Webber 21-11

2013 Brazilian Grand Prix Preview

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The 2013 Formula One season comes to a close this weekend with the Brazilian Grand Prix in Interlagos, Sao Paulo, and with both championships sewn up long ago, a more relaxed atmosphere could be expected at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace. However, this race is perhaps one of the most important of the season as it marks the end of an era in many ways. This will be the last race using V8 engines (with turbocharged V6s inbound for 2014) and the last race in Mark Webber’s Formula One career, and it could prove to be the finale for a number of other drivers who are currently without a seat for next season.

Interlagos has a habit of producing the unexpected, meaning that whilst Sebastian Vettel is chasing a record-equalling ninth consecutive victory, his charge could be hindered by a number of factors. Given that Red Bull’s ascension to the front of the field came with the last raft of regulation changes in 2009, the possibility of the opposite in 2014 means that this could be the last race in the team’s era of dominance in the sport. The neutral can wish…

2013 Brazilian Grand Prix Talking Points

Webber hopes to leave his Mark

Mark Webber’s eleven year stint in Formula One will come to an end on Sunday, and he will be hoping to wave goodbye by claiming his tenth and final victory in Brazil where he has won twice before. It would be the fairytale ending for a driver who has never been one to conform and follow the crowd, but regardless of the result, thanks for the memories, Mark.

Seb’s planning to rain on his teammate’s parade, though

The stumbling block for Webber will be, as it has been all season, stablemate Sebastian Vettel. The German driver is looking to equal Alberto Ascari’s record of nine consecutive wins in Brazil and Schumacher’s tally of thirteen for a season. Given his form, of course, it’s hard to see this not happening. With a fresh gearbox to boot, don’t expect him to do Webber any favors as their frosty relationship comes to an end this weekend.

Did someone mention rain?

2013 has been one of the driest seasons in memory, with the intermediate tires being used for just a few laps in Malaysia and the wets not seeing any race running. Therefore, the ‘unexpected’ has rarely happened. This weekend though, heavy rain is forecast for the race on Sunday. Interlagos and precipitation is a marriage made in heaven, so expect 2013 to go out with a bang this weekend.

One last chance to impress

A number of drivers – Sergio Perez, Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Hulkenberg, Esteban Gutierrez, Paul di Resta, Adrian Sutil, Pastor Maldonado, Charles Pic, Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton – all head into the final race of the year without a firm drive in 2014. As a result, this race is a final opportunity for them all to prove their worth and secure a seat on next year’s grid.

Marussia vs Caterham: Round 2

As per 2012, Marussia enter the final round of the season leading the ‘battle of the backmarkers’ for P10 in the constructors’ championship by virtue of Jules Bianchi’s thirteenth-place finish in the Malaysian Grand Prix. If they are to recover tenth place – and the prize money that comes with it – Caterham require a top thirteen finish. Impossible? That’s what we said last year, but Vitaly Petrov managed to pass Charles Pic (then with Marussia) in the final few laps to move up into P11 and secure the place for Caterham. Will we see an equally-dramatic battle ensue this weekend?

Track: Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace
Laps: 71
Corners: 15
Lap Record: Juan Pablo Montoya 1:11.473 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Medium (option); Hard (prime)
2012 Winner: Jenson Button (McLaren)
2012 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 1:12.458
2012 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 1:18.069
DRS Zones: T15 to T1; T3 to T4

Friday – Free Practice 1: 7am ET
Friday – Free Practice 2: 11am ET (LIVE on NBCSN and on NBC Sports Live extra)
Saturday – Free Practice 3: 8am ET
Saturday – Qualifying: 11am ET (LIVE on CNBC and on NBC Sports Live extra)
Sunday – Race: 12pm ET (LIVE on NBC, pre-race show starts at 11am ET and on NBC Sports Live extra)

How Max Verstappen became Formula 1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin will go down as a memorable race for a handful of reasons.

It may go down as the race that saw Lewis Hamilton begin a late surge that culminated in a fourth Formula 1 world championship. More likely, it will go down as a race that did wonders for the Circuit of The Americas as it broke its attendance record, exceeding all expectations with a little help from Taylor Swift.

While it will not be remembered as a classic grand prix, there were certainly periods of exciting on-track action and a number of impressive drives through the field. Fernando Alonso’s run to fifth for McLaren turned heads, while teammate Jenson Button rose from 19th to ninth. Perhaps the most impressive drive of all came from Carlos Sainz Jr. who, despite racing in a Toro Rosso with a year-old Ferrari engine, and despite the team’s own predictions having the Spaniard finishing 12th at best, wound up sixth.

And yet when we look back on the 2016 United States Grand Prix in years to come, none of those names will be listed as winning the ‘Driver of the Day’ award.

That honor went to Max Verstappen.

Verstappen drove a fair race. Or at least, half a fair race. Starting fourth, he slipped behind Kimi Raikkonen on the first lap to run fifth during the opening stint in Austin. Verstappen battled back past Raikkonen on Lap 13, and then closed up on the back of Nico Rosberg in third. The Dutchman told his team “I’m not here to finish fourth” when given the call to consider his pace, his tire wear causing concern for Red Bull. A radio mix-up meant Verstappen came into the pits on Lap 26 to find the Red Bull crew still hurrying to their positions, costing him masses of time. He did manage to take a place off Felipe Massa while fighting back, only to grind to a halt moments later when a gearbox issue arose while exiting Turn 11.

Max Verstappen passed two cars, fluffed a pit stop and took part in half a race before retiring. Any reasonable observer of Sunday’s race would know he was not the Driver of the Day.

Alas, when the votes were totted up from the public vote conducted on the official Formula 1 website, Verstappen came out on top for the third race in a row and the seventh time this season.

The new scheme launched at the beginning of the year has its merits. Formula One Management’s digital strategy has been massively impressive throughout 2016, with its Twitter account (@F1) in particular being livelier than ever and hugely engaging. The FOM archive is being put to good use with videos of classic moments in F1 history being shared on Twitter and Facebook regularly. The idea of a Driver of the Day vote was a step that looked to also give the fans something to engage with; a way to be heard.

At the start of the season, the Driver of the Day scheme was launched with a bump. Romain Grosjean won the voting for Australia, but it was Manor’s Rio Haryanto – a driver with enormous support in his native Indonesia – who had garnered the most votes. The result was given with the sidenote saying that multiple votes from the same source had been discounted.

Voting traditionally opened in the closing stages of a race, with the result being announced the next day, but this changed for Singapore. Voting now opened earlier and shut when the race finished, meaning a result could be given not long after the flag dropped. While being more immediate and encouraging fans to interact on Twitter mid-race, it also meant that the final result at the checkered flag could not be considered before voting.

So, that’s a backstory of how one F1’s rising stars has matched a memorable internet meme this year.

That is how Max Verstappen became F1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface.’

Boaty McBoatface rose to internet popularity earlier this year when the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) invited the general public to come up with a name for its new $244 million polar research ship. A regional BBC radio presenter suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ which duly went on to get over 120,000 votes; four times that of any other submission.

In the end, the fine print of the competition rules meant the NERC could pick the winning entry. The vessel was therefore called the RRS Sir David Attenborough, named after one of the UK’s most beloved and influential naturalists and broadcasters. One of the accompanying remote controlled submarines on the ship did, however, get called ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ while Attenborough himself was subject to a petition with over 2,000 signatures calling for him to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface “in the interest of democracy and humor”.

The whole affair was very amusing, but it suggested that the public cannot really be trusted in some instances, particularly online. In the age of internet memes and trolling, it is all too frequent to see well-meaning contests such as this descend into banter.

The F1 Driver of the Day vote has gone the same way.

The fact is that votes such as these are designed for human beings who are perfect. They are rational, understanding, conscious and able to see things from multiple angles. That way, you get a set of results, with the ones that are most popular coming forward as the ‘most correct’ (in the case of Driver of the Day, at least).

But we’re not perfect human beings. Fans won’t vote for the driver who they thought performed best. They’ll most likely vote for their favorite. And as Spa showed in August, Verstappen is the favorite for a huge and growing number of fans. It’s the same reason Haryanto gained the most votes for the opening award in Australia.

It is a shame, because the Driver of the Day vote is a great move by F1 to increase fan interaction. It’s something fans have been clamoring for years to get. At all of the previous races, the results may have been a little dubious, but there was always a half-decent argument for the winner. In Austin, it was frankly farcical that Verstappen won the vote.

It also sparks the bigger question about fan involvement in deciding the future of F1. We’re approaching a crossroads on the direction that it will take following Liberty Media’s acquisition of the series, and many fans want a greater say in things. Interests such as lower ticket prices and more accessible viewing on TV are certainly key in helping F1 grow, but when it comes to bigger things such as regulatory change, can fans really expect to have a say?

It is imperative that the Driver of the Day vote continue and be made an important part of the race weekend. Much like there is for pole positions or fastest laps, a small award at the end of the year for the driver with the most Driver of the Day nods would be fitting. It would give fans the chance to get their voice heard.

A good way to make things more serious would be to create a shortlist of drivers that can then be voted for via the F1 website once the race has been completed. This does cause problems of its own, as only so many drivers can be included. Earlier this year, we conducted a few ‘Driver of the Day’ polls on Twitter via the @F1onNBCSports account, where you can only have a maximum of four options. Naturally, we got tweets back saying: “Why isn’t this driver on the list?” – simply, we’d picked the four best-fitting.

So while it would not be without issue, a shortlist system would work well. A good idea here could be taken from soccer coverage in the UK, where the man of the match award in some cup competitions is actually selected by one of the commentators. There are a number of pundits (and even ex-drivers) in the paddock who would be well-placed to pick four or five drivers who they thought impressed in the race. This list then gets put on the F1 website, where fans go and vote. The winner gets picked from there.

While it may not be a truly democratic process, the Driver of the Day would at least have some kind of credence and argument in his favor. It would give the vote more legitimacy, and we would avoid a situation like Verstappen winning the vote in Austin.

Or, indeed, a Boaty McBoatface.

Gray area: 3rd generation of NHRA Pro Stock family to debut in 2017

Photos courtesy of Geiger Global Media
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Like father, like son, like grandson.

First came Gray Family team patriarch Johnny Gray, who had a standout career in the NHRA Funny Car and Pro Stock ranks.

Then came his son, Shane, who took over the family’s Pro Stock car reins.

And now, Johnny’s grandson and Shane’s son, Tanner, will carry on the Gray family racing heritage in 2017.

The Gray family announced over the weekend that Shane will step out of the family’s Gray Motorsports Valvoline/Nova Services Pro Stock Chevrolet at the end of this season.

Exit Shane (at least for 2017), enter Tanner.

“I’m not driving next year,” Shane Gray said in a media release. “I’m going to let (Tanner) drive the car, and I’ll be there to support the team. I’ll be there for him and wherever he needs help.

“We’re very active in drag racing. He wants to drive the car, and I’m 100 percent cool with that. It’s always better for the dad to sit back and watch the kid than do it yourself. It’s just time to let him drive.”

Interestingly, Shane Gray is currently ranked fourth in the Pro Stock rankings with two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.

Shane Gray, who has four career Pro Stock wins, is only 134 points behind Pro Stock points leader Jason Line, 108 behind second-ranked Greg Anderson and just 20 points behind third-ranked Greg Nobile.

There are a combined 260 points available to be earned by any driver in the remaining two races on the schedule, this weekend in Las Vegas and the season finale Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California.

If Line or Anderson slip in one or both of the races, Gray is still mathematically eligible to steal the championship away, which would be one heck of a way to go out.

Tanner has already begun preparing for his new role, having recently tested at Rockingham (NC) Dragway.

“I’ve been around it since I was 9 or 10 years old,” Tanner Gray, now 18, said. “I think it’s really cool to be able to do what they’ve done. We’ll see if we can win some championships one day. … I’m pretty excited for it.”

Tanner tested both his father’s Pro Stock car and crew chief Dave Connolly’s sportsman car to get a good feel for what his future holds. Having both his father and Connolly in his corner will put him that much further ahead of the game starting next season.

“I think I would’ve been lost if it wasn’t for Dave letting me drive his bracket car, just getting used to the speed and how the car reacts,” Tanner Gray said. “But driving his Cobalt helped a lot more and sped up the progression.”

The third-generation driver has driven a number of different types of race cars, from NHRA Junior Dragsters to Mini Sprints, Outlaw Karts, 360 Sprint Cars, Late Model Stock Cars and even go-karts.

But it’s NHRA that has won his heart and his future.

“We put Tanner in a race car when he was 12 years old,” Shane Gray said of his son. “I have 100 percent confidence in him.

“He’s already made some test laps. Tanner will be fine. We put him in the car, showed him how to do it and what he needed to do, and by the end of the day, we had him going down the race track.”

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DiZinno: COTA, Austin shake off nightmare 2015 with bounce back 2016

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari line up on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The old adage in the restaurant service industry is that good service can often overcome poor food, but good food does not necessarily overcome poor service.

Such an analogy serves as a perfect transition to describe the last two contrasting years of the United States Grand Prix in Austin at Circuit of The Americas, a city where the food itself is actually never in question.

Consider the race weekend on site as a whole the comparative meal, here.

In 2015, call the race the “good food,” and the overall weather and atmosphere the “poor service.”

The race itself was excellent, aided in large part by the mixed weather conditions, heavy attrition, a late Safety Car and a subsequent pass for the lead and win which netted Lewis Hamilton his third World Championship.

But the weekend on the whole felt underwhelming and disappointing, owing primarily to the heavy rain that interrupted the weekend proceedings through Saturday.

As COTA Chair Bobby Epstein said so bluntly about the resulting attendance and financial hit, “I think we’re screwed.”

That left the 2016 version of the USGP weekend having a point to prove: deliver a weekend on par with the first three weekends and seek to overcome the poor fan turnout a year ago with a big bounce back.

In other words, the service needed to deliver more than the food.

In a two-word answer, it did.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the grid at the start during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Race start during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The 2016 United States Grand Prix race – the food here in this analogy – was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. The quality of F1 racing itself is another topic for another day. But thanks to the collective efforts of the track and organizers in partnership with F1, by the race start time it didn’t need to be to make this a successful weekend on the whole.

This race saw Hamilton pretty much ran away and hide, Daniel Ricciardo lose a sure second-place to Nico Rosberg thanks to a Virtual Safety Car period inadvertently caused by his teammate Max Verstappen, Spanish countrymen Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. perform some late-race theatrics and Haas F1 scored a point on home soil in 10th with Romain Grosjean. Otherwise, it was a largely forgettable 56 laps, particularly as it lacked that “signature” moment as Hamilton had delivered with passes for the win in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

But why the weekend worked was how COTA, which has often been in the crosshairs over the years for its volatile financials, leadership, staff turnover and possibly inflated attendance figures (I’m looking at sports car weekends in particular, having been to four of them in the last four years), pushed on to create a near-perfect weekend it absolutely had to have after last year’s disaster.

COTA’s push to make Austin 2016 a successful weekend was, to use your stick-and-ball equivalent example, the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary pass for the Green Bay Packers to break the Detroit Lions’ hearts last year or Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit grand slam for the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS this year to break a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was not a case where they’d gather a few singles to bring in a run on a sacrifice bunt or assemble a 17-play, 94-yard, eight-minute drive full of methodical three and four-yard run and pass plays.

No, COTA threw down the gauntlet and went big to bring in Taylor Swift, for her first and only planned concert this year. And make no mistake, her “squad” brought it in a big way.

Had she not delivered the crowd she did – which was officially pegged by COTA at 83,000 although reports ranged lower than that by some reporters and higher than that to some members of her fan “squad” – it would have been trouble when she walked in.

That alone generated significant buzz on a day when the qualifying order was all but decided going in, when you knew it would either be Hamilton or Rosberg scoring the pole a couple hours earlier.

I was fortunate to be out walking the grounds Saturday afternoon after qualifying, and seeing the crowds hanging out for the remainder of the day’s races – Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup and Historic Masters Racing were also on tap – as well as prepping for T-Swift were very much present between the grandstands, the bar area, the food trucks and then prepping to get in line to waltz onto the Super Stage lawn assembled inside Turn 11.

Once 5:30 p.m. hit and the crowd was released to get in line, 90 minutes before the show started, the line stretched from the entry point past Turn 7 all the way to the Fly Emirates bridge at Turn 2, with more fans continuing to stream in across the bridge. Mind you, that’s the length of the entire Esses section and then back across the way, into the infield.

Sunday’s crowd was also strong, with fans getting to the track early and already a good number of folks already on hand at the hillside several hours before the lights were out.

Between the old Grand Prix cars and Supercup preliminary races, there was some genuine appreciation there.

Yes, mostly gentlemen drivers pushing 1970s to 1980s-era F1 cars at 60 or 70 percent is not the same spectacle as the actual drivers in their heyday, but for younger fans and students of the sport, it’s vitally important you get that chance to witness – and listen to – living F1 history in motion.

Supercup, meanwhile, provided a tasty appetizer of a race with some clean, fair fighting for the lead between Porsche Juniors Mathieu Jaminet and Matteo Cairoli, a deserving new champion in Sven Mueller, and a great Supercup weekend debut for American Alec Udell in his step up from Pirelli World Challenge’ GT Cup class.

Regarding the announced attendance figure of 269,889, it is worth noting that COTA’s attendance numbers have been called into question in the past, primarily for its sports car weekends. This could be an optimistic number, but if so, it’s not to the same degree as on sports car weekends.

For reference, although I wasn’t at the initial USGP race here in 2012 (more than 265,000), I have been to the last four. This weekend number was pegged higher than the 2013 number of 250,324, and while I would say the Friday number was lower this year compared to then, the Saturday and Sunday numbers appeared higher.

If possible, it would benefit COTA to provide a deeper news release and analysis of the figure beyond just the number itself, to dismiss any potential doubts or red flags. But flying out of the Austin airport Monday morning and seeing how packed it was, with many folks still dressed in team kit, was a sign there was a very good turnout this weekend.

The celebrity presence at COTA, while something of a running joke and perhaps source of frustration among hardcore fans and observers, is actually something to be embraced if I’m honest.

Part of the reason Monaco works – and has worked for as long as it has – is it’s because it’s a glamorous destination that attracts some of the world’s richest, most beautiful and popular people. You can choose to not like that fact, saying it takes away from the action on track, and that’s fine. But the allure of an event is amplified when people with big audience consider it worthy of their time to attend.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: San Antonio Spurs basketball player Patty Mills watches the action in the Red Bull Racing garage with skier Lindsey Vonn during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Lindsey Vonn’s presence among others this weekend was a perfect example. Vonn, the star skier, appears to be a burgeoning racing fan in her own right with her interest piqued by Red Bull, a brand that understands the value of getting stars outside the norm to an event.

The fact Vonn was tweeting about F1 during the weekend (by the way, sending thanks from my colleague Luke and I for a RT of one from @F1onNBCSports) to her hundreds of thousands of followers must be considered a good thing from an “F1 in America actually being taken note of” standpoint.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Add in the random Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar sightings, tennis star Venus Williams (who I almost inadvertently bumped into in the airport this morning), Gerard Butler’s Red Bull podium “shoey,” Gordon Ramsey and Jeff Gordon, and it was a full plate of celebrities here this weekend. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that we didn’t get the obligatory Matt LeBlanc at COTA shot, and unless he was hiding, this would have been the first one he’s missed.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

If you create a race weekend that people want to go to and make it a proper full-on experience, it can make it a bigger draw to add stability for an event going forward. And if there’s one thing F1 in the U.S. has perpetually lacked, it’s that: stability. Ultimately, that is the key takeaway I have from the 2016 USGP weekend.

Hamilton, who’s more or less adopted the U.S. as his second home, actually has become something of an unofficial ambassador for this race, and this city of Austin in particular.

In the buildup to the race, Hamilton made a big deal about going on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and for good reason. Ellen has massive audience, and it’s not the usual hardcore race fan. And Hamilton, admittedly, isn’t her usual guest.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton (C) of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with Kirby Bumpus (2nd-L), Gayle King (2nd-R) and Lindsey Vonn (R) during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton (C) of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with Kirby Bumpus (2nd-L), Gayle King (2nd-R) and Lindsey Vonn (R) during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Then in his post-race interview with NBCSN’s Will Buxton, Hamilton described why he feels the way he does about this country, and the race in Austin itself.

“This is such a beautiful country,” he said (perhaps he hasn’t been following the 2016 presidential election that closely).

“This race, the whole weekend in Austin, with the ambiance and atmosphere, it’s the only Grand Prix I go out to dinner every night. No other Grand Prix do I do that. Since Wednesday, I’ve gone out to dinner every night. It’s great food, great service, and the people here make us feel so welcome.

“The crowd … is almost like the British Grand Prix. There’s the crowd on the whole front straight when we’re on the podium.

“I’m so glad we still have the grand prix here. I hope it continues. I hope more and more people get exposed to it. Being on The Ellen Show the other day, I hope has done so to get more.”

When Hamilton, who’s a student of the sport and has carved his own legacy within it by winning his 50th Grand Prix of his career this weekend, compares a race site in its fifth year to a race that has graced the calendar all but annually since 1950 (Silverstone), it speaks volumes of that race’s place having established a foothold on the F1 calendar.

COTA has now set the bar from a service standpoint to its fans, and done so in spite of the fact the F1 race itself Sunday wasn’t the best showcase of the sport.

It has now set a standard to meet, to keep the full race weekend as strong as it was this year.

For one year at least, COTA and Austin have shaken off the 2015 blues, thus making it harder for haters to hate.

Schmidt confirms Mikhail Aleshin’s return for 2017

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 SMP Schmidt Peterson Honda, sits in his pitbox during a rain delay prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
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For the first time since expanding to a two-car team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will continue with the same two drivers on a year-to-year basis.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt confirmed to IndyCar.com that the “mad Russian,” Mikhail Aleshin, will be back for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season alongside James Hinchcliffe.

“Now that we’ve got those two done, it’s a matter of firming up with all of the key individuals on the team and hopefully continue on and win races,” Schmidt told IndyCar.com.

“This deal is all about chemistry and continuity and it’s been a building process for us. Starting in 2011 with one car and then having two cars from 2012 on, we’ve never had the same guy in the second car for a second season.

“Really, Mikhail coming back for a second season, even though there was a year gap, I think you can really see the chemistry and the morale and the continuity building toward the last half of the season, when we were clearly the fastest Honda at most tracks if not all and right up to the front with the top five to eight guys, which is where we want to be.”

Schmidt took over the former FAZZT Race Team, which then featured Alex Tagliani as the driver, prior to 2011. Schmidt had a technical partnership with the Bryan Herta Autosport team that won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with the late Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon later replaced Tagliani in Schmidt’s No. 77 Honda for Kentucky and ultimately his final start in Las Vegas.

New signing Simon Pagenaud asserted himself as team leader from 2012 through 2014, with Tristan Vautier (2013) and Aleshin (2014) coming on board as second full-time driver. Hinchcliffe then took over as SPM lead driver in 2015 when Pagenaud left for Team Penske, before his injuries sustained at the Indianapolis 500 forced a change of driver for the balance of the season.

Owing to a mix of sponsorship and political issues, Aleshin was unable to continue into 2015 with James Jakes filling the spot. But Aleshin came back for a one-off in a third SPM car at the 2015 Sonoma season finale, which blossomed back into the full-time seat once more last year.

With these two Honda seats now secure, it remains to be seen whether SPM will run a third car beyond the month of May, which it has done the last four seasons (driven by Oriol Servia in 2016, Conor Daly in 2015, Jacques Villeneuve in 2014 and Katherine Legge in 2013).

NBC Sports understands a third IndyCar for SPM could run a handful of races next season (three to five a possible range), but would likely be dictated by crew and engine availability.

SPM has traditionally run a four-car program in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series, although that program dipped to two full-time cars only starting at Road America this year. SPM looks to reassert itself as the dominant force in that series, in the midst of a three-year title losing drought after more or less controlling the title most years between 2004 and 2013.

These seats are still yet to be finalized/revealed:

  • Andretti Autosport (car four)
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (car four)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (cars one and two)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (car one, and road/street races in car two)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (car two)
  • KVSH Racing (car one)