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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.

New CTSC champs win titles, race at Road Atlanta

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Billy Johnson and Scott Maxwell (GS) and Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante (ST) made it easy for the record keepers in the 2016 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season finale at Road Atlanta.

Both driver pairings won the race, and subsequently both pairings also won their respective season-long class championships.

Maxwell started the No. 15 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Shelby GT350R-C from pole and Johnson played the hunter after the final round of pit stops, on fresher tires than the competing No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport driven by Marc Miller, and started by Danny Burkett.

Johnson then made it past Miller with 12 minutes to go, on the inside of the right-handed Turn 7, for the lead and ultimately the win on Lap 80.

This secures the title for the pairing after an authoritative season in GS, having won six of the 10 races.

Miller and Burkett rounded out their first year as teammates once again on the podium, with the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage of Charlie Putman and Charles Espenlaub in third.

The drama occurred more so in ST, with Pumpelly and Galante overcoming an eight-point deficit entering the race to win in the final 30 minutes.

Stevan McAleer and Chad McCumbee looked poised to capture their second straight title in ST and with a second different team. They won it for CJ Wilson Racing last year but looked to do the same for Freedom Autosport on this occasion.

But while Pumpelly made it past McAleer for the lead and McAleer was still second, smoke began to emerge from the right front of the engine bay with just over 20 minutes remaining.

McAleer attempted to get a push in his No. 25 Mazda MX-5 from teammate Andrew Carbonell in the No. 26 Mazda MX-5 but despite Carbonell doing so for a couple laps, the mechanical issues intensified and pitted.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

That ensured Pumpelly and Galante had enough to secure the title for Justin Bellinzoni’s Rennsport One team, driving the No. 17 Porsche Cayman.

Pumpelly’s teammate in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley, brought the No. 93 HART Honda Civic Si second in the car started by teammate Chad Gilsinger.

The No. 73 MINI JCW run by LAP Motorsports and driven by Derek Jones and Mat Pombo looked set to end third, back on the podium as they were this race last year, but fell off in the final couple laps.

It promoted Connor Bloum and Greg Strelzoff to a welcome podium in another RS1 Cayman, the No. 19 car, in third.

Eric Foss looked set to bring the No. 56 Murillo Racing Porsche Cayman home with a podium after starting from the rear of the field with co-driver Jeff Mosing, after Mosing was caught up in a qualifying accident on Thursday. But he fell down the order in the final laps, down to sixth.

Alonso set for short qualifying after Malaysia power unit penalties

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso is preparing to watch the majority of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on TV after being hit with power unit penalties at Sepang.

Honda confirmed heading into the weekend that it had used some of its remaining development tokens to bring an update power unit to Malaysia for the McLaren team.

While Jenson Button will not take on the upgrades, Alonso will, meaning he must take new power unit components that trigger a grid penalty.

As things stand, Alonso has a 30-place grid drop to his name after taking a complete new power unit, but is expected to receive an additional penalty on Saturday.

Regardless, with the Spaniard all but certain to start Sunday’s race from last place on the grid, his focus on Saturday will be to set a time fast enough to simply qualify for the race, finishing within 107% of the best Q1 lap.

“We completed a good number of laps today and got through all the tests we’d planned to do. We even managed to conduct some experiments aimed at next year’s car, which was really positive,” Alonso said, reflecting on his Friday practice running, where he finished fifth in FP1 and seventh in FP2.

“We still need to see how well we can do tomorrow, especially in FP3, where we’ll be concentrating on long runs.

“For me, qualifying is going to be pretty short because of my penalties: I’ll do a lap to set a time within 107% and then I’ll watch it on TV. Then we’ll try to save as many sets of new tires as possible.”

“Fernando made a positive start to his weekend by immediately dropping into the groove and looking impressively quick at times,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier added.

“It’s frustrating that he’s facing a significant grid penalty – for introducing new power unit elements – but it’s something we’d already factored into our weekend program, and we’ll work hard to provide him with a car and a strategy to best cope with that setback on Sunday.”

Qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 5am ET on Saturday.

Askew, Kirkwood named 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipients

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Photo: Juha Leivonen for Team USA Scholarship
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Put these two names on your rolodex to keep track of from here. Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood have been named the 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipients on Friday at Road Atlanta, which continues the two’s pairing in their respective racing careers to this point.

Askew, 19, and Kirkwood, 17, both hail from Jupiter, Fla. and have been longtime karting compatriots for more than a decade.

Besides these two, others present for today’s announcement included Bobby Rahal, Mike Hull, and past Team USA Scholarship recipients Dane Cameron, Joel Miller, Andy Lally, Joey Hand, Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot.

The full release from the Team USA Scholarship is linked below. Jeremy Shaw’s program has been identifying young American talent since 1990.

Oliver Askew (left), 19, and Kyle Kirkwood (right), 17, who, coincidentally, both hail from Jupiter, Fla., were confirmed today as the most recent winners of prestigious Team USA Scholarships. The long-time friends and karting rivals will travel to England next month to contest both the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.

The Team USA program was inaugurated in 1990 as a means of assisting talented young American drivers at an early stage in their careers. A young Jimmy Vasser was the first scholarship winner, followed by Bryan Herta in 1991. Subsequent winners include 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice, current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Charlie Kimball, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly and Spencer Pigot, and accomplished sports car stars Andy Lally, Joey Hand, Bryan Sellers, Dane Cameron, Joel Miller and Tristan Nunez, all of whom will be competing in this weekend’s 19th annual Petit Le Mans IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race.

This year’s selection process began with a group of 11 candidates being interviewed by an illustrious panel of auto racing professionals, including Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing, factory Porsche driver Patrick Long and former scholarship winners Kimball, Miller, Newgarden and Pigot, during the Verizon IndyCar Series weekend at Mid-Ohio. Six finalists progressed to a one-day shootout last week at an oppressively hot Palm Beach International Raceway in Florida hosted by Cooper Tire and the Lucas Oil School of Racing. Askew and Kirkwood ultimately were chosen as the winners by a committee which included 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran, four-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach, factory Mazda driver Nunez, Starworks Motorsport team principal Peter Baron and multi-time junior formula championship winning team co-owner Nicholas Cape.

“The standard was extremely high and we were faced with some difficult decisions,” said Team USA Scholarship founder and auto racing writer/broadcaster Jeremy Shaw. “After much deliberation we chose Oliver and Kyle, but all of the youngsters performed well and would have been worthy recipients.”

Askew and Kirkwood will drive a pair of identical Ray GR15 Formula Ford 1600 cars in the UK prepared by Cliff Dempsey Racing, which previously has guided Newgarden to victory in the 2008 Formula Ford Festival (the first American winner of an event which dates back to 1972) and earned top Walter Hayes Trophy spoils for Team USA with Daly (2008), Connor De Phillippi (2009), who currently leads the ADAC Masters GT series in Europe, and Nunez (2012).

“I am ecstatic and greatly honored,” said Kirkwood, a front-runner in the inaugural F4 U.S. Championship powered by Honda with Primus Racing. “To be able to represent the USA is a feeling no words can describe. I will work vigorously to prove that Jeremy and the Team USA Scholarship judges have chosen the right person for the job. I am extremely excited for this opportunity and for the memories to come!”

“I cannot express how excited I am to represent the prestigious Team USA Scholarship,” added karting star Askew, who has shone in Formula Masters China and Skip Barber events. “Kyle and I have been very close friends for over 10 years. We have been teammates in the karting ranks for many of those years, so we will keep working together to bring home great results. I’d like to send out a special thanks to those who support the Team USA Scholarship, especially Jeremy Shaw for putting in countless hours to help young talent fight for their dreams.”

Ford GT, Ganassi concludes debut GTLM season looking for big finish

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – Despite having only an outside chance at the GT Le Mans championship, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team can still look back at its debut IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with the new Ford GTs with fond memories.

A midseason run of three straight wins at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park propelled Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook into GTLM class championship contention with their No. 67 Ford.

But since, an issue on the final lap at Road America that cost a fourth win in five races, then finishes of fourth and ninth the last two outings at VIRginia International Raceway and Circuit of The Americas have left Briscoe and Westbrook 11 points (314-303) behind class points leaders Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R.

Meanwhile, the No. 66 Ford pairing of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller are yet to win on U.S. soil, but were two-thirds of the lineup (Sebastien Bourdais) that brought Ford and Ganassi its first targeted goal of 2016 – a dominant and authoritative GTE-Pro class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 50 years on from its first win there in 1966.

Seeing how well Ford and Ganassi have adapted to the no-holds barred GTLM class in their first year in the category (after a couple years in Prototype prior) remains an impressive feat, considering the relative lack of experience in class by contrast to the collective units from Corvette, Porsche, BMW and Risi Ferrari.

“It does seem to be the place to be at the moment, not just in IMSA but worldwide,” Westbrook told NBC Sports, as he too has come back into GT after a run in Prototypes with the Visit Florida Racing Corvette team.

“There’s lot of respect out there and a lot of competition and great drivers. We all know each other because everyone’s been around so long.

“Going into a different class compared to what I was used to, brought a new team, car, co-driver and program. But the atmosphere on the 67 and the whole team has been superb. It’s a really good working environment, and it’s been exciting to sink our teeth back into development.”

Much as Westbrook has come back to his spiritual home and class, Briscoe’s been fortunate to have a full-season opportunity after a couple odd years in 2013 and 2015 when he put together part-time programs but was more known for his versatility than one single program.

The 2013 season saw him in a Level 5 Motorsports LMP2 car and two different IndyCar teams (Ganassi and Panther Racing), while after a single year back with Ganassi in IndyCar in 2014, he spent 2015 as Corvette Racing’s endurance ace and James Hinchcliffe’s primary replacement in IndyCar.

“It’s been great and as you know it was a big reason I why jumped on this,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “Every driver sort of needs some stability!

“But obviously you still have to go out and perform and be the best you can. Going after a championship, and going on after Le Mans… having those championship goals in mind are huge. It’s a totally different mindset than race-to-race.”

Briscoe’s handoff to Westbrook at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Westbrook’s subsequent fuel saving performance to win there provided the entire organization a huge shot in the arm, and was arguably a big reason why they were as confident and motivated as they were going into Le Mans, with the combined four-car effort there.

The team winning Le Mans after a thoroughly dominant outing was then the icing on the cake, and it was likely no coincidence that Ford announced a two-year program extension through 2019 shortly thereafter.

“Le Mans was like a dream. It really was. It felt like, ‘This is why Ford’s back,’” Westbrook explained, even though he, Briscoe and Scott Dixon were third there while Hand, Mueller and Bourdais won.

“The win at Laguna gave everyone a lift. We’d struggled a bit before Laguna at Long Beach, Sebring and Daytona. But Laguna showed we could race against and come out on top.

“So going into Le Mans, confidence was high and we had a really quick car. From the past though, even having the fastest car doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t finish.

“When we won, there was a massive release of pressure after that. The valve turned open… the steam came out and we could enjoy the rest of the year. It showed in our performance the next few races. The results kept on coming… and the drive at Mosport, was just awesome. It was a weekend where we struggled a bit but we came out on top again.”

The Watkins Glen and Mosport wins that followed could not have been further apart in how they were achieved.

At Watkins Glen, Westbrook did the lion’s share of work while Briscoe tended to last-minute baby duty as wife Nicole gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Blake. Then at Mosport – or CTMP – a heavy Balance of Performance (BoP) hit cost Ford its pace, but they won on strategy anyway.

“It was a crazy weekend, and then to sort of dominate the whole event – a lot of it was down to Richard, who did every practice session and qualified, put the car on pole,” Briscoe said.

“I got in the first time in warmup and the race. The team was extra supportive of me, which says a lot about the characters, people, and the confidence to say you can miss all of practice and jump in for the race. It was super rewarding but trust me that’s not how you want to do it every weekend!”

Westbrook added, “Obviously I was really happy to cover for him. He had a lot more important issues that went on that weekend. But the weekend was never in doubt. We’d tested there, so Ryan didn’t have an issue getting up to speed. That was our only (IMSA) race we had the clear advantage on BoP… and then we got hammered.”

Heading into Petit Le Mans this weekend, the pairing – plus Dixon – come in off a good test a month or so ago looking to overcome the points deficit and secure the title. Conditions were much hotter then than they will be this weekend, and for once rain isn’t in the forecast.

As Westbrook noted, the challenge is now managing expectations, and to only have an outside shot isn’t an ideal scenario. But it’s still a good spot to be in.

“It’s funny – the better you do the greedier you get – so I’m sort of slightly disappointed it’s an outside shot, whereas it looked really good before VIR and COTA!” he said. “But we have to be so happy with how we’ve progressed this year.”

Briscoe added, “After a couple early gremlins, the team has been absolutely on point with working through those issues with a brand new car. Since then, we’ve never had any repeat issues.

“I’m honestly not surprised but always extremely impressed. Everyone here at Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing continue to impress with the development they’ve done throughout the season.”