F1 US Grand Prix Auto Racing

Thanks for the memories, Mark, and good luck

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Mark Webber is set to line up on the grid for the 218th and final time in Brazil today as the Australian driver draws a curtain on his eleven-year Formula One career that has seen him leave quite an impression on the sport.

Webber made his debut for backmarkers Minardi back in 2002, and he immediately turned heads in Formula One after finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix. Given that the team had never expected to score any points, it was one of the most remarkable results of the year that was made all the more special given that it was the home race of both Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart. Although the team was not entitled to any champagne, every other team on the grid made their way down to Minardi’s garage with a bottle in hand to allow them to celebrate in style. The race not only saw them pick up a couple of points, but it also secured the future of the team who ran on a shoestring budget.

For 2003, Webber secured a move to Jaguar (who would later become Red Bull) and was well placed during the frenetic Brazilian Grand Prix that year. However, the race was eventually red flagged due to a series of large accidents, one of which saw Webber spear into the wall on the main straight and end up without points. Nevertheless, he performed well for the team and finished the championship in tenth place.

Although 2004 was less fruitful as Jaguar’s budget dwindled, Webber secured a move to Williams in 2005 with whom he picked up his first podium finish in Monaco that was the highlight of a strong season. However, 2006 proved to be more difficult as Williams struggled with an unreliable car meaning that Webber could only score points on three occasions, although a good run at Monaco saw him come close to another podium finish.

2007 saw Webber move to Red Bull to begin the partnership that would continue until the end of his career. However, things were not so rosy at first as he struggled to pick up regular points, although he did capitalize on the wet weather at the Nurburgring to finish in third place. He was poised to claim another podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway, but his race ended after rookie Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Toro Rosso, crashed into him. It was the first in a series of incidents between the pair, and the Australian driver was less than impressed, saying: “Well, it’s kids, isn’t it? Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job, then they **** it all up.” Webber found some consistency in 2008, but it wouldn’t be until the change in regulations that Red Bull would come to the fore as a leading team.

Alongside the newly-promoted Vettel at Red Bull, Webber finally had a capable car to work with in 2009. He clinched four podium finishes in the opening eight races before finally claiming his first victory at the German Grand Prix. Despite being given a drive-through penalty for an aggressive move on Rubens Barrichello at the start of the race, Webber rallied to win the race from pole position and he was jubilant over the radio at the end of the race. He would taste victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix later that year also, capping off a good season.

Webber’s one real chance to win a world championship came in 2010 as he proved himself to be the most consistent driver across the first part of the season, and he claimed four fantastic wins – including his first at Monaco – to head into the final flyaways with a championship lead. However, whilst Vettel found his feet, Webber struggled with a retirement in Korea and a frustrating race in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately, he finished third in the championship, but he had come agonizingly close to becoming the first Australian world champion in thirty years.

One of the big talking points of the year came in Turkey when he and Vettel – teammates – crashed into each other when fighting for the lead. Although Vettel had been the driver making the pass, Helmut Marko insisted that the blame lay squarely with Webber. It was a theme that was present throughout their time as teammates at Red Bull. A further dispute broke out three races later when the team clearly showed favor to Vettel by giving him Webber’s new front wing when the German broke his, but Webber had the last laugh as he won the race whilst his teammate suffered a puncture on lap one.

2011 was Vettel’s year as he claimed eleven victories and swept to the championship, but Webber was very consistent as he finished in the top five in every single race bar one where he retired. However, he could only claim one win – the final round in Brazil – meaning that he finished the championship in third place behind Vettel and McLaren’s Jenson Button.

The madness of 2012 meant that Webber was one of seven different winners in the opening seven races, but he chose his location well as he controlled the Monaco Grand Prix to take his second win at the principality. However, when championship leader Fernando Alonso started to stutter, Webber failed to capitalize whilst Vettel swept to four consecutive wins to give himself the edge and – come the end of the season – a third consecutive title. Although Ferrari did offer Webber a contract for 2013, he opted to remain at Red Bull for what would be his final season in the sport.

The final straw in the Webber-Vettel marriage came at this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. In changeable conditions, Red Bull were well placed for a one-two finish with Webber ahead of Vettel. The team told the drivers to ease off and hold position, but Vettel ignored these orders to pull off a childish manoeuvre on Webber and steal the win, leaving the Australian driver frustrated with his younger teammate (“Multi 21, Seb!”). However, he acted graciously unlike Vettel, who simply said “I was quicker, I won the race” and lost a lot of fans in the process. In June, Webber confirmed that he would be retiring at the end of the season and moving to Porsche’s revived Le Mans programme, and he came so close to winning the British Grand Prix on the same weekend amid the tire failures. Despite a number of issues blighting his efforts in 2013, Webber has produced some brilliant drives, and it would be fitting to see him bow out with a win today.

Never one to lie down and simply accept the sometimes unjust nature of Formula One, Webber has become a fan favorite for his honest approach. At many times, it has appeared that he has simply ‘put up’ with Vettel’s antics, and although he has never won a world title, Webber believes that he is champion material. “Do I see myself in the same calibre as some of the single world champions? Of course I do,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “I’m still very proud of what I’ve achieved. Am I multiple world champion? Probably not, but I still believe its been a very proud and honest career for myself.”

“Honest” is a word that sums up his career. Thanks for the memories, Mark, and for being a blueprint that we hope many drivers will follow in the future.

Perez wants F1 future resolved in next week as delays continues

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India in the Paddock during previews for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 29, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez wants to get his Formula 1 plans for 2017 firmed up in the next week after growing tired of continued delays in talks with Force India.

Perez had hoped to make an announcement regarding his future following the summer break at the Belgian Grand Prix, only for delays to postpone any confirmation.

The Mexican had been linked with moves to Williams and Renault, but his sponsors are understood to have settled on keeping him at Force India for another season.

Perez said in Singapore two weeks ago that he expected to make an announcement prior to this weekend’s race in Malaysia, but nothing has been confirmed.

Speaking to reporters in Sepang on Thursday, Perez expressed his frustration before saying he wanted his future resolved in the next week, or would begin to look elsewhere for a drive – potentially outside of F1.

“I believe that next week is crucial to sort out my future, so by next week I need to know if the option remains or if I have to look somewhere else,” Perez is quoted as saying by AFP.

“At the moment I hope it works out with one team, and if it doesn’t then by next week we will have to look at something else.

“Obviously I want to keep my career in Formula 1 going, but I cannot wait much longer.”

Perez joined Force India in 2014 after a one-year stint with McLaren, and has managed to revive his career with Vijay Mallya’s team, leading to speculation about a move up the grid.

Perez is thought to be in contention for a seat at Ferrari once Kimi Raikkonen calls time on his spell in F1, with a one-year extension with Force India a consideration if he is to make himself available to the Scuderia.

DiZinno: It’s time for Hildebrand to get 1 more full-time IndyCar shot

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The list of those drivers seeking to get into the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time, or find a new ride for the 2017 season, is long and mixed in terms of experience levels.

There’s that mix of young, hungry lions looking to make that step up from their time in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires or European ladder system. Then there’s the older veterans who are trying to make one more switch to get one or two more good years for them near the end of their career.

And then, in the middle, is a 28-year-old American badass driver who’s been out of the cockpit on a full-time basis for far too long, who is way too talented, and who can instantly fit in as a plug-and-play replacement for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing.

It’s long past time for “Captain America,” JR Hildebrand, to be back in a full-time effort in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And it would make the most sense for ECR to continue its trajectory towards the top of the grid after its growth and development over five years to promote Hildebrand to a full-time seat.

In the last five years, with the full-time disappearance of several smaller and/or midfield teams – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Panther Racing, HVM, Conquest Racing, Dragon Racing among others – so too have disappeared the opportunities for younger drivers to step up into IndyCar and progress further up the grid.

Hildebrand was one of those drivers who premiered with a team that is no longer on the grid, and he often overachieved. His time with Panther Racing produced a driver excellent at nearly all the elements you need to do to be successful in this sport. Between his smarts, his feedback, his pace and his relationship with partners and the media, Hildebrand was destined to become a rising star in the sport.

His first two years saw him finish 14th and 11th in the points. In 2012, Hildebrand finished ahead of Rubens Barrichello, Oriol Servia, Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson, Marco Andretti, Alex Tagliani, Carpenter, E.J. Viso, Josef Newgarden and Simona de Silvestro among full-season drivers.

The knock on Hildebrand was that he made a few too many mistakes. Obviously, there was Turn 4 at Indy in 2011… he’ll never get that moment back, but at the same point, he handled defeat in as classy a way as was possible, and rewarded by team boss John Barnes with a mint 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS for his efforts. Then there was St. Petersburg 2013, when he crashed into Will Power under yellow, and his early crash at the Indianapolis 500 the same year, which marked his last race with Panther.

Young drivers will always make mistakes in this business but few had Hildebrand’s pedigree coming into the sport, and so you could excuse them.

A past USF2000 champion and star in the Atlantic Championship, Hildebrand then delivered a beat down on the rest of one of the deepest Indy Lights fields on record in 2009. He won the title by nearly 100 points over a field that included 12 future IndyCar drivers, including 2016 competitors James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Stefan Wilson and Pippa Mann.

Since his time as a full-time driver ended midway through 2013, Hildebrand has only made seven more starts, but he’s made an impact in five of them – which is not easy to do as a part-time driver.

Hildebrand was in win contention in his second and last start with Bryan Herta Autosport at Fontana in 2013, before an engine failure ended his hopes there.

He’s banked three straight top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500 in an extra Ed Carpenter Racing entry, and this year marked his best win chance yet with his pace all month. He led four laps and finished sixth.

And then he’s been in contention for top-10s in both Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course races, which is particularly impressive when you consider he was making his first start of the year in both cases with a new crew and with one of the last two pit boxes. He’d also been out of the cockpit for nearly a calendar year on both occasions. Only mechanical gremlins and fuel issues have prevented solid results in those two races.

Where Hildebrand raised his stock even more this year was as Newgarden’s designated injury fill-in and test driver de jour throughout the year.

He tested at Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio and it was no coincidence that Newgarden delivered several of his best races – the Iowa win in particular – thanks to Hildebrand’s feedback and setup.

Newgarden in fact took extra time to thank Hildebrand after the Iowa win because his baseline information was what helped put the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on rails.

“I have to give a shout out to JR Hildebrand. He made it that much better,” Newgarden said at the time. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to test. But JR, I don’t think we realize how lucky we are to have someone like him at our disposal whenever we need it.

“We took a great car that we had last year that I think was a race-winning car, he made it better with his input.

“JR is so good. I mean, to me JR Hildebrand should be in a car right now. I think he should be driving full-time personally. That’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of money to put these cars on the track.

“The caliber of driver that he is, he should be driving already. He’s not a test driver. I think he’s just a great driver. So for us to have him available to us is pretty fortunate.”

It also spoke volumes of Hildebrand’s feedback that INDYCAR asked him to be one of two designated test drivers for new aero components at Mid-Ohio, because his input will help determine the next round of aero for the series.

Carpenter’s team has ascended through the IndyCar field the last few years with Newgarden at the helm and so when choosing its next driver from a full-time standpoint, there are options.

Bigger names – if available – would come in the form of joint Indianapolis 500 and series champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan. There’s also more experienced drivers such as Servia or Tagliani, but neither would move the needle among the fan base.

Could Carpenter opt to promote Spencer Pigot from the road course and street course races in the second car? It’s possible, but Pigot could benefit more from a more experienced teammate in a second car for his own growth or maturation. Other young guns like past Indy Lights champions Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam could work, as could Conor Daly, if he doesn’t return to Dale Coyne Racing.

But Carpenter has the perfect replacement sitting in his court already and the driver with which he could continue the team’s growth, and Hildebrand has unfinished business from his first go-’round in IndyCar with a team that didn’t provide the best working atmosphere.

It makes too much sense…

Alex Lynn to make FIA WEC debut at Fuji with Manor

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 17:  Alex Lynn of Great Britain and Williams Martini Racing speaks with members of the media after day one of Formula One testing at Circuit de Catalunya on May 17, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Alex Lynn will make his debut in the FIA World Endurance Championship at Fuji Speedway next month after being named in Manor’s line-up for its No. 45 entry.

2014 GP3 champion Lynn is currently racing in his second year of GP2 with DAMS and plans to exit the series at the end of the season.

The Briton is in the race for a Formula 1 drive with Williams, having worked as its development driver through 2015 and 2016, and was also a contender for a seat in Formula E with Jaguar before losing out to Mitch Evans.

Lynn previously tested a Toyota LMP1 car at the end of last season in Bahrain, but will now get his first taste of a WEC race weekend with Manor.

Manor had planned to only enter one car to the final flyaway rounds of the 2016 WEC season, but has decided to bring the No. 45 Oreca Nissan back for Fuji.

Lynn will be joined in the car by regular Manor driver Tor Graves and ex-F1 and CART driver Shinji Nakano, who last raced in the WEC in 2013 at Fuji.

The other big news in LMP2 is that Will Stevens (formerly of Manor in both F1 and WEC) will return to WEC with G-Drive Racing in place of Rene Rast, who faces a clash with DTM. Stevens raced for G-Drive at Le Mans earlier this year.

The 6 Hours of Fuji takes place on October 16. You can see the complete entry list here.

IMSA: Kenton Koch goes for another title after a balancing act year

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Koch with Jim Swintal after his title print last year. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – The driver who once compared himself to “Gumby” can wiggle his way into a fifth consecutive championship in sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans.

If Justin Wilson was considered IndyCar’s “gentle giant,” then Kenton Koch is well on his way to being sports car racing’s version of the man who balances his lanky frame, incredible talent and even more incredible humility, all at the tender age of 22.

Most drivers who would be in Koch’s situation this year would have struggled to comprehend why they aren’t in a full-time ride.

Instead Koch, to his credit, did not let it get him down publicly and has maximized his limited opportunities throughout the 2016 season.

“It’s definitely difficult being in the position I’m in, but, I also have to be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Koch told NBC Sports. “I’m here driving a racecar, and I get to try to have other opportunities like this for a full ride next year.

“Brent (O’Neill, Performance Tech Motorsports team principal) helped me a lot on this. It’s cool to have someone like this in your corner. They just got the ‘Extreme Spirit’ award; he’s a super good dude, and they worked hard to get me in the car.”

He looks to complete the quintet of titles after driving for two different teams this year, JDC/Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports, in the Prototype Challenge class as he goes for a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown.

In 2013, Koch firmly “arrived” on the sports car scene after making selected Mazda MX-5 Cup starts in 2012 and winning the Mazdaspeed Challenge class. He won the Skip Barber/Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge class that year, and for good measure, added an overall win in the rain at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while in the class.

A year later in 2014, Koch advanced into the primary class of MX-5 Cup with Alara Racing and edged the driver who he’d lost the Mazda club racing shootout to in 2012, Patrick Gallagher, for the overall title.

In IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires (then called Cooper Tires Prototype Lites presented by Mazda) in 2015, Koch controlled the season with 11 wins in 14 races en route to his fourth straight title.

Koch seemed a natural, then, to follow in the footsteps of Tristan Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Misha Goikhberg as a full-time Prototype Challenge driver in 2016. Instead, Koch was only confirmed for the opening two races in PC with JDC/Miller Motorsports as a third driver alongside Goikhberg and talented South African teammate Stephen Simpson.

Koch was immediately on pace and despite an incident at the Bus Stop at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was trusted enough with the car to bring it home to the finish in his race, series and class debut.

It was mission accomplished, and his win was one of the most emotional of 2016. It came just more than a year after in 2015 his mom, Karen, had undergone a heart transplant and was on site to witness the achievement. His dad, Chris and girlfriend Dani have also provided support at nearly every race along the way, as well.

Koch’s two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starts since ended fourth with JDC/Miller at the waterlogged Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and then second for Performance Tech with Kyle Marcelli and James French at Watkins Glen International in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09.

Koch leads the PC points standings, 34-32 over the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports trio, heading into the fourth and final round of the Patron Endurance Cup. If he can secure the title, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Cameron Lawrence and Al Carter, who were last year’s GT Daytona Patron Endurance Cup champs while doing an endurance-only schedule.

All the while, Cal State Fullerton business student Koch has maintained a presence at the track in the races he’s not driving, doing a mix of either testing the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, driver coaching, or providing color commentary for the Mazda MX-5 Cup races with IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

“The Mazda ladder system has helped me in that, there are other things than just trying to go fast in a race car,” Koch explained. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye from an outsider perspective. Being a part of that has helped me see things from a different perspective.”

Koch accurately predicted who’d emerge victorious in MX-5’s crazy photo finish at VIRginia International Raceway in the form of Nathanial Sparks, even though Sparks wasn’t leading out of the last turn.

“It’s just what happened in the corner before. ‘Sparky’ was there sitting pretty. There it was! I was like oh, ‘He’s gonna do it!’”

Few drivers pack his combination of pace, poise, maturity and humility at once.

And to be able to be on the verge of a title while driving for two different teams, with two different sets of teammates and setups, speaks to a true talent who’s as adaptable and bendable as his 6’4” frame.