Vergne blooming, although not in Red Bull contention yet

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Two of Autosport’s top Formula One writers have pegged Jean-Eric Vergne’s recent hot streak as the starting point for consideration at Red Bull Racing for 2014.

The news side first: Jonathan Noble reports that despite Vergne’s uptick in performance in Monaco and Canada, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner still deems it “too early to tell” on whether Vergne has entered the discussion for a promotion from Scuderia Toro Rosso.

“It is still too early to make a call on that, but we have all the information through working with those guys and following them closely,” Horner told Noble. “But it is great to see the progress they are making.”

Further analysis (only available to paid Autosport subscribers)  comes from Autosport’s F1 editor Edd Straw regarding Vergne’s efforts in Monaco and Canada. Autosport’s magazine reported a week ago that Kimi Raikkonen, currently without a contract for 2014, seems the early favorite to replace Mark Webber at Red Bull assuming the Australian leaves and Lotus can’t keep the Finn on its books.

But Straw writes that if Vergne, who’s still only 23, can keep up this level and leave Daniel Ricciardo in the shadows, the Frenchman needs to be considered.

Of Canada, Straw said, “His Canadian Grand Prix weekend performance was outstanding. Had Valtteri Bottas not grabbed the headlines, it would have been Vergne who attracted rave reviews in qualifying.”

He added, in looking at Vergne on the whole, “Many both inside and outside Red Bull regard the Frenchman as having the greater potential. Promise is all well and good, but what JEV, as he is widely known, has failed to do is cut out the mistakes and deliver throughout a weekend on anything other than a sporadic basis.”

Indeed the word that could best be used to describe Vergne’s form is “erratic.” Although he has outscored Ricciardo 13 points to 7 this year, after beating him 16 to 10 last year (29 to 17 in total), in 27 races, Ricciardo has been the higher qualifier 20 times. Several times last year Vergne was the only driver outside of Caterham, Marussia and HRT that failed to make the cut out of Q1.

Now though, Vergne is starting to develop. Like his countryman Romain Grosjean, the potential for brilliance is there, but it’s just a matter of his stringing it together on a more consistent basis. If he does that, he might indeed enter that short list at Red Bull.

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”