On Friday ahead of the United States Grand Prix, NBCSN’s Steve Matchett was given a chance to take a look around Caterham’s garage to give some insight into the workings of a V8 F1 engine – which is entering its penultimate race before the change to turbcharged V6s – and the chassis of a Formula One car.
The waiting is finally over. After one of the busiest winters in the sport’s history, Formula 1 finally bursts back into life this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.
The city of Melbourne has played host to the race since 1996, acting as the curtain-raiser in all but two years since then, offering a real ‘back to school’ feel for all in the paddock.
2017 marks the beginning of a new era for F1 in a number of ways. Not only do we have a raft of new regulations to contend with for this season, prompting a radical change in the appearance of the cars, but the sport is also under new management following Liberty Media’s takeover in January.
For the first time since 1994, we head into the new season without the world champion following Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after his dramatic title success in Abu Dhabi.
As a result, the irons are stoked nicely for the new year: every driver starts from zero, none having the honor of racing with the No. 1. There is everything to play for.
So what can we expect from the start of F1’s latest chapter in Australia? Here are a few things to look out for this weekend.
2017 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points
Will Mercedes really be second-best?
The biggest surprise through pre-season testing was the pace shown by Ferrari. Coming off the back of a winless campaign in 2016, both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were rapid in Barcelona, while the SF70H was a reliable steed. Over one lap, it looked like the rest of the pack couldn’t get close.
Mercedes has been here before. We’ve seen the Silver Arrows stroll through testing before turning things up to 11 for the start of the season, having won over 50 races in the past three years. Lewis Hamilton enters 2017 as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ title, while new teammate Valtteri Bottas is expected to add his name to the list of F1 winners.
Yet Ferrari’s pre-season pace has Mercedes worried. Despite its best efforts towards the end of testing, it couldn’t get close to the times that Raikkonen and Vettel were setting. As a result, we’re looking at the very real prospect – perhaps for the first time since 2013 – that Mercedes may not be the fastest team at the start of the season.
Sandbagging is part of the game in testing, but come qualifying in Melbourne, we’ll see Mercedes and Ferrari show their true colors. It could make for a mouth-watering fight at the front of the pack.
Bottas gears up for his big break
When the F1 paddock last convened in Abu Dhabi in November, Valtteri Bottas was facing the prospect of a quiet winter. With a Williams contract extension all sewn up for 2017, he’d spend the off-season training and spending time with his family and wife, Emilia, in Finland.
And then Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell.
Despite a number of drivers being linked with the Mercedes seat, Bottas was always the sensible option. Through his four years at Williams, he has proven himself to be an adept and fast grand prix racer, leading its charge to third in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015.
The Finn now has his big break, though. With Williams, he stood little chance of becoming an F1 winner. Now at Mercedes, it would surely be a knock-out blow to his hopes of staying in a top seat if he doesn’t claim at least one race victory in 2017.
Bottas has the kind of opportunity that is rare to find in F1. It is one that was never due, yet with just a one-year contract on the table, he is very much in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. If he doesn’t impress, Mercedes has no shortage of options to replace him in 2018.
Bottas was impressive through pre-season testing, and will be hoping to match new teammate Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne despite it being his first race in the white Mercedes race suit. How he handles the pressure of the big time will be fascinating to watch.
Overtaking, strategy option fears linger
The push to introduce new technical regulations for 2017 came as part of a bid to make F1 exciting again. Faster cars equals happy drivers and more on-track action, equalling happy fans – right?
Well, maybe not. Although the significant increase in downforce has seen lap times increase by the desired five seconds from 2015, it is not conducive to overtaking. Drivers have complained time and time again about not being able to follow cars closely in recent years due to the loss in aero grip, and the issue will only be worse this year. As a result, don’t go expecting more overtaking this year. If things are really bad, qualifying could be the settler for races.
Another worry for some in the paddock is tire management – or the lack of it. Pirelli has introduced new, wider tires for 2017, increasing in size by around 25 per cent. While they look awesome and offer a throwback to a bygone age of the sport, the reports from testing was that they were also far more conservative than last year’s offering. They will last much, much longer.
Drivers will appreciate the chance to push more on their compounds, having previously been nursing them from the very first lap in some cases, but these may have gone the other way entirely. There is a risk we could get an array of one-stop races this year, much as we did in 2010, the final year of Bridgestone’s F1 supply. That combined with the possible lack of overtaking is a worrisome prospect.
How bad are things at McLaren-Honda?
Uh, bad. Very bad. Unless something has been magicked up between testing and Melbourne, McLaren could be marooned at the back of the grid come Sunday following a tortuous testing program in Barcelona.
Honda entered 2017 hoping to make big gains following the removal of the token system for engine updates and a change in the layout of its power unit – but appears to have taken a big step backwards.
The McLaren MCL32 car completed a maximum of 11 straight laps in pre-season testing, such were the issues with the power unit, leaving drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne frustrated and exasperated. Neither arrives in Melbourne with much confidence of doing more than making up the numbers.
Honda has a big task on its hand to rectify things before the season is too far gone, while McLaren will continue to ponder the future of its relationship with the Japanese manufacturer, having already made an approach to former partner Mercedes over a possible supply in the future.
The relationship that served the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost so well in the late 1980s and early ’90s is at breaking point. A flop to start the season in Australia will only lend more fuel to the forest fire.
How will F1’s young guns fare?
While the new season typically brings with it a batch of new drivers, there is just one rookie making his first F1 start in Melbourne.
At just 18 years old, Lance Stroll will become the second-youngest driver in F1 history, having stepped up from a title-winning Formula 3 campaign last year that was enough to secure him a seat at Williams.
Stroll endured a mixed pre-season, suffering three crashes in the first week that cost Williams some much-needed mileage before going a long way to making up for it in the second week. The critics may dub the Canadian as ‘just another pay driver’, yet his talent has been clear in junior series. Quite how he copes with his first race situation in F1 will be of particular intrigue.
If F1 had the same ‘rookie’ classification as IndyCar, we’d also be putting (R) next to Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne this year. Ocon made his debut in Belgium last year, taking part in the final nine rounds of the year for backmarker Manor. His efforts were enough to secure a seat with Force India for 2017, replacing Nico Hulkenberg and leapfrogging Pascal Wehrlein in the Mercedes junior pecking order.
Vandoorne also has an F1 start under his belt already, having appeared in Bahrain last year as a replacement for Fernando Alonso who was forced out through injury. Vandoorne smashed his way to the GP2 title in 2015 and was in Super Formula last year before taking Jenson Button’s McLaren seat for the forthcoming campaign. He is one of the most exciting talents to hit F1 in recent years, but may not have the car to show what he can truly do in 2017.
2017 Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Albert Park
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:23.837
2016 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:28.997
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3
2017 Australian Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 9pm ET 3/23
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 3/24
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11pm ET 3/24
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 3/25
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 3/26
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.
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.
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.”