Qualifying changes: a detailed analysis

IndyCar commentary — By on March 8, 2011 2:08 pm

Yesterday afternoon, INDYCAR revealed the details of some changes to its 2011 qualifying procedures. There were two key components to the release: field caps, and details relating to provisional starting positions. The fields at all events this season (except Indy and Vegas) will be capped at 26 cars. At races other than Brazil and Motegi, the field will be composed of 24 cars qualified based on time and two provisional starting positions to be filled by INDYCAR at its discretion; at Brazil and Motegi, the provisional starting positions won’t apply, but 26 cars may still travel to and run at those events.

Provisional starting positions. The part of the press release touching on the provisional starting positions has some fans up in arms. What many of those fans may not realize, though, is that this rule as outlined for 2011 is effectively identical to the 2010 rule covering the same topic.

Here’s the text of the 2010 rule, straight from the rulebook, with the 2011 modifications in square brackets:

“F. Provisional Starting Cars – IRL [INDYCAR], in its discretion, may add provisional starting Cars to the starting field. IRL [INDYCAR] may offer up to a maximum of two provisional starting Cars at each Event after the conclusion of qualifications among non-qualified Cars based on the following formula:

(1) The first provisional starting Car position will be assigned to the Car driven by the 2009 [2010] IZOD IndyCar Series champion Driver.

(2) The next position will be assigned to the Car driven by the 2008 [2009] IZOD IndyCar Series champion driver.

(3) The next position will be assigned to the Car driven by the 2009 [2010] Indianapolis 500 Mile Race champion Driver.

(4) The next position(s) will be assigned to the Car driven by the highest-ranking Driver(s) in the current top 24 [top 22] Drivers point standings prior to the current Event.

(5) The next position(s) will be assigned to the Leaders Circle Program Member(s) with the best practice lap time at the Event, provided the best lap time is an acceptable time as determined by IRL [INDYCAR].

(6) If the positions are not filled by provisions 1-5, then the positions will be filled by the Car with the next best lap time posted during qualifications, provided the best lap time is an acceptable time as determined by IRL [INDYCAR].”

Basically, this rule is nothing new — but with the larger field caps of the past, it’s been far less likely to come into play in a visible fashion.

In practice, the first three provisions for this year all address the same driver: Dario Franchitti. It’s so unlikely that these will ever need to be used that it’s laughable.

The last three provisions, along with the text from the opening paragraph stating that INDYCAR “in its discretion may add” provisional starting spots, can be summed up in one statement: if you don’t make the top 24 on your own merits, INDYCAR decides whether you get to run. Drivers running otherwise-competitive full season programs (i.e., drivers with a fan base) are very likely to be offered these spots; it’s not so clear that mediocre drivers running family-funded part-time programs will be similarly accommodated. Given INDYCAR’s stated goals of improving the talent pool while maintaining consistency, It’s difficult to find fault with this policy — it only serves to add value to the overall product.

Field caps. In 2010, fields were to be capped at 28 cars (including two provisionals) with the exception of Brazil (which was limited to Leaders Circle teams), Indy (which had the traditional 33 entries), Toronto (which was limited to 26 entries by pit road size), and Mid-Ohio (same as Toronto). However, this rule was relaxed from Mid-Ohio forward to allow inclusion of the increased number of entries showing interest in INDYCAR.

This year, as outlined above, different restrictions exist for Brazil, Indy, Motegi and Vegas. Excluding those races, here’s how last season’s fields would have played out under the 2011 rules (races in italics would have required the use of provisional entries; races in bold would have seen bumping):

St. Pete 24 entries
Barber 25 (Baguette)
Long Beach 25 (Duno)
Kansas 27 (Wheldon, Andretti, Romancini)
Texas 26 (Romancini, de Silvestro)
Iowa 25 (Duno)
Watkins Glen 25 (Viso)
Toronto 26 (Duno, Meira)
Edmonton 25 (Duno)
Mid-Ohio 27 (Rahal, Howard, Duno)
Sonoma 25 (Dracone)
Chicagoland 29 (Fisher, Duno, de Silvestro, Hamilton, Howard)
Kentucky 27 (Rahal, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay)
Homestead 27 (de Silvestro, Mutoh, Duno)

In most situations on this list, it’s evident who would have had an invitation extended. There are a couple of races that presented some interesting scenarios, though. For instance, Baguette could theoretically have been shut out of starting at Barber, potentially bringing an early end to what was a promising campaign through the rest of the season. (His qualifying time was within 105% of Will Power’s pole time, though — another new qualifying rule for 2011 — which would likely have been the deciding factor in keeping him in the field.) At Kentucky, provision 4 would most likely have seen Kanaan and Hunter-Reay offered provisional starting positions and Rahal sent home. And trying to figure out what would have happened at Chicagoland is enough to make a blogger’s head spin.

Given the new regulations, though, some entries at the busier races may not have bothered to show up at all. INDYCAR has cited a desire for “more consistency” among its events, which can be read as meaning that they want fewer drivers with big checks but questionable talent showing up for races. This is likely exactly what INDYCAR is going to get from these changes — there’s less motivation for these types of drivers to pay their way into lower-quality rides, or for team owners to take on those drivers, if there’s a chance they won’t make the field. The likelihood of this would need to be calculated by the affected teams prior to each event and the potential loss versus gain would need to be weighed carefully.

But the other potential side effect of this change is less potential for smaller sponsors to dip their feet in INDYCAR waters on a trial basis, at least as sidepod-level sponsors on smaller teams. And this also appears to undo the potential sell-off of Dallaras some were expecting toward the end of the season that would have caused car counts to skyrocket in later races.

Overall, this change is set up to hurt the little guy much more than the juggernauts, which is a shame since the smaller teams need all the help they can get. But it’s hard to argue with boosting the overall talent in the field and keeping the Francesco Dracones of the world at bay. Between this and the 105% rule, INDYCAR is clearly structuring its regulations to back up its claim of having the most talented and versatile drivers in the world. It can be hoped that potential sponsors can be convinced to appreciate the elevated stature that comes with making it into an INDYCAR field and will see longer-term deals for better-quality drivers to be worthy of investment. So long as this does indeed take place, the change can be viewed as a positive one.

But perhaps even more important than any of these finer details is the fact that fans have been made aware of these rule changes in the first place and can therefore discuss them intelligently. Given how heavily the changes will factor into structuring race fields in 2011, INDYCAR had little choice but to provide full disclosure in advance to avoid a great deal of confusion down the road. However, the public disclosure of these rules still demonstrates a culture shift in INDYCAR toward its newly stated interest in and commitment to being open with its regulations. If (or, more likely, when) these new rules comes into play this season, no one can claim that the details were none of our business. Of the changes taking place this off-season, this newfound openness could possibly be the most important one of all.