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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.

Mercedes
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.

Ferrari
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.

Williams
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.

McLaren
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.

Lotus
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.

Marussia
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.

Sauber
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.

Caterham
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.

Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.