5 storylines that could define the 2014 F1 season

2 Comments

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.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
1 Comment

It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.