Thursday, February 11, 2016

How to improve the Champions Hockey League?

Two seasons of the Champions Hockey League are now behind. In this text, I'm going to tell how I'd improve the format.

First of all, I'd reduce the number of teams. Among the 48 teams there are just too many teams that don't have a realistic chance of advancing from the group stage. I think 32 or even 16 would be fine. Or 24 if you want to keep the groups of three teams. Right now there are just too many teams that don't create interest among fans in big hockey countries; the result in those games is even more predictable than in domestic league games. Sure, it's great for the weaker hockey nations to get Europe's top clubs playing there but I'm not convinced people in those countries care about the CHL once their local team has been eliminated.

I wouldn't be worried if reducing the number of teams would lead to only big hockey nations' teams being in the CHL. CHL's task shouldn't be to grow hockey in Europe but it should aim to grow its brand in the big hockey nations, to be a highly-regarded title there. Exciting games against top-level opponents should make it more attractive for fans and improve its recognition.

For the playoffs, I'd make two changes. Firstly, don't draw teams from the same country into the same draw section unless you really need to. I mean, if there are two teams from the same country, don't draw them into the same half, or if there are up to four teams from the same country, don't draw them into the same quarter, and so on. Playing against domestic league rival in a European competition just doesn't feel right.

Secondly, I'd adopt the format used in the CHL's first incarnation; instead if aggregate scores, you get two points for win or one for a tie. I mean, Frölunda winning the first leg of its semifinal against Davos by five goals made the second leg lack excitement. Had the other format been in use, they would've still needed a tie to avoid an overtime. That old format was closer to the spirit of playoffs; you don't count aggregate goals in best-of-seven either, it doesn't matter if you won the previous game 1-0 or 5-0.

And I'd keep the two-leg format for the final, too. It's the game that creates the most interest; why not to have it played in both teams' home arenas? Neither the domestic leagues go into best-of-one for the final but they know they can get big crowds for the entire final series. If anything, I'd like the CHL final be best-of-three with the Game Three being played a day after the Game Two if needed. Though I'm not sure the TV companies would like that. And of course, I'd like to get continuous overtime in case the second leg goes into overtime.

One major European league is missing from the CHL, it's the KHL. Personally, I'm not sure if the CHL needs the KHL. It's a league that aims to be Europe's leading league. That's contradictory to what the CHL should aim to be. I wouldn't totally trust in the KHL's commitment in the CHL, so maybe it's better to develop the CHL without them.

And of course, the CHL has one major problem that it can't fix. Its position in the calendar is problematic. The national leagues' playoffs with best-of-seven series are the highlight of the season. There's nothing the CHL can do for that, its season just must finish before the national playoffs. But to create interest for its product, the CHL should get rid of the weaker teams, to have genuinely exciting matches; that way fans would truly like it and the title would become higher-regarded.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why the Ski Flying Worlds are my favorite championship in ski jumping

Few weeks ago I wrote about why the Four Hills Tournament is my favorite wintersports event. Though if we don't count it as a championship what the World Championships and the Olympic Games are, then this weekend is the time for my favorite championship in ski jumping, the Ski Flying World Championships.


In some ways, the Ski Flying Worlds are reminiscent of the Four Hills Tournament. While at the Olympics and Worlds in large and normal hill, there are only two jumps, at the Four Hills there are a total of eight jumps, rewarding consistency while still requiring to perform at highest level. At the Ski Flying Worlds there aren't eight jumps but it's still a two-day competition with four jumps. That puts more emphasis on consistency than in two-jump competitions, yet still not allowing bad jumps.

Of course, at the last two Ski Flying Worlds one of the competition days had to be cancelled. Yet the two-day format makes it easier to cancel competition round, knowing there will be, or has already been, another day of competition in fair conditions. There have been some cases of major championships having taken place in difficult and unfair conditions, like the 2009 Worlds' large hill competition that had to be finished after the first round. The two day format makes that less likely at the Ski Flying Worlds.

If I were in charge of those events, the large and normal hill events at the Olympics and Worlds would have a two-day, four-jump format similar to the Ski Flying Worlds. Though, I guess TV companies prefer the one-day format.

Another reason why I like the Ski Flying Worlds is that it's ski flying, the most spectacular form of ski jumping. It has some specialists like Robert Kranjec and Jurij Tepeš whose best chance for success is in flying hills, while the history has even overall World Cup champions who never won on a flying hill. Given how underrepresented ski flying is among the major events, that makes the Ski Flying Worlds even more special. As ski flying isn't included in the Olympics (for understandable reasons), I'd almost like the Ski Flying Worlds to be an annual event.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why the Four Hills Tournament is my favorite wintersports event

The Four Hills Tournament starts today in Oberstdorf. While alpine skiing is my favorite winter sport, ski jumping still has my favorite wintersports event.

Photo: Brigitte Waltl-Jensen, OK Vierschanzentournee

Most ski sports have the season-long World Cup and are featured in the Winter Olympics or have their own World Championships. While the Olympics and Worlds get the biggest recognition, I am reluctant to rate them above the season-long World Cup, especially in a sport as sensitive to weather conditions (or other random factors) as ski jumping (or alpine skiing or even cross-country skiing).

Sure, in some ski sports some of the best athletes skip some World Cup events to concentrate on the Olympics or Worlds. Then somebody can score easy points in their rivals' absence to win the World Cup title while getting beaten by rivals peaking at the major events.

The Four Hills Tournament has nicely the best of both worlds. All the best athletes are there and want to win. But unlike at the Olympics and Worlds, getting hot for two jumps doesn't win the title, one needs to be consistently good for eight jumps, in four different hills. And that is different to the World Cup where one can recover from bad competitions whereas at the Four Hills even one bad jump can end the title hunt. Still, small differences in wind conditions are less likely to decide the title than at the Olympics or Worlds; at the Four Hills there are eight jumps instead of only two for luck to even out.

Of course, one can get hot for the Four Hills, win the title, and disappear after that. But that is harder to do over eight jumps compared to two jumps at the Olympics or Worlds. That's why I rate surprise titles at the Four Hills over surprise gold medals at the Olympics or Worlds. That's not anymore luck but peaking at the right time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Aston Martin in F1 rumours and my opinion on it

Last weekend it was reported Aston Martin is in talks with Red Bull Racing for sponsoring the team Mercedes power units. Meanwhile, today it was reported Aston Martin has been in talks with the current Mercedes customer teams (Williams, Lotus, Force India) for a similar arrangement.

Red Bull currently has a similar contract with Infiniti, a brand of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Infiniti is the title sponsor of the team and sponsors the team's Renault power units. But Red Bull haven't been happy with the performance of Renault. Previously there was the rumour of the Audi partnership or even buyout of the team but that obviously isn't happening. Red Bull would probably be willing to switch to Mercedes, the best power unit in the series. The Aston Martin deal could enable that. Aston would replace Infiniti as the title sponsor and sponsor the Mercedes power units to the team. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, owns five percent of Aston Martin and produces engines for their models, so that could be a way to enter the brand into F1. Besides, Red Bull Technologies has a joint road car project with Aston Martin.

But would it make sense for a World Champion team Red Bull to become a power unit customer for the current World Champions Mercedes? Their current partner Renault is possibly going to buy a team, e.g. Toro Rosso or Lotus. Being a Renault customer might not be any better option. At least the Mercedes power unit is the best one they can get, even if the works Mercedes team had some advantage.

But, why would Mercedes supply power units to a team that could be a serious contender for their works team? Maybe they would just welcome a new customer as it would bring them money. And maybe a rival team succeeding wouldn't be so bad if they were sponsored by a car brand partly owned by the same group. And the works team would anyway have some advantage over customer teams.

Then, what about Aston's other options? Force India seem least likely, they are an eternal midfield team whereas Williams and Lotus are former World Champions. Lotus is financially distressed so I wouldn't see it as such an attractive option. Also there are rumours of Renault buying the team again, so it wouldn't be an option for Aston Martin.

The current third in the constructors' championship, Williams, might be an attractive option for Aston Martin. They are a team in the front of the grid but wouldn't be a similar threat to the works Mercedes team as Red Bull would be. And maybe this would be a good deal for Williams. They don't have the financial resources of Mercedes, Ferrari, or Red Bull. Free or discounted engines for Aston sponsorship would help them to fight against financially stronger teams in the front of the grid.

But, Red Bull and Williams are former World Champion teams and surely want to be title contenders also in the future. Maybe right now, the Mercedes power unit is what seems like the best option. But being a customer puts them into disadvantage compared to the Mercedes works team. The works team can better design the car around the power unit, get updates first, and in general could get preferential treatment. Being a customer isn't what a title contender team wants unless there are no competitive alternatives. Personally, as a Williams fan, I would like them to enter into a works agreement with a car manufacturer if there were one entering the series. Of course, new manufacturers don't seem very likely right now so Mercedes power units are the best option available. So, maybe that might drive also Red Bull switching to Mercedes power units now, especially if they got the Aston Martin sponsorship. There was even the rumour of Red Bull going to Ferrari power units, and given the poor record of Ferrari customer teams, being a Mercedes customer may not be the worst option of all. But being Mercedes customers can't be the ideal option in long term if these teams want to win titles.

As for Aston's F1 involvement, it feels somewhat unfortunate that such a traditional car manufacturer would come only as a sponsor. A bit like the Group Lotus as the title sponsor of the Lotus F1 Team. I would rather see them expanding their involvement in sports cars where they are really manufacturers. An LMP1 project might be too expensive for them but maybe they could be one of the engine suppliers for IMSA prototypes like another British luxury car brand Bentley is rumoured to be planning. But that's just how I would like it to be. In F1, they would probably get more exposure for their brand, even if they weren't showcasing their technology.

Do I expect this to happen? We'll see. I can see why this could make sense but this came quite surprisingly so I'm not convinced yet. The Red Bull-Audi rumour seemed just as sensible and still it doesn't seem to be happening.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My vision of the future of IMSA's Prototype class

ACO, the organizers of Le Mans, announced the new rules for Le Mans P2 cars starting from 2017. Without going into details, ACO will approve four chassis suppliers and one engine supplier. IMSA, the sanctioning body of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, is planning to adopt a modified version of the P2 regulations for their Prototype class. But IMSA and ACO have different needs. P2 will be IMSA's lead class with manufacturer involvement and all-pro lineups whereas for ACO it's a pro-am class with no manufacturer involvement. The proposed solution to that issue is allowing multiple engine manufacturers and manufacturer-specific bodykits in IMSA with also ACO-spec P2s being allowed there. ACO would allow multiple engine manufacturers only at Le Mans with their performance balanced and all cars using the ACO-spec bodykits.

Le Mans-compatibility is an issue here. Spec bodykits might make balancing the performance easier but it would also mean IMSA teams using engines that are designed to use with a different bodykit with different air intakes, etc. So probably the teams using ACO's spec engine would be at advantage. Also, ACO requires a pro-am lineup in the P2 class whereas IMSA allows all-pro lineups. That might be another issue for IMSA teams willing to race at Le Mans.

So, obviously racing at Le Mans wouldn't be so appealing for IMSA teams not using the ACO-spec P2. And the ACO-spec P2 with pro-am lineup wouldn't probably be winning against manufacturer-supported P2s with all-pro lineups in the Tudor Championship. How I would do it would be to split IMSA's Prototype class into two: Pro and Pro-Am classes. The Pro-Am class would use the ACO-spec P2s and those Pro-Am teams could get an invitation to Le Mans. In the Pro class, teams would be allowed (but not mandated) to use car manufacturers' engines and bodykits. If the car count is sufficient, then Pro-Am P2 could replace the Pro-Am PC class.

In my opinion that would be the sensible solution given ACO's and IMSA's differing needs for P2. IMSA needs manufacturers to their Prototype class and ACO doesn't want them to P2. A Pro-Am P2 class in IMSA would be an American route to Le Mans for privateer P2 teams. The Pro class would keep manufacturer involvement in IMSA's top class. And if the Pro class were based on the P2 chassis, the ACO-spec Pro-Am cars might be reasonably competitive against them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Porsche win the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans

Porsche have won the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. The winning no. 19 car was driven by Earl Bamber, Nico Hülkenberg, and Nick Tandy. Porsche also got the second place with the no. 17 car driven by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Mark Webber. The third place went to the dominant manufacturer of this century, Audi, with their no. 7 car, driven by the defending winners Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, and Benoit Tréluyer.

Porsche were the dominant team in the qualifying but so were they also in the previous WEC rounds at Silverstone and Spa with Audi still winning the races. Being able to do quadruple stints with the same tyres was helping Audi but they were also facing some adversity. The #7 lost time early in the race when a slow puncture forced them to pit for full service at the beginning of the fourth stint on the same tyres. The #8 Audi lost lots of time when it damaged its front after losing control in a confusing incident with a GT Ferrari when some cars were obviously slowing down for a yellow zone. The safety car periods in Saturday evening gave the #17 Porsche a lead of over a minute, thanks to it having been in an earlier safety car queue compared to its rivals. Like in the previous WEC rounds of this season, Audi again had great race pace. Filipe Albuquerque in the #9 Audi was setting great lap times in the Saturday evening, breaking the old race lap record.

I think the race got decided in late Saturday evening after a safety car period that packed the leading cars. The #17 Porsche that had long been leading got a one-minute penalty for ignoring yellows. And as the #18 Porsche had a couple of incidents under braking to Mulsanne, it was the #19 Porsche racing against the #9 and #7 Audis in the lead. While being soft on tyres had helped Audi to make their tyres last longer, it was hurting them at night when Porsche got their tyres work better and Nick Tandy in the #19 was building a great gap in his stint.

Of course, Porsche's advantage in colder conditions was going to end after the night but I think the gap the #19 built at night would've been enough for them even if the Audis had a clean finish to the race. But the Audis didn't have. The #7 of the defending winners was again Audi's strongest contender in the Sunday morning but then its engine cover blew off and the time spent repairing it cost it the chance to race for win or even for the second place. And the other Audi in the lead battle, the #9, had issues with its hybrid systems so the win was pretty much decided before the final hours of the race, Porsche just had to bring their cars home for a 1-2 win.

Audi may have had the faster car in the race; its three cars were the only ones to go under 3:18 in lap times. But most of the time Porsche was controlling the race and maybe didn't need to go all-out in the race. Last year's WEC champions Toyota have been disappointing this year and they were far from winning pace at Le Mans, finishing 6th and 8th and couldn't have a lap under 3:20 in the race. Their budget is behind Audi and Porsche and that's why they fielded only two cars at Le Mans and possibly the smaller budget can also be seen from their performance this year. Toyota have already announced they will be switching from 6MJ to 8MJ hybrid system subclass for the next year and replace supercapacitors with batteries like Porsche does. I wonder what Audi will be doing as they are currently in the 4MJ subclass, using a flywheel.

Formula One driver Nico Hülkenberg was one of the winning Porsche drivers. He became the first active F1 driver since 1991 and Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert to win at Le Mans. I think an F1 driver winning is great for the race, even though I have also seen opposite opinions fearing this to make the WEC look weak in comparison to F1. While some of the pay drivers in F1 would never become factory drivers in the WEC, you can't deny most of the world's best drivers are in F1 and it's great for the WEC to get them to do even one race. Hülkenberg winning doesn't mean the WEC drivers are bad drivers but it shows the world's best drivers want to do Le Mans. I like seeing IndyCar drivers like Bourdais or Dixon doing American endurance events and similarly I'd like more F1 and also IndyCar drivers joining WEC regulars for Le Mans. Unfortunately, if an F1 team is representing a manufacturer, it is hard to race for another manufacturer at Le Mans. That obviously prevented McLaren-Honda's Fernando Alonso driving for Porsche at Le Mans.

Monday, May 25, 2015

2015 Indianapolis 500 review

The 99th Indianapolis 500 is behind. And what a great race it was! Exactly what the series needed after the practice crashes and difficult weather in the qualifying weekend.

Team Penske's Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career. After qualifying 15th, I was pessimistic about his chances but the qualifying isn't so decisive for the result, rather just an indication of one's pace. Montoya had a difficult start to the race when Simona de Silvestro hit his rear wheel guard during an early caution and he got as low as 30th. But he made his way through the field and was one of the front-runners at the last restart with 15 laps to go. On the fourth-last lap, he passed Ganassi's Scott Dixon for the second place into the turn 3 and half a lap later he passed his teammate Will Power for the lead he'd keep until the finish.

The defending series champion Will Power was aiming for his first Indy 500 win. This was the race he wanted to win and you could hear it in his post-race comments, saying he'd be happy with the second place everywhere else but at the Indy 500. But it was nice to hear how he enjoyed the racing, I'm sure the fans did as well. The outcome might have been different for him had he not lead so many laps in the end but instead learned how his car behaves when running second. That might have been the key to overtake Montoya on the final laps.

It was a Penske vs. Ganassi battle in the front of the field. Team Penske claimed the top 2 positions, Ganassi the 3rd and 4th. Ganassi's Charlie Kimball was the best American, finishing third. He passed teammate Dixon with three laps to go, soon after Montoya's pass on Dixon. The polesitter and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon was one of the front-runners for the whole race but in the end finished only fourth.

Penske's Simon Pagenaud and Ganassi's Tony Kanaan had good cars but they got out of the contention for the win before the end of the race. Kanaan was having a very good race before crashing soon after his pitstop on lap 152. And Pagenaud seemed like the strongest Penske driver before clipping his front wing on the lap 176, costing him the chance to race for the win.

Last year's runner-up, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was one of the favorites for the race. But in the end, he couldn't challenge for the win, finishing only seventh. And it was unfortunate Sage Karam, last year's ninth, had to retire after a first turn incident. Given how well Ganassi's cars were doing, he might have had a strong race.

The race was dominated by Chevrolet with the only Honda drivers in the top 10 being Graham Rahal on the fifth place and Marco Andretti on the sixth place. Besides the last eight finished drivers were all powered by Honda. Honda surely can't be happy with the result; especially given their main focus was in winning the Indy 500.

Safety was a concern before the race because of crashed cars flipping in the practice sessions and James Hinchcliffe's leg getting pierced by a front rocker. Thankfully there were no serious injuries in the race, Sebastian Saavedra suffered a foot contusion in a three-car incident and a Dale Coyne Racing pit crew member broke his ankle in a pit road incident. The practice crashes were worrying but only one serious injury from them shows in my opinion that IndyCar is as safe as open-wheel racing on ovals can be.

The 99th Indianapolis 500 was a great race. Hopefully there will be plenty of other great races during the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. And hopefully the 100th Indy 500 next year will be just as great, preferably with also Honda as a serious contender for the win. And with James Hinchcliffe in the field of 33 drivers.