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IndyCar-Verizon pact should be viewed with cautious optimism

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Sponsor activation is a beautiful thing in motorsports.

NASCAR fans see it every single day. When they’re printing up documents at Kinko’s, they see Denny Hamlin’s race car.

When they walk into a convenience store, they step on a floor sticker with a smiling, Skittles-hawking Kyle Busch.

When they’re pulling into a parking lot for a sports bar, they see signs with Kevin Harvick pushing $2.50 pints of Budweiser for Happy Hour.

And of course, when they’re in a Sprint shop to upgrade their phone, they see signs promoting the company’s title sponsorship of America’s most popular motorsport.

IndyCar fans on the other hand don’t see major sponsors beckoning to them. Beyond the Racing Capitol of the World (and NBCSN broadcasts, of course), these instances get scarce: A wall sign in a Target here, a stray Ryan Hunter-Reay/Sun Drop sticker there.

Your eyes are all you need to recognize the gap between the two series in the public consciousness.

Enter Verizon, which got into NASCAR in 2009 via its acquisition of Alltel but had a challenging time promoting itself in the sport thanks to its aforementioned association with Sprint.

In 2010, Verizon got involved full-time with IndyCar through a primary sponsorship deal with Team Penske and at the end of that year, it shifted its entire motorsports attention from NASCAR to North America’s top open-wheel series.

The telecommunications giant has become one of IndyCar’s biggest partners, both in sponsorship and technology aspects. Now they’re stepping up to the plate as IndyCar’s new title sponsor.

“I think of this day as a game-changer for IndyCar, for the series, for our fans, for the teams, for the drivers,” Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles said this morning in a teleconference.

“In a real sense, I think it represents a kind of confirmation of strategies that we’ve put in place and where we intend to take the sport. It is the beginning of the next phase of IndyCar’s growth.”

Obviously, optimism is rather high about this partnership and you can’t blame IndyCar for that.

IZOD may have made some nice apparel for us race fans who didn’t dare to pull out a shirt two-thirds covered by a driver’s face for a barbecue. But Verizon is close to ubiquitous in our society these days.

Millions of people use their phones and services. They clearly know how to promote their products. But most important of all, the company’s been in the series for a while now.

They’re not going into this blind or with some faint idea of what to expect. They haven’t been scared off by its assorted issues of TV ratings, live attendance, and occasional bouts of political infighting.

They actually seem interested in building the sport.

“We’ve had a great relationship as a partner and with [Team Penske], so when we looked at this, it just became the right time for Verizon to step up in this position,” said Verizon vice president of marketing Brian Angiolet.

“We have been evolving our brand from a mobile and wireless-centric company into more of a technology company. When you think about the role that technology plays in IndyCar, it just seemed like a great match…It’s a perfect match at a perfect time.”

But didn’t we think IZOD was interested too?

To be fair, the apparel brand was doing its part to activate its IndyCar sponsorship during the early stages of its deal with the series, which started in 2010.

But a management change at IZOD’s parent company that occurred midway through the deal resulted in a noticeable pullback of promotion for IndyCar, both on TV and elsewhere.

Last fall, IZOD left a year early, joining a list of ultimately ineffective title sponsors for the series that includes defunct search engine Northern Light and auto parts retailer Pep Boys.

Time will tell if Verizon can be IndyCar’s answer to what R.J. Reynolds and its Winston cigarettes brand did for NASCAR, or if it too winds up on that unenviable list.

For his part, Miles is keeping his eyes on the road ahead.

“I don’t think much about the past, to be frank,” he said. “I’m thinking about how we’re going to take the sport forward. I’ve never spent a second thinking about comparing this situation to prior ones, because I’m so completely convinced about how this partnership will make sense.

“They see the sport the way that we do: It is a compelling, exciting sport that is perfect as the sport to apply technology to make it more compelling to fans…We have complete confidence that this is going to be a home run for IndyCar.”

Fair enough. But Miles is talking about potential here. And while potential is one thing, results are another.

Again, IndyCar has a right to be optimistic. But for the rest of us, that optimism needs to be cautious.

IndyCar followers have been wanting results in regards to promotion for years now. They understood that reunification of the sport in 2008 wasn’t going to be the magic bullet, but seven years after, they’re tired of seeing a tremendous racing product get ignored.

IndyCar may be based in Indiana and Verizon may be based outside New York City. But both should consider making themselves believe that everybody waiting on their big push for the sport is living in Missouri.

Because those people are going to look at this announcement, remember the past failures, and then simply say, “Show me.”

Vettel: No frustration over Ferrari’s lack of reliability

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability problems at the start of the 2016 Formula 1 season, saying “it’s part of racing”.

Ferrari entered 2016 hopeful of mounting a serious challenge to the all-conquering Mercedes team, only for issues on its cars in Australia and Bahrain to limit it to a one-car finish.

Vettel’s plight continued on Friday in Russia when an issue forced him to stop out on track during practice, ultimately resulting in a gearbox change and a grid penalty.

Vettel qualified second at the Sochi Autodrom on Saturday behind pole-sitter Nico Rosberg, but will drop back to seventh for the start of the race.

“Of course I would have liked the gap in the end to have been a bit smaller but we saw in Q2 Nico in particular was very strong getting the lap in,” Vettel said.

“I think for us it was the maximum. We benefitted from what happened to Lewis [Hamilton]. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but it allowed us to go P2 which helps tomorrow with the penalty.

“We’re a bit closer starting on the clean side of the track. I think we can have a good race from there. It should be quite exciting. The car feels good. I think all weekend has been quite strong. We lost some time, but I think we made it up this morning so it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Vettel said that he does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability issues, saying that there is still a long way to go in the season.

“Not frustrated at all. Obviously it’s not nice if these things happen because they don’t make your life easier,” Vettel said.

“But equally it’s part of racing. These things can happen. They didn’t happen on purpose, they weren’t planned. We’re been pushing very hard to try and catch up which I think especially in race pace we’ve proven already this year.

“Obviously we didn’t have a properly clean race yet this year. Maybe we’ll have tomorrow, you never know, it’s a long race and a long way especially around here. There’s a lot of things that can happen.

“I think we have to wait and see. It’s still April, tomorrow is May, and there’s a long, long way to go. It’s a long championship. It’s important to do your best to get the maximum points every single time and the rest you’ll find out anyway.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton set to start 10th in Russia as luckless run continues

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton’s run of bad luck continued in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday as an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in the final session.

Hamilton has slipped 36 points behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg after the first three races of the 2016 season, with an issue on his power unit forcing him to start last in China two weeks ago.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi hopeful of cutting the gap to Rosberg, and looked set to run the German close for pole position on Saturday afternoon.

After lapping almost half a second slower than Rosberg in Q2, Hamilton was sent back out by Mercedes later in the session despite not being at risk of losing his place in Q3.

It soon unfolded that Hamilton was in fact heading out to test his power unit, and he soon reported a loss of power similar to the one that prevented him from taking part in qualifying for the Chinese GP.

As a result, Mercedes had to bring Hamilton into the pits and end his day after Q2, leaving him 10th in the final qualifying classification.

While Rosberg was able to ease to his second pole position of the season, Hamilton was left deflated, telling reporters: “I went out at the end of Q2 to get a feel and I lost the same power as I lost in China.

“There’s nothing I can do. I never give up.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg not expecting easy Russian GP despite Vettel, Hamilton woes

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 championship leader Nico Rosberg remains wary of the threat posed by the opposition in tomorrow’s Russian Grand Prix despite seeing chief rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both drop back on the grid.

Defending champion Hamilton was forced to sit out of Q3 in Sochi after an issue similar to the one he suffered in China arose on his power unit.

As a result, Hamilton will start tomorrow’s race from P10 at best, leaving him with a huge task if he is to cut into Rosberg’s 36-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship.

Vettel took advantage of this to qualify second for Ferrari, but he drops back to seventh on the grid after taking a new gearbox earlier in the weekend.

Rosberg eased to his second pole position of the season by seven-tenths of a second despite only completing one fast run in qualifying, but he is refusing to get ahead of himself.

“I was just focused on myself out there, really going for it and feeling great about it,” Rosberg said.

“It’s really going really well today. From Q2 onwards it felt awesome. The others have been unfortunate today, definitely, extremely unfortunate.

“That makes my race a little bit easier tomorrow, but an F1 race is never easy. Even from where Sebastian is and where Kimi [Raikkonen] is and with Valtteri [Bottas] behind and everything, the opposition is still there.

“So I still need to keep focused and try and get the job done as good as possible.”

Rosberg was able to get out of his car long before the end of qualifying safe in the knowledge he had pole thanks to the advantage Mercedes has enjoyed at the Sochi Autodrom.

“To be honest I was quite confident that the lap was good enough out there because in Q2 Ferrari was quite far away and I knew that Lewis was not able to participate in the last part of qualifying,” Rosberg said.

“So I was very sure it was going to be enough. You never know, there’s still the remaining uncertainty so I was glad eventually when Sebastian crossed the line that it was good enough.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg eases to Russian GP pole as Hamilton hits trouble

during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Nico Rosberg will start Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix from pole position after easing to P1 in the final stage of qualifying at the Sochi Autodrom.

Rosberg arrived in Russia 36 points clear of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship, and is chasing a seventh consecutive grand prix victory on Sunday.

The two Mercedes drivers exchanged fast times in both Q1 and Q2, with Rosberg finishing half a second clear heading into the final fight for pole in Q3.

However, there was no battle as had been anticipated after a power unit issue arose on Hamilton’s car, meaning that he could take no part in Q3.

Using the same unit that had caused trouble in China two weeks ago, Hamilton reported a loss of power at the end of Q2, forcing him to sit out of the final session.

As a result, Rosberg was able to ease to his second pole position of the season by posting a fastest lap of 1:35.417 in the final stage of qualifying.

The German went eight-tenths of a second faster than nearest rival Sebastian Vettel with his first lap in Q3, but an error on a later lap meant he could not improve on his time.

Nevertheless, it was more than enough for pole, with Vettel finishing seven-tenths of a second back for Ferrari in P2. However, he will drop to seventh for the start of Sunday’s race due to a grid penalty.

Valtteri Bottas enjoyed his best qualifying of the season to date to finish third ahead of fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari, while Williams teammate Felipe Massa qualified fifth.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge in P6 ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, with home favorite Daniil Kvyat finishing eighth. Max Verstappen finished ninth ahead of the luckless Hamilton in P10.

McLaren’s hopes of scoring a first Q3 berth since the end of 2014 were dashed late on in Q2 as Jenson Button missed by just one-tenth of a second. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished just ahead of the Briton in P11, while Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg followed in 13th ahead of Fernando Alonso in the second McLaren in P14.

Haas’ recent difficulties continued in qualifying in Sochi as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez could only finish the session 15th and 16th. Grosjean struggled with the balance on his VF-16 car, sliding off the track late in the session, but managed to outqualify his teammate once again by six-hundredths of a second.

Renault once again struggled for pace in qualifying as Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer failed to make it out of Q1 once again, finishing 17th and 18th. Felipe Nasr’s new Sauber chassis did not give him the boost required to make it into Q2 as he ended up 19th. Manor drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto impressed by outqualifying Marcus Ericsson in the second Sauber, who propped up the timesheets.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday, with lights out at 8am.