Rookie Mikhail Aleshin a potential surprise driver to watch for SPM

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Although Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin is new to IndyCar, the 26-year-old Russian is not new to racing.

From go-karts, to small formula, to his 2010 World Series by Renault title, Aleshin has been one of only a few drivers from Russia who’s been able to really establish a career, as it’s a country where racing is only beginning to gain a worldwide foothold.

The last three years has seen him in a variety of machinery, from GP2 cars back to Formula 3, and also GT cars in the Blancpain Endurance Series.

As an SMP Racing-supported driver, Aleshin had an intriguing choice to consider in the middle of 2013 when he wondered his next career move.

“Basically in the middle of last year, the middle of the World Series season, we were speaking about my future, what are the solutions,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “That’s how we came to the same idea basically that we need to try to do IndyCar.

“I’ve been racing more or less every open-wheel in Europe. But I think IndyCar is definitely a very important part of the open-wheel racing in the world. I’m really big fan of open-wheel racing, so that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Aleshin will be the first Russian to fly the flag in IndyCar; countryman Vitaly Petrov had that honor in Formula One.

“The other thing is it’s a big challenge for me to be here because I’m the first Russian driver to compete in IndyCar,” he said. “For sure, yeah, it’s a big challenge. Obviously most of the drivers, they came out from Indy Lights, Mazda, any American category. Most of them know most of the tracks, so there will be some difficulties for me because I don’t know any.

“Every time I going to come to the track, every time I going to learn just in the practice and go straight to qualifying.  Sounds like fun!”

Indeed Aleshin will be unlike the previous rookie in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ second car, Tristan Vautier, in that he’ll be thrown in the deep end at each circuit. Vautier had past experience at most circuits from either Indy Lights or Pro Mazda.

Also unlike Vautier, Aleshin has deeper experience in formula cars with similar horsepower and downforce levels, and that should help him.

The rookie is probably most excited about running on ovals; he got his oval baptism at Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier this winter.

“The most probably interesting part for me will be races on ovals because that’s what I haven’t done at all in my life,” he said. “I just did one test day in Homestead for my rookie test. It’s hard to expect something from something what you have never done, but actually it was much better than any of my expectations in the end, the feeling of racing on ovals.”

Aleshin expanded on the SMP Racing program, which supports more than 30 drivers worldwide throughout various GT and open-wheel championships.

It could be confusing – perhaps tongue-tying in fact – to remember Aleshin will drive the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda for SPM.

But while he’s largely unknown to the American audience, he could surprise. It depends on how well he gels with engineer Allen McDonald, who has been retained as engineer of the second car, and with teammate Simon Pagenaud, a renowned development ace who could well contend for this year’s IndyCar title.

Aleshin already feels comfortable with both, and that’s a good sign.

“Allen McDonald, my engineer, he’s a really experienced man,” he said. “He spent many years in Formula One, many years in IndyCar, last like maybe 15 years. I’m really happy to work with him. I think we found, yeah, basically one language I would say.

“Yes, Simon, I need to admit that he actually help me a lot with getting into the stuff fast, especially when I had my test at Homestead on the oval.  He just helped me to develop the car and to understand what I need to feel on the track, because obviously oval racing is completely opposite than what I used to do and I don’t know how the car need to behave.

“Normally I like aggressive car. On ovals, this is not best way. This is just one of the simple things I have learned there.”

Aleshin also has past experience at Sonoma; like Rubens Barrichello a couple years ago, that could be the place to pinpoint where he could deliver a “big” result.

Expectations are modest, and that could perhaps work to Aleshin’s favor. He’ll be up against two younger rookies in Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, who both have an edge on U.S. track experience.

But Aleshin could be a surprise driver this season. Realistically, this entry could achieve a top-15 finish in points with one or two top-fives, and maybe a podium. Anything more would be a bonus.

Magnussen set for Mercedes DTM test next week

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and McLaren Honda waves to the fans during the drivers' parade before the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Former McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen will try his hand at a DTM car next week in Spain at a test with Mercedes.

Magnussen raced for McLaren in 2014 before being dropped to make way for Fernando Alonso in 2015, and was released from his contract earlier this year after the team opted to retain Alonso and Jenson Button for next season.

The Dane is known to be evaluating his options in Formula 1 for next year, and has said that he would be open to another reserve role with a team.

Magnussen enjoyed a successful test with Porsche in Barcelona earlier this month, trying out the LMP1 919 Hybrid car that he called “the most advanced race car in the world”.

Magnussen had been tipped as a candidate to take Nico Hulkenberg’s place in the third Porsche entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, but it was confirmed on Saturday that the German marque would be scaling down to just two cars for 2016.

Now, Magnussen will test at DTM car with Mercedes at Jerez next week at the series’ annual rookie test.

“Yes, I’m going down there testing,” Magnussen told Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

“It’ll probably be on the third day [Thursday]. It will be a great experience and I appreciate the opportunity. I’m looking forward to trying another new race car for the first time.

“They are evaluating drivers and might need one for next season, but I’m not tied to anything for next year. For me it will be a great chance to try a racing car I’ve never driven before and then we’ll see what the future brings.”

Magnussen is set to be joined at the test by another ex-F1 driver, Giedo van der Garde, who will also be testing for Mercedes according to a report from Autosport.

Hamilton laughs off criticism about his lifestyle

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain waves after he captured the second position at the qualifying at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday.  (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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Lewis Hamilton has laughed off criticism from former boss Ron Dennis about his lifestyle and behavior, saying that his activities away from Formula 1 have had a positive impact on his on-track performances.

Hamilton was signed to McLaren by Ron Dennis at the age of 13 before making his F1 debut with the team nine years later in 2007.

He won his first drivers’ championship with McLaren the following year, but left for Mercedes after the 2012 season.

Since then, Hamilton has gone on to win two more world titles and establish himself as one of F1’s all-time greats, while McLaren has failed to claim a single race victory in the same period.

Earlier this week, Dennis said that Hamilton’s celebrity lifestyle and behaviour would not be tolerated if he still were at McLaren, and that he looks at the Briton with “mixed emotions”.

When asked about the comments on Saturday, Hamilton laughed them off.

“I don’t know why he is touching on that subject,” Hamilton said. “Maybe he has nothing else positive to talk about!

“Who I am today, regardless of whom I was working for, is my own creation. I do a lot of things outside the sport, and I think it has a positive impact on my career.”

Hamilton admitted earlier this month that excessive partying following his third world title success in the USA had left him feeling “run down”, and also attributed his busy schedule to a minor car accident in Monaco ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Grosjean takes grid penalty, Merhi to start from pit lane in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean will start Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from the back of the grid after receiving a penalty for changing the gearbox on his Lotus car.

Grosjean failed to set a time in the second stage of Saturday’s qualifying session after a gearbox issue forced him to park up at the side of the track.

The Frenchman was classified 15th, but will now drop to P20 for the start of the race after taking a new gearbox to resolve the issue.

As a result, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Marcus Ericsson and Will Stevens all move up one place, filling out positions 15-18 on the grid.

Grosjean will start 19th after the stewards found that Manor had changed the suspension setup on Roberto Merhi’s car after qualifying, breaking parc ferme rules. The Spaniard is now required to start from the pit lane.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

WATCH LIVE: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on NBCSN, Live Extra from 7am ET

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg of Germany steers his car during the first free practice at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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It all ends here – the 2015 Formula 1 season comes to a close under the floodlights of the Yas Marina Circuit today with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

2015 will by no means go down as a classic season – those experiencing the kind of dominance Lewis Hamilton enjoyed rarely do – but it has nevertheless been an entertaining, interesting and intriguing one that has laid plenty of foundations for the future.

Nico Rosberg is one man who is looking firmly ahead to 2016 already, having rediscovered the kind of form that made him a title contender at this point last year. With six poles in a row and two wins on the bounce, the German will be gunning to make it a hat-trick on Sunday.

However, with Hamilton starting alongside him on the front row and an engine that is a little more overworked than most, Rosberg knows he faces a stiff challenge to end the year on a high and gain more momentum ahead of the new campaign.

This fascinating dynamic sets us up for a thrilling duel between Rosberg and Hamilton once again in Abu Dhabi, one year on from their scrap for the championship.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Few eras are ending on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, but it will nevertheless mark an important point for most on the grid. Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Felipe Nasr will all finish their rookie years; Manor will have done what many doubted it could do by finishing a full season; quite whether drivers Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi will return with the team next year remains to be seen.

Alas, the end of the season is always a time for pressure to be released. After a busy year of jetting all over the world, the paddock will be afforded two months of respite before pre-season testing kicks into gear – a much-needed relief for many.

For those at home, make sure you enjoy the final race of the season and get your F1 fix in before the long winter kicks in.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.