Dale Jr.: Letarte leaving an initial shock, but pairing ready to end on a high

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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.”

Formula 1 Roundtable: Summer Break

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While the Verizon IndyCar Series may be springing back into life this weekend with the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, there is still one more week of summer to soak up before Formula 1 returns with the Belgian Grand Prix on August 27.

Sebastian Vettel moved into a 14-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship with victory in Hungary at the end of last month, leaving Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton on the back foot once again after reeling him in at Silverstone two weeks prior.

With the early season blows being exchanged, Vettel and Hamilton are now gearing up for the home stretch to Abu Dhabi, starting at Spa next weekend.

In the third edition of our Formula 1 Roundtable series this season, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavigne cast their eye on the year that has been so far and look ahead to what may come in the next three months.

1. What has been the biggest storyline for you in Formula 1 so far this season?

Luke Smith

There are so, so many to choose from. The most surprising storylines have to be Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 run and Robert Kubica’s comeback from injury (more on that later), but the biggest? Ferrari’s return to the front of the pack, led by Sebastian Vettel.

It was an alliance born with great expectations, but after such a miserable 2016 season, it seemed possible that Vettel could leave Maranello in the same fashion Fernando Alonso did: frustrated, disappointed and without another title to his name.

Alas, Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, with Ferrari’s SF70H car easily being the best it has produced in almost a decade. The pre-season testing showing was not a bluff, and while Mercedes may have since bridged the gap and perhaps even moved ahead in the development race, Vettel is in with a real shot of a fifth title this year.

There may be no favorites in F1, but having its most visible brand fighting at the very front of the field once again can never be a bad thing.

Tony DiZinno

A welcome championship battle between two teams again, and two of this generation’s best drivers in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Some circuits have favored Hamilton’s Mercedes and others Vettel’s Ferrari. Their rivalry was healthy and in good spirits at Spain; by Baku it had become tense once again.

Championship battles are the best in F1 when they feature either the greatest drivers or the greatest teams duking it out between themselves and after a period of Mercedes dominance, followed previously by a period of Red Bull dominance, it’s been nice to have a genuine back-and-forth cage match this season.

Kyle Lavigne

Most likely, the three best drivers on the grid are Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. Yet, despite being on the grid together since 2008, rarely have all three clashed together on the track, let alone of a full season. The only time all three entered the final race of the season with a shot on the world championship was in 2010, the first of Vettel’s four Formula 1 world championships.

While Alonso is unfortunately saddled with subpar equipment (his McLaren-Honda saga has been well-documented all year), Vettel and Hamilton each finally have the right tools to succeed in the same year…and we are being treated to a truly titanic duel. And not just between the drivers, but also between the teams, as the still relatively new Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team goes head-to-head with the powerhouse Scuderia Ferrari.

The ebb and flow of the season has Vettel on top right now (202-188), while Mercedes leads the constructor’s world championship (357-318).

As Tony previously mentioned, having a genuine championship between two of the sport’s best drivers and two of the sport’s best teams, especially after years of dominance first by Red Bull Racing and then Mercedes, is a welcome change.

2. Silly season is ramping up in F1 – but which story has grabbed your attention the most?

Luke

Robert Kubica’s possible comeback has been the real story of silly season so far. For a driver largely seen as one of the sport’s lost talents, the Pole’s return from serious injury has been nothing short of staggering. No-one could have seen this happening.

But it is happening. After an initial run in a 2012 Lotus F1 car ‘for fun’ – like Kubica ever does things for fun – two further tests followed, the final one being against the rest of the F1 field. Kubica was on the pace and consistent as anything.

It all boils down to whether Kubica feels physically ready to get back into F1 full-time. The pace is there. Renault should jettison Jolyon Palmer at the end of the season, if not earlier, and if Kubica is ready to step up, it would be amazing to have him back in action where he belongs.

Tony

The Robert Kubica story is huge, no doubt, because of its surprise element and then the reality that oh, he’s still got it, and is in serious contention for a race return. I’m not sure what else to add here because Luke does a really good job of it above.

Elsewhere, the season-long McLaren, Honda and Fernando Alonso saga has been a talking point. One feels the combination can’t all continue together but yet where else do each of them have to go?

Kyle

Where Fernando Alonso goes is probably the most intriguing silly season story, mostly because he could literally go anywhere. It’s possible he stays at McLaren if Honda shows dramatic improvement, or at least plans for dramatic improve. He could jump to another team within Formula 1 as well.

And, of course, he could completely leave the sport all together for something in the World Endurance Championship or the Verizon IndyCar Series. Or maybe he tries something completely out of the left field and gives the NHRA or power boat racing a go. (Okay, this last part is jest).

In all seriousness, any one of a number of scenarios surrounding Alonso seem equally possible, and it will likely be the biggest domino that impacts F1’s silly season.

3. Who has been your driver of the season so far?

Luke

There have been a number of excellent drivers through this year – Vettel, Hamilton, Carlos Sainz Jr., Esteban Ocon all rank highly for me – but I have to go with Valtteri Bottas. For a driver many were uncertain about as Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes replacement, the Finn has surpassed all expectations and become a real challenger at the front of the pack.

Bottas has raced like a true champion, soaking up pressure from Vettel in both Russia and Austria to hang on for victory. Not only were those defensive drives important for his own standing, but they could prove crucial come the end of the season in Vettel’s title fight with Hamilton.

Is Bottas in the race for the championship? Yes – but only just. In reality, this should boil down to Vettel and Hamilton in Abu Dhabi. But as number twos to have in your corner, there is no-one better right now than F1’s newest flying Finn.

Tony

This largely boils down to expectations – we knew Hamilton, Vettel and the Red Bull pair would be fine but we didn’t know how Valtteri Bottas would have slotted in to Mercedes at late notice, and replacing outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg. He’s done rather well.

Bottas has been a far more consistent scorer than Hamilton, making fewer mistakes and then seizing the opportunities when he’s had them himself against Vettel. Neither his Russia nor Austrian Grand Prix wins were thrillers in the traditional sense of passing in-race beyond the start, but that he didn’t crack owed to his steely resolve. He’s lived up to the task at hand.

Further down the grid I’ve been fully impressed by Esteban Ocon at Force India. It’s easy to overlook this is his first full-time season although he isn’t classed as a rookie owing to his starts last year. Pushing Sergio Perez to the edge, occasionally overstepping it, has seen him take up the reins nicely vacated by Nico Hulkenberg and solidified Force India’s standing as best of the rest beyond the top four. It’s been impressive work so far by the young Frenchman.

Kyle

I’m with my MotorsportsTalk colleagues on this. Valtteri Bottas has done a great job into the Mercedes team late in the game and getting himself up to speed. With a pair of wins and and eight podiums to his name this year, he has done more than enough to solidify his place as a big player on the F1 grid.

It’s highly unlikely he’ll emerge as a world championship contender this year, but future seasons could certainly see him as a legitimate title contender.

Honorable mentions: Esteban Ocon (for pushing Sergio Perez to the limit and helping to make Force India nip occasionally nip at the heels of Red Bull for third best amongst, Daniel Ricciardo (for getting as much of the Red Bull, and it’s under-powered Renault power unit, as he can, even sneaking out a win at Azerbaijan), and Alonso (his P6 at Hungary may be the drive of the year, and he has handled a very difficult situation with great dignity and humor).

4. Who will win the F1 drivers’ championship in 2017?

Luke

I’m torn – but I’m going to tip Sebastian Vettel to claim a fifth world title. I do believe that Mercedes has made serious gains on Ferrari in recent weeks to move ahead in the development race, but the Prancing Horse remains strong.

Spa and Monza will play towards Mercedes, but Ferrari should smash Singapore. The rest of the tracks on the calendar are fairly balanced, so it may come down to who out of Vettel and Hamilton can deal with the title pressure better.

The formbook favors Vettel. His second-half form in all four of his title wins was remarkable, particularly in 2012 when he overturned a 42-point deficit to Fernando Alonso to win the title, and in 2013 when he won the final nine races of the year.

This will go all the way to Abu Dhabi, but I’m thinking we will get – only just – a first Ferrari world title win since 2007.

Tony

The title will come down to the mental and psychological battle between Hamilton and Vettel as the year goes on – both have been tested so far, and it’s a question of who can respond when a big moment is needed.

Vettel, since joining Ferrari, has alternated between helping to lead the team’s rally back and then falling into a trap of petulant radio messages and outbursts. Quite how he handles adversity if he faces it the rest of the way – let’s say Mercedes gets on a mini-run at some point – will be fascinating to watch. His one bit of help is that he has a teammate in Kimi Raikkonen, who is undoubted second fiddle.

Hamilton has a more complex scenario to factor in the rest of the way. Bottas risks taking points off him at various races, but, Bottas has also proven more adept at denying Vettel points when the opportunity is there. Hamilton is also keen to get to a fourth World Championship, which would match Vettel. Beating him in a straight fight is something he hasn’t done in either of his previous three. His motivation to not lose a second straight title is incredibly high. For that, I’ll tip the Englishman to get the title this year.

Kyle

Although Vettel maintains the upperhand at the moment, until someone firmly unseats Mercedes, who still lead the constructor’s championship, I have stick with Hamilton. Vettel’s propensity to occasionally come unglued (see Azerbaijan) is a definite chink in his armor. Although he somehow got away without losing points to Hamilton that day (he can thank Hamilton’s cockpit surround working its way loose for that), that propensity could ultimately cost points and/or a race suspension if it surfaces again, which swing momentum in a big way toward Hamilton’s favor.

I genuinely believe this year’s title will be a knockdown, drag-out duel to Abu Dhabi, but I see Hamitlon coming out on top.

Alonso open to options outside of F1 if he can’t find winning project

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Fernando Alonso is not afraid to explore options outside of Formula 1 for 2018 if he is unable to find a winning project as the saga surrounding his McLaren future continues.

Alonso is out of contract at the end of the season, and has been exploring options away from McLaren after three difficult years fighting down the order due to issues with the team’s Honda power unit.

The two-time world champion does not appear to have many options for 2018, and is still talking to McLaren about a drive for next year.

“I’m very open. I haven’t made a decision yet,” Alonso told CNN.

“I’m talking to McLaren, of course, because it’s my team. I think we have unfinished business together to win in Formula 1.

“I think everyone will have their opinion of what we need to be competitive. I have mine. If that happens, I will consider for sure to stay and win with McLaren.”

Should Alonso decide to leave McLaren, the Spaniard confirmed he would explore other options on the F1 grid, but is not afraid to look beyond the sport.

“Formula 1 is still my priority, it’s my life, and winning the world championship is what I’m hoping,” Alonso said.

“If I don’t see any clear project that will allow me to fight for the win, I will look outside Formula 1, but that’s [a decision for] November, December. I will try all the possibilities before that.”

Alonso stole the headlines earlier this year with his entry to the Indianapolis 500 as part of a joint entry between McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport, qualifying fifth and running up the order before retiring with an engine failure.

While Alonso enjoyed his stint in the IndyCar paddock, a full-season ride is not thought to be a serious consideration for him currently.

A future shot at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is also on Alonso’s radar, although the lingering uncertainty regarding the future of the LMP1 class and prototype racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship may put the brakes on that for the time being.

When asked if he felt he had taken his last win in F1 – the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix – Alonso said: “No, no. It will happen.

“I have a feeling it will happen next year.”

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Racing facing big challenges ahead

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After a few months off writing, Stefan Johansson’s back with his latest blog after a whirlwind month-plus of news across various forms of racing.

The F1 and IndyCar veteran turned driver manager and seasoned observer of all things motorsports has touched on a number of the challenges all of racing faces in the upcoming months and years in this entry, his latest conversation with Jan Tegler.

Johansson first hits on a fundamental problem within racing: a tight regulatory box thanks to crazy amounts of technology, coupled with escalating costs.

“The fundamental problem in general for pretty much every level of racing is that technology has taken over. Everything is driven by technology,” he writes. “Every racing series is driven by the engineering side instead of the drivers and the sporting side. The cars are far too expensive to run. All of the electronics, all of the aerodynamic development, all of the extra stuff which has become part of the cars today makes them massively more expensive to operate. Then we have all the various methods of simulation which effectively have replaced on track testing, this again is driving up the costs as all this equipment is constantly evolving, and anything involving R&D is never cheap.

“Not only are they more expensive as a whole, components are more expensive and the cars require three to four times the amount of people to run compared to what they used to. In the end, there’s nothing left over due to the costs. The money’s got to come from somewhere. Teams are operating more and more in survival mode, and as such they have to rely more and more on drivers bringing money.”

The next fundamental question is whether race cars and road cars should have similar levels of relevance, or instead be completely separate. Hybrid technology has been en vogue for the last few years, for instance.

“Race cars are made to go fast as they always have been,” Johansson writes. “Nowadays the main emphasis seems to be that road cars are supposed to save the planet, whether that’s valid or not but that’s the argument. Racing and road cars ought to be heading in two completely separate directions, if there is anything to be learned from Racing that could benefit the road car industry, great, but I don’t think the focus should be on that.

“The whole concept with this technology – the philosophy of what race cars are meant to be now – is going completely in the wrong direction in my opinion. This insanely complicated and expensive hybrid technology really doesn’t benefit anyone in racing. The development of the technology for road cars is already as advanced if not more than what we see in the F1 or LMP1 cars. So there’s really no gain. Then you can look at the whole aerodynamic thing on top of it – useless for a road car.

“Part of the problem is the PR the manufacturers produce. Their PR departments have an agenda and of course there’s the political side and that’s another agenda. There are all of these marketing efforts and the racing is just the tiny little bit at the bottom of it. Everything has to conform to all of the non-racing agendas.”

The visual, visceral appeal of driving is another point that Johansson worries has been lost in this era of engineering-driven machines.

“Anyone, even a layman with no knowledge of racing, can appreciate the effort and skill of a driver wrestling a car to make it perform as well as possible at the limit,” he writes. “But a car that does almost everything for a driver, that’s stuck to the road on a track with so much run off area that is virtually impossible to hit anything if you try too hard and go off, that any driver with a small amount of skill can jump in and get within half a second of a three-times world champion – that doesn’t excite people. It doesn’t have the same appeal.”

MONZA, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 02: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing sits in his car fitted with the halo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 2, 2016 in Monza, Italy. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

On the Halo coming to F1? Johansson offers this: “It’s now also been confirmed that the Halo head protection will be mandated. It was an inevitable decision in my opinion, once the knowledge is there and it’s for safety there’s no turning back. It’s a knee jerk reaction to something that should have never happened in the first place if any level of common sense had been applied at Suzuka when Jules Bianchi had his accident. But it happened, it was a freak accident and will in most likelihood never ever happen again, halo or no halo.”

On IndyCar’s new universal kit coming for 2018, he writes, “Aesthetically the new car certainly looks a lot better than the previous ones, it would have been nearly impossible to design one that could look any worse though. I guess this also fixes the disparity between the Chevy and Honda aero but what a pointless exercise the manufacturer aero kits were.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, exits his car after his engine expired during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While noting the manufacturer spend, Johansson also notes how much buzz Fernando Alonso generated from his Indianapolis 500 bow: “If the penny hasn’t dropped that maybe it’s not new car designs we need, but instead a much bigger focus on the drivers, who are the heroes that people want to watch. The value of Fernando Alonso racing at Indy this year is probably the best marketing IndyCar has had for the last 20 years.”

And on LMP1’s demise within the FIA WEC as three of the four manufacturers from 2015 have all pulled out? “I can’t see the WEC surviving. If Toyota follows Porsche what is there? What they should do is a pan-American/European championship of some kind. They should create some kind of hybrid series that brings IMSA and the ELMS together, spanning both continents.

“Look at Le Mans this year. The race was almost won by an LMP2 car at almost exactly 100 times less than the budget of the P1 teams – 100 times less! That should tell you something. Sports car racing has to be much more reasonable in terms of the costs. Look at the LMP3 class.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

2017 columns:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Acura ARX-05 formally revealed at The Quail (PHOTOS)

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After a teaser video was released a couple weeks ago, the formal, full unveil of Acura’s new ARX-05 prototype for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, to be fielded by Team Penske, took place today at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, in Monterey.

A photo from a private, VIP event emerged on social media on Thursday night ahead of the proper unveil, but now the car is officially out in the open for all to see.

A striking nose assembly section to the ARX-05, on top of the base Oreca 07 chassis, is perhaps the most notable visual identifier on the car.

The full release and a handful of photos are below.

Acura today unveiled the new Acura ARX-05 prototype race car at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering. Acura Motorsports will join forces with the legendary Team Penske organization to field a pair of the new Daytona Prototype International (DPi) entries in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.  

The Acura ARX-05 (Acura Racing eXperimental, generation 5) is the latest in a line of endurance prototypes to be fielded by the brand dating to 1991, just five years after the 1986 launch of the Acura marque. Based on the very successful ORECA 07 chassis, the new ARX-05 prototype showcases Acura-specific bodywork and design features, including Acura’s signature Jewel Eye™ headlights, and utilizes the race-proven AR35TT twin-turbocharged engine, based on the production 3.5-liter V-6 that powers the Acura MDX, RDX, TLX and RLX models.

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

“At Acura, Precision Crafted Performance is at the heart of everything we do.” said Jon Ikeda, Acura vice-president and general manager. “Whether it is our production cars or a prototype race car, if you want to be a performance brand you need to perform.”

The multi-year DPi program will be administered by Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for both Acura Motorsports and Honda Racing in North America. The competition debut of the Team Penske Acura prototypes will take place at the season-opening Rolex 24 in January, 2018. One of the team’s two ARX-05 entries will be piloted by the legendary Juan Pablo Montoya along with sports car champion Dane Cameron. The second driver pairing will be announced at a later date.

“Right from the start, Acura has raced – and done so successfully,” said Art St. Cyr, President of HPD and Acura Motorsports. “We’ve won with the Acura Integra Type R, the RSX, the first-generation NSX and with the Le Mans prototypes. Most recently, we’ve won with the new Acura NSX GT3. The ARX-05 is our fifth-generation prototype, and we expect great things from our partnership with Team Penske.”

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

DPi rules require manufacturers to use one of four approved prototype chassis, fitted with IMSA-homologated, manufacturer-designed and branded bodywork and engines. In the case of the ARX-05, the bodywork was developed by a team led by Acura Global Creative Director Dave Marek.

“We created a variety of initial sketches, then pared those down a handful of potential designs. Next came aero and wind tunnel model testing, and time for the engineers to have their say,” Marek recounted. “The design continued to be refined throughout the testing and evaluation process, until we came up with a final treatment that met our performance goals while maintaining Acura styling cues. It’s been an exciting process.”

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

The Acura ARX-05 will add to a rich legacy of Acura sports car racing successes, including the 1991-93 IMSA Camel Lights manufacturer and driver championships; 50 IMSA and American Le Mans Series class or overall race victories (through Watkins Glen 2017); and the 2009 American Le Mans Series manufacturer, driver and team championships, in both the LMP1 and LMP2 classes.

Based on the “J35” family of engines found in Acura MDX, RDX, TLX and RLX production vehicles, the Acura AR35TT engine has powered class winners at the 12 Hours of Sebring (2011-13); the 24 Hours of Le Mans and LMP2 World Endurance Championship (2012).  The engine also powered entries to American Le Mans Series LMP2 titles in 2012-13; and the overall winners at the Rolex 24, 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans in 2016.

Acura Motorsports currently campaigns the Acura NSX GT3 in the IMSA GTD category with Michael Shank Racing – where it has already won at Detroit and Watkins Glen this season – as well as with Real Time Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge GT division.

Following today’s official unveiling, the Acura ARX-05 will also be on display at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (August 19) and on the Concept Lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (August 20).