F1 Grand Prix of Monaco

Hamilton and Rosberg lay down their weapons, but will it last?

6 Comments

The last week or so in Formula 1 has been a funny one. On the grandest of stages – the Monaco Grand Prix – Mercedes looked to be on the brink of civil war as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg locked horns both on and off track.

However, the two spoke yesterday and cleared the air, with Hamilton tweeting: “We’ve been friends for a long time, and as friends we have our ups and downs. Today we spoke and we’re cool, still friends.” It was a sweet way to defuse the situation and remove the tension.

Of course, the cynical question is “will it last?” Is this ceasefire just for show?

Well, that remains to be seen. The crucial part of this is that a ceasefire has taken place, and that there is no longer this public tension and ‘threat of war’. For all we know, it could still linger internally at Mercedes, but from the outside looking in, the waters have calmed.

And that was the important part of this for the team. Over the years, there have been many explosive intra-team rivalries. Those that have taken place in the public domain – Senna/Prost, Webber/Vettel – have been particularly difficult for the teams dealing with them.

However, we must go back to another case involving Lewis Hamilton to compare it to the ‘Battle of Mercedes’ in 2014: his 2007 tiff with Fernando Alonso.

Alonso arrived at McLaren after winning two straight titles with Renault, whilst Hamilton was promoted from GP2 to make his F1 debut. Alonso clearly thought he was the ‘number one’ driver, and very few expected Lewis to perform as well as he did, least of all Alonso.

The first murmurings of unrest came at the Monaco Grand Prix. Alonso had claimed pole position and led away at the start, but Hamilton was on a one stop strategy. Despite having a heavier fuel load (this was back in the days of refueling, of course), he was somehow keeping the Spaniard in sight. Could he really claim his first win at F1’s glamor event?

No, he couldn’t. McLaren switched him to a two stop strategy to his surprise, but little more was said of it. In Canada and at Indianapolis, Hamilton claimed back-to-back wins despite Alonso calling for him to move aside and let him through. Tensions were at breaking point, but it was still implicit. There were none of the direct comments as we saw in Monaco this year, merely some hand gestures from Alonso along the pit straight at the Brickyard.

It first really became public when Alonso deliberately blocked Hamilton during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. After coming in for a fresh set of tires, Alonso sat in his pit box despite being given the call to go out. By waiting, he held up Hamilton, who was stacked behind him, and meant that the Briton could not post another time in the fight for pole.

The stewards demoted Alonso five places on the grid, and Hamilton had the last laugh by claiming his third win of the year. However, the damage was done. The Spaniard left McLaren at the end of the season by mutual consent.

The year was a tough one for McLaren, with the unrelated spygate scandal resulting in a $100m fine and exclusion from the constructors’ championship. Both Hamilton and Alonso missed out on the title by one point, finishing on 109 to Kimi Raikkonen’s 110. Arguably, the tension that was boiling under the surface cost both of them the title.

And that’s what is different at Mercedes. It is quite clear that the German marque will win both titles this season – it’s simply a question of who will come out on top in the drivers’ championship.

We’ve had the release of pressure in Monaco. Ultimately, these two are friends. Lewis and Fernando weren’t.

Perhaps it’s even a ‘brotherly’ relationship at Mercedes. They have spats, they have moments where they shout “I hate you!” and storm up to their room. A few hours later though, they’ll skulk downstairs and mumble that they’re sorry. Before you know it, Lewis and Nico will be out in the yard playing soccer – or, as we saw in the tweet, riding unicycles!

This current peace at Mercedes will not last. We might see many more spats between the two before the end of the year and when the title is decided. However, they’ll go away, think about it, and then come back. This tension will be temporary.

Mercedes is in a good place right now. Things could change in 2015 if a team does pose a serious challenge to the Silver Arrows, and any kind of intra-team tussle could jeopardize the title bid, as we saw at McLaren in 2007.

For now though, it’s game on between Lewis and Nico. May the best man win.

Could Maldonado save KV Racing from joining ranks of former teams?

SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus walks in the paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Verizon IndyCar Series, which stands on the precipice of a slightly reduced field for the 2017 season, may ensure a one-car retention if KV Racing can be saved from the brink.

Motorsport.com’s David Malsher reported Wednesday that ex-Formula 1 driver Pastor Maldonado is in talks with the team for a road and street course program but if a deal can’t be reached, the team will likely have met its ultimate end.

This presents a fascinating question: Is it better to have a 22-car grid for 2017 with Maldonado, thus ensuring there’s a ninth team on the grid, or is it better to have a 21-car grid without him?

Maldonado was nothing short of a lightning rod during his F1 career from 2011 to 2015, but one thing you can accurately attest about him is that he rarely lacked for pace or determination. Accidents happened more often than not and Maldonado was frequently the butt of jokes for his driving style and propensity for finding the wall.

Still, he is and will always be a Grand Prix winner courtesy of his defense at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. And that’s a statistic not afforded – yet, anyway – to the likes of such up-and-coming talents like Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean and new Mercedes recruit Valtteri Bottas, among others.

Maldonado would be far from the first win it-or-wreck it caliber driver in IndyCar. And if we’re honest, KV has had its share of drivers who made their fair share of wall contact in the past. The 2010 season featured KV’s three-car lineup of Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes, and the trio had more than 20 recorded incidents.

Sato, who was then a rookie in 2010, has largely cleaned up his performance in the years since, yet remains one of the fearless drivers to watch in the series.

He wouldn’t be the first recent Formula 1 driver to come over to IndyCar, either. Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi did last year to great effect, and Sato and Sebastien Bourdais both were back in IndyCar after their F1 sojourns. It takes a little bit of time to adapt, surely, but Maldonado – who stayed sharp as a test driver for Pirelli last year – would be up to the task.

He’s already shown his face at an IndyCar event, afforded an invite by Cosworth’s Adam Parr to the Iowa Speedway race last year. Maldonado, at the time, didn’t admit to being too keen on coming to IndyCar but said he’d consider it if the timing or opportunity was right.

“I was very interested to see how the Indy works,” Maldonado told NBC Sports in July. “I got the invitation from the team and it’s very interesting. I have so many friends here from Europe, starting with Juan Pablo (Montoya), then so many other drivers. It’s quite interesting to see how the series is organized. And then maybe I didn’t choose the best track to come, but it’s nice even to see this old-fashioned American style.

“At the moment we are not looking to race here, but for sure I’m looking around to solve my situation.”

Maldonado on his own would be a wild card for the series but if he could assemble a program, even if it’s just for the road and street races, it could well present another spot for any of the other talented youngsters on the outside looking in for the oval races.

More importantly, his presence could prevent the team from going under, and stop the bleeding from a team standpoint in the series.

The 21 projected full-time cars this year include 12 of them from just three teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – who field four cars apiece. That leaves nine other cars spread across five teams, two each from Dale Coyne, Ed Carpenter, A.J. Foyt, Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson and one from Bobby Rahal.

INDYCAR, as a series, has lost Panther Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Conquest Racing, HVM and Dragon Racing as full-time teams just in the last five years since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis.

Conquest and HVM had each had a stint aligned with Andretti Autosport for one of its four entries; meanwhile Bryan Herta’s team has continued only as part of Andretti Autosport. Carpenter’s team is back to just ECR, as Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman’s tenure as owners has also ended.

KV’s history runs deeper than you might realize. The team that’s been through nearly as many iterations as drivers, paint schemes and chassis the last decade or so actually has its origins dating back to the 1990s as the PacWest Racing Group, run by Bruce McCaw.

In 2002, PacWest – as the renamed PWR Championship Racing – ceased operations and it left a then-unheralded New Zealander named Scott Dixon sidelined, with Dixon rescued only by Toyota and Ganassi later that summer. Oriol Servia was also left out in the cold.

Its assets transferred to the renamed PK Racing in 2003, run at the time by Kevin Kalkhoven, then CART’s series savior and Jacques Villeneuve’s longtime manager Craig Pollack.

Down the line it’s been renamed as PKV Racing, with Jimmy Vasser (the V) and Dan Pettit (the P) as co-owners. Pettit then forged ahead with Kalkhoven’s other Champ Car business partner Gerry Forsythe, while the KV name rolled along and switched to KV Racing Technology. Cristiano da Matta (2005, Portland) and Will Power (2008, Long Beach) won races for the team.

The KVRT team moved into IndyCar as part of the Champ Car/IndyCar merger in 2008. James “Sulli” Sullivan entered into the equation by 2013 after toe-in-the-water efforts on his own with Dreyer & Reinbold in 2011; and by 2013, the renamed KVSH Racing entry for Tony Kanaan had won that year’s Indianapolis 500, quite an achievement.

The second and third KV cars had become something of a round-robin in recent years. Kanaan helped bring Rubens Barrichello into IndyCar in 2012 but that was only for one year. Simona de Silvestro and her management team joined up in 2013; Sebastian Saavedra and his de facto “racing father,” Gary Peterson, of AFS Racing joined up in 2014. Stefano Coletti was a KVRT-only second car in 2015, and this year, Stefan Wilson (KVRT only) and Matthew Brabham (PIRTEK Team Murray, in a KVRT technical alliance) were added for the Indianapolis 500.

Once Kanaan moved to Ganassi in 2014, Bourdais came to KV, under the KVSH banner. After two years of overachieving in the midfield, Bourdais and the team barely made the grid in 2016, and Bourdais explored greener pastures for 2017.

The team, which has now rebranded its social channels as KV Racing Technology once again and reduced to a skeleton crew, is hanging on by a thread. “Sulli,” whose SH branding is now not part of that, has worked harder than most people realize to have procured the HYDROXYCUT sponsorship that’s been on the car the last several years.

Other teams like Coyne’s for instance endured a couple-year period of barely surviving, but have come out stronger the other side.

If a deal can be struck between Maldonado and KV to keep the team on the grid and avoid a 20-plus year history of an organization joining the above list of former IndyCar teams, it’s worth whatever the potential bill for replacement parts at Dallara might be.

McLaren appoints Ben Priest as vice president, Americas to push commercial efforts in the U.S.

unnamed-5
© McLaren
Leave a comment

The McLaren Group has announced the appointment of Ben Priest as its new vice president, Americas – Partnership Development to spearhead the company’s focus on commercial interests in the United States.

McLaren is currently going through a period of change following the resignation of long-running chairman Ron Dennis at the end of last year.

Dennis spent 35 years at the helm of McLaren, but was replaced by American commercial expert Zak Brown, who became executive director.

On Thursday, McLaren announced the arrival of Priest in a new role, having previously worked with Brown at marketing agency JMI.

“Based in New York and reporting to CEO Ekrem Sami, Ben joins the Partner Development team at McLaren Marketing, the global sports and technology brand’s dedicated in-house activation agency,” a statement from McLaren reads.

“Tasked with developing innovative partnerships for McLaren throughout his territory, with a particular focus on Silicon Valley as the spiritual heart of the US technology and innovation industry, Ben brings to McLaren his considerable marketing agency expertise.

“Most recently Vice President of Business Development at a leading New York agency that represents many iconic athletes, Ben has spent the majority of his career in motorsport.

“After co-founding his own agency, he previously led the North America Partnership Development division for JMI, the largest global motorsport marketing agency, and was involved in consulting the entry to motor racing for several of the most prominent new brands in recent years.

“His appointment forms a key part of an ambitious global marketing strategy aimed at utilising the global reach and power of McLaren as an iconic sports and technology brand that now includes its fast-growing McLaren Applied Technologies business.”

“I’d like to welcome Ben to McLaren as part of our ambitious global marketing strategy,” Brown said.

“He brings with him considerable expertise that will help us unlock new business in the US and, in particular Silicon Valley, where there are fantastic, untapped opportunities for our brand.”

“I’m extremely excited and proud to be joining the team at McLaren,” Priest added.

“I have a great deal of respect for the company both as a race team and, increasingly, as an exciting technology brand with innovation at the heart of everything we do.

“North America, and the US in particular, presents a fantastic growth opportunity for us, and one which I’m already very focused on exploring.”

Brown recently spoke to NBC Sports about the need for Formula 1 to grow its presence in the United States, believing that a second race would help its efforts to crack into a market brimming with potential.

Priest’s appointment marries up with Brown’s focus on the United States, and comes at a time when McLaren is lacking a title sponsor that could add an injection of cash to its F1 efforts.

Post-Viper, the new Mercedes-AMG era begins for Bleekemolen, Keating

imsa_28976658
Bleekemolen, Keating and Bill Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

The GT Daytona field in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season saw Scuderia Corsa claim the title with a combination of both pace and consistency, while the team that came closest to knocking the Los Angeles-based Ferrari team from its perch was sports car veterans Riley Motorsports, with the memorable and powerful Dodge Viper GT3-R.

The Viper’s life in IMSA is now at an end and with it, a switch to Mercedes-AMG begins.

Arguably the top pairing of a true pro-am lineup within the framework of the GTD class, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating head into their fourth consecutive season as teammates, in what is now the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3, and look to finally secure a first championship. Scuderia Corsa has won the last two titles with two different lineups, while Dane Cameron took the 2014 GTD title in a BMW Z4 GT3 for Turner Motorsport.

Bleekemolen and Keating have won seven races in GTD over the last three years, two each in 2014 and 2015 before scoring three wins last year, including in the Viper’s farewell at Petit Le Mans.

The switch to the Mercedes-AMG was a natural one for Bill Riley’s group. Bleekemolen’s known for his propensity to wheel the heck out of anything he drives, but he has experience in both iterations of Mercedes-AMG’s GT3 challengers, having also spent quite a bit of time internationally in the previous generation Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3.

“They’ve just improved the (new) SLS in all areas, and the SLS was already a really good GT3 car,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “But they’ve just made it better all-around. I’d say the SLS always struggled in hairpins with its long wheelbase, while this car with the shorter wheelbase is a bit better there, has more aero as well, and the whole package is just a little bit better as well.

“It’s not too hard (of a switch) because this car is so nice and easy to drive. I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Keating, whose Viper Exchange dealer is the country’s largest Dodge Viper and exotic cars dealership, admits the farewell to his racing baby is bittersweet, but the time was right to switch to the new car for this season.

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The first question everybody wants to ask on the AMG is how different is it? The fact is the wheelbases are pretty similar, it’s a big displacement, big torque, naturally aspirated front engine – it’s not that much different than the Viper, with two exceptions,” Keating told NBC Sports.

“The traction control and ABS systems, the electronics systems, are extremely well-developed on the AMG and the car has more downforce. It was developed a couple years later than the Viper, and the Viper needed an evolution if it was going to stay competitive. This car is at the pointy end of the stick. The AMG is phenomenal from a developmental standpoint. And it’s got just great downforce, which again makes a big difference with the traction and braking.

“And so it kind of goes hand-in-hand: it does everything a little bit better than the Viper did, except for top speed.”

It’s worth noting that as GTD has evolved, so too have the lineups within the class. Owing to the quirks and nuances of the FIA Driver Rating system, a fair number of drivers who you could accurately call full-time professionals are rated Silver owing to their recent results, their age, or the fact their results in past series don’t factor into the classifications to give them a pro (Gold or Platinum) rating.

This leaves the class with a number of theoretical “am” drivers that are far from it – Scott Pruett, for instance, is a Silver-rated driver because he’s 56 years old, rather than the fact he has five career Rolex 24 victories. And there are plenty of others who are rated Silver even though they’re pros, or potential full pros-in-waiting.

Keating, who’s the modern day equivalent of a Rob Dyson or Bob Akin in terms of having a successful business first but also progressing into a stellar race driver on his own, is one of the few remaining accurately rated Silvers within the category, so his ability to keep pace against full-time pros during his stints is what has kept the team and car in contention for race wins over the years. Keating’s also planning to pull double duty in this year’s Rolex 24, racing not only the Mercedes but also a Prototype Challenge car for Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport.

“Last year, I went back to the Viper Racing League in NARA and did a club race with my friends that I raced with five, six, seven years ago,” Keating explained. “I did well with that group, but they were competitive. And, I was racing a car that wasn’t as much as car as those other guys, and I lapped the entire field except one. It was unbelievable to me to recognize that I’ve gotten so much better.

“But when you’re here with such a competitive field, it’s hard to tell that necessarily. And you’ve got different types of cars that like different types of tracks. It’s hard to say how much is driver and how much is car, and how much is BoP or whatever. So, it was really nice to have that comparison.

“The fact is I have gotten a lot better. It’s the ability to compare myself with Jeroen, one of the best in the business, it’s having such much better engineering, car setup, team strategy, pit crew over the wall, everything adds up – little bitty amounts adds up to being up front. It’s a whole lot easier to be upfront and stay upfront, than it is to start in the back and get upfront. So, I’ll say I’ve gotten a lot, lot better and I’ll say my team makes me look good.”

Bleekemolen has hailed Keating’s advancement the last few years.

“We will be fine because Ben is doing just a great job,” he said. “He’s been on the pace with the pro’s last year as well. I have big confidence in him that he can be competitive. He’s been fighting guys like Andrew Davis last year and other people like that who are that good. Ben’s raised his game year after year, and he’s really at a good level now where we can fight for wins, even though he’s a true amateur in that respect.”

The No. 33 car has Mario Farnbacher, given a lifeline after The Heart of Racing program ended last year, and Mercedes factory shoe Adam Christodoulou as extra drivers at Daytona.

Riley Motorsports also has added Farnbacher’s Alex Job Racing teammates from WeatherTech Racing to the stable this year in a second car. Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the No. 50 Mercedes-AMG GT3 entry, with MacNeil reuniting under the same tent with Bleekemolen after the two won an ALMS GTC title a few years ago – incidentally beating Keating. Mercedes veteran Thomas Jaeger and Australian Supercars wizard Shane van Gisbergen complete that lineup.

George Russell joins Mercedes F1 junior program

George Russell
© GP3 Series
Leave a comment

Mercedes has announced that British racer George Russell will join its young driver program ahead of the 2017 racing season.

Russell, 18, raced in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship last year, finishing the season third in the final standings with two victories to his name.

Russell will move into GP3 for the 2017 season, linking up with ART Grand Prix, a team that fellow Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon and recently-appointed Mercedes Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas have both enjoyed success with.

Russell becomes the third member of Mercedes’ young driver program, joining Ocon and Sauber F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein.

“It’s great to be part of the Junior Program. It is an incredible opportunity to have the backing of the Formula One World Champions,” Russell said.

“I’m proud to have been given this kind of recognition for all the hard work that’s gone into my career over the years so far.

“I’ve started doing some work with the team in the simulator and it’s already become clear to me that I’m working with people who are the best in the business, who I know will help me develop as a driver and as a person.

“Of course, my priority is to get the job done over the coming season in GP3 and I’m fully focused on that. But this opportunity is a huge motivation and I’m looking forward to the challenge. It should be an exciting year ahead.”

“George has shown impressive form in the junior categories and we’ve been keeping a close eye on him for a while now,” Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff added.

“It’s still early days in his career but we see great potential in him. For 2017, George will compete in the GP3 Series with ART Grand Prix on Formula One weekends, following in the footsteps of fellow Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Junior Esteban Ocon and, of course, newly announced race driver Valtteri Bottas – both of whom won this championship en route to F1.

“George’s next challenge in GP3 will provide a good test of his credentials for the future. We have already seen with Esteban how effective this series can be as a training ground and, of course, this is the championship which propelled Valtteri [Bottas] into Formula One, so we will follow George’s progress with great interest.”