2014’s halfway point marks the beginning of F1 silly season

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We’re not even halfway through the 2014 Formula 1 season, and yet we’re already looking towards next year. The 2015 driver market is being speculated and guessed at in the paddock; it’s fair to say that F1’s silly season has begun.

Silly season is an odd phenomenon. Any number of drivers can be linked with any number of seats, and this year, none of the five world champions racing are free of its influence. McLaren’s promise of Honda engines is thought to be a big lure for drivers, but could this all come to an anti-climax and see very little change? Then again, didn’t we say the same before Lewis Hamilton walked out on McLaren in 2012?

Here’s the team-by-team breakdown of how things are shaping up for 2015.

There won’t be any change at the front of the field. McLaren has reportedly put the feelers out to Lewis Hamilton over a possible return, but why would he leave the team that has dominated F1 so far this season? Not worrying about the driver line-up here should allow us to focus on the great battle between Lewis and Nico Rosberg for the drivers’ title.

Red Bull
Again, it’s hard to see any change for the defending world champions. Daniel Ricciardo has exceeded all expectations during his debut season, winning the Canadian Grand Prix, and is even beating four-time champ Sebastian Vettel fair and square. Like Hamilton, Vettel has reportedly been approached by McLaren, but again it makes little sense to jump ship. The RB10 is a solid car, perhaps even better aerodynamically than the Mercedes. It’s just the Renault engine in the back that’s proving problematic.

When the Italian marque confirmed that Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen would be joining forces, it seemed to be a partnership that was too big to fail; it couldn’t not lead to races and titles. Instead, it’s been a bit of a dismal showing. Alonso continues to drag the Ferrari towards the front of the field, and of all the top drivers on offer, he’s perhaps the most likely to leave for McLaren (although it still seems unlikely). Kimi is locked in until 2015, after which he’ll probably retire, most probably making way for Jules Bianchi.

What a great season Williams is having. Valtteri Bottas has been a revelation with the FW36, and Felipe Massa would probably be on a par with his teammate had it not been for some rotten luck. The team is certainly getting back to where it should be at the front of the grid, so there’s no reason for a change here.

Force India
Making up one of the most underrated line-ups on the grid, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg have both enjoyed fine starts to the season. Ferrari was interested in Hulkenberg before opting for Kimi, but that ship appears to have sailed for 2016 with Jules Bianchi coming into the frame. Again, there might be no change here.

The first real chance for a change, with Jenson Button the man at risk. The spark that he had before doesn’t appear to be there any more. However, as we saw at Silverstone, he still has the fight to gun for podiums, and the MP4-29 car is still inhibiting what he is truly capable of. The promise of Honda engines could be a big lure, and the team is known to be chasing a big name to lead this new era. Would any of the champions on the grid walk away from their teams on the chance of success at Woking, though?

Toro Rosso
Time is ticking on Jean-Eric Vergne’s F1 career. The Frenchman hasn’t done badly this season, but nor has he given Toro Rosso too many reasons to keep him on for 2015. With Carlos Sainz Jr. impressing in Formula Renault 3.5, he is the most likely man to join Red Bull’s B-team alongside Daniil Kvyat, who in his rookie season has given Vergne a very hard time.

Maldonado can get a seat pretty much anywhere so long as Venezuela’s money is in place. Grosjean is also proving himself to have Alonso-esque attributes, shown by the way he has dragged the E22 through the field on a number of occasions. With a bit of financial stability, both drivers will be hoping for a better 2015 with Lotus.

The brilliance of Jules Bianchi in Monaco saw the team pick up its first ever points, but said brilliance could get Ferrari thinking. Does JB Jr. need to be at a bigger team before joining the Italian marque? If so, a number of drivers in GP2 could fill his seat, but failing that, both he and Max Chilton look set for another season with the Anglo-Russian team.

Here we have the most open fight on the grid: two seats, five drivers. First up, we have current drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil. Both have a lot of financial muscle, but neither has given the team much of a reason to be retained. The C33 car looks allergic to corners at the best of times, and with zero points on the board, Sauber may want to reconsider things.

The three drivers vying for these seats are Giedo van der Garde, Sergey Sirotkin and Simona de Silvestro. van der Garde has impressed during his practice runs, but may lose out to Sirotkin if the Russian is ready and the backing is in place. de Silvestro may have to wait another year before stepping up to F1, so is the outside bet. Either way, it would be a big surprise to see no change at Sauber for 2015.

As I wrote earlier today, the future for Caterham is far from clear, so it’s a bit difficult to make much of a prediction regarding its driver line-up. Should Sainz get a place here, Red Bull might opt to keep Vergne on for another year, although it seems unlikely. GP2’s Jolyon Palmer could be another contender, but otherwise, it is still very unclear.

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”