Marcos Ambrose hopes for big rebound for himself, Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014

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Marcos Ambrose doesn’t mince words: Last year was the most trying season yet in NASCAR.

“Certainly, 2013 was the most difficult year of my racing career,” Ambrose said in an interview with MotorSportsTalk. “The fact that I’ve always been on an upward trend in NASCAR, 2013 was the first year that I flattened off and even dropped back down.”

And if things don’t markedly improve for the Australian native this season, it could potentially be Ambrose’s last season in NASCAR.

“If I have another year like (2013), I’m going to have to really start scratching my head and have a good hard think about what I’m doing because this year is certainly the year we need to break out and do something special,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose, 37, finished 22nd last season, the second-worst showing in his Sprint Cup career (finished 26th in 2010).

After winning one race each in both 2011 and 2012, as well as a combined eight top-five finishes those two seasons, Ambrose struggled miserably in 2013, with no wins or top-five finishes, and just six top-10s.

His average finish of 19.9 in last season’s 36 races was nothing short of embarrassing, Ambrose admitted.

“It just didn’t work out for us,” he said. “I think there was a combination of factors, the new rules package that came out, we got behind early on and I just really struggled to get a feel driving for the car. I felt like I just never had the feeling I needed.”

Yet Ambrose has good reason to feel much more optimistic heading into the 2014 season. Significant investments into improving the overall standing of Richard Petty Motorsports will hopefully pay off in big dividends.

“Our race team is really reinvigorated,” Ambrose said. “We’ve added a lot of human resources to our program in 2014 and have created a (research and development) program. That’s the first time that has happened since I’ve been at Richard Petty Motorsports.

“We’re really excited about the potential of unlocking some more brain power in our race program and we’re thrilled to not only keep what we have since I joined Richard Petty Motorsports. I joined it at a fairly tumultuous time, it was a difficult time for Richard and everybody to rebrand the company, to revive the company and take it from the crumbs.

“I’ve seen it at its darkest days and I’m really looking forward to 2014 because I think it’s the year that (RPM) can break out and really show everybody the maturity that it’s taken since I’ve been there, which is four years now. At the end of the day, we’re all racing to win and put Richard Petty back in victory lane. We’ve been able to do it occasionally over the last couple years, but we want to do it on a more frequent basis if we can.”

Petty concurs with Ambrose’s optimism, a trait that has contagiously swept throughout RPM during the offseason, bringing the company to a point it hasn’t been in a long time.

“We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been in the last three or four years,” Petty said. “Everybody knows we hit the bottom of the deal three years ago. … We just tried to get some foundation (since then). I don’t know if our year (2013) was that much better than the year before, but we were a lot more stable.”

But at the same time, Petty’s admittedly concerned about Ambrose’s future, as well as the future of the No. 9 Ford Fusion. Once the picture of optimism and excitement, last year’s struggles had a decidedly negative impact upon Ambrose.

“I don’t know how much longer he wants to stay in the U.S.,” Petty said candidly. “You know, (Ambrose has) come a long way. He’s sort of a hero in Australia just because he’s running Cup. His big deal is if he could win on a round and around racetrack, that would be the optimum for him. If he did do that, he’d probably just go home and say, ‘Thank you guys,’ but I don’t know.”

That may be the case, but Ambrose is determined to show last season was an aberration. If he can turn things around and bounce back this season as he hopes, Ambrose will likely continue his Cup career for a few more years.

“Where the rules are going this year, it’s going to give us a better chance to make the Chase and really do something special,” Ambrose said. “The gloves are off and we’re looking forward to turning a fresh page.”

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Pirelli confirms tire picks for Hungarian Grand Prix

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Pirelli has confirmed its tire selection for July’s Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, with super-soft, soft and medium compounds to be made available to teams.

As in 2016, this year sees teams be given the choice of three compounds for each grand prix. The softest is reserved for qualifying, while at least one of the two hardest sets must be used in the race.

Pirelli announced on Thursday that it would be mirroring its selection from 2016, taking super-soft, soft and medium tires to the Hungaroring.

Drivers who make it through to Q3 will be required to complete the session on super-soft tires, and must use one set of either the soft or medium compound rubber in the race.

By way of comparison, the majority of drivers completed the race on a two-stop strategy through 2016, with Lewis Hamilton winning the grand prix.

Here’s a complete run-down of Pirelli’s tire picks so far this season.

Hamilton, Vettel return to lend their voices to ‘Cars 3’ (VIDEO)

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With less than one month to go until the release of Pixar’s new movie, Cars 3, Formula 1 world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have both been confirmed in voice-acting roles.

The latest installment of the animated film series sees main character Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) face a new rival in the form of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and consider his racing future.

As in the first two instalments of the franchise, a number of racing figures are set to lend their voices, with three-time champion Hamilton being confirmed in the role of ‘Hamilton’, a voice command assistant to McQueen’s technician, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Hamilton shared a clip of his role on Twitter on Thursday, which you can watch below.

Hamilton previously appeared in 2011’s Cars 2 in a short segment as himself alongside NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

Four-time F1 champion Vettel will also be making a return in Cars 3, appearing in the German and Italian-language versions of the film in the same role as Hamilton.

“Since the first Cars film, I am a big fan and I found it very funny. When I had the opportunity in the second part to participate, I said: ‘Yes, gladly!'” Vettel said on his official website.

“I had never done something like this before. When I heard there was a third part, I was, of course, interested in being there again.”

A number of NASCAR drivers will also be appearing in Cars 3, with their characters being confirmed earlier this week.

Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for 24 Hours of Le Mans

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, which you can subscribe to here, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three time champion who returned from NASCAR’s premier series last year still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We haven’t made the announcement yet, but we have picked the driver, and we will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplanes and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelieveable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France last year, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Wednesday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said the announcement of Bourdais’ replacement was likely Thursday or Friday.

Button enjoys ‘natural’ F1 return in Monaco, but hasn’t missed driving

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Jenson Button felt his return to a Formula 1 car in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix was “natural”, but admitted he hasn’t missed driving since stepping away from the sport.

Button appeared to have made his final F1 start in Abu Dhabi last November after stepping back from his McLaren race seat for 2017, only to be drafted in for the Monaco Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Button passed on the opportunity to test the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car in Bahrain last month, making his run in FP1 on Thursday in Monaco his first taste of a new-style 2017 F1 car.

Nevertheless, the transition appeared seamless for Button, even though he has not driven an F1 car in seven months.

“As soon as I exited the pits, everything felt very natural,” Button said.

“The weirdest thing is when you’re behind a car or when you let a car past, because you look at it and it’s gigantic. Then you feel really uncomfortable because you think, maybe I am too close to the barriers.

“I’ve really enjoyed practice, both the long and short runs. FP2 was a bit of a struggle to really find my feet with the car. I’m braking so much later than what I’m used to here and carrying so much speed into the corners.

“Adjusting to that takes time, so with another day with the engineers and a look through the data, I’m confident that I can improve for Saturday.”

Button finished 14th in FP1 and 11th in FP2, lapping less than one-tenth of a second off the pace of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the afternoon, giving McLaren hope of its first points of the season.

Button remains coy about his chances, though, insisting there is still more pace to be found.

“I haven’t really thought about where I hope to finish. It’s a very mixed-up grid at the moment which I’m sure will all change again on Saturday,” Button said.

“The guys understand where I’m coming from. They know what they need to do to improve the car to suit me a little bit more and to give me a little bit more confidence. Hopefully we’ll see a step in performance on Saturday.”

Will this one-off return stir a desire to be back racing full-time for Button? Don’t count on it.

“It was funny when I did the install lap this morning, I had a little giggle to myself,” Button revealed.

“Have I missed it? No, but when you jump in the car, you definitely enjoy the moments that you have.”