Q&A with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, Part 1

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With testing and occasional race duties coming up this NASCAR Sprint Cup season for Michael Waltrip Racing, Jeff Burton is still very much involved in the competition side of the sport.

But this year will also see Burton – universally respected and known among fans and media as “The Mayor” of the Sprint Cup garage – contribute to NBCSN’s new “NASCAR AMERICA” daily show that debuts on Monday at 5 p.m. ET.

Come 2015, he’ll move into a full-time analyst role with NBC Sports Group as it officially begins coverage of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing.

Recently, MotorSportsTalk had the privilege of talking with him about a variety of topics. Today, you’ll see his thoughts on transitioning into the broadcast booth, and tomorrow, you’ll read about his role with MWR and his insights on the upcoming season – which starts Sunday with the Daytona 500.

What sort of impact did the NBC position have on you pulling back to part-time driving? Or had the pulling back part been on your mind before it opened up?

“The NBC thing certainly moved the ball. I knew 2014 was going to be my last full year. I had made up my mind on that. And the timing of NBC – that was going to be real convenient. We had a lot of conversations about it and it felt like that was going to work out. But then the opportunity to do [NASCAR AMERICA], being involved with that and being able to actually spend the time I need to spend – all that felt right to me.

“It just felt like the timing was right and I’ll be honest – and I’m not saying this because I’m talking to [an NBCSports.com writer] – the opportunity to work with NBC was very appealing to me. The reason I say that is I watch NBC Sports and I watch the way they cover sports, and I like it. It feels right to me. It feels very professional. It fits who I am…It’s not about self-promoting, it’s about what’s going on and that fits me. And that pushed me to make a decision that I wasn’t sure I was ready to make [laughs]! It became a lot easier to make it.”

How important is it to have the support of a company like NBC Sports as you transition from driving to the broadcast booth?

“We’re doing it first class and we’re doing it right. That’s been my belief forever – if you put an effort in to do it right, then there’s the opportunity for it to come out right. You go into it, put a half-hearted effort into it, and you can pretty sure you’re gonna get a half-hearted result. Sitting down with [NBC Sports/NBCSN executive producer] Sam Flood and [NBC Sports Group vice president of NASCAR production] Jeff Behnke and really understand how they wanted to cover the sport, I became very excited about it and was very energized and enthusiastic.

“And then the people they’ve gone out and gotten – I mean, going in with [Sprint Cup crew chief] Steve Letarte, that’s a big deal. He’s going to be unbelievably good. And [play-by-play announcer] Rick Allen – I mean, we’re 18 months away from doing our first [race] broadcast, but they knew who they wanted and they got ‘em. That shows you the kind of company they are: “This is what we want. We’re gonna go make it happen.”

“They’ve could’ve easily said, ‘Well, let’s just see what happens.’ But they went and said, ‘Hey, let’s jump on it now,’ and by doing that, they put something in Steve Letarte’s head…It just goes to show, if you’re dedicated and committed and you go after it, you can make good stuff happen. That’s the way I view it. They went head-first into this to get the best team they could and hopefully, we live up to it. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But they got all their No. 1 draft picks.”

A common refrain we’ve heard involving NASCAR in recent years is that the younger fans are leaving it behind. How do you, Rick and Steve intend to convey the excitement of the sport to those fans and have them maybe take another look?

“First of all, there are so many stories in the sport: We’re not gonna have to create stories. What we need to do is telling more stories, more about what’s going on and not just about the Top 5 guys running [in a race]. We need to talk about technology. We need to talk about the things going on in the car with the drivers in specific ways. We need to get creative in how we not only talk about it, but how we allow viewers to visually understand it from a technology standpoint, strategy standpoint, and driver’s standpoint. All those things create opportunities.

“I believe that young people still like cars. I’m around them all the time, as my son races and my daughter just turned 18 years old. She has a lot of friends that are buying their first cars and just started driving, and my son’s around kids that race. Kids love cars. Kids love to drive. They still do. Is it different? Yeah. It used to be we’d take the car, change the engine in it, and that’s not going on [as much] today, but they still love to drive and still love cars. We’ve gotta get them back to being excited about racing!

“We can do that. There’s a lot of ways to do that. There’s nothing about racing that kids don’t like. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s loud, it’s in your face, it’s action. We just need to find a better way to present it to them. I’m confident we can do this. But it’s going to take some work. If we try to do it the way everybody else has done it, we’re gonna get the same result and we need to go into this looking for better results.”

(NOTE: The following is part of the answer to the previous question, but it wound up focusing on the competitive drive of the on-air team. We think it’s a good look into Jeff’s personality, so we’ve kept it in. – MST)

“In regards to the competition, nothing personal, but we intend to be the best. NBC intends to cover racing better than everybody else. It’s a competition. And I’ve been in competition my whole life. Rick Allen’s been a competitor [three-time All-American decathlete, University of Nebraska]. Steve Letarte’s been a competitor. We’re competitive people! And Sam Flood, too [college hockey captain]. We want to be the best. We want to take it to ’em – nothing personal, but we want to take it to ‘em. And that’s what we intend to do.”

What would be a sign of success to you in this role?

“When fans say to me, ‘I understand more today that I ever have. Racing is more fun to watch. This is fun. I know more about the sport than I used to know. I understand the rules more, I understand the process more.’ That’s a success. When I run into fans – it’s not about promoting me. It’s about telling the story of the sport. I don’t want people walking up to me, telling me how great I am.

“I want to them to walk up to me and say, ‘This sport is awesome.’ Because if they do that, then we’re doing our job…We have a great sport. We’ve got to get some energy back into it. We’ve gotta get people understanding how great it is. And everybody’s trying. It’s not like we’re the ones going to be trying. But we’re going to try and bring a fresh approach to it, a new approach to it.”

Wehrlein not concerned that Sauber performances are overlooked

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Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein has no concerns that his performances for the backmarker team are being overlooked as he bids to secure a seat further up the grid in the near future.

Wehrlein is part of Mercedes’ junior program, and was an option for the championship-winning marque for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes eventually signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams, placing Wehrlein at Sauber after his 2016 team, Manor, folded during the off-season.

Wehrlein has led Sauber’s charge through 2017, taking eighth place at the Spanish Grand Prix despite racing in a car lacking upgrades and with a year-old engine.

While a career haul of just six points may seem paltry, Wehrlein is comforted by the fact he has lacked the car with which to fare much better.

“My target is to one day be in a team where I can win races, get on the podium regularly and fight for championships,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“Right now I don’t have these tools to make it happen. The weekends where we score points are very, very special for us because we don’t have the car to finish in the top ten often, only if the stars are in the right place!

“And then we have to take the opportunity and bag the points. I am very happy that when the chance was there I was able to grab it. I want to be there when it counts.

“I think it gets noticed that I have scored points in cars that under normal circumstances don’t score points. I don’t worry about that.”

Bottas has flourished since joining Mercedes, taking two race wins and becoming an unexpected contender in the title race alongside teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

When asked if he was worried about Bottas’ success, Wehrlein said: “No, because I cannot influence such a decision.

“Worrying about things that you cannot influence is wasting your time and wasting your strength and efforts.

“Yes, Valtteri is doing a good job and he deserves it.”

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.