F1 Grand Prix of Belgium - Practice

McLaren, Jenson Button nearly made one-stop race work

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Spa’s one of the greatest race tracks in the world and often produces some of the best races. It was still an amazing track on Sunday, but the race itself in Belgium may not go down in history as an all time great.

In terms of strategy, the teams this weekend had some difficult decisions to make for more than one reason.

Pirelli brought the two hardest dry compounds in their current range to this event and that brought with it a different set of challenges to those faced at some other circuits on the calendar. Degradation wasn’t so much of a concern, but the varying temperatures and conditions meant the goalposts for drivers and engineers trying to tune their cars or driving styles in order to switch-on the tires, was constantly moving.

With everybody setting their qualifying times on intermediate tires in mixed conditions, not only was the starting order shuffled, but the choice of Sunday’s starting compound became free in the dry. This opens up the possibility of various strategic options for everybody and calculations beforehand had a dry race being marginally faster using a two stopper than a one stop plan, albeit with not too much in it.

The major unknown variable of course, as is often the case here, would be the weather.

Almost everyone’s information said there would be rain today, no one could be confident of when or how much, but there had to be an element of flexibility factored into every strategy. That information, didn’t just affect teams on race day, but dictated the way they approached Saturday’s qualifying too.

This track has a long lap and two of its three sectors are very fast, long straights with high-speed turns. The middle sector is the opposite, tight, slow and twisty. There are different ways to approach the car setup, with either low or medium downforce levels helping for different parts of the lap, but whichever way you choose to go, there’s always a compromise to be made.

Lotus opted for a higher level of aerodynamic downforce than many of the other top teams, which helped them through sector two. In their case it was deemed to give them an overall laptime gain over being fast in the high speed sections, but losing out too much in the middle part of the lap. Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari all went the other way and set themselves up for a higher top speed.

Interestingly, the Red Bull, which traditionally isn’t the fastest in a straight line, came up with a low downforce package for this race that proved far more efficient than it’s rivals and it was that speed advantage which proved crucial to Sebastian’s victory.

In terms of tires, most of the leaders went with a similar medium/medium/hard strategy, which was the optimum, as everyone was in the unfamiliar position of entering the race with plenty of new sets available, having run much of the weekend in wet conditions.

The key for the eventual winner, as we’ve seen him do many times before, was to get past Hamilton early and break the DRS gap before the system was activated on lap 3. His extra top speed advantage enabled him to do just that and the aggressive move up the hill from Eau Rouge on lap one gave him the perfect opportunity. The dominance of the Red Bull at this circuit, a place where traditionally they haven’t gone well in the past, is an ominous sign for everyone else. Vettel was able to control the race with such ease, he was never out of the lead from that point on and was being reminded by his team as early as lap three to conserve the car.

Behind him, Hamilton faded with a car that simply wasn’t in the same league. The team got everything right in terms of their strategic options and probably got as much as they could from the weekend. Ferrari showed real promise here, a huge improvement after recent events, and Fernando was one of the biggest movers in the race. Good decisions on when to stop helped put him in a position to fight for positions and his great start meant he was Vettel’s closest challenger. However, the truth is that, try as he did, he had nothing left to close the gap that the triple world champion stretched out to seventeen seconds before backing off at the end of the race.

One of the more interesting strategic choices came from McLaren and Jenson Button. They decided to gamble on a one-stop race, hoping rain might play into their hands at some point. Although the rain never came, his pace was good, but he quickly realized that he couldn’t go far enough into the first stint to make the single stop work. The switch to a two stop plan still kept him firmly in the mix and he was running in the top six when it came to making the second stop. Having run mediums then hards, there was a moment when it may have been considered a worthwhile option to stay out and run to the end, but the team felt a long stint to the flag may have left him vulnerable towards the end.

It was probably  true, but had he managed to extend his early spell on mediums for another five or six laps, the option may’ve been a viable one. As it was, his second stop for hard tires dropped him back and although his pace was up there with the leaders, his track position left him with nothing more to fight for. Still, a far more positive weekend for the McLaren team.

The only one-stop strategy in the end came from Lotus and Romain Grosjean, but the high drag, high downforce setup left him unable to make up the ground he needed to and fighting in the middle of the pack cost him too much time in the end. He was another one who needed the intervention of rain to bring him back into play.

Munoz: “I haven’t reached my full potential”

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Like fellow IndyCar rookie class-of-2014 alumnus Jack Hawksworth, Carlos Munoz’s results haven’t matched his pace and potential this year.

And while on the surface it looks like there have been a handful of mistakes this year for the third-year Colombian driver – and there have been – Munoz’s efforts to improve are probably being overshadowed by the overall team struggles at Andretti Autosport.

In a case where stats don’t tell the full story, Munoz’s finished eighth, 22nd, 12th and 14th in the opening four races – the 12th at Long Beach was the only time where he was highest of Andretti’s four cars. That’s left him 15th in points, five spots back of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay but two and three clear of Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi, respectively, heading into the month of May.

Starts of 12th, 21st, 10th and 15th also tell a similar tale, although he’s been the highest starter of Andretti’s four cars in the last two races at Long Beach and Barber.

He’s been particularly quick in practice, though. He has top-five practice results of third (Barber FP1) and fourth (Barber FP3) and a handful of other top-10 results. Like others, nailing the balance in qualifying once on Firestone’s red alternate tires has been challenging.

Incidentally, his best finish of eighth at St. Petersburg came after a misguided passing attempt drew ire from Graham Rahal and created a parking lot in Turn 4.

Yet his best drives have come at Long Beach and Barber, where Munoz has been the quickest of the Andretti quartet through most of the weekend.

“I’ve been driving so good and feel so emotionally good in the car,” Munoz told NBC Sports. “You could see it in Long Beach; I never drove so good. I was quicker than Ryan at Long Beach… and his worst qualifying in Long Beach was fourth before that.

“Then Barber, I was really quick in practice. But then in qualifying, I lost the balance on the red tires.

“I’ve never been driving so good as this year. Results haven’t shown that. The team has been lacking… it’s no secret. There’s a little bit of mechanical grip we need to find. As soon as we find it, I hope I’ll be able to fight for victories.

“I’ve done some mistakes. But speed-wise, I’ve not driven better.”

Barber was a tough weekend for Munoz, having triggered the first-lap accordion effect accident between he, Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin. The slow start helped contribute to the chaos.

“When you’re in the back – I checked up – but I had Aleshin in front of me,” he explained. “He accelerated, then braked. I had to lock the rear tires. It was too close. It was my mistake… but the start was way too slow.”

Overall it’s a fascinating fusion for Munoz, who overachieved as a rookie in 2014, then secured his first win last year at Detroit race one but otherwise struggled for competitiveness along with the rest of the Andretti team.

Now though he feels he’s in a better spot.

Munoz has rebounded from a heavy practice accident at Phoenix in early April to find this newfound burst of personal performance. He cleaned up his stats to where he has only had two failures to finish from contact in his last 28 starts, compared to four in his first 13 races.

The impact at Phoenix, he said, was his “first big accident” in IndyCar and forced him to quickly forget about it and move on.

“It was a big hit; if you saw the numbers you’d be amazed,” Munoz said. “But as a driver you have to forget about it and move on. After practice to go back in the car, that was good. It was my first actual big hit.

“The team always said, it’s always one. I had a hit at Fontana, replacing E.J. (Viso, in 2013). But this one was big. I know it’s part of racing when you crash. Try to move on. I feel comfortable.”

Munoz has felt better in terms of setup contribution this year, noting whereas Hunter-Reay or Andretti had been primarily used as the baseline setup in the past, now he’s able to play a greater role.

Additionally, Munoz relates to IndyCar freshman Rossi, who’s learning the ropes in this series thus far as Munoz was two years ago.

“I think this year has been better, probably because I’ve been fast compared to my teammates,” he said. “We work as a team. I know if Marco likes it, that’s better, because more or less we have the same feeling.

“Rossi was (with us) in Texas. And that’s where we try to help him as a rookie. I was a rookie two years ago. So yeah, I helped him. This is hard to get used to.”

He’s also determined and focused on being his own man in the sport, besides being “that other Colombian” besides Juan Pablo Montoya.

Colombian interest has been high in recent years with Montoya, Munoz, Gabby Chaves, Sebastian Saavedra and Carlos Huertas all having been in the series of late. Montoya remains the benchmark but Munoz and Huertas are race winners; Saavedra a polesitter and Chaves a double rookie-of-the-year in 2015, although the latter three are sidelined.

Comparisons are inevitable and while Munoz credits Montoya for getting him interested in racing, he doesn’t want to be known as “JPM 2.0.”

“He’s been a big example since I was a child,” Munoz admits. “I remember when I saw him winning his first 500 (in 2000; Munoz was 8 years old), we all went on the streets and celebrated! We were all waving the flag.

“He showed us the path to become a professional race car driver. But I want to make my name. I want to be my own man. I want to win races.”

Even more fascinating about Munoz is that while this is his third full-time season in IndyCar, he’s still only 24 years old, with room to grow. This is his fifth season in America, having done two years of Indy Lights prior in 2012 and 2013.

The setup advancements and aero kit improvements Honda has made has made the car better to drive this year, as Munoz looks to break out of the tightly bunched, yet crowded, IndyCar midpack.

“I think with the new aero kit, on the road course, I’ve felt much stronger, much more confident,” he said. “It’s easier to drive. It’s a lot more consistent. We had a nasty rear last year.

“There’s loads still to learn,” he added. “Helio (Castroneves) and Tony (Kanaan) learn stuff each race when they keep going. They’ve been doing this for a long time and they learn each time.

“My curve of learning, I still have a lot to get better at, both ovals and road courses. I haven’t reached my potential.

“As a driver or person, you’re never going to reach your potential.”

Leah Pritchett inks two-race deal with Don Schumacher Racing: Atlanta and Indy

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Even though it’s just a two-race deal for now, Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett will have one of the biggest and most successful drag racing organizations behind her.

Pritchett will compete for Don Schumacher Racing in next weekend’s NHRA Southern Nationals in Commerce, Georgia, where she finished runner-up in last year’s race. She’ll also compete in the prestigious U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend for DSR, as well.

It’s been a wild last few months for Pritchett. She won her first Top Fuel event at Phoenix in late February.

Then, early last month, she and the rest of the NHRA world were shocked when team owner Bob Vandergriff unexpectedly retired and immediately closed up his two-car Top Fuel team of Pritchett and Dave Connolly four races into the 24-race NHRA national event season.

Pritchett was able to race for Lagana Racing at Charlotte and then was able to convince Vandergriff to bring out her Quaker State-sponsored dragster for an encore performance last weekend at Houston.

Now, she’ll go to one of the season’s most popular races and will call 8-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher, 2012 and 2015 Top Fuel champ Antron Brown and 2013 Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon her teammates.

She’ll be in good hands at DSR with her former crew chiefs at BVR, Mike Gruger and Joe Barlam, bringing familiarity and consistency to keep Pritchett on the racetrack.

 

The deal between DSR and Pruett was struck last Monday, just before she headed to Houston. It makes sense for both sides. Pritchett lives in suburban Indianapolis and is less than 10 miles from DSR’s headquarters in Brownsburg, Indiana.

She competed at Houston for Quaker State Oil, which was her primary sponsor while with BVR. Plus, Quaker State’s headquarters is in Houston, so it was a natural fit.

It’s unknown whether Quaker State will return to sponsor Pritchett for more races, but don’t be surprised if it does. She’s one of the bright young faces on the NHRA scene, is a fan favorite, is very media and marketing savvy and has paid her dues.

While with BVR, and especially after her win at Phoenix, Pritchett appeared ready to become the sport’s next new star. With a team like DSR behind her, she can certainly continue on that route, indeed.

Admittedly, Pritchett still wonders what she could have accomplished if Vandergriff hadn’t folded up shop so abruptly.

“I will always wonder what could have been,” she told Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com. “Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

“In life, there are so many experiences to reflect upon. Life is bigger than a race car. It’s bigger than a win. I do feel we had a team capable of challenging for a championship. What could have been has now been replaced with what could come forth.”

Who knows, Pritchett, who grew up about 50 miles from Hollywood in Redlands, California, may wind up with a script that potentially could be even better than her short stay with BVR if team owner Don Schumacher finds enough sponsorship to keep Pritchett on and makes her a regular full-time member of the team.

Even with the struggles that came out of the BVR collapse, she’s still eight in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel class. She’s 173 points behind series leader Brittany Force, is 154 points behind Brown, four points behind Schumacher and is 72 points ahead of Langdon.

Given that performance, she seems to be a perfect fit for DSR long-term. Only time will tell if that takes place.

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Head Games: the friendly rivalry of Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud

during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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FORT WORTH – Rivalries that have lasted for 10 years aren’t supposed to sound like this, right?

“He’s a hell of a driver, a great competitor,” Graham Rahal said of Simon Pagenaud Tuesday during a test at Texas Motor Speedway. “And a great guy. It’s not like I dislike him. I like Simon a lot.”

Pagenaud, the current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader after four races, had even more flattering words for Rahal.

“Graham is a very aggressive driver, he’s exciting to watch. Maybe a lot more exciting than me,” Pagenaud said. “He’s a very good driver. I have a lot of respect for him because he can sometimes outdrive the car, make it better than it actually is. He’s doing a great job.”

This is what it sounded like two weeks after the top drivers for rival manufacturers dueled in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, exchanging the lead four times while combining to lead all 90 of the race’s laps.

After making contact with Rahal on with nine laps left, Pagenaud went off-track, gave up the lead and only took it back three laps later after Rahal suffered wing damage from hitting the lapped car of Jack Hawksworth.

“I know after the race Simon said he thought after we touched he was going to get me back, there was not a chance he would have gotten there,” Rahal said. “I can guarantee that. Cause I was way quicker on old tires than those guys were and if I had gotten clear, I was gone. And I knew that too, which is the frustrating part.”

Pagenaud won his second race in a row. For the second straight year, Rahal placed second at Barber Motorsports Park.

With that, a quiet rivalry that started a decade ago in the Champ Car Atlantic Series was given center stage.

Rahal and Pagenaud first crossed paths in 2006.

“I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is. For sure, it’s in my head, ‘I don’t lose to Simon,'” said Rahal, who earned six wins that year in the Atlantic series.

But it was Pagenaud who won the title as both transitioned into the Champ Car World Series in 2007. Rahal went to IndyCar in 2008 while Pagenaud drove in the American Le Mans Series for three years, making his debut in IndyCar in 2011.

“That’s the way it’s always been and when I see him particularly as the rabbit in front of me I’m going to get him,” said Rahal, who has yet to finish ahead of Pagenaud through four races. “It’s just my mentality. Obviously, he’s in a pretty good place right now.”

In his second year with Team Penske, Pagenaud has finished in the top two in all four races a season after not finishing better than third. Rahal is the flag bearer for Honda with two top-five finishes a season after winning two races – his first victories in seven seasons.

How does Pagenaud, the points leader, compare himself to his friendly rival?

“I’m more like a (Scott) Dixon, you never see me coming, all of a sudden I’m there and everybody’s like ‘what the hell? How the hell did he do that?'” Pagenaud said.

“Rahal is more like a Paul Tracy, which is really cool to watch. To race, it can be stressful, like it was in Barber.”

With the Month of May underway and the 100th Indianapolis 500 looming on May 29, the stress will start to mount for Rahal, who is looking to win the race 30 years after his father, Bobby Rahal, did it.

He goes into May knowing Honda will likely be at a disadvantage to Chevrolet.

“If we’re not on par, we’re not on par,” Rahal said. “Our job is to finish fifth or whatever. I hate saying that because it’s the 100th running, I want to win this race more than anything else, any race, any where, anytime. It’s 30 years after my dad Bobby won the Indy 500, so it’s a big year for me on many fronts.”

But Pagenaud?

“I’m relaxed and confident I can do things I usually wouldn’t do,” said the Frenchman.

The Penske driver heads to the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis looking to recapture the magic of his win in the inaugural running of the race in 2014. But he had few worries about that or anything else during the test day in Texas.

“Because we’ve started so strong, I don’t have to prove anything,” Pagenaud said. “I can work on what I have to work on. I think that’s what makes for a bit of an advantage in my opinion, in my head.”

Meanwhile, Rahal will hope to better his finish in the GP of Indy by one position from last year, when he was the runner-up to Will Power.

And Pagenaud, the rabbit Rahal has chased quietly for a decade, will likely be there to challenge him.

“He’s a guy I like to beat,” Rahal said. “Barber was frustrating, not because I lost to him, but because I defeated myself to lose to him.”

Now that sounds like a rivalry.

Mercedes pens open letter to fans in wake of conspiracy theories

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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I’m not sure whether Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” plays inside the halls of Brackley and Brixworth, home to Mercedes AMG Petronas, but the pop hit might be the song to best describe the team’s response to criticism over conspiracy theories that the team may be sabotaging Lewis Hamilton’s car this season.

Hamilton, usually a good team player and someone who’s been widely praised by Mercedes-Benz motorsport chief Toto Wolff for how he’s handled his early season adversity, finally had a moment of breakdown post-race in Sochi – where he’d recovered from his latest power unit issue in qualifying and started 10th to recover to second.

“My concern is not about beating Nico… I don’t have a problem with that. It’s more the guys giving me a car to be able to fight equally with him. That’s my concern,” Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton in the aftermath of the Russian Grand Prix.

Mercedes, meanwhile, took the unusual and bold step Wednesday of penning an open letter in the wake of the result, to address the criticisms levied at it and to explain what’s happened.

It’s a fascinating read and should be read in its entirety, linked here, but here are the highlights:

  • It’s about the livelihoods of the hundreds in the shop. Mercedes writes: “For those watching at home, a Grand Prix weekend starts on a Thursday morning and ends on Sunday night. A bad result might hurt for a few hours afterwards – but then life moves on. For more than one thousand people at Brackley and Brixworth, however, this is our life.”
  • One team. “To paraphrase Mr. Toto Wolff, we have worked our a**es off to get where we are today – and we have done so as a team. … There is no ‘A’ or ‘B’ team here.”
  • Pressing on in wake of Hamilton’s MGU-H failure, and other issues that arose. “We were baffled and gutted by the repeat MGU-H failure on Lewis’ car in qualifying. But we kept calm, gathered our thoughts and sprung into action. … (We could) make sure Lewis could start from P10 on Sunday without having broken parc ferme.” The team also addressed Rosberg’s MGU-K behavior and Hamilton’s water pressure issues in subsequent paragraphs.
  • We know we could be better. “Ultimately, none of this changes the fact that we have not met our own expectations in terms of reliability thus far this season.”
  • But haters are gonna hate, and we’re going to keep improving. “To those who stand with us, we thank you. And to the rest – the haters, the naysayers, the conspirators… if we can convince even half of you what we really stand for, we’ll consider that a battle well won.”