Auto Club 400

NASCAR’s Pemberton: Fontana tire failures not a Goodyear problem


After today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway was marked by a string of tire failures, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton told reporters afterwards that the blame for the failures should not be put at Goodyear’s feet.

With seven laps to go, race leader Jimmie Johnson lost his chance to win when the left-front tire went down on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Three more tire failures ensued in the next five laps to set up the green-white-checkered finish of the race, which was won by Kyle Busch.

Multiple other drivers including Kevin Harvick (who lost two left rear tires alone), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Danica Patrick also suffered tire failures at some point during today’s race.

But Pemberton believes that aggressive setups on the part of the teams were at the root of those problems.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been on a path to add mechanical grip, give more options to the teams,” he explained. “We’ve opened up camber rules for grip in both the front and the rear of the car. They have a lot of tools to use if they choose to do so.

“But the tires weren’t wearing. At some parts of the race, the tires were abused a little bit, so I guess that’s why the failures.”

Pemberton also said the teams asked for “aggressive tires” from Goodyear that they would need to manage and figure out how to get the most out of. Additionally, he said that some teams were running Goodyear tires with as low as 14 pounds of air, well below their recommended cold tire reading of 22 pounds.

Nonetheless, some of the drivers had different emotions on the subject following the race at Fontana.

Jeff Gordon was able to inherit the lead from Johnson after his tire failure, but had fallen farther behind Johnson prior to the incident because of a tire issue on his own car.

“I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened,” said Gordon, who wound up finishing 13th after losing out badly on the G-W-C restart. “They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for. We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off.

“When I saw the No. 48 had issues, I was just hoping we would make it to the end and I was just going as slow as I possibly could trying to maintain the lead and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me.”

But neither his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., or third-place finisher Kurt Busch would pin the blame on Goodyear.

Earnhardt, who finished, 12th, felt that ACS’ bumpy layout – particularly its backstretch – had more than a little to do with the failures.

“To be honest with you, the back straightaway is very rough and I think the tire can’t handle the load that it goes through on that back straightaway,” he said. “And it’s just tearing the tire up where the sidewall and tread are put together.

“…I feel bad for Goodyear. I think the tire is fine. I like the tire. It’s just those bumps. If you watch the cars go through there in slow motion, it shouldn’t be like that.”

Kurt Busch also noted NASCAR’s decision to give the teams more leeway in determining their mechanical set-ups.

“By no means is this a problem for Goodyear,” he said of the situation. “It’s just a thumbs-up for NASCAR for allowing teams to get aggressive in all areas.”

WATCH LIVE: USGP FP1 at 11 a.m., FP2 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks into the paddock with his dog, Coco, during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Free practice kicks off today for the United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas in Austin, and you can see both sessions LIVE on NBCSN and streamed via and the NBC Sports App (for participating providers).

First practice runs from 11 a.m. ET to 12:30 p.m. ET, leading into the premiere of Off the Grid: Austria at 12:30 p.m.

Then second practice runs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET.

Austin is on CT, so local times are 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m., respectively.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are in the commentary booth with Will Buxton patrolling the pits and paddock for today’s coverage.

Again, that’s 11 a.m. ET and 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN for LIVE coverage of free practice from Austin.

Full times and details for the weekend are linked here.

Hulkenberg: Renault move ‘the right step in my career’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg believes that his move to Renault for the 2017 Formula 1 season is the “right step” for his career after deciding to leave Force India.

Hulkenberg had been set to remain with Force India next season, but Renault announced last week that it had signed the German driver for 2017 after agreeing a deal to release him from his contract.

Speaking in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the United States Grand Prix, 2015 Le Mans winner Hulkenberg said he is looking forward to taking on a new challenge.

“I believe that it’s the right step in my career at this point,” Hulkenberg said.

“I feel I have come a long way with Force India – it’s my fifth year with them. We’ve had some good success together. But I felt that it’s time for a new challenge.

“Since I’m in F1 I’ve always wanted to race for a manufacturer team and this is a really good opportunity. The timing was pretty good too. So I think it was a good decision I think from my side.”

Renault has struggled during its first season back in F1 as a constructor after six years away, scoring just eight points to sit third-from-bottom of the teams’ standings.

However, Hulkenberg is confident that, given time, Renault’s might as a manufacturer can help him score his first podium finish in F1 and his first victory.

“I think them being a manufacturer, they are under some expectations to eventually be successful and be at the front and compete for wins and that’s obviously what I’m looking for,” Hulkenberg said.

“We know at the moment there is still a long journey ahead of them, to climb back to the top because it’s been a difficult year and where they’ve come from.

“When they bought Lotus last year was not the easiest it will take time to rebuild the team and to get back to the top but obviously what I see there is a good future, definitely a big challenge, a massive challenge.

“But I’m very much up for that – and why not build a new success story with them?”

Perez: Open Force India seat is ‘best available out there’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India celebrate participating in 100 Grand Prix during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN – Sergio Perez holds one of two seats at Sahara Force India for 2017, which seemed unfathomable to write about a month ago, but is now the actuality after Nico Hulkenberg – instead – has departed for the Renault Sport F1 Team.

Perez addressed his own Renault rumors before explaining why he has re-signed with Force India.

“It was more to do with the fact that I believe in my team, I see the best future for me here,” he told assembled reporters on Thursday. “That’s why I took the decision to stay for another year.”

The Mexican driver now said that the vacant seat alongside him at the Mercedes-powered team is the “best available” one left for 2017, as the grid comes together for next season.

“I think many drivers wanted the seat at Force India because at the moment I think it is the best available seat out there,” Perez said.

“So there should be a lot of interest in that seat. I just hope that the team – and it’s down to the team totally to take the best possible decision.”

Perez, who’s been matched alongside Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber, Jenson Button at McLaren and Nico Hulkenberg at Force India, now could well assume team leader role in 2017 for what would be the first time in his career.

It seems a good possibility that a young gun such as one of the two Manor drivers, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon, couldscore the Force India second seat.

Perez was quick to hail Hulkenberg as the best teammate he’s had, and downplayed suggestions he was overly keen to become the team leader.

“I think definitely Nico was the strongest teammate I’ve had up to date in F1,” Perez said.

“I think the relationship between myself and Nico was good, but not only that, I think our level on track was really closely-matched. Every single practice,” he said.

“And that meant a lot to the team because we pushed the team forward and that’s to the benefit of the team, to have two teammates that are so closely matched together. I always knew that if I didn’t get the perfect lap in quali, he would beat me, and vice-versa, and also in the race, race after race. That just helps the team because through our seasons we had bad cars and good cars, but it was always important to make sure that we took the maximum out of each car.

“I think whoever comes, it’s up to the team. I am sure that the team will take the best decision. We’re obviously looking for the best possible teammate that I can have.

“I just hope that whoever comes comes here with the right attitude and obviously a quick driver, a good attitude to work together for the team and work together to improve the car. That will be important. That makes a huge difference.

“If you have a driver that is too far off the pace and you see it sometimes in a couple of teams, you just don’t take the most out of the car because you know that if you don’t have a good lap you can still beat your teammate. I think for me it’s important to have the fastest possible teammate.”

From Capgate to champion-in-waiting: Back at COTA, what’s changed for Nico Rosberg?

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 09:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP gets ready on the grid before the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 9, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Last year’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas offered one of the weirder weekends in Formula 1’s recent history.

After torrential rain washed out much of Friday and Saturday, the race that followed on Sunday was a classic, with Lewis Hamilton emerging victorious ahead of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg had been leading the race with 10 laps to go, only for a mistake in the final sector – allegedly the result of a gust of wind – to send him wide and allow Hamilton past.

It proved a decisive change of position. With victory, Hamilton was able to move into an unassailable lead in the drivers’ championship, sparking jubilant celebrations from the Briton in the pit lane having clinched a third world title.

Before heading out on the podium, Hamilton and Rosberg found themselves together in the cool-down room where they prepared for the ceremony. Rosberg sat in a white armchair, contemplating his title defeat, when Hamilton tossed him his second place finisher cap that had to be worn on the podium. Rosberg threw it straight back.

And so ‘Capgate’ was born.

The race and resulting ‘incident’ acted as an apt microcosm of the 2015 season and the championship battle between Hamilton and Rosberg. Hamilton had simply been one step ahead throughout the season, while Rosberg had been error-prone when the pressure mounted. COTA was the strongest example of that.

Twelve months later, things are very, very different. Rosberg arrives in Austin not as a championship outsider, but as the favorite: 33 points ahead of Hamilton, nine wins under his belt – this is not the same Nico Rosberg that wilted in the wind in Austin last year.

The foundations for Rosberg’s title bid were laid towards the back-end of last year. After seeing Hamilton wrap up the title at COTA, Rosberg went on a neat run of three straight victories in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi to close out the season. While they were meaningless in terms of the championship, they acted as a prelude to 2016.

Hamilton was off the boil in the final races, certainly. He was enjoying his championship success and celebrity profile, which – while not wrecking his on-track form – meant he didn’t quite have the edge to match Rosberg.

Questions concerning Hamilton’s focus have been rife throughout his career, given his off-track interests. For the most part, they are misplaced. He has repeatedly proven he can prevail over his rivals while still enjoying his life away from F1.

But the debacle surrounding his Snapchat shenanigans over the Japanese Grand Prix and the hype surrounding it had the feeling of something slightly different. It was a fire that Hamilton didn’t need to be fighting or concerning himself with; yet he did. It was the big talking point of the weekend. Rosberg just kept his head down and took a clinical, classy victory at Suzuka.

Suzuka, Singapore, Monza and Baku are the races that Hamilton will look back on and say ‘that’s where the championship was lost’. He has suffered more than his fair share of misfortune this year, but the swing to Rosberg has not been wholly the result of those setbacks. Rosberg would be a deserving champion.

Perhaps the biggest change for Rosberg in 2016 is that he no longer appears to dwell on issues or battles that may have been ‘slow burners’ last year. The collapse of his title bid in 2014 stemmed from Hamilton’s antics in Hungary that year, while even as early as China in 2015, he looked to be bowing to the pressure of his teammate.

This year, Rosberg has remained cool, calculated, and icy – his Finnish heritage shining through. Even after his clash with Hamilton in Austria and his miserable displays in Monaco and Germany, Rosberg brushed it off and moved on. His focus has always been on a race-by-race basis, preventing him from stewing over poor performances or on-track incidents.

It has, however, resulted in a somewhat repetitive rhetoric. At each race, Rosberg has re-affirmed that he is not thinking about the championship; that he is taking things one race at a time; that he’s 100% focused on winning (what else would he be doing!?).

Rosberg was asked on Thursday in Austin what he was thinking about, if not the championship.

“An awesome race weekend in Austin GP… all I’m thinking about is Austin GP weekend,” he asserted.

It’s a mundane answer. Observers want to see Rosberg showing more heart, particularly at a point when the championship is well and truly in his hands. Four second-place finishes will be enough to win a maiden F1 crown. As Marc Marquez has proven this year in MotoGP, sometimes settling for second is a very effective tactic – it is one that Rosberg may want to be thinking about.

Alas, when your teammate is Lewis Hamilton, perhaps the blinkered, race-by-race approach is the best way to do things. Shut out negativity. Don’t dwell on the past. Only look forward.

Rosberg might be world champion in just nine days’ time in Mexico. He can wrap up the title with two races to spare if he pulls out another 17 points on Hamilton in the meantime. Should he win the championship, it would not be a ‘skin of his teeth’ success such as that of his father, Keke, who took the 1982 title with just one victory to his name. It would be a convincing title win.

Rosberg’s approach may lack the spark or heart of Hamilton’s title bids, and it may not be very Hollywood – but it is effective. Entrenching himself in this mindset has proven very useful indeed over the past 12 months. Time will tell whether he is rewarded with a world title in 2016.

And maybe then we’ll see the release of emotion from Rosberg that is craved of our champions.