex underwear but who finally found a home and became team leader. There's the tale of the team that used to regularly prove equal to Penske and Ganassi, then became rudderless when Franchitti, Bryan Herta and chief engineer Allen McDonald departed, and then bounced back to consistent prominence this year. And of course there's the Andretti name which, thanks to Mario and Michael, is synonymous with great things in racing.
And then there's nationality. Now I'm a little at odds with some esteemed colleagues here because I'm not convinced the nationality of the IndyCar champion matters much at all to the marketability of the series. Maybe Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal would have some resonance because of their surnames' heritage in racing, but that's it – their names, not their nationality.
Another driver (a non-American admittedly) remarked: “I don't think IndyCar fans – or sports car fans, come to think of it – even look at nationality much, do they? I don't even think it comes down to personality. It's about having an established name and coming back year after year. Will and Ryan are both just normal guys: they're not like Helio or Danny-boy [Wheldon] in terms of giving the crowd a group hug after they win! They're just pros who work hard, drive hard. What's going to make or break them is how long they last at the top, fighting for wins. The longer they're there, the more the crowd will like them and appreciate them in the same way they appreciate Helio, Tony Kanaan, Paul Tracy, Dario, and so on. If they drive the wheels off a car for year after year, that's what's going to be remembered by the fans.”
Good point. Castroneves (Brazilian) has a huge following in this country because of his ebullience, enthusiasm, Indy 500 wins and soon-to-be-renewed presence on Dancing with the Stars. Kanaan (Brazilian) has long been a crowd favorite at the Indianapolis 500 because of his never-say-die attitude and agonizing hard-luck stories at the Brickyard. Wheldon (British) was a patriot who proudly waved the British flag yet induced as much love in American crowds as he felt for them. And Franchitti, Hinchcliffe, Dixon and, already, Power, are as feted as their American rivals.
That cosmopolitan environment and non-parochial nature is one of the IndyCar Series' assets, a point of differentiation from NASCAR, which can hardly fail to have a U.S.-born champ. An IndyCar crowd, like a Formula 1 crowd, is relatively sophisticated. Sure, they want to see Americans win, but they want to see them battling the best of the rest of the world.
Will and Ryan, on camera, are currently closer in personality to IndyCar's last American champion, Sam Hornish Jr., but look how increased exposure on TV has changed Sam into a sharp and memorable presence. So both Power and Hunter-Reay can easily handle the responsibilities of being the sport's champion in their own ways and represent IndyCar in the right way. Whatever the outcome next Saturday night, the champion will become another of the series' many assets.
IndyCar, in terms of its basic product, is far greater than Formula 1 was in the Schumacher/Ferrari domination era. But unlike F1, IndyCar doesn't have the momentum to keep rolling come what may. In the long off-season ahead, everyone involved should focus on maximizing and improving what they've got, individually and collectively, and not waste their energies on bringing down the administration that revived this branch of the sport.