Passion in racing is powerful, good, and needed more in 2014

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As a generally good gauge of the public consciousness at any particular moment, Twitter tends to erupt in moments of controversy, outrage or shock value. In the racing world, that’s usually after a big crash, a questionable team order issued on track or a jaw-dropping “Did you see that?!?” pass.

But back outside the racing bubble, the thing that made Twitter blow up yesterday was Richard Sherman’s now-infamous post-game interview following the Seattle Seahawks’ win in the NFC Championship Game. Sherman was, as you’d expect, purely jacked up on adrenaline after a game in which he’d made a game-saving defense of a Colin Kaepernick pass, which caused an interception. And he exploded.

Still, the man has a Master’s degree from Stanford and writes a weekly column for Peter King’s TheMMQB.com, so he’s clearly no dummy. He’s a bright individual, a talented player and able to enter into a state during the game where he can be so intense after the game, that it all came flying out in the immediate moments after it finished.

Motorsports has those moments, but they’re rarer. The immediate post-crash interview comes to mind, if a driver has only just got back to his pit and speaks to a pit reporter.

In IndyCar for example, I don’t remember the specifics of most 2013 victory lane interviews, but I do remember Will Power saying of Sebastien Bourdais, “He once was a champ, now he’s a chump” after the two collided at Detroit back in June. I remember when Scott Dixon went off at IndyCar Race Control in succession at Sonoma and Baltimore, which was even crazier because the Kiwi is so calm and collected.

Sadly, both Power and Dixon were penalized for their emotional outbursts. Power’s this past year was probation while Dixon got probation and earned a $30,000 fine. Power got the same fine in 2011 after his infamous – but legendary – “double-bird salute” to former Race Director Brian Barnhart at the series’ race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

If IndyCar is going to be in the headlines beyond the bubble which it currently exists, it needs that emotional moment – likely more than one – and it needs to not carry a penalty for expressing it in the heat of battle. I have to admit I’ve changed my stance on this. For consistency’s sake, enforcing the same penalty year-on-year made sense, and as Power and others had been docked for previous infractions, Dixon was justifiably fined last year to match. It’s a new year though, and with it comes a fresh opportunity to right this in the rulebook.

Emotion in other series is also hard to find. We often think of modern-day Formula One drivers as corporate, emotionless automatons devoid of the lady-killing charisma of James Hunt or the “don’t care what we say” attitudes of a Jacques Villeneuve or Eddie Irvine – two drivers I grew up with in my F1 fandom infancy in the ’90s. Truth of the matter is they aren’t, but that can be the stereotype from the outside.

Still, when Kimi Raikkonen answers a question in the old school, “don’t care” mentality with six or seven words or when Sebastian Vettel does donuts after winning, we dig it because it allows them to be them and it’s freeing from the shackles of being reined in by their corporate overlords.

NASCAR interviews are probably the worst for this. You often can’t get through a victory lane interview – which usually occurs after a TV ad break and delays the spontaneity to begin with – without the first half of the quote being some variation of “Oh man, I just want to thank Pepsi, Doritos, Taco Bell, KFC, Chevrolet, Mr. Owner, ‘Slugger’ and the crew,” before you get to any tangible sound that actually describes how you won the race. Or, more importantly, how it feels to win the race.

I get that the sponsor parade is a necessary evil of the victory lane interview, but I’d love to see more erupting in pure emotion first, then getting to your sponsors second. Want to talk about how to do a NASCAR victory lane interview? Watch Kurt Busch, in an unsponsored car, winning the July 2012 Nationwide Series race at Daytona for the underdog James Finch team. And take notes. (Wait, maybe being unsponsored is the key to this victory lane thing…)

Or, alternatively, just watch any John Force interview over the last two decades. Yes, the man is one of the greatest drag racers who has ever lived with 16 NHRA Funny Car championships. But he’s as widely revered as he is within the motorsports world as much for his mouth as his 4-second blasts at 300-plus mph.

There’s a reason Talladega Nights is as funny as it is, because Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby lampoons the sponsor-laden culture of NASCAR and comes up with a pair of catchphrases in Victory Lane: “Shake ‘n Bake,” and “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” To this day, those two are still part of the lexicon.

In today’s entertainment-over-populated, soundbite-heavy world, the simple fact is competition itself is not going to get racing back into the public sphere beyond the series’ bubbles. If it did, IndyCar would be the most popular and widely watched form of motorsports in North America.

It’s going to take a series of moments throughout 2014 of passion … of pure joy … of anger … of “What the hell did they just say?!?” to help propel any of the racing disciplines to greater heights.

Because if racing has moments in 2014 that catch on like Richard Sherman’s last night, that will only help to collectively grow the sport.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”