A Bonus for Fans and Penalties for the Grid; More Changes for 2020

Two changes for the 2020 NTT Indycar Series season came to light today. One is for the fans and one is a return to a rule from 2012-2013.  In Roger Penske’s drive to improve the fan experience, there will be a public drivers’ meeting at every race this coming year. The meetings will follow the pattern of the Legends’ Day ceremonial meeting the day before the Indianapolis 500.

The Indianapolis 500 drivers’ meeting is mainly to introduce the drivers, hand out awards, and for the race director to give instructions about the start and other race procedures. Any issues will be discussed in a closed drivers’ meeting earlier in the weekend. I’m not sure how the logistics will work at some tracks like Long Beach or St. Pete. With open access a large open area will be needed.

I’m glad that Penske Entertainment is actively seeking and implementing ideas for fan interaction. It will allow some fans who usually don’t have the chance to see drivers up close to get a view. My concern is when you take an element that has been unique to the Indianapolis 500 and make it universal, it cheapens that aspect of the event.

I’d rather see newer, more original ideas for fan interaction. You can’t do everything every race just like it’s done for Indianapolis. I do applaud  the Penske team for jumping right in and looking for more ways to involve the fans. I just want the Indianapolis 500 to remain unique in more ways than the race itself.

Grid Penalties Return

Unapproved engine changes will once again result in a grid penalty and may under certain conditions also result in a loss of driver and entrant points. A loss of 10 grid spots for changes not approved by Indycar was in force for a few years early in the last decade. The penalty was switched to a loss of engine manufacturer points through 2019. The penalties are different this time.

On road and street courses, a driver must start six places further back than where he/she qualified. On ovals other than Indianapolis the grid penalty is nine positions. I addition, an unapproved engine change initiated by the entrant also results in a 10 point penalty for both the driver and the entrant.

A full season entrant is allowed four fresh engines. each engine must run 2,500 miles before it can legally be changed. There is an allowance for an engine damaged in a crash. If an unapproved change is done at a test, the grid penalty applies to the next race.

Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich published a fine article outlining the approved and unapproved changes. If you aren’t a subscriber, today would be a great time to sign up.

I think the grid penalties are fair and will hopefully prevent the mad engine swapping out that occurred among the contenders at the end of last season. With the manufacturers’ title already decided in favor of Honda, neither OEM had anything to lose by giving the drivers going for the championship a fresh engine. The grid penalties are more reasonable than the punishments doled out in Formula 1, where a driver might spend the rest of his career satisfying a grid spot penalty.

I do not like the double jeopardy of losing grid spots and 10 points. I can understand losing grid positions, especially if a car has a brand new engine. I can even understand entrant points. I don’t understand penalizing the driver as well. Engine issues are rarely the driver’s fault. Ten points could be quite a hit in the middle of a championship battle.

I think overall these are two good changes for Indycar. I do have some concerns about the unintended consequences, but I do appreciate Penske’s innovative thinking.

Look for a post on Thursday and my season preview beginning Friday.

Some Off Season Thoughts

The first week of the off season brought the exciting news that Harding racing will partner with Steinbrenner Racing in 2019. The new Harding Steinbrenner Racing team has signed rookies Pato O’Ward, 2018 Indy Lights champion, and Indy lights runner-up Colton Herta. Very few details other than the driver announcements are known at this time. There is a technical partnership with Andretti Autosport which will provide shocks, dampers, and engineering help.

The big question is which engine will Harding Steinbrenner use? Harding had Chevrolet power in 2018, and Andretti is a Honda team. For these teams to work together, the engine needs to be the same. If HSR goes with Honda, would that rule out a possible third car at Rahal letterman Lanigan Racing?

One of the greatest things about this new team is that the two team owners come from outside of racing. My friend Steve Wittich wrote an excellent article for Trackside Online about how Indycar needs diversity in its ownership. I hope we see more owners from outside racing. they should provide a fresh perspective on the business of racing.  You can find his article on Trackside Online.com. It is a site worth subscribing to.

New Title Sponsor?

There has been no word on a new series title sponsor. Things have gone rather quiet about who it will be. That could mean it’s wrapped up ready to be announced, or Indycar is still searching. It would have been good to have an announcement at Sonoma, and have some sort of handing over ceremony to thank Verizon for their sponsorship.

The Mysterious Third OEM

Is there someone ready to jump in for 2021? There has been some talk of one or two manufacturers, with one name mentioned more than others, but again, things seem very quiet on the new engine front right now.

McLaren News in November?

We may not know Mclaren’s plans until November. It would be great to have McLaren in Indycar, but this is turning into racing’s version of General Hospital. First Honda says they will not help Mclaren, then reports have come out saying yes they still might. Alonso has not made a decision. My guess he is in for the 500 only. Stoffel Vandoorne, considered a candidate for the seat when Alonso doesn’t drive, is rumored to be close to having a contract in Formula E. That could mean McLaren will be here for the 500 only as well.   Stay tuned.

Coyne’s Car 19

Dale Coyne has talked to some former Formula 1 drivers about driving the 19 car next year. he continues his quest to have one driver for the entire season in that ride. Apparently neither Zachary Claman De Melo or Pietro Fittipaldi will return. Too bad. They both have some potential to be decent drivers.

October Coming Attractions

Next month I have several columns planned for here and on Wildfire Sports.

A review of Born Racer.

A book review of Gentleman, Start Your Engines.

Look for  another month of May review via the official program for that year.

Commentary on off season news and the big announcements that could be coming will be posted as needed. In addition to a title sponsor, I am most interested to see which races will be on NBC network. I’m guessing there will be a lot in May and very early June. They didn’t ask me (again) but I think one Detroit race would be enough.

Look for a column on things Indycar might want to change for 2019.