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Sizing up F1’s remaining free agents for last 4 seats

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With Sergio Perez (Force India) and Adrian Sutil (Sauber) finding homes last week, the F1 grid is down to its final four remaining seats, the second Sauber, second Marussia and two Caterhams. Here’s a look at who is left and some of their potential upsides and downsides:

PAUL DI RESTA, 12th in 2013

  • GOOD: Consistent points-scorer who’s occasionally starred, notably in Bahrain and Canada this year. Doesn’t overextend the tires, a good trait to have.
  • BAD: Has had a few too many dropouts from Q1 for a driver in his machinery level.
  • VERDICT: Worse than the “bad” is the fact the Scot brings no budget, and thus he’s almost a certainty to return to DTM in 2014. He is F1-worthy talent, though.

ESTEBAN GUTIERREZ, 16th in 2013

  • GOOD: Matured and developed over the course of his first season, especially given the limited testing opportunities. Every race weekend was a trial by fire.
  • BAD: Was made to look worse than he was by virtue of lining up alongside Nico Hulkenberg at Sauber. Like di Resta, too many eliminations in Q1.
  • VERDICT: Has potential, and has some budget, and could probably make a step forward in his second season if Sauber thinks he’s worth it. Otherwise, a year as a reserve driver likely beckons.

CHARLES PIC, 20th in 2013

  • GOOD: Two years of race experience and a few noteworthy moments in 2013’s first half.
  • BAD: Frequently anonymous and has made way too many mistakes in the few moments he has been noticed.
  • VERDICT: Hasn’t done enough at either Marussia or Caterham to think a third year would be anything better. Perhaps sports cars would fit him.

HEIKKI KOVALAINEN, 21st in 2013

  • GOOD: The most experienced free agent on the market.
  • BAD: Simply did not deliver in the two races he drove for Lotus.
  • VERDICT: Could still lead Caterham’s efforts if they opt for a veteran-youngster lineup.

GIEDO VAN DER GARDE, 22nd in 2013

  • GOOD: Higher peaks at Caterham, especially in qualifying, and really developed as the year went on.
  • BAD: A handful of clunky mistakes, notably in Canada and Japan, and not otherworldly talent-wise.
  • VERDICT: Opposite Kovalainen at Caterham makes sense on paper, if the budgets align. Like Pic, would sink or swim in a second year, but did enough to merit a chance.

MAX CHILTON, 23rd in 2013

  • GOOD: Finished every race, proof he doesn’t make too many mistakes, and posted a great qualifying effort at Suzuka.
  • BAD: Shaded teammate Jules Bianchi by a wide margin, and was consistently the slowest driver in the field.
  • VERDICT: Young, reliable and with a hefty budget, all but certain to return to Marussia in 2014. The question is whether he can find anywhere from four to six tenths a lap regularly.

POTENTIAL ROOKIES

  • Sergey Sirotkin: The Russian is still in line for Sauber’s second seat provided the budget comes through and his FIA superlicense is granted, but would face a steep learning curve.
  • Marcus Ericsson: The Swede was rumored for a seat at Caterham. Like Chilton, rather underwhelming in his GP2 seasons although he has two feature wins.
  • Alexander Rossi: The American, as Caterham’s reserve driver, starred in his FP1 outings in Montreal and Austin this year and won the GP2 finale in Abu Dhabi. Another year as reserve would do him no harm, but would likely need to find budget in order to step up.
  • Fabio Leimer: The Swiss driver won this year’s GP2 title but like 2012 champ Davide Valsecchi, doesn’t appear to have a clear path to a race seat with a lack of funding.
  • Sam Bird: The Englishman, long Mercedes’ reserve driver, is way too talented to have not had his F1 opp. But not enough of a budget to make it happen.
  • James Calado: The Englishman made a handful of FP1 appearances for Force India. Talented enough but like the others, hard to see where he slots in without a budget.
  • Robin Frijns: The Dutchman, formerly Sauber’s reserve, seems destined for the same fate as the others – rideless without a budget.

Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.