MotorSportsTalk’s F1 2013 mid-season review – part two

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Following on from part one of MotorSportsTalk’s mid-season review, in part two the Formula One writers detail and dissect their top three stories from the season so far – be it for the right or wrong reasons.

Tony di Zinno’s top three

Tiregate. Unfortunately the dominant story throughout the first half of the season.

Mercedes’ one-lap pace vs. tire falloff. They’ve been great in qualifying all year but not able to sustain in the races. Still, Rosberg’s been great and Hamilton’s made us all look dumb for deriding his move from McLaren.

Webber retiring. One of the great one-liners in the sport, and the oldest driver on the grid, heads to the WEC with Porsche. Personally, I’ll miss his candor.

Christopher Estrada’s top three

Pirelli’s problems. Formula One’s tire manufacturer was charged with making a tire that could liven up the proceedings on Sundays. That indeed happened, but in a way that nobody expected or wanted. Their issues peaked with multiple failures in the British Grand Prix, which led to a rollout of new tires that married this year’s compounds with last year’s design. One hopes that, as a result, the second half of the F1 calendar will feature more emphasis on where it ought to be: the racing.

Mercedes’ evolution. Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel are still chugging along, but I’d say that what’s been happening for the Silver Arrows in 2013 has made them the most fascinating team to watch. Mercedes came in with high hopes after attaining the services of Lewis Hamilton. But for a good part of the first half, the headlines were instead focused on the ascension of teammate Nico Rosberg. However, Hamilton’s win in Hungary may have proven that the team’s finally neutralized the tire problems which had blunted their qualifying prowess. This story is most definitely, to be continued…

Who will replace Webbo? Mark Webber’s move to sports car racing in 2014 spells the end of a solid F1 career that has seen some considerable triumphs. It also opens up a prized seat at Red Bull alongside the ruthless Vettel, and that’s led to lots of talk as to who will get the call – Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have all found themselves dubbed as potential candidates. Who’s it going to be?

Luke Smith’s top three

The curious case of Pirelli. It’s been quite a year for Pirelli and we’re only half way through the season. Firstly they were deemed guilty of producing a tire that was ‘too bad’ for the drivers. So, to correct this, they held a private test with Mercedes which was eventually deemed illegal. Then, the safety of the drivers was put at risk at Silverstone, prompting another tire revision in Germany before eventually bringing back last year’s constructions. What next?

The demise of McLaren and Williams. The two dominant teams of the late ’80s and early ’90s have both faltered greatly so far this season thanks to two terrible cars. It has certainly spiced up the racing in the midfield, and it gives their drivers extra impetus to impress in the second half of the year. A winless year for McLaren would be bad, but a podium-less year? Unthinkable.

Marussia and Caterham’s battle. If you have read my work on MST, you will know that I’m a big fan of the backmarkers. Caterham and Marussia’s battle is raging on throughout the season, and both Bianchi and Pic have the makings of fine drivers in the future. With nine races to go, Caterham need to work hard if they are to finish tenth in the constructors’, while Marussia need to bounce back as soon as possible.

Keith Collantine’s top three

The team orders row in Malaysia. I thought there was a lot of hypocrisy in some of the coverage of Vettel refusing to heed Red Bull’s instructions for him not to pass Webber in the closing stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix. The fact that two years ago at Silverstone Webber conducted himself in exactly the same way Vettel did (albeit unsuccessfully) was widely ignored. That said, Vettel did himself few favours by first appearing to repent his actions, then insisting Webber didn’t deserve to win the race. He should have stuck to the latter view from the start.

Webber leaving F1. I don’t doubt that Webber’s frustration with life at Red Bull has played some role in his desire to move on to pastures new. But don’t underestimate the sincerity of his misgivings over the direction F1 is heading in with designed-to-degrade tires and, next year, tight restrictions on fuel use. I expect he’ll be more vocal about it once he’s joined Porsche in the World Endurance Championship, which is largely free of the gimmicks F1 has got itself hooked on.

Ecclestone indicted. Bernie Ecclestone himself has admitted Formula One owners CVC Capital Partners may have to replace him if he were found guilty in his bribery case in Germany. With the news of Ecclestone being formally indicted, his four-decade spell in charge of F1 is not yet at an end, but this could be the beginning of the end.

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.

Pagenaud leads Penske 1-2-3-4 in Practice 3 at Road America

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Team Penske continued its domination this weekend at Road America, with Simon Pagenaud leading third practice for the Kohler Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Pagenaud pipped teammate Will Power in the final seconds to take fast lap honors in third practice, with Pagenaud’s 1:42.0439 edging Power’s 1:42.0698.

Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden ended third and fourth, making it a Penske 1-2-3-4 for the second consecutive session this weekend (they did the same in second practice on Friday). Scott Dixon ended the session fifth, the best of the Honda runners.

Several drivers had off-course excursions during practice as they pushed the limits ahead of qualifying this afternoon. Most notably, Newgarden brought out a brief red flag when he spun into the gravel in Turn 14, the third spin in turn 14 this weekend. Newgarden did not have any contact with the tire barriers, but the No. 2 Devilbiss Chevrolet was beached in the gravel and needed a tow. He suffered no damage, however, and rejoined the session after it resumed.

Of note, Marco Andretti and Spencer Pigot enjoyed strong sessions to end up sixth and seventh, while Mikhail Aleshin was 20th after arriving at the track earlier in the morning, with immigration issues delaying his travel.

Times are below. Qualifying begins at 4:00 p.m. ET (3:00 p.m. local time), and airs on NBCSN at 5:00 p.m. ET.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Leclerc takes emotional Baku F2 victory, extends points lead

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Charles Leclerc extended his points lead at the top of the FIA Formula 2 championship on Saturday by taking an emotional victory in the feature race at the Baku City Circuit.

Racing just days after the death of his father and with tributes on both his car and helmet, Leclerc went unchallenged en route to his third victory of the F2 season, leading home Nyck de Vries and Nicholas Latifi.

Leclerc made a clean start from pole to retain his advantage through the opening stint, only losing the lead for a handful of laps after pitting when a handful of drivers tried to make an alternate strategy work.

Despite multiple safety car periods and the race finishing under a red flag, Ferrari youngster Leclerc was able to finish 3.4 seconds clear of de Vries in second place, with Latifi a further 2.9 seconds back.

Leclerc’s title rival, Oliver Rowland, was classified fourth, with the results of the race being counted back to Lap 24 after it was red flagged late on.

A spin for Sean Gelael at the tight Turn 8 section by the castle caused a blockage, preventing cars from getting through, meaning that the race had to be called off.

Leclerc’s championship lead now stands at 22 points ahead of Sunday’s reverse grid sprint race in Baku.