Will Roush Fenway showing at Bristol help extend Ford’s outstanding 2014 start?

1 Comment

In light of its 1-2 finish at Bristol this past Sunday, is Roush Fenway Racing really on the rebound?

Carl Edwards’ win and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s runner-up finish was just part of a Ford juggernaut that saw five of the blue ovals in the top 12 finishers.

And in the bigger picture, is that finish as well as what Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski did in the first three races, a sign that Ford as a whole is back on top of its game?

“Ford has deserved this kind of result for their effort,” RFR team co-owner Jack Roush said after Bristol. “They’ve committed a lot of engineering resources to us. They give us a lot of support with cars and trucks  for support vehicles and things, and we had not been able to do as much for them as we needed to in the last six-month. I was glad that we could get Carl into the Chase and look forward to getting Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) qualified for these last 10 races and Greg (Biffle) as well.”

Biffle finished 12th, but there was also one of the best overall performances in several years by both Richard Petty Motorsports drivers, Aric Almirola (career-best third) and teammate Marcos Ambrose (fifth).

By comparison, Keselowski (finished 14th and took over the Sprint Cup points lead after Bristol) and Logano (20th) may not been quite as strong as their other Ford-powered associates, but they’ve both had outstanding starts to the season nonetheless.

Still, with Ford accounting for more than a third of the top-20 finishes at Bristol, it certainly leaves optimism for this week’s race at Fontana.

Since the progressively banked Auto Club Speedway (formerly California Speedway) hosted its first Sprint Cup race in 1997, Ford quickly won 10 of the first 18 Cup races there.

But it’s admittedly been a struggle since Carl Edwards was the last Ford driver to win there back in February 2008.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the Fontana track was built as a near-replica of Michigan International Speedway, where Ford has been most successful in the Cup series with 35 wins. Edwards’ win at Bristol gives Ford 34 all-time wins there.

Put all that together, and why wouldn’t Ford be considered a serious threat to win Sunday’s race? And is what we saw at Bristol and the three races before it just another sign that Ford has overcome many of its 2013 struggles and is poised to grab for even greater achievements going forward in 2014?

“It has been a very long winter for us,” team owner Jack Roush said after Sunday’s race. “We made some changes and built some new cars over the winter and revised our strategies a little bit as far as the way we do our engineering and the way that manifests itself in what the race cars are and we’re still working with our process.

“This thing is becoming so sophisticated and expanding so much with so many people doing new things that hadn’t been done before it’s a little hard to get all the job descriptions worked out.”

Veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig added that Edwards’ win was both the culmination of much of the hard work Roush referred to, but also puts Edwards in contention to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In other words, the future is starting to look very positive for RFR.

“It was a good win,” Fennig said. “We really need that as hard as everybody has been working this winter. It paid off.

“It’s about winning. That’s the way that we build around Roush Racing. We go out to win, so that’s what we’re striving for. … When we go out to California we’re gonna go shooting after that win. Nothing is gonna change our philosophy.”

With Keselowski winning at Las Vegas and Edwards at Bristol, Ford is going for its third consecutive Sprint Cup win at Fontana. The last time the blue oval folks won three consecutive races was in June 2005, when they swept Dover (Biffle won), Pocono (Edwards won) and Michigan (Biffle won again).

Admittedly, though, as good as they’ve been performing thus far in 2014, Ford drivers could have problems at Fontana, too. Biffle (2005) and Edwards (2008) are the only current Ford drivers to have won Cup races there.

But Edwards hopes to change that nearly six-year drought on Sunday.

“(Prior to Bristol) I’ve been a little bit jealous of those guys that have wins this early in the season,” Edwards said. “I was thinking I can’t imagine what that must feel like to be able to come to a race track like this and have all that pressure off of you (after a win that potentially qualifies a driver for this year’s Chase), so now we’ll be able to go have some fun.  I’m really excited about the next 22 races. That will be a blast.

“The first step is you have to win. I think we’re proving that right now. You’re going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase, so now that we’ve checked that box, we need to go get another win and then I think we’ll be guaranteed to be in it.  Just to have a win this early is a huge relief.  It’s gonna make California and Martinsville, it’s gonna be really fun to go there.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Lewis Hamilton sets rapid pace to open F1 2017 in Australia FP1

Getty Images
2 Comments

Lewis Hamilton kicked off Formula 1’s new technical era in style by heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday morning in Melbourne.

Despite predictions from many that Ferrari and Red Bull would pose a greater challenge at the top of the timesheets in Australia, FP1 offered a familiar result as Hamilton led home new teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The added downforce of the new-style 2017 cars had the desired effect of slashing lap times, with Hamilton’s best effort of 1:24.220 being less than four-tenths of a second off his pole position time for last year’s race.

Bottas made a good impression in his first F1 weekend session in Mercedes colors, leading the bulk of the session before Hamilton jumped ahead on the ultrasoft tires with around 30 minutes remaining.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge, finishing third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, but Ferrari decided against showing its hand early and limited its running, only pushing for fast laps in the final 15 minutes of the session.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP1 fifth in the SF70H, 1.1 seconds off Hamilton’s best time, while Vettel was a further tenth back in P6.

The session went by without any major incident, although a handful of drivers did have minor technical issues that are part and parcel of the first session of the year.

McLaren’s difficulties continued from pre-season as Stoffel Vandoorne was limited to just 10 laps, while Jolyon Palmer and Esteban Ocon also had their running cut due to problems. All three featured in the bottom five of the standings.

Times are below:

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

FIA Formula 2
Leave a comment

Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

Getty Images
3 Comments

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”

Faster F1 cars means bigger, stronger drivers for 2017

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Renault driver Niko Hulkenberg has the kind of name that sounds like big could be his thing.

In Formula One seasons past, muscle bulk hasn’t really been the key requirement for drivers, with work on endurance being the focus of training in the gym. The new regulations in F1 have made the cars bigger and faster, prefacing an era that has the drivers and fans more excited than usual, and so the pilots have to follow suit.

“The cars are like driving a very fast and spectacular roller-coaster and it’s a lot more demanding than before,” Hulkenberg said ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. “Now you have to wrestle these cars!

“The tires allow you to push harder every lap, so you can exploit and be on the limit. It’s a lot more work and a lot more demanding. There’s a lot that’s new, but the game is still the same.”

Lewis Hamilton has worked out the game, winning three drivers’ titles, so he’s more than ready to up the ante.

“As racing drivers in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and I think you always want to go faster,” the Mercedes driver said. “The cars are faster than what they were last year. The challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on the track is a great challenge and it’s more in the direction of how F1 should be in the sense of the physicality side of it.”

Hamilton, who won back-to-back titles with Mercedes in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly missed out to teammate Nico Rosberg last season, considers himself as much an athlete as a driver.

“F1 should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series,” he said. “In previous years that hasn’t been the case – it hasn’t been to the level that we train to, is relatively easy for us to do – now you have to really push the boundaries, which I like.”

The F1 rule changes means wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, which have made the cars heavier but also significantly faster.

The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder through the corners.

Even though Mercedes dominated under the previous regulations, Hamilton was a big advocate for the changes.

“Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up,” he said. “I have never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are this season … we don’t know where the cars and teams are, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were in prime shape to make the most of the changes.

“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge,” he said. “Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge.”

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel expects his ’17-edition Ferrari to be the fastest car he’s driven.

“For us, what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed – I think we’re back to the level we’ve been 10 years ago, maybe a bit faster,” he said. “Nice to have the feeling that you’re in the fastest cars that you’ve ever driven.”

Vettel is among the drivers who have been working on neck and shoulder strength in particular, to handle the extra load. Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the season standings for Red Bull last year, behind the two Mercedes. He’s put in extra work to ensure he’s stronger physically, knowing that it could make a serious difference. And while he’s no hulking ball of muscle, he’s noticeably bigger than he was in 2016.

“It’s more physical this year,” he said. “We’ve all done our work in the offseason – it’s been fun to put more emphasis on the training.”

Fernando Alonso is one of the veterans of the circuit, having won back-to-back titles for Renault in 2005-06 and having stints at McLaren, Renault and Ferrari after that and before he rejoined McLaren. He’s had two tough seasons, finishing 17th and 10th, so he doesn’t mind doing the extra gym work as long as his car grows with him.

“I’m incredibly motivated and I can’t wait to see what kind of racing this new shake-up of the sport will bring,” he said. “We already know the sport is a lot more physical and the cars are more challenging to drive – from a driver’s point of view this is exactly what we were looking for in the new regulations. I really hope this will translate to good battles on track.”