F1 Grand Prix of Singapore

Sebastian Vettel may be greatest athlete America doesn’t know

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Sebastian Vettel appears ready to equal his racing hero and German countryman Michael Schumacher and also Juan Manuel Fangio as the only drivers in Formula One history to win four consecutive World Championships. That alone places him in the Mount Rushmore of legends in the sport; since entering in 2007 as a teenager, Vettel has stormed through the F1 record books with nearly every single Grand Prix.

Schumacher’s all-time marks of 91 wins and 7 World Championships are eventually going to be in range for Vettel, who thus far has 35 and 3 at age 26. He’s already the youngest to win three titles. Schumacher had runs of seven and five straight wins in 2004, the year of his final title. Fangio never won more than three races in a row and won just 24 races in his career, but raced during an era when only nine to 11 Grands Prix were on the calendar.

Yet while his status among the all-time greats of F1 is being solidified, his awareness to an American fan base is not at the same level as his on-track achievements.

Compared to some of America’s most dominant and recognizable stick-and-ball athletes – such as LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Tom Brady/Peyton Manning – Vettel matches up from a dominance and success level.

LeBron’s at least a third of the way to his “not three, not four, not five, not six” proclamation with back-to-back rings. Brady’s run of success netted three Super Bowls in a four-year run earlier this century. Woods’ streak included holding all four major titles at the same time from 2000 to 2001, and his total of 14 majors is still unrivaled among other golfers even though he’s been stuck on 14 since that U.S. Open win over Rocco Mediate in 2008.

And yet Vettel’s got a record streak that would trump them all, with four successive season-long championships assuming he caps it off this weekend in India. One site rates his marketability behind that of NBA star Blake Griffin and tennis player Sloane Stephens, not to mention fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton.

So why is he not as well-known in these parts? Several factors, actually.

The obvious, of course, was the lack of a United States Grand Prix until the event’s return at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas last year. Still, you can catch him for this year’s race on Nov. 17 on NBC, or in person at the track.

Looking historically, Vettel actually made his debut at the last USGP in Indianapolis in 2007 – as a then-long-haired, blonde, 19-year-old as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at the BMW Sauber team. He scored a championship point with eighth place, the youngest driver to do so, and began his march on the record books.

Those who paid attention that weekend – and are F1 devotees – will know they witnessed the beginning of the legend. The more casual observers, though, likely would not have known of Vettel until the series’ return a year ago.

Second is his sponsor, Red Bull. For all its marketing brilliance over the years, Red Bull has not opted to make Vettel the focal point of its ads in the U.S. since he joined the team in 2009. There’s been more ads from new Red Bull partner Infiniti this year – one with generic Red Bull Formula 3 cars racing through streets I can think of off the top of my head – and Vettel’s not included directly.

Red Bull got more mileage from a marketing and buzz standpoint out of the “Red Bull Stratos” event last October, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner free fell from more than 125,000 feet in space. It truly felt like “an event;” a Vettel Grand Prix win seems like “just another Sunday.”

You could argue Mobil 1 has made McLaren driver Jenson Button and, previously, Hamilton bigger names in the U.S. Hamilton and fellow Mobil 1 driver Tony Stewart memorably exchanged rides for a day in a made-for-TV 2011 event, and the two were in commercials together as well. This year, Button’s starred opposite “Smoke,” as the term “Soda cookies” has officially entered the vernacular.

All three – Vettel and the pair of English World Champions, Button and Hamilton – are much bigger on the other side of the pond compared to here. The Barclays Premier League has gained recent traction in the U.S., but it and F1 are the two major sports in England by contrast to here, where the NFL rules all.

Perhaps comparable examples for Vettel in the U.S. are Spanish soccer players Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, who have won multiple titles with their club team, Barcelona, and international trophies with Spain. But a U.S. sports fan may be hard-pressed to pick either out of a crowd. The same applies to Vettel.

Third, and the issue all F1 stars worldwide all seem to have here, is that the races often come on in the overnight or early morning hours. Only the most devoted, fervent fans have the desire and passion to want to wake up that early, or stay up that late, to watch Grands Prix.

And with Vettel’s recent run of success – five straight victories heading into this weekend – it has the potential to turn fans off with the notion that a race is as good as decided before it even begins. Say what you will about what it takes to achieve that, but unless you’re a fan of dominance and watching the best at their peak, it can get old.

We know Vettel’s an excellent shoe and from those who cover him every Grand Prix weekend, he has a sunny disposition, quick wit, sharp, insightful answers to journalist questions and an enthusiasm for winning that is evident every time that finger waves “number one.”

It just hasn’t waved “number one” here in terms of awareness of his level of dominance.

Red Bull, Aston Martin partnership continues into 2017

GAYDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing talks on stage at the Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing Project AMRB 001 Unveil on July 5, 2016 at the Aston Martin Headquarters in Gaydon, England on July 5, 2016 in Gaydon, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The partnership between Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin will continue into 2017, Red Bull confirmed on Tuesday.

Branding on the Red Bull Formula 1 chassis will continue, while bigger news has come in terms of the AM-RB 001 hypercar.

Red Bull and Aston Martin announced that all 150 road-going cars of the 175 cars built (the other 25 are track-only specials) have been sold and customer deliveries will begin in early 2019.

An AM-RB 001 prototype is expected to run for the first time by the end of this season.

“We first conceived our Innovation Partnership with Aston Martin in the realization that it could be truly pioneering,” said Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing team principal.

“In blending our distinct but unique skills under a shared creative vision, we have already seen tangible development to both of our brands and businesses. The extraordinary success of the AM RB-001 is testament to the expert and collaborative spirit in which it was forged, and extending our relationship with Aston Martin through 2017 was a simple and pleasing decision.”

Aston Martin President and CEO Andy Palmer added,  “By bringing together the talents of Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin, AM-RB 001 is destined to become the defining hypercar of this decade and a hugely desirable investment for collectors and enthusiasts.

“Our relationship with Red Bull Racing has done for Aston Martin exactly what we expected it to do,” he continued. “It is helping us to continue to build our brand across the globe. Partnerships like this are good for business both in terms of technical innovation and brand awareness, so we are pleased to continue into 2017.”

FIA WEC Prologue changes date to avoid Papal visit clash

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - FEBRUARY 14:  Pope Francis attends a meeting with engaged couples from all over the world gathered today, on the feast of St. Valentine, in St. Peter's Square   on February 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the event, organised by the Pontifical Council for the Family, Pope Francis emphasised that living together is 'an art, a patient, beautiful and fascinating journey' which can be summarized in three words: please, thank you and sorry.  (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
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The FIA World Endurance Championship Prologue has shifted dates, moving from its originally scheduled March 24-25 date to April 1-2 still at Autodromo di Nazionale, Monza.

The reasoning is that His Holiness Pope Francis will be making an official visit to Monza on those dates. Naturally, organizational, security and logistical preferences will follow for that.

The European Le Mans Series continues as planned on March 28 and 29 with its preseason test.

For fans of clashes, two more have been created on account of this date shift. The FIA Formula E Championship race at Mexico and Blancpain GT Series season opener at Misano fall on the same weekend as the Prologue.

The full revised calendar (for the moment, and for the last time, we hope) is below.

Wolff on Alonso to Mercedes rumors: ‘You have to consider Fernando’

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 13:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda walks in the Paddock during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Toto Wolff has responded to speculation about Fernando Alonso moving to Mercedes for the 2017 Formula 1 season by saying that officials at the team “have to consider” the Spaniard.

Just five days after winning his maiden F1 title with Mercedes in Abu Dhabi, Nico Rosberg shocked the motorsport world by announcing his immediate retirement from racing.

The news has left Mercedes in need of a driver for 2017, but after boasting the best car on the grid for the past three years, the seat is highly coveted.

Alonso has one year to run on his McLaren contract, but has been linked with the drive for 2017 as he looks to win his first World Championship since 2006.

Speaking to British broadcaster Sky Sports, Mercedes executive chairman Wolff said that Alonso had to be considered as a candidate for the seat, but acknowledged that the two-time champion remains under contract.

“You have to consider Fernando,” Wolff said.

“He’s a driver that I respect a lot, and combines the talent, speed, experience – it’s all there.

“But he’s in a contract with McLaren-Honda at the moment. We just need to weigh all the other options up.”

Whoever Mercedes opts to sign for 2017 will partner Lewis Hamilton, who said last week that he would not insist on having number one status at the team.

Wolff said that Mercedes would continue to operate with its equal chances philosophy between its drivers in 2017, regardless of who was signed.

“We will maintain the system like we had,” Wolff said.

“We will always have equal status for all drivers, give them equal opportunity to the best of our ability. I say that, meaning Abu Dhabi…

“I think we owe it to the fans and owe it to ourselves that you can’t have a pecking order straight from the beginning. It’s not what we’d like to see happening.”

NHRA: JR Todd to Kalitta Funny Car, Troy Coughlin to Top Fuel

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In the wake of Del Worsham announcing he was leaving Kalitta Motorsports for his family team, the DHL Funny Car needed to be filled.

Today Kalitta Motorsports has confirmed Worsham’s replacement, with JR Todd the replacement there as he moves from Top Fuel to Funny Car. Meanwhile, Troy Coughlin Jr. will step up into Top Fuel.

The release is below:

Kalitta Motorsports is pleased to announce that current Top Fuel driver J.R. Todd is moving to the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car seat vacated by Del Worsham. In turn, Troy Coughlin Jr. will move from the planned part-time sixth team to a full-time seat aboard the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster.

Todd is making his return to the Funny Car class, but for the first time as a driver. He worked on Bob Gilberston’s Funny Car during the 2003-2005 NHRA seasons with current Kalitta employees Nicky Boninfante and Tommy DeLago.

“Connie told Jim O the DHL Toyota is a special car and that I was the right guy for the job, which was a huge compliment to me,” said Todd, who will make his Funny Car debut at the Circle K Winternationals in February. “I am going to miss Del as a teammate as he has always been one of my heroes. I want to also say a huge thanks to SealMaster and their awesome franchisees. They are great people and it was an honor to represent them.”

Todd turns to the Funny Car class after a career season aboard the SealMaster Toyota Top Fuel dragster. In 152 Top Fuel events, Todd has earned nine victories, 19 final round appearances, nine No.1 qualifiers and 149 round wins. He was the 2006 AAA Road to the Future rookie winner and has placed in the top five in the point standings two times, including a fourth-place effort this year.

“Ever since I worked with Nicky and Tommy D on a Funny Car, driving one has been in the back of my mind and most people have known that. The DHL Toyota has quite the legacy and it is a huge honor to be picked to drive it.”

DHL will continue as the primary sponsor on Todd’s Toyota Camry Funny Car for the entire season.

Coughlin, Jr. will have an elite team to drive for during his rookie season. In 2016, Todd took the SealMaster machine to a race win in Sonoma, 37 round wins and a top five finish in the point standings.

“I am thrilled to be competing full-time for Kalitta Motorsports in 2017 with an incredible backer like SealMaster and their franchise owners,” said Coughlin, Jr. “The car is one of the best looking machines on the race track and it is awesome to be able to know I will have a car that can compete for the title.”

Coughlin, Jr. won the 2013 Super Gas title in division 3 and is a two-time NHRA U.S. Nationals winner. In, 2015, he drove in the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod series and was named Rookie of the Year. In his career, the 26-year-old driver has driven Junior Dragsters, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Dragster and Pro Mod machines. Earlier this year, he earned his Top Fuel license.

NHRA Lifetime Achievement award winner and drag racing legend Connie Kalitta will continue alongside Rob Flynn in their roles after their outstanding 2016 season. SealMaster remains as the primary sponsor on the machine for all 24 events.

“I am excited for the future of our team,” said Jim Oberhofer, Vice President of Operations, Kalitta Motorsports. “First, I want to thank our incredible partners, DHL and SealMaster, for helping make this transition seamless. Both J.R. and Troy are ready for the 2017 season. J.R. is a very motivated driver and continues to be a perfect fit at Kalitta Motorsports. I know he will be a great ambassador for DHL and Toyota and I look forward to see what the season holds.  I am also thrilled to be able to get Troy into a full time seat. He proved to be a very precise driver during our test session in Las Vegas and I know he is going to do a great job in the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster.”

Finally, the Kalitta Motorsports Funny Cars will also see a reorganization of the team’s crew chiefs. Todd’s DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car will be led by Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith as co-crew chiefs. Smith comes from teammate Paul Lee’s Funny Car. Former DHL co-crew chief Nicky Boninfante will join Tommy DeLago on the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry Funny Car driven by Alexis DeJoria and Glen Huszar will lead Lee’s McLeod Racing Funny Car. All five Funny Car crew chiefs are former NHRA champions.

Both Coughlin, Jr. and Todd will have solid teammates backing them up. Coughlin, Jr. will partner with 2016 championship runner-up Doug Kalitta in the Top Fuel ranks, while Todd will be joined by Alexis DeJoria and Paul Lee in the Funny Car ranks. Coughlin, Jr., DeJoria, Kalitta and Todd will all compete full-time with Lee planning a part-time run.