Daniel Ricciardo

Don’t rule Red Bull out of the F1 title fight just yet

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This weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix may not appear to be much more than being one of the 19 races on the 2014 calendar, but in truth, it is one of the most important races of the season.

After four flyaway rounds in Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain and China, the race at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya provides the first opportunity for the teams to introduce upgrade packages for their cars. Of course, at the last couple of races, there were some minor upgrades to the cars (e.g. Mercedes’ new nose in China), but nothing quite on the level of what we are to see in Spain this weekend.

The development race in Formula 1 is – alongside what the drivers do on track – the most influential part of a season. Fail to upgrade, and you’ll be left way behind. That is all the more significant given that 2014 is the first year of a new regulation era – standing still is very costly.

This was clear in 2009, when we last had a great change in the regulations. Brawn GP arose from the embers of Honda with a quite remarkable car, and, with six wins in the first seven races, stormed into a championship lead. However, from then on, the team struggled. Honda pulled out of the sport at the end of 2008, but agreed to put some money into Ross Brawn’s efforts in 2009 on the condition that he bought the team. Once the money dried up, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello struggled. Just two more wins from Barrichello came after Turkey, and Red Bull – before it had won any titles – cut the gap.

It was the ‘Seb and Mark Show’ at the back-end of 2009, with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen enjoying brief cameos on the top step of the podium. However, Button just about did enough to hang on and win the championship for Brawn, but had there been another two races, Sebastian would most probably have caught him.

Embedded in this is why I am refusing to say that the 2014 championship is over yet. Red Bull’s rate of development has always been remarkable, even back in 2009. In 2010 and 2012, the team was by no means ‘dominant’ until around the middle of the season. After the end of European season in 2012, Vettel had won just once and Alonso enjoyed a handsome lead. However, Red Bull had the quickest car, and with four straight wins, Sebastian wore away the Spaniard’s advantage and eventually won the title by three points.

So now we come to 2014. The gains and losses in the development race are accentuated this year, meaning that should Red Bull get it right, Seb could be capable of overcoming the Mercedes challenge. He does need a bit of time to get used to the new car and how it works, but once the stars align, he could yet be a contender for the championship.

The difference between now and 2009 is that Mercedes’ dominance is – in my mind – greater than that of Brawn. If Red Bull finally gets its act together by the British Grand Prix in July, that could still be too late. By then, Mercedes could have racked up seven wins and six one-twos. It would then take something remarkable to stop that, even if the development seizes up.

The money is there this time around, too. Ever since the German marque made its return as a works team in 2010, the goal always was 2014. In fact, when the team won three races last season, that was considered to be an overachievement.

This weekend’s race is so, so important because of this. The teams know that this is their big roll of the dice. Further upgrades and improvements will follow across the course of the season, but much of their foundations will be laid in the race this weekend.

Even if one of the Red Bulls can finish second on Sunday (without taking retirements into account), thus preventing a fourth straight Mercedes one-two, that would be enough for me to say “this championship is still alive.”

Remember the position that Red Bull was in at the first test in Jerez? Remember that the team went to the first race of the season without completing a full race run? And look where it is now. That rate of development and improvement is nothing short of extraordinary. Keep that up, and if Renault can match it by squeezing a little bit more out of the V6 power unit, Seb and company could be right back in the hunt.

Who would have thought it? After four years of dominance that culminated in nine consecutive wins last season, I’m now writing in favor of a Red Bull revival. Formula 1 is a funny sport.

Can Red Bull stop the Mercedes parade? Find out by watching the Spanish Grand Prix live on NBCSN from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.

‘Uncle Bobby’ Unser turns 83 today

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February 20 is quite a day for birthdays in the North American racing world. “The Captain,” Roger Penske, turns 80, and the Shaker Heights, Ohio native continues at the head of his incredibly successful race team and automotive group without so much as a sweat.

One of Penske’s longtime drivers has his birthday today, as well. Bobby Unser, or “Uncle Bobby,” turns 83.

A member of the famed Albuquerque family, Unser won three Indianapolis 500s (1968, 1975 and 1981) before moving into broadcasting after he retired, working with ABC at the ‘500 and throughout the IndyCar schedule. A legend on Pikes Peak as well, Unser has more than a dozen wins there.

As time has passed, Unser’s forthright, candid insights have really stood out in a time where fewer drivers have properly spoke their minds.

Last May at Indianapolis ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500, I had the opportunity to chat with “Uncle Bobby” about his life and career at the Speedway. A selection of those quotes are below:

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been coming every year since 1959. I saw the lights blinking on track and wonder what just happened!” he said. “This place has been going 100 years, and I’ve been a part of it for a long time.

“There’s been too many changes and I couldn’t remember them all in my head anyway. I don’t like the changes I’m seeing, but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I don’t know why I got into TV; I didn’t even go to high school. Yet I’m an engineer! Who’d ever thought Bobby Unser would do television? I ended up with a really good group at ABC. I didn’t think I could ever do it – but I did! I enjoyed myself.

“I lost a brother here. And I lost an uncle who was preparing to come here. My brother Jerry was killed here, and my uncle Joe was killed preparing to come here in a car. We were testing it in Colorado. We’ve lost two Unsers here – we don’t need a medal – but it hasn’t all been peaches and roses.

“The evolution of cars was easy. It was better to do it when we’re young! I’m not kidding. One of my heroes was Don Branson. He was a dirt track legend for sure, but he was good here too. He was the upper end of years, and I was gonna get his car. I didn’t know he’d get himself killed… we had it preplanned. But he was gonna quit driving and work for Goodyear as field manager for their racing tires. That was a big step for me.

“Don, I’m not gonna tell you I’m better than him. But he didn’t like the rear-engined cars. I’m young. He’s older. So I stepped into a rear-engined car and it feels fine to me! Some of them couldn’t hack it going from the roadster to rear-engined car. But it was easy for me, and for my brother Al. I think a lot of that is the experience you have, and the age.

“This is a tough place. Arguing about the cars now could be another deal. Most anyone could run the cars today… but I don’t want to go down that road and take up more of your time.

“Mario (Andretti) was one of my closest friends in those days. We’d fly together as I had a junky old airplane that barely made it, but it beat driving to races!

“Foyt’s Foyt. He’s a grouchy old fart, you know? But he’s a hell of a race driver. I wish the younger generation would have seen him when he was young… he was a fireplug. He was fast, he was a chassis man, and he understood engines. He was so good.

“It’s ’68, obviously (my favorite ‘500 win). You never know you can do it. There’s so many guys in this race that could be leading, two laps or 10 from the end the car quits. There’s so many of them like that. How many times are you’re leading Lap 150, and then ain’t gonna win it?

“You don’t know you can win it until checkered flag falls. The next one’s easier.”

Team Penske restores iconic ‘Blue Hilton’ Indy 500-winning transporter

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Photo courtesy of Team Penske
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Few teams have as great an appreciation for their own history as Team Penske, so it’s only fitting that on a day when Roger Penske turns 80, the team reflects on the first transporter that helped launch the team into the national stratosphere.

Penske’s first of 16 Indianapolis 500 victories was achieved in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and the transporter that carried that No. 66 Sunoco McLaren Offy was a customized 1972 International Fleetstar truck known in the racing circles as “The Blue Hilton.”

This transporter served Team Penske well, carrying both Indy cars and sports cars that dominated in Can-Am in the early 1970s with George Follmer and Donohue.

More than 8,000 man hours went into the restoration of this transporter, which was only found in 2015 after concerns it’d been scrapped. Penske Truck Leasing’s James Svaasand, Michael Klotz, and David Hall and Team Penske Historian Bernie King led the restoration and can thank Jerry Breon, a long-time Penske team member, who found the truck for sale.

“After we confirmed that it was, in fact, the Blue Hilton that was for sale, I called Brian Hard (president of Penske Truck Leasing) and we agreed that we had to find a way to bring her back to life,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said in a release. “This transporter was there when the foundation was laid for Team Penske and it is symbolic of the way in which we operate today.  Everyone at PTL did an unbelievable job restoring this vehicle.  I can’t wait for Roger to see it in person, as it is something he will cherish.”

The transporter will be on display at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.

You can read the full release here. A few photos of the transporter are below, courtesy of Team Penske:

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Testing confirmed, races not yet for Mikhail Aleshin in sports cars

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin will focus primarily on the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, but may still be busy with sports car commitments with SMP Racing.

His sponsor he has in IndyCar is working on a new non-hybrid LMP1 car for 2018, as SMP Racing’s technical partner BR Engineering is working with Dallara on that new chassis.

Aleshin said via a press release he’s already been busy working on the development of that car ahead of its planned introduction next season (more info here via Sportscar365 and Endurance-Info).

The new creation stems from the fact BR Engineering was not granted a place to continue with its BR01 LMP2 chassis, which raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship and also won the pole for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the ACO confirmed just four chassis constructors would continue in LMP2 in 2017 to coincide with new regulations (Onroak, Oreca, Riley Multimatic, Dallara). BR and other constructors were removed from the field as a result.

Intriguingly though, Aleshin was also listed as the nominated driver for SMP Racing’s Dallara P217 chassis for both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans doesn’t clash with an IndyCar weekend, while the ELMS and IndyCar have one clash, the weekend of August 26 when IndyCar races at Gateway Motorsports Park and ELMS is at Paul Ricard.

Aleshin may be active in a number of sports car races this year, as he has been off-and-on the last two years. But he doesn’t know his exact schedule yet.

“Well we’re working to produce our own car for 2018… and I’m one of the test or development drivers,” Aleshin told NBC Sports.

“I don’t know yet (Le Mans)… maybe I’ll be there. Well, it’s good to be a placeholder! But hopefully not for every event.

“For me the main thing this year is to concentrate on two things. Number one is IndyCar. But I have a very similar responsibility on taking care of our LMP1 project with SMP, as that will be very big.”