Healed and stronger, Denny Hamlin ready to pick up in 2014 where he left off at Homestead

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When the green flag drops to start the 56th Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, it’ll be 98 days and 290 miles between races for Denny Hamlin.

But even with the time lapse and the distance between Hamlin’s 2013 season-ending win at Homestead Miami Speedway and the 2014 Sprint Cup season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the Virginia native still feels like it was just yesterday that he took home the checkered flag.

And even with the layoff, Hamlin still feels like he has the best momentum of pretty much any fellow competitor coming into this year’s 500, based upon how he ended the most difficult year of his career at Homestead.

“Homestead, for me, made me believe that it’s possible, that if I get back healthy, this is the kind of results we can expect and this is how I should expect to run,” Hamlin told MotorSportsTalk. “So, not that Homestead made me change how hard I worked in the gym this off-season, but it definitely motivated me to know that if I’m feeling good, I’m going to be running good.”

There’s no denying how difficult and frustrating last season was for Hamlin. He was in the worst wreck of his career, forced to miss the next four races as a result of the back injury he sustained in a head-on crash into a unpadded retaining wall at Auto Club Speedway last March.

“It’s a dead year in a lot of ways,” Hamlin said.

To say Hamlin is more cerebral coming into 2014 is not a stretch. Up until last season, he relied more so on his talent to lead him behind the wheel. But now, he’s much more of a thinking man’s driver.

“What I take from it the most, I would say, would be just the appreciation of when you do run well,” he said. “I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year. Just like it was easy, really didn’t have to prepare for it.  I just showed up and we did it.

“With the competition and how we ran at the end of last year, you’ve got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good, you can’t just rely on talent to do it. “It’s looking over what you struggled with last time. It’s all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad weekend. We’ll rebound next weekend.’ No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better?”

Just putting the pedal to the metal won’t get it done anymore, Hamlin acknowledges. And what’s brought about the biggest change in him has nothing to do with Denny the race car driver, but more so Denny the man.

“I had a daughter, that helped a lot,” Hamlin said. “One thing’s for sure, as crappy as my weekends were week in and week out, it lasted as long as the plane ride home. That helped a ton.

“Those two events, having a daughter and having to sit out a few races, made me probably change my outlook more than anything has in the eight years that I’ve been in the Cup series on getting through those bad weeks and getting to the good ones and hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Those two things have changed the way I think about my job and what I have to do and hopefully it’s all for the good and shows up in 2014.”

Hamlin ultimately finished 2013 in 23rd place, which in and of itself is pretty significant. Sure, it was the worst finish of his Sprint Cup career, but he still managed to do so in just 32 races, compiling the win at Homestead, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes.

By comparison, Hamlin finished higher than eight other full-time Cup competitors – including Casey Mears, Talladega spring winner David Ragan and Danica Patrick – in less races.

There were a number of critics that implored Hamlin to sit out the rest of the season and recuperate from the serious compression fracture he suffered at Fontana, that he needed complete rest and he was in effect hurting both himself and his team by playing hurt.

To his credit, Hamlin turned a deaf ear to the naysayers. And while admittedly his performance suffered, particularly in the middle of the season, he persevered and tuned out both his critics and the pain.

But no medicine could have made Hamlin feel better than the win at Homestead. Sure, his accomplishment was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship the same day, but Hamlin got exactly the kind of dose he needed: to go out a winner and build upon that momentum going into 2014.

“As the season got further towards the end, I started feeling better and better, and our performance just really started going with it,” he said. “Hopefully, my results (in 2014) go with all the hard work I’ve put in because I’ve done everything that I can to make sure that I’m well for this year. I don’t want to be the weak link, like I was during the summer, I feel like, for our team.”

So with the season opener now less than 10 days away, how is Hamlin feeling?

“I haven’t had anything, really,” he said when asked if he’s had any lingering pain. “Everything’s been good. I just feel so much stronger than I have been, so it shouldn’t be an issue at all. I think that really everything’s roses from here on out and we’ll see how it goes.”

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Dixon hopes Rosenqvist gets IndyCar drive in the future

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Scott Dixon would like to see Felix Rosenqvist get a full-time Verizon IndyCar Series drive in the future after enjoying a successful second test with Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course earlier this week.

Rosenqvist, 25, raced briefly in Indy Lights – among a number of other series – at the start of 2016 before shifting his focus to DTM and Formula E, sitting third in latter’s standings heading into the final round of the season.

After a successful maiden test with Chip Ganassi Racing last summer, Rosenqvist was invited back to Mid-Ohio to conduct some running with four-time champion Dixon and offer the current IndyCar points leader some feedback.

The Swede put in another impressive display, much to Dixon’s delight, who would like to see Rosenqvist join the IndyCar grid in the future.

“Right now, I think he’s got a lot of options, whether it’s Formula E or racing in Japan or throughout Europe,” Dixon told the official Verizon IndyCar Series website.

“Hopefully he can make it to the IndyCar Series at some point.”

Rosenqvist’s current program sees him balance drives in both Formula E and the Japanese Super Formula series, as well as a variety of other ad-hoc appearances in events ranging from the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the Scandinavian Porsche Carrera Cup.

Dipping to Mid-Ohio between the Formula E rounds in New York and Montreal, Rosenqvist was happy with how the test went and the contribution he was able to make.

“I think we had a really good test last year where it was probably more easy to evaluate my performance because there were more cars on track and so on, and it went really well,” Rosenqvist said.

“This year they entrusted me to do the test with Scott to get the free test day that the team gets. I think it was probably more for the preparation of the Mid-Ohio race.

“What I wanted to do was to prepare physically to drive, which I think I was, and just give good data, good feedback and constant lap times. I think it worked really good.”

Renault still chasing top-five F1 constructors’ championship finish

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul remains confident that the team can secure a top-five finish in this years’ constructors’ championship despite sitting eighth with half of the season complete.

Renault returned to F1 with a works team in 2016, but struggled to make much of an impression on-track as it recovered from the financial difficulties that blighted the Lotus team it took over.

While progress has been clear through 2017, the team already more than tripling its points total, it has still struggled to make much of an impact on F1’s midfield.

Nico Hulkenberg has led Renault’s charge, scoring all 26 of it points so far this season, taking an impressive sixth-place finish at Silverstone last weekend.

Renault boldly stated in pre-season that it was targeting a top-five finish in the constructors’ championship, and while it may still be three places shy heading towards the summer break, Abiteboul’s goal remains unchanged.

“We have shown at Silverstone that we are continuing to improve. Chassis developments, in particular the new floor, proved to be positive exemplified from Nico’s eight points and both cars showing strong qualifying pace,” Abiteboul said.

“It’s critical to back up this improvement with both cars finishing in the top ten in Hungary – we want to finish the first half of the season on a positive note.

“To achieve this, we need to put behind our reliability problems. We know our situation and the areas which require more attention.

“Our targets remain unchanged: we want to be sixth by the end of play on 30th July and fifth by the end of the season. A double-points finish is well within our reach.”

Renault currently sits seven points behind sixth-placed Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship, and 15 shy of Williams in P5.

FIA: Halo the best cockpit safety solution ‘currently in existence’

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The FIA has released a statement explaining the decision to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit safety device to Formula 1 in 2018, saying it is the best solution “currently in existence”.

The F1 Strategy Group pushed through the introduction of Halo for 2018 at a meeting earlier this week, having last trialed the cockpit protection system last November in Abu Dhabi.

Evaluations of the ‘Aeroscreen’ and ‘Shield’ systems proved unsuccessful, the latter being criticized by Sebastian Vettel following a one-lap test at Silverstone last Friday.

The decision to introduce Halo for 2018 has divided opinion in the racing world, but the FIA has now moved to explain the decision in a statement issued on its website.

Here is the explanation in full.

Why Halo Is The Best Solution

Safety in motorsport is a paramount concern for the FIA and while great strides have been made in many areas of motor sport, head protection in single-seater competition has been an area of concern for many years.

Motor sport by its nature involves risk but it is the mission of the FIA, as the sport’s governing body, to continually strive to minimize that risk through the constant pursuit of greater safety on the track through sound research and technological development.

Over the past decade motor sport has witnessed serious incidents that affected drivers. The severity of the incidents made it clear to the FIA that developing a solution to mitigate against frontal impact in the area of the cockpit is a research priority for the FIA to address this existing weak point. They were also a number of near misses accidents that highlighted the need for action.

Following several incidents, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association also expressed to FIA President Jean Todt in July 2016 a request that some form of frontal cockpit protection be “implemented as swiftly as possible”.

A month later, following meetings of the F1 Strategy Group and the F1 Commission, the Commission confirmed a commitment to introduce “some form of cockpit protection from the 2017 season”, assuring that “all stakeholders are working together to make this a reality, with the ‘Halo’ concept currently the preferred option.”

While static tests of the device continued, other solutions were simultaneously explored, particularly the ‘Aeroscreen’, a windshield mounted on twin pillars attached to the coaming on either side of the cockpit. The system was tested in free practice at the 2016 Russian Grand Prix but while it was successful in some areas, further testing raised concerns as to the effectiveness of the device.

By contrast, tests of the Halo continued to prove successful. Centering on three significant major risk types, car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, tests revealed that in the case of car-to-car incidents the Halo was able to withstand 15x the static load of the full mass of the car and was able to significantly reduce the potential for injuries.

In car-to-environment tests it was established that the Halo was able to prevent helmet contact with a wall or a barrier in many cases, using a selection of previous incidents as a reference.

Finally, in the case of external objects, the Halo was found to successfully deflect large objects away from the cockpit environment and also demonstrated an increased net level of protection against small debris.

Furthermore, feedback from extensive track testing revealed that visibility was substantially unaffected, and there was no significant visual obstruction due to the central strut. Track testing also revealed no issues regarding egress from the cockpit and multiple extrication tests were conducted with the Halo in place, with a revised procedure formulated to ensure safe extrication.

Despite the success, in July of 2016 the F1 Strategy Group agreed to defer the introduction of a cockpit protection system in order to provide more time to conduct track testing with the Halo device and to explore emerging alternative solutions.

However, while implementation was deferred, the Strategy Group reaffirmed its commitment to the introduction of a protection system by stating it was “agreed unanimously that the 2018 season will see the introduction of frontal cockpit protection for Formula One cars in order to significantly enhance the safety of drivers.” The Halo remained the preferred option.

Intensive track tests took place across the second half of the 2016 Formula One season with a wide number of teams and drivers assessing the impact of the device on visibility. Simultaneously the FIA maintained its commitment to the introduction of a device for the 2018 season.

Following these track tests and analysis of emerging alternative systems the F1 Strategy Group and F1 Commission decided, in April of this year, to “give priority to the transparent ‘Shield’ family of systems. The FIA aims to carry out track tests of this system during this season in preparation for implementation in 2018.”

After static testing, the Shield system was given a short track test at the 2017 British Grand Prix, with the device fitted to the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Feedback from this test concerned a number of limitations around such a system.

In light of this and cognisant of the successful deflection tests conducted with the Halo system, the multiple successful track tests conducted with a wide variety of drivers and teams in the latter half of the 2016 season, and the need to implement regulations for the desired deadline of the start of the 2018 season, the Halo system represents the best solution to the issue of frontal cockpit protection currently in existence.

The latest design of the Halo will now be further refined ahead of its introduction in 2018 in a joint effort between teams, drivers and FIA.

The Halo’s introduction to F1 for 2018 still requires approval from the World Motor Sport Council, but this should be a formality given its support from the FIA and the Strategy Group.

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.