Tuesday, November 22, 2011

2011 in Review. Or: Why I should never try to make predictions

   The final checkered flag has flown on one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory so it is time to look back on 2011.  For this review I won't be looking at individual races, since I've already done that in my race recaps, instead I'll be looking at how each team did this season as well as some stories of significance.  Since I'll be focusing on how each team did this season I thought it would be a decent time to look at how I predicted the order of finish in the High Point standings going into 2011 and how they actually finished:

              Predicted finisher              Actual finisher

1st          Oh Boy! Oberto                   Spirit of Qatar
2nd          Spirit of Qatar                     Oh Boy! Oberto
3rd          Graham Trucking                 Graham Trucking
4th           Degree Men                        Valken.com
5th          Peters & May                      Miss Red Dot
6th          TapouT                               Degree Men
7th         Valken.com                         TapouT
8th         Miss Red Dot                      Leland Unlimited
9th         Great Scott                         Formulaboats.com
10th      Leland Unlimited                 Peters & May
11th     Formulaboats.com              Great Scott
12th     Superior Racing                  Miss VisitTriCities.com
13th     (no Selection)                     Superior Racing
14th    (no selection)                      Miss Hapo Credit union

    Hey, one out of fourteen isn't bad right?  Needless to say my predictions were a little off base, which is one part indicative of how unpredictable this season but mostly a sign that such predictions are pretty much useless.  So how did we get here?  Let's look at how each team fared in 2011.

U-96 Spirit of Qatar  2011 will always have a spot in the history books thanks to Dave Villwock's historic victory in Detroit, which gave him sole possession of the all time career Unlimited victories record.  Bill Muncey's career mark of 62 wins,  which for many years was thought to be unreachable, was tied by Villwock at the last race of 2010 and surpassed by the second race of 2011.  Villwock now has 65 wins and for the first time in over forty years Bill Muncey does not have the career lead in career Unlimited wins.  Aside from Villwock's historic achievement, this was another banner year for the Ellstrom team.  The boat was once again the class of the field, earning fastest qualifier honors at every race this year.  With this in mind it's no accident that the team swept the season's large track races of Detroit, Tri-Cities, and San Diego.  Most importantly, however, is the fact that the team was able to capture the High Point Title for the first time since 2007.  Although some chinks in their armor of perceived invincibility showed up at Seattle and in Doha, this boat is still the class of the field as going into the 2012 the question becomes how many race wins can Villwock rack up before retiring for good.

U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto It says something about the resiliency of the Miss Madison team that 2011 saw the team leave the first race with damage to both sponsons so severe that they  were forced to use a leased boat for the Detroit race, then suffered setbacks in the forms of penalties in the next two races, yet still rebounded to be the clear cut runner up in the High Point chase.  It was indeed a season of dramatic ups and downs for the Miss Madison team, with victories in Madison and Seattle but a number of dramatic happenings along the way that ended with a perceived victory in Doha only to be reversed when it was discovered that the boat did indeed jump the gun before the start which, in a way, became a microcosm for the team's entire 2011 season.  Despite these setbacks the most reliable and consistent boat in the field continued to be just that and Steve David was able to pilot the boat to some brilliant performances in the Final Heats at Tri-Cities and Seattle before the rule changes took away his ability to fight for lanes.  All in all, this was another year is becoming one of the more memorable runs in recent hydroplane history.  Since Mike Hanson rejoined the team as Crew Chief the team finished third in High Points in 2004 and then has gone on to finish first or second in High Points for seven consecutive seasons, with the team winning three championships and Steve David winning five driving titles along the way.  Early indications are that the Oberto family and the Madison team are looking to extend their dedication and their performance for the 2012 season, so that is something that the rest of the field should be concerned about.

U-5 Graham Trucking Despite not winning a race in 2011, the case could be made that Jeff Bernard and the U-5 team were 2011's most consistent performers in the preliminary heats.  With the fight for lanes in place for the first four races, 5 liter veteran Jeff Bernard was able to park his boat in an inside lane and grab a heat win multiple times this season.  For whatever reason, however, that same success in the preliminary heats was not seen in the finals and the team only had two podium finishes this season at Detroit and Doha.  Nonetheless the team had a strong performance throughout the season, as indicated by their third place finish in the High Points.  It's reminiscent of the Miss Madison seasons in the 1980's and 1990's when the boat was nowhere near the top of the qualifying ladder and only had a couple of podium finishes throughout the year but were a consistent finisher at all their races  and wound up finishing near the top of the High Points.  With that said, PPE isn't interested in finishing near the top of the High Point standings, they're interested in finishing at the top.  This team should come out in 2012 looking to be a contender for the championship.

U-7 Valken.com Time for my first apology in this piece: I tremendously underestimated the U-7 team and especially Scott Liddycoat coming into this season.  Sure, Liddycoat was a rookie in the Unlimited class coming into this season, but he came into the season's first race in Madison looking like he had been doing this for years as a testament to his decades of experience in smaller boats.  In many ways, the U-7 team's performance was the opposite of their teammates in the U-5, in that the U-7 was able to finish on the podium in four of the season's six races, but penalties and a few inconsistent preliminary heat finishes prevented the team from finishing higher in the High Point race.  Like their teammates, I'm sure the team will want to build off of their win in Doha and perhaps even be thinking championship coming into 2012.  It seems like Ted Porter's team always likes to make a lot of waves in the off season through personnel moves, sponsorship announcements, new internal programs, etc. so I'm guessing we'll be hearing news about the team long before the first race of 2012.

U-17 Miss Red Dot Time for another apology: I underestimated this team as well, almost to the point that I'm embarrassed about it.  Kip Brown was finally able to get his first heat win in the team's first heat of the year in Madison, and the season just kept getting better from there, with a number of heat wins and three podium finishes (including seconds in Madison and San Diego) along the way.  The team was actually leading the High Points coming out of Detroit and was second for much of the year, but tumbled to fifth in the final standings after Doha proved to be a struggle.  If H1 had an award for most improved Driver, Kip Brown would win this year's award going away.  The still relatively new driver made his presence felt in a big way and the team as a whole stepped up their game, taking the U-17 from a likable and talented also ran to a legit contender (although they're still likable, don't worry).  Undoubtedly the team will be in high spirits going into 2012 and looking to not only get a race win or two under their belts but looking to take the next step and join the upper echelon of the sport.

U-88 Degree Men The fact that this team went through a tumultuous off season that saw their longtime crew chief leave the team, finished their new hull with hardly any time to spare before the season started, was late rolling into Madison, wasn't able to start a heat or even do any kind of real testing in Madison, and still was able to climb to sixth in the final High Point standings speaks volumes of the talent of J. Michael Kelly and the crew.  The team got what one would want from a new hull just starting out: a consistent performance with flashes of brilliance that could be a sign of things to come.  Despite being shut out from the podium, J. Michael Kelly was able to qualify the boat for the Final Heat in the final five races of the year and seemed to be in the mix of things in every preliminary heat he was drawn into.  Degree Men showed a lot of commitment in its first full season sponsoring the team.  With continued support from Degree Men and a full of season to further tweak their new boat, the team should expect vast improvement in 2012.

U-21 TapouT Brian Perkins and the U-21 were involved in a horrific accident in Madison where they crashed into a patrol boat, and their season never really did seem to get on track thereafter.  Despite consistent finishes throughout the year in preliminary heats the U-21 only managed to make it to two Final Heats where they finished seventh in Tri-Cities and didn't finish in Seattle.  Needless to say the team would like to improve on their performance, and there's good reason for hope.  Early indications are that TapouT and MusclePharm will be back with the team in 2012 and the extra financial support should be a huge help for this small and still relatively new team.  With the added financial support and Brian Perkins steadily improving as an Unlimited driver, the U-21 could experience a U-17 style breakthrough next season.

U-100 Leland Unlimited The Leland team spent the first five races of 2011 continuing its recent trend as a consistent but underwhelming also ran, failing to qualify for any Final Heats along the way.  Then came Doha and the team put together a performance that, in short, has not been seen by the Leland team since its days of being sponsored by Pico then Znetix.  The boat was right in the mix of things in the preliminary heats, finishing in second place in two heats, then was able to grab a third place in the Final Heat after three other boats went over the line at the start.  It was Greg Hopp and the U-100's first podium finish since getting second in Madison in 2004.  The performance at Doha really came down to a brilliant driving performance by Greg Hopp, which has shown up in flashes over the last decade but has never really been on full display for quite some time the way it was in Madison.  So will the team be able to put together some similar performances in 2012?  It's left to be seen.  With a couple races similar to the team's 2011 Doha performance and hopefully the assistance of a sponsor who might step up, the team could make its presence felt in 2012.  It's also left to be seen if the team's long discussed automotive powered Unlimited will make its debut in 2012.

U-57 Formulaboats.com Ted Porter's Precision Performance Engineering team is just crazy good.  Sure, they can take the old T-5 and T-6 hulls and have two competitive teams on the water at once, but almost as noteworthy is what the team was able to do with this twenty year old hull that has seemed to be snakebit for most of its life.  Sure, there were a couple of DNF's along the way, but the fact that the old boat with an infamous reputation of being consistent finished most of its heats and even find its way into the Final Heats at Seattle and Doha is indicative of the team's expertise.  Mark Evans showed his veteran skill for much of the season, and Jimmy Shane did a fine job as a relief driver in Doha.  It's unclear what the team can expect in 2012, but more of the same is a good possibility for this team.  In a broader sense, this boat could represent a sea change of sorts in Unlimited racing.  While it has usually been the case in Unlimited racing that even the biggest budget teams would only field one boat team on the water, Ted Porter's team is showing that one team could field two or even three competitive hulls at once.

U-11 Peters & May Any new team is going to go through growing pains, even one with as much experience as the U-11 team.  Although the Unlimited Racing Group came on to the scene with a lot of promise including a highly talented driver and crew chief as well as strong financial sport from Peters & May, 2011 proved to be an exercise in frustration for the new U-11 team.  The team failed to qualify for a Final Heat, only won one  heat all season, and failed to score any points in its home Seattle race.  Their still relatively new hull still has a lot of bugs to iron out, especially considering that the boat underwent a lot of changes prior to the 2011 season.  Despite the struggles of this year, nobody expect this team to stay down for long.  The partnership of Scott Raney and J.W. Myers should prove to be very fruitful in future years.  2012 should show marked improvement for the team and should be able to contend before too long.  After a frustrating first season this team has nowhere to go but up, and they should go way up.

U-22 Great Scott Speaking of struggles and growing pains, this still relatively young team experienced much of that in 2011.  While trying to adjust to their "new" boat which is actually the oldest boat in the field and hadn't raced in four years, the U-22 team failed to qualify for a Final Heat and was unable to even score points in two races this year (Detroit and Doha).  This is another  team that shouldn't expect to be down for very long.  Their former Miss Madison hull, although old, has a long history of being one of the most consistent finishers in the field and should improve with a full off season of preparation and shaking off the rust so to speak the team should see an improvement in 2012.

U-9 Miss VisitTriCities.com The primary U-9 hull and Jon Zimmerman got an unexpected early start on the season when they were both called into service in Detroit for Steve David and the Miss Madison team after their accident in their hometown race.  After that, the team played their usual role of an additional boat for the Washington race.  The team finished all of its heats along the way and even made it to the Final of the Seattle race.  It appears that, if the team will be back in 2012, it will continue to be on a temporary basis.  Hopefully Jon Zimmerman, who has a knack for getting the most out of the boat he is driving, will land a fulltime seat for the following season.

U-25 Superior Racing Ken Muskatel has had a long career as an owner/driver in the Unlimited Class, playing the role of an also ran and a field filler for most of that time.  The team failed to qualify for a Final Heat in 2011, in truth they didn't even come close.  2011 was perhaps the least successful season in the long history of this team, but in truth Muskatel deserves credit for even making an appearance in this season considering that he underwent major heart surgery in the winter and didn't even have a boat in the weeks leading up to the season.  Of course, this is nothing new for the Superior Racing team.  There many lean times over the last couple of decades when boat counts were in the single digits, but Ken Muskatel's boat   was always there.  It's unclear what the future will be for this team, but I for one hope to see Ken Muskatel at least continue as an owner, as he has done an extraordinary amount of good for the sport.

U-99 Miss Hapo Credit Union A second Leland hull was another addition to the field at Tri-Cities.  Although the team failed to score any points, Ryan Mallow was able to qualify as an Unlimited driver over the weekend.

Stories of Significance, and Looking Ahead

   It's all but impossible to judge a season's historical significance after the season has just concluded.  Just as an example, after the conclusion of the 1992 season it was probably thought that the most historically significant development was the first year of what at the time was thought to be years of dominance of Chip Hanauer behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser.  Whenever that year is brought up in recent times, however, it always seems to be that year's San Diego race where Dave Villwock made his Unlimited debut and went on to win the race.  So how will 2011 be remembered?  No doubt Villwock passing Bill Muncey's record was a historic moment, but in the future 2011 could also be remembered for the first of many race wins by Scott Liddycoat or perhaps even the first appearance by Bianca Bononcini in an Unlimited.

    There were many developments for H1 this season, and most of them were positive.  First was the partnership with Air National Guard, which at long last gave the series a national sponsor.  Hopefully this will continue for many years.  There was also the long awaited return of television coverage on Versus, whose broadcasts seemed to get better every week as the season went along.  There was also the involvement of a number of new sponsors for teams on a number of levels.

    Not all developments were positive, however.  For the purposes of this blog I have mostly held off on my opinion of how the rule changes went about this season, but for the season review I figured I'd let it out.  First off, I think the starting procedure for the first four races was great.  I realize that the "park and race" strategy used by many teams was widely criticized and even had the harrowing tag of "not real racing" attached to them, but personally I thought it was intriguing.  It turned the start into part game of chicken, part chess match, part game of dare, but all parts interesting.  Also, the strategy was shown that it could backfire as Steve David executed a successful leapfrog of the entire field before the start of his win in Seattle.

     All good things must come to an end, however, and these exciting starts were gone for the last two races of the year to be replaced by lane choices determined by the order that a team's ping pong ball was picked out of a bucket.  Now, I'm not necessarily opposed to lane choice being determined on the shore, at least not in the form that was used in 2009 and 2010.  While I would prefer the traditional fight for lanes I can understand why the teams and officials would want lane choice.  What bothered me about the ordeal was the idea of lane choice being determined by a draw.  It was, in my opinion way to gimmicky.  True, it made for some exciting heats in San Diego and Doha, but manufactured excitement is not a good substitute for naturally happening excitement.  Also, it's not like the issues it was claiming to fix (boats going too slow before the start, boats getting in front of each other, fewer boats going down on power due to ingesting salt water, etc.) were entirely washed away thanks to this new starting procedure.  So where does H1 go from here?  First off, I hope whatever is done that H1 decides to have the same starting procedure for all races, as having "fresh water rules" and "salt water rules' would not be beneficial for the teams in the long term.  One idea which has been thrown around is having boats maintain a minimum speed before the start, but I don't think this would work either.  Consider a situation when one boat gets in front of another boat, forcing the other boat to slow down, then who would the penalty be called on?  It would come down to a judgment call, and the H1 officials already have enough on their plate without having another aspect of the sport coming down to an unclear judgment call.  Personally I feel that H1 should keep the fight for lanes and the score up buoy, and perhaps extend the legal overlap to, say, twelve boat lengths and/or make the penalty more severe for violation of this rule (like say a flagrant or repeated violation of the overlap results in disqualification).  As for the worries about trolling in salt water, one quote came up during the change that makes a lot of sense: if a driver is foolish enough to go so slow that he burns up a turbine engine, chances are he isn't going to have his ride for very long.

  With that rant, however, one cannot look at 2011 as a whole without feeling positive.  The racing was exciting, there were some spectacular driving performances, some great rookies, and a number of developments that showed the sport was moving in the right direction.  I was in conversation with a fellow hydro fanatic in Madison and we were talking about how the sport now has a national sponsor, national TV coverage, etc. and I blurted out "it's like we're a real sport again."  Not only that, it's an expanding sport.  With 2011's exhibitions in Sacramento and Washington D.C. holding the very real possibility of becoming full races for 2012 and the expected running of the Houston race after water levels  forced the cancellation of the 2011 Houston event, there's a very good chance of their being eight domestic races for 2012.  With the added possibility of added international races, if not for 2012 then in the very near future, then the Unlimited calendar could become very crowded soon.  All in all 2011 was a great season, and while it went beyond my expectations, obviously I should refrain from such a foolish undertaking in the future.

Expect a prediction post prior to the beginning of the 2012 season.

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