Alex Tagliani (No. 61) and a Sahlen's DP car. (AIM Autosport photo)

Passion for Ferrari fuels Tagliani’s first start for R.Ferri/AIM at Kansas

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Alex Tagliani’s been through several peaks and valleys in a dozen-plus year IndyCar career, and maintained resilience and composure through it all. He’s been on pole for the Indianapolis 500, and also been unceremoniously dumped more than once.

And yet, the nerves struck the popular Canadian in an entirely new way when he strapped into the No. 61 R.Ferri/AIM Motorsport Racing with Ferrari F458 Italia GT car at, of all places, the Kansas Speedway “roval” for last week’s GRAND-AM Rolex Series race.

“Honestly, I’ve never felt the way I did like I did last weekend,” Tagliani told MotorSportsTalk in a Monday interview. “I was more nervous than at the start of the Indianapolis 500! It was a bit stressful at first.

“There was more to it than just, you drive, get in the car, do your best and see you later. It was, I’m driving a Ferrari red car, wearing a Ferrari red suit, having had passion for the brand since I was a kid and growing up with Gilles Villeneuve in a Ferrari as my idol. When you put the suit on you know what you have to represent, because they have a job and certain standards to respect because they are representing Ferrari.”

Tagliani was a last-minute substitute for Max Papis in Kansas as co-driver to Jeff Segal, defending Rolex GT class co-champion, as Papis had NASCAR obligations in Mid-Ohio. The No. 61 is a new car this year, joining the sister No. 69 AIM/FXDD Ferrari in the AIM Autosport stable, and won its first race with Papis and Segal at Indianapolis in July.

Tagliani couldn’t fill in for Papis a week earlier at Road America with his own NASCAR Canada commitments in Trois-Rivieres, and fellow Canadian Kenny Wilden did so admirably.

Team principal Remo Ferri, a several-decade motorsports veteran, Ferrari dealership owner and Italian who now lives in Canada, described the process of providing Tagliani this opportunity.

“Through our racing department, when we found out he was no longer driving in IndyCar, we reached out and contacted him,” Ferri said. “It was fantastic to see a Canadian of Italian descendents driving the car. I’m Italian, I live in Canada, and it was great to put a great Canadian driver in our car.”

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Alex Tagliani (AIM Autosport photo)

Tagliani’s enthusiasm bled through the phone when I asked him the same question.

“Never in a million years would have I turned the offer down, because it was too good to be true,” he said. “When I started racing in IndyCar, well I thought it was almost impossible at my age. I was dedicated to North American racing, and IndyCar was my series. So the chance of driving a Ferrari car, in a professional series, was long gone in my mind. I was not thinking about it. But then this did happen, and it was the best thing that could have happened.”

Almost immediately, Tagliani gelled with the team, which also includes two of his other late-1990s Atlantic rivals besides Wilden, Andrew Bordin (AIM Autosport team co-owner) and Anthony Lazzaro, who co-drives with Emil Assentato in the No. 69 AIM/FXDD Ferrari.

Tagliani and Segal began working through data, with Tagliani able to feed off Segal’s expertise of the GRAND-AM spec Ferrari F458, yet still able to provide his own insights that he thought could make a difference.

“I didn’t feel like I was subbing; I didn’t feel like it was a one-race event. I want to do more,” Tagliani said. “I got involved with the team right away in looking at setups, trying to see if we could develop the car in a different way.”

Ferri spoke highly of Tagliani’s feedback but acknowledged that it was difficult to learn too much from just one race.

“I can tell you he did a good job, and I praised him at the end of the race,” Ferri said. “I know he is a good driver, but let’s find out a little more.”

Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start as Tagliani scored the pole position on Friday. But unfortunate issues on a pit stop late in the race truncated what had been a promising debut, where the No. 61 led laps throughout the night.

The biggest takeaway I took from my near 30-minute conversation with “Tag” – you hate to cut so much of the chat out – was his passion exuded for Ferrari. In an era where commercialism and corporate interests rule heavily, the simple concept of a driver falling in love with a car, its history and what it represents speaks volumes compared to a driver merely thanking his or her sponsors and getting on with it.

Tagliani explained the rationale behind that logic: “Anything I’ve raced before has layers: it has a race suit and the sponsor. You’re driving a Ford Cosworth-powered car with Player’s on the chassis. You’re driving a Honda with Barracuda Racing as the sponsor. But when you drive a Ferrari, with a Ferrari suit, you’re driving a Ferrari first.”

Understandably, Tagliani is looking toward the future and he may be examining making a home in sports car racing full-time with Ferrari in 2014. Without reading too much into things, both Tagliani and Ferri seem optimistic that Kansas wasn’t just a one-off.

“I was very happy,” Tagliani said. “I think I fit well with the brand and the team. I’m very thankful and appreciative that I had this opportunity once in my life and that it could open more doors than I could have imagined.”

Ferri likened it to the beginning of a relationship.

“I like the guy very much; we’re just beginning to date each other, like a couple,” he said. “And if we go out again, and again, and again, eventually, we might get married.”

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.

Hamilton endures ‘difficult’ Russia F1 practice, impressed by Ferrari

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Lewis Hamilton was left disappointed by a “difficult” day of Formula 1 practice in Russia on Friday for Mercedes as Ferrari stole a march on the field.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi looking to take his third win in Russia and claw back the championship lead after falling seven points behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the standings.

The Briton was left to settle for fourth place in the final timesheets in FP2 as Mercedes struggled to match Ferrari’s one-lap pace, finishing over half a second back from Vettel in P1.

“Bit of a difficult day for us,” Hamilton admitted. “We managed to complete everything that we needed to do on our runs, but in terms of the balance of the car, the Ferrari seemed very, very fast on the long runs.

“So we need to work out how we can improve our pace. But there’s still everything to play for. The tires feel very peaky, so it’s easy to drop out of the window of performance, but when they’re working they seem to be good.”

Teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third-fastest in FP2 for Mercedes, and said the team had work to do overnight to ensure it could get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire for qualifying.

“It’s been an interesting day. It’s a very different situation here with the asphalt and the temperatures compared to what we experienced in Bahrain,” Bottas said.

“We were learning about the tires on long runs and short runs and it seems like over one lap we still have work to do to get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire – that’s our focus tonight. But we can’t forget how important the race is.

“We have started the weekend in the right way. The car feels good and the balance is there. A good start but we definitely need to work hard to find some lap time for qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Stoffel Vandoorne set for 15-place F1 grid drop in Sochi

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Stoffel Vandoorne is set to receive a 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix after exceeding the number of permitted power units components for the season.

McLaren’s problems with engine supplier Honda have been well-documented, with a revision of the design of the power unit by the Japanese manufacturer backfiring to create further reliability and performance issues.

Vandoorne has taken the brunt of the issues in 2017, failing to score a point and recording just one classified finish – P13 in Australia, two laps down on the lead car – as well as being forced to change a number of components on his power unit.

Drivers are only permitted to use four of each power unit component across the course of the season before triggering a penalty, but Vandoorne’s usage has been so high that he is set to receive a grid drop for the Russian Grand Prix – only the fourth round of the season.

By taking an all-new power unit for the event in Sochi, Vandoorne has moved onto his fifth MGU-H and fifth turbocharger of the year, combining for a 15-place grid penalty on Sunday.

For every other ‘fifth’ component Vandoorne takes this season, he will receive another five-place grid drop. His first ‘sixth’ component will be worth 10 places; every remaining ‘sixth’ is five places; his first ‘seventh’ is 10 places and so on.

Ferrari dominates Russian GP second free practice

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Once Pirelli’s softest compound, the ultrasoft tires, came out to play in second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, Scuderia Ferrari dropped the hammer compared to Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen ran at 1:34.120 and 1:34.383, respectively, in the pair of SF70H chassis – which easily eclipsed the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. This followed Raikkonen’s leading FP1 this morning.

It’s only practice but the thinking going into the race weekend was with a couple long straights, it would play to Mercedes’ strengths and its top-end speed. But Ferrari’s fired a warning salvo into that thinking in this session.

Bottas and Hamilton were six and seven tenths adrift on the same ultrasoft tires, before long runs commenced for the final 35 to 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute free practice. The Russian Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stop race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were next, far off the top four and far ahead of the midfield. Verstappen’s session ended early inside of 20 minutes, as he parked his car with an apparent loss of power just before pit lane.

Williams’ Felipe Massa, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez – making it four teams in as many positions from seventh through 10th in the crowded midfield. In fact while 1.790 seconds covered first to sixth, just 1.18 seconds covered seventh to 18th, covering all remaining teams!

Romain Grosjean, who tries new Carbon Industrie brakes this week, made several radio transmissions noting he wasn’t yet satisfied with the new supplier. There’s still been a lot of brake dust released from the fronts on both his and Magnussen’s car.

Meanwhile further down the grid, McLaren Honda has made yet another power unit change to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, which cost him the opening minutes of the session. This will resign the Belgian to his fifth turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, and see him saddled with a grid penalty.

FP3 is next up, streaming online live on Saturday morning from 5 a.m. ET. Qualifying commences at 8 a.m. ET live on CNBC.