Life’s a drag: NHRA kicks off 2014 season with this weekend’s Winternationals

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Like the swallows that return to nearby Capistrano every year, the early bird will likely catch the worm as the NHRA Mello Yello Series kicks off its 24-race 2014 season this weekend.

The Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., have traditionally been where championships begin.

Defending Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon is the perfect example of that: he began his quest for his first NHRA pro title by winning last year’s Winternationals.

And then, as if to add emphasis – if not to clinch the championship – Langdon returned to his home track (he grew up about 20 miles away in Mira Loma) last November to win the season-ending finals.

Judging by preseason testing, Langdon is prepared to maintain his stranglehold on that championship trophy in 2014, as well. Once you get a taste of being the best of the best, it grows on you, and that’s certainly the case with Langdon.

Even if you’ve won a record 16 championships, as Funny Car legend John Force has done, the hunger for No. 17 hasn’t changed one iota. If anything, Force may be more determined than ever to win yet another Funny Car crown for several different reasons.

First, he’ll turn 65 in May. He became the NHRA’s oldest champion across all pro classes when he won the Funny Car title last season, his first since 2010, but also his 16th in 24 seasons.

Even though he’s a senior citizen, Force is still driving like a 20-something. And that should be no different this season, which leads to the second reason why this year will be one of the most significant and poignant of his career.

Force will part ways at the end of the season with long-time sponsor Castrol GTX motor oil, as well as car manufacturer Ford. Both companies announced in the offseason that they would be ending sponsorship of Force’s car and will likely allocate those resources in other areas.

Given his fierce loyalty to Castrol and Ford, Force would like nothing better than to have them go out in style with yet another championship.

And, who knows, if his bid to find a new primary sponsor and new manufacturer doesn’t go as smoothly as he hopes – he said in a recent NHRA teleconference that his yearly racing budget for all the teams under the John Force Racing umbrella is $24 million – it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think Force may also end his relationships with Ford and Castrol by also going out as a champion.

In other words, 2014 could potentially be Force’s last season as arguably the greatest drag racer the NHRA has ever known. He’s at a point in his life that watching daughters Brittany and Courtney build their own respective drag racing careers has become his top priority.

Brittany Force is coming off a Rookie of the Year season in Top Fuel.

There’s also a chance that John Force may switch rides with daughter Brittany next season: she would drive a Funny Car and he would compete in a Top Fuel dragster for the first time in his career.

It wouldn’t be the first time a driver has switched classes. Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi and Tommy Johnson Jr. (who returns to a full-time ride this season in Funny Car for the first time in five seasons) are among only 15 drivers that have won national events in both fuel categories.

Of all the things he’s done in his career, that’s one thing Force has not achieved, and could provide incentive – not to mention possibly start him writing yet another chapter of his life story – if business reasons (i.e., sponsorship) dictate such.

If Force foregoes a possible switch to Top Fuel – which he’s thought about off and on for more than 15 years – there is also the possibility (dare we even think it, let alone say it) that Force may not be at the 2015 Winternationals … as a participant, that is.

In the Pro Stock ranks, defending champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., is already on the hunt for his sixth championship. Winning two races in last year’s Countdown to the Championship clinched the title for the Ohio native, who amassed four wins overall in the season.

One driver Coughlin won’t have to worry about, at least early in the season, is four-time Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson, who surprised the sport earlier this week when he announced he would miss the first three months of the season (likely six events) to undergo and recuperate from non-life threatening heart surgery.

The Winternationals kicked off Thursday and will continue with two rounds of qualifying for pro drivers on Friday and Saturday, with final eliminations set for Sunday.

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Hamilton plans to see out Mercedes F1 contract to end of 2018

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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of next season, but speculation had emerged suggesting that a move to Ferrari could be of interest for the Briton as he nears the end of his career, or that he could even opt to retire from racing.

Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.

“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.

“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.

“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.

“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.

“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”

Q&A: Andy Meyrick on McLaren GT4, Ligier LMP3 European balance

Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing
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As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).

Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.

The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.

Meyrick helmet. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.

MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?

Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.

“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.

“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?

AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!

“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”

Bobby Rahal with Dave Price at 2016 Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?

AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.

“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…

AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.

“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.

“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?

AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.

“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?

AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.

“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.

“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.

“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.

“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”

Wehrlein: Sauber F1 set for big C36 upgrade in Hungary

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Sauber is set to bring a sizeable update for its C36 Formula 1 car to the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, according to driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber has been battling at the back of the grid throughout 2017 after years of financial difficulties, limiting the development of its new car.

The team is racing with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals, but it currently sits P9 in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Wehrlein confirmed that Sauber would be bringing a sizeable update package to Budapest, and was positive about the boost it may offer.

“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.

“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”

Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.

“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.

“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.

“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!

“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.

“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”

Agag: New York race ‘a defining moment’ for Formula E

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FIA Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag believes that last weekend’s inaugural event in New York City was “a defining moment” for the all-electric series as it continued its world tour.

Formula E became the first motorsport series to hit the five boroughs on Saturday when it staged a race around the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook, with the Manhattan skyline acting as a backdrop across the East River.

New York was just the latest in a long line of major cities to host Formula E, but series chief Agag felt it was particularly significant given the effort that went in to securing it as a venue.

“Formula E has a habit of breaking new ground. This weekend in New York was yet another example of achieving what many thought was impossible,” Agag said.

“We managed to bring international open-wheel racing to New York for the first time in history, this is something that sets Formula E apart from any other series, bringing electrifying motorsport to the world’s leading cities.

“Along with Hong Kong on Victoria Harbour and Paris with the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, New York has quickly positioned itself as a flagship event on the Formula E calendar. The race in New York was a defining moment in the series and years in the making.”

New York had been a target city for Formula E since its inception in 2014, but Agag had fears at one stage that a race would not be possible before settling on Red Hook.

“We worked tirelessly with the local authorities to find the right location. It couldn’t be Central Park and Liberty State Park wasn’t an option either,” Agag said.

“I actually thought it wasn’t going to happen, I didn’t lose hope but I wasn’t certain we’d get Formula E to New York. It hadn’t happened before in any form of open-wheel racing.

“Then we found the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. It was the most viable option and it also meant we didn’t need to close any streets.

“But, best of all, we still had the most spectacular view of New York. I had a similar feeling on the grid as at our first-ever race in Beijing. We’d done it, and the race proved to be a resounding success in front of a sell-out crowd.

“As the saying goes, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere!”