The Fallen Champion: Inside Sebastian Vettel’s title defence

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2014 has seen the established status quo in Formula 1 get shaken up and written off. After four-and-a-half years of omnipotence, Red Bull has finally been overthrown and become – whisper it – second best.

The team is still a force to be reckoned with in Formula 1, as proven by Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in Montreal. The cheery Australian has quickly shown that he has what it takes to fight at the front in F1 following years of midfield mediocrity with Toro Rosso. After just seven races, he has already got his feet under the table and made himself a focal part of Red Bull’s future in the sport.

Instead, the pressure lies with the last man we expected it to be on: Sebastian Vettel. Four times a champion of the world, and sights on becoming one of the greatest of all time, yet the question marks remain after a poor start to the season. Just what has happened to Sebastian Vettel in 2014?

They say that a bad workman blames his tools, but in Formula 1, it is perhaps permitted. Ultimately, the best driver in the worst car won’t win. Vettel did something close to that at Monza in 2008, when he took his Toro Rosso to a famous victory in torrential rain, but in regular conditions, he wasn’t a front-runner. A future star, without question, but he wasn’t going to win the title with Red Bull’s B team. The car simply was not good enough.

And this is true of 2014. It’s a mix of Mercedes being so devastatingly good with the W05 Hybrid and Red Bull struggling with the RB10. However, much of these woes lie with the power unit. Red Bull is a customer of Renault: it pays the bills, and gets shiny parts in return. For Mercedes, everything is in house. Its engine team at Brixworth works so closely with the Brackley designers and engineers, making it one cohesive unit. Renault’s lax start to the 2014 season has harmed its customers, so much so that it has been suggested that the French marque may even be billed for costing the teams prize money. It’s just tough luck for Red Bull that its faithful friend for the past seven years has dropped the ball.

Not all of the problems are Renault-specific though. In pursuit of another double in 2013, the team poured huge amounts of resources into developing the RB9 – perhaps unnecessarily. Sebastian Vettel’s charge to nine straight wins at the end of 2013 was jaw-dropping and mundane in equal doses, but as Red Bull continued to push, the other teams turned their attention to 2014.

Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey admitted earlier this year that the team had spent too much time on 2013 and not enough on the coming season, and in pre-season testing, the triumvirate of Newey, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko was crestfallen. How can they go from world champions to no hopers?

Many of the issues have since been combatted, and aerodynamically, the car is perhaps the best out there. Compared to Mercedes’ unified package of aero and power, though, the RB10 just cannot compete on the same level.

Vettel was left seething in Australia after an early retirement, yet Ricciardo’s charge to second place – then removed after a fuel irregularity – showed that the team still had a spark. What Seb did in Malaysia was quite superb. He managed to keep Nico Rosberg in sight for the majority of the race in spite of his compatriot’s superior car. Make no mistake of it: he can still hook it together; he didn’t win four world titles for nothing.

In terms of temperament, Vettel has established a reputation in the sport which is clear to those both inside and outside of the paddock. If things aren’t going his way, the dummy is spat out and the toys are thrown. His public rivalry with Mark Webber at Red Bull was volatile, but it stemmed from not have a ‘willing’ teammate; i.e. someone who will let him past to aid his championship bid.

So when Sebastian came to work with the RB10, it was clear not all was well. They say that a picture paints a thousand words, and in the case of this image from Bahrain (at the top of the article), it is very true. He was left frustrated last time out in Canada when the strategy did not play into his hands, leaving him stuck behind traffic and, crucially, trailing his teammate. Clearly, he isn’t yet at one with the car.

However, he can curb this, as we saw in 2012. In pursuit of a third world title, Vettel did not display the devastating pace as per 2011; instead, it took him around half of the season to actually get to grips with the RB8 car. Come the end of the European season, he had just one win to his name and trailed Fernando Alonso by 39 points in the drivers’ championship. He went on to win the next four races and claimed two further podium finishes, eventually clinching the title by three points. Once he was comfortable with the car, it all went his way again.

And perhaps the same could be said of 2014. After the seismic changes made to the regulations, the cars are more difficult to work with once again. The loss of exhaust blowing – using the gases to increase downforce  – has clearly been to his detriment. Ricciardo, on the other hand, has a style more in line with the new cars, it seems.

There might also be a case for the outside factors affecting Vettel – primarily, fatherhood. Unlike his peers, Sebastian likes to live his life outside of the public eye. His partner, Hanna, rarely comes to races, and news of her pregnancy only emerged around three months before she gave birth to their daughter, Emily. Although Sebastian has denied that it has had an effect on him, it might be worth considering.

Romain Grosjean was dubbed as the ‘crash kid’ of Formula 1 after last year’s Monaco Grand Prix, with Mark Webber even coining the verb “Grosjeaned” such were his antics. However, once he became a dad to Baby Sacha, his form improved dramatically, and he has since become one of the emerging stars of the sport. He denies that being a father has changed him, though.

“I was lucky that my baby slept through the night!” he joked in Austria. “It doesn’t change much in the car, but I don’t think it’s related. Back home it changes you, but in the car you’re still doing the job.”

That said, behind the race suits, they are just human beings.

In reality, Sebastian is still the same driver has was at the end of last season. He is still the supremely quick and talented individual that has conquered Formula 1 for the past four years. Given the right tools, he would be fighting for title number five alongside the Mercedes duo, but he isn’t totally comfortable with the car at the moment.

When asked about Red Bull’s season so far, Fernando Alonso was confident that Vettel would soon curb the teething problems. “I think Daniel is doing a fantastic job, and Sebastian was also doing a good job in some races with some bad luck, but I’m sure that at the end of the year is when you need to see how the championship went.

“I’m sure that Sebastian will come back very strong sooner or later, so we will see.”

As his 2012 campaign showed, once he gets to grips with the RB10 – and once the team and engine supplier have removed their gremlins – Vettel will once again be at the top table in Formula 1. Underestimate him at your peril.

Ken Block tackles Pikes Peak in ‘Climbkhana’ (VIDEO)

Photo: Hoonigan Racing Division
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Ken Block’s latest adventure with his 1965 Ford Mustang ‘Hoonicorn’ RTR didn’t involve a traditional type of course. It did, however, include the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

The release and details about “Climbkhana” presented by Toyo Tires for the film co-directed by veteran creative man, photographer and Porsche enthusiast Jeff Zwart is below.

Climbkhana presented by Toyo Tires, is the next generation of Ken Block’s wildly successful and award winning Gymkhana series of viral videos. The all-new concept is a hybrid of the driving showcased in the previous films, blended with a rally-road style attack on unique roads around the world. To kick off this new series, Ken Block chose what is arguably one of the most famous roads out there: The Pikes Peak Highway outside Colorado Springs, CO.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the most well known hill climb in the world, Billed as America’s second oldest, continually running race (the Indianapolis 500 is first), it’s also one of the first places Block ever raced in his career.

“When I was young, I caught the The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb on TV once or twice,” said Block. “Even as a kid I remember dreaming about racing there some day because it looked so epic. Eventually I did, back in 2005, but it was in a Group N rally car which didn’t have much power up in that high and thin air! It was an underwhelming experience because of the horsepower issue, but I loved the road and mountain – and I had always wanted to go back and do it right. So, to drive it like I get to drive in my Gymkhana videos – and do it in the Hoonicorn with 1,400 horsepower – well, that truly is a dream come true!”

For Block, filming Climbkhana at Pikes Peak was a unique opportunity. While the road closes once a year for the Hill Climb, no one has ever been given the access to turn the landmark location into a playground. For production duties, Block once again brought his long-time friend and business partner at Hoonigan, Brian Scotto, to direct, but they also added a new face to the Hoonigan Media Machine formula: Eight-time Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Champion and Radical Media Director Jeff Zwart.

“I have raced at Pikes Peak for 16 years and through the years I thought I had seen everything, but to witness Ken’s skills on basically my home mountain and get to direct him at the same time, it was truly something amazing,” explains Jeff Zwart, Climbkhana’s co-director. “Nothing but respect for him and his whole team, both on the racing side and production side!”

To tackle the extreme elevation gains experienced along the way up Pikes Peak, Block knew that he needed more horsepower for his 1965 Ford Mustang Hoonicorn RTR. So, Hoonicorn V2 was born. A 1,400 horsepower, twin-turbo, methanol-fueled machine that lights up its sticky Toyo Proxes R888R tires in every corner and properly updates the infamous build made famous in Gymkhana SEVEN, Wild in the Streets Los Angeles. Unfortunately, extreme engine builds and altitudes can prove challenging. Block and his crew experienced multiple production setbacks, having to go to the mountain on three separate occasions over 12 months due to both weather and development issues to be able to finish the film.

“This car is insane,” said Block. “I feel it genuinely wants to kill me! Before we added the twin turbos, it was the most fun car I’ve ever driven. Now it’s still quite fun to drive, but it melts tires ridiculously quick. To have this thing be such a beast and then take it to this very dangerous mountain, well, I thought I’d maybe finally taken on a project that might be too much for me to handle. This is the most powerful AWD-type car in the world to be driven this way, so I’m genuinely glad I didn’t die making this video!”

Toyo Proxes R888R tires deliver the enhanced grip and stability Block needs when maneuvering the 1,400-horsepower Hoonicorn V2 around the famous curves of Pikes Peak. Learn more about the Proxes R888R DOT competition tire and find a dealer at toyotires.com/tires/competition-tires.

The film was produced by Hoonigan Media Machine and premiered last night at The Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. It is presented by Toyo Tires, Ford and Pennzoil. To watch it now, click the link below.

Even without racing, IndyCar has a busy 2017-’18 offseason ahead

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So, there’s been a full week now complete since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended at Sonoma Raceway. The offseason is now underway.

Almost all the first round of pieces have been written or filmed in the wake of Josef Newgarden’s popular first championship, achieved in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Meanwhile official news has been sparse, but figures to intensify in the coming weeks as teams need to fill seats.

And with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit now set for its final test in INDYCAR’s hands on Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway’s short course – the closest thing IndyCar has to a street course simulation – testing the new car will be a major topic over the months ahead.

Here’s what’s on tap for IndyCar’s offseason ahead:

TESTING, TESTING, 1…2…3…

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

As noted above, tomorrow marks the final day INDYCAR will run the testing program of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit at Sebring’s short course, before the new kits and cars are delivered to manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet for the next couple months of testing.

Team Penske (Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda, Oriol Servia) have operated the cars but with INDYCAR itself dictating the testing program through the first three tests done in July and August on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (super speedway), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (road course) and Iowa Speedway (short oval).

From here, Chevrolet and Honda have six tests each with the car through mid-November, before team testing begins in January, 2018. Teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet) will be those running the cars as part of the manufacturer testing program.

Part of the reason Spencer Pigot was confirmed by ECR as early as he was for 2018 was so that he could be part of this degree of manufacturer testing, and that’s good news for him in his development process. Pigot has already excelled driving one new car when it was introduced – the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in its first season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – and will now have his first full offseason to do IndyCar testing of its new car. Pigot has also helped to develop sports cars for Mazda in its prototype program the last couple years. Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, will have a key role to play for Chevrolet’s testing in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday at Sebring.

Ganassi has only formally confirmed Scott Dixon as part of its 2018 lineup so any new driver would be testing later, once confirmed. Ganassi managing director Mike Hull outlined the testing process over the coming months below.

2018 SCHEDULE RELEASE IMMINENT

The good news for Verizon IndyCar Series fans is that most of the 2018 IndyCar calendar is known already, via dates released either from tracks themselves or other series set to compete at said tracks.

The lone hold-up for the full release, which was expected out this week but NBC Sports now understands will be held a bit further, is whether Mexico will be added as an 18th race along with the 17 races set to return next year.

Given that country’s situation with its massive 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19 and its associated aftershocks, it’s not a shock that the country has slightly bigger issues to press on with at the moment.

And the good news we’ve discovered in our talks with INDYCAR officials is that we’re heading into a schedule release without a large number of lingering questions. The schedule stability and date equity assembled over the last couple years has been a welcome contrast to the fluidity in years previous.

Along with the 2018 schedule, movement on IndyCar’s future TV direction and entitlement sponsorship are likely to be big items behind-the-scenes at the INDYCAR offices. The current TV contract with NBCSN and ABC ends after 2018, as does Verizon’s tenure as title sponsor.

OFFICIAL CONFIRMATIONS AT/OF CERTAIN TEAMS

Most of the Verizon IndyCar Series field is set for 2018 (silly season update one, post-Mid-Ohio and two, during Sonoma). There are 13 driver/team combinations made official thus far:

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Tony Kanaan, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, speaks with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, during qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Beyond that, there are a wealth of “all but official” scenarios including:

  • James Hinchcliffe all but set to stay with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Tony Kanaan set to move to Foyt
  • Ed Jones planning to re-up with Coyne
  • Max Chilton, Carlin announcing a likely step-up
  • Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing locking down its program
  • Brendon Hartley moving from sports cars into Ganassi
  • Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirming his team choice

What that means on Sept. 25 is that realistically there’s only three or four rides for 2018 yet to be determined if all those “all but official” scenarios become official in the coming weeks. Those would be the second seats at SPM and Foyt, the likely second seat at Carlin and the road/street course seat at Carpenter.

Like Harding and Carlin, Juncos Racing is also poised to run at least some IndyCar races, but whether it’s a full-season remains to be seen. And like Carlin and Juncos, there’s a wealth of Indy Lights drivers keen to make their way into IndyCar.

As it is, the fact most of the IndyCar grid is known or almost set before October 1 – even if many programs haven’t been officially announced – is both rare and awesome to see at the same time. Teams need as much time to test their drivers with the new kits in the offseason, and so there’s been a mad rush to get next year locked down ASAP.

It seems hard to believe, but the days of “TBA” appearing on an IndyCar entry list days before St. Petersburg may be at an end.

HELIO’S OFFICIALLY UNOFFICIAL SWAN SONG

What a couple weeks it’s been for Helio Castroneves. Despite yet another top-five finish in the championship, Castroneves’ Sonoma race felt like a goodbye to full-time competition in IndyCar, especially as he thanked members of the media in the race’s aftermath.

Still, reports emerged heading into the weekend a fourth car full-time with Team Penske was still on the table. And partners Hitachi and Pennzoil also tweeted about Castroneves and his excellent season, which Castroneves re-tweeted.

Castroneves has tested Team Penske’s new Acura ARX-05 sports car last week (video below) and his departure from full-time driving in IndyCar seems all but inevitable at this point.

Despite Castroneves’ best efforts, it appears as though he’s had his swan song. He’ll be an asset to the Penske Acura program provided he winds up there, but IndyCar would feel his loss on the full-time grid. He’s been someone to appreciate for 20 years, the last 18 at Team Penske.

This is VERY interesting!! Oia isso!!

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OTHER INDYCAR DRIVERS IN SPORTS CARS

With Motul Petit Le Mans set for October 7, at least three IndyCar drivers – Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay – will be in action at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Road Atlanta. Dixon and Bourdais will be third drivers in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs while Hunter-Reay will be third driver in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, with the Taylor brothers.

Petit Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona always offer up a bevy of IndyCar drivers making guest appearances in sports car land. The latter event, with Team Penske premiering the aforementioned Acura ARX-05 there, figures to have a wealth of IndyCar interest – and quite likely IndyCar drivers – split among its two cars.

WHAT OFFSEASON FUN, ANTICS ARE IN STORE?

Last year, IndyCar had James Hinchcliffe on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” to carry it through the offseason.

Some of the other items IndyCar has released in recent years included Damien Power’s offbeat “Exclusive: Behind the Scenes” interview series with drivers in 2015 and “The Offseason” digital shorts as modeled after NBC’s “The Office.”

There’s usually some degree of entertainment, fun and games that emerges from the IndyCar offices over the offseason and what the creative minds there come up with will be interesting to see.

Or, there’s always more Visor Cam, which was utilized in-race this year starting at the Indianapolis 500 through to the Sonoma finale. Thanks to IMS Productions, this was one of racing’s coolest innovations in years. Considering how much testing is scheduled, some more Visor Cam would easily satisfy the appetite of the IndyCar fan base heading into the five or six-month period without IndyCar racing.

MRTI’S OFFSEASON PLANS

We’ll have more on this separately, but the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires also has a bit to look forward to this offseason. The two key items are the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, the traditional event that takes place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course October 20-22, and the delivery and debut for teams with the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series. Some teams have taken delivery of those now in anticipation of running next month.

Driver movement will also be afoot there as the next generation of IndyCar drivers seek to position themselves for 2019 and beyond.

IndyCar world comes to Nazareth for Marco Andretti’s wedding

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Fresh off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, a large percentage of the field made its return to Nazareth to celebrate Marco Andretti and Marta Krupa’s wedding.

Andretti, who turned 30 in March, wed his longtime girlfriend on Saturday in his and his Andretti family’s hometown.

The Andrettis are one of racing’s elite families and judging by a number of driver posts on Instagram, it looked like they put on an incredible night.

“We did the damn thing!” Andretti posted on Instagram, one of several driver posts on Instagram.

We did the damn thing !!!

A post shared by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

@freaks4live killed it for us last night.

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Other drivers included Andretti’s close friends James Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi along with Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, among others.

A number of social posts are below.

Congrats @marcoandretti @marta_krupa ! We love you guys #WeddingSeason #MK2MA

A post shared by Conor Daly (@conordaly22) on

Great night with these guys. Congratulations to Marta and Marco #mk2ma

A post shared by Will Power (@12willpower) on

This picture pretty much sums up our night!!! Pinky out @tkanaan 🥂🕺🏻#mk2ma

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🇺🇸 Great night with great friends. 🇧🇷 Noite agradável com ótimos amigos.

A post shared by Tony Kanaan (@tkanaan) on

NEWGARDEN SPENDS WEEKEND AS A WEDDING OFFICIANT

Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, meanwhile, had a wedding of his own to attend to this weekend – one he was a part of in an entirely different manner.

Newgarden’s longtime friends Nicholas Jordon Love and Katie Donnar got married this weekend in Indianapolis and Newgarden, who had arrived in the city a couple days earlier as part of his championship media tour, was the wedding officiant/celebrant.

A couple photos of that are below.

"Some souls just understand each other upon meeting." n.r. hart

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Fitting that both Andretti and Newgarden would be involved with weddings only a week after both celebrated milestone starts in their IndyCar careers – Andretti’s 200th, and Newgarden’s 100th.

Final Malaysian Grand Prix comes up this week on NBCSN

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Formula 1 has six races remaining this year and four of them in the month of October, with two sets of back-to-back races coming up.

First on that list is F1’s final trip to the Sepang International Circuit at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, for the 19th and last scheduled Malaysian Grand Prix.

The circuit announced earlier this year due to rising costs that it would end its contract one year early.

So if you’re a night owl or early riser, you can watch all the Malaysian Grand Prix sessions live via NBCSN and/or the NBC Sports App. On NBCSN, free practice two is on Friday, Sept. 29, at 3 a.m. ET, qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 5 a.m. ET and pre-race coverage Sunday, Oct. 1 at 2 a.m. leading into lights out at 3 a.m. ET. Free practices one and three are on the NBC Sports App.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas team has, surprisingly, won only once in Malaysia in its history when Lewis Hamilton won in 2014. That’s also Hamilton’s only win here. But this was the site of his first podium for Mercedes, third in 2013 behind the Red Bull pairing of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Vettel having prevailed that day in the infamous “Multi 21” team orders controversy.

A devastating engine failure for Hamilton this race last year was the death knell in his title hopes for the season, and opened the door for Daniel Ricciardo to take a surprise win for Red Bull Racing.

Vettel, who is now on the back foot in this year’s championship fight after he, teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen all collided on the run to the first turn in Singapore, is the active wins leader at Malaysia with four triumphs (2015 with Ferrari; 2010, 2011, 2013 with Red Bull).

Hamilton leads Vettel by 28 points with six races remaining as a result of Hamilton’s win and Vettel’s DNF in Singapore.

Raikkonen is twice a winner in Malaysia, having taken his maiden Grand Prix win here in 2003 with McLaren Mercedes and adding a second triumph with Ferrari in 2008.

Fernando Alonso, who became F1’s youngest polesitter at the time in that 2003 race, is the other active winner in the field, having won three times for three different teams (2005 with Renault, 2007 with McLaren and 2012 with Ferrari).

Ricciardo’s win here last year was a Red Bull 1-2 over Verstappen – the team’s most recent 1-2 finish.

Here’s the schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Thursday, Sept. 28, 11 p.m.-12:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, Sept. 29, 3 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 2 (Replay): Friday, Sept. 29, 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, Sept. 30, 2 a.m.-3 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, Sept. 30, 5 a.m.-6:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 2 a.m.-3 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 3 a.m.-5 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 5 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, Oct. 1, 9 p.m.-11 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Monday, Oct. 2, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Japanese Grand Prix, on October 8.