NASCAR will return to NBC starting in 2015 and on Monday, the NBC Sports Group made its first personnel announcement for the coverage. NBC Sports and NBCSN Executive Producer Sam Flood announced Emmy Award-winning sports TV producer and executive Jeff Behnke will join NBC and NBCSN in January as Vice President of NASCAR Production. He’ll work out of Charlotte, where a majority of the series’ teams are based, the first time where a network head has been based in that area.
“Jeff Behnke’s talent, creativity and experience make him the kind of leader that we want on our team,” Flood said. “Jeff is going to add a great deal to our partnership with NASCAR, and I am thrilled to welcome him to the NBC Sports Family.”
Behnke’s extensive experience includes serving as Executive Producer at Turner Sports for seven years, coordinating and covering NASCAR, NBA, MLB and several of golf’s major championships. That capped a 27-year run at Turner; prior to that, Behnke also worked with ABC for its Indianapolis 500, Wide World of Sports and Olympics coverage.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to join NBC Sports,” said Behnke. “I’m looking forward to this opportunity to be a part of NBC’s history of excellence in sports television and unmatched leadership.”
NASCAR announced details of its return to NBC in July. Starting in 2015, the NBC Sports Group will carry the last 20 Sprint Cup races, final 19 Nationwide Series races (under whatever new name that series will take on after Nationwide title sponsorship leaves), and select regional touring series events.
The full release on Behnke’s appointment can be found here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.
“I think there’s plenty of reasons to be very hopeful that we can do the next step as a team,” Perez said.
“I think in the four years that I’ve been in this organization, I’ve never seen it so stable, everyone knowing their job.
“In none of the teams that I’ve been in Formula 1 I’ve seen this level of confidence, organisation, everyone doing their jobs. So I think we have plenty of reasons to be happy for a great year.”
Force India owner Vijay Mallya has targeted a move into F1’s top three, and Perez sees no reason why the team cannot achieve this.
“Last year we finished fourth, so I see no reason why we cannot improve that,” Perez said.
“As I said before, the base is very solid. There are plenty of reasons to be hoping for that. That means a massive year for us, but I think Force India will be the big surprise this year
“I really hope that we can improve. I’m really optimistic about the car, about the season, so I do hope. It’s easy to talk now, but I have a feeling that Force India has done a tremendous job over the winter.
“I’ve seen the way everyone has worked in the team. I’ve been in talks all the time. I’ve been in the factory many times. I see what the people are doing, they’re explaining to me how the car is working, how big was the development rate for us.
“There are plenty of reasons to feel we can have a good year.”
While he is yet to drive the VJM10 on-track, Perez said that the car feels significantly quicker on the team’s simulator following the introduction of new technical regulations for 2017.
“It’s a big step from last year to this year, we think four to six seconds in margin of how much quicker the car goes,” Perez said.
“So the amount of downforce that we’re going to be generating this year is huge. Just looking at the car, it looks impressive. I think I’m going to have to go back and keep training my neck!”
Perez will get his first taste of the VJM10 car on February 27 when pre-season testing begins in Barcelona, Spain.
Longtime friends and Canadian countrymen James Hinchcliffe, 30, and Robert Wickens, 27, hatched a plan this offseason that will see the pair of drivers swap rides for a day.
Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, will get to drive Wickens’ No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car in Vallelunga, Italy on March 17 after he makes his first IndyCar start of the new year at St. Petersburg on March 12.
Meanwhile Wickens will have the opportunity to sample Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar for the first time at Sebring International Raceway’s short course next week on February 28, and return to his open-wheel roots.
Wickens was arguably one of open-wheel’s best prospects – perhaps even slightly higher rated than Hinchcliffe – as the two were growing in their careers. They’ve competed as teammates for Team Canada in the 2007-2008 A1GP season and as rivals, Wickens with Red Bull Forsythe Racing and Hinchcliffe with Sierra Sierra Enterprises, in the 2007 Formula Atlantic season. Wickens also made a couple later cameo appearances in North America thereafter before moving to Europe, supported by Red Bull, where he won the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 World Series (a year after Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate, Mikhail Aleshin, did).
Despite being on Formula 1’s doorstep and testing with the Virgin team, he never got a proper chance at the series. Instead, he’s gone onto race-winning and championship-contending success with Mercedes in DTM.
Incidentally, both drivers were back in North America racing at the start of this year, in the 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona. Hinchcliffe competed in the Prototype class for Mazda Motorsports while Wickens was in the Prototype Challenge class with Starworks Motorsport.
“You have to take it just as seriously as one of your own races,” Hinchcliffe told NBC Sports at the time. “It’s crazy how much effort goes into this. I really see that sort of month of May fever around all the IMSA teams when you pull up to Daytona for the month of January, so to speak, because you start at the Roar in the beginning, then thrash on the cars for two weeks and then you come back and do a 24-hour race.”
Now, the longtime friends will be putting in their first days in their new cars in a unique ride swap opportunity.
“This whole thing is something that Robbie and I have joked about for a long time because, frankly, we weren’t sure it was ever going to happen,” Hinchcliffe said. “We both had an interest in kind of sharing our series with each other, and we kept talking about it. We decided we were going to try and take a swing at it, talked to all parties involved and amazingly it all worked out.
“It’s just a cool story; you’ve got two kids that grew up racing go-karts in Ontario,” Hinchcliffe added. “Fast forward a decade and a half, and here we are both professional racing drivers. To be able to get to do this, and share it with each other, is going to be awesome.”
Jaguar Formula E chief James Barclay was pleased to support Felipe Massa’s first Formula E test earlier this month as the team began its season four test cycle.
Massa previously expressed an interest in moving into Formula E before re-gaining his Williams Formula 1 seat for 2017, but continued to lay plans for his post-F1 days by testing for Jaguar three weeks ago.
The test saw Jaguar begin its season four on-track development, with 15 days of private testing permitted for all teams before the start of the new campaign in December.
“It was a really great opportunity,” Barclay told NBC Sports in Buenos Aires last weekend.
“Formula E asked us to support that, Felipe had expressed an interest so I’m really pleased we could support that. Great to give him the opportunity.
“He enjoyed it which was nice to be part of really. Obviously useful time for us in terms of our season four development as well.”
While Barclay remained coy about the extent of Jaguar’s testing looking to season four, he took heart from the fact that it had commenced running so early in the year.
“Well you can imagine there’s only so much we can say, but the point is that we started our season four development fairly early on, and our focus absolutely is on our performance this year,” Barclay said.
“One of the nice things is we have a longer lead time for season four for development. So the lessons we’ve learned from season three is really how we can apply that for season four.
“There aren’t a lot of test days, so we’re making the most of those. It’s one of those early tests that allows us to ratify where we’re going, nice to get under our belt at this stage.”
The test has led to suggestions that Massa could be in the frame to join Jaguar in Formula E for season four, but Barclay said it was too early to begin discussing its future driver plans.
“Felipe has a Williams Formula 1 drive,” Barclay said.
“We’re really happy where we are with Adam [Carroll] and Mitch [Evans], really early in our program at this point in time. Just nice to give [Massa] the opportunity to be honest.”
Jaguar enjoyed its strongest weekend in Formula E yet in Buenos Aires as Evans qualified seventh and flirted with the points, but the team remains at the foot of the teams’ championship three races into its debut season.