Like Massa, Vergne is sitting in a shop window

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After an association with Ferrari that has lasted over a decade, Felipe Massa is now entering his final four races for the Italian team. Having enjoyed the majority of his success in Formula One at Maranello – including his agonizing loss of the 2008 world championship to Lewis Hamilton – he is now facing a race against time to secure himself a place on the grid in 2014. Although seats remain at many of the teams lower down the grid, the Brazilian driver has remained defiant that he will only drive for a competitive team next season: so, Lotus. His refusal to follow team orders in Japan will have earned him some respect from potential suitors (even if Ferrari may not have been so receptive), but all the while to clock is ticking. However, he is not the only driver to be in this position.

Jean-Eric Vergne is, much like Massa, scratching his head and asking “where do I go from here?”. The Frenchman has gone through the majority of his motorsport career alongside current stablemate Daniel Ricciardo, but the Australian will fly the Toro Rosso nest at the end of a year as he steps up to parent team Red Bull to partner soon-to-be four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. His replacement is set to be the next protégé from the drinks giant’s junior programme: Antonio Felix da Costa. Despite losing out in the race to move to Red Bull in 2014, Vergne has been assured of his future at Faenza. However, the partnership is a puzzling one.

Vergne’s F1 career so far has been good in places, but far from spectacular. His run to sixth place at this year’s Canadian Grand Prix epitomised his time in the sport: a great drive, but largely unnoticed. Whilst the Frenchman has quietly gone about his business, Ricciardo’s results have stood out more, with the Australian driver coming out the victor of some great battles in this year’s Chinese and Italian Grands Prix. His friendly demeanor in the paddock has  also made him a favorite with the fans, whilst Vergne has been more reserved. All of these factors came to the fore in Red Bull’s decision to rebuff the Frenchman and take on his teammate, leaving him in limbo.

For Toro Rosso, the main reason for keeping Vergne is loyalty. After all, he hasn’t done a bad job during his time with the team, not warranting a fate that has befallen so many of his predecessors; Scott Speed, Sebastian Bourdais, Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari have all fallen by the wayside in recent years. Then again, in cases of Buemi and Alguersuari, it is hard to find great flaws in their performances. Continuity can be crucial to the success of a team, as Jenson Button and Brawn proved in 2009 when the Briton finally won his first world title. Although Vergne’s presence may not have as much of an impact, he will be able to guide his new teammate and the team entering a new era in 2014.

However, the very purpose of Toro Rosso – to nurture drivers that will race for Red Bull – means that Vergne is at threat. The arrival of da Costa in 2014 is an assumption, but he is widely regarded as being the ‘next in line’ to step up. Below him, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat are making a great deal of noise in an attempt to please Red Bull, and both are doing an excellent job in their junior categories. Fernando Alonso has inferred that he believes Sainz (a fellow Spaniard) is ready for F1, but a more likely debut season is 2015. However, with both youngsters champing at the bit and looking to follow in the footsteps of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, Vergne’s seat is far from safe.

In fact, it’s merely a question of how long it takes Sainz and Kvyat to mature and be ready for F1. Should Sainz be in a position to be promoted at the end of next season, it is likely that Vergne would make way for him to partner da Costa. Theoretically, Vergne has a twenty-six race window (by no means a paltry number of grands prix) in which to say to the other teams on the grid “here is why you should hire me.”

However, there is something of a saturation in the sport at the moment. There are more drivers capable, willing or simply rich enough to get a seat than places available, meaning that even talented drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg appear to be at risk of not finding a spot on the 2014 grid. Having not done enough to make the jump to Red Bull and currently amid a point-less streak that stretches back to his sixth-place finish in Canada, is Vergne really a better option than the likes of Hulkenberg, Massa and Gutierrez?

For the Frenchman, the clock is ticking. Although he has a longer period than Massa in which to prove his worth, he also has a couple of young and well-funded drivers snapping at his heels. Now is the time for Vergne to establish himself as a mainstay in Formula One and secure a spot on the grid for years to come.

Road America weekend, Friday notes

Abnormal USF2000 podium of Malukas, VeeKay, Kohl. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series had two practice sessions today (you can see linkouts to practice one, and practice two, here). But it was far from the only action at Road America.

With seven sessions from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and three sports car sessions, two Pirelli World Challenge and the first Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race, it was a very busy day of action.

Notes from all of those sessions are below.

MRTI

  • In USF2000, a rare occasion happened. Oliver Askew not only didn’t win the first race of the weekend, but had a mechanical issue that sent him to pit road. It opened the door for Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) to capture his first series win in a banner day for Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team. Pabst Racing finished first (VeeKay), third (Lucas Kohl, in his first podium) and fourth (Calvin Ming, after starting 15th). Splitting them up was BN Racing’s David Malukas, the young Chicago native having scored a surprise pole position in the morning, finishing an impressive second place.
  • The first Pro Mazda race of the weekend saw Victor Franzoni on top over Anthony Martin, as the two championship combatants this season continued their bout. Martin (Cape Motorsports) and Franzoni (Juncos Racing) exchanged the lead early before Franzoni got past, then waltzed away. Team Pelfrey’s Nikita Lastochkin finished third for his first podium finish of his Mazda Road to Indy career, after two years in USF2000 and now into his first Pro Mazda season.
  • An intriguing Indy Lights qualifying session for race one saw Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist continue his recent form. The Brazilian rookie edged Carlin teammate Neil Alberico for the top spot, with Ryan Norman best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet in third. Points leader Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) starts fourth while Nico Jamin (Andretti) is fifth, Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz (Belardi) 11th and Colton Herta (Andretti/Steinbrenner) 13th. Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) did not qualify due to a mechanical issue. Kaiser led practice earlier in the day.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires held three other sessions on Friday. As noted, Malukas won the pole for the first USF2000 race held earlier Friday. Qualifying for the second race took place after IndyCar second practice, and saw VeeKay on pole. In qualifying for Pro Mazda race two, the grid is jumbled after an apparent strategic error cost Franzoni a proper lap time. A red flag meant he wasn’t able to set a realistic time and he will start from 15th and last on Saturday. Meanwhile Martin will be on the pole for Saturday’s race.

RESULTS

Indy Lights: Weekend Results
Pro Mazda: Weekend Results
USF2000: Weekend Results

SPORTS CARS

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher edged Bryan Ortiz by just 0.0263 of a second in a new record closest finish in Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, which breaks the record for the second time in three races. After Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 at Indianapolis, Gallagher turned the tables with his win today, moving his McCumbee McAleer Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup car to the outside of Ortiz exiting Turn 14.
  • Pirelli World Challenge had only two sessions total today, one practice apiece for GT and GTS/TC.

RESULTS

MX-5 Cup: Weekend Results
PWC: Weekend Results

Tony Stewart to race in Rico Abreu fundraiser at Calistoga

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) NASCAR is back at Sonoma Raceway and the defending race winner won’t be part of the field on Sunday.

Tony Stewart, who scored the last of his 49 career victories here, is retired now and watches the Cup races as a team owner. He still plans to race this weekend.

Stewart will run at Calistoga Speedway in an event that is being largely promoted by Rico Abreu and his father, local businessman David Abreu.

The race used to be called the Wine Country Classic, but has been renamed the Boys and Girls Club Dirt Track Classic. David Abreu designed the event as a fundraiser for a facility to house after-school programs for local children in Calistoga.

“My dad and I have always wanted to promote a race to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club,” Rico Abreu said. “There is a need for it with our demographics and it accommodates hundreds of kids in our valley. It provides them a safe place to learn and grow.”

Rico Abreu, one of the nation’s top dirt track drivers, benefited from the program along with his two siblings in St. Helena.

Stewart, Abreu and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among those entered in the Saturday night dirt track event to help draw attendance.

David Abreu, founder of St. Helena’s Abreu Vineyards, is hoping to raise $250,000 for an equipped clubhouse at the Calistoga Boys and Club location. He will give a famous “Macho Magnums” – 40 magnums from his Napa Valley 2010 collection – to the first $100,000 donor.

It will be Stewart’s first Winged Sprint Car start at the Calistoga half-mile. He did win a USAC Western Midget Series race in 1994. He also set the midget track record that same weekend and held it until USAC made its return to the venue in 2008.

“I’m really looking forward to running the Calistoga Speedway since I haven’t raced there since 1994,” Stewart said. “I’m also excited to see all the improvements that have taken place at the track since the last time I’ve been there.”

Abreu is driving as well as promoting and fundraising. He’s competing Saturday night in the Sprint Car Challenge Tour 360’s and the King of the West-NARC 410’s.

“Having Tony Stewart and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in competition will certainly be an exciting thing for all the fans in Nor-Cal,” said Rico Abreu.

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

Newgarden, Penske top second practice at Road America

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Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden topped second practice in a 1-2-3-4 sweep for the Team Penske outfit, driving the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden’s best lap of a 1:42.8229 was about five hundredths of a second quicker than teammate and defending race winner Will Power, who was second with a 1:42.8229. Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves completed the Penske top four sweep, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe the best of the Honda drivers in fifth.

The session was only briefly interrupted early on when Alexander Rossi went off the track in Turn 14 and gently slid into the tire barrier. The red flag was flown to remove the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda from the barrier, but Rossi was able to continue, ending the session in 11th after leading the morning practice.

Of note, Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones enjoyed a strong session to end up sixth, while teammate Esteban Gutierrez was 17th on his return to Coyne.

Also, Robert Wickens continued to fill in for Mikhail Aleshin, ending Practice 2 in 20th. While Aleshin is reportedly en route to Road America, it is unknown if Wickens will continue his fill in role through the weekend.

Times are below. Practice 3 rolls of at 12:00 p.m. ET (11:00 a.m. local) on Saturday.

Sauber says it’s ‘soon’ to naming Kaltenborn’s successor

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Sauber F1 Team enters this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix without a team principal and trying to work ahead on its 2018 preparations, making it a tough weekend for one of Formula 1’s smallest teams.

Sauber team manager Beat Zahnder attempted to explain the team’s managerial structure this weekend in Kaltenborn’s absence and teased when he hoped a decision would be made regarding Kaltenborn’s successor.

“Jorg Zander, the technical director and myself, we’ve been entrusted to run the operation of the team this weekend but this is only temporary,” Zahnder explained during the FIA team principal press conference on Friday.

“It doesn’t change a lot for us because our job is to have two cars running as quickly as possible around the circuit and for me it’s a little bit more media work.”

Asked when he hoped to have a successor named, Zahnder replied, “I hope soon. We were talking to some candidates and I hope we can announce it sooner rather than later.”

Former Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur’s name has been floated this week, as have other former F1 team chiefs Dave Ryan and Jost Capito, after Colin Kolles’ name was floated earlier in the week.

Zahnder said he could not explain the insider workings of the team.

“I cannot, no. You’ve seen the official press statement from Mr Picci and it seems that Mr Picci and Mrs Kaltenborn had different views how to operate the company. We shouldn’t forget that it’s not only a race team, it’s a home team as well with 350 people or so, but I cannot give you more information because I’m not actively involved in that decision,” he said.

Sauber is still in the process of not only finishing this year but also preparing for its 2018 switch to Honda power. This is an important change and one that comes amidst the turmoil currently encapsulating McLaren and Honda’s turbulent relationship.

“We have started with the project and there is an exchange of information on the logistical side, on the set-up side and the garages,” Zahnder explained. “We have to organize computers and IT stuff and things like this so the work has started, yes.”

With the two McLaren Hondas set to start from the rear of the grid this weekend, Sauber can at least work to get into Q2 and get further up the order with its pair of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.