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Q&A with Force India’s Sergio Perez

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Sergio Perez’s Formula 1 career appeared to be down in the doldrums last November. Having signed him just one year earlier, McLaren confirmed that the Mexican would be dropped at the end of the season in favor of rookie Kevin Magnussen. After such a rapid rise in his first three years in the sport, his career had come to a crossroads.

Force India came to the rescue, handing him a lifeline and a seat for 2014, and he has since proven his worth. In Bahrain, Checo scored the team’s first podium finish in five years, and he has produced a number of impressive displays in his first eight races for the team.

Ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, MotorSportsTalk sat down with Perez to talk about his season so far, life at Force India, his thoughts on McLaren and how he would change the sport if he could.

You had a really good race in Austria, do you feel it made up for what happened in Canada? 

SP: Yeah, in a way, of course, but a bit unfortunate though that we had the penalty. I felt like we could have fought for more positions in the race. A bit unfortunate of course but we look forward for more. I think in the last two races we had the pace to fight for the podium, and now Silverstone I expect to be a bit different. It will be interesting to see what we can do around this place.

Different in what way? Harder?

SP: Harder because of the track layout. It has a lot of high speed corners, and that makes this place difficult for us because high speed hasn’t been our best strength in the last couple of races, here in a high speed circuit, I don’t expect great things.

Your drive through the field in Austria must give you confidence for future races if you have a difficult situation in qualifying or another grid penalty that you can fight back through. 

SP: Yeah of course, this gives you a good boost, so we need to keep pushing, keep delivering and we need points. The tight battle between us, McLaren, Williams… it’s going to be very intense and long, so we need to deliver weekend after weekend a lot of points.

And do you feel that you’re really on top of the tires at the moment?

SP: Yeah I know what to do, we know as a team what we have to do, so that gives me good confidence.

And compared to last year, obviously you were struggling with the McLaren car, and this year you’ve come to Force India and the results have improved. It must be quite a strange thing given that McLaren is such a big team, but it must also be pretty pleasing for you. 

SP: Of course. I think I came at the worst time to a team like McLaren where they were going downhill instead of uphill, so that made my adaptation to the team very difficult because we had an extremely difficult car. For the first half of the season we spent every Friday to Saturday with completely new car, so it was very difficult to adapt to that car. Pretty unfortunate, but I’m very happy here at Force India.

So would you say it’s a blessing in disguise that you got this move to Force India?

SP: Yeah definitely, yeah of course. I’m thankful that this happened.

Do you think that you’re proving a few people at McLaren wrong?

SP: I don’t feel that, I feel I’m making my team happy. It’s all that I care about, I want to make this team happy, I want to give my best possible job to the team.

And looking at what is going on at McLaren at the moment, again they’re not having a great season, there’s talk of Jenson Button retiring at the end of the year, a new driver going there… Do you have any thoughts on what is going on there? Are there still problems lingering from last season do you think?

SP: The recovery is not easy. We had a bad season last year. The rules changed a lot so everyone expected McLaren to be up there and that they should be doing a lot better than they are. Right now, I don’t know what’s going on inside the team so I don’t want to comment anything. All I know is from last year, so I don’t know really. All you know is all you read in the media, although I have good friends at McLaren. We don’t speak much about racing. Some people inside McLaren tell me sometimes what is going on, but if I’m honest I’m not very interested. I want to focus on my team.

Talking about recovery, Sauber, your old team is really having a tough season. It must be a bit difficult to see given the time you spent there?

SP: Yeah of course that’s very sad for a team like Sauber who is financially struggling so much and facing such tough times right now. They really need a good boost. Last year was already very difficult for them, but I think Nico [Hulkenberg] had an extremely good second half of the season, so that helped them so maybe this year something like that can happen for them.

You mentioned Nico then, you’re eight races into your career at Force India, how is the relationship with him?

SP: Yeah we have a good relationship. We work well together. We are doing a great job for the team and the team is happy, so I think the best is going to come. From now, we have to deliver every single weekend. I had many issues at the beginning of the season, and now it’s the time that we need to deliver every single point that we possibly can.

And do you feel that you’re learning anything from him and vice versa? 

SP: Nico is definitely the strongest teammate I ever had in Formula 1, a very complete driver. He has taken the best out of me. I’m very happy that I had a teammate like him who is pushing me and I believe I am also pushing him, so happy to work with him.

Is this the happiest you’ve been in F1 do you think? Are you now in your best place?

SP: The best place you can be is where you’re winning, but certainly I feel comfortable here. The team believes in me and that’s a big boost. We have great spirit as a team, a very hungry team for winning and for success. That makes me very happy. They let me do my job, they support me and as a driver that’s the best thing you can have.

In terms of the rest of the season for you, have you got any main targets? More podiums? 

SP: Yeah I’d like to score some more podiums, and I believe we can do it as a team, so hopefully in the next races we can score a podium.

And what step would need to be made for you to win a race with Force India? 

SP: Mercedes is quite far [ahead]. We need something like happened in Canada, where we were so close to the win. Nico was having some problems, so I was just running second, but then we had the brake by wire failure. That made my race very difficult. Then I had the clash with Felipe [Massa]. So yeah I think we need to close the gap a bit more to Mercedes, and be in that position, get a bit lucky, and then we can dream of a victory.

Have you and Felipe spoken about that incident yet? We obviously saw in Austria they re-opened the inquiry, and there was a lot of tension between you guys. 

SP: We spoke with the stewards, but we haven’t spoken afterwards.

But to you it’s in the past, done with?

SP: Yes to me it’s done.

Does it bother you when fellow drivers criticize you or do you just move on? 

SP: I moved on. Of course, you don’t expect that kind of things to go around, making a big deal. It is what it is, we have to move on.

There’s talk of Monza being cut from F1. As a driver, that mustn’t be good?

SP: Yeah that would be a big loss for Formula 1. Monza is one of the best grands prix, more historic, and that will be very bad for the fans as well.

And with standing starts, I don’t know your position on that but I think a lot of the drivers have expressed their dismay over this.

SP: It’s a bit unfortunate that we’re having this, but as well at the same place we have to look forward for Formula 1. We need to create more interest in the races and I think Formula 1 is looking for a way to make it more entertaining, and I think the best way to make it entertaining is to give opportunities to more teams to fight for victories. We all know who’s going to win on Sunday, 99%, unless something happens, so this makes F1 very boring. We need more teams in front. Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, teams that are capable of doing that, but you need to give the resources, ask them to come down a bit.

The rules don’t need to change so much, that stabilizes everything, so everyone can do a good job. Of course you will always have teams coming on top like Mercedes, big teams, but you need to close the gap. For example, 2012 with seven different winners happen in the first seven races – it was amazing for F1. So hopefully something like that can happen for the future.

Do you think the rule makers can discuss these ideas more with the drivers and the fans before they jump in and say “this is what is going to happen”?

SP: I think we all have to put our bit into the sport. We all live on this, and we all want to be one of the best sports in the world, which it is, but we need to keep pushing and keep putting in good ideas to make the race on Sunday very competitive, very tight, and spectacular for the fans.

We’ve also got skid blocks coming back to make some sparks, what’s your view on that is that too artificial, do we need it?

SP: Yeah, I think that’s too artificial for Formula 1. We don’t need those things. This sport is good enough itself to sell itself to the world. This is something extra. It doesn’t hurt Formula 1, it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why not? I’m not against it, but what I’m against is the fact that there is too big a difference between the teams, and I don’t think that’s good enough for Formula 1.

So maybe the budget cap that was discussed?

SP: Yes maybe that will help, and also the rules to establish more the rules and don’t change them too much so that teams can close the gap between each other and also help the smaller-medium teams like Force India, Sauber, Williams to raise their games and be in the same level.

Is this something you and the other drivers talk about and is it worth the GPDA maybe going to the FIA and putting your thoughts forwards?

SP: No, we don’t. Every driver has different interests. The ones that are running in the big teams, they want obviously a big margin to the medium teams, and that’s very normal. Because I love Formula 1, I want this sport to keep succeeding for the next generations and stuff. I think we need more teams able to win, and more teams able to fight for podiums. It was great to see Williams on the podium after so long, it was great to see Force India on the podium after so long – we need more of that.

You talk about loving the sport so much, so if there was one thing you could change about the sport, what would that be?

SP: In my opinion, we need this [cost cut]. I really hate that one team is winning every race as a fan, I’m talking as a fan right now. I don’t like that as a fan. I mean, of course every single driver would love to be in the position of Lewis and Nico, having a team that is dominating. But as a fan I don’t like that because it just gets boring. I like to see a couple of teams fighting for the victory, and I think you can do that with reducing the budget gap and also establishing a bit more the rules, and a bit more what you can do on the cars.

In the future it will be great to have Force India, Williams, Sauber fighting against a team like Mercedes. I’m not saying that Force India has to be a champion, but it would be great if they had the opportunity to at least fight for a big result, like one victory, something like that. It’s a big boost for Formula 1, not only for the team but it’s also a boost for Formula 1 to have these kind of results.

NHRA: After rough 2015, Courtney Force hopes the force is back with her in 2016

Courtney Force (Getty Images)
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It would be great to borrow a line from Star Wars and to tell NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force, “May the Force be with you.”

Unfortunately for the youngest daughter of 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, the force wasn’t even close to being with her in 2015.

In 2014, Courtney was one of the most successful drivers in Funny Car. She won a career-high four wins (out of a career total of seven wins), became the winningest female in Funny Car history, and earned the 100th win by a female driver in NHRA history.

It was a dream season as Force finished a career-best fourth in the standings.

But as good as everything went in 2014, it was the complete opposite in 2015. She failed to win a race, never could mount any type of consistency, and failed to reach the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in her career.

Force ultimately finished a career-worst 11th in the final Funny Car standings.

Even worse, in 24 races, she was eliminated in the first round an unheard of 15 times.

Courtney Force in action (Richard Shute/Auto Imagery)
Courtney Force in action (Richard Shute/Auto Imagery)

But heading into this weekend’s season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., there’s only one direction for Force to go, and that’s up.

“Last year was definitely tough,” Force told NBCSports.com. “There’s really nothing I can point fingers at, but I definitely think it’s going to make us feel a little bit better going into this year. We’re staying positive.”

Force started off positive in Friday’s first day of qualifying, as teammate Robert Hight had the quickest run at 3.942 seconds (at 322.19 mph), while Courtney Force was second-quickest at 3.945 seconds.

 

Much like her famous father, there was a significant amount of change that occurred for the overall John Force Racing operation in 2015.

There was a manufacturer change (to Chevrolet after nearly 20 years with Ford), a primary sponsor change (to Peak AntiFreeze and Lubricants after more than 30 years with Castrol) and just a whole different mojo than she and everyone in John Force Racing had never experienced.

Not so much in 2016, Courtney Force said.

“I feel like the pressure’s off a little bit for all our teams right now,” said Force, a big fan-favorite in the NHRA world. “With Chevy coming on board, Monster, Peak Antifreeze and Lucas (Oil) as sponsors, it was huge for us.

“To have them all really behind us definitely kind of puts us back to having comfort and knowing that we have support out here.”

Now in her fifth full season in the NHRA Funny Car ranks, as well as with primary sponsor Traxxas, Force is ready to forget about 2015 and look forward to a big leap forward in 2016.

“We definitely had a little bit of a rough year last year, but there were a few things we were trying out with the car and I think it just took us a little longer to figure it all out,” she said.

Perhaps the most significant change for Force this season is having two new co-crew chiefs: Dan Hood (husband of sister and former racer Ashley Force Hood) and Ronnie Thompson, who came over from sister Brittany Force’s Top Fuel team.

“I think the two of them are going to work well together and I’m excited,” Courtney Force told MotorSportsTalk. “We brought in a couple of other new people and switched a few positions.

“We’re definitely in our routine again, and the test at Phoenix (last weekend) definitely helped. We’re really just keeping a positive attitude going into this year.”

Father John Force expects big things this season from both Courtney and Brittany.

“I want this to be a big year for my girls,” Force told MST. “I want both Courtney and Brittany to have a big year.”

While that may put extra pressure on someone, knowing it’s your father who has high expectations, Courtney looks at it a bit differently.

“I think there’s always a little bit of pressure because he is my dad, but not really so much from him, maybe just more on myself,” she said. “I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself since I started racing. I push myself hard out here because I really love being in these cars and this opportunity, I’m just trying to take full advantage of it and really show these sponsors what we’re capable of.

“After a rough year like we had last year, I’m ready to get these things turned around and get back to how we used to be. We’ve won a lot of races, we know how to win and having the support of my dad, no, he doesn’t put that pressure on me, which is nice. I’m very lucky that I get to stay on as a driver for his team. I put pressure on myself more than anything.”

If there was one key to last year’s dismal season, it was missing the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, a six-race playoff that begins after the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Heading to Indy, Courtney was still within striking distance of making the Chase, but things didn’t work out the way she hoped they would.

“It was hard, for sure, every week, we went out there,” she said. “At the start of the season, we were like, ‘No, we didn’t have it this weekend, but we’ve always got next weekend.’ The time window to get in there started to get smaller and further away.

“(Not making the Countdown) was definitely a shock. We had Indy to try to make some magic happen and it was out of our hands. We couldn’t do much about it. We went out and that was just the way it was going to be.

“We just kind of had to take it, learn from it and move on. It was definitely a bummer. Since my rookie year, I’ve been in the top 10 every year. But I think it will only make us stronger for this year, which is probably the most important thing that came out of it.”

But now Indy and the entire 2015 season is and will remain in Force’s rearview mirror. It’s full speed ahead in 2016, starting with this weekend’s 56th annual edition of the Winternationals.

“I can’t wait to get back in the swing of things at the start of the season, at my home track in Pomona,” Force said. “I think 2016 will be a great year for our Traxxas Chevy Camaro team and we are ready to make it our year.”

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Nobuharu Matsushita to remain in GP2 with ART Grand Prix

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Nobuharu Matsushita (JPN, ART Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _MG_4660
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Nobuharu Matsushita will remain in the GP2 Series for the 2016 season after agreeing a new deal with defending champions ART Grand Prix.

Matsushita made his GP2 debut in 2015 with ART, racing alongside Stoffel Vandoorne who ultimately won the drivers’ title in record-breaking fashion.

Matsushita finished ninth in the final drivers’ standings with one race win to his name, and is now gunning to battle for the championship in his second year with ART.

“I would like to thank Honda and ART Grand Prix for giving me this opportunity to continue racing in GP2 Series,” Matsushita said.

“ART Grand Prix won the championships last year, and I am so honored to be part of such an amazing team again. As a member of HFDP, Honda Formula Dream Project, aiming to be the top-world-class driver, I will give my best to win the drivers and the team championship in my second GP2 season.”

Matsushita will race alongside Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin at ART in 2016, with the Russian driver moving from Rapax for his sophomore year in the series.

“I am truly delighted to start our third year of partnership together with Honda with this reinforcement of our collaboration,” ART team boss Sebastien Philippe said.

“Nobuharu will partner Sergey Sirotkin in the GP2 Series. He had an incredible year in 2015 when he did not know Europe or the championship, the team and the car, but nevertheless he secured one win, several podiums and made massive improvements all year long.

“As a driver and on a personal level, we have no doubt at all that he has all the assets needed to fight for the title in 2016.”

NHRA: Lots of change heading into this weekend’s season-opening Winternationals

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Last season, the National Hot Rod Association adopted a “#BaptismByNitro” theme to attract new fans and attention to the sport.

But as it kicks off the new season with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California,  if the NHRA were to come up with a new theme song for 2016, it’d likely be the old Scorpions ballad “Winds Of Change.”

Change – and positive change at that – seems to be all around in the wind for the NHRA, including:

* Peter Clifford begins his first full season as NHRA president (he replaced the retired Tom Compton last June). Clifford has made a number of dynamic hires in an effort to improve the sanctioning body’s reach and attractiveness to fans.

* The NHRA has embarked upon one of its most ambitious marketing and communications initiatives ever to increase fan attention and attendance at events, including the hiring of veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount late last season as new vice president of communications.

* Another significant hire is Emmy award-winning Ken Adelson as vice president of broadcasting and digital content to supercharge the NHRA’s TV and digital sides.

* Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 has become the official TV partner of the sport, with plans to televise live the majority of the 24 races this season, including expected three-hour presentations of final eliminations on Sundays. In addition, former Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon embarks upon a new career as a NHRA TV analyst.

* New rules in Pro Stock, including the long-awaited implementation of electronic fuel injection and the removal of long-standing monster hood scoops, should inject life into a class that had grown somewhat stagnant to fans in recent years.

* After becoming the first back-to-back female champion in any NHRA pro categories, Pro Stock queen Erica Enders goes for three straight titles this season.

* Fan favorite and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlan returns to the sport on a full-time basis after racing part-time last season.

* After enduring what he called his “worst season in 25 years” in 2015, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force is bound and determined to earn title No. 17 in 2016. The ageless Force (66 years old) told MotorSportsTalk that he feels as invigorated as he’s ever been and looks forward to significantly improve from last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish.

* In addition, Force will have long-time crew chief Austin Coil “helping out” in an unofficial capacity for Force’s Funny Car, as well as those of son-in-law and John Force Racing team president Robert Hight and Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney.

* John Force Racing also scored another coup in the offseason by hiring 11-time Top Fuel champion team owner/crew chief Alan Johnson as a consultant to oversee the Top Fuel efforts of driver Brittany Force. Judging by some of the runs Force had during last weekend’s preseason testing for nitro cars at Phoenix, not only does she seem likely to earn her first career win, she also is an early possible contender for the championship.

* Defending pro class champions are Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

And those changes are just for starters. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the NHRA is poised for increased growth and notoriety in 2016.

While the sanctioning body still has not capitulated to what many fans want – the return of full quarter-mile drag strip racing for Top Fuel and Funny Car competition (the standard remains 1,000 feet for 2016) – the changes that have already occurred for this season definitely hold a lot of promise.

Yes, the winds of change are swirling within the NHRA.

And if Clifford and the rest of the sanctioning body officials have their way and many of the changes prove successful, by season’s end the NHRA may be signing another Scorpions song that deals with wind: “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.”

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Helmut Marko: Modern-day F1 drivers are overpaid

xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.
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Red Bull Racing team advisor Helmut Marko believes that modern-day Formula 1 drivers are overpaid due to the reduced risk and easier driving conditions they experience.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel are two of the highest-paid drivers on the grid in 2016, earning upwards of $30 million per year from their teams.

However, Marko believes that drivers in F1 are overpaid as there is now a reduced risk of suffering a fatal accident, and that with the cars being easier to drive, their worth has decreased.

“Basically, the drivers of today are definitely overpaid for two reasons,” Marko told Sport Bild in Germany.

“Firstly, there is only a small risk that serious accidents can result in injury or even be fatal.

“Secondly, young top talent like [Max] Verstappen or [Pascal] Wehrlein can take the modern car and straight away easily do 100 laps without tiring.

“Previously you had even a Vettel have to take breaks because he was not used to the high centrifugal forces. This means that the cars are easier to drive. The drivers must do less.”