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IndyCar: 2014 midterm progress report

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Technically, the Verizon IndyCar Series won’t reach the halfway point of the season until after the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend on Saturday. That will mark 9 of 18 races complete, and signal just two months left in the season.

But, with this having been a two-week break, the longest the series will have at any point this year, we take a look back at the stunners, spoilers and stragglers thus far in 2014:

BEST DRIVER: HELIO CASTRONEVES

So why am I picking the 39-year-old Brazilian over his Team Penske teammate and series points leader, Will Power, or the guy he lost out to for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay? Castroneves has shown the resilience and determination I didn’t think was possible after his near-title miss in 2013. His Detroit weekend was one of his out-and-out fastest weekends in years; he was revitalized at Indianapolis, just missing the 500 win to Hunter-Reay, and was frustrated with thirds at both St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. If he holds it together in the second half, he may well finally put together that elusive first series championship. Power and  Hunter-Reay, for as much as they’ve been the two drivers with the highest ceilings this year, have been in the headlines for controversy or mistakes as much as their highlights. And being the best driver on IndyCar’s biggest day does not necessarily mean he/she has been the best driver over the course of the season.

BEST ROOKIE: JACK HAWKSWORTH

It all comes down to circumstances, and Hawksworth is excelling most in his. A rookie on in the single-car No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda entry should not have three top-five starts and 32 laps led this year, but indeed he does. I was surprised when Bryan Herta brought him in instead of offseason favorite Luca Filippi, but Hawksworth has been nothing short of impressive this year. This is not to sell the other rookies short, but all of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing) have excellent teammates at their disposal to learn from; Hawksworth does not.

NEED A REBOUND IN SECOND HALF: SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, GRAHAM RAHAL

I don’t want to call either of the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Champ Car teammates “disappointing,” but thus far these two have been below my expectations. Bourdais has made way too many mistakes, especially for someone of his experience level, and incurred the wrath of several penalties. For whatever reason, despite having all the resources at his disposal at RLL, Rahal has struggled in qualifying and has had to rely on great starts and restarts to make up positions this year.

HARD-LUCK AWARD: JOSEF NEWGARDEN

I gave Josef my “most improved” driver award last year and his qualifying has been significantly better in 2014, especially impressive considering a change in engineers preseason and working as a single-car entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But man he can’t buy a break. Speared by RHR in Long Beach, Martin Plowman at the Indy 500 and Power at Detroit Race 2, plus a rare unforced error in Detroit Race 1, have left Newgarden’s results not at the level of his qualifying performances.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE: INDY 500

Hard not to give it to the race where Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged a thrilling six-lap bout for the win after the red flag, and the field kept it clean and green for the first 149 laps. It had just the right amount of passing, pacing and fuel strategy for my liking, with an excellent finish to boot.

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF

  • Power vs. the world: Points leader Will Power has made himself no friends with some of his on-track moves this season, but, as he said post-Texas, he’s still been earning a lot of penalties. How he handles himself and the pressure in the hunt for his first title will be fascinating over the coming weeks.
  • Pagenaud, RHR, Castroneves in with a shot? Figure these three – RHR, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – have the best shot to overtake Power for the championship. The top four are within 91 points heading into the final 10-race stretch. Pagenaud’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda team needs just slightly better qualifying efforts (no top-three starts this year… RHR has four), but otherwise is a title contender.
  • Can Ganassi pull second-half comeback encore? The pre-Pocono test at Sebring last year has entered the annals in recent IndyCar history for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But at 156 points back in eighth place, Scott Dixon has a higher mountain to climb if he wants to repeat his 2013 series championship. Teammates Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball seek the glory of wins, and not also-ran performances.
  • The double points lottery: Pocono and Fontana offer double points on their own, and with doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto, those four weekends of the remaining eight on the calendar have a greater determination towards the championship than the four other, standard points weekends of Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Sonoma. A driver like a Marco Andretti or Tony Kanaan, for instance, could bag the Pocono win and if the leaders hit problems, suddenly vault himself back into title contention as well.
  • Fatigue: There’s 10 races in the next 10 weekends… there’s six races in the next four. How drivers and crews hold up over what’s going to be a physically demanding and at times, exhausting schedule, will determine much of the championship chase.

See the rest of the season on NBCSN, and both of this weekend’s races from Houston at 3 p.m. ET each of Saturday and Sunday on NBCSN and Live Extra.

F1 world begins to weigh in on end of the Bernie Ecclestone era

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 16:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone talk in the Paddock during previews ahead of the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 16, 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)
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It seemed a matter of when, not if, Bernie Ecclestone’s days running Formula 1 on a day-to-day basis would end once Liberty Media Corporation acquired the sport.

Monday provided the formal confirmation, with Chase Casey installed as CEO of Formula 1 in addition to his existing duties as chairman. Meanwhile Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches have been named to Managing Director positions of Motor Sports and Commercial Operations, respectively.

Reactions to the news have began, and are linked below.

Newly crowned World Champion Nico Rosberg thanked Ecclestone, while noting a change has been “overdue.”

Romain Grosjean of Haas F1 Team posted his thoughts:

Zak Brown, new executive director for the McLaren Technology Group and seemingly, perpetually rumored as a replacement for Ecclestone, called him a “very hard act to follow.”

Circuit of The Americas, the new home track for Formula 1 in the United States, also offered sincere thanks.

Other key figures in F1 and the racing world have weighed in:

What are your thoughts? Was this the right time for a change? Weigh in via the poll below, or in the comments.

Ross Brawn, Sean Bratches confirmed in top F1 roles

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 22:  Mercedes GP Team Principal Ross Brawn is seen in the paddock during previews to the Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 22, 2013 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches have been confirmed to key roles within Formula 1’s new leadership structure under new chairman/CEO Chase Carey.

Brawn, whose team won the 2009 World Championship with Jenson Button before laying the groundwork for Mercedes’ recent run of form, and who achieved a wealth of success with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, has been installed as Managing Director, Motor Sports. Bratches, a former ESPN executive, will be Managing Director, Commercial Operations. It’s an undoubted key role in Brawn’s 40-year career.

Carey’s latter role was confirmed today as part of Liberty Media Corporation’s completed acquisition of the sport, which sees Bernie Ecclestone removed as CEO.

“I am delighted to welcome Ross back to Formula 1. In his 40 years in the sport, he’s brought his magic touch to every team with which he has worked, has almost unparalleled technical knowledge, experience and relationships, and I have already benefitted greatly from his advice and expertise,” Carey said in a release.

“I am thrilled Sean is joining Formula 1. Sean was a driving force in building ESPN into one of the world’s leading sports franchises. His expertise and experience in sales, marketing, digital media, and distribution will be invaluable as we grow Formula 1.

“I look forward to working with Ross and Sean, as well as key current executives including Duncan Llowarch, our CFO, and Sacha Woodward Hill, our General Counsel, the FIA, Bernie and Liberty as we work together to make Formula 1 the best it can be for the teams, promoters and fans for years to come.”

The Brawn appointment sees him back in the sport several years after the end of his time with Mercedes, and not long after the release of his new book. He’s been consulting to Liberty Media for several months.

“It’s fantastic to be returning to the world of Formula 1,” Brawn said. “I’ve enjoyed consulting with Liberty Media these last few months and I’m looking forward to working with Chase, Sean and the rest of the Formula 1 Team to help the evolution of the sport. We have an almost unprecedented opportunity to work together with the teams and promoters for a better F1 for them and, most importantly, for the fans.”

Bratches has more than 27 years experience and at ESPN, most recently served as Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing.

“I’m very excited to be joining Formula 1 and contribute to the continued growth of this extraordinary global brand and sport,” Bratches said. “Formula 1 is one of few truly global tier one sports, and I am encouraged by the manifold opportunities to materially grow the business, work closely with current and future sponsors, race circuits, television rights holders as well as create next generation digital and on-site race experiences to best serve the Formula 1 fans.”

Liberty completes F1 takeover; Bernie Ecclestone out as F1 CEO

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 11:  F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone walks in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 11, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Bernie Ecclestone’s 40-year reign at the helm of Formula 1 has come to an end following the CEO’s resignation on Monday, the major bit of news on a day when Liberty Media has formally completed its acquisition of Formula 1.

Ecclestone, 86, played an instrumental role in building F1 into the global success it is today, forming the Formula One Constructors’ Association in 1974 and becoming its CEO.

Ecclestone has controlled the commercials rights to the series ever since, but his position came into question last fall when F1 was sold to American company Liberty Media. Liberty installed Chase Carey as F1’s new chairman, with Ecclestone staying on as CEO.

However, with Liberty’s takeover of F1 set to be completed by the end of the month, Ecclestone’s tenure as the sport’s ringmaster is set to end following his resignation as CEO. Carey is now formally confirmed as new Chairman and CEO of the sport.

“I was deposed today,” Ecclestone told Auto Motor und Sport. “This is official. I do not run the company anymore. My position has been taken over by Chase Carey.

“My new position is now such an American expression. A kind of honorary president. I’ll get this title without knowing what it means.

“My days in office are now somewhat calmer. Maybe I’ll come to a grand prix. I still have a lot of friends in the Formula 1. And I still have enough money to be able to afford a visit to a race.”

AMUS’ report was followed by an official statement from Liberty later Monday afternoon, confirming Ecclestone no longer served as F1’s CEO, and confirming Ecclestone as Chairman Emeritus of the sport.

“I’m proud of the business that I built over the last 40 years and all that I have achieved with Formula 1, and would like to thank all of the promoters, teams, sponsors and television companies that I have worked with,” Ecclestone said in a release. “I’m very pleased that the business has been acquired by Liberty and that it intends to invest in the future of F1. I am sure that Chase will execute his role in a way that will benefit the sport.”

Carey said, “I am excited to be taking on the additional role of CEO. F1 has huge potential with multiple untapped opportunities. I have enjoyed hearing from the fans, teams, FIA, promoters and sponsors on their ideas and hopes for the sport. We will work with all of these partners to enhance the racing experience and add new dimensions to the sport and we look forward to sharing these plans overtime.”

“I would like to recognize and thank Bernie for his leadership over the decades. The sport is what it is today because of him and the talented team of executives he has led, and he will always be part of the F1 family. Bernie’s role as Chairman Emeritus befits his tremendous contribution to the sport and I am grateful for his continued insight and guidance as we build F1 for long-term success and the enjoyment of all those involved.”

Greg Maffei, President and CEO of Liberty Media Corporation, added: “We are delighted to have completed the acquisition of F1 and that Chase will lead this business as CEO. There is an enormous opportunity to grow the sport, and we have every confidence that Chase, with his abilities and experience, is the right person to achieve this. I’d like to thank Bernie Ecclestone, who becomes Chairman Emeritus, for his tremendous success in building this remarkable global sport.”

Liberty confirmed within the release that the Liberty Media Group name will become the Formula One Group. Full formal details are linked here.

While not announced today, Liberty is reportedly set to bring in ex-ESPN marketing chief Sean Bratches in a commercial role, and ex-Ferrari and Benetton technical chief Ross Brawn has been linked with a sporting role to define the future roadmap for F1.

Liberty’s takeover is set to result in a number of changes for F1, with the United States being identified as a key market for the series to grow in.

Recently-appointed McLaren executive director Zak Brown said earlier this month that he believed Liberty would focus on putting fans first in a bid to boost its audience.

While Liberty’s exact plans for F1 moving forward remain unclear, the departure of Ecclestone as its ringmaster certainly signals the end of an era for the series.

PWC: Parente back, Sellers, Hedlund join at K-PAX

Photo: PWC
Photo: PWC
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Defending Pirelli World Challenge GT champions K-PAX Racing have confirmed their lineup for this year’s season, which will see Alvaro Parente back to defend his crown in one of three McLaren 650S GT3s.

Parente will have two new teammates, in two talented Americans. Bryan Sellers will make his first run at a full-time PWC season in the team’s No. 6 McLaren, while Mike Hedlund, who’s driven off-and-on with K-PAX Racing technical partner Flying Lizard Motorsports, will run for a GTA title in the No. 98 McLaren.

Sellers and Hedlund replace Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson, respectively, as full-season drivers. Driver lineups for the SprintX races will be announced at a later date.

“With the addition of new teams, drivers and GT3 cars in the Pirelli World Challenge, 2017 is going to be tighter and more challenging than ever,” said Team Owner Jim Haughey. “So we are very pleased to have Alvaro, the returning Driver’s Champion, team up with the very competent Bryan Sellers in GT and Mike Hedlund in GTA.”

The full release is linked here.

These confirmations add to what’s shaping up to be, once again, a very good GT class field for the series.