Lotus and Ferrari among those already brimming with confidence

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We were greeted on day one by the sight of an almost full F1 paddock. Nearly 100 mammoth transporter and hospitality trucks, representing all of the 2013 teams and practically all of the drivers.

Everyone we spoke to from teams were pumped and ready to have a very serious four-day test, in preparation for the first race roughly three weeks away. They put in hundreds of miles of data collection, aero, drive train, drivability, reliability and most important of all, learning all they could about the new Pirelli tires, which this year have different construction and compounds, designed to degrade quicker, and they did. Leigh and I were talking to Mark Webber in the Red Bull hospitality center and he was not a huge fan. He had great difficulty in reading the tire wear and performance and thought there was a very narrow window of usability. Jenson Button on the other hand said he thought they were easier to come to grips with, no pun intended, and would be easier to understand. Unlike his MP428, which he had great reservations about, in spite of the fact that his new teammate Mexican Sergio Perez set the fastest time of the four days, Button wound up 11th.

The only new car at this the second test was the Williams, unveiled on the Monday. It was supposed to be just an evolution of last year’s car, but according to Dickie Stanford (the team manager who spent a long time with Leigh and I) it is really all new. He told us both drivers, Pastor Maldonado and newcomer Valtteri Bottas said the car was markedly better than the 2012 model. The Williams team ended up with the most laps 367, finishing 8th and 10th on the time sheet, but both less than a second off the fastest. The last day was cold and damp and between them the two did 36 laps with no time, just pit stop practice.

Ferrari, compared to this time last year, looked really good. Fernando Alonso pounded around for three days ,with 110, 76 and 97 laps. I’m sure he slept very well. He topped the time sheets on day three, with a time that kept him second over the four days. He did a lot of drive through laps which must tell them something, though Leigh and I couldn’t figure it out. Alonso also did a tremendous amount of practice starts at the exit of pit lane, as did most of the drivers. Felipe Massa drew the short straw, only running on day four, which was cold and damp, even so he managed 80 laps. The team must be headed to the next test on Thursday with so much confidence compared to last year.

The Lotus team too must be very confident going forward. Romain Grosjean ended up 4th overall and Kimi Raikkonen was 7th. Kimi took the first two days, on day one he was parked for hours with data logging problems. Lotus press officer Andy Stobart told us that they have reverted to last year’s system, temporarily. The second day Kimi had Gear box troubles, again in the garage for some time. Romain had pretty trouble free days doing 160 fast laps. We spoke to the team principal Eric Boullier and he seemed very confidant and pleased with his boys. He said that Kimi is Kimi and needs treating in a way that is a bit special, he is also satisfied that Grosjean will have a much less troubled year than last.

Leigh and I were lucky enough to spend some time with Christian Horner, who I have known since he was a schoolboy. He is a very smart guy and plays his cards extremely close to his vest. Neither of his drivers were particularly fast, but no one seemed concerned. We also spoke to John Wheatley, the team manager, and Kenny Handkammer, the chief mechanic, all of whom seemed very upbeat even though Sebastian Vettel ended up 5th and Mark Webber was 13th. They covered two hundred miles less than Williams or Ferrari. However on the last day when most teams were practicing pit stops, Red Bull reeled off a number of wheel changes in 2.1 seconds, staggeringly fast. The fastest race stop last year was Jenson Button with a 2.31 second. Kenny Handkammer was pretty pleased with that. He wanted a picture of himself with Leigh and I which he then tweeted, saying he was with his friends from NBC and racing legend David Hobbs, very flattering coming from someone like that.

The big change for this year is of course Lewis Hamilton moving to Mercedes and what it will do for him and them. On the first day, Nico Rosberg did the driving and they had a lot of unspecified troubles, spending some time in the garage. Despite that, Rosberg did the fastest lap of day one. Hamilton took over on day two and had essentially a trouble-free day turning 121 laps winding up 4th. He was having gear box troubles out on the track and we could hear him struggling. On day four Hamilton took the fast time in cold and damp conditions. They were never able to match the best times of the test but nevertheless look competitive.

The Sauber, particularly in the hands of Nico Hulkenberg looked very promising ending up third overall only three-tenths off. His old team Force India looked strong too Adrian Sutil looked very good but is not yet confirmed for the team; only Paul Di Resta is. They also tried Jules Bianchi but he did not drive until day 4 when conditions were at their worst. The Marussia machine only driven by Max Chilton was consistently faster than the new Caterham in the hands of Giedo Van de Garde and Charles Pic, both new to the team, always, in my opinion, a bad move with a new car no one is able to tell whether it’s the car or the driver.

Now testing is just that, testing. Impossible at this stage to really tell the relative strengths of the teams.

We can tell that Ferrari is ahead of where they were this time last year and Williams seems ahead. Red Bull … who knows? On time they are not there, however I’m sure they are very well aware that they are going to be strong, McLaren also looks good, but Jenson struggled badly last year mid-season and looks a bit as if he’s headed that way now. Mercedes? Hamilton has got to be worth half a second over Nico and that might put them in the ball park. We’ll know more next Sunday when the final test ends, but the real test will be P1 at Melbourne in March. See you there.

David Hobbs is the F1 analyst for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MrDavidHobbs.

Jay Frye expresses positive outlook on 2018 car

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In a teleconference with members of the media on Monday, the prevailing mindset of INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye, who helped oversee the design of the 2018 universal aero kit (pictured above in a Chevrolet livery), was one of positivity following it’s official unveiling, in speedway trim, earlier today.

First and foremost, though he helped head the effort, he was vocal about the input he got from a number of different entities during the process of creating the design.

“This has been a year and a half in the making, and the process has finally come to a point where we can get the car on the track, so we’re quite excited about that,” he revealed. “We certainly appreciate everyone’s help, from Dallara to the teams who have helped to the manufacturers who have helped and certainly the fans. Over the last few months we kept putting out some different things to get reactions from fans to see what they thought of the project. It helped us a lot, because it made us feel like we were going in the right direction, which is great.”

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Honda livery. Photo: IndyCar

The overall timeline of the project dates back to last year, particularly at tests at Phoenix International Raceway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where the experimentation process began. It was after those tests, as Frye explained, that the 2018 car began to take shape. “From that point (after tests at Phoenix and Mid-Ohio), we took what we thought the car should look like, and that’s where we talked about reverse engineering the car and to aesthetically make it have a historical feel, but in a very forward car, and I think we’ve done that.”

And with the project now open for the public to see, Frye appears confident that people will like how it performs. “The numbers have come back very strong, which we’re quite excited about. And here we are coming up to tomorrow, where we’re going to have our first on-track test. It’s been a long process, but it’s been very methodical,” he added.

Specific to those numbers, two obvious areas stand out the most: cost and downforce. First, as Frye explained, the operating cost of the 2018 aero kit is expected to be considerably less in comparison to the current aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda. Further, the conversion costs, the money the teams will spend in switching their chassis over to the new kits, is less than expected, making the package significantly more economical. As Frye explained, this is a result of negotiations in which it was agreed that this package will be in use for at least three years.

“From a total cost perspective, one of the things we looked at is called a conversion cost. What would it cost to convert the cars now? It’s not as much as we first thought it would be,” Frye detailed. “The annual cost will be 30-40 percent less than what the current car is. One of the things with having a universal car is we were able to negotiate the term, which is for three years, so the teams can plan for it. That was something that was very important: what the conversion cost was going to be and what the annual cost was going to be over this term.”

And, in terms of downforce, there will be reductions in aerodynamic downforce as well as overall downforce. First, most of the car’s grip will be generated from the bottom of the car, whereas currently most of the grip is produced by airflow over the top of the car. As Frye explained, this not only is significant to the overall performance of the car and how it will race, but it also reduces the chance for large debris fields after an accident.

“Sixty to seventy percent of the downforce is generated from the bottom of the car, where as before it was 40-45 percent, so there’s been a big gain in that. Also, another piece to the puzzle, there are less parts and pieces on top of the car, which creates less debris opportunities,” said Frye.

Further, the overall package is expected to produce 20-25 percent less downforce, that estimation even accounting for teams’ ability to develop the chassis to find areas where downforce could be added.

Frye added that this was a key element in the design of the car. “What we tried to do is create a window, so the total potential window of the car’s downforce level has shifted down. Obviously, as the teams start running the car, they’ll get better and better and better, so we wanted to make sure to move it a different direction that, once downforce comes back to a degree, we haven’t exceeded this window we’re looking at,” he revealed.

And, of course, enhanced safety was a big factor as well. Frye discussed a particular emphasis on side impacts, especially in the wake of accidents involving James Hinchcliffe (2015) and Sebastien Bourdais (2017), in which they suffered serious injuries following side-on impacts with the wall.

“The side-impact piece that’s in this car is moved forward, the radiator is moved forward, so it’s also a much more robust protection piece for the side-impact of the drivers,” Frye described.

And, of particular note in the wake of the F1 Strategy Group revealing that a halo will be introduced in 2018, Frye added that cockpit protection remains at the forefront, and while nothing is set in stone at the moment, the new chassis has room for cockpit protection to be added.

“The cars are built and designed around having some sort of application like that,” Frye said of cockpit protections. “At some point, we’ll test something, whatever application we can come up with. We’re definitely conscious of it, we’re conscious of how it will affect aesthetically, we’re conscious of the safety piece.”

The Verizon IndyCar series will test the 2018 car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tomorrow, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia doing the driving, with additional tests scheduled for Iowa Speedway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Sebring International Raceway later this year.

Soon after series testing is complete, Honda and Chevrolet will begin receiving chassis for their respective teams to test, with all IndyCar teams scheduled to receive their cars beginning in November. Individual team testing will then begin in January of 2018.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

IndyCar takes wraps off 2018 universal aero kit

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After months of renderings, INDYCAR has today revealed in full the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit.

This replaces the manufacturer aero kits that have been in use from Honda and Chevrolet since 2015.

Dallara was selected to build the kit, which comes on top of the existing base Dallara DW12 chassis that has run in the Verizon IndyCar Series since 2012.

Testing begins tomorrow at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Juan Pablo Montoya in the Chevrolet powered car, run by Team Penske and with Oriol Servia in the Honda powered car, run by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

More to follow.

Mercedes to enter Formula E from season six, quit DTM after 2018

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Mercedes will join the FIA Formula E championship from the start of its sixth season in 2019 after taking up its option on an entry.

Mercedes announced last October that it had secured an option to join the grid as a manufacturer from season five (2018/19), but was still evaluating an entry as of last month.

Despite having until October to make a final decision on taking up the entry, Mercedes announced on Monday that it would be going ahead with plans to join Formula E, starting from season six (2019/20).

As part of a realignment of its motorsport interests, Mercedes also confirmed that it would be quitting DTM, Germany’s leading touring car series, at the end of 2018.

“Mercedes Benz has announced a strategic repositioning of its motorsport activities: the company will conclude its participation in DTM at the end of 2018 and enter Formula E in the 2019/20 season,” a statement reads.

“This new approach will see Mercedes-Benz competing at both ends of the motorsport spectrum: in Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport combining high technology and the most demanding competitive challenge; and in Formula E, which embodies the transformation that is underway in the automotive industry.”

“Mercedes-Benz will market future battery powered electric vehicles using the EQ label,” said Dr. Jens Thiemer, Vice President Marketing Mercedes-Benz.

“Formula E is a significant step in order to demonstrate the performance of our attractive battery powered electric vehicles, as well as giving an emotional spin to our EQ technology brand through motorsport and marketing.”

Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff added: “In motorsport like in every other area, we want to be the benchmark in the premium segment and to explore innovative new projects.

“The combination of Formula 1 and Formula E delivers that. Formula E is like an exciting start-up venture: it offers a brand new format, combining racing with a strong event character, in order to promote current and future technologies.

“Electrification is happening in the road car world and Formula E offers manufacturers an interesting platform to bring this technology to a new audience – and to do so with a completely new kind of racing, different to any other series.

“I am pleased that we were able to extend our entry option for one year to the 2019/20 season. This gives us time to properly understand the series and to prepare for our entry in the right way.”

“Today is a great day as we welcome Mercedes to the Formula E family – adding to the increasing number of manufacturers joining the electric revolution,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“This step shows how much the world is changing, not only in motorsport, but the whole automotive industry. We’re witnessing a transformation that will first change our cities, and then our roads.

“Formula E is the championship that embodies that change, and together with all our teams and manufacturers we’ll keep pushing for technologies to have better and more affordable electric cars.”

Even as NASCAR hits Brickyard, Indy 500 chatter still buzzes

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A marathon Brickyard 400 is finally in the books on Sunday, but the allure of the Indianapolis 500 was a talking point among several drivers throughout the weekend within the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.

As evidenced by two recent guest stars who’ve made their maiden Indianapolis 500 bows – Kurt Busch in 2014 and Fernando Alonso in 2017, both with Andretti Autosport (Alonso in a McLaren Honda Andretti) – when a star from another discipline of motorsport shows up for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, people take notice, and a heck of a lot of words get typed.

So who could be next from the NASCAR world making a crack at Indy, or simply paying a visit on race day? It’s always fun to prognosticate and look ahead, even if the chances seem remote and all the stars – and contracts – have to align to make it happen.

KYLE BUSCH

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Toyota, poses with the Coors Light Pole Award decal after qualifying for pole position for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

No one doubts the younger Busch brother’s ability, and the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion knows a thing or two about winning at Indianapolis. He won back-to-back Brickyards in 2015 and 2016 and was well on his way to a three-peat in 2017 before he and Martin Truex Jr. collided, continuing his unlucky, unhappy and thus far winless season.

On Friday Busch revealed he had a ride in place for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but said it fell through because his boss wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t specify whether said “boss” was wife Samantha Busch or his Cup series team boss, Joe Gibbs.

“It would be a unique opportunity,” Busch said of the prospects, and such a chance to race it would open up a double possibility with the ‘500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day – same as Kurt did in 2014.

Gibbs seemed to pour water on that idea to ESPN.com reporter Bob Pockrass, saying Busch has “got a full plate” at the moment.

The issue with Busch running Indianapolis seems more a manufacturer-related one. Workarounds are possible but as Busch drives a Toyota in Cup, the likelihood of them being happy seeing him in a Honda – a fellow Japanese manufacturer – or a Chevrolet – a fellow NASCAR competitor – isn’t the best-case scenario. That’s not to say it can’t be done as Kurt Busch raced a Honda in 2014 while competing in a Chevrolet in NASCAR, but all parties would need to clear the way for this to happen.

This actually transitions nicely into a Kyle who could have an easier workaround from a manufacturer standpoint…

KYLE LARSON

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 SunnyD Ford, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, talk during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It’s the question of when, it seems, not if Larson races the Indianapolis 500. He’s said multiple times he wants to do and his team boss, Chip Ganassi has said he’s open to the idea himself. But it has to make sense from a timing standpoint. Yes, I’ll admit I wrote an admittedly last-ditch-for-2017 column about the idea earlier this year once Larson won at Auto Club Speedway, thus securing his playoff spot. But Ganassi doused water on the idea for this year in a gathering of reporters at St. Petersburg – noting how everyone blows up his social media in March and April for May of the current year, and it goes quiet in June, when the next year planning actually needs to take place.

Larson said this year’s two heavy accidents featuring his Ganassi teammates – IndyCar’s Scott Dixon and IMSA’s Sebastien Bourdais – have temporarily halted his desire.

“I do, but when I see Scott Dixon’s and (Sebastien) Bourdais crash, it makes me think twice about it a little bit. I’ll get the courage up to do it someday,” Larson said this weekend, via NASCAR Talk.

Put aside the accidents for a minute and let’s get back to looking at Larson’s realistic prospects depending on how the manufacturer and car count scenario could shake out. There’s a good possibility Ganassi’s IndyCar program will downsize for the full season next year if one or more of its three non-Dixon drivers doesn’t return. But what that could do would be open the opportunities for a Honda engine lease and an extra chassis to run. Larson, a Ganassi driver, has driven other manufacturers for the team before; he’s won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in a Ford-powered prototype and he races a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so a Honda in IndyCar could work out for him.

KASEY KAHNE

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 23: Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, kisses the yard of bricks with his crew after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Who says you can’t go home again? It’s easy to forget Kahne was a star on short tracks growing up, and had a handful of Formula Atlantic starts in 2001 before his NASCAR career began, and his Cup career started in 2004.

Kahne’s NASCAR Cup future seems uncertain at the moment but Sunday’s win at the Brickyard 400 was a massive boost for him. It ensures his playoff eligibility this year and helps further his case to see out the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports contract in 2018.

J. Douglas Boles, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track president, is renowned as a marketer and works incredibly hard from a promotional standpoint across the board. And the opportunity to have the active Brickyard 400 champion racing in the Indianapolis 500 the next year would be something to marvel at.

The reality of a situation would hinge on Kahne’s own desire to get back into open-wheel – he hasn’t been in an open-wheel car in more than a decade and he’s also a father now. But if he’s available, you wonder if it’s worth planting the seed.

DANICA PATRICK

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 23: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Aspen Dental Ford, is introduced prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Yes, I can’t believe I just typed that… and yet I also wonder if it’s possible once again. Like the others mentioned here she has been out of open-wheel for several years. She was IndyCar’s biggest star for a good six or seven years even if her results didn’t back it up.

This much we knew though. She was always good at Indianapolis, a regular top-five finisher and occasional win contender who generally took care of her equipment. She also hasn’t had the spotlight on her ability in the NASCAR side of affairs much, if at all, in recent years. Her results have been floundering at best; the occasional top-10 or top-15 finish is a surprise sprinkled in amidst a flurry of top-20s.

Like Kahne, her NASCAR future will be dictated by sponsorship and with the Nature’s Bakery lawsuit that occurred earlier this year leaving her Stewart-Haas Racing team looking to fill the gaps, you wonder how much more she’s willing to take beyond the rest of this year and into 2018.

Again, if she’s available, and more importantly if she’s interested, a comeback – especially in a year with a new universal aero kit that everyone would be learning – would undoubtedly dominate headlines.

While in this subhead, I’d also note Patrick’s boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (pictured above with Larson) would be a popular Indy 500 first-timer – particularly in a car with “BC Forever” logos and Jonathan Byrd’s support, the Byrd family having invested heavily and supported the late Bryan Clauson. It’s no secret Stenhouse and Clauson were close, and if there was a way for Stenhouse to clear the Ford manufacturer hurdle, he’d probably impress if he had the shot at the ‘500.

BRAD KESELOWSKI 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Kes” actually has an IndyCar test under his belt, his surprise one-off run for Team Penske at Road America in 2016. And after his runner-up finish at the Brickyard on Sunday, he got super close to putting the fabled “blue deuce” into first place and delivering Roger Penske his first ‘400 win.

Last year, Team Penske president Tim Cindric gave it a “20 percent chance” Keselowski could one day race in both the ‘500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Better than nothing, right? It’s hard to see it for next year with Team Penske figuring to have both Helio Castroneves and/or Juan Pablo Montoya in Indianapolis 500 entries, the question being if one or both would be extra cars beyond their full season.

DALE EARNHARDT JR. AND JEFF GORDON

We can pretty much say straight up neither of these two will be racing in the ‘500. But Junior riffed this weekend, “I’ve never been to the Indy 500 obviously, so that would be a great experience. It’s an impressive place.”

Gordon’s driven the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 before, so it’d make sense and would be a natural to bestow the same honor to Earnhardt Jr. given his relationship with Chevrolet. It’s also worth noting new IndyCar team owner Mike Harding ran his Chevrolet for Gabby Chaves with Junior’s stylized No. 88 at this year’s race – and Earnhardt gave it his approval on social media.

It would not be a stretch to see Earnhardt a guest of either his longtime manufacturer or this team at next year’s race.

Just don’t expect to see him in a race car, because that might break the Internet.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Gabby Chaves, driver of the #88 Harding Group Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)