NASCAR makes key changes to penalty/appeals structure; fans to soon get rule books

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When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour about all the changes the Sprint Cup Series will see this year, particularly in qualifying and the format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Junior joked that maybe NASCAR shouldn’t stop there and should change everything in the sport.

NASCAR must have been listening, as the sanctioning body on Tuesday announced even more changes – this time to rules about inspections and the appeals process for penalties that are handed out.

And after countless requests from fans over the years, it appears a true NASCAR rule book will soon be available for fans to finally get their hands on and peruse through.

NASCAR is changing what has heretofore been called its penalty structure to what will now be known as a deterrent system.

“The new deterrent system is going to provide a clear path for our competitors to fully understand the boundaries while shoring up some gray areas which may have been in existence, again, all in an effort to be as transparent as possible,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations.

“We’ve also moved to a more transparent appeals procedure with updated rules and hearings which we believe will benefit everyone involved,” O’Donnell added. “The rule book will now clearly define the appeal procedure. We believed that we’ve had one of the best processes in sports to settle disputes, but also wanted to modernize our procedures and continue to provide as much transparency, fairness and impartiality as possible.”

The most significant change announced Tuesday is the penalty structure, officially known as the “Deterrence System.” It will have six escalating tiers, from the first level, known as P1 (least significant penalties, including the most minor infractions that will likely result in things such as warnings), through P6 (most significant, involves major infractions that include hefty fines, points reductions and suspensions).

“It’s never our intent to penalize, but in order to keep the playing field fair for everyone, we recognize that strong rules need to be in place,” O’Donnell said. “We certainly believe we’ve done a good job governing the sport in the past but always believe we can get better and benefit everyone involved, especially as we went out and talked to the industry.

“NASCAR’s Deterrence System is designed to help maintain the integrity and competitive balance of our sport while sending a clear message that rules violations will not be tolerated. This is a more transparent and effective model that specifically spells out that ‘X’ infraction equals ‘X’ penalty for technical infractions.

“At the same time, we believe the Appeals process allows a fair opportunity for our NASCAR Members to be heard, and have penalty disputes resolved by an impartial, relevant group of people with the ability to handle the complexities inherent in any appeal. This system has been tailored specifically to fit the needs of our sport.”

The least restrictive penalty level, P1, will include punishment such as last choice in pit selection process, temporary suspension of annual hard card credential for team members, track time deductions in practice/qualifying and even so-called “community service.”

Although NASCAR reserves the right to do so, there will typically not be any points deductions or fines issued with a P1 violation.

The harshest penalty level, P6, will include the loss of 150 points (owner and driver), fines between $150,000 and $200,000, crew chief is suspended for six races and probation periods lasting either six months or until the end of the season, depending upon when the penalty is incurred in the course of the season.

“When you look at a P6 range, and that being the highest level, those are the ones that will be more significant, and they are the engines, engine compression ratio, additives like nitrous oxide or things that are for performance,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR Vice President of Competition and Racing Development.

“We believe the new system is easily understood and specifically lays out exactly what disciplinary action will be taken depending upon the type of technical infraction,” Pemberton said. “More importantly, we believe we have strengthened our system to ensure even more competitive racing.

“At the highest three levels of the system, if a rules infraction is discovered in post-race inspection, one or more additional penalty elements are added on top of the standard prescribed penalty. Repeat offenses by the same team are addressed as a recurrence multiplier. For example, if a Penalty 4 is assessed and then a second Penalty 4 or higher occurs the same season, the subsequent penalty is increased by 50 percent above the normal standard.

“The new deterrent system also includes a more detailed explanation of suspensions.  Behavioral infractions are still handled on a case-by-case basis and are not built into this particular system.”

A three-individual appeals board will remain in place but with a new name, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel. In addition, a new position of Final Appeals Officer is being added, a role that will be filled by Bryan Moss, former president of Gulfstream Aerospace. Moss will, in effect, replace NASCAR National Commissioner John Middlebrook.

Also, O’Donnell added that George Silverman will remain as appeals officer, but will not be present during deliberations on whether to sustain or overturn penalties handed out by NASCAR.

“Revamping the governance model is something we’ve looked at now over the last 18 months,” O’Donnell said, “and we felt the timing was right to put these practices in place.”

The first phase of appeal hearings will take a more pronounced look of proceedings typically seen in courts of law, followed by the penalized individual or team presenting what essentially is their defense.

“The first level will be before a three-member appeals panel that will now be called the National Motorsports Appeals Panel, and during that stage NASCAR will have the burden of showing that a penalty violation has occurred,” O’Donnell said. “And on the second and final level, only a NASCAR member is allowed to appeal, and the burden will then shift to the team in showing the final appeals officer that the panel decision was incorrect.”

One thing that will not change is even if a race-winning team is found guilty of one or more serious P6 violations, it will not have the win taken away from it – at least for the immediate future.

“You know, it’s always an age-old question, why you don’t take away the win?” Pemberton said. “The timing right now is we’re going to move forward like we have over the 65 years and we will address things on a year-to-year basis and see where it takes us.”

And while it was somewhat downplayed in Tuesday’s teleconference, Pemberton and O’Donnell both said the NASCAR rules book will soon be available for fans – although they did not give a timeline.

“I think it should be easier for them, and it’s like anything; I don’t understand all the rules of hockey even though I watch the game,” Pemberton said. “Everybody seeks a different level, and we’ve got avid fans that want to know every paragraph, every sentence, every comma and every period that they can, and then there’s others that just want a high-level look at things.

“I think once they get to see this in print and the system out here and the penalties, they’ll have a better understanding. You know, this is the first year that we’ve done this, and I’m sure as we move forward in years to come, there will be some things that we add and delete off of this.”

The new rules will apply to all three of NASCAR’s national series, Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and the Camping World Truck Series.

“The penalty system will work the same,” Pemberton said. “The only difference will be the points will be the same, and the difference is we will step the monetary values down to these penalties in accordance with the three different series, obviously the Sprint Cup being the most and then Nationwide and then the Truck Series.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”

Faster F1 cars means bigger, stronger drivers for 2017

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Renault driver Niko Hulkenberg has the kind of name that sounds like big could be his thing.

In Formula One seasons past, muscle bulk hasn’t really been the key requirement for drivers, with work on endurance being the focus of training in the gym. The new regulations in F1 have made the cars bigger and faster, prefacing an era that has the drivers and fans more excited than usual, and so the pilots have to follow suit.

“The cars are like driving a very fast and spectacular roller-coaster and it’s a lot more demanding than before,” Hulkenberg said ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. “Now you have to wrestle these cars!

“The tires allow you to push harder every lap, so you can exploit and be on the limit. It’s a lot more work and a lot more demanding. There’s a lot that’s new, but the game is still the same.”

Lewis Hamilton has worked out the game, winning three drivers’ titles, so he’s more than ready to up the ante.

“As racing drivers in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and I think you always want to go faster,” the Mercedes driver said. “The cars are faster than what they were last year. The challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on the track is a great challenge and it’s more in the direction of how F1 should be in the sense of the physicality side of it.”

Hamilton, who won back-to-back titles with Mercedes in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly missed out to teammate Nico Rosberg last season, considers himself as much an athlete as a driver.

“F1 should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series,” he said. “In previous years that hasn’t been the case – it hasn’t been to the level that we train to, is relatively easy for us to do – now you have to really push the boundaries, which I like.”

The F1 rule changes means wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, which have made the cars heavier but also significantly faster.

The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder through the corners.

Even though Mercedes dominated under the previous regulations, Hamilton was a big advocate for the changes.

“Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up,” he said. “I have never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are this season … we don’t know where the cars and teams are, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were in prime shape to make the most of the changes.

“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge,” he said. “Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge.”

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel expects his ’17-edition Ferrari to be the fastest car he’s driven.

“For us, what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed – I think we’re back to the level we’ve been 10 years ago, maybe a bit faster,” he said. “Nice to have the feeling that you’re in the fastest cars that you’ve ever driven.”

Vettel is among the drivers who have been working on neck and shoulder strength in particular, to handle the extra load. Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the season standings for Red Bull last year, behind the two Mercedes. He’s put in extra work to ensure he’s stronger physically, knowing that it could make a serious difference. And while he’s no hulking ball of muscle, he’s noticeably bigger than he was in 2016.

“It’s more physical this year,” he said. “We’ve all done our work in the offseason – it’s been fun to put more emphasis on the training.”

Fernando Alonso is one of the veterans of the circuit, having won back-to-back titles for Renault in 2005-06 and having stints at McLaren, Renault and Ferrari after that and before he rejoined McLaren. He’s had two tough seasons, finishing 17th and 10th, so he doesn’t mind doing the extra gym work as long as his car grows with him.

“I’m incredibly motivated and I can’t wait to see what kind of racing this new shake-up of the sport will bring,” he said. “We already know the sport is a lot more physical and the cars are more challenging to drive – from a driver’s point of view this is exactly what we were looking for in the new regulations. I really hope this will translate to good battles on track.”

FIA replaces ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking for 2017

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Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting has confirmed that the ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking has been relaxed and simplified ahead of the 2017 season.

Following complaints from a number of drivers regarding Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s aggressive defensive moves through 2016, the FIA clamped down on moving under braking ahead of the United States Grand Prix last October.

Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to fall foul of the new rule, losing his podium finish in Mexico after moving under braking when defending his position from Daniel Ricciardo late in the race.

In order to streamline the race stewards’ efforts to officiate the race, Whiting confirmed ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix that the rule had been simplified and turned into a ‘catch-all’ regulation.

“I think there will be a small change in some of the incidents that we’ve seen last year they’ll be handled quite differently simply, because the so-called ‘Verstappen rule’ is gone to the effect that before we said any move under braking will be investigated,” Whiting told reporters, as quoted by crash.net.

“Now, we have a simple rule that says effectively that if a driver moves erratically or goes unnecessarily slow or behaves in a manner that could endanger another driver, then he will be investigated.

“So there’s a very broad rule now but we’ve done after Austin last year in response to some comments from drivers, we used the existing rules to put notes on how we’re going to interpret the existing rules.

“The interpretation simply was that drivers shouldn’t move under braking. That’s what gave rights to the incident in Mexico, that’s what gave rights to the penalty in Mexico.”

Whiting said that the move came after teams requested the stewards trigger less snap investigations during races and focus on possibly dangerous incidents.

“What we were requested to do, which we think is a more general way of approaching things, is to give the stewards one rule to work with,” Whiting explained.

“It’s an all-encompassing rule.You can do more or less anything with that. That was the request from the teams, they wanted less investigations and only in cases where it was clearly dangerous would they take action.

“We had a meeting yesterday with all the stewards and we reviewed all the controversial incidents from last year to see how they would be dealt with this year under the so-called new rules or the new approach. It was quite interesting. I won’t go into it now, but it was quite interesting.”

The revised rule will get its first try-out in this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, live on NBCSN from 12am ET on Sunday.