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.

DiZinno: COTA, Austin shake off nightmare 2015 with bounce back 2016

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari line up on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The old adage in the restaurant service industry is that good service can often overcome poor food, but good food does not necessarily overcome poor service.

Such an analogy serves as a perfect transition to describe the last two contrasting years of the United States Grand Prix in Austin at Circuit of The Americas, a city where the food itself is actually never in question.

Consider the race weekend on site as a whole the comparative meal, here.

In 2015, call the race the “good food,” and the overall weather and atmosphere the “poor service.”

The race itself was excellent, aided in large part by the mixed weather conditions, heavy attrition, a late Safety Car and a subsequent pass for the lead and win which netted Lewis Hamilton his third World Championship.

But the weekend on the whole felt underwhelming and disappointing, owing primarily to the heavy rain that interrupted the weekend proceedings through Saturday.

As COTA Chair Bobby Epstein said so bluntly about the resulting attendance and financial hit, “I think we’re screwed.”

That left the 2016 version of the USGP weekend having a point to prove: deliver a weekend on par with the first three weekends and seek to overcome the poor fan turnout a year ago with a big bounce back.

In other words, the service needed to deliver more than the food.

In a two-word answer, it did.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the grid at the start during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Race start during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The 2016 United States Grand Prix race – the food here in this analogy – was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. The quality of F1 racing itself is another topic for another day. But thanks to the collective efforts of the track and organizers in partnership with F1, by the race start time it didn’t need to be to make this a successful weekend on the whole.

This race saw Hamilton pretty much ran away and hide, Daniel Ricciardo lose a sure second-place to Nico Rosberg thanks to a Virtual Safety Car period inadvertently caused by his teammate Max Verstappen and Spanish countrymen Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. perform some late-race theatrics. Otherwise, it was a largely forgettable 56 laps, particularly as it lacked that “signature” moment as Hamilton had delivered with passes for the win in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

But why the weekend worked was how COTA, which has often been in the crosshairs over the years for its volatile financials, leadership, staff turnover and possibly inflated attendance figures (I’m looking at sports car weekends in particular, having been to four of them in the last four years), pushed on to create a near-perfect weekend it absolutely had to have after last year’s disaster.

COTA’s push to make Austin 2016 a successful weekend was, to use your stick-and-ball equivalent example, the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary pass for the Green Bay Packers to break the Detroit Lions’ hearts last year or Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit grand slam for the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS this year to break a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was not a case where they’d gather a few singles to bring in a run on a sacrifice bunt or assemble a 17-play, 94-yard, eight-minute drive full of methodical three and four-yard run and pass plays.

No, COTA threw down the gauntlet and went big to bring in Taylor Swift, for her first and only planned concert this year. And make no mistake, her “squad” brought it in a big way.

Had she not delivered the crowd she did – which was officially pegged by COTA at 83,000 although reports ranged lower than that by some reporters and higher than that to some members of her fan “squad” – it would have been trouble when she walked in.

That alone generated significant buzz on a day when the qualifying order was all but decided going in, when you knew it would either be Hamilton or Rosberg scoring the pole a couple hours earlier.

I was fortunate to be out walking the grounds Saturday afternoon after qualifying, and seeing the crowds hanging out for the remainder of the day’s races – Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup and Historic Masters Racing were also on tap – as well as prepping for T-Swift were very much present between the grandstands, the bar area, the food trucks and then prepping to get in line to waltz onto the Super Stage lawn assembled inside Turn 11.

Once 5:30 p.m. hit and the crowd was released to get in line, 90 minutes before the show started, the line stretched from the entry point past Turn 7 all the way to the Fly Emirates bridge at Turn 2, with more fans continuing to stream in across the bridge. Mind you, that’s the length of the entire Esses section and then back across the way, into the infield.

Sunday’s crowd was also strong, with fans getting to the track early and already a good number of folks already on hand at the hillside several hours before the lights were out.

Between the old Grand Prix cars and Supercup preliminary races, there was some genuine appreciation there.

Yes, mostly gentlemen drivers pushing 1970s to 1980s-era F1 cars at 60 or 70 percent is not the same spectacle as the actual drivers in their heyday, but for younger fans and students of the sport, it’s vitally important you get that chance to witness – and listen to – living F1 history in motion.

Supercup, meanwhile, provided a tasty appetizer of a race with some clean, fair fighting for the lead between Porsche Juniors Mathieu Jaminet and Matteo Cairoli, a deserving new champion in Sven Mueller, and a great Supercup weekend debut for American Alec Udell in his step up from Pirelli World Challenge’ GT Cup class.

Regarding the announced attendance figure of 269,889, it is worth noting that COTA’s attendance numbers have been called into question in the past, primarily for its sports car weekends. This could be an optimistic number, but if so, it’s not to the same degree as on sports car weekends.

For reference, although I wasn’t at the initial USGP race here in 2012 (more than 265,000), I have been to the last four. This weekend number was pegged higher than the 2013 number of 250,324, and while I would say the Friday number was lower this year compared to then, the Saturday and Sunday numbers appeared higher.

If possible, it would benefit COTA to provide a deeper news release and analysis of the figure beyond just the number itself, to dismiss any potential doubts or red flags. But flying out of the Austin airport Monday morning and seeing how packed it was, with many folks still dressed in team kit, was a sign there was a very good turnout this weekend.

The celebrity presence at COTA, while something of a running joke and perhaps source of frustration among hardcore fans and observers, is actually something to be embraced if I’m honest.

Part of the reason Monaco works – and has worked for as long as it has – is it’s because it’s a glamorous destination that attracts some of the world’s richest, most beautiful and popular people. You can choose to not like that fact, saying it takes away from the action on track, and that’s fine. But the allure of an event is amplified when people with big audience consider it worthy of their time to attend.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: San Antonio Spurs basketball player Patty Mills watches the action in the Red Bull Racing garage with skier Lindsey Vonn 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)

Lindsey Vonn’s presence among others this weekend was a perfect example. Vonn, the star skier, appears to be a burgeoning racing fan in her own right with her interest piqued by Red Bull, a brand that understands the value of getting stars outside the norm to an event.

The fact Vonn was tweeting about F1 during the weekend (by the way, sending thanks from my colleague Luke and I for a RT of one from @F1onNBCSports) to her hundreds of thousands of followers must be considered a good thing from an “F1 in America actually being taken note of” standpoint.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage  during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Add in the random Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar sightings, tennis star Venus Williams (who I almost inadvertently bumped into in the airport this morning), Gerard Butler’s Red Bull podium “shoey,” Gordon Ramsey and Jeff Gordon, and it was a full plate of celebrities here this weekend. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that we didn’t get the obligatory Matt LeBlanc at COTA shot, and unless he was hiding, this would have been the first one he’s missed.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

If you create a race weekend that people want to go to and make it a proper full-on experience, it can make it a bigger draw to add stability for an event going forward. And if there’s one thing F1 in the U.S. has perpetually lacked, it’s that: stability. Ultimately, that is the key takeaway I have from the 2016 USGP weekend.

Hamilton, who’s more or less adopted the U.S. as his second home, actually has become something of an unofficial ambassador for this race, and this city of Austin in particular.

In the buildup to the race, Hamilton made a big deal about going on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and for good reason. Ellen has massive audience, and it’s not the usual hardcore race fan. And Hamilton, admittedly, isn’t her usual guest.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton (C) of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with Kirby Bumpus (2nd-L), Gayle King (2nd-R) and Lindsey Vonn (R) during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton (C) of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with Kirby Bumpus (2nd-L), Gayle King (2nd-R) and Lindsey Vonn (R) during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Then in his post-race interview with NBCSN’s Will Buxton, Hamilton described why he feels the way he does about this country, and the race in Austin itself.

“This is such a beautiful country,” he said (perhaps he hasn’t been following the 2016 presidential election that closely).

“This race, the whole weekend in Austin, with the ambiance and atmosphere, it’s the only Grand Prix I go out to dinner every night. No other Grand Prix do I do that. Since Wednesday, I’ve gone out to dinner every night. It’s great food, great service, and the people here make us feel so welcome.

“The crowd … is almost like the British Grand Prix. There’s the crowd on the whole front straight when we’re on the podium.

“I’m so glad we still have the grand prix here. I hope it continues. I hope more and more people get exposed to it. Being on The Ellen Show the other day, I hope has done so to get more.”

When Hamilton, who’s a student of the sport and has carved his own legacy within it by winning his 50th Grand Prix of his career this weekend, compares a race site in its fifth year to a race that has graced the calendar all but annually since 1950 (Silverstone), it speaks volumes of that race’s place having established a foothold on the F1 calendar.

COTA has now set the bar from a service standpoint to its fans, and done so in spite of the fact the F1 race itself Sunday wasn’t the best showcase of the sport.

It has now set a standard to meet, to keep the full race weekend as strong as it was this year.

For one year at least, COTA and Austin have shaken off the 2015 blues, thus making it harder for haters to hate.

Schmidt confirms Mikhail Aleshin’s return for 2017

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 SMP Schmidt Peterson Honda, sits in his pitbox during a rain delay prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
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For the first time since expanding to a two-car team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will continue with the same two drivers on a year-to-year basis.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt confirmed to IndyCar.com that the “mad Russian,” Mikhail Aleshin, will be back for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season alongside James Hinchcliffe.

“Now that we’ve got those two done, it’s a matter of firming up with all of the key individuals on the team and hopefully continue on and win races,” Schmidt told IndyCar.com.

“This deal is all about chemistry and continuity and it’s been a building process for us. Starting in 2011 with one car and then having two cars from 2012 on, we’ve never had the same guy in the second car for a second season.

“Really, Mikhail coming back for a second season, even though there was a year gap, I think you can really see the chemistry and the morale and the continuity building toward the last half of the season, when we were clearly the fastest Honda at most tracks if not all and right up to the front with the top five to eight guys, which is where we want to be.”

Schmidt took over the former FAZZT Race Team, which then featured Alex Tagliani as the driver, prior to 2011. Schmidt had a technical partnership with the Bryan Herta Autosport team that won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with the late Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon later replaced Tagliani in Schmidt’s No. 77 Honda for Kentucky and ultimately his final start in Las Vegas.

New signing Simon Pagenaud asserted himself as team leader from 2012 through 2014, with Tristan Vautier (2013) and Aleshin (2014) coming on board as second full-time driver. Hinchcliffe then took over as SPM lead driver in 2015 when Pagenaud left for Team Penske, before his injuries sustained at the Indianapolis 500 forced a change of driver for the balance of the season.

Owing to a mix of sponsorship and political issues, Aleshin was unable to continue into 2015 with James Jakes filling the spot. But Aleshin came back for a one-off in a third SPM car at the 2015 Sonoma season finale, which blossomed back into the full-time seat once more last year.

With these two Honda seats now secure, it remains to be seen whether SPM will run a third car beyond the month of May, which it has done the last four seasons (driven by Oriol Servia in 2016, Conor Daly in 2015, Jacques Villeneuve in 2014 and Katherine Legge in 2013).

NBC Sports understands a third IndyCar for SPM could run a handful of races next season (three to five a possible range), but would likely be dictated by crew and engine availability.

SPM has traditionally run a four-car program in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series, although that program dipped to two full-time cars only starting at Road America this year. SPM looks to reassert itself as the dominant force in that series, in the midst of a three-year title losing drought after more or less controlling the title most years between 2004 and 2013.

These seats are still yet to be finalized/revealed:

  • Andretti Autosport (car four)
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (car four)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (cars one and two)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (car one, and road/street races in car two)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (car two)
  • KVSH Racing (car one)

Antonio Felix da Costa joins grid for Macau Grand Prix

FIA Formula E Hong Kong e-Prix.
Qualifying Session.
Antonio Felix da Costa (PRT), Amlin Andretti, Spark-Andretti, ATEC-02.
Hong Kong Harbour, Hong Kong, Asia.
Sunday 9 October 2016.
Photo: Adam Warner / FE / LAT
ref: Digital Image _14P5958
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Antonio Felix da Costa has become the latest driver to sign up for the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, linking back up with Carlin for next month’s Formula 3 event.

Da Costa has contested the Macau race three times before, winning on his most recent appearance in 2012 with the Carlin team against a field that included current Formula 1 drivers Carlos Sainz Jr., Pascal Wehrlein and Felipe Nasr.

Since winning at Macau, da Costa has raced in Formula Renault 3.5, DTM and Formula E, the latter becoming his priority for the 2017 season with Andretti.

Da Costa will return to his roots on the November 20 weekend, joining Carlin’s line-up for the race that comes one week after the next Formula E round in Marrakech, Morocco.

“Yes it’s Macau and it’s happening. I will be back to Macau F3 GP with Carlin!” da Costa wrote on his Facebook page.

“Macau is a special place, it’s just pure driving. There is no special aim as such as going back for me, I’m doing it for the love of the sport, so when I got the call from Trevor [Carlin] I couldn’t say no.

“There will also be a few Macau winners going back as well as a lot of talented young guys so it will be a fun weekend. Thanks to BMW Motorsport for supporting my Macau comeback.”

Da Costa will be joined in the field by fellow Formula E racer Felix Rosenqvist, who is chasing an unprecedented third straight Macau victory.

Americans Askew and Kirkwood have strong runs at Formula Ford Festival

Photographs courtesy of Jack Mitchell/JAM Motorsport Photography.
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While Formula One was in the U.S. for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, several American open-wheel racers had a strong go of it at the Formula Ford Festival in Brands Hatch, England.

See the release below for more info on who:

Team USA Scholarship drivers Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood continued to impress during a thrilling Formula Ford Festival Final on Sunday. Fellow American Chase Owen also posted a strong drive in the 20-lap finale, finishing sixth in another Cliff Dempsey Racing Ray.

The distinctive pair of red-white-and-blue Rays of Askew and Kirkwood lined up fourth and 16th on the grid after finishing second and eighth, respectively, in the morning’s Semi Final race. The Final began in cold but dry conditions and the opening stages delivered some scintillating action as polesitter and former British Formula Ford champion Scott Malvern held onto a tenuous lead over 2016 BRSCC Avon Tires British FF1600 champion Niall Murray and a vast, snarling pack of hungry young drivers all seeking to claim Festival glory.

Askew made another excellent start to move into third place at the first corner, only to fall to fourth when a defensive Malvern bottled up the pack under braking for Clearways and Luke Williams took the opportunity to drive around the outside of two of his rivals, including Askew, to run third. Askew lost another position on the following lap when an attempt to pass Williams at Graham Hill Bend was strongly rebuffed and the hard-charging American lost momentum on the exit and was promptly passed by two cars on the Cooper Straight, including Malvern’s teammate Chris Middlehurst.


Undeterred, Askew quickly fought back, regaining fourth on the next lap as Murray brilliantly squeezed past Malvern for the lead under braking for Paddock Hill Bend … after the pair had run with interlocked wheels for virtually the entire length of the Brabham Straight! Murray quickly pulled away to snag a well-deserved victory.

Askew aggressively regained third position on Lap 9 and initially reduced the small gap to Malvern, pulling clear of Middlehurst until Malvern’s obstructive tactics slowed them both appreciably and allowed the pack to close in again. The battled continued to be hot and heavy until Lap 14, when Askew abruptly slowed and headed for the pits with a punctured tire after being forced over the curb on the exit of Druid’s hairpin.

“Fantastic weekend up until about halfway through the Final,” said Askew with a broad smile. “I had a puncture and had to pull off the track unfortunately, but the car was unbelievable. Cliff Dempsey nailed the tire pressures and the setup. It was unreal. I had more grip than anyone around me. I was super-fast and had speed for at least second. I was passing for third when the  puncture happened.”

Kirkwood, meanwhile, was embroiled in a typically fraught battle in the midst of the 30-car field. He lost a place in the early stages before finding his feet and making a series of strong passes, especially under braking for Clearways, before finally crossing the finish line in seventh.

“Overall the race was good,” said Kirkwood. “I just had to pick people off left and right. After a couple of laps it almost seemed like you had to get the car in front of you comfortable with you in their mirrors and then make a move on them when they left the door open.”

The pair will return to action for the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone on November 5/6.