MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: Japanese GP

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Following Sebastian Vettel’s fourth consecutive victory in Korea last weekend, you would be forgiven for thinking that the writing team at NBC have had it pretty easy in recent weeks. In fact, three of the four writers managed to correctly predict that the German driver would win the Korean Grand Prix (and the selection of Max Chilton was nothing more than a thinly-veiled snub), but can Seb make it five-in-a-row in Japan? It would be the first time in his career that he has achieved this feat, proving that for all of his records, he still has plenty more to set.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Drive for five straight wins could see the unstoppable German lock up the title this weekend. Gotta keep picking him until he is dethroned.

Surprising finish: Adrian Sutil. Has made it in the bottom of the points two of the last four races and should thrive on a circuit he knows well. His only Japanese GP points were the first of his career in Fuji 2007; I’ll say he gets his first Suzuka scored on Sunday.

Most to prove: Max Chilton. If for no other reason than it would be a huge surprise to see him outqualify Bianchi on a true driver’s track, and with Bianchi having got his Marussia deal already wrapped for next year, time for the unheralded Briton to do something memorable in an otherwise forgettable rookie season.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Will the champagne party finally begin for the soon-to-be four-time World Champion? Barring a engine/mechanical disaster, I’m not expecting Fernando Alonso to finish in the back so perhaps the party will be put on hold for now. Still, I reckon Vettel will be on the top step again this weekend.

Surprising finish: Nico Hulkenberg. The Hulk turned a lot of heads at Korea with his strong fourth-place finish for Sauber, which hasn’t had a relatively great year. I’m interested to see what he’ll do for an encore and wouldn’t be surprised if he came through again.

Most to prove: Esteban Gutierrez. With Hulkenberg’s improved pace, his Mexican teammate needs to start breaking into the points. He missed out by one spot at Korea, but if he can qualify well this weekend, he should be on target to finally hit the board in 2013 (he’s one of six competitors that have not scored yet).

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Four straight wins, three wins in four years at Suzuka, calls it his ‘favorite’ circuit, RB9 is suited to the track, gunning for a fourth straight title… need I say any more? On talent and pace alone, there is no chance of Seb losing this one.

Surprising finish: Jenson Button. JB has struggled all season thanks to the pace of the McLaren MP4-28, but Suzuka has treated him well over the years. A few retirements here and there and the Briton could yet return to the top five in Japan.

Most to prove: Paul di Resta. Paul’s luck of late has been lacking to say the least. Five straight retirements and no points since June means that he needs a good result in Suzuka to prove that he still has what it takes to compete in F1.

Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. He owns Suzuka. You can’t argue with four poles, three wins and a championship in four many years. I expect Mercedes will be closer than they were in Korea, and could even break his stranglehold on pole position, but the race will be his.

Surprising finish: Mark Webber. His run of misfortune simply has to come to an end soon. He always a bit handy around ‘proper’ tracks like Suzuka, and this is the last time he’ll get to play on this fabulous track for a while as the World Endurance Championship races at Fuji.

Most to prove: Esteban Gutierrez. Now that Nico Hulkenberg is bringing home serious points for Sauber, Gutierrez must at the very least start raking in the lower points finishes.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.