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Mercedes’ domination: Equivalent or different from Red Bull’s?

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There’s been a fascinating element I’ve found from the first four Grands Prix of the 2014 season.

We once again have a dominant team, that seems virtually unassailable at least until the first round of major upgrades for the European season, when the pecking order can change.

But it’s the Germans, the Brackley-based Mercedes team, that is at the front of the field by a substantial margin. It is not the Austrians, Red Bull, who have stamped their authority on the field these past four years.

Is there a greater level of acceptance for this amount of domination that we perhaps didn’t see last year, or 2011, when Red Bull won more than a dozen races each year?

Consider the past for a reference point. Mercedes, in its past guise and single season as Brawn GP in 2009, was able to get a jump on the next year’s regulations as a sweeping round of changes came to Formula One car designed.

The Brawn – which would have been the 2009 Honda had the Japanese manufacturer not pulled out of the sport – then took on a Mercedes power plant. Jenson Button, then known as one of the stars of the sport who hadn’t reached his full potential, won six of the first seven Grands Prix en route to building an unassailable lead in the standings.

Because it was an underdog story, a team that barely survived a troubled winter only to be saved by a last-minute management takeover, with a driver who had never been at the front of the field, it was a series of popular victories. It was also a major surprise.

Red Bull caught up in the second half and won more events, but were too far behind to eventually catch up the championship gaps.

In 2014, we may have a case of history repeating itself.

Yes, Mercedes now is in a different leadership state, with Ross Brawn having since left the team over the winter and Mercedes now under the leadership of Toto Wolff (business) and Paddy Lowe (technical). Its drivers are Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, into their second season as teammates.

But the DNA of the team – which traces its origins to Tyrrell first, then BAR, Honda and Brawn before becoming the Mercedes factory team in 2010 – is similar. And the way in which they’ve reacted to the 2014 changes is nearly identical to that of the 2009 season.

They had a good car in 2013, but were far enough back in the championship to where they could focus substantially on the 2014 car and design during the second half of the season.

There was an astute point made during Sunday’s NBCSN broadcast from analyst Steve Matchett, in that Mercedes’ sporting director Ron Meadows, who accepted the winning Constructor’s trophy on the podium, has been there through it all.

Meadows will have seen the rise, fall, and rise again of a great brand and great team – and one which has regained the upper hand in the F1 pecking order at the moment.

Mercedes has not gotten the same level of criticism or scorn as Red Bull thus far for a couple reasons. For one, they have a pair of drivers determined to A. race each other and B. beat each other, without any repercussions or team orders.

And two, they aren’t Red Bull. Red Bull’s and Sebastian Vettel’s success was eventually praised by many but still had its few detractors. The few races he didn’t dominate from the outset, he still found a way to win. There were boos from fans who didn’t appreciate the level of dominance, or didn’t respect the way Vettel and Red Bull went about their business. Still, it got old, and it got stale.

Someone was going to get the new regulations for 2014 first, and thus far, that’s Mercedes. The team is the first to nail the new regulations, it’s allowed its drivers to race freely, and it’s clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

Compared to Red Bull, somehow it feels different. It feels that because it’s two very, very good drivers in the best car, it’s got the potential of blossoming into a 1988 or 1989-style McLaren level of dominance season – and one where Hamilton and Rosberg play the respective Senna-Prost roles as they’re on the precipice of an internal war as they seek the upper hand within the team. And that could be fun to watch.

This is where Mercedes needs to stay the course. The domination is fine so long as there’s two drivers going for it, not just one driver going away from the field.

We’ll see if the level of domination continues, and if this Mercedes smackdown eventually runs the same tired course as Red Bull’s did over the last couple years.

Renault won’t rush decision on 2017 F1 line-up

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo makes a pit stop during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Renault Formula 1 chief Frederic Vasseur says a decision on the French marque’s driver line-up for the 2017 season will not be rushed as ‘silly season’ begins to ramp up.

Renault returned to F1 as a constructor in 2016 after five years away after taking over the financially-ailing Lotus operation at Enstone.

Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen were signed as drivers for 2016, but both have struggled for form with the R.S.16 car.

Magnussen’s seventh-place finish in Russia remains Renault’s only points finish of the season so far.

Speculation has been growing about the future of both Magnussen and Palmer at Renault, with a number of drivers out of contract and available for next season.

Renault also has an extensive junior program featuring drivers such as Esteban Ocon, Sergey Sirotkin and Oliver Rowland, all of whom are vying for their F1 debuts next year.

With so many options and many drivers to consider, Vasseur is keen to take some time before making any call on Renault’s line-up for 2017.

“We are at that time of year when we are asked these questions, but the questions and the speculation often happen before any decision is made,” Vasseur said.

“What I can say is we have two good drivers, who are improving weekend after weekend. Let’s not forget that Jolyon is a rookie and that Kevin only had one year driving full-time at McLaren then a year not racing.

“They are both doing a strong, solid job and work very well within the team. I have a strong relationship with them both and they know what is expected of them.

“Within the team we are very happy together. We will make our decisions for 2017 in our own time.”

Time on Perez’s side in race for top Formula 1 seat

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez believes that time is on his side as he looks to secure a seat with a top Formula 1 team in the future, with his plans for 2017 still yet to be defined.

Perez has led Force India’s charge in 2016, scoring two podium finishes to lift the team to fifth place in the constructors’ championship behind Williams.

Perez’s impressive form led to speculation about a possible move up the grid for 2017, the Mexican being tipped as a possible replacement for Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari.

Ferrari opted to stick with Raikkonen for next season, but Force India team owner Vijay Mallya said at Silverstone he had already signed Perez and teammate Nico Hulkenberg up for 2017 anyway.

Perez has stated on multiple occasions that a firm decision on his future has not been taken, and will be discussed with his sponsors over the summer.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Perez said that although his backing from Mexican telecoms giant Carlos Slim helps, the teams he wants to race for do not take financial backing into serious consideration.

“Top teams are always looking for the best possible drivers,” Perez said.

“But I also know that I am in a privileged position as I have that support that not many drivers have.

“But to be honest: the teams that I am eyeing are not really to be impressed by money – only performance.”

After being re-signed by Ferrari, Raikkonen said he took pleasure in ending the hopes of drivers who may have wanted his seat. Perez responded to this by saying he had time on his side at just 26 years old.

“Well, regardless of seeing Kimi’s pleasure having signed for one more year, it is only one more year,” Perez said.

“And time is on my side!”

While question marks remain when it comes to Perez’s future at Force India, Hulkenberg confirmed on Thursday in Germany that he will be racing for the team next year.

Rosberg quickest in opening German GP practice

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg made an impressive start to his home grand prix weekend by leading first practice at Hockenheim for Mercedes on Friday.

Rosberg heads into the German Grand Prix trailing teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship for the first time this season after the Briton’s victory last weekend in Hungary.

Rosberg won the last German Grand Prix in 2014, delighting home fans at Hockenheim, and brought a smile to those scattered across the grandstands on Friday morning by topping FP1.

A fastest lap of 1:15.517 was enough to give Rosberg P1 by three-tenths of a second, with Hamilton trailing in second place.

The rest of the pack was left far behind, with Sebastian Vettel leading the charge for Ferrari in third place. His time was over a second slower than Rosberg’s best lap, suggesting that Mercedes is set to dominate proceedings once again in Germany.

Kimi Raikkonen followed Vettel in the second Ferrari, finishing fourth ahead of the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Fresh from finishing every session of the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend in P7, Fernando Alonso finished FP1 seventh for McLaren, with teammate Jenson Button close behind in P8. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.

Second practice for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Friday.

Cruz Pedregon aims to land knockout punch in battle for playoff spot

2016_Cruz_Pedregon_Action
(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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He may be one of the nicest guys in drag racing, but Cruz Pedregon has a fighting side to him.

He’s a big fan of the fight game, including pro boxers like Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and others.

But it’s Pedregon who will be gearing up for quite a brawl during this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma (California) Raceway.

Ranked 12th in the standings and with just four races remaining to crack the top 10 and qualify for the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the two-time Funny Car champ is strapping on the gloves tight and plans to come out swinging this weekend.

Given where he’s ranked, some might consider Pedregon an underdog to make the playoffs. Right now, he’s 188 points out of 10th place (held by Alexis DeJoria), the final qualifying spot for the Countdown.

But make no mistake about it: the Southern California native, a winner of 35 national events, knows what to do to keep his title hopes alive.

2016_Cruz_Pedregon head shot

“My favorite fighter was Muhammad Ali (and) I feel like this time right now for me and our team is like Ali-Frazier 1,” Pedregon said in an NHRA media release. “Joe Frazier hit Ali with a big left hook right on the chin and (knocked) him down.

“Ali took a breath and got right back up and that’s what we have to do, just take a deep breath and get up, and keep fighting for these round wins and points.”

There’s no question Pedregon has struggled in 2016: he’s failed to advance past the first round in 11 of the season’s first 14 races, including eight of the last nine.

And while he reached the semifinals four times last season (finished ninth in the overall season standings), he hasn’t won a race since 2014 at Englishtown, New Jersey (finished 10th in the season standings).

But if there was ever a time for a turnaround, it’s this weekend, as Pedregon is sponsored by Toyota and this is a Toyota-sponsored race.

There has been one bright spot this season for Pedregon: he reached the finals at Charlotte, but fell short of winning. Still, it showed his 10,000-horsepower Camry has what it takes to challenge for wins.

“The most frustrating part about the entire thing is just not having the runs we all know we are capable of running,” Pedregon said. “We are a 3.90s car, we are a 3.80s car, and we just haven’t been able to completely show our full potential.

“It also frustrates me for our team. I have the best group of guys I’ve ever had work on my car. There is no quit in them and even when they are frustrated like me they put their heads down and work harder because they want to win, they want to show people what we have here and I think that speaks to the core leadership on our team.”

But don’t think Pedregon is going to take a dive or roll over this weekend. He’s going to be punching from the first qualifying session until the final round – and he hopes to be the last man standing in Sunday’s eliminations.

“Our mindset for these next few races is first, figure out the little things that (are) happening to us and get them straightened out,” Pedregon said. “Second is just going out and running how I think our Snap-on Tools/WIX Filters Toyota is capable of running.

“I know we have a fast car, everyone knows we have a fast car, it’s just these little things jump up and happen to us and it’s frustrating. We go out to each qualifying session with the goal of top five in mind and we will fight for each round to get into the Countdown.”

Even though he’s in a catch-up position, Pedregon isn’t letting the pressure get to him. He’s one of the best drivers in the sport when the pressure is the highest.

In fact, Pedregon thrives on pressure. That, combined with a good fight, could turn things around in a hurry for him. And he has the perfect example of past history to prove how solid a punch he can land.

“Every qualifying session, every round of racing means something,” Pedregon said. “If you feel as if you’re under pressure, people tend to tense up and lose focus and miss their mark.

“You can control only what you can control and that’s all you can do. (In) 1992 I won five straight races to clinch a title and in 2008 I won four.

“That’s not because I felt the pressure of needing to win, it was the mentality of going out and everyone doing the same routine over and over, like chopping a tree down. I believe in my team and in my race car.”

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TOYOTA NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 29th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the 15th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships. The NHRA Lucas Oil Series also will be featured at this event.

WHERE: Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma, Calif. The track is located at the intersection of Highways 37 and 121.

COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 15 feet above sea level; Track direction is north to south.

WHEN: Friday through Sunday, July 29-31

SCHEDULE:        

FRIDAY, July 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 4:30 and 7 p.m.

SATURDAY, July 30 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:10 and 4:15 p.m.

NHRA PRO BIKE BATTLE AT SONOMA RACEWAY at 1, 3 and 4:50 p.m.

SUNDAY, July 31 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

TELEVISION:      

Friday, July 29, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 7:30 p.m. (ET).

Saturday, July 30, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 10 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, July 31, FOX will televise three hours of live finals coverage at 4 p.m. (ET).

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Jack Beckman, Funny Car; Chris McGaha, Pro Stock, Eddie Krawiec, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES AT SONOMA: John Force, 7, FC; Doug Kalitta, 5, TF; Greg Anderson, 4, PS; Antron Brown, 4, TF; Ron Capps, 4, FC; Darrell Alderman, 3, PS; Warren Johnson, 3, PS; Eddie Krawiec, 3, PSM; Jason Line, 3, PS; Jim Yates, 3, PS.

TRACK RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.707 sec. by Antron Brown, July ‘15; 329.10 mph by Dave Connolly, July ’15.

Funny Car – 3.921 sec. by Jack Beckman, July ‘15; 325.77 mph by Matt Hagan, July ‘15.

Pro Stock – 6.499 sec. by Chris McGaha, July ’15; 213.00 mph by Shane Gray, July ‘15.

PS Motorcycle – 6.785 sec. by Eddie Krawiec, July ’12; 198.79 mph by Hector Arana Jr., July ’15.

NATIONAL RECORDS:    

Top Fuel – 3.676 sec. by Brittany Force, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.862 sec. and 335.57 mph by Matt Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

PS Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

TICKETS: For tickets call (800) 870-RACE (7223). Tickets may also be purchased online atwww.sonomaraceway.com.

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Point standings (top 10) following the 14th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series::

Top Fuel: 1.  Antron Brown, 1,145; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 1,088; 3.  Steve Torrence, 982; 4.  Brittany Force, 953; 5.  Tony Schumacher, 916; 6.  Shawn Langdon, 800; 7.  J.R. Todd, 799; 8.  Clay Millican, 681; 9. Richie Crampton, 660; 10.  Leah Pritchett, 553.

Funny Car: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,120; 2.  Courtney Force, 998; 3.  Jack Beckman, 976; 4.  Matt Hagan, 881; 5. (tie) Robert Hight, 877; Del Worsham, 877; 7.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 855; 8.  John Force, 821; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 793; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 733.

Pro Stock: 1.  Jason Line, 1,548; 2.  Greg Anderson, 1,466; 3.  Bo Butner, 955; 4.  Allen Johnson, 885; 5. Vincent Nobile, 758; 6.  Drew Skillman, 753; 7.  Chris McGaha, 661; 8.  Shane Gray, 658; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 613; 10.  Alex Laughlin, 595.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1.  Eddie Krawiec, 742; 2.  Andrew Hines, 633; 3.  Angelle Sampey, 534; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 500; 5. Chip Ellis, 386; 6.  Hector Arana, 375; 7.  LE Tonglet, 364; 8.  Matt Smith, 290; 9.  Steve Johnson, 268; 10.  Michael Ray, 262.

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