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Hulkenberg’s lack of promotion emblematic of F1’s midfield struggle to advance

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It seems unfathomable that another Formula One silly season will come to pass without Nico Hulkenberg making the jump from a midfield squad to a perennial contender, but with Pastor Maldonado having been confirmed at Lotus on Friday, that appears to be the case.

Still, with three full seasons complete at three different teams –Hulkenberg has never raced for the same team in successive seasons – it does beg the question whether there is something abnormal at play.

Or, alternatively, Hulkenberg could just be the latest talented midfield driver who appears perpetually stuck there. It’s just that Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus would seem to have had their chance to secure his services in the last two years, and have gone different directions.

Hulkenberg was dumped by Williams after his rookie campaign in 2010, incidentally, for Maldonado. That led to a year’s testing with Force India before a race seat in 2012. Again, he outperformed Paul di Resta, and was thanked with a pink slip before switching laterally to Sauber for 2013. But his bridge may be burned there because of his wanting to investigate his options with other teams, and Lotus has now gone for Maldonado’s millions instead of talent. Hulkenberg has scored points in 28 of 58 career races (48.28 percent), while Maldonado is just 7/58 (12.07%).

The Williams and Lotus situations were understandable purely from a financial standpoint, but Hulkenberg’s being passed over by McLaren – twice – and Ferrari is very strange when you consider he’d be worth the long-term investment from both a points-scoring standpoint and a potential team leader standpoint.

McLaren went with Sergio Perez first, and now rookie Kevin Magnussen, for 2014. The Magnussen move makes sense because he’s a McLaren Junior driver and has excelled in his simulator work and first two F1 tests. If he progresses as quickly as the team expects, they’ll have made a wise choice. Additionally, McLaren didn’t have anywhere to place him among teams which they might share a technical partnership, so that opened the door at the iconic team itself.

Ferrari is more puzzling. No one doubt’s Kimi Raikkonen’s ability or his laconic, “don’t give a-you-know-what” attitude. What one would doubt is Ferrari investing in its future, and while Raikkonen is an excellent short-term prospect for the next two or three years, Ferrari may have missed its shot at bringing Hulkenberg in and, crucially, keeping him away from other squads that could hurt them in the future.

Ferrari though has rarely gone the “bold” route on the driver front. They’ve largely stuck by “their guys,” and it was a theory that cost them dearly when neither Luca Badoer nor Giancarlo Fisichella was able to get anything out of the car in substitute roles in 2009. Felipe Massa, for all the good he did for Ferrari, had dented confidence after the 2010 German Grand Prix fiasco and was never able to regain the consistent spark or form he showed in his first three seasons with the team.

The relative stagnation for the top teams in the driver market, though, has meant that we haven’t seen the same number of young talents rise from the midfield into a top seat. Red Bull, when given the opportunity, has promoted from within: Sebastian Vettel and now Daniel Ricciardo are Toro Rosso graduates making the leap to the “Mothership.” And Ricciardo jumped from HRT to Toro Rosso to begin with; that’s not exactly going from Sauber to Ferrari.

Other than Maldonado and Perez, you’d have to go back to Nico Rosberg, moving from Williams to Mercedes in 2010, as the last real example of a midfield driver moving up to an opportunity in a top squad. And even in that case, Williams has a historic pedigree, but isn’t what you would call a “tail-ender” of a team. Prior to that, you could argue Mark Webber going from Jaguar to Williams before 2005 was the last real “midfield to top” jump.

Consider Alonso started with Minardi in 2001. Raikkonen and Massa began with Sauber in 2001 and 2002, respectively. And that’s really it for the current grid as far as “midfield drivers advancing into top teams later in their careers.”

Lewis Hamilton? Nurtured by McLaren, now with Mercedes. Jenson Button never really raced with a “midfield team,” but did race with Benetton/Renault and BAR/Honda when they weren’t great. Romain Grosjean’s been with Lotus in two different guises. Meanwhile Red Bull has its factory of four drivers on the 2014 grid. But Hulkenberg? Di Resta? Adrian Sutil? Perez again? All resigned to the midfield, it seems.

Few would argue Hulkenberg, along with Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Marussia’s Jules Bianchi are the “stars-in-waiting” of F1’s new generation of drivers that have already proven themselves in less than top machinery. But until they get their shot at the big teams, we can only imagine what they could do.

On the bright side, at least these drivers have made it into F1 without needing huge commercial budgets. Meanwhile drivers like Sam Bird, Robin Frijns, Luca Filippi, Davide Valsecchi, Fabio Leimer and Luiz Razia appear to have had their F1 chance pass them by.

Sam Bird takes memorable Formula E victory in Buenos Aires

Bird 62a
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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird emerged victorious from one of the most thrilling Formula E races in the short history of the series after fending off a charging Sebastien Buemi in the closing stages to bag his third win.

Championship leader Buemi started the race from the back of the grid after making a mistake in qualifying, leaving him with a mountain to climb to even score points, let alone win the race.

However, the Swiss driver produced a driving masterclass and was aided by a safety car period to come into contention late on, only for Bird to produce an equally-excellent display and keep his cool to win in Buenos Aires.

Bird led all but one lap of the race, dropping down to second when Nelson Piquet Jr. went one lap longer during the pit window, and managed to see off challenges from Nicolas Prost and Antonio Felix da Costa in the first half of the race.

Da Costa’s hopes of repeating his victory in Buenos Aires from 2015 were ended just before pitting when his car came to a halt, prompting the stewards to send out the safety car which bunched the field.

Buemi had fought his way up into the points from 18th on the grid by the time he came in to swap cars, and made light work of Stephane Sarrazin before setting his sights on perennial title rival Lucas di Grassi in second place.

An exquisite move into the hairpin saw Buemi move into P2, and despite appearing to have a pace advantage over Bird in the closing stages, the Briton put up an impenetrable defence to keep the Renault e.dams driver back on the final two laps.

Low on power, Buemi had to drop back at the final few corners, giving Bird the breathing room to take his third Formula E win and the first since the start of the DS Virgin partnership.

Di Grassi was unable to join the leading pair at the front for the last fight, dropping back to save power, but managed to finish third. Sarrazin finished fourth for Venturi ahead of Prost and Loic Duval, while Nick Heidfeld’s return from injury went well as he finished seventh.

Robin Frijns enjoyed a good start in the Andretti, running as high as fourth early on, but ultimately dropped back to finish seventh. Oliver Turvey and Bruno Senna rounded out the points in P9 and P10 respectively.

Jean-Eric Vergne bounced back from food poisoning overnight to finish 11th, narrowly missing out on points, while Nelson Piquet Jr. ended the race P13. Daniel Abt and Simona de Silvestro enjoyed quiet races en route to 13th and 14th, while Mike Conway blew his chance of points on debut with a late spin, dropping him to P15 at the end. Jerome d’Ambrosio was the last classified finisher in 16th place.

Manor WEC program launched

Photo: Manor
Photo: Manor
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One of the intriguing elements to come out of yesterday’s entry list reveal for the FIA World Endurance Championship and 24 Hours of Le Mans was the confirmation of Manor in LMP2.

Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth hinted something new was up not long after the final Grand Prix of the season, when the pair took their bows from what had been the Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

That “something” was revealed on Friday as an Oreca 05 Nissan in the stacked LMP2 class – a 10-car class – with Tor Graves, a past Manor driver, confirmed as the first new driver for the effort.

“We are delighted to be joining the World Endurance Championship. It is a fantastic series that visits iconic tracks all over the world. The level of competition is very high and we are really looking forward to racing again,” Booth said.

“The LMP2 class is specifically designed for teams independent of manufacturers and/or engine suppliers which places the focus firmly on how the team performs.

“I can’t wait to see the car running now. We have lots to do but we have a great team of people to get it all done.”

The team might be out before the Prologue test at Paul Ricard end of March, but it’s likely that test will mark the team’s first significant running. It should have its driver lineup settled by then, as well.

Lowdon, who’s been bit by the sports car racing bug, expanded on the announcement.

“It’s really great to be racing again and the FIA World Endurance Championship provides a fantastic challenge for us,” he said

“Preseason testing starts soon and there is a lot to do but we have never been afraid of a bit of hard work.

“There is a real buzz within the team at the moment, we have enjoyed great support from the fans over the last few months and we are very keen for them to get fully involved in what we are doing. We all have a great passion for motorsport and we are keen to share that passion.”

‘Very possible’ Frijns will make IndyCar debut with Andretti

PUNTA DEL ESTE, URUGUAY - DECEMBER 19:  In this handout image supplied by Formula E, Robin Frijns (NLD), Andretti - Spark SRT_01E during the Julius Baer Punta del Este Formula E race at Playa Brava Beach street circuit on December 19, 2015 in Punta Del Este, Uruguay. (Photo by Adam Warner/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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BUENOS AIRES – Michael Andretti has said that it is “possible” Formula E driver Robin Frijns will make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut with Andretti Autosport in 2016.

Frijns enjoyed a successful junior career in Europe, beating Jules Bianchi to the Formula Renault 3.5 title in 2012, but was never able to make the step up to Formula 1.

Frijns joined Andretti’s Formula E team for the 2015-2016 season, and scored its first podium of the campaign in Putrajaya.

Speaking to MotorSportsTalk in Buenos Aires, Andretti confirmed that the team was still considering its options for a fourth car in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“Right now we’re still a three car team. There are still a couple of irons in the fire for the fourth car,” Andretti said.

“We also have a couple of irons in the fire for the fourth car for maybe doing certain races, not the whole season. So we’re still trying.”

When asked if either of his Formula E drivers could possible fill this seat, Andretti said that it was possible Frijns could step up for a few races.

“It’s very possible that he could, one or two races, but we’ll see,” Andretti said. “It’s possible, yeah.”

When asked by MotorSportsTalk if an opportunity to race in IndyCar with Andretti was on the cards, Frijns remained coy, saying: “That’s not a question I have to answer.”

However, he did admit that he would jump at the chance to do race if offered: “Oh yeah definitely!”

Honda has hinted it could supply a 12th engine at multiple races this year, not necessarily for the same team. Spencer Pigot is already confirmed to a three-race program with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at St. Petersburg and the month of May.

Sam Bird flies to maiden Formula E pole in Buenos Aires

FIA Formula E Championship 2015/16.
Beijing ePrix, Beijing, China.
Race.
Sam Bird (GBR), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01 
Beijing, China, Asia.
Saturday 24 October 2015
Photo: Adam Warner / LAT / FE
ref: Digital Image _A8C5210
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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird stormed to his first pole position in Formula E in qualifying for the Buenos Aires ePrix on Saturday at Puerto Madero.

Bird had finished fourth in the initial qualifying standings, securing himself a place in the Super Pole shootout alongside Stephane Sarrazin, Nicolas Prost, Mike Conway and Antonio Felix da Costa.

Despite expressing concerns about the extra weight of the DS Virgin Racing car earlier in the weekend, Bird squeezed every tenth out of it to post a fastest time of 1:09.420 and shoot to the top of the timesheets.

Neither da Costa or Sarrazin were able to better Bird’s time despite beating him in the first stage of qualifying and heading out on track after him, handing the Briton his first pole in Formula E.

Prost led Renault e.dams’ charge by qualifying second as teammate and championship leader Sebastien Buemi spun on his fast lap, leaving him at the very back of the grid for the race in Buenos Aires.

Despite running with a season one car, da Costa managed to qualify an excellent third ahead of the Venturi duo of Stephane Sarrazin and Mike Conway – the latter reaching the Super Pole shootout on debut.

Robin Frijns was unfortunate not to make the top five, finishing sixth ahead of championship contender Lucas di Grassi. The ABT Schaeffler driver will be disappointed not to have qualified higher, but still has a golden opportunity to capitalize on Buemi’s mistake.

Daniel Abt will start the race alongside his teammate on the grid after qualifying eighth ahead of Nelson Piquet Jr. and Jerome d’Ambrosio. Oliver Turvey and Loic Duval follow their teammates in 11th and 12th.

Nick Heidfeld qualified 13th on his return from injury ahead of Simona de Silvestro, while Jean-Eric Vergne completed – in his words “mission impossible” – to get out on track and finish 15th after his health scare this morning.

Bruno Senna and Salvador Duran both shunted their cars on their quick laps, leaving them 16th and 17th respectively ahead only of Buemi in the e.dams.