F1 Grand Prix of India - Race

Contrasting strategies at India show why Vettel continues to win

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The Indian Grand Prix proved to be another fascinating tactical battle between teams and drivers, showing that there’s often more than one way to get the best out of a race situation.

When the teams ran in Friday’s free practice sessions, it quickly became clear that the two nominated tire compounds had vastly different characteristics. The soft tire, or option, delivered a lap time around a second faster than the medium, or prime, but deteriorated significantly within a handful of laps. The medium was slower, yet withstood the abrasive surface of the Buddh International Circuit and showed almost no signs of degradation or wear for long spells, even on heavy fuel loads.

This all meant that race strategy, even more so than normal, had to be planned out before qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

The two most obvious race strategies were to qualify, and therefore start the Grand Prix, on the faster option tire, run that for a short spell, before doing two long stints on prime to the end; or conversely qualify and start on prime, even though it meant taking a hit on lap time and therefore grid position, before another stint of the same and switching to the options right at the end of the race.

There wasn’t much on paper between the two, but in fact most simulations had the latter version coming out as being slightly quicker by four or five seconds over the course of the entire race. Both were therefore feasible options and a few teams chose to cover both bases and split their two drivers.

You might ask why, if one strategy shows up as being four seconds faster than another, doesn’t everyone just go with that one?

There’re many factors to be taken into consideration before deciding on race plans, some aren’t always obvious to the outside world.

First, teams need to look at their two drivers and pinpoint their individual strengths and weaknesses. If one driver is clearly better than the other at looking after tires, he could manage a longer stint on options, or even in extreme cases, look at one less stop than his teammate. We saw this in Japan between the two Red Bull drivers.

Another consideration is a driver’s ability to cleanly overtake the pack if he comes out into traffic after a pitstop. Again, we saw the difference between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in Japan when both of their strategies needed them to catch and pass Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Vettel did it quickly and cleanly, without losing time or hurting tires behind his rival. Webber spent two laps fighting under the Lotus’ rear wing and lost time on the track to his teammate, but took valuable life from his Pirellis, which meant his strategy failed.

The ability to deliver a qualifying lap late in the session, under pressure and without the need to do multiple runs will determine how many new sets of tires the team have to use in the race. This obviously has a big impact on strategy.

In India, those who qualified and started on options had already taken three laps of life from their tires before the race had even begun, those who were able to save options and then set Q3 times on primes, were able to keep a brand new set for the last race stint. On a circuit where soft tires only lasted a few short laps, that was where part of those four or five seconds difference would come from over the alternate race strategy.

The team know their drivers inside out and so the best strategy for one, may not be necessarily the best for the other.

Other factors that come into play when deciding how to approach a race include the nature of the circuit. The first one or two turns can be crucial after the race start when the field’s bunched up, adrenaline’s high and nothing’s quite up to temperature. If the run down to turn one’s short and the corner tight, a team might prefer to go all out in qualifying to be at the front and in relative safety, over a seemingly preferable race strategy that might have them on alternate tires but further down the pack, like Webber did on Sunday. While Vettel got through the first few turns in the clear and unscathed, his teammate got caught up with other cars and compromised his original plan just a little bit.

The statistical chance of a safety car at any particular circuit can have a huge impact on deciding a team’s race decisions. The chance of the safety car playing a part generally diminishes after the first two laps of any race. In India, those who started on option, like Vettel, would’ve benefited had that happened early on, enabling them to pit and ditch the soft tire, spending the rest of the race on mediums.

When Webber stopped on lap 29 today, he took soft, option tires, perhaps not the ideal tire for that part of the race, but he did it with a safety car in mind. If an incident had occurred, he too could’ve used the ‘free’ pit stop to switch back to the prime and finish the race on them. If he’d taken primes at the stop and the safety car had then come out, it would’ve ruined his Grand Prix as he’d have been forced to stop and take options, having not yet used them, and been left with an unmanageably long last stint.

In hindsight this was over-cautious. In the three years we’ve been racing in India, the safety car hasn’t yet made an appearance and at that middle stage of the race, it was highly unlikely it was going to. His fastest way to the end was to stay on primes and take the new options for a very fast, but short final stint, when the car was at its lightest and the field at its most stretched. In the end it was academic as he retired with an alternator failure.

Weather; track evolution; the amount of time lost in pitlane for each stop; the car’s characteristics like top speed or traction and many other parameters are all carefully considered before heading into qualifying. Of course depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoons, the whole thing needs looking at again, the simulation models updated with grid positions, another look at the forecasts, start performance and so on.

Many people, both at the track and back at the team’s European bases work through the night to give the drivers and engineers the best possible scenarios before Sunday’s race, but once the lights go out it’s a constantly morphing model and the team need to be able to react as the race unfolds.

Often it’s the ability to think on one’s feet, that sets a good team apart from a great one.

F1 Paddock Pass: McLaren MCL32 Honda Launch (VIDEO)

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The week of Formula 1 car launches continue with two more today, the Ferrari SF70H online and later, the McLaren MCL32 Honda in Woking, in the U.K.

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass continues along with it, with NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales making the trip to the McLaren Technology Center (MTC) for today’s McLaren launch of the new orange-and-black liveried car.

Hopes are high that the Honda-powered McLaren will be more than just troubling the midfield this year, and instead making that next leap back into the upper crust of Formula 1, where both McLaren and Honda have so much history together.

Those tasked with that goal include American Zak Brown, the team’s new executive director, drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, and a host of others including but not limited to Jonathan Neale and Eric Boullier of McLaren, and Yusuke Hasegawa of Honda.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Stay tuned for more on NBCSports.com in the buildup to testing next week in Barcelona. A recap of the launches held this weekend will come next week, to link up with the start of testing on February 27 at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona.

NHRA Funny Car: Cruz Pedregon ready to ‘retool, regroup and reload’ in 2017

2015 NHRA Englishtown
(Photos courtesy Toyota Racing)
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Veteran Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon is used to winning races and championships.

He’s tied with the legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for fifth on the NHRA all-time Funny Car wins list with 35 triumphs.

He also is a two-time NHRA Funny Car season champion (1992, 2008).

But the driver of the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car is not used to the kind of dismal season he had in 2016 – and he’s bound and determined to dramatically change that in 2017.

The 2016 season was the worst of Pedregon’s career. He failed to win a race for the second straight season, failed to advance past the first round of eliminations in 18 of the season’s 24 races, failed to qualify for the sport’s biggest race of the season — the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis — and missed qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

2017 NHRA Pomona Winternationals

When the season concluded, Pedregon found himself with a disappointing 12th place finish in the final standings. As far as he was concerned, he only had one place to go, and that was up in 2017.

“I needed to go through a rebuilding mode, like they do in football, baseball and basketball,” Pedregon told MotorSportsTalk. “I had to do a better job of bringing people in and figuring out what I needed to purchase as an owner.

“That’s not how I want to race, so I made the changes I felt we needed to make.”

The biggest change was the guy under the hood. As both a driver and team owner, Pedregon had tuned his own car since 2010. But during the off-season, he hired a new crew chief, Aaron Brooks, formerly of the Lucas Oil Top Fuel team that disbanded after last season.

“At the end of the day, the competition has raised the bar the last two years,” the 53-year-old Pedregon said. “Unless you’re part of a satellite team or part of a multi-car team, those things can elude you if you’re a single car team.

“So, I feel not being part of a multi-car team and not really having a crew chief or car chief that had some connection with the technology, I just felt we got behind from a technical standpoint and it caught up to us.

“We had some good years in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and ‘13 was my best year (since his last championship season in 2008). We won four races and were in the championship conversation all the way up to the end (finished fourth, preceded by fourth-place finish in 2012 and third-place finish in 2011).

“Then in 2014, we dropped off a little bit (finished 10th), and 2015 (finished ninth) we declined in performance and consistency and then we hit the bottom last year. So, I had to retool, regroup and reload, and that’s what I did by hiring Aaron, who was with the Lucas Oil Top Fuel time for the last five years.

“Aaron has great attention to detail and is very crafty. He’s kind of a throwback crew chief. More modern-day crew chiefs sit behind a computer and makes calls based on data, while Aaron is more of a hands-on guy, working with the team. My team really needed that.

“I feel now we have a car that’s built properly, it’s on-par or exceeds what’s currently out there winning the races. Now what lies ahead of us is to go out and execute. We have to go out and prove that not only can we build a nice car and have a nice influx of equipment, and now we’re going to go out on the track.”

Because Brooks did not join the team until January, Pedregon had limited preseason testing. In the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, California two weeks ago, Pedregon failed to advance past the first round.

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But that’s going to change, Pedregon promises. He comes into this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix looking for bigger and better results.

“We need these runs under our belts so we can get the consistency that we need to race with these guys,” Pedregon said. “I feel like performance-wise, we’re going to be right near the top. I’d say top-five is what we’re shooting for and I don’t see why we can’t start that this weekend in Phoenix.”

By the same token, Pedregon is prepared to bide his time if additional patience and time is needed to get back into the thick of the Funny Car ranks.

“We’re going to experience some growing pains, but there’s not a guy on this team that doesn’t feel like the potential is through the roof,” Pedregon said. “Personally, I think we won the off-season free agency game in landing Aaron Brooks.

“Yeah, we lost early in Pomona, but the sky is the limit with this group. We ran a career-best in a ‘must’ qualifying run on Saturday.

“Realistically, it may take four or five races, but I don’t think much more than that. Much like a football team, the first two quarters may not show what we’ve got, but the last two quarters, we’ll really show what we have.

“I’m motivated like no other. I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulder because the last couple of years. While I was optimistic, I had to really go through that to get to the point where I’m at now and say, ‘Look, I can’t do this by myself. I tried.’

“That being said, I’ve enjoyed some good years with crew chiefs. The last time I had a bonafide crew chief, who really gets in there and does what a crew chief does, was back in 2007 through 2009 with Rahn Tobler, and in those three years, we won a championship.

“Now we’ve got Aaron on board … any time I pull up to the line, I feel we have a shot to win.”

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Michelin gathers all GTLM cars, road going cars at Sebring (VIDEO)

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One of the elements about sports car racing that is pretty cool is that there is a huge track-to-street correlation, with manufacturers using what they learn at the track and helping to build for their street product.

Although Michelin welcomes and generally prefers competition within the GT Le Mans class, the only class open to tire competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, at the moment it works with all five manufacturers present – Chevrolet, Ford, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW.

Given the unique opportunity and the timing of this week’s IMSA test at Sebring International Raceway, Michelin organized a special track-to-street photo and video shoot to bring each of the race cars that compete in the class together with its equivalent road going variant on the same track at the same time.

The Corvette C7.R, Ford GT, Porsche 911 RSR (now mid-engined), Ferrari 488 GTE and BMW M6 GTLM are the five cars that currently compete in the GTLM class.

From a Michelin release:

“We want to create special content to show consumers the incredibly tight and authentic track-to-street links for Michelin and our technical partners, and to showcase the WeatherTech Championship and the GTLM class,” said Sarah Robinson, motorsport marketing manager, Michelin North America.

“When you see the two cars side-by-side you realize just how close the collaboration is with Michelin and our technical partners.”

Close on the heels of the successful launch experience of the MICHELIN Pilot Sport 4 S, the strong images and video captured at Sebring this week continue to tell the story of Michelin performance and safety.

See the video above and the overall main image, below. The 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring runs March 18.

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Photo courtesy Michelin North America

Graham Rahal visits the Honda Classic (PHOTOS)

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Rahal for the putt. Photo courtesy Honda Racing
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In the buildup to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg on March 12, a number of drivers are visiting other sporting events of note.

Graham Rahal has been one of the busiest. The driver of the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing made a pit stop at the Bridgestone Winter Classic in January and this week has been out to the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Anyway, 28-year-old Rahal is an avid PGA Tour follower and fan and when time allows, brushes off his own set of clubs for the event’s Honda Classic Cares Pro Am presented by Tire Kingdom. He’s also used golf as a fundraiser; he’s raised over $300,000 to benefit children’s charities (with the golf tournament he did around the Indy 500).

Rahal, who won the Pro Am twice in 2011 and 2012 and came second the next year with motorsports fan Rickie Fowler, himself one of the young stars on the PGA Tour, was only able to get in four holes this week owing to poor weather. But with a new putter that’s the same model as the one used by recent world number one player Jason Day, Rahal sank a rather impressive 40-foot putt. Rahal was playing in a group with Smylie Kaufman, and credited him for the advice.

A handful of photos from the event are below (courtesy Honda Racing):

Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.