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NBC and NASCAR made memories in last stint, with new ones to come

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MotorSportsTalk’s two U.S.-based writers, Tony DiZinno and Chris Estrada, take a look back on NBC’s last stint featuring NASCAR Sprint Cup races from 1999 through 2006. In both instances, these were formative years of their racing fandom.

Tony DiZinno:

For 2013, NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network became your official home of open-wheel racing with the acquisition of Formula One to go along with IndyCar coverage.

Now, we can amend that to say, it’s your official home of almost all racing.

In 2015, NASCAR will be back on NBC. The re-acquisition of North America’s number one form of motorsports brings together all three major motorsports championships under one roof. And it has the potential to reignite memories from NBC’s last stint with NASCAR, from 1999 through 2006.

Besides his role on NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams is one of NASCAR’s most dedicated fans. He opened the coverage at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1999, a race won by a then-unheralded rookie out of Indiana named Tony Stewart.

In 2001, we were treated to one of NASCAR’s most emotional victories, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway – the first Cup race at the track since he lost his father in that year’s Daytona 500.

The 2004 season featured two dramatic moments to open and close the year on NBC. Earnhardt Jr. took his first, and thus far only, Daytona 500 win on February 15, six years to the day after Dale Sr. won his only ‘500. It was also the first high-definition race aired in Cup history.

To finish off the season, Kurt Busch edged Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin to capture the first title in the Chase for the Nextel Cup era. Busch beat Johnson by eight points after a thrilling battle at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, in a race won by Greg Biffle.

All the moments were captured by an announce team that included Allen Bestwick, and later Bill Weber, calling every lap. But it was the late Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach Jr. who did it for me. “BP” and Wally’s banter was a nice counter-balance to the lap-by-lap coverage, and their analysis added valuable insights for viewers.

Having started watching racing in the late 1990s, I’d seen “BP” on the old ESPN Wide World of Sports coverage and when he joined the NBC crew when they took over the coverage, I was thrilled. It’s a shame he won’t be around for this newest incarnation, but I’m optimistic we’ll see a number of familiar faces returning to the broadcasts.

Chris Estrada:

For myself, the return of NASCAR to NBC is almost like going back in time to my formative years as a motorsports fan. I’ve learned to follow the series from a proper, objective standpoint in recent years, but when NBC had the rights from 1999-2006, I was still at the point where I had my favorites.

Above all of them was Dale Earnhardt – the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the man that got me hooked on this sport. I was 14 years old when we lost him in the 2001 Daytona 500, and I was crushed. So when the series returned to Daytona that summer, I (along with many others, I’m sure) was pulling so badly for his son.

I will never forget that race and the call from NBC’s Allen Bestwick that brought him home: “It’s going to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.! Using lessons learned from his father to go from sixth to first and score the victory in the Pepsi 400!” And then, the late, great and dearly missed Benny Parsons, chiming in with what we were all thinking: “Yes! Yes!”

That, along with seeing Earnhardt Jr. and then-teammate Michael Waltrip (who finished second that night) embrace afterwards on top of the latter’s car, was cathartic for me and the rest of the sport’s faithful. Junior had delivered one of the sport’s greatest wins, and Waltrip, who had won the aforementioned ‘500’ that February, got to have the celebration he richly deserved.

We all know life goes on through good times and bad times, but we needed to see that affirmed before our eyes. And it was. That wasn’t the only memorable moment we saw during NASCAR’s recent run on NBC, of course (see my colleague’s thoughts above). But it’s probably the one most fans remember fondly.

I’m willing to bet we’ll see a few more of them upon NASCAR’s return to NBC in a year and a half.

Timeline: Tracking six weeks that flipped the 2017 F1 driver market

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The waiting is finally over. After six or so weeks of speculation, rumors and theories about who might replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas was finally unveiled by the team as its second Formula 1 driver for 2017 on Monday.

Bottas’ arrival from Williams has been expected since about the middle of December, making the news hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is still highly significant.

With Pascal Wehrlein joining Sauber and Felipe Massa due to return at Williams, the driver market is – for now – complete. We still wait for news on Manor’s future after it entered administration earlier this month.

Can’t remember all that has happened since Nico dropped the mic and walked away from F1? Here’s a timeline of events to refresh your memory.

November 27 – Nico Rosberg clinches his maiden F1 world title in Abu Dhabi, finishing second in the race to win the championship by five points. Felipe Massa makes what was planned to be his final F1 start.

December 2 – Rosberg announces his immediate retirement from F1 in a press conference ahead of the FIA gala in Vienna, Austria.

December 3 – Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda says he has received calls from half the F1 grid enquiring about Rosberg’s seat.

December 4 – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel dismisses the suggestion he could leave Ferrari and take Rosberg’s seat for 2017. Lewis Hamilton claims he’s not chasing number one status at Mercedes following Rosberg’s departure.

December 6 – Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff admits the team has to consider Fernando Alonso for the vacant seat, but hints a deal for 2017 would be unlikely.

December 8 – Mercedes posts a tongue-in-cheek advert in Autosport magazine regarding its driver vacancy for 2017.

December 9 – Former manager and long-term confidante of Alonso, Flavio Briatore, says that the Spaniard will not take Rosberg’s seat.

December 11 – Hamilton and Wolff enjoy an “amazing” meeting regarding plans for the 2017 season. Hamilton says Mercedes will have “the strongest partnership” to defend its titles. BBC Sport reports that Valtteri Bottas is Mercedes’ prime target and has already tabled an offer for the Finn.

December 13 – Alonso tells the entire McLaren team at its base in England that he remains committed to the project, ending speculation about a possible move.

December 14 – Williams’ Pat Symonds says that keeping Bottas is “crucial” to the team’s future success.

December 15 – Mercedes confirms that it will make no announcement regarding Rosberg’s replacement until January 3 at the earliest. Claire Williams says that Williams was open to letting Bottas leave, relying it could find a suitable replacement.

December 16 – Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner says he would not allow junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr. to take Rosberg’s seat.

December 20 – Reports suggest that Massa has agreed to come out of retirement and return to Williams for 2017, paving the way for Bottas to leave the team.

December 30 – Massa posts on Instagram that he is back “training hard” in America.

January 3 – The earliest date for an announcement from Mercedes passes.

January 4 – Mercedes confirms it will launch its 2017 F1 car, the W08, at Silverstone on February 23.

January 6 – Manor – the team Wehrlein raced for last year – enters administration, raising doubts over the team’s future and place on the 2017 grid.

January 15 – Claire Williams says she expects to make an announcement about Bottas’ future within a week.

January 16 – Pascal Wehrlein is officially announced by Sauber; photos of Bottas in Mercedes team gear leak online; Williams confirms Massa will return; finally, Bottas is announced officially at Mercedes.

Valtteri Bottas joins Mercedes F1 for 2017 season as Rosberg’s replacement

Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City, Mexico.
Sunday 30 October 2016.
Valtteri Bottas, Williams Martini Racing.
Photo: Glenn Dunbar/Williams
ref: Digital Image _X4I0171
© Williams Martini Racing
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Valtteri Bottas has officially joined Mercedes AMG Petronas ahead of the 2017 Formula 1 season, replacing World Champion Nico Rosberg.

The long-expected announced was made by Mercedes on Monday, putting an end to six weeks of speculation in the wake of Rosberg’s decision to walk away from F1.

It followed two other announcements made the same morning, with Pascal Wehrlein going to Sauber and, more importantly for Mercedes’ case, Williams Martini Racing’s release of Bottas to Mercedes and confirmation Felipe Massa would come back for one more year.

Mercedes still managed to have fun with the now worst-kept secret in F1, building up the “suspense” on Twitter:

And then Mercedes made it official, via a live video from its factory in Brackley.

Bottas joins Mercedes for his fifth season in F1, having raced with Williams since 2013 and recorded a best finish of fourth in the drivers’ championship in 2014.

The Finn led Williams to third place in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015, scoring nine podium finishes during his time with the team.

Mercedes had been due to field an unchanged line-up of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in 2017, only for Rosberg to announce his immediate retirement from racing five days after winning his maiden F1 title in Abu Dhabi.

The news sent the F1 driver market into a late flux, with Bottas appearing towards the top of Mercedes’ shortlist alongside its in-house junior driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Mercedes decided against promoting Wehrlein due to his inexperience, having only completed one season in F1, leaving Bottas as its prime target.

Bottas had re-signed with Williams for 2017, rejecting a move to Renault, and had been set to partner 18-year-old Lance Stroll during his rookie campaign.

Mercedes’ first approach for Bottas included Wehrlein as part of the deal, only for Williams to reject the German on account of his inexperience and the need to have at least one driver over the age of 25, as per a requirement for title sponsor Martini.

Williams found a solution by luring Felipe Massa out of retirement, the Brazilian having raced for the British team since 2014.

Massa said an emotional farewell to F1 in Abu Dhabi, but is now set to return for at least one more season to help the team develop its new car, the FW40, during a period of regulation change.

With Massa agreeing to return for 2017, Williams gave the green light for Bottas to join Mercedes, ending the six-week waiting game that had played out.

Having missed out on seats at Mercedes and Williams, Wehrlein is now due to race for Sauber in 2017, replacing Felipe Nasr at the Swiss team.

The only remaining seats on the F1 grid for 2017 are at Manor, which is yet to confirm either of its drivers amid ongoing takeover talks with American-Mexican investor Tavo Hellmund.

2017 Formula 1 driver line-ups

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton/Valtteri Bottas
Red Bull: Daniel Ricciardo/Max Verstappen
Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel/Kimi Raikkonen
Force India: Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon
Williams: Felipe Massa*/Lance Stroll
McLaren: Fernando Alonso/Stoffel Vandoorne
Toro Rosso: Carlos Sainz Jr./Daniil Kvyat
Haas: Romain Grosjean/Kevin Magnussen
Sauber: Marcus Ericsson/Pascal Wehrlein
Manor: TBA/TBA

Felipe Massa backtracks on F1 retirement, confirms Williams return for ’17

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams stands with a Brazilian flag for his last home Grand Prix with his son Felipinho on the drivers parade before the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Less than six weeks after making what was set to be his final start in Formula 1, Felipe Massa has confirmed his return to the grid for 2017 with Williams, on a one-year deal.

The news was announced by the team on Monday, completing its line-up for the 2017 campaign ahead of the season-opener in Australia on March 26.

“Firstly, I am very happy to have an opportunity to return to Williams. I always intended to race somewhere in 2017, but Williams is a team close to my heart and I have respect for everything it is trying to achieve,” Massa said. “Valtteri has a great opportunity, given the turn of events over the winter, and I wish him all the best at Mercedes.

“In turn, when I was offered the chance to help Williams with their 2017 Formula One campaign, it felt like the right thing to do. I certainly have not lost any of my enthusiasm for racing and I’m extremely motivated to be coming back to drive the FW40. The support from my fans over the last few weeks has been a huge boost and I’m grateful for that. I also look forward to working with Lance; I’ve known him for many years and seen his talent develop during that time, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.”

Claire Williams, deputy team principal, added the experience Massa will bring should help the team this season.

“I’m delighted that Felipe has agreed to come out of retirement to be a part of our 2017 campaign. With Valtteri having a unique opportunity to join the current Constructors’ Champions, we have been working hard to ensure that an agreement could be made with Mercedes to give Valtteri this fantastic opportunity,” she said.

“Valtteri has been part of the Williams family since 2010 and in that time has proved a huge talent, securing nine podium finishes. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him on behalf of the whole team, and wish him a successful season as he joins Mercedes.

“Felipe has always been a much-loved member of the Williams family, and having the opportunity to work with him again is something we all look forward to. He was always going to race somewhere in 2017, as he has not lost that competitive spirit, and it was important that we had a strong replacement in order for us to let Valtteri go. Felipe re-joining us provides stability, experience and talent to help lead us forward. He is a great asset for us.

Massa, 35, announced in September that he would be retiring from F1 racing at the end of the 2016 season, making way for 18-year-old Lance Stroll to take his seat alongside Valtteri Bottas at Williams.

Massa made what would have been his final start in Abu Dhabi, having said an emotional farewell to his home fans in Brazil two weeks earlier in some of the most powerful scenes of the 2016 season.

However, following Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title, Mercedes identified Bottas as its primary target to replace the German.

Williams was offered a discount on power units and the services of Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein in return for releasing Bottas from his contract for 2017, but rejected the proposal.

Williams stressed it wanted a racer more experienced that Wehrlein – an F1 sophomore for the coming season – to aid the development of its new car through the change in technical regulations for 2017. The team also requires at least one driver over the age of 25 to satisfy sponsor Martini, an alcohol brand.

Williams instead turned to Massa and put together a deal to bring the Brazilian out of retirement for 2017 that was accepted in the lead up to the holiday season.

Following Jenson Button’s decision to step back from an F1 seat for 2017, Massa will be the third-most experienced driver on the grid for the forthcoming season, with Australia due to be his 251st race start.

Of the active drivers racing in F1, only Fernando Alonso (278) and Kimi Raikkonen (251) have made more appearances than Massa.

Wehrlein’s 2017 shift is from Manor to Sauber, not Mercedes

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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With Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement shifting the 2017 Formula 1 silly season into a final kick of overdrive, Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein appeared well-positioned to replace the outgoing and newly crowned World Champion. He also said as much after winning rookie-of-the-year honors at the year-end Autosport Awards.

However, with Wehrlein short on overall experience after his first season at Manor and with Mercedes set to snatch Valtteri Bottas away from Williams Martini Racing, the German was passed over for the vacant seat at the three-time defending World Championship outfit.

Wehrlein will be on the move anyway for 2017 nonetheless, with Sauber F1 Team confirming his arrival there next year alongside Marcus Ericsson, who returns for his third season with the team.

“I am very delighted at being a part of the Sauber F1 Team for the upcoming Formula One Season,” Wehrlein said in a release.

“It is a new challenge in a new team, and I am really excited and looking forward to this new adventure. Our objective is to establish ourselves in the mid-field and to score points on a regular basis.

“That being said, I will do my best to support Sauber. Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season.

“That being said, I will do my best to support Sauber. Now I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the team and to tackling the preparations for the 2017 season. I want to say a big thank you to Sauber for trusting in me and giving me this great chance. And surely, a huge thanks also goes to Mercedes for the support.”

It’s rather ironic Wehrlein will shift to Sauber, a team Manor was ahead of all season until the penultimate race at Brazil. Wehrlein delivered Manor’s second points finish in its seven-year history with 10th place at the Austrian Grand Prix, which was enough to slot them ahead of scoreless Sauber for most of the year.

But when Felipe Nasr came ninth in Brazil, thanks to an excellent strategy in the mixed condition race, that was enough to deliver two points and move Sauber back up to 10th in the Constructor’s Championship ahead of Manor.

Now, it’s Wehrlein who has Nasr’s old seat at the team that doesn’t have Mercedes engines, but does have the financial windfall that Manor, which has Mercedes engines, does not after coming 10th.

For Wehrlein, the shift is something of a lateral move. But if Sauber can produce a good chassis, armed with year-old Ferrari engines, the goal for Wehrlein must be to produce a Carlos Sainz-at-Toro Rosso type of campaign, punching above his weight in the midfield and breaking into double digits of points scored.

He’ll also have to be motivated knowing he was passed over not just for the Mercedes seat, but also the Sahara Force India seat taken by fellow Mercedes youngster and his second half Manor teammate, Esteban Ocon.