Racing sponsors now at a crossroads of performance, ratings and ethics

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The last several weeks have seen sponsor stories take over from on-track ones as the dominant players in the North American racing news.

NAPA, of course, has made the biggest announcement with its decision to leave Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the year, in the wake of the controversy at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season finale at Richmond. 5-Hour Energy, additionally, seems displeased with the action the organization has taken in a statement it has released.

Other sponsors are on the move, which is normal in racing, but noteworthy in their timing after Richmond. Valvoline leaves Roush Fenway Racing for Hendrick Motorsports; Jimmy John’s goes with driver Kevin Harvick from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Castrol made the jaw-dropping decision earlier this year to leave John Force Racing at the end of 2014 in NHRA after 29 years.

And then there is the report this morning that GoDaddy is re-evaluating its role as a primary sponsor in IndyCar with Michael Andretti’s team, citing low television ratings as the impetus for a potential move out of full-time primary sponsorship there.

It all adds up to a fascinating question: Which part of racing do sponsors prefer most? Is it on-track performance, ethics, or ratings?

To borrow a term from NASCAR President Mike Helton, the “ripple effect” of the last few weeks has changed the corporate game in a way we haven’t seen for quite a while. Sponsors often come-and-go from racing but it’s become increasingly apparent the Richmond saga has made a bigger impact on all forms of motorsport than we might have realized in the immediate aftermath.

If it’s on-track performance you crave, ideally, IndyCar would be the best bang for the buck. It costs substantially less – think in the $4 to 8 million range – for a season-long sponsorship (by comparison to $15 to $20 million in NASCAR). A sponsor can advertise itself at the Indianapolis 500, the largest single-day sporting event in North America, and have the chance to win a variety of different circuits.

That said, the marketing and promotional aspect of the variety apparently does not justify the ROI as it stands now. Roger Penske, for instance, has had to put together a consortium of sponsors to field Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe’s cars since Philip Morris tobacco money exited at the end of 2010 (livery was withdrawn at the end of 2009). Elsewhere around the grid, teams have become increasingly reliant on drivers bringing sponsorship to secure a seat. There’s still plenty of talent on the grid, but the days of fully-funded rides without bringing a dollar are drawing to an end.

NASCAR, meanwhile, can offer better TV ratings on the whole, with the performance aspect secondary. It’s why Danica Patrick, for instance – long seen by this writer and others as a good-but-not-great driving talent who has made most of her career via marketing – can afford to run 25th to 30th place every week, but maintain the GoDaddy support for the awareness and buzz she creates off-track.

Now, though, NASCAR faces an ethics crisis the likes of which it has rarely seen. If NAPA’s departure is the tip of the iceberg in terms of corporate America withdrawing its dollars, it could create another “ripple effect” – to borrow Helton’s words again – where more sponsors depart and hundreds of families see jobs go away. That might be an extreme way of looking at it, but it is certainly possible if sponsors don’t see the value in the tens of millions of dollars invested and the PR too damaging to their brands.

A good take from the Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, linked here, suggests NASCAR needs to implement a “grand plan” to soothe sponsors and their concerns. Pockrass notes there are elements where NASCAR is already involved in direct communication with sponsors – notably via Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps – but that needs to expand in the wake of the Richmond controversy.

As a fan, you want to see sponsors – regardless of series – do the job of activating and creating a connection that spurs you to root for said sponsor and buy more of their product. As a sponsor, you ideally want to be successful in all three aspects of performance, awareness and moral standards.

Depending on the fallout the rest of 2013 as it relates to sponsor movement, we’ll see which of the three takes precedence in the motorsports landscape.

Daniil Kvyat unveils special ‘torpedo’ F1 helmet for Russian GP

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12 months ago, the trajectory of Daniil Kvyat’s Formula 1 career changed dramatically when a first-lap clash with Sebastian Vettel in Russia spelled the end of his time at Red Bull.

Two hits with the Ferrari driver prompted Red Bull to send Kvyat back to Toro Rosso, it’s B-team in F1, and promote young protege Max Verstappen to its senior team.

The incident had a profound impact on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the 2016 season trying to regain his form, but he did enough to clinch another year with Toro Rosso f0r 2017.

Ahead of his home race in Russia this weekend, Kvyat has faced questions about the incident with Vettel, but played a largely straight bat, simply saying to reporters on Thursday: “I prefer to look ahead than behind.”

However, Kvyat did offer a playful nod to his surprising rivalry with Vettel last year by unveiling his helmet design for the race in Russia, featuring a torpedo – the nickname Vettel gave him in China, one race before their clash.

Vettel told Kvyat that he “came in like a torpedo” at the first corner in China last year, forcing the Ferrari driver wide and into the path of teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Kvyat was non-plussed about the incident, saying they didn’t crash so everything was OK.

While Kvyat may have hit the podium that day, it did prove to be another step towards the exit at Red Bull Racing – but on Sunday, he will have the home crowd in Sochi behind him, torpedo helmet and all.

F1 Preview: 2017 Russian Grand Prix

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Before the bulk of the European season begins with the Spanish Grand Prix in a little over two wees’ time, the Formula 1 paddock is gearing up for one final flyaway in Russia this weekend.

The Russian Grand Prix has become a key part of the post-Winter Olympic legacy for the seaside resort of Sochi, which hosted the games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom winds throughout the Olympic Village, offering a happy medium between street and road course that makes it a challenge to drivers.

In all three of the world championship races that have been held in Russia, Mercedes has been untouchable. Lewis Hamilton and now-retired Nico Rosberg have led every single racing lap in the history of the Sochi Autodrom, making the Silver Arrows the cars to beat this weekend.

However, 2017 has been a year for surprises, with Ferrari enjoying a revival thanks to Sebastian Vettel. The German has won two of the first three races this season, the latest coming in Bahrain two weeks ago to give him the championship lead.

In the city that offered us so many international battles three years ago, another is set to play out on Sunday: but will it be a Briton, a German, or even a Finn that strikes gold in Sochi?

Here are the key talking points for the Russian Grand Prix.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Ferrari bask in best start since Schumacher

Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari back in 2015 was always seen as a nod to his hero, Michael Schumacher, whose career trajectory took a similar turn in 1996. The links are only continuing this year, with Vettel’s start to the season being the best by any Ferrari driver since Schumacher back in 2004.

It’s been a surprising purple patch of form for Ferrari, which hasn’t looked as strong as it is now since – truthfully – 2008 when it went head-to-head with McLaren for the title. It bodes well for Vettel, who is in the final year of his Ferrari contract and desperate for a fifth world title that would justify his decision to move to Maranello two years ago.

Russia could be a more challenging race for Ferrari, given temperatures won’t be as high as they were in Australia or Bahrain, playing into Mercedes’ favor. But should Vettel overcome this and bag a third win, it would surely signal to a title bid that is still only being whispered about by the Prancing Horse for fear of tempting fate.

Hamilton, Bottas seek responses to Bahrain disappointment

Mercedes hasn’t spent much time on the back foot in recent years, but it arrives in Sochi looking for a response to a disappointing defeat in Bahrain. After locking out the front row in style, a number of small factors conspired to hand victory to Ferrari, leaving Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to settle for P2 and P3 respectively.

Hamilton’s track record in Sochi is impressive, having won the 2014 and 2015 races before fighting from an issue in qualifying that left him 10th on the grid to finish second. Bottas has also finished on the podium before (2014), and will want to run the leading duo close after a generator issue spurned his hopes of a maiden win in Bahrain last time out.

Bottas could be a dark horse for victory here. The Finn has been growing in confidence through his first three races in a Mercedes, with his charge to pole in Bahrain surprising even Hamilton. So don’t rule him out of a maiden victory in Russia to kick-start his season.

Kvyat returns home, one year after career-changing race

There is no better place for Daniil Kvyat to celebrate his 23rd birthday than his home race, even if returning to Sochi will bring back memories of a disastrous 2016 race that changed his career trajectory.

Then racing for Red Bull, Kvyat headed to Sochi with his tail up after scoring his second F1 podium at the last race in China. However, two crashes with Vettel on the first lap in Russia ruined his race and gave Red Bull the excuse it needed to promote Max Verstappen into a race seat, sending Kvyat back to Toro Rosso.

The incident had a profound effect on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the season trying to regather himself, something he struggled to do until after the summer break. Red Bull backed him to respond and kept him at Toro Rosso in 2017 when it could have easily dropped him, and Kvyat has looked content so far this season.

The ghosts of Sochi may still linger for Kvyat, but this weekend, he will be the crowd favorite. How he charges this positive pressure will be of particular interest.

Has Haas found the answer to its brake issues?

Since joining the grid at the start of 2016, one of Haas’ biggest issues has been brakes. Repeated failures and problems hindered the American team’s form through the backend of last year, and with more issues arising in the early part of 2017, a change in supplier was actively pursued.

Having used Brembo for its racing commitments, Haas tested Carbon Industrie brakes in Bahrain and noted an improvement in performance, much to Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen’s pleasure. Although there will still be lots of work to do to map the brakes and fine-tune the settings, the switch for this weekend’s race in Russia could give the team a much-needed boost.

The Haas VF-17 car itself is strong. That much is clear. But if the brake issue is truly resolved, then we could see the team get a march on its midfield rivals.

One stop race on the cards

Tire degradation at the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, but with the extra-conservative tires that have been provided to F1 by Pireli this year, it is a near-certainty that this year’s Russian Grand Prix will be a one-stopper.

The cooler temperatures should play into Mercedes’ hands, but we saw in both Bahrain and Australia that Hamilton and Bottas found it difficult to stretch out their tires at points. These struggles cost Hamilton victory in Australia, and if Ferrari can get close once again this weekend, Vettel may have more confidence in the ultra-softs and be able to force another mistake.

Either way, don’t expect to see a strategic masterclass on Sunday in Sochi. It’ll be one stop and one stop only.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Sochi Autodrom
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:39.094 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:35.417
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:39.094
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T10 to T13

2017 Russian Grand Prix – TV Times

Castroneves remains on top of his game even if results don’t shown it

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Sixth, ninth and fourth are results that seem typical for Helio Castroneves of late. The Brazilian, now 41 and in his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, remain in that good-but-not-great department but prove the Team Penske driver is still among the best in the series.

And typical of his luck the last few years, circumstances outside his control continue to extend a winless drought that is at 46 races and counting since winning Detroit race two in 2014. Interestingly, Castroneves won his 46th career start back in 2000 – also at Detroit – and until this recent run of form, he’d never had a winless run anywhere that long anywhere close the rest of his career.

He won races every year from 2000 through 2014, with the exception of 2011. Even without gracing the top step of the podium, Castroneves has still finished fifth and third in points the last two years, extending his incredible run of form to 13 top-five finishes in the standings in 17 full seasons with Team Penske.

So to start his 18th year with Penske, 20th overall, missed opportunities have again stuck out. But at sixth in points, it’s not been a brutal start to the year.

“The first race, Honda came out really strong, then at Long Beach we had a phenomenal opportunity, but had a little issue with the engine, and last week as a team at Team Penske we were able to capitalize, but not my team with the No. 3 car,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.

“Finishing top four, it felt like we were a little better than that. But when you have three other great teammates. One day it’s someone’s day – and for us as a team, we were happy Josef (Newgarden) got his first win and gave us more points.”

Castroneves sustained a minor over boost penalty coming out of the hairpin on the rough Long Beach circuit, and that was enough to drop him first to sixth by the first corner. Having later been issued a pit speed violation, Castroneves was left to take the ninth place finish there.

“To put a great lap together and make it happen, I was then so sad to have the boost penalty to go from first to sixth first corner,” he said.

But the fact he still got the pole – his third straight at Long Beach as the only Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six and the 52nd of his illustrious career – shows how good he still is.

“It’s such a great feeling. At a place like Long Beach, straightaway, we knew we didn’t have any advantage in those circumstances,” he said. “It was up to us to not find an excuse, and note we have to find other ways to face those challenges.”

Castroneves heads to this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where he’s already got a pole to defend in his No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet.

But he isn’t a fan of INDYCAR moving the qualifying back to nighttime conditions (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App and airs Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), as he says it doesn’t reward drivers who can afford to trim the car out more on edge in the heat of the day.

“It’s a shame we’re doing qualifying at night,” Castroneves said. “I think it separates it from who can do more in the difficult conditions to more where everyone can do it. That’ll be different from last year. But you still have to have a very good car to go around at Phoenix.

“In warmer conditions, say the track temp is 120, air of 80, it makes it very hard to go flat out unless you have good car. At night, it’ll be under 100 if not less, so that’s 20-30 degrees difference before. Everyone’s car gains about 100-200 pounds of downforce. That helps the car stick better.”

Phoenix has been an integral part of Castroneves’ career, dating to the mid-1990s when he and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan tested for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, ahead of their eventual battle for the 1997 championship.

For Castroneves, it holds a special place. It was the first oval he tested on. It was where he made his first start under the IRL banner (when CART and IRL were still separated) in 2001, as a warm-up act for that year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first of three ‘500s he’s won.

And it was where, in February, Castroneves singlehandedly was involved in the first step of the future planning for the new Phoenix Raceway, scheduled for completion in fall of 2018. He took the wheel and control of a Caterpillar excavator as part of the groundbreaking ceremony at the series’ open test here in February.

“I thought man if I made a mistake, there was a car around there!” he laughed. “It would be on ESPN’s Top 10 most bizarre moments!

“But the person who was guiding me talked about the moves, and I got this. It was so cool to be part of it with how much the track would change. We’re just hoping it will be a great renovation.”

And if Castroneves’ career continues to roll on, he’ll be part of the next generation track here as well.

Williams to auction Russian GP race-worn gear for Billy Monger

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Williams Martini Racing will make a difference in trying to support Billy Monger, the young driver who lost his legs in an F4 accident earlier this month but who has already received several hundred thousand pounds of funding to help pay for his medical costs.

The team announced Wednesday it would auction off Felipe Massa’s firesuit and Lance Stroll’s boots from this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix via eBay. A link to bid is here. Funds will go to Monger’s JustGiving page.

It’s an excellent gesture from the team and perhaps the start of even more stakeholders in the racing community to support the young teenager.