Twin Ring Motegi Preview

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This weekend finds the IZOD IndyCar Series headed east – to the Far East. The series makes its annual pilgrimage to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. After several CART and IndyCar races that ran in the spring since 1998, the race was moved to the fall, beginning in 2009. It won’t happen for 2011, but I’d like to see this race moved back to the spring.

This is not my favorite track. In fact, it may be my least favorite oval on the current schedule. Not only is it a logistical nightmare for the teams and drivers, it hasn’t presented very good racing. Probably the two most memorable moments for the Honda-owned facility happened in the last two races. Danica Patrick won her only career victory there in April of 2008. Then last September, Ryan Briscoe had one of his famous brain-fades and carelessly crashed into the inner pit-wall exiting the pits while leading, thereby throwing away the twenty-five point cushion he had over Scott Dixon.

The one and a half mile oval that sits atop a mountain is more famous for its inaccessibility than it is for great racing. It is an egg-shaped oval similar to the now-defunct Gateway and Darlington. Adrian Fernandez won the first two races there in 1998 and 1999, while driving for Pat Patrick in CART. Other CART winners included Michael Andretti, Kenny Bräck and Bruno Junqueira. When Honda made the move from CART to the IRL in 2003, Motegi went with it. After two embarrassing years of losing to Toyota, Honda finally got a victory at its own track at the hands of Dan Wheldon in 2004 and 2005. By the time Helio Castroneves won in 2006, Honda was the sole engine supplier to the league so the bragging rights became a moot point.

This event is an unnecessary evil that keeps Honda happy. Honda has been a terrific partner to the league. Quite frankly, when all other manufacturers left a few years back, the league would have been in serious trouble without their support. But this race is a major undertaking to participate in, without getting very much in return. It is a half a world away and starts at midnight on the east coast. It’s probably safe to say that this won’t be a ratings blockbuster. I consider myself a die-hard, but it will be a struggle for me to stay up and watch this race after a day of watching college football. I’m sure most that don’t have Sunday carved out for NFL games will be putting this one on the DVR. Other staunch IndyCar fans will probably just miss this one altogether.

Although many don’t share my concern, I don’t care for the fact that with this late race date in the season – the IZOD IndyCar Series runs the risk of crowning its champion in the middle of the night on another continent, every single year. With a 0.15 rating for the season finale at Homestead last year, no one was watching anyway; but I still think the series owes its fans the opportunity to see the championship battle decided during normal waking hours. Couple that with the football-induced apathy for racing in September and this race is totally insignificant, except for the participants in the championship hunt. If the league feels the need to appease Honda and continue going to Twin Ring Motegi, they should move it back to the spring when the racing season is young and interest is higher.

Now about those participants in the championship hunt…there are still four that are mathematically alive; Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves – although in reality, it is down to Power and Franchitti.

A win on an oval would pretty well wrap up this championship for Will Power. I also still have this gut feeling that he won’t win the remaining two ovals of this season. He has never won an oval in his life, so asking him to do it with a championship hanging in the balance is a tall order. That being said, I still think Will Power will win the 2010 championship.

That means that some bad luck will have to befall Dario Franchitti in one of these next two races. I don’t mean Franchitti will have to crash, but just a two-second slip-up in the pits can add points to the seventeen point cushion that Power currently enjoys. Power’s best oval finish this year is a fifth place at Iowa – but he has driven better than that. He has led in every oval race this season except for Kansas. It just seems that he has had some bad luck near the end on most of the ovals.

As for the rest of the field, most will be driving for pride, while some will be driving for 2011 jobs. Some will be trying to convince their current teams to keep them for next season, while others will use this as an audition for a prospective new team. I don’t expect anything really unusual in this race. A KV car will crash and a Penske-Ganassi car will win – pretty much business as usual.

My pick to win? Ryan Briscoe’s slip up at Motegi last year cost him the win at this track and ultimately the championship. His 2010 season has been a big disappointment, but he’ll get some redemption while standing in victory lane in Japan. The trouble is, no one will be awake to see it.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Twin Ring Motegi Preview”

  1. Honda has been a great partner of Indycar, but I hope someone gives them a little competition in a year and a half.

    This is more of a question than a statement, but what would the problems be with kicking off the season on an oval in Japan, then moving on down to Surfer’s for the Aussieland twisty before starting the tour of the americas? Weather, cars, Surfer’s availability?

    Also, I was going to say why can’t they race in the morning so we can watch at a decent time here (actually not sure what time they start in Japan), but probably more people watch the race on TV in Japan than in the whole U.S. anyway.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    If I’m still awake after watching the Baylor-TCU football game and the 6-10 pm racing at the local asphalt track then I’ll be watching.

    I’m picking a non-big 3 car to win, not because I think it’s incredibly likely, but because I think it would be both sad and amusing for the Ganpendretti oval streak to end in a “tree falls and nobody’s around to hear it” scenario. That and one of these days it’s got to happen.

    And I’m totally on board with you George, Motegi needs to be a spring race. No oval before Indy is kind of awkward anyways.

    • Springtime for sure… September is a rainy time around this part of Japan as well. Having Motegi at the end of the season is a marketing nightmare… the Indycar champion potentially being crowned in the middle of the night @ your lowest rated TV race :shock: I’ve read elsewhere that the race is not carried live in Japan as well (due to the promoter hoping to get people to make the trip t the race track).

  3. Add me to the number of folks who’d prefer this to go back to a spring date. I think Cavin and Kevin kind of missed the point of your question, George, on last night’s Trackside. With this race this late in the season, it always leaves the possibility that the championship will be clinched after midnight and halfway around the world. That’s not good for anybody. A spring race, on the other hand, would put it in a section of the season where we’re already a little light on ovals, and looking for places to play with amenable weather patterns (a little bit in short supply in The States in March/April).

    As far as this year, I’ve had him mentally penciled in here as my winner for a few weeks now: Will Power. He’s been fast on most of the ovals this year, he’s been coming into his own in the past month, and this is one of those ovals, due to its two distinctly different ends, where driving talent and the ability to handle a less-than-perfect car in one corner or the other really comes into play. I think Will wins it, Dario plonks in another top-3 or -4, and the championship comes down to Homestead, if only mathematically speaking (i.e. like Will has to finish top-15 to clinch).

  4. C’mon George, don’t be such a downer. You sound like one of those people you wrote about recently: “Is it Really That Bad”. First you say that Honda has been a terrific partner for the league, then you say that the league doesn’t get much in return. You gotta dance with the girl that brung ya!

    There are many devoted fans of the IRL in Japan. Take a look at the current Flickr photos on IndyCar.com to see what fanatics they are. That is good for the sport.

    So record those boring college football games instead, take a little nap, then pull up your rocker and watch some live racing.

  5. There is nothing really positive about Motegi. It’s a lost weekend, most sponsors won’t pay for it, and it’s not a very good track. Sort of the example of why we need multiple engine makers, so the series can tell Honda where to put Motegi, and that’s not on the Indycar scheduale. Serioulsy, it’s insane for a series to put a race on that is going to be run at midnight half way around the world. Great way to improve TV ratings and get Indycar some attention….

    • Dylan,
      Please understand this: CART used to run Motegi when Honda was just one of four engine makers. If other engine manufacturers come on board in 2012 or later, there is no guarantee that IndyCar won’t keep going there. In fact, if Honda continues to make the race a revenue stream for the teams (by paying for their expenses to go over there) and the series (by being willing to put up the sanctioning fee), I would imagine they’ll go over there for years to come. Can you provide any quotes for me from teams complaining about this race, and specifically about the cost to go over there? I don’t think I’ve read any, ever, and I think the reason for that is because the teams are well compensated. In a time where sponsorship is hard to find, it’s awful hard to say “no thanks, Honda, we’d prefer to stay home, do one less race and make $100k less (or whatever they net after recouping costs) for the season”. Motegi is not replacing any other race at any other track. The alternative for going over there is “one less race on the schedule and less money in the teams’ and the series’ coffers”. I think that’s a very easy decision to make.

      • One word “Fontana”

      • I know that, also, while Motegi is the Honda track, they also had Toyota, which probably didn’t mind a race in Japan. It’s been mentioned multiple times on Indycar Trackside by Cavin that many sponsors won’t pay for the International races, especially Brazil and Motegi. I’m saying if they had multiple engines, they would have more of a choice, they might still do it, but I would hope they’d kill it off, because no one enjoys Motegi. Or, keep it and run it at 2AM local time so we can watch it at a reasonalbe hour.

      • I don’t think you’re understanding this part: Honda is paying *everybody* to make the trip to Japan. They are paying the sanctioning fee (something that ISC tracks are apparently not fond of, though maybe Fontana is an exception now) AND they are paying the teams to make the trip. Don’t you think that if the teams had to pay one thin dime of their own money to fly their stuff halfway around the world that we’d have heard copious complaints by now? Given the tittering that we’ve heard about the 2012 chassis in the last month or two, I sure do. Therefore, my suspicion is that every team is getting about three Samsonite briefcases worth of yen to do this, same as I believe Apex-Brazil was delivering the teams big burlap coffee bags full of Brazilian “reals” to make the trip to Sao Paulo. Those yen from Honda aren’t just paying for the trip to Motegi, they’re helping teams meet their bottom line for the rest of the season as well. Meanwhile, Fontana sure isn’t going to cut individual teams checks to show up there, so I’d quit holding my breath for IndyCar to drop Motegi for Fontana, if I were you.

        I’m sorry if I sound like a Grade-A a-hole here, but I just don’t think you’re embracing the realities of the situation one bit. In the meantime, like Ron says, you can try to enjoy this weekend’s race for what it is: an IndyCar race. That’s what I’m going to do.

      • Just look through the Indycar Flickr page of the hardcore Japanese fans that show up @Motegi :idea: That kind of fan won’t show up @Fontana even with Honda & Toyota having SoCal design + engineering facilities

  6. So, does anyone seriously think the IRL is in a position to tell Honda where to put Motegi? When was the last time there was an engine failure during a race? How many American engine manufacturers do you think will support the series in 2012? Randy Bernard went to Europe to talk to engine manufacturers, he didn’t go to Detroit.

    As for sponsors not paying for it, is Honda any less a sponsor than Izod?

    For the time being, it is what it is. It’s an IndyCar race. Try to enjoy it for what it is. All too soon the season will be over. The kind of change you and many of us are looking for will not happen overnight.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Ron; I’m not complaining that there’s a race. I’m staying up tonight to watch it. If I only enjoyed IndyCar races during normal waking hours, I wouldn’t. I’m very happy there is a race to watch tonight. However, I would prefer this race to be in the spring when there may be more interest among non-diehards.

      I’m certainly not suggesting that IndyCar should tell Honda where to put Motegi. What I hope is that Honda would consider not staging this race. Even though they are footing the bill, it is a logistical hardship on the teams. I’d be willing to bet if given all things equal – every team would opt not to go. I don’t know that, but it is my gut feeling.

      That being said, I’ll nap after the Florida-Tennessee game (it’ll be so riveting); and I’ll pile up with snacks and watch the race, then jot down a probably not-so-coherent post after the race. I’ll be tired tomorrow, but yes – I’ll enjoy it. – GP

  7. Didn’t know Motegi had any defenders…. I guess people will get behind anything… (RE: Barber, Duno, Motegi, Dallara)

  8. With all due respect to Carmen and Lindy, those Motegi girls will keep me awake and quite alert:)

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