NASCAR team owner Gene Haas still hopeful of building U.S.-based F1 team

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner Gene Haas is serious, he puts his money – and with an estimated worth of $250 million, he has plenty of it – where his mouth is.

Haas recently paid $5,000 as part of the first phase of the application process for a Formula One license.

“I’ve had interest for a number of years,” Haas said of owning an F1 team. “I think it’s an incredibly difficult challenge, it’s nothing to be taken lightly, it’s filled with peril and there’s a million ways to fail. For all those reasons is why you do it, to see if it’s something you can do. … I think it would be a great honor as an American to participate in that type of racing.

The second phase of the application process is due by February 10, Haas said during Monday’s opening of the 32nd annual NASCAR Media Tour. And if F1 officials look with favor upon Haas’ bid, they could award him an ownership license by March.

Perhaps he’s playing his cards close to the vest, but as eager as Haas is to own an F1 team, he’s melancholy about his overall chances.

“We have a shot,” Haas said, before conceding, “I don’t think it’s a great shot. It could go either way. I think (F1 chairman Bernie Ecclestone) is a little skeptical whether we can actually do it. He’s seen teams make these applications and then fail, and I don’t think he really wants to do that again.”

Haas can understand if Ecclestone has some reluctance at an American F1 team. The last attempt to get a U.S.-based team off the ground, a highly publicized operation also based in the Charlotte area (where Stewart Haas Racing is based), fizzled out before ever getting on a racetrack.

“If I were Mr. Ecclestone, I’d probably be saying, ‘We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work. What makes these guys different?'” Haas said. “But it’s like individuals, you never know who can get things done and who can’t. I can see Formula One being gun shy about putting another American team out there since the last one did not get to the grid. That was not good at all.

“It’s a formidable challenge. It’s not easy to do and it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that we’ll succeed at it. It’s daunting, as far as I’m concerned.”

Equally daunting is that F1 controls how many ownership licenses will be available to be issued when a final decision is made just over a month from now.

“(F1 officials have) has said there will anywhere from none to one (new license granted),” Haas said. “They might not issue a license at all if they don’t feel any teams are qualified.”

Still, there are several upsides to a U.S.-based team, Haas said.

First is the uniqueness of an American team.

“We’re American and I think we have a different way of doing things and can be a lot more efficient at what we do,” Haas said. “When you see the number of people building a Formula One car, you have to scratch your head and say, ‘Wow, are all these people really necessary?’

“The Europeans have their way of doing things and we as Americans have our way of doing things, and I think we can be competitive and successful. I don’t want to do things the way the Europeans do, and they would never do things the way we do. That’s what makes it an interesting series, you’d bring different perspectives on how you’d run these teams.

Another plus is Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which held a very successful F1 event in November.

“(Formula One is) going to have the Austin race, they’re looking at New Jersey either next year or the year after, they’ve talked about going back to Mexico City and then you have the race in (Montreal),” Haas said. “So you could have four or five races in North America, which I think would be great.”

If F1 officials approve Haas’ application, it’s questionable whether he could form a team in time for the 2015 season. To do it right, he may push back a potential team’s debut until 2016.

“I don’t know. It seems like every time we deal with it, the process takes a little longer than you think,” Haas said. “If the process drags on into June or July, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it. If we had known back in December (that a license would be approved), we probably could do it. We’re getting into this grey area of what we could do and also depends on what we could partner with as far as engines and chassis and all that other stuff. Those are questions that haven’t been answered yet.”

Co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing and NASCAR star Tony Stewart would not be part of the F1 operation, which Haas would run separately from the four-team NASCAR operation he and Stewart currently have.

“I’m excited for Gene, I think it’s a great opportunity,” Stewart said. “It’s not something that you can just go make the decision and go do it. There’s a lot of processes that I’ve learned through Gene how this all works. Gene’s had the ability to build a championship-caliber team in NASCAR, and now he’s ambitious to expand on that and go to a world-wide scenario.

“We’re all real supportive of his aspirations to be in Formula One. Gene’s the kind of person that when he puts his mind to doing something, he can make it happen and stays focused on it. It’s going to be exciting to watch him do the same thing in Formula One.”

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.

Hamilton endures ‘difficult’ Russia F1 practice, impressed by Ferrari

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Lewis Hamilton was left disappointed by a “difficult” day of Formula 1 practice in Russia on Friday for Mercedes as Ferrari stole a march on the field.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi looking to take his third win in Russia and claw back the championship lead after falling seven points behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the standings.

The Briton was left to settle for fourth place in the final timesheets in FP2 as Mercedes struggled to match Ferrari’s one-lap pace, finishing over half a second back from Vettel in P1.

“Bit of a difficult day for us,” Hamilton admitted. “We managed to complete everything that we needed to do on our runs, but in terms of the balance of the car, the Ferrari seemed very, very fast on the long runs.

“So we need to work out how we can improve our pace. But there’s still everything to play for. The tires feel very peaky, so it’s easy to drop out of the window of performance, but when they’re working they seem to be good.”

Teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third-fastest in FP2 for Mercedes, and said the team had work to do overnight to ensure it could get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire for qualifying.

“It’s been an interesting day. It’s a very different situation here with the asphalt and the temperatures compared to what we experienced in Bahrain,” Bottas said.

“We were learning about the tires on long runs and short runs and it seems like over one lap we still have work to do to get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire – that’s our focus tonight. But we can’t forget how important the race is.

“We have started the weekend in the right way. The car feels good and the balance is there. A good start but we definitely need to work hard to find some lap time for qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Stoffel Vandoorne set for 15-place F1 grid drop in Sochi

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Stoffel Vandoorne is set to receive a 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix after exceeding the number of permitted power units components for the season.

McLaren’s problems with engine supplier Honda have been well-documented, with a revision of the design of the power unit by the Japanese manufacturer backfiring to create further reliability and performance issues.

Vandoorne has taken the brunt of the issues in 2017, failing to score a point and recording just one classified finish – P13 in Australia, two laps down on the lead car – as well as being forced to change a number of components on his power unit.

Drivers are only permitted to use four of each power unit component across the course of the season before triggering a penalty, but Vandoorne’s usage has been so high that he is set to receive a grid drop for the Russian Grand Prix – only the fourth round of the season.

By taking an all-new power unit for the event in Sochi, Vandoorne has moved onto his fifth MGU-H and fifth turbocharger of the year, combining for a 15-place grid penalty on Sunday.

For every other ‘fifth’ component Vandoorne takes this season, he will receive another five-place grid drop. His first ‘sixth’ component will be worth 10 places; every remaining ‘sixth’ is five places; his first ‘seventh’ is 10 places and so on.

Ferrari dominates Russian GP second free practice

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Once Pirelli’s softest compound, the ultrasoft tires, came out to play in second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, Scuderia Ferrari dropped the hammer compared to Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen ran at 1:34.120 and 1:34.383, respectively, in the pair of SF70H chassis – which easily eclipsed the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. This followed Raikkonen’s leading FP1 this morning.

It’s only practice but the thinking going into the race weekend was with a couple long straights, it would play to Mercedes’ strengths and its top-end speed. But Ferrari’s fired a warning salvo into that thinking in this session.

Bottas and Hamilton were six and seven tenths adrift on the same ultrasoft tires, before long runs commenced for the final 35 to 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute free practice. The Russian Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stop race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were next, far off the top four and far ahead of the midfield. Verstappen’s session ended early inside of 20 minutes, as he parked his car with an apparent loss of power just before pit lane.

Williams’ Felipe Massa, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez – making it four teams in as many positions from seventh through 10th in the crowded midfield. In fact while 1.790 seconds covered first to sixth, just 1.18 seconds covered seventh to 18th, covering all remaining teams!

Romain Grosjean, who tries new Carbon Industrie brakes this week, made several radio transmissions noting he wasn’t yet satisfied with the new supplier. There’s still been a lot of brake dust released from the fronts on both his and Magnussen’s car.

Meanwhile further down the grid, McLaren Honda has made yet another power unit change to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, which cost him the opening minutes of the session. This will resign the Belgian to his fifth turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, and see him saddled with a grid penalty.

FP3 is next up, streaming online live on Saturday morning from 5 a.m. ET. Qualifying commences at 8 a.m. ET live on CNBC.