The racing element of Steve Letarte leaving Hendrick Motorsports and joining the NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast team for 2015 is how Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be affected. Earnhardt said Friday at Daytona he had an idea of the decision at last year’s season finale in Homestead, and has spent the offseason trying to process it.
But when he was first informed this was a possibility, at the fall race in Charlotte, “Junior” was “in shock.”
“It’s definitely a unique situation,” he said Friday morning during NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona. “He actually included me in on the discussion before the end of last year, and I had a pretty good understanding, whether he knew or not, what he was going to do. I had a pretty good understanding what his decision was going to be when I left Homestead.
“So I’ve had time to really wrap my brain around it. It was hard because we are such good friends, and I really do enjoy working with him a lot.”
Still, Earnhardt acknowledged Letarte’s desire to spend more time with his family is a good one.
“But at the same time I’m happy for him because it gives him the opportunity to spend time with his family,” Earnhardt said. “It’s something that’s really important to him, and the way these races are broadcast and how they’re presented to the fans is a big part of how the sport remains healthy, and I think that he’s going to be incredible in that role. I think that he’ll – I think that he’ll be really good.
“I’m excited for him because I know he’s really looking forward to it,” he added. “You can tell when he talks about it how genuinely enthused he is about the opportunity.”
Earnhardt said he will not be involved in the process of finding Letarte’s replacement. His biggest fear, he said, was finding someone as talented. An early name to consider could be Ron Malec, longtime car chief on the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet driven by Jimmie Johnson, but it’s way too early to have any prognostications of who will be on the No. 88 box in 2015.
“I won’t make any suggestions at all. I will leave that up to Rick (Hendrick), Doug (Douchardt),” Earnhardt said. “I would love to have input from Chad Knaus and Steve. I think that Steve knows what makes this team work.
“I think it’s important that Chad has got a lot of influence because he knows how well the shop works together and what the culture is in the shop and how a guy, a particular guy may mesh in that environment. But I don’t really want to have any influence on the choice.”
Earnhardt acknowledged this will be Letarte’s last go-‘round in the garage area and there’s an extra bonus, and extra incentive, to ensure Letarte can go out on a high. In the last three years, Tony Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb, Dodge as a manufacturer, and Kevin Harvick at Richard Childress Racing have delivered titles or near-titles in their final seasons in their current roles.
“Fortunately we get to work together one more year,” Earnhardt said. “I feel almost lucky in that regard that I get the opportunity to work with him for one more season.
“He’s not going to work for another driver or another team, so it’s kind of his last hurrah, and hopefully he never has to come back to that job again and his broadcasting career takes him on into the rest of his life. And I think it will. I think he’s going to be fantastic.”
McLaren has become the latest team to confirm its running schedule for the upcoming Formula 1 pre-season test days in Barcelona, Spain.
McLaren launched its new car, the MCL32, at its base in Woking, England on Friday, with drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne on-hand to unveil the team’s new orange look.
Alonso and Vandoorne will split testing duties next week with the start of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.
Alonso will enjoy the first public run behind the wheel of the MCL32 on Monday before handing over to Vandoorne on Tuesday. Alonso returns on Wednesday, with Vandoorne then closing out the first test on Thursday.
On paper, Ed Carpenter Racing could be in for a banner year in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.
The open test at Phoenix International Raceway served notice that their cars are quick, with JR Hildebrand turning the fastest lap across the two-day test. Throw in up-and-coming Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion who will again contest the road and street events in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and team owner Ed Carpenter, known for his oval prowess, and their driver lineup looks as stout as any among the 2017 entries.
However, it is also a year of vital importance, particularly for the aforementioned Hildebrand and Pigot.
To say that JR Hildebrand has something to prove might be an understatement. Once a promising up-and-comer who won the Indy Lights title in 2009, Hildebrand’s career has been in limbo since he and Panther Racing parted ways after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Though he showed promise and speed in his brief tenure with John Barnes’ old team, his time there was somewhat star-crossed.
He infamously crashed out of the lead on the final lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500. He was dominating the 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway before he brushed the wall and damaged the right-rear suspension. During a caution period at the 2013 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he ran up and over race leader Will Power after briefly looking down to make an adjustment on his steering wheel. And, in what proved to be his final outing as a full-time driver, he crashed on lap 4 of the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
Since then, Hildebrand has only been a part-time competitor, only running entries at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indy 500. In fact, as he explained at the Phoenix test, he didn’t even dip his feet into sports car racing, as many open wheel drivers do when they’re not driving IndyCars.
“No, I have not (pursued opportunities in sports cars). I’ve been hanging out with these guys (Ed Carpenter Racing) trying to get back to being full-time in IndyCar,” he explained during the Phoenix test.
He later explained that, while he was also busy promoting STEM and other education initiatives, limited opportunities in sports car racing made venturing into that discipline less than ideal. “Since GRAND-AM and IMSA have combined, there’s just kind of fewer of the prototype drives and the GTLM, which is an amazing category…there’s a lot of factory guys there. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing to work your way into, particularly if it’s a part-time thing, I’ve found.”
Perhaps the most important piece of driving he has ever done, though, came in relief of Josef Newgarden after he broke his hand and collarbone at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at tests at Road America, Iowa Speedway, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which he said helped keep the rust off and prove his value to the team.
“Those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different,” he said of time as a relief driver. “And so for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me.”
Expectations are high for Hildebrand on his return. It’s obvious that the 29-year-old still possesses all the talent he displayed in junior categories and in his brief time as an IndyCar driver. And Ed Carpenter Racing does not look like it’s missed a beat with Newgarden’s departure. Hildebrand echoed those expectations and firmly believes he should contend for victories.
“A successful season for us is me picking up my first race win, wherever that ends up being,” he asserted after a recent test at Sonoma Raceway. “That is absolutely a goal of ours to be in the Winner’s Circle. For me there is no doubt that my goal is to come into this season with a number of road and street courses on the schedule and be consistently in contention at those places.”
While Hildebrand has garnered much of the hype, teammate Spencer Pigot is not to be forgotten. While he stepped up at least part-time last year before it grew into the rest of the season, it was still a challenge. He began with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on a three-race deal before joining Ed Carpenter Racing to run the road and street courses after the Indy 500.
Pigot’s results were unspectacular, but he did improve as the year continued. The 23-year-old scored a pair of top tens at Road America and Mid-Ohio and showed an increase in raw speed in the second half of the season.
However, Pigot’s second season will be pivotal for his IndyCar future. Evidence of this can be found in three other recent Indy Lights champions: Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam, and Gabby Chaves. Each was relegated to part-time drives following their rookie campaigns and only Karam is currently slated to run any IndyCar races this year (he announced an Indy 500 entry with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing earlier in February).
In one way, Pigot already has an advantage over Vautier, Karam, and Chaves in that he will contest a second season, and for the same team as well. Consequently, his second season in the Verizon IndyCar Series provides a chance to firmly establish himself as a top-level driver after spending his rookie year learning the cars and series. Perhaps the most important aspect of his driving he’ll need to improve on is his qualifying pace. Only four times did he qualify better than 20th and he often struggled to get the most out of the softer, red-walled Firestones.
While he didn’t reveal many details after the ECR test outing at Sonoma, Pigot did express confidence that he and the team are going in the right direction.
“It’s been a while since we were (at Sonoma Raceway) and it’s been since September since I drove the car, so I’m excited to be back in an IndyCar and so far so good. We had a really productive morning, and we’ve been sticking to our test plan, which we spent a lot of time going over before we got here in order to maximize our day,” Pigot said after the February 14 test.
The performance of Ed Carpenter Racing has been one of most positive stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series since the team debuted in 2012. And for Hildebrand and Pigot, the organization gives them a chance to cement their IndyCar careers.
Sebastian Vettel: New Ferrari Formula 1 car ‘a step forward’
Sebastian Vettel feels that Ferrari’s new Formula 1 car feels like “a step forward” after enjoying his first test with the SF70H at Fiorano on Friday.
Ferrari unveiled its new F1 car on Friday before sending it out on-track for the first time at its private test track, with Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen both enjoying laps behind the wheel as part of a filming day.
Speaking after his first run in the car, Vettel said that he was immediately impressed by the SF70H.
“You can see it’s a step forward. You can feel it’s a step forward,” Vettel said.
“It’s fun to drive. The car is quite big. It looks quite strong from the outside, but also the first impression is the right one.
“The conditions are not how they’re gonna be in Australia but today we didn’t have any problems. So it was a good day and a good start.”
All 10 F1 teams have faced a big technical challenge in preparation for 2017 following an overhaul of the technical regulation that will make the cars significantly quicker, resulting in a more aggressive look.
“Clearly a new season is a new challenge, but especially this season with new aero and overall regulations, even more a challenge,” Ferrari technical chief Mattia Binotto said.
“The challenge in F1 is always the same. It’s not just being good, but being the first. Being the first means to develop faster than everyone else. Being faster means to increase the rate of development and really speed up.
“The challenge is now even more than in the past to speed up the development. Whoever has been fast and first in the development will be at the front of the grid at the start in Australia.”
Ferrari will next hit the track in Barcelona, Spain on Monday February 27 with the start of collective pre-season testing.
Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll will pilot the FW40 through 2017 as the team celebrates 40 years of racing in F1.
Massa returns despite originally planning to retire from F1 at the end of last year, with his comeback being agreed following Valtteri Bottas’ move to Mercedes.
Stroll arrives in F1 as one of its youngest ever drivers, having won the FIA European Formula 3 title last season with Prema Powerteam.
Williams enters 2017 looking to bounce back from a disappointing campaign that saw it fall from third to fifth in the constructors’ championship, dropping behind Red Bull and Force India in the pecking order.
The FW40 follows the example set by the other teams with their 2017-spec cars, falling in line with the radical new technical regulations that have resulted in an aggressive look from teams.
The FW40 retains its thumb nose and also sports a large ‘shark fin’ engine cover that has also been implemented by a number of other teams.
Williams’ new car will hit the track for the first time in Barcelona on Monday with the start of pre-season testing.