The Rules, They Are A-Changin’
Spring Training for the Verizon IndyCar Series took place this past Monday and Tuesday at Barber Motorsports Park, just outside of Birmingham. The most imposing figure over the two-day test was not Will Power, Juan Montoya or Justin Wilson – it was Mother Nature. Most in the Midwest probably look at Alabama in mid-March and think sunny skies and warm temperatures. They don’t really think of winter. Well, think again. While those of us here in the south haven’t experienced the brunt of the winter that Indianapolis has – we’ve had our share of cold weather. Much of that was on display earlier this week in Birmingham, as well as here in Nashville. They got in some limited running between cold temperatures and periods of drizzle.
Over the two-day span, there were not a lot of eyebrows raised by anything on the track. There was nothing unexpected about Will Power being the fastest on both days, but Justin Wilson turned a few heads with his second-quick time on Tuesday in his Dale Coyne powered Honda.
The most notable story came just off the track, literally trackside, during a pre-recorded interview for Trackside with Jon Beekhuis. It was during his conversation with Kevin Lee that Beekhuis casually slipped in an “oh, by the way” nugget regarding rules for the engine manufacturers.
To my knowledge, this has yet to be confirmed by IndyCar. But according to Beekhuis, there is no longer a ten-spot grid penalty for each infraction of an unauthorized engine change. Instead, the engine manufacturer will be docked ten manufacturer points from the championship totals. The exception to that will be if it is proven that a driver or team purposely blew up an engine in practice, just to get a new engine.
Later during the week we heard that entrant-initiated engine change-outs would result in the loss of ten driver and entrant points. It was also said that an unapproved engine change-out by an entry will result in it starting from the rear of the grid in the next race.
Quite honestly, I’m not sure what the deal is. From the way I heard Jon Beekhuis explain it on Trackside; the grid penalties were gone and would now be points subtracted from the manufacturers championship. I liked everything I heard about that. Then by last night, I was seeing the reports of drivers moving to the back of the field for the next race and having points reduced from their championship totals. To me, these sound like conflicting reports.
I should withhold comment until it is clarified, but I won’t. To me, penalizing the driver for an engine change is absurd. If the driver or crew is suspicious that an engine is either underpowered or on its last legs, why wait until the thing blows up?
I understand the rationale behind making an engine last 2,500 miles, but I don’t like it. I know it is to save overall costs, but it tells me how detuned the engines are. That goes against the very essence of racing. Racing is about hanging it out over the edge and going as fast as possible. If the engine blows up in the process – blame the driver. He or she went too far over the edge.
If I’m interested in endurance and reliability, I’ll watch Sebring or Le Mans. I watch the Verizon IndyCar Series for sheer speed and drivers pushing the limits. A driver is punished if the engine blows up from being pushed too hard. The driver’s race is over. I don’t get a thrill from knowing that a driver has rolled the dice to stay with the same tired old engine that has been through several races, simply because they want to avoid penalties. That just doesn’t do it for me.
But seeing drivers penalized doesn’t do it for me either. Whether it’s points or spots on the grid – that really leaves me cold. For the past two seasons, we saw drivers with great pole runs start no better than tenth. Some races last year saw half the grid penalized. That put a lot of mid-pack drivers up on the front row. Many liked that because it mixed things up. I didn’t like it because it put a lot of inexperience at the front where their mistake could easily take out the penalized cars behind them. It cheapened qualifying and it confused fans.
I was ecstatic when I heard Jon Beekhuis explain what he had heard, but my excitement was tempered when I heard the rest of it on Thursday night. If they want to do more than dock manufacturers, fine the owners – but quit messing with earned points and earned spots on the grid.
Another nugget that came on Thursday was the announcement that the points structure had been changed for the three five-hundred mile races; Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana. In essence, they are doubling the points for those three races. While winning a race at most other tracks will net a driver fifty points, at any of those three – it’ll be one-hundred. All other respective positions will pay double points. Qualifying at Indianapolis will also have a separate point structure that is too complicated to go into here, but winning the pole has the potential to pay forty-two points. That pays more than finishing second at most races.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the Verizon IndyCar Series was smart in leaving its point system alone in favor of chasing some pointless gimmicks, just for the sake of change. I guess I spoke to soon. I’ve never liked the idea of giving more weight to any one race over another – even if the more heavily weighted race is the Indianapolis 500. I think all races should count the same. In the NFL, if the Titans play the Colts one week and the Jags the next – most would say that the Colts game is a bigger game. But in the NFL standings, they both count the same. A win is a win. Beating the Colts doesn’t count in the standings any more than beating the Jaguars. That was the beauty of the Verizon IndyCar point structure. There were no gimmicks and no phony contrived chase. Drivers went out and chased the same points race after race. Now a driver can put out a half-hearted effort at Sonoma, because he or she knows that they can make up double points the next week at Fontana.
I’m also a big believer that qualifying at Indianapolis should count the same as winning only the pole at any other race – not where even the cars on the back row at Indianapolis earn points. A driver can win the pole at Indianapolis and win three five-hundred milers and come out with around 350 points without even showing up for the other races. Last season, Scott Dixon won a championship with a total of 577 points. To me, this whole revision cheapens the point system and tends to make tracks like Iowa or Long Beach less significant, because they don’t pay as much.
Was the pursuit of the Fuzzy’s Triple Crown not enough? After all, even if you won two of the three races, you would still win an extra quarter-million dollars and a good-looking trophy. Now they’ve altered the strategy of teams and the importance of certain races, and I’m not sure why.
Most joke how I detest change and it’s true. But I’ve always said if I’m shown a good reason to change, then I’m all on board. So far, I’m not on board with this.
So this week, we were teased that a very unpopular rule was going away, then we heard that it is only being changed and there will still be penalties. I’m still not sure what’s up with that. I guess we’ll learn more in the coming days. But I heard all I need to hear about doubling points at the three big ovals this season. So with apologies to Bob Dylan; I guess it’s true – the rules, they are a-changin’.