John Force looks to shake off winless drought and cook in Hotlanta

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Given how hot his overall race team has been thus far in the 2014 NHRA season, there couldn’t be a better place for John Force Racing to compete at next than Hotlanta.

Ok, so it’s actually Commerce, Ga., about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta, Ga., but close enough as JFR prepares for this weekend’s (May 16-18) Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals.

The chairman of the board, 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, has had a longtime love affair with Atlanta Dragway, earning a record seven wins there, more than any other driver at that particular track in NHRA history.

But there’s a downside to that story, as well: As much as he’s dominated at Atlanta Dragway, Force has not reached victory lane there for nearly a decade – eight years to be exact.

He hopes to change that this weekend, while also extending the overall hot streak that all JFR drivers have been on thus far this season, particularly Force’s son-in-law and JFR president Robert Hight, who has reached the final round in each of the last five races, coming away with three wins.

Hight, who is still riding the momentum of his win two weeks ago at Houston, is also atop the NHRA Funny Car points standings, as a result.

Force, meanwhile, has reached the final round in eight of his last 11 races, dating back to last season, with wins in four of those. He also set both ends of the NHRA elapsed time (3.966 seconds) and speed (324.12 mph) records for a Funny Car earlier this year in this year’s season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

“We have been on a tear, and our other cars (Courtney Force in Funny Car and Brittany Force in Top Fuel) are coming around,” Force said. “I feel as a whole team we have come together, and the brain trust will keep us alive and winning.

“We have been to every final going back to Indy last year, which is 13 finals in a row. Winning is where the focus is, and we won’t forget safety.”

Force last won at Atlanta Dragway in 2005, a lengthy drought that he hopes to snap this weekend.

“Atlanta can be tricky because of the heat,” Force said. “We have adapted and with (crew chief) Jimmy Prock, that seems like one of the places where he does well.

“But Jimmy and I have never run this track together, and I am excited about that. I also love the people because they are really into their racing.”

Not only will he be battling Hight, Force will also take on two-time Atlanta winner and 2012 world champ Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Alexis DeJoria, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon for top honors in Funny Car this weekend.

“I need to do well, and it is not just because we are up there in the points,” said Force, who turned 65 on May 4. “It’s a matter of you have to learn how to run by the time you get to the Countdown [to the Championship]. We say it every race at the team meetings, ‘This is the race you have to start winning.'”

Also of note this weekend, an NHRA milestone could be achieved by one of several female racers, as the next win will be the 100th career win by a woman driver or rider in the sanctioning body’s history.

Among those hoping to put their name in the NHRA record books: Pro Stock points leader Erica Enders-Stevens, DeJoria and Courtney Force in Funny Car, Brittany Force in Top Fuel, and Katie Sullivan and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

But of course, as a proud papa, John Force hopes one of his daughters sets that historic mark.

“I was thinking about Ashley (daughter Ashley Force Hood, now retired from competition) and how no woman had ever won a Funny Car race until she beat me in 2008 in Atlanta,” Force said. “That will go down in history, but to also be the 100th female winner will be huge.

“What is really cool is Brittany and Courtney are overdue. To win that 100th race is a landmark, and I hope one of them gets it.”

Qualifying begins Friday with sessions at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. ET. The final two qualifying sessions take place Saturday at 12:30 and 3 p.m.

Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Friday edition (VIDEO)

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While the drivers may be the stars of Formula 1, their on-track escapades would not be possible without the titanic effort from those behind the scenes at their respective teams, making it key for us to hear from the people who make racing possible from time to time.

Following on from the special Friday edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ in Bahrain, Will Buxton is back with all of the interviews from the team bosses in today’s FIA press conference in Russia.

In part one, we hear from Otmar Szafnauer, COO at Force India, who gives his verdict on the team’s showing in 2017 so far and new driver Esteban Ocon’s start to the season. We also catch up with Renault technical boss Nick Chester and Pirelli’s new F1 chief, Mario Isola.

In part two, Ferrari’s engine boss Luigi Fabroni offers his thoughts on the Italian marque’s strong start to the 2017 season following Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Bahrain. At the other end of the success spectrum, McLaren’s Matt Morris and Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa discuss the ongoing rebuilding project at woking.

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.