Super GT Preview: Motegi GT 250km Race

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While NASCAR Nation makes a big hoopla about four-time series champion and six-time race winner in 2014 Jeff Gordon being pushed – figuratively and quite literally – out of the final race for the championship by Ryan Newman, who so far has yet to win a race in the 2014 season and could, if he does not win this weekend but just finishes ahead of Kevin HarvickDenny Hamlin, and Joey Loganocould become the first driver in the modern era of what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to win the championship without winning a single race – therefore invalidating the new, polarizing Chase for the Championship format that was based entirely upon rewarding individual race winners – I, as a fan and ambassador for the Super GT Series, would like to tell you, the reader at home and abroad – we did it first, and we did it better! Three times in fact. Three times in a span of four years, the GT500 class champions have won the championship without having a single race victory: Ryo Michigami was the first zero-win champion of the JGTC in 2000, Yuji Tachikawa and Hironori Takeuchi repeated a year later, and Satoshi Motoyama and Michael Krumm did it in 2003. And they didn’t need no stinkin’ elimination-style championship format to pull it off! Just a consistent strategy of scoring points and avoiding excessive weight handicaps accumulated over the course of a season!

There will not, however, be a winless champion in the GT500 class when the championship is decided this weekend at Twin Ring Motegi this Sunday (or late Saturday depending on which time zone you’re watching from). Motegi, of course has been no stranger to crowning champions, even beyond hosting the final round of the Super GT Series championship annually since 2009. A month ago, Marc Marquez captured his second MotoGP championship in as many seasons at Motegi. Motegi has also hosted CART World Series and IndyCar Series championship events as recently as 2011, and NASCAR exhibition events back in the late 1990s when the circuit was a new attraction.

This will be a busy weekend in racing, not just with the NASCAR season finale in Miami, the World Endurance Championship’s penultimate race at the Bahrain International Circuit, and the World Rally Championship finale at the legendary Wales Rally GB, but also the 61st Macau Grand Prix in which Formula 3 cars, touring cars, and superbikes will race around the Guia circuit – but please, do consider squeezing in some time for Super GT this weekend. Especially if you’ve never seen it in action, or have never seen it but want to see it – this two-class clash of the fastest and most technologically advanced silhouette cars competing on the same circuit with a mixture of the best cars the FIA GT3 specifications have to offer, and originally-designed Japanese silhouette cars that can compete on even footing with their western rivals. Especially considering that NISMO TV and Radio Le Mans are expected to broadcast this final, championship-deciding race as they did for the crown jewel event, the Suzuka 1000km in August. (EDIT: Now confirmed by John Hindhaugh himself on Twitter)

If you need to catch up and binge-watch the entire season of action before the race this weekend, please consult the newly-updated 2014 Super GT masterpost!

Now, for four words that will make Super GT fans really happy going into this championship finale…

THE BALLAST IS RESET

Yep. Forget all the accumulated success ballast over the course of the season – it’s gone, all of it, for the first time since the season opener all the way back in April at Okayama Circuit. This means that the only factors that will determine the championship outcome from here on out should be the drivers’ skill and the tactics of the engineers and principals on the pit wall, with only marginal differences between the three manufacturers’ cars in GT500 and how they work with the various tyre manufacturers. And at 250 kilometers in length, the shortest race in the series will be a true sprint to the championship.

Both the GT500 and GT300 championships will be decided this weekend. Between eight drivers for five teams in the GT500 class, and six drivers representing three squads in the second-tier GT300 class. Continue reading “Super GT Preview: Motegi GT 250km Race”

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Not a Good Day For Racing

One Formula 1 team folds. Another is crowd-sourcing a one-off entry just to keep their dim hopes of survival alive. Meanwhile, up the continent from where Formula 1 is racing this weekend, a former NASCAR Cup Series champion now faces some of the most damning charges of domestic violence ever levied against an active competitor.

It’s not a good day for racing. Let’s go in ascending order of seriousness. Continue reading “Not a Good Day For Racing”

Transaction Analysis: Felipe Nasr and Sauber

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As I watched the first practice session of the United States Grand Prix this past week, and saw the progression of the session standings focusing on one designated FP1 driver in particular (no, this time it’s not Max Verstappen), a thought crossed my mind. With Sauber F1 Team in a very publicized shortage of funds, but coming under heavy criticism for not taking enough speed to go along with those personal sponsorships – why not take a chance on a well-funded, yet highly-rated prospect who just outpaced his grand prix veteran teammate by almost a half-second in the first practice – finishing 8th? Why not go after Williams Martini Racing test and reserve driver Felipe Nasr?

Evidentally, someone at Sauber, Nasr’s management team, or his sponsors must have been listening in. On Wednesday, Sauber came to terms with Nasr on a two-year contract, beginning in 2015, where he and soon-to-be-former Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson will replace Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil. This means that Sauber will have also come to terms with Nasr’s prominent sponsor, Banco do Brasil – the largest bank in Latin America – which has accompanied Nasr since his GP2 Series debut in 2012, and will now go with him to Sauber next season. The Brazilian rookie candidate just turned 22 in August, and is currently 2nd in the GP2 Series standings behind newly-coronated champion Jolyon Palmer.

Sutil, as well as the man who was expected to partner Ericsson next season, Giedo van der Garde, may have individual claims that they are under contract and should be driving for Sauber next season, but the harsh reality for both of them is that despite Sutil’s masterful qualifying effort in Austin, and slightly outperforming Esteban Gutierrez – who himself is looking like a bust at the Formula 1 level – throughout 2014, Sutil is still a 31-year-old career midfielder, who in 124 Grands Prix has only finished as high as fourth just once in his career, he’s not been anywhere near the level of last year’s lead driver Nico Hulkenberg even when you factor in how much worse the Sauber C33 is compared to its’ 2013 predecessor, and he’s not really bringing enough money to justify staying at a team that is very openly in need of well-funded drivers. And while Van der Garde is a well-funded driver in possession of an eight-figure sponsorship from McGregor, as I mentioned in my transaction analysis of the Ericsson deal, both Ericsson and Van der Garde have been outperformed in every major head-to-head statistical category over the course of their respective campaigns at Caterham. A team of Ericsson and Van der Garde brings a lot of money, but it does not bring any significant speed nor a driver renowned for being able to develop a car over the course of a season by any means other than just throwing hard cash at it. A team of Ericsson and Sutil would bring less money and such a marginal increase in driving ability that it wouldn’t be worth the investment in a second season of the German veteran.

In signing Felipe Nasr, Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has found the best “paying option” available, as Nasr strikes a near-perfect balance of pure speed and significant sponsorship. A sponsorship that has spawned some of the best looking cars on the GP2 grid in the last two seasons, might I add. He is the sort of driver that Sauber absolutely needed, and he seemed to just fall right into the Swiss team’s lap when it seemed another year of test/reserve duty at Williams was in the books. Continue reading “Transaction Analysis: Felipe Nasr and Sauber”

Transaction Analysis: Marcus Ericsson and Sauber

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One of the more remarkable games of the elimination stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was the quarter-final match between Costa Rica and the Netherlands. Costa Rica survived a tough Group C to advance to the Round of 16 while traditional football powerhouses England and Italy went home after three games. They then beat the stingy Greek national team in the Round of 16 on penalty kicks, to advance to play the Netherlands – who had been a heavy favorite throughout the tournament. Despite the Dutch squad dominating possession for all 90 minutes, plus both 15-minute halves of extra time – Costa Rica’s strategy of “parking the bus” and playing not necessarily to win, but just to survive to get to penalty kicks – almost resulted in one of the all-time upsets in World Cup history. They ultimately lost the shootout 4-3, with Dutch backup goalkeeper Tim Krul making two crucial saves on penalty shots that saved their World Cup bid.

What Costa Rica did that day is what Sauber F1 Team is forced to do in 2015, as it will take on at least one driver bringing nearly $20,000,000 USD in sponsorship to a team that has not had a title sponsor in five years, not finished on the podium in two seasons, and as of the day before the United States Grand Prix, does not have a point to their name in 2014 – all the while, their financial and engineering resources continue to fall further behind those of the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Red Bull, and McLaren. Remember, this was, once upon a time, the factory Mercedes-Benz sports car racing team. This was the organization that brought the Silver Arrows back into Formula 1 in 1994, and the next year introduced new title sponsor Red Bull, and the year after that introduced new secondary sponsor Petronas, who now sponsor the Mercedes-Benz factory team that has dominated 2014. And the number of young talent that has either debuted or recieved a career-defining break with Sauber in their 22-year history in Formula 1 almost reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary F1 stars.

Shortly after qualifying ended in Austin, Caterham F1 Team driver Marcus Ericsson, forced to sit out the race as his soon-to-be ex-employers try and find a buyer for their team and their assets, was officially announced as one of a possible two new drivers for Sauber in the 2015 Formula One Season.

This is a move that is a positive development for the 24-year-old Swede’s career in a time where his F1 future seemed very uncertain. It’s a good sign for the nation of Sweden, which before Ericsson’s signing this year, hadn’t had a national representative on the F1 grid since Stefan Johansson last drove for the Footwork/Arrows team in 1991. And it’s a good sign that Sauber is able to secure at least one driver to a one-year contract for next season in a time where their future in the sport seems very murky.

Good all around, but not great – not even close. What Ericsson’s deal with Sauber amounts to is parking the bus in front of the goalkeeper and playing not to lose for 90 minutes and stoppage. For the more American audience, Sauber hit a single in signing Ericsson, when they needed an extra-base hit or even a home run. Continue reading “Transaction Analysis: Marcus Ericsson and Sauber”