Mid-Season Review

Simon Pagenaud earns our vote for Driver Of The Year so far
Simon Pagenaud earns our vote for Driver Of The Year so far

Having reached midpoint of the 2016 calendar year, we’ve also reached the heart of the season for many major racing series. Formula One, for example, will conclude a four race-five weekend stretch with the British Grand Prix Sunday. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will conduct its 18 of 36 races Saturday evening in Kentucky, while the Verizon IndyCar Series will run its 10th of 16 races Sunday afternoon in Iowa.

With many racing series at or at least around their midpoint, AutoRacing1 will take a look back on the best and worst of the 2016 season in our Midseason Racing Review. Enjoy.

Driver of the Year

I’ll begin with a few honorable mentions.

In winning 5 Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg has managed to wrestle away the advantage within the dominant Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team teammate and defending two-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton has held over the past two seasons. While the Brit is enjoying an impressive run of form, winning three of the last 4 races, Rosberg maintains a 9-point lead and has indicated that Hamilton will likely not waltz to a third consecutive championship.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]In NASCAR, numerous drivers have showcased themselves well. Kevin Harvick remains the fastest driver in the series week in and week out while Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski have each visited victory lane three times. However, none have truly stood out as head and shoulders above the rest.

Last, the impressive form of Tanner Foust in Red Bull Global Rallycross warrants mention. The Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross driver has been impressive winning early in the season winning three of the first 6 races, and running at the front in nearly every event thus far.

However the choice for driver of the year so far is in my opinion easy: Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has accomplished the not-so-easy feat of emerging the lead driver within the crowded Team Penske stable scoring four poles, winning three times, and leading the most laps in five races. Whereas other top drivers in the series have had flashes of brilliance at certain races, Pagenaud has legitimately contended for the victory at all but one race (Indianapolis 500) this season.

Although Pagenaud has encountered some misfortune in recent rounds, he still maintains a formidable lead over teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power, and remains the clear favorite to score his first IndyCar championship.

Pipo Derani
Pipo Derani

Best Newcomer

It’s hard to ignore Alexander Rossi’s win in the 100th Indianapolis 500. I also think many people will overlook Pipo Derani anchoring the winning teams at both Daytona and Sebring.

Still, using the week in-week out standard that we applied with Pagenaud, combined with the expectations of the seat he was filling and the ease and maturity in which he has seamlessly transitioned to the top-level I’m going with Chase Elliott. The 20-year-old son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott has already established himself as a regular front-runner, and you have to think a breakout win is coming sooner rather than later.

Worst Idea

I’ll admit that I was in the minority regarding the changed Formula One qualifying format at the beginning of the season. I believed the changes although somewhat confusing to the public would create more drama and intensity throughout the session instead of the standard last minute of chaos.

As we saw in Melbourne and Bahrain, I was wrong. The new format was an unmitigated disaster and thankfully scrapped by the third race in China.

Best Return

The Verizon IndyCar Series return to Road America was long overdue, but ultimately an enormous success. Yes, IndyCar has numerous events that are tenuous and a television package that isn’t doing the series any favors. However, with the crowds the series saw at Indianapolis, Long Beach, Barber and Road America, the series very much has a group of cornerstone events moving forward.

Alexander Rossi takes the checkered flag to win the Indy 500
Alexander Rossi takes the checkered flag to win the Indy 500

Best Race

There have been actual races that were as good. Who can forget the dramatic finishes to the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Daytona 500? And the drama of the Mercedes duo taking each other out at Barcelona opened the door for Max Verstappen to score an improbable win.

However, given the race and the event itself, I don’t think much can top this year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Before an estimated crowd of 350,000, rookie Alexander Rossi stretched his fuel 36 laps to score a shock victory. After what had been a stretch of rather forgettable Indianapolis 500 races from 2007-2010, Rossi’s win and the immense crowd that witnessed it capped off what has to be considered a very successful Centennial Era of Indy 500s from 2011-2016.

No doubt, give credit to IMS for getting the people in the building for the Centennial edition of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But can IMS turn those race goers into legitimate fans, who travel to see the series at Mid-Ohio, Detroit, Elkhart Lake, Iowa, etc, and turn on their television sets to see Rossi, Pagenaud, Power, Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Kanaan et al on a race-to-race basis. Time will tell.

Best Rivalry

On this side of the Atlantic, I’ve long contended that the best, most continuous rivalry in racing is Penske v. Ganassi in IndyCar. Thus far in 2016, the Penske boys have clearly gotten the better of Ganassi, which has by its lofty standards, endured something of a difficult 2016.

Of course, we’re entering the stretch of the season that has long belonged to Team Ganassi and in particular Scott Dixon. Can Ganassi and Dixon mount another late-season charge and derail another Penske championship campaign? We’ll find out in the coming weeks.

It won't be the last time the two Mercedes drivers clash
It won't be the last time the two Mercedes drivers clash

That said, so long as Mercedes F1 teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton run 1-2 in the World Championship and keep running into each other when battling for the race lead the answer to this question is easy.

The most recent dustup between the pair of course occurred this past weekend in Austria, with the last lap contact between the two resulting in Hamilton taking the win. Currently, Rosberg holds the championship lead over Hamilton by 11 points.

Another layer to the Rosberg-Hamilton rivalry of course is the Mercedes team itself. While team principals Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda are sure to intervene after this most recent dustup in an attempt to keep the two from slitting each other’s throats, one what the two can really do.

Sure, they can do the closed-door sit down Come to Jesus Meeting and tell the world that all is copasetic at Brackley. But at the end of the day, I’m not really sure what leverage Wolff and Lauda have to control their drivers. Mercedes is well on its way to a third straight Constructors’ Championship without any serious threats to dethrone them. The only real drama remaining is the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg, and to a lesser degree, the absolute train wreck the Mercedes brass are at managing the fallout of such incidents. While Wolff and Lauda fancy themselves in charge the reality is they’re merely bystanders to the whole drama just like the rest of us.

Yes, don’t for a second think Sunday was the final chapter of these run-ins between the Mercedes duo; it was merely the latest.

Most Bizarre Race

Ok, let’s get this straight: the two championship combatants, who so happen to be tied on points entering the season-finale, collide on the first lap. The rivals limp their damaged cars back to the pits, but with no realistic chance of earning points for finishing position decide to shift their energies to earning the two points for fastest race lap. The each jump into their second undamaged cars (because well, in this particular racing series you can do that), set up the cars in qualifying trim, then spend the balance of the rest of the field and each other for fastest race lap.

One of the two drivers, the one who somewhat questionably ran into the back of the other on the first lap (Lucas di Grassi), holds the tiebreaker meaning that if he or another driver earn fast lap, he is the champion. His rival, the driver who started on pole (Sebastian Buemi) now MUST turn fast lap or he does not win the championship.

After a back and forth of fastest laps, Buemi, on his final lap, manages to turn fast lap and edge Di Grassi for the title.

Call me crazy, but this weekend’s Visa London ePRix Race 2 was a first for me.

Best PR Move

In an era in which the separation between professional athletes and the paying customer is greater than ever, the decision by IndyCar drivers James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin, Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden and others to go into the stands to sign autographs for the fans at Texas Motor Speedway during a rain delay was pure class.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Worst PR Move

Let me clear: I have no issue with any individual endorsing any public candidate. However, when the NASCAR chairman and CEO, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and three current NASCAR drivers endorse a candidate on behalf of an organization, I think you get into slippery territory. And while Brian France denied that the endorsement he, Bill Elliott, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and David Ragan gave to Presidential candidate Donald Trump was a NASCAR endorsement, I’m not willing to let France have his cake and eat it too.

While I find it something of a bizarre phenomenon, Presidential endorsements do matter to people. And in this case, France as chairman and CEO joined other members of his organization in clearly aligning with a Presidential candidate.

Of course, as we saw with the Confederate Flag debate last summer, France seems to have a tendency to unnecessarily interject NASCAR into political and social discourse, with seemingly little for the organization to gain. After all, did France really want people digging into NASCAR’s history on the Confederate Flag issue?

As for the Trump endorsement, France (the CEO and chairman) joining four other individuals associated with NASCAR in endorsing a candidate can lead one to logically conclude that being a NASCAR fan = endorsing Trump or any other particular candidate. And while France himself seemed oblivious to it, the manner in which he and NASCAR endorsed Trump rendered it a NASCAR endorsement, which can be interpreted as something that is potentially alienating in nature. Remember, Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters are all potential ticket buyers and television viewers.

Again, if France or whoever want to go to a Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton or whoever rally, I won’t write word one about it. But France owes it to his employees, partners, and others to keep his organization out of the discourse.

The Iowa IndyCar fans will be sitting in the hot sun this year
The Iowa IndyCar fans will be sitting in the hot sun this year

Quick Postscript

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to one of my favorite stops on the calendar this weekend: Iowa Speedway. Traditionally a night race, this weekend’s Iowa Corn 300 was moved to a 4:40 p.m. local time green flag Sunday to avoid television conflict with the NASCAR Kentucky race. For television purposes, this was a no-brainer. With the NASCAR race on NBCSN, IndyCar would have been relegated to CNBC plus lost potential crossover NASCAR viewers.

My concern is the crowd. For one, although it isn’t expected to be too hot, sitting in grandstands in central Iowa in mid-July during the day can be less than pleasant. Second, many of the local people in the farming industry prefer an evening race. Third, with a 4:40 start will people travel from the very thinly populated local areas for a late-evening return Sunday?

Again, I get the move, and the series does have relatively little competition this particular Sunday. I just think it could really hurt the gate.

Brian Carroccio is a senior columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.

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