F1 Testing in Bahrain - Day Four

5 storylines that could define the 2014 F1 season

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After its winter solstice, Formula 1 makes its long awaited return next weekend as the 2014 season kicks off in Australia (click here for TV times). Having won the past four championships at a canter, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is looking to join an elite club of five-time champions in 2014, but he could face his toughest challenge yet as Mercedes and Ferrari come into the fray.

With 2014 seeing the biggest shake-up of the regulations in decades, it could be the beginning of a new era for the sport. As part of MotorSportsTalk’s preview, here are five storylines that we believe will define the new season.

1. The fall of Red Bull; the rise of Mercedes

This is a ‘two in one’, but all runs along one common theme: a re-shuffle of the pecking order. Since 2009 – when the regulations last changed – there has been a set status quo that has remained relatively stable: Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus the leaders; Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams the midfield; Caterham and Marussia still with zero points.

For 2014 though? That could all be set to change. As you will undoubtedly have seen during testing, the Mercedes-powered cars were dominant, posting eight of the top ten times in Bahrain. The works team, with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, appears to be best placed after a very successful testing period. Williams and McLaren also look to be in the shake-up, whilst Ferrari (who completed the top ten) enjoyed a solid-yet-unspectacular testing period.

However, you can never write off Red Bull. For Sebastian Vettel, this could be the year he cements his place among the F1 greats. Given time, the RB10 could come good, and we might just see a five-time champion crowned in Abu Dhabi.

2. Reliability – or the lack of it

As well as changing the pecking order, the new regulations have created a technical headache for all of the teams in Formula 1. Even Red Bull guru Adrian Newey has been left scratching his head as the team has endured a number of reliability problems during pre-season, although much of them have stemmed from the Renault power unit. The French marque’s issues have also extended to its other teams: Lotus, Caterham and Toro Rosso.

Not one team went through testing scot-free. Engineers were left frustrated, trying to correct just a few lines of code and correct newly-found problems. Just as teams were left scrambling at the 2009 Australian GP, the same could happen this year. With new rules on engine life and fuel management (the latter being a key concern for many), it might be a case of just finishing a race to pick up points. That old saying: “to finish first, first you have to finish.”

For nostalgia lovers, the problems with reliability could see us return to the 80s and 90s where, at best, 60% of starters saw the checkered flag. Of late, reliability has been almost bulletproof: technically impressive, but a tad mundane.

3. New line-ups for most of the teams

Of the eleven teams on the grid, nine have made a change to their driver line-up across the course of the winter. Most notably, defending world champions Red Bull have drafted in Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo as a replacement for compatriot Mark Webber, who moves to Porsche’s LMP1 programme. Ricciardo has bags of talent, but he is yet to prove himself as a front-running driver. He might now have a chance, but it has been a rocky start with the RB10 proving to be something of a problem child. Ricciardo is replaced at Toro Rosso by 19-year-old Daniil Kvyat, who has the makings of a champion.

Ferrari have also made a change, replacing Felipe Massa with the returning Kimi Raikkonen in 2014. This has created a somewhat explosive partnership with Fernando Alonso, and goes against the team’s policy of having a designated number one driver. Massa has in turn joined Williams, replacing Pastor Maldonado who has joined Lotus – replacing Kimi Raikkonen. Quite a neat triangle of transfers.

Having missed out on the Lotus seat, Nico Hulkenberg has re-joined Force India, with Adrian Sutil moving in the opposite direction and joining Sauber, where he will partner the retained Esteban Gutierrez. Sergio Perez completes Force India’s line-up after spending just one year with McLaren. He is replaced at Woking by Kevin Magnussen, last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 champion. Caterham have dropped Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde, and replaced them with Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson. Otherwise, it’s more of the same for Marussia and Mercedes as both teams retained their drivers from 2013.

New relationships to be forged; new set-ups to work in. Will there be any fall-out? (We’re looking at you, Ferrari).

4. Double points

It might be a bit of a broken record, but the double points debate is set to rumble on right until the race it actually has any impact on: the final round in Abu Dhabi. As a bid to boost TV ratings, the final race will see the winner awarded 50 points instead of 25; P2 gets 36 instead of 18, and so on. The drivers have called it “absurd”, the teams aren’t happy with it, and the fans are outraged. For all of the artifices that we have seen in the past few years (such as KERS and DRS), this is the most contentious.

The end result is set in stone though: it is happening. NBC Sports spoke to former F1 driver Martin Brundle yesterday, and he said: “I’m not as hung up on it as some people. It isn’t spoiling my life. I just don’t like it as it just smacks of being a random compromise.”

We can cry and cry over spilt milk, but that won’t change the mind of the powers that be.

5. The future of Formula 1

2014 is a big year in the history of Formula 1. As well as a new set of regulations to contend with, serious questions are being asked about the direction in which the sport is going, and who will be leading us into this new era. Having successfully won a case in the UK, Bernie Ecclestone now faces another trial in Germany for bribery upon the sale of the sport back in 2005.

Having been at the helm of the sport for so many years and helped to turn it into the commercially booming institution we know today, it seems odd to think of a future without Bernie. However, it is becoming more of a consideration for everyone involved with Formula 1. With the return of Ron Dennis at McLaren, the teams have gained a big personality and a man who has worked hard over the years to guide the sport in the right direction (even if it riled many of the other big-wigs). Jean Todt enters his second term as President of the FIA, and he too will be looking to help F1 into a bright and successful new era.

The changes made to the engine regulations does make F1 more appealing from an environmental point of view, and certainly more in line with modern car technology. The sport continues to modernize, but this year will see a lot of shuffling and changes being made.

But don’t forget:

  • Lotus’ financial struggles.
  • Eric Boullier’s arrival at McLaren.
  • New markets being entered (e.g. Russia).
  • Old markets being revisited (e.g. Austria).
  • The future of the German GP.
  • Re-developments at Interlagos.
  • Pressure on Pirelli and its tire design.
  • The ugly noses…

It promises to be a thrilling year for Formula 1; NBC Sports and MotorSportsTalk will be there every step of the way, with our coverage kicking off next weekend at the Australian Grand Prix.

Graham Rahal looks to repeat winning performance at Mid-Ohio

Phoenix International Raceway - Day 1
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Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. But for Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, his heart will always be in Mid-Ohio.

That’s both the middle of the Buckeye State, where he grew up in the shadow of the capital city of Columbus, as well as – more importantly – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, 50 miles north in Lexington, Ohio.

Mid-Ohio was where Rahal watched his father, Bobby, race (best career showing there were a pair of third-place finishes), qualify, practice and test.

Mid-Ohio was where the younger Rahal learned a great deal of not only how to drive a race car, but more importantly, how to be a race car drive both inside and outside the cockpit.

If Rahal had a dollar for every time he dreamed about or fantasized about winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, he could probably own the track now.

Next to winning the Indianapolis 500, winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio was right at the top of the younger Rahal’s bucket list – which he finally achieved in emotional fashion last year.

(Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)
Graham Rahal celebrates in the winner’s circle at Mid-Ohio last year. (Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Now, Rahal returns to Mid-Ohio to try and make it to the winner’s circle two years in a row in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (2 p.m. ET on CNBC/re-aired at 5:30 p.m. ET the same day on NBCSN).

“Mid-Ohio is home to me,” the younger Rahal said in a media release. “I grew up at the track and spent so many days there as a kid.

“Watching races there, being a part of it, seeing and loving what it’s all about is a big part of who I am. The way it all came together last year, every aspect of it made it perfect for me. Having the Buckeye helmet and gear, having my entire family there – which never happens, ever, since everyone is spread out – and having the crowd support, to have that sort of experience makes it impossible to tell anyone how much it means to me.

“The sense of accomplishment for me is so great. Everyone knows this but I love Ohio. I’m very proud to be from Ohio and that event means so much to me. To win it is a career accomplishment that I will never forgot or take for granted. It means just as much to me now as it did then. To me it’s one of the highlights of my lifetime, and definitely the most meaningful win of my career. I sure hope it happens again.”

Prior to last year’s win, Rahal’s best IndyCar finish at his home track was fifth in 2014.

(He previously won one other time at Mid-Ohio: at 16 years old became the youngest driver to ever win the SCCA National Formula Atlantic Championship Runoffs in 2005.)

Rahal’s only other IndyCar top-10 at his home track was eighth in 2009, when he drove for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing (he’s now in his fourth season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

And even though he’d leave the 2.258-mile, 13-turn natural terrain road course time after time without the checkered flag, Rahal was determined to one day do it – and he did just that on August 2, 2015.

Rahal drove his Steak ‘n Shake/Maxim sponsored Honda to the winner’s circle, leading one-fourth (23 laps) of the 90-lap event, taking the lead for the first and only time of the day on Lap 68 and holding on the rest of the way.

“We had to rally last year,” Rahal recalled. “We started 13th which wasn’t great. We should have qualified better than that as our pace was certainly better than that.

“We ended up getting up to the top three on pure pace then I was held up in traffic. I said over the radio that I wanted to pit. I like to think about strategy a lot as a driver, which is the way my dad was. I knew that with the strategy we were running, we were in the window to pit, I knew I was getting held up so I made the call and told them I was coming in.

“It happened to go yellow right as we came in, which was absolutely perfect. It worked out great for us. … There was so much pride involved in that day. It’s hard for me to explain the feelings that I had to people. It was a great moment in my life and I just hope it carries over and we see a lot of support this year.”

Sunday will be Rahal’s ninth IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, but there will be a definite change in the aura from last year. He came into and left the track ranked No. 2 in the series standings, earning his second win of the season.

That’s not the case this year.

Rahal and his team have had strong showings for the most part, but have struggled in their quest for the winner’s circle (none), and even podium finishes (just two in the first 11 races).

Firestone 600 - Practice

Even worse, they’re mid-pack in the series standings (11th), 140 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud. On the flip side, Rahal is only eight points out of seventh place (occupied by Alexander Rossi), and just 52 points behind fifth-ranked Josef Newgarden (344).

Overall, Rahal has five top-five finishes and a per-race finishing average of a respectable 9.4. That includes finishes on permanent road courses of second and third at Barber and Road America, as well as street course runs of fourth at Indianapolis (Grand Prix) and Belle Isle Race 1.

But he also has six finishes between 11th and 16th (twice), including disappointing showings in the season’s last two races – at Iowa (16th) and Toronto (13th). He also struggled in street courses at St. Petersburg (16th), Long Beach (15th) and Belle Isle Race 2 (11th).

That’s why a little home cooking back in Mid-Ohio may be just what Rahal needs to get back on track and make a late season surge upward in the rankings.

“We have certainly had an up and down season, and are in need of a good result this weekend in a big way,” Rahal said. “It’s exciting to go back as the defending champion, but we want to do that again year in and year out. We just have to focus on the task at hand, and hopefully we can pull it off.”

Rahal may have an ace up his sleeve. Of 20 drivers that took part in an open test at Mid-Ohio on July 21, Rahal was the fastest Honda-powered driver.

“The test was good,” Rahal said. “We were focused on getting to the mileage limit on our Honda engine, which we successfully did.

“Now we turn our attention to finding little bits of speed we will need to be quick come this weekend. I hope we can get the balance a bit better, but it didn’t feel far off on the test day.

“I expect that we should be very competitive and our performance from the other road courses should carry over to Mid-Ohio. The tricky part is that everyone is competitive nowadays. There are no longer any bad teams or non-contenders. So I fully expect it to be a patented tight IndyCar race weekend and I hope the Steak ‘n Shake team can come out on top again!”

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NASCAR’s 2017 start times are out; worth keeping in mind for IndyCar times

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 02: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Detroit Genuine Parts Ford, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, lead the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 2, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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So one of the fun things you can begin deducing about 2017 calendars is tea leaves you get from other series.

Today, NASCAR has released the start times of 2017 races for Sprint Cup (title sponsor to change), Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

And it’s with that knowledge that we post the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity weekend dates, channels and start times after NBC takes over the coverage, below through what would be the projected end of the Verizon IndyCar Series season:

Sprint Cup

7/1

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway

NBC

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

7/8

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/16

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/23

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBC

3 p.m.

IMS / SiriusXM

7/30

Pocono Raceway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/6

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/13

Michigan International Speedway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/19

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBC

7:30 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

9/3

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

6 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/9

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/17

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/24

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

2 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

Xfinity

6/30

Daytona International Speedway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

7/7

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

8 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/15

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

4 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/22

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

IMS / SiriusXM

7/29

Iowa Speedway

NBC

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/5

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

2 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/12

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/18

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

8/27

Road America

NBC

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/2

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/8

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/16

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/23

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

8 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

The only IndyCar race dates publicly announced yet for July 2017 are Iowa (July 9) and Toronto (July 16).

If each weekend stayed identical to this year for the July through September IndyCar races, you’d have these 2017 dates:

  • Iowa, July 9
  • Toronto, July 16
  • Mid-Ohio, July 30
  • Pocono, August 20
  • Watkins Glen, September 3
  • Sonoma, September 17

That doesn’t factor in the possibility of any additional race – say maybe one at Gateway Motorsports Park, which could be a possibility to fall in the August gap between Mid-Ohio or Pocono.

But of those remaining rounds, note that Iowa would again fall on the Sunday after a Cup race and have no live racing TV competition.

With both of the New Hampshire and Pocono start times at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sunday, July 16 and July 30, respectively, it’s possible IndyCar’s start times at Toronto and Mid-Ohio could be moved forward to finish ahead of the NASCAR start time.

Alternatively, a later start time would likely produce a head-to-head TV conflict, prompt a channel change and likely require an NBCSN replay after the NASCAR race – as has been done on a couple occasions the last two years.

The conundrum is that over the last couple years, later start times closer to primetime have helped IndyCar’s numbers on NBCSN, rather than earlier start times.

With Bristol a Saturday night race on August 19, that opens up a Sunday timeslot, again without the potential of a head-to-head TV conflict.

Darlington as a night race would follow any potential IndyCar race if Watkins Glen continues in the same time frame and date.

And Chicagoland, the Chase opener for 2017, could fall ahead of a late afternoon IndyCar finale at Sonoma.

Again, there’s a lot of theoreticals here, but the late-ish start times for NASCAR races to 3 p.m. ET on Sunday for potential IndyCar weekends could produce the potential to avoid head-to-head conflicts where you have both Cup and IndyCar running at the same time.

We’ll know more, most likely, once IndyCar releases its 2017 schedule – which is projected for August.

Handful of changes on Road America’s IMSA entry list

ELKHART LAKE, WI - AUGUST 10:  The #62 Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer is shown in action during the IMSA Tudor Series race at Road America on August 10, 2014 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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The final four IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races will take place over August, September and October following a run of three events in four weekends in July.

The first of those, the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, takes place on August 7 at Road America and will see the resumption of all four classes back in action after Lime Rock Park did not see the Prototype class.

There’s a handful of changes in the 44-car entry list for the two-hour, 40-minute race:

Prototype

  • Sean Rayhall is back in his usual DeltaWing entry after running one of Starworks Motorsport’s PC cars at Lime Rock Park.

Prototype Challenge

  • Replacing Rayhall in Starworks’ No. 7 Aviation American Gin Oreca FLM09 with Jose Gutierrez co-driving is Gustavo Yacaman, back for his first start in IMSA this year.
  • BAR1 Motorsports is back to two cars with Bruno Junqueira also set for his IMSA return; the Brazilian joins Matt McMurry in the Brian Alder led-team’s No. 20 Gas Monkey Energy entry with Johnny Mowlem moving to the No. 26 Southwest Funding/Top 1 Oil car co-driven by Don Yount.

GT Le Mans

  • No changes in class but the No. 68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE will be withdrawn (only confirmed for Petit Le Mans).

GT Daytona

  • Add a second WeatherTech Porsche 911 GT3 R for David MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette, the No. 77 car the third for Alex Job Racing at WeatherTech’s home race.
  • The No. 80 Lone Star Racing Dodge Viper GT3-R of Dan Knox and Mike Skeen makes its second 2016 appearance, first since Road America.
  • Sven Mueller is the latest co-driver of Black Swan Racing’s No. 540 Porsche alongside Tim Pappas, after Andy Pilgrim (Lime Rock) and Nick Catsburg (opening races of the year).
  • Subtract the No. 11 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, listed but won’t race.

All told it will be a 42-car field (8 P, 9 PC, 9 GTLM, 16 GTD) for one of the larger IMSA fields this year.

Mid-Ohio could be pivotal for Power, Pagenaud in championship battle

Simon Pagenaud, left, and Will Power
(Photos courtesy IndyCar)
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Will Power is closing in and may be ready to overtake Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud not only on the racetrack, but also in the Verizon IndyCar Series point standings.

Power, who has three wins and one runner-up finish in his last four starts, comes into Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio just 47 points behind Pagenaud, who has led the standings since after the second race of the season (Phoenix).

That he is so close to Pagenaud is almost incredulous, given that Power missed the season-opening race at St. Petersburg due to an inner-ear infection that was initially thought to be a potential concussion.

Missing an entire race worth of points (maximum of 54 points) is hard for any driver to bounce back from, but Power and his team have used that missed race to further heighten their motivation to win a second championship in the last three seasons.

“After a bit of a slow start this season, the No. 12 Verizon Chevy team has built a lot of momentum in the middle part of the season and we’ll look to keep it going at Mid-Ohio,” Power said in a media release.

And while Pagenaud won’t give up his own quest for his first IndyCar title without a fight, how he and Power emerge from Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio — only four races remain after that — could potentially lay the groundwork to determine which driver ultimately winds up winning the championship.

“We’ve gotten ourselves into the championship fight, but it’s still a little early to be counting points,” Power said. “We just need to keep doing what we have been and let the points manage themselves.”

On paper, Pagenaud has a slight edge at the 2.258-mile natural terrain road course in Lexington, Ohio: five starts, three podium finishes (including a runner-up in the 2013 race at Mid-Ohio).

“I always look forward to competing at Mid-Ohio,” Pagenaud said. “It’s a classic event for the Verizon IndyCar series.

“I’ve been fortunate to have some success there over the years in both IndyCar and sports cars.”

Power, meanwhile, has an equally respectable record at Mid-Ohio: seven starts, two podiums (both runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2012) and two poles.

“I really enjoy racing at Mid-Ohio,” Power said. “The natural terrain creates a fast, yet technical, circuit.

“It is not a track that I’ve won at before, so this would be a great time to do that and we’ll need to work hard to accomplish that.”

Added Pagenaud, “The No. 22 team tested there last week (July 21) and we were pleased at the end of the day. We went through our list of tests to experiment, which will lead us in a good direction for the race weekend. We’re all ready to go.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski