Horner delighted with podium after difficult winter

1 Comment

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner was in a jubilant mood following today’s Malaysian Grand Prix after Sebastian Vettel finished the race in third place, bringing an end to the team’s ‘winter of discontent.’

Having put more resources into the successful 2013 campaign, Red Bull found themselves on the back foot during winter testing in Spain and Bahrain. The team’s problems were only compounded by engine supplier Renault’s issues, meaning that heading to the first race in Australia, the defending world champions had not completed an entire race distance.

Following Vettel’s early retirement in Australia and Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification, the team failed to score any points in the first race of the season. Although Ricciardo failed to finish in Malaysia after a luckless race, Vettel’s third place brought some much needed joy to Horner and the Red Bull team.

“Considering where we were a month ago, to be on the podium with Sebastian in Malaysia in a dry race, is an incredible performance,” he explained. “We knew that we had some ground to catch up to the Mercedes, so to finish as close as Sebastian did today was a really positive performance and, while we know we’ve got a lot of work to do, we can begin to realize the scale of our challenge.”

The team failed to challenge Mercedes during the race as Lewis Hamilton led home Nico Rosberg for a dominant one-two, so there is definitely ground to be made up.

As for Ricciardo, Horner expressed his sympathy for the Australian driver who once again came away with no points.

“It’s a great shame for Daniel who did everything right today: a great start and a great first lap and a really impressive opening part of the race,” Horner said. “It was unlucky that when he came in to a pit stop, the front left didn’t go on properly and the car was released, it was judged to be an unsafe release and we had a drive through penalty.

“Thereafter the wing failed – we don’t know what caused that yet. I think Daniel’s clearly shown his potential and that the Australian GP wasn’t a one off. It’s great to have two guys pushing like they are.”

The team is set to appeal against Ricciardo’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix at a hearing in Paris on April 14.

Although the advantage does clearly lie with Mercedes, Red Bull appears to have finally found its feet in 2014, and can now begin to plot its challenge for a fifth straight set of championships.

What to watch for: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The momentum that Lewis Hamilton gained with his victory in the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago carried through to qualifying in Baku on Saturday as he swept to his 66th pole position in Formula 1.

One year on from one of the most underwhelming performances of his grand prix career at the Baku City Circuit, Hamilton looked more at ease this time around, producing a stunning late lap in Q3 to bag pole ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

With F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel starting fourth for Ferrari, the odds are stacked in Hamilton’s favor as he bids to reclaim the lead of the drivers’ championship – but as we have seen already this weekend, the Baku track can punish the smallest of errors.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Bottas look to continue Mercedes’ momentum swing

Even after Lewis Hamilton’s convincing victory in Canada two weeks ago, Ferrari entered the Azerbaijan race weekend as the favorite given the SF70H car’s ‘work everywhere’ nature and the mix of high- and slow-speed sections in Baku.

Yet qualifying saw Mercedes deliver a result that was reminiscent of its devastating qualifying form last year when it was regularly gapping the field by a second. 2017 form it ain’t.

So does this point towards a sea change in the pecking order at the top of the field? Maybe. If Mercedes can sweep to another one-two here and convincingly beat Ferrari, it would be more proof that the “diva” W08 car is slowly starting to come good.

Can Red Bull get in the fight?

Red Bull may have been marooned as the third-fastest team for much of the season so far, but the early signs in Baku are that the team could be in the mix to fight with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field.

Max Verstappen led both practice sessions on Friday and nearly outqualified Vettel, pointing to an improved pace in the RB13 car, even if we didn’t see as much from Daniel Ricciardo after his prang in Q3.

While on raw pace Red Bull may struggle to keep up in the race, should things turn in its favor much as it did in Spain and Malaysia last year, Verstappen looks primed and ready to pounce.

Another one-stop race in store

Pirelli’s more conservative tires have certainly been a big talking point so far this season, with one-stop races appearing to become the norm, and you can expect the same in Baku today.

The super-soft tire was holding up so well that drivers were expecting to keep finding time on their starting set in Q3, only for the red flag to prompt a switch, and it is likely the compound will go deep into the race today as well.

While it may not offer many strategy variants, it does mean that teams can push for both the undercut and the overcut, as seen in Russia and Monaco earlier this year. So there are still a few routes to go down and options, particularly with the challenge of negotiating traffic through the tighter sections.

Will Baku madness finally strike?

Last year’s inaugural race in Baku caught many by surprise given its tameness and lack of incidents. No safety cars and no blockages around the circuit despite the earlier madness that had ensued in the GP2 race was not the expectation.

That might be different this year, though. We have already seen two drivers – Sergio Perez and Jolyon Palmer – get caught out at the tight Turn 8 section, while an incident in the Formula 2 feature event on Saturday prompted the race to end under a red flag.

As drivers look to gain positions and fight their way to the front, things could get crazy in Baku today…

McLare- oh you know the rest…

Yep, it’s another one of those days for McLaren. After ailing to its worst qualifying display of the season with a double-Q1 knockout on Saturday, racing director Eric Boullier said it was one of the worst weekends he’s had in racing. And you can understand why.

The Baku circuit’s tighter sections may suit the MCL32 chassis nicely, yet the high-speed stuff – and especially the never-ending home straight – lay the issues with the Honda power unit bare. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s trap speeds were over 20 mph down on the leaders in qualifying – it’s a sad state of affairs.

From P18 and P19, McLaren can’t really expect much from its drivers today. That said, with an incident or two, and taking into account Alonso’s knack for dragging a car far beyond its rightful position, points are still a dream that are not totally out of the question…

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Esteban Ocon Force India
8. Lance Stroll Williams
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Kevin Magnussen Haas
13. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
14. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
15. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso*
16. Romain Grosjean Haas
17. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
18. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren**
19. Fernando Alonso McLaren***
20. Jolyon Palmer Renault****

* Sainz received a three-place grid penalty after causing a collision in the Canadian Grand Prix.
** Vandoorne received a 35-place grid penalty for power unit and gearbox changes.
*** Alonso received a 40-place grid penalty for power unit changes.
**** Palmer failed to set a time in qualifying, and starts from last at the discretion of the stewards.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Another day, another photo finish in MX-5 Cup at Road America

Photo: Global MX-5 Cup
Leave a comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The first of three sports car races held Saturday at Road America featured a familiar ending in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires: a photo finish.

For the third time in four races, a margin of victory of less than a tenth of a second was all that decided the race. This time it was defending series champion Nathanial Sparks of Sick Sideways Racing, edging Atlanta Speedwerks’ Todd Lamb by 0.0468 of a second, for the victory.

Sparks’ win slots in second in the three photo finishes. Friday’s race one saw Patrick Gallagher beat Bryan Ortiz by 0.0263 of a second. At Indianapolis last weekend, Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 of a second.

Sparks, also known as “Sparky,” explained how he made the move for the win.

“I fell back a little and I put my head down and really drove hard and I found myself back up at the front,” said Sparks. “Ortiz, Gallagher, and all those guys were driving so hard and there was battling for position and jockeying and moving around. I had a good run coming up out of the last corner and I managed to make my Mazda motor just power me up and just drove it home. It was super excited bringing it home for my Sick Sideways team today.”

Lamb, who came up short, offered his take: “That was a lot of fun. It’s my first podium of the season. We’re starting to get these cars figured out and starting to figure out who is going to work with us and who’s not. It’s been a lot of fun and a good learning experience this weekend, I’m looking forward to more!”

Gallagher led the standings by 39 points over Sparks heading into the weekend and extended the lead with his win on Friday.

“It was definitely more chaotic today, nobody wanted to work together like they did yesterday,” said Gallagher. “Everyone thought they had to be in second, but they didn’t realize they needed to be there until the last lap. Everybody was trying to get to second place from lap one, people were leaning on me and I just had to be careful. I got shoved around a little bit, but it’s a long season, and the championship points we got here this weekend are most important.”

The McCumbee McAleer Racing driver finished third today, his season worst result (hardly a bad thing for the Thornville, Ohio native) and still leads the points as the series heads next to the streets of Toronto, July 14-16, for Rounds 7 and 8. That is also part of a Verizon IndyCar Series weekend.

Fong (Bentley), James (Panoz) score Saturday PWC Road America wins

Photos: PWC
Leave a comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Pirelli World Challenge has returned to full Sprint race action at Road America today with its GT class, while the GTS class was joined by a handful of invitational entries in the TC class for a pair of races at the 4.014-mile circuit.

GT

Adderly Fong, the Hong Kong-based driver, has captured his first career PWC victory in the No. 88 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3.

It’s Bentley’s first PWC victory since 2015, when Chris Dyson won here at the same circuit. The win came after Fong scored the pole, his second straight and Bentley’s third straight at the track. It also comes on the same day as Bentley won the Paul Ricard 1000km in the Blancpain Endurance Series, with Fong’s SprintX co-driver Vincent Abril co-driving for Bentley Team M-Sport with Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet (below).

Fong had a pair of podiums here last year and with the Bentley expected to do well at this circuit, the pressure was on to deliver.

“My team manager told me if I didn’t win, I didn’t get to have dinner,” Fong joked in the post-race press conference. “I guess I can eat tonight!”

The race-winning performance in the 50-minute race was delivered after Fong collided with Johnny O’Connell on the opening lap, Fong on the inside pitching O’Connell on the outside into a spin exiting Turn 5. Fong apologized for the contact, but was not penalized by PWC race officials.

From there, Fong controlled the pace over Patrick Long, in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, with both drivers managing their Pirelli tires from there.

Long got close, but never close enough to make a passing attempt of Fong for the win. Nonetheless, after finishes of third, first and second in the first three races, Long’s fourth straight Sprint podium brought him forth the Sprint points lead.

Michael Cooper completed the podium in the No. 8 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R, continuing his consistent season in pursuit of an overall PWC championship combining both the Sprint and SprintX components of the calendar. Cooper and Jordan Taylor won the lone SprintX race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park this year while Cooper posted his first Sprint podium of the season.

Daniel Mancinelli had a rare but welcome trouble-free race in his No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 to finish fourth, with the first of the RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3s, Peter Kox’s No. 93 car, scoring a top-five finish on RealTime’s home soil near its Saukville, Wis. base.

O’Connell rebounded to eighth overall after his first lap spin in his No. 3 Cadillac.

In 13th, James Sofronas won the GTA class in his No. 14 GMG Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R. Yuki Harata won the GT Cup class in a Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2.

GTS

Elkhart Lake, WI – Jun 23, 2017: The Pirelli World Challenge racers take to the track on Pirelli tires during the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix at Road America presented by VP Racing Fuels at the Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI.

Ian James has scored the Panoz Avezzano GT’s maiden victory, as the new car took the win in Saturday’s combined GTS and TC race.

It comes after a series of close calls, a near win at Lime Rock Park before engine failure and its first podium there as well. The Tom Milner-led team has a series of holdovers who have worked on Don Panoz’s most recent creation, the DeltaWing, and have transitioned over to a more normal looking sports car.

James dominated the 50-minute race while the battle was more behind him for second place, featuring Jeff Courtney’s No. 99 JCR Motorsports Maserati GT4 in his home race and Lawson Aschenbach in the No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R.

Aschenbach, the championship leader, drove smart to get another podium finish with Courtney just behind despite several attempts.

They held off a late charge from Austin Versteeg, PWC debutante, in the No. 13 ANSA Motorsports KTM X-BOW GT4. The talented teenager out of Sandy, Utah has shifted to racing Lamborghinis this year after racing prototypes but was now in Alain Nadal’s entry this weekend.

Cody Ellsworth, in his No. 111 RacerInk Porsche Cayman, won the TC class.

MRTI: Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda title tilt heats up at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – For the first time in the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season, the gloves are officially off between two title combatants, after an intense, high-pressure weekend split in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

For Victor Franzoni, a win and a second place served as a disappointing weekend for Juncos Racing, because even despite starting last in Saturday’s race two, he very nearly could have won.

Quite by contrast, second and first for Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin was even better than he might have hoped for, with a clear pace deficit to Franzoni this weekend but able to doggedly hold him off in race two.

Franzoni dominated Friday’s race one, which was pretty straightforward. Still though, after red flags caught Franzoni out before qualifying race two, he wasn’t as happy as he usually is.

“The quali was unlucky. We tried a strategy and it didn’t work!” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “But the whole team and I were like, ‘Let’s forget the quali. Let’s focus on what we can do today after quali one.’

“Juncos Racing gave me the great car. It was a big fight. After I got by Anthony, I could go away. It was good. Everything was fine. This was my first win in Road America. Tomorrow is gonna be fun, but I’m really confident. I think we can fight for the win tomorrow.”

Martin put up a valiant fight early in the race but was unable to hold onto it.

“I thought if I’d do anything it’d be the first few laps. as I gave that a red hot shot,” Martin told NBC Sports. “We battled quite hard. I knew he had a better and quicker car than me. I consolidated that I would be in second, looked after my tires. It’ll hurt your tires. I jumped into second and looked after the tires.”

Saturday’s race two, meanwhile, was a barnburner. The second 30-minute race of the weekend saw three yellow flags but Franzoni on a charge from 15th up to second.

Franzoni made it to third by Lap 4 of the eventual 11-lap race. But while the first yellow aided his charge and brought him just two car lengths away from Martin on the first restart, the next two yellows interrupted that process because he’d need to catch up Martin and attempt to pass him again.

“All the unlucky came together,” Franzoni said Saturday. “The race being 40 versus 30. Starting last. Three yellow flags! Everything came down to this not being my race.”

The Brazilian said he still could have hunted down Martin from last on the grid even without the aid of a yellow flag.

“I think with green the whole race, it was possible to do. The car was really really fast. When the first yellow came it was OK, and I thought, ‘Now it’s easier,’ but not the other ones!”

But it was after the restarts that Franzoni thought Martin drove over-aggressively, making his car wider to keep the faster Franzoni behind him.

At Turn 5 in particular, the two drivers had one moment where they both went in deep, overshot the corner entry, and Martin and Franzoni both ran wide on exit. There was another moment exiting Turn 5 where Franzoni got a run up the hill to the inside while Martin moved across to defend there.

The two drivers explained their respective vantage points.

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle today. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“I was almost four wheels in the grass. He didn’t give me space,” Franzoni alleged. “There were two times in Turn 5, and I tried outside. He threw the car on me. It was not so nice.”

Martin said, “Knowing that Race Control and everyone is watching, you don’t want to get caught out and make a mistake. So I tried to make it difficult for him to get past me. We both went extremely deep into Turn 5, and we both overshot it.

“We’ve raced each other a few years (in the Mazda Road to Indy). We’re not gonna do anything stupid to each other. I tried to keep him behind me. Things happen. But nothing happened that catastrophic. It was a tough race for both of us. It worked out well for both of us.”

Martin, who led the entirety of the second race, had to exert some key mental training to stay focused for the restarts. With caution laps being so long at the 4.014-mile circuit, Martin knew he had to keep his head in the game.

“It felt long. All the safety car laps take so long! I looked at the dash and thought, ‘It’s a 5-minute lap, we at Spa or something?’ It was pretty crazy the whole race. Mentally very difficult, but we were able to keep him behind.”

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course comes next the end of July for Pro Mazda after another month break in this season’s condensed schedule.

And it’ll be an important weekend. With three races and Franzoni only seven points clear of Martin, 174-167, it will be imperative to maximize the mark.

Martin enters high on confidence having completed a triple-race sweep in USF2000 with Cape there last year, and with Cape having also delivered a weekend double in Pro Mazda with Nico Jamin driving.

“We know we have a great car at Mid-Ohio but Juncos does as well,” Martin said. “He’s had a half a championship of experience in Pro Mazda – this half – but the team are pushing me to my limit. They’ll implement the correct driving style.

“Mid-Ohio really suits me. I love that track. It suits my style a lot more than these last two tracks.”

Juncos, though, always fields a strong car at Mid-Ohio too and Franzoni will be hoping his car will be just as strong there.

“I had such good equipment. I could have won this race,” Franzoni said. “It’s OK. We’re still leading the championship. I’m disappointed because we had a really big gap and really good car.

“I thought we could use this weekend better to get all the points. It wasn’t so difficult. We’re in good shape but I’m sad because we didn’t win.”