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.

Alonso gets seat fit, visits Borg-Warner Trophy in Indy

Photo: Michael L. Levitt/LAT Photo USA
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Fernando Alonso’s quick first visit to the U.S. before this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix continued Monday with a trip to Indianapolis with his Andretti Autosport team, following the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in Birmingham, Ala.

After a jam-packed Sunday packed with media commitments and observing from the pits, Alonso went to Andretti’s shop on Zionsville Rd. where he made his seat fit for his upcoming first test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This was the only time this could be worked into his schedule before he heads to Sochi to resume his Formula 1 commitments in his day job, lead driver of the team’s McLaren Honda.

Alonso also met the trophy he hopes to win as part of his quest to capture the Triple Crown, the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Andretti Autosport is the defending champion team at Indianapolis with Alexander Rossi. Rossi follows Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Dan Wheldon (2005) as winners for the team in the ‘500.

“It’s a beautiful trophy that I would be proud to take home if I won the Indianapolis 500. There are so many familiar faces on the trophy from the past and present that represent the greatest race in the world,” Alonso said, via BorgWarner. “Can I please get a full-sized trophy to take home if I win the race? The small ones (Baby Borgs) are nice but a big one would be wonderful!”

As Alonso is a two-time World Champion, he wouldn’t be the first driver to pull off an Indianapolis 500 victory. Others that have done so are listed below:

  • Jim Clark – Formula One World Champion in 1963 and 1965, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1965
  • Graham Hill – Formula One World Champion in 1962 and 1968, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1966
  • Mario Andretti – Formula One World Champion 1978, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1969
  • Emerson Fittipaldi – Formula One World Champion 1972 and 1974, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1989 and 1993
  • Jacques Villeneuve – Formula One World Champion 1997, Indianapolis 500 winner in 1995

NBCSN videos from Alonso’s Sunday at Barber are linked below.

Press Conference

Grid Interview with Townsend Bell

NBCSN Booth

Haas goes for first three-in-a-row scoring streak in Russia

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After back-to-back eighth place finishes from Kevin Magnussen at China and Romain Grosjean last time out in Bahrain, Haas F1 Team has its second chance to score points three races in a row for the first time in its F1 career – and arguably a more realistic chance at this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (Sunday, 8 a.m. ET, NBCSN).

Grosjean’s shock sixth and fifth place finishes to open his 2016 account in Australia and Bahrain were unexpected but the team hit a bump in the road in China. Russia, however, saw the Frenchman return to the points with an eighth place, and bring his season tally to 28 points to conclude the remarkable start of results in flyaway races.

Now, with a car that could theoretically be considered the fourth best in the field behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, hopes are high for either Grosjean or Magnussen to extend the team’s scoring streak to what would be the longest yet in its short history.

The team did well to note the Olympic tie in at the Sochi circuit, linking “Super G” and how fast the new 2017 Formula 1 cars are.

From the release: “The first time we saw Super-G in Sochi was in 2014 when the Russian city hosted the XXII Olympic Winter Games. Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud beat American Andrew Weibrecht by .3 of a second on the 2.096-kilometer (1.302-mile) course with a 622-meter (2,041-foot) vertical drop to nab gold in the alpine slalom event.

“Three years later, a Super-G of a different sort returns to Sochi, but instead of taking place on the white slopes of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, it will happen on the black asphalt of the Sochi Autodrom as the fastest cars in Formula One history rocket around the 5.848-kilometer (3.634-mile), 18-turn circuit for the April 30 Russian Grand Prix.”

Grosjean described the physical uptick in training he’s needed to do. The 31-year-old is in his sixth full season and seventh overall in F1, since his midseason debut in 2009.

“The cars are brutal to drive – we are not far from 8G with the peak in high corners – so it is pretty good fun, but it is hard on the body, it is hard on parts, it is hard on the cars,” Grosjean said. “You better not miss the turning point on some places. The speed we go through the corners is insane compared to the past. You need to be more precise, more accurate, more on it.

“We’re going through more g-forces, so the neck is stronger and the core is stronger,” Grosjean added. “Your whole body had to adjust to these high speeds.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner explained the importance of needing to bank points early in the crowded midfield. Haas sits seventh in the championship now, just nine points behind Sahara Force India in fourth, who have scored with both drivers in each of the three races so far in 2017.

“It’s always good to come back from two races with points, and it shows that the car is capable to score points at each race. Then again, it’s always difficult because it’s a tight midfield and we all went testing after Bahrain and everyone has learned something,” Steiner said.

“It’s as tight as it’s ever been. With four to five teams so close together, I cannot remember when that happened, and every weekend it’s mixed up in a different way. Any of these teams can go into Q3 and get into the points. It’s a very tense battle, but I think a nice battle and it keeps the constructors championship pretty open for the midfield.”

Grosjean added, “It was good to score points in Bahrain. Clearly, we deserved them – since race one, actually. I think the most encouraging fact for now is that the car is performing well everywhere we’ve been. So now we go to Russia, which was a bit of a tough one for us last year. We’ll see if we’ve made progress and if the car is working well at every type of circuit. If so, then pretty much everywhere we could score points.”

For Magnussen, the chance of a score comes after he delivered his best 2016 result here last year – seventh for Renault. He was also fifth in 2014 with McLaren, and has a chance to score for a third different team here this weekend.

“I think it’s a good track and I’ve had some good races there. Hopefully, I can have another good one there this year,” he said.

“I know last year I had a good first lap. Quite a few people messed up and lost things like front wings and so on. I made up lots of positions with that. I then had a really good race after that to finish seventh.”

 

 

PWC: 36 SprintX cars, lineups pack variety, diversity at VIR

Photo: PWC
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No less than 36 cars are set to compete in the first of five Pirelli World Challenge SprintX weekends, this weekend at VIRginia International Raceway.

Breaking down those 36 cars, they’re split this way:

  • 12 GT Pro/Pro
  • 16 GT Pro/Am
  • 1 GT Am/Am
  • 1 GT Cup Pro/Am
  • 1 GT Cup Am/Am
  • 2 GTS Pro/Am
  • 3 GTS Am/Am

And that’s before you get to the rest of the entry list: GTS: 9; GTSA: 10; TC: 32; TCA: 15; TCB: 8.

In sports car racing, the easiest way to get hooked is to embrace the variety and diversity of machinery first and ask questions about how complex it is later.

So with that in mind, here’s a breakdown of the GT SprintX entries (which themselves are split between three classes, but we’ll set that aside for a minute) and their respective lineups.

Cadillac Racing, Cadillac ATS-V.R

3 – Johnny O’Connell/Jordan or Ricky Taylor
8 – Michael Cooper/Jordan or Ricky Taylor

The fully professional Cadillac lineups give the Taylor brothers a chance to dip their feet back into Pirelli World Challenge competition alongside the team’s full-season drivers. That being said, it’ll be weird to see Jordan and Ricky racing against each other again, and Cadillac still hasn’t confirmed which brother goes where.

Magnus Racing, Audi R8 LMS

4 – Pierre Kaffer/Spencer Pumpelly (Kaffer misses Lime Rock)
44 – John Potter/Marco Seefried (Seefried misses Lime Rock)

For Magnus Racing, a return to the mini-endurance racing with pit stops could see the team with a slight advantage over those PWC-only teams in recent years. Kaffer and Pumpelly is as good a lineup as you’ll find on the grid while Potter and Seefried know each other’s nuances well.

K-PAX Racing, McLaren 650S GT3

6 – Bryan Sellers/Jonny Kane
9 – Alvaro Parente/Ben Barnicoat
98 – Mike Hedlund/Michael Lewis

With Strakka Racing coming to McLaren, Jonny Kane is the ace of reckoning added here with Sellers. Meanwhile Parente has the talented but inexperienced McLaren GT junior driver Barnicoat alongside; Hedlund and Lewis provide a very solid all-American duo.

GMG Racing, Porsche 911 GT3 R

14 – James Sofronas/Laurens Vanthoor (VIR and CTMP)
14 – James Sofronas/Matt Halliday (Lime Rock, Utah and COTA)

Calvert Dynamics, Porsche 911 GT3 R

77 – Alec Udell/Preston Calvert (partnership with GMG)

In simple terms, Sofronas’ team is one that should benefit from the SprintX format. Porsche places factory driver Vanthoor in when available while Halliday is a team veteran. Udell and Calvert will share a Calvert Dynamics entry prepared by GMG, which combines the two top teams from the series’ GT Cup class.

Wright Motorsports, Porsche 911 GT3 R

16 – Michael Schein/Jan Heylen
58 – Patrick Long/Joerg Bergmeister

Two solid lineups here for John Wright’s team. The iconic pairing of Long and Bergmeister is reunited in the team’s all-pro entry with Heylen and Schein one of the top pro/am entries.

RealTime Racing, Acura NSX GT3

43 – Ryan Eversley/Tom Dyer
93 – Peter Kox/Mark Wilkins

Wilkins and Dyer, the team’s SprintX additions, are underrated for a reason – they’re solid, quiet, capable drivers who aren’t flashy but usually get the job done. But they’re going to have to rise up against some of the other pros competing, especially when Acura’s four full-season drivers in IMSA aren’t added here.

Bentley Team Absolute, Bentley Continental GT3

78 – Yufeng Luo/Alexandre Imperatori (VIR and CTMP)
88 – Adderly Fong/Vincent Abril

Past Blancpain GT Series champion Abril is an excellent addition to this young lineup, and he and Fong will be the car to watch versus the pro/am No. 78 car.

CRP Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

2 – Ryan Dalziel/Daniel Morad

“Razzle Dazzle” and “State of Moradness” combine for one of the coolest nickname and driver pairings on the grid. The Canadian should learn the Mercedes quickly and combined with the rapid Scot who’s based in Florida, this team should excel.

TR3 Racing, Ferrari 488 GT3

31 – Daniel Mancinell/Andrea Montermini

Mancinelli has raised more than a few eyebrows in his first two weekends in the series, but has the pace to star. Ferrari GT veteran Montermini is a nice counterbalance.

R. Ferri Motorsport, Ferrari 488 GT3

61 – Alex Riberas/Kyle Marcelli

Remo Ferri’s entry is one of the best ones out there, with two very talented drivers sharing the team’s Ferrari 488 in the SprintX races. Marcelli’s vastly experienced for his still tender age of 27; Riberas is a rising GT star in sports car racing.

Scuderia Corsa, Ferrari 458 GT3

7 – Martin Fuentes/Stefan Johansson

Giacomo Mattioli doesn’t usually enter something unless he thinks he can win, and this pro/am lineup of last year’s GTA champ (Fuentes) and Ferrari veteran and team sporting director Johansson, is one of the best in this category.

M1 GT Racing, Audi R8 LMS

23 – David Ostella/James Dayson

Pair of Mazda Road to Indy veterans-turned-sports car Canadians share a car that will be consistent if not the outright fastest among pro/am entries.

MOMO NGT Motorsport, Ferrari 458 GT3

30 – Henrique Cisneros/TBA

Cisneros usually assembles a good effort, and the identity of his co-driver will be interesting.

Black Swan Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

54 – Tim Pappas/Jeroen Bleekemolen

The band has come back together for the past GTC champions of American Le Mans Series. Bleekemolen remains rapid as ever; he and Pappas have gelled well before.

DXDT Racing, Mercedes-AMG GT3

63 – Aaron Povoledo/David Askew

Team’s strength comes from its 2016 SprintX experience, something many others don’t have.

Always Evolving Racing/AIM Autosport, Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3

75 – Ricardo Sanchez/Frankie Montecalvo

There’s a lot of newness for the AE/AIM/Nissan combo including a new driver lineup and new 2017 car. While it’s unfortunate past Nissan winners Bryan Heitkotter and James Davison aren’t here, young guns Sanchez and Montecalvo have potential in spades.

McCann Racing, Audi R8 LMS

82 – Mike Skeen/Michael McCann

This SprintX-only, pro/am entry could provide an avenue for “ginger stig” Skeen to live up to his lanky frame and produce some typical giant-killing performances.

MCC Motorsports, Mercedes-AMG GT3

92 – Alexandre Negrao/Alexandre Negrao Sr.

Little known here about this entry, other than it’s another Mercedes that features a past GP2 veteran in Negrao.

TRG, Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3

007 – Kris Wilson/Drew Regitz

Wilson has been capable of winning races with TRG before but it’s hard to see this aging car and the lone am-am labeled driver lineup doing much of that here. That said, in the hands of James Davison, it does still have some speed left.

Dream Racing Competition, Lamborghini Huracán GT3

07 – Cedric Sbirrazzuoli/Lawrence DeGeorge

The pairing has driven together in Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and now PWC SprintX. Sbirrazzuoli’s got the speed here between this duo.

DIME Racing, Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (First Alternate)

111 – Jonathan Summerton/Michael Macs

Past Atlantic series race winner Summerton leads this lineup, although whether he’ll get a chance to race depends on one of the primary entries having a pre-race issue that promotes the first alternate into the field.

REST OF THE FIELD

There are also seven additional entries for the first SprintX race of the season, with two GT Cup and five GTS entries. Those cars may interfere with the GT competitors but will have their own interesting race within the race, as well.

Tom Dillmann confirmed for Formula E debut at Paris

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
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Mike Conway (Faraday Future Dragon Racing) will have company among guest drivers in the upcoming FIA Formula E Championship Paris ePrix on May 20.

Venturi, Conway’s old team, have confirmed French open-wheel veteran turned occasional sports car racer Tom Dillmann as a fill-in driver for Maro Engel at Paris, and will thus make his series debut. Engel is racing for Mercedes in DTM, while Loic Duval is racing for Audi at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz the same weekend.

Dillmann has driven the Venturi VM200-FE-02 before, standing in for Stephane Sarrazin for the shakedown in last month’s Mexico City ePrix as Sarrazin was en route to Mexico from the FIA World Endurance Championship Prologue test in Monza.

He’s an F3, GP2 and WEC race winner already. The 28-year-old Frenchman is understandably keen to impress on debut.

“Formula E is an exciting place to be for a driver – with thrilling motor racing and interesting technical developments. It goes without saying that it’s my goal to contest a full season in this series in the future,” he said in a release.