Barber-Preview

IndyCar: Will high grip and high tempers equal high drama at Barber?

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Barber Motorsports Park for Round 3 of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, could be a humdinger based on the two past years’ races at the circuit or the two opening races to this season.

What had been something of a processional race the first two times has suddenly blossomed into one that’s featured some sensational and frequent passing. In part, that’s been due to the high grip nature of the track surface and what’s been a big difference between the primary black and alternate red compounds of Firestone tires during the race.

Last year alone, there were two very memorable passes. Ryan Hunter-Reay made the move on Helio Castroneves for the lead – ultimately the win – into the best passing corner on the circuit, the Turn 5 hairpin. Meanwhile Charlie Kimball snookered Will Power with a move to the outside, then inside, on the left-right switchback Turns 11 and 12for fourth place.

This year, the hot tempers from Long Beach plus the high grip level of the track and likely high temperatures could all boil to the surface in the 90-lap race.

Hunter-Reay, the defending race winner, has extra motivation to bounce back after an ambitious maneuver at Turn 4 last race at Long Beach took he and Josef Newgarden out as the pair were battling for the lead. Five other cars were caught up in the contretemps.

Castroneves enters the weekend needing to be on his best behavior after a tweet – allegedly sent out by his sister Kati from Helio’s account – earned him probation from INDYCAR for violation of the sanctioning body’s social media policy. He’s also keen to regain the upper hand within Team Penske after finishing a frustrated third at St. Petersburg, and pitting late and falling to 12th in Long Beach.

Power, the series points leader, a two-time Barber winner (2011-’12) and fastest driver in preseason testing at Barber, also has drama following him heading into the weekend when he nudged Simon Pagenaud at Turn 6 and took the Frenchman out of contention. With first and second thus far this year, Power enters the weekend with a 27-point lead on Long Beach winner Mike Conway and 33 on Pagenaud.

Kimball, the fourth member of that above-mentioned quartet, could well be a top sleeper and could also use a drama-free weekend. Mechanical gremlins have struck his No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet each of the first two races, and the likeable Californian is stone last in points.

But there’s plenty of upside for Kimball entering the weekend. He’s a traditionally strong permanent road course qualifier, the Mid-Ohio race winner a year ago and has the potential to match former teammate Dario Franchitti in terms of turning his season around starting at the third race. Franchitti was 26th and last after two races last year, but cracked off four poles, four podiums and 11 top-10 finishes in the next 13 races. It began with a fourth place finish in Race 3.

Heck, Pagenaud could be the biggest threat to the establishment after three excellent weekends at Barber the last three years. The Schmidt Peterson driver finished eighth in a fill-in role for Ana Beatriz at Dreyer & Reinbold in 2011 – his first open-wheel start in 3.5 years. The last two years he’s ended fifth and sixth. If all goes to plan, it would not surprise to see him on the podium for the first time in 2014.

Then there is Scott Dixon. The defending series champion has the best total record in the four past starts, yet he’d probably call it awful.

He’s finished runner-up in all four races.

Dixon, who’s not been spell-bindingly quick the first two races of the year, should be back to pole and win contention this weekend. Given his run of seconds, nothing short of a win will do for the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

The drama storyline doesn’t end with Dixon, though. It extends to the guy he hit in Long Beach – Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing – who may well have won two weeks ago had there not been the contact at Turn 8. This is a track where Wilson hasn’t had the best of results thus far, but you could see him punching through.

What of Juan Pablo Montoya? He’s gotten a bunch of testing in at this track, both in private and the official preseason test. This could be the place where JPM makes the Firestone Fast Six for the first time, as the Team Penske driver now has two weekends under his belt with the reds. He was fourth more on tenacity and grit than outright pace in Long Beach; this could be the weekend where pace gets him the result instead.

We’ve barely even mentioned Conway to this point – and he’s a former Firestone Fast Six participant here, having done the business for A.J. Foyt’s team in 2012. A second straight podium for the quiet, stealthy Englishman wouldn’t surprise either.

Foyt’s current driver, Takuma Sato, was of course the St. Petersburg polesitter and won Round 3 last year (albeit at Long Beach instead of Barber). Could he pull another one off?

But this is the beauty of this year’s IndyCar field. That’s 11 possible winners right there.

That’s without even mentioning half of CGR (Ryan Briscoe, Tony Kanaan), Andretti Autosport’s other veterans besides RHR (Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, the former of whom has always done well at Barber), the KV (Sebastians Bourdais and Saavedra) and RLL (Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia) pairs and the quick quartet of rookies (Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Munoz/Huertas).

Makes picking a winner a challenge. But I’m expecting some three-driver combination out of Dixon, Pagenaud, Power, Hunter-Reay and Wilson on the podium, with Montoya, Kimball and Sato to surprise in qualifying.

At least until first practice, and it goes off script. You can see all of it Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

How watching a go-kart race changed F1’s Valtteri Bottas’ life forever

xxxx during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 22, 2015 in Spa, Belgium.
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It was 21 years ago, but Valtteri Bottas remembers as if it was yesterday — the day that would change his life forever.

Bottas, just six years old at the time, was riding in a car with his father in their native Finland when they came upon a go-kart race taking place.

It was love at first sight for little Valtteri – and dad, too. Although they were supposed to continue on to a neighboring town of Lahti, they decided to postpone the trip and spent the rest of the day watching the racing action.

It was also the first step Bottas would take towards becoming a race car driver. It’s a journey that two decades later has now, as of Monday, brought him to a seat with the sport’s most dominant team in recent years, Mercedes AMG Petronas, and made him teammates with three-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton.

Along the way to the present, Bottas became a go-kart champion, won countless races across a number of series, and now has just one thing in mind that he’s focusing on:

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Winning a Formula 1 championship with his new team.

As the driver chosen to replace the now-retired 2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg, Bottas’ dreams have come true. But at the same time, expectations have never been higher or more demanding upon Bottas, who spent the last four seasons with the Williams F1 team.

Bottas finished 17th in his first season with Williams in 2013, then scored a career-best fourth-place showing the following season. Bottas was fifth in 2015 before slipping to eighth last season, as the car regressed.

But now, Williams is in Bottas’ rearview mirror and all he hopes to see is clear pathways going forward, hopefully with him in the lead and every other driver chasing his Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Silver Arrow.

Yet having the best team in the sport is no guarantee of success, Bottas prudently says.

“It would be nice to know the answer to the question of how you become Formula 1 World Champion,” Bottas said in a story on the MercedesAMGF1.com website. “But there are so many factors involved. It’s not just about you as an individual.

“Even if you’re the best driver, you’re not going to win anything if your engine packs up ten times during the season. As a driver, you have to concentrate on your performance and give everything for the team. On your own, you don’t stand a chance.”

But one of the reasons Mercedes chose Bottas over other F1 drivers is his determination and drive – both in the car and in life.

It’s something that traces back to the first two times he climbed into a go-kart to begin his path to F1: finishing third in his first race and winning his second. A few years later at the age of 13, even though he was larger and heavier than most of his competitors, Bottas would win the Finnish go-kart championship.

“I had to do everything I could to make my dream come true,” Bottas said. That included going on a diet and physical regimen that strengthened both his body as well as his championship-winning chances.

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“This was the turning point, at which I became professional and saw racing as more than just a hobby and a fun ride,” Bottas said.

Now he has perhaps the most fun – and demanding – ride he’s ever had. But just like he did when he climbed behind the wheel of his first go-kart at the age of seven, one thing has remained a constant for the flying Finn.

“I never give up,” Bottas said. “I still cherish my ambition of winning the world title. I will do everything I can to achieve that. It’s my life goal right now.

“There is no better feeling than being in the pits on Sunday – race day. The mechanics start the engine; you hear it and you feel it, and you know this precious gem will be in your hands for the next two hours. It’s now all up to you.”

And while Bottas readily admits “I’m living the dream every day,” he’s not letting the team he’s with, or the success it has had over the years, get to his head.

“Ultimately, I’m just an average guy from Nastola (his hometown of 15,000) in Finland, who just happens to be a Formula One driver.”

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Loyalty brought Felipe Massa out of retirement, back to Williams

Just a few months after waving goodbye to F1, Felipe Massa is waving hello again with his return to Williams for the 2017 season.
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Felipe Massa is a number of things, including a great driver, a fan favorite, a mentor to young drivers and a great representative for Formula 1.

But perhaps above all those attributes are the word that best describes Massa: loyal.

When Massa retired at the end of the 2016 F1 season from Williams, he was pretty sure his F1 days were forever behind him. But when teammate Valtteri Bottas surprised everyone by leaving the team to replace retired champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Massa’s sense of loyalty kicked in.

The Brazilian driver knew that 2017 would be a very important year for Williams, as the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary. He also knew young teammate Lance Stroll needed a mentor to guide him through the rigors of F1.

Given all Williams had done for him the past three seasons, Massa felt he owed his old team something back: namely himself and his talent behind the wheel.

Ergo, goodbye retirement, welcome back to Williams. It wasn’t about money, but something much more valuable that you can’t put a price on.

“I have a strong love for Williams,” Massa said in a Q&A on WilliamsF1.com. “I have enjoyed the last three years with the team, and therefore coming back to help give stability and experience to drive things forward in 2017 was something that felt right to do.

“When I joined Williams back in 2014 I found a team – and a family – that I have loved being a part of. I certainly haven’t lost the desire to race and fight on track. Whatever I would have turned my hand to this year, I would have been putting 100 percent effort into doing the best job that I can, and if I didn’t have that passion, I would not have agreed to return.”

While the 35-year-old Massa said his return to F1 and Williams is just for 2017, with all the elements in play, particularly since Bottas left, Massa feels reinvigorated. It may seem like he’s racing for a new team, even though he’s returning to the same team he left less than two months ago.

And that’s where the beauty of his loyalty truly is: Massa made it very clear that the only F1 team he would ever consider ending retirement for was, one and the same, Williams.

“My return is not about seeing Formula 1 as the best option, but is about seeing the role at Williams as the best option,” Massa said. “I would not have returned for any other team.”

And if retirement for the second time is in his future after the 2017 season, Massa will leave with no regrets.

“Whatever happens this season, I will always leave the sport with my head held high,” he said.

While he wishes Bottas the best with his new team, Massa is also very keen on working with Stroll.

“I’m looking forward to working with Lance, having known him for a long time,” Massa said. “He has proved in the championships he has competed in so far that he deserves this opportunity, and it’s great to welcome new talent into Formula 1.

“Lance may be young, but Williams has a history of bringing young drivers into the sport. He knows there is a steep learning curve ahead, but motorsport is a team sport and I look forward supporting him in any way I can.

“Valtteri has been offered a fantastic opportunity and, as a result, an opportunity arose for me. When the media began reporting that I might return, I was touched by the response from so many fans who wanted to see me back in the sport.

“That was certainly a factor in the decision, so I’d like to thank the fans for their support. But, at the end of the day, when I received the call it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was Williams!”

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Porsche sets sail for new voyage with new 911 RSR into 2017

Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 911 and 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Porsche and 911 are as inextricably linked as bread and butter. Porsche and a mid-rear-engined 911, however, are as disparate as chalk and cheese.

Yet for 2017, the new era of Porsche’s 911 – its flagship car – marks its most radical reinvention from its usual rear-engine flat-six engine that is the hallmark, with the engine now ahead of the rear axle.

The new 911 is a normally aspirated beast and shakes up the norm for all its drivers, its engineers and its team.

Per Porsche: “The suspension, body structure, aerodynamic concept, engine and transmission have all been designed from scratch for the 2017 season. Depending on the size of the restrictor, the motor, which is now positioned in front of the rear axle, puts out approximately 510 hp. Thanks to the modern, lightweight normally aspirated engine, the designers were able to install a larger rear diffuser than in years past. Combined with a top-mounted rear wing, the level of downforce and the aerodynamic efficiency have been significantly improved.”

This new car looks to add to Porsche’s legacy at Daytona. From 1966 to Daytona, Porsche has 22 overall wins (11 straight from 1977 to 1987) and a total of 76 class wins. The most recent class victory came with the North American debut of the previous generation 911 RSR in 2014. That record is made of 27 GT class wins, one SGS class and GX class win each.

In the stacked GT Le Mans class, Porsche stands alone with the only all-new car for 2017, while Ford (second year of the GT), Ferrari (second year of the 488 GTE), BMW (second year of the M6 GTLM) and Chevrolet (fourth year of the Corvette C7.R) are all well into their current cycles of their newest cars.

That makes Porsche an outlier and arguably the manufacturer to watch throughout the year, as the new car progresses from start-to-finish over the course of the season in both the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship, where the rebranded Porsche GT Team has parallel two-car programs.

On the IMSA front, it’s not just the car that’s new, but also both driver lineups – only two years removed from a dream 2015 season that saw them dominate the GTLM class and score a shock, but well-judged, overall win in the torrential rains at Petit Le Mans.

Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber earn justifiable promotions to Porsche’s LMP1 team in the WEC, but it left a couple openings on the GTLM team. With Fred Makowiecki then shifted away from a full-season IMSA ride, that meant three spots opened up.

For the Morgan Brady-led, CORE autosport-run U.S. Porsche team, Patrick Pilet, the 2015 GTLM champion and lone holdover, will continue into 2017 with ex-privateer Porsche driver and past factory BMW driver Dirk Werner in the No. 911 car.

An entirely new lineup of Laurens Vanthoor (formerly of Audi) and Kevin Estre will be in the No. 912 car, and this presents arguably the most intriguing of pairings given both drivers’ youth but already ton of experience. Makowiecki (No. 911) and Richard Lietz (No. 912) are the third drivers. The two cars clocked 1,824 miles at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

Estre. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Estre. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Estre, who joined Porsche as a factory driver last year, said he and Vanthoor already get on great from their European racing experience, and are looking forward to combining as teammates rather than trying to beat each other.

“We drove one time together in Le Mans in LMP2 with OAK (in 2015, in a Ligier JS P2 Honda),” Estre told NBC Sports. “We know each other as teammates, but more as competitors. It’s been really good so far. We’re both speaking French and have a German wife!

“The connection is really important for endurance races. It’s good to feel confident, and speak about a lot of stuff. So far it’s perfect. I’m confident we’ll work well together with our ways, being pretty similar of GT3 to Porsche. It’s quite new and with Porsche in GTLM.”

Estre offered advice for Werner and Vanthoor, who join Porsche as new factory drivers this year, on how to integrate into the culture of one of the world’s most successful manufacturers.

“I’ve done a lot before with Porsche in German Carrera Cup and Supercup,” he explained. “I knew the German culture. But being new as a factory driver is a bit special. You need to understand the team… you need to know CORE, Manthey, and Porsche AG in general.

“Everything is new. It’s a lot different. But with time, you know the people. You know where to go if you have a problem, or which question to ask to which people. I’m a lot more confident and more experienced now.”

Estre, who starred with McLaren in Pirelli World Challenge in 2015, had a mixed season in 2016 where he ran a mix of IMSA and European races. Having a single focus back on North America full-time is exciting for the Frenchman.

“I was happy to do different things but knowing you’re doing just one championship is different than three races here or there. As a driver, you look forward to winning something and to have a full season here is good for the U.S. I did IMSA three years ago in GTD, so GTLM will be new.”

Marco Ujhasi, Director of GT Factory Motorsports for Porsche, said the test went well for the design of the program.

“The test miles that we covered over the last three days in preparation for the race were very important. We managed to tick off all the points we’d scheduled for ourselves and now we have a much better understanding of the car on this racetrack,” he said in a release.

“In addition, we experienced changeable and very diverse track conditions. It was dry and wet, warm and cold – precisely what you need in race preparations to be primed for all eventualities. We feel very well prepared for the race and the premiere of our new 911 RSR. In this respect, these three days in Florida were very successful.”

As noted above, Porsche won in GTLM in the U.S. debut of its previous 911 RSR in 2014, with Tandy, Pilet and Lietz. An encore with this car’s debut would be another interesting story in and of itself.

Race Of Champions has stellar field looking for home run in Miami

Sebastian Vettel is the defending champion of the Race of Champions, having won the last ROC in 2015.
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Contestants in this weekend’s Race Of Champions will be going for both a win and home run.

The win is understandable, but the home run aspect of it is due to the host location: Miami Marlins Park, home of the Major League Baseball team of the same name.

The entire infield and outfield will be turned into a challenging circuit of numerous turns and side-by-side racing. The course layout is below.

“This is all about having a good time,” IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves said. “I respect all of the drivers and every one of them competing has some amazing qualities, plus switching cars throughout the event means the advantage will constantly be shifting. That’s why this is such a great event.”

Added fellow IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, “To see a race track taking shape here in Marlins Park – where I bring my family for games – is incredible. And I also think it’s the best layout yet. I’m a home-town guy so hopefully the crowd will be cheering me on against two former ROC champions in my group.”

The two-day ROC will be divided between one-on-one races on Saturday, with team racing on Sunday.

Among Saturday’s marquee matchups:

* NASCAR’s Kyle Busch vs. F1’s Jenson Button.

* NASCAR’s Kurt Busch vs. Tom “Mr. Le Mans” Kristensen.

* Two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya vs. World Rallycross’s Petter Solberg, action sports’ Travis Pastrana vs. four-time F1 champ and reigning ROC champ Sebastian Vettel.

* IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe vs. fellow IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan.

* IndyCar’s Ryan Hunter-Reay vs. former ROC Champion of Champions David Coulthard.

* 2-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya vs. World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg, F1’s Pascal Wehrlein vs. fellow F1 pilot Felipe Massa.

* Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves vs. the winner of a play-off between Global Rallycross Champion Scott Speed and 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

* Other drivers in the field include Gabby Chaves (IndyCar), Stefan Rzadzinski and Gabriel Glusman, the latter two having won ROC Factor North America fan votes to get into the competition.

The top two drivers in each group will advance to the quarterfinals, and then a knockout tournament from there leads to crowning the Champion of Champions.

The top two drivers in each group progress to the quarter-finals. Then it’s a knockout tournament all the way to the Grand Final, when this year’s Champion of Champions will be crowned.

In Sunday’s Nations Cup competition, it’ll be America vs. The World in a Ryder Cup-style team battle:

Group A: Team USA NASCAR (Kyle and Kurt Busch), Team USA IndyCar (Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay) and Team USA Rally X (Travis Pastrana and Scott Speed) will all have to battle Team ROC Factor Canada (James Hinchcliffe and Stefan Rzadzinski).

Group B: Team Germany (Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein), Team Great Britain (Jenson Button and David Coulthard) and Team Nordic (Tom Kristensen and Petter Solberg).

Group C: Team Brazil (Felipe Massa and Tony Kanaan), Team Colombia (Juan-Pablo Montoya and Gabby Chaves) and Team ROC Factor Latin America (Helio Castroneves and Gabriel Glusman).

Miami Marlins Park becomes the eighth different host site – and first in the United States – in recent years for the ROC, which returns after a one-year hiatus in 2016: Stade de France in Paris (2004-2006), London’s Wembley Stadium (2007-2008), Olympic Stadium in Beijing (2009), Düsseldorf’s Esprit Arena (2010-2011), Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok (2012), Bushy Park Barbados (2014) and London’s former Olympic Stadium (2015).

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