Lotus F1 Formula One driver Grosjean drives in the pit lane during the qualifying session of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix

Lotus made a smart play, but even that fell short vs. Vettel

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The Japanese GP, at Suzuka, is one of the Formula One classics and more than lived up to the hype on Sunday.

The race at the front of the field turned out to be a strategic battle of almost military proportions, between the two Red Bulls and the lead Lotus of Romain Grosjean.

The pre-race analysis had the fastest way from lights to flag as being a two stop strategy. There wasn’t a huge amount in it, around five or six seconds of total race time over making three stops, because the pitlane loss time for a pitstop at this famous circuit is relatively small at about 21-22 seconds.

The trouble with these very basic predictions is they just work out the total time it would take a car to race around the 53 laps without any outside interference — i.e. traffic and fighting other teams. Those factors all have a big influence on tire management and therefore the ability to maintain a certain pace and stick to an optimum pitstop strategy.

When teams have their grid positions set on Saturday afternoon, they look at where they are, where their competitors are in relation to them, current start form, clean/dirty side of the track, distance to first corner and many other factors. Their race plan ‘A’ will be based on their drivers getting away from the line as expected and making it through the first couple of crucial corners unscathed.

Red Bull Racing, sitting in P1 and P2 on the grid, would have expected to very quickly pull away and settle into their own race, but surprisingly both cars bogged down as the lights went out, allowing Grosjean to tear through the pair of them and into an early lead.

What happened from there on in, was a very patient, but very calculated display of time biding and precision attack from the Red Bulls, using all of the tools at their disposal to ensure the right result.

Such was the underlying confidence of the current World Champions, the team issued very clear and measured instructions to their drivers to each maintain a two second gap. Mark Webber behind Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel behind his team mate in the early laps. They knew trying to close up and make the pass at this stage, at a circuit where that’s not easy, risked damaging tires in the turbulent air of the car in front and so by holding that prescribed gap they waited to see what Grosjean could do.

With the Lotus being kept at arms length, the decision was taken to try and make the undercut work for Webber in second position. This earlier than normal stop would not only try to force Lotus into covering them, but give him a lap on new hard tires before Grosjean could react and therefore perhaps put in a blistering out lap to be ahead as the Lotus exited from it’s own stop a lap later.

Lotus did react, but Webber was unable to make up enough ground in that single lap to make the difference and remained behind.

What this did do was leave Sebastian Vettel out in front for another couple of laps. In the back of his mind was this race from two years ago, where he and the team focused so much on staying in front of everyone by making early stops to maintain track position, they ran out of tires at the end and came under severe pressure.

Sunday, they played the long game. Vettel didn’t have the pace on his, now well used, mediums to pull out the gap required for a ‘free’ pitstop as Grosjean, now on new hards, stayed around 19 seconds back. Although we saw the odd uncharacteristic lock up from the leader, his team knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t panic when they pitted and emerged still in third position.

Splitting their strategies, they switched Webber to a three stop race. Of the two drivers in the team, Mark’s not as good at looking after tires, so it made sense for him to use more of them and set himself up for a big push in the last stint. Vettel stayed on a two stopper and the race continued.

As the end drew nearer, Grosjean, two stopping and having done a brilliant job for his team, must have felt he was under attack from all angles. He knew he’d face pressure from Webber at the end on fresh tires, but also that Red Bull’s early ‘dummy’ had drawn the Lotus driver into a far earlier sequence of stops than Vettel, allowing the German to finish on a younger set of tires, come the closing laps.

When the eventual winner picked up his last set of tires he was given the instruction from the team “It’s Grosjean up ahead…go get him” and that’s exactly what he did.

On tires eight laps younger than Grosjean’s, Sebastian made a clinical job of passing his rival and there was no looking back. With clean air ahead, he did what he does best and pulled out a gap big enough to break DRS and be comfortable and held it there.

Behind, Grosjean knew there was still a threat from the sister Red Bull, even though he perhaps couldn’t see him coming. When Webber  pitted for his third and final stop he came out around 5 seconds behind the second place car, but a series of very fast sectors quickly brought the gap down to nothing. For the three stop plan to have any hope of overhauling his team mate, he needed to not only pass Grosjean, but get passed him immediately.

The Lotus did a valiant job of defending, and although Webber finally got past, he’d lost too much time to attack Vettel and had to settle for second spot.

It was a well-executed strategic play from Red Bull on two fronts, both cars had a genuine shot at victory here. Sebastian’s play was a calm and patient one, knowing he’d deliver when asked to by the team and Mark’s was switched up to play to his strengths of aggressive attacking driving.

It was huge credit to Romain Grosjean and Lotus that they were the only combination to be able to take the race to the sport’s top team and although the starts were crucial, they played the best hand they could as the race panned out.

Rosberg ready for close fight with Red Bull in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg is anticipating a close fight with Red Bull in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after Daniel Ricciardo dominated practice on Thursday.

Ricciardo finished six-tenths of a second clear of the field on the ultra-soft tire in FP2, making the most of the upgraded Renault power unit in his RB12 car.

Mercedes’ Rosberg arrived in Monaco as the championship leader and chasing a fourth straight win around the streets where he grew up.

“It’s great to be back on the streets of my home town here in Monaco, and also to see all the fans so close to us as we’re on track,” Rosberg said on Thursday after finishing third in FP2.

“It was a tricky start in to the weekend for us, though. The sessions were a bit messy, with quite a few Virtual Safety Car periods – but I was able to learn a lot on the longer runs we managed to do which was a positive. A big applause for all of the circuit marshals, who did a great job as always to clear the cars quickly.”

Rosberg was not surprised by Red Bull’s practice pace, believing it will create a close fight for pole position on Saturday before Sunday’s race.

“As expected, Red Bull look very strong here,” Rosberg said.

“We have some more homework to do during tonight and tomorrow to find some time – but I can’t wait for Saturday and the qualifying battle.

“It should be very close and very exciting, which is great for the sport.”

Indy Carb Day rolling notebook

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Rutherford's final laps. Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Ah, Carb Day. A busy and crazy day of action that is so much bigger than just the final hour of practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

It’ll be easier to round up all that’s happened to this point in chronological order, so we’ll do that below:

PRE-PRACTICE

8:00 a.m. ET: Historic cars took the track for laps. Pictures are better than words here, so here’s a taste of what was out.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

9:00 a.m. ET: The new Tatuus USF-17 car, the new car for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2017 and the base model for the eventual new Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires car, the PM-18 in 2018, was unveiled on the IMS Pagoda Plaza. A link to that release is here. More information will follow in the days to come. Additionally, the first race driver for that car has been confirmed in Dutchman Rinus VK.

9:30 a.m. ET: Honda has spoken. Sort of. After its particularly strong start to the month, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr held court with the media at the HPD hospitality transporter. While St. Cyr noted the hard work that has gone into the month, nothing is satisfying unless Honda can actually win on Sunday.

Said St. Cyr, “I wouldn’t call it redemption. I would say we’ve had to work harder to catch up. To win the 100th is what we’re shooting for.”

10 a.m. ET: Chip was on the bricks. But on the infield side, not the track side. Chip Ganassi did his annual holding court with the media there.

10:15 a.m. ET: The field of 33 posed for their annual class photo. All but one was on time, with Alex Tagliani casually late to temporarily halt the proceedings. A round of applause and laughter occurred when Tagliani arrived. He’ll start 33rd and last on Sunday in the No. 35 Alfe Heat Treating Honda for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

10:35 a.m. ET: Sam Schmidt took laps in his modified ARROW Electronics Corvette, ahead of the Carb Day practice. It was cool to witness it again.

10:45 a.m. ET: Johnny Rutherford took laps in the 2017 Camaro SS 50th Anniversary Edition with a tribute lap ahead of the practice session. He’ll retire from being the pace car driver after this year’s Indianapolis 500.

10:50 a.m. ET: Two quick awards and other notes from pit lane before the session. The annual Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations went to Honda PR aces T.E. McHale and Dan Layton, while Dale Coyne Racing’s Tim Whiting won the Clint Brawner Award, an honor for chief mechanics.

Among those present on pit lane are a couple of Gateway Motorsports Park officials, who are exploring the weekend. The track has expressed interest in a potential return for a Verizon IndyCar Series race in 2017, and the track was rumored as a last-ditch, eleventh hour replacement for Boston.

FINAL PRACTICE

11:00 a.m.: Final practice began with ambient temperatures of 76 degrees and track temperatures of 92 degrees Fahrenheit, per Firestone Racing. Only a half hour earlier the temperatures were 73 and 84.

Oil on the track caused a delay in the session and an early yellow flag. INDYCAR officials would add 10 minutes to the session, originally scheduled to end at noon, to now end it at 12:10 p.m. ET.

Per NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis, Marco Andretti lost time as the team changed steering arms. Meanwhile fellow NBCSN reporter Katie Hargitt also reported Conor Daly was back on track Friday after gearbox issues earlier in the week.

Just at 11:45 a.m., Pippa Mann crashed out of Turn 4. The driver of the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda lost control through Turn 4 and had a mix of right rear and left front damage. It will force the Dale Coyne Racing crew to scramble to make repairs. She was checked, cleared and released from the infield care center.

More to follow as the day progresses.

Kaltenborn confident of resolution to Sauber’s financial struggles

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Felipe Nasr of Brazil driving the (12) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber Formula 1 chief Monisha Kaltenborn is confident that the team’s ongoing financial struggles can be resolved in the near future.

The past couple of years have seen Sauber face an uncertain future due to its ongoing financial problems, with staff facing a delay in payment earlier this year.

The team failed to attend the recent test following the Spanish Grand Prix, sparking further concerns, but Kaltenborn is hopeful that a resolution can be found soon.

“Yes, we have certain challenges and we are working very hard to overcome the situation and I’m confident that we’ll resolve it shortly,” Kaltenborn said.

“We are working on that since a while now and we also know that we need that. If you look at today’s Formula 1 environment to be strong as an independent team you need to have a strong partners.

“So we have always been open to that and now we are pursuing our chances and we hope to resolve that soon.”

Kaltenborn elaborated on the challenge facing Sauber at the moment, saying how F1 has become more difficult for independent teams in recent years.

“I think Formula 1 has changed a lot,” she said.

“If you look at the times when Peter Sauber was team principal and I wouldn’t take the time when he returned as team principal in 2010 to the sport, but if I look at the time before, it was a very different sport and a very different kind of business with a very different financial set-up and sporting set-up.

“So I don’t think you can really compare the times. Challenges for private teams like ours have become bigger, year-by-year, particularly also due to the rule changes which have made things in the last few years far more expensive, if you look at the power train itself but also with regard to the distribution of income.

“There was a time when teams were not getting 50 per cent but even less, but yet the economic environment was much better, where you could get far more sponsors.

“So I don’t think it’s really that easy to compare the times, it doesn’t just have to do with people or the situation within the team, but the overall surroundings we were in.”

Dutchman Rinus VK is first confirmed driver for new USF-17

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Photo: Rinus VK Racing
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You saw the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis get unveiled this morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now meet the first driver.

Dutchman Rinus VK (Van Kalmthout) will step into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series next year. He tested last November at Circuit of The Americas.

The full release is below:

Dutch karting sensation Rinus VK announced today that he will be making the move to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2017. The 15-year old made the announcement at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in conjunction with the launch of the new Tatuus USF-17 car, which will be introduced for the 2017 USF2000 season.

IMG_0368_BLK“I am so excited about coming to the U.S. and racing in USF2000 next year,” commented the teenager, who is also on Holland’s premier driver development program called KNAF Talent First. “Every time I’ve come to the U.S., I love it more and more, and I think moving to the Mazda Road to Indy is the perfect step for me. The INDYCAR ladder is definitely the right place to be.”

2017 will not only be Rinus’ first season racing in the U.S., it will also be his first season of open-wheel racing. He does however have extensive karting experience competing in the North American based U.S. Rotax Max Challenge, and also sampled two USF2000 cars last year at the Circuit of the Americas during the Chris Griffis Memorial test, where he posted the third fastest time overall.

Rinus will spend the next few months racing in the European Karting Championships, which will be followed by off-season testing in the new Tatuus USF-17, which he hopes to kick off in early October. Rinus plans to test with several teams to figure out where the best home for him will be for the 2017 season.

“I’m looking forward to starting testing,” said Rinus, who finished runner-up in both the European and U.S. Rotax Max Senior Championships last year. “I know the level next year will be very strong with the new car, so I want to test with as many teams as possible to learn about them and learn about the car.”