Marco Andretti

From the ground: Barber calm for IndyCar, even during the storm


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Late last night, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Jerry Bonkowski linked to a local angle on this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series trip to Barber Motorsports Park. More or less, the point of that piece from the Huntsville (Ala.) Times columnist was that the seemingly preposterous notion of an IndyCar race in Alabama has turned out to be a rousing success after a five-year run.

There aren’t many “firsts” for me anymore in terms of attending a certain event race weekend for the first time, but I’d tend to agree almost entirely with that assessment after my first weekend trip to the facility for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

I’d been to Barber two years ago to cover a Porsche young driver shootout event; the iconic manufacturer has its driving school at the track. But this marked my first IndyCar weekend there, and it pretty much lived up to expectations.

From a competitor or official perspective, working the weekend is made much easier by the proximity of everything in the paddock. The transporters, timing & scoring building, pit lane, victory circle, support paddocks and hospitality venues are all in the same area behind the pits – it’s an excellent model compared to street circuits where things are spread all over the place and you can walk miles over the course of the weekend to get to where you need to go.

From a fan perspective, despite the lack of permanent grandstands there are no shortage of outstanding places to watch. The tree-covered grassy knoll on the outside of the track looking past Turns 10 and 11 probably offered the best view after doing a track walk on Thursday. You can see the front straight and start/finish line, the run into Turn 5 (the best passing opportunity on the circuit) and the snaking of the cars through the back section of the course. Additionally, walking the track, you see how ridiculous the elevation changes are and how skilled these drivers are since most corner apexes are blind.

The fans that stuck it out Sunday through the two-plus hour rain delay deserve some sort of medal – as does the entire NBCSN crew for broadcasting through the delay – and all were treated to a good show once the race eventually did get going. The sheer spectacle of seeing these cars kick up rooster tails the size of, well, giant inflatable roosters you’d see at a local car dealership, is simply sublime to witness in person.

It was a shame there was a caution when there was that brought most of the field in to change off the wets to dries, save for Oriol Servia of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who’d opted to gamble and switch a few laps earlier. That took a decent strategic element out of play that had been shaping up.

Still, the race settled into a flow in the second half, with Ryan Hunter-Reay delivering a masterful response on Sunday after his controversial passing attempt on Josef Newgarden at Long Beach. Even runner-up Marco Andretti was stunned at how far back he was compared to his own Andretti Autosport teammate.

The thing about this weekend that was nice was that it just… happened. What I mean by that is, there’s often some outside element that threatens the flow of the weekend and disrupts the proceedings, but this weekend that really wasn’t the case.

It could be the fact the race is the first or last of the season, and everyone is amped up beyond belief. It could be the fact the race is considered one of the marquee events (Long Beach or Indianapolis), and the extra pressure exists with the magnitude of winning that race. It could be that some controversy – be it frequent contact and cautions, track delays, a bad accident or whatever else – that just mars the weekend. Houston last year for instance had track delays and a bad accident; the Sonoma and Baltimore races last year had contact elements that completely overshadowed the race itself.

This, by contrast, was a mostly calm, stress-free weekend for IndyCar even with the race day storms; probably the series’ first rather run-of-the-mill weekend since Mid-Ohio last year.

And that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes you need a weekend where the race just goes off, the race gets in and gets in the books. After Long Beach, Barber perhaps could be viewed as a bit of a downer – much like China was following Bahrain for Formula One.

But the series is through it and onto the month of May. The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis beckons on May 10, followed immediately by practice and qualifying before the Indianapolis 500 May 25.

The paddock can reset with the first three races in the books and begin the next round of focus from here.

A calm weekend at Barber makes the reset that much easier since the anxiety levels aren’t at a fever pitch.

Vettel’s focus on performance, not new contract, at Ferrari

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari in the Drivers Press Conference 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 Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel is not yet thinking about negotiating a new Formula 1 contract with Ferrari beyond the end of 2017, preferring to focus on the final four races of the current season and developing a new car for next year.

Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015 and scored three race wins in his maiden season with the team, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as rivals Mercedes and Red Bull have pulled clear in the pecking order.

Vettel’s contract with Ferrari expires at the end of next season, but the German stressed that both he and the team are focused on improving its on-track results first.

“I think we are all fairly busy at this time to focus on the four races that are left and focus in particular to prepare for next year,” Vettel said.

“So I think that’s where, honestly, the main focus lies. I don’t think it’s that important to look into details.

“My contract is all fine for next year, so as I said, with a lot of things happening back at the factory, back in Maranello, I know we’re very, very busy and that’s where I want also the focus to be.”

Vettel remains hopeful of breaking Ferrari’s win drought in 2016, believing the team to have made a good step forward in recent weeks ahead of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

“I think there is always a chance [of winning],” Vettel said.

“I think obviously in Japan we did some progress, so that was a positive, but as you said, it was probably was a good summary of our season so far.

“Nevertheless, I think the most important thing is that we fight, we give everything we have, and it could have been a better in Japan, it wasn’t and so we’re ready for this race.”

Hamilton would take F1 title defeat to Rosberg ‘like a man’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Drivers Press Conference 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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Lewis Hamilton says he would take a potential Formula 1 championship defeat to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg “like a man” should the German win the title in 2016.

Hamilton enters this weekend’s United States Grand Prix trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ standings with four rounds remaining this season.

Rosberg is chasing his maiden F1 title in 2016, having been the runner-up behind Hamilton for the past two years, and is now in a position where four second-place finishes would be enough to clinch him the championship.

With title permutations already being worked out, Hamilton was asked in Thursday’s press conference in Austin how he would react to Rosberg winning the championship.

“Try to take it like a man. You can’t win them all,” Hamilton said.

“Look at all the world champions in the past who’ve won championships and lost championships – it is part of the game.

“I am in the position right now where there are still a lot of points available so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and still have the belief that anything is possible – but then I’ll move on.

“Once it’s decided and it happens, all I can do about it is shape the future, which is the next year. So, life will move on, we’ll go into next season and hopefully come back stronger.”

Hamilton was forced to miss a Pirelli tire test in Barcelona last week due to a minor foot injury, but the Briton said he is now back to full fitness ahead of the race in Austin.

“I am 100 per cent, yeah, feeling great,” Hamilton said.

“I basically had an injury that I’ve been carrying generally all year long, in both feet. Just induced by running. Unfortunately the physio said that it just takes a lot of stretching and it just heals over a long time.

“At the time I woke up in the morning, I was feeling quite a lot of pain the day before, and it hadn’t diminished.

“The most important thing was to be fresh for here and feeling better for here. This is actually the first week that it’s felt good.”

Ricciardo on Webber: “He was a helping hand when I needed it”

during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 3, 2016 in Sakhir, Bahrain.
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AUSTIN, Texas – Daniel Ricciardo has hailed his Australian countryman Mark Webber, after Webber announced just prior to last week’s FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of Fuji that he would retire at year’s end.

The two’s Formula 1 careers overlapped for only three seasons, from 2011 to 2013, before Ricciardo stepped up to Red Bull Racing in 2014 to replace Webber after he departed for the Porsche LMP1 program in the FIA WEC.

Webber, now 40, helped the 27-year-old Ricciardo throughout his career, and Ricciardo took the time to praise his countryman.

Not without adding his trademark sense of humor, first.

“Well, that Maaahhhk Webbaahhh,” Ricciardo said to lead it off.

“But yeah, it’s been an interesting career. Obviously, he’s had a pretty successful second period of his racing career post-F1. And I think he’s done well. So he was able to achieve that. He’s going to retire with a lot of happiness and comfort.”

Ricciardo said Webber was the Australian racing star his generation could relate to.

“For me, I think the impact he had growing up, obviously I knew of (Sir Jack) Brabham and (Alan) Jones and previous Australians before me, but Mark was the one I watched,” he explained. As a kid, I watched him growing up. And then, when he moved here (F1), the local racing community was talking about it.

“It was there in front of me when he was doing it and that sort of paved what seemed like an achievable path to follow.

“In the end, he was always nice to me. He was always there to call him, to give me advice. He understand the Red Bull system a little bit better. He was just a helping hand when I needed it.

“For us Aussies, it gave me a little bit of inspiration and motivation to move to Europe and follow what he was doing at the time.”

Ricciardo and Webber’s most memorable moment together this year was when Webber, who served as the podium interviewer at the Belgian Grand Prix, did Ricciardo’s now-signature “Shoey” at that race.

Nico Rosberg won with Ricciardo in second, but Webber succumbed to pressure in the moment and soaked up the taste of champagne out of a sweaty racing boot.

That’s dedication for you, mates.

Podcast: Haas F1 drivers explore NASCAR opportunities… at Talladega?

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22:  Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 and Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico and Haas F1 pose with the new car outside the garage during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez will carry the home country’s flag for Haas F1 this weekend in the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit Of The Americas.

But the Formula One drivers also would like to race at other American tracks — namely those that play host to NASCAR races.

As guests on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, Grosjean and Gutierrez both said they have lobbied team owner Gene Haas about trying a stock car for Stewart-Haas Racing.

“I’d love to give it a go and try a day or two of testing and then see how we’re doing and from there have a go,” Grosjean said. “I do go-kart, I do ice racing, I do Formula One. I love driving, so NASCAR would be a really good thing to try.”

Said Gutierrez: “For me, it’s all about the curiosity to try something completely different. I’ve mentioned it once we should it as a team activity. It’s just (being) curious about a different concept.”

Grosjean has sat in an SHR Sprint Cup car and explored the concept of racing at Watkins Glen International, but scheduling logistics precluded it this year. He is hoping to revisit the concept of racing a NASCAR road course in 2017.

“Everything is different in the driving style,” the Frenchman said. “We brake very hard, very late, I’ve heard in NASCAR you don’t need to brake so hard.

“It would be different not being in the center of the car, with gear shift, but it would be a great experience. You’re fighting against the best drivers in NASCAR. They’ve been doing it for generations. It’d be a nice challenge, experience, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it.”

Gutierrez has more ambitious goals of driving a stock car on an oval, playfully suggesting a car swap with fellow countryman Daniel Suarez (a longtime friend whom he often raced while growing up in Mexico).

“It could be interesting just to go flat out and feel the limit of the car all the time,” Gutierrez said. “I’d go for a big one. Talladega. The craziest one.”

It won’t happen this weekend, of course. While NASCAR will be whittling its playoff field to eight drivers Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Grosjean and Gutierrez will be racing in Austin, Texas.

It’s been an impressive debut season for Haas F1, which has scored points with Grosjean and advanced both cars to the final round of qualifying for the first time two weeks ago at Japan.

Grosjean said the team’s success is making inroads with American race fans.

“On social media, I can see that the United States grew massively in the percentage of my followers, which was great,” he said. “I wish we had more races in the U.S. It’s such a big country, we could have two to three grands prix. Definitely, things have changed, and people are really following us. It’ll be interesting to see how Austin goes.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.