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.

When the Haas F1 Team discovered NASCAR evolution (VIDEO)

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Kyle Petty is on site at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the Haas F1 Team to walk the museum and learn about at the evolution of NASCAR.

You can check out more from the NASCAR on NBC podcast, as Nate Ryan checks in with Haas’ pair of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.

Here’s the full times and downloads for this weekend’s coverage of the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas.

United States GP Paddock Notebook – Thursday

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The weather looks good, the words have been flying from the drivers’ mouths, and the anticipation is building for track action to commence at Circuit of The Americas for this weekend’s United States Grand Prix starting on Friday (FP1 is at 11 a.m. ET, FP2 is at 3 p.m. ET, both on NBCSN).

With the FIA Press Conference today for drivers, most of the focus centered on how Lewis Hamilton would react in his first meeting with the media since a trying weekend in Japan.

But with Nico Hulkenberg having confirmed his departure from Sahara Force India for Renault in 2017, the emerging driver silly season that occurs as a result was also something discussed in the paddock.

Here’s a roundup of news, features and other items from the paddock at COTA today (and some from Wednesday rolled into this post):




Welcome to the Lewis Conference

Thursday marked the FIA Lewis Conference in Austin – I mean Press Conference – because it was a decidedly one-man show among the six drivers selected to participate in the often relatively mundane, run-of-mill event.

Of the 22 questions asked from the floor, no less than 12 were addressed to Lewis Hamilton – many addressing his questioning of the press conference format itself, his social media presence, why certain users are blocked and rather little related to this race and this season itself.

I found it interesting that the most lucid answers came from Hamilton to three F1 part-timers – myself included – who asked questions outside the norm.

Hamilton, who works with UNICEF, addressed a question about Haiti by saying it’s devastating what’s happened there as a result of Hurricane Matthew. “I don’t know what I could do (to help), apart from taking a picture for social media, which is not really that helpful,” he said.

He also answered my own question asking him to take us inside the Mercedes factories in Brixworth and Brackley with a spirited answer of how it felt. “Honestly, it’s kind of daunting when you go back to the two factories, because there’s so many people,” he admitted. “I remember joining this team and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the majority of people that were in here, said that it wasn’t the right decision. I had the belief that this team would really go somewhere and I’ve been a part of that journey and very proud of it.”

Then he addressed what’s been another persistent issue this year – his starts. “I was at the factory last week and we were working very hard to cover up all areas so we hope that we have a slightly better formula this weekend.”

It appeared likely that the Mercedes brass had told Hamilton to respectfully engage and seem happy to be there, which he did well. That it made it a bit boring for the other five in the room was perhaps inevitable after Suzuka a fortnight ago.

A question posed by NBCSN’s Will Buxton about the format did elicit a bit of laughter though, Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean noting he’d taken a pic earlier in the conference illegally as a Microsoft ambassador, but holding another brand of phone. None of the others offered much in the way of suggestions as to how to improve the format, and the lack of ideas said as much as the words themselves.

Laser focus for Rosberg

Nico Rosberg is all-game face, all the time. Despite persistent efforts from the full-time F1 press corps, Rosberg would not budge in his media availability on Thursday about whether he’s allowing himself to think about a potential first World Championship.

Maybe this will serve him well if he achieves it, and his performances on track of late – particularly since the summer break as he’s won four of five Grands Prix – would back up that win-only focus.

Silly season starting to percolate

With this the first Grand Prix since Nico Hulkenberg’s confirmation at Renault, as my colleague Luke Smith noted in the U.S. Grand Prix preview this morning, we now have a silly season upon us in F1 after all.

Spots at Renault, Force India and even Haas are the biggest talking points. This is before we get to the lesser-rated drives at the moment with Sauber and Manor. And this doesn’t even get into the likelihood that Daniil Kvyat’s time with Toro Rosso seems near an end, especially with Pierre Gasly here and present this weekend not long after his run with Red Bull on Pirelli’s new 2017 tires at a warm Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi over the weekend (more on that below).

Sebastian Vettel didn’t seem interested in discussing his future with Ferrari during the press conference, but rest assured when 2017 rolls around his 2018 contract will be an early-season talking point.

Looking at the young guns waiting to get in the F1 door

Jordan King will make his F1 race weekend debut on Friday, taking over Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis for Manor in free practice one. The Englishman has had what he termed a “solid” season in GP2, although he regretted leaving some points on the table. Still fifth in points, King could move up with a solid weekend at Abu Dhabi, and may well enter the Manor race seat frame in 2017 if Pascal Wehrlein and/or Esteban Ocon moves on.

Pierre Gasly is another who could well be in an F1 race seat sooner rather than later. The Frenchman completed an important run of three days testing Pirelli’s 2017 wider tires at Abu Dhabi over the weekend for Red Bull, running nearly 300 laps in the process. While the GP2 runner-up at the moment will look to win that title first, he said as soon as he knows his 2017 plans, he’ll be keen to announce them. It would be a surprise to few if a shot to race with Toro Rosso arrives next season.

Haas test driver Santino Ferrucci isn’t immediately on F1’s race seat doorstep, but the talented teen is another of those on site this weekend for Haas’ home race. Ferrucci has become the first American to test for Haas in the team’s maiden Grand Prix season, earlier this year in Silverstone.

The man with the “Shoey” has some kick-ass shoes

The best way to end today’s Paddock Notebook is with the latest in “Shoey’s Shoes.”

Here’s the latest from Daniel Ricciardo as he has arrived in Austin, one of his favorite cities, with some kick-ass shoes that scream, ‘Merica.

See a post here from Red Bull Racing on Twitter:

NBCSN’s new show, Motorclub, premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET

Photo: Chris Tedesco/Red Bull Content Pool
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A new five-episode series chronicling major athletes in rising extreme and motorsport competitions, called Motorclub, premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The first episode looks at Red Bull Global Rallycross’ season finale in Los Angeles, as Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates Scott Speed and Tanner Foust battled for the title.

Foust, who’s been part of TV productions before as a host for Top Gear America (ran from 2010 until early this year), will serve as an executive producer of this show.

Other drivers/athletes expected to feature in the show include Travis Pastrana, Bucky Lasek, Brian Deegan and Ken Gushi, perhaps among others.

A trailer from the show is below, and a link to the show’s Facebook page with more information is linked here:

Rosberg maintains singular race-win only focus into COTA

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 08:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP sits in his car in the garage  during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 8, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Nico Rosberg refuses to discuss the C-word – championship – and is maintaining his traditional, steadfast “I’m going for the race win” mentality heading into this weekend’s United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas.

The German holds a 33-point lead over his teammate at Mercedes AMG Petronas, Lewis Hamilton, and could win his maiden World Championship in Formula 1 even if he finishes second to Hamilton in each of the final four races.

This would make him the second son of a World Champion (father Keke) to win a title if he does so. Both Graham and Damon Hill have won titles, and that’s the only father-son pairing.

But in Rosberg’s media availability today in Austin, he was more channeling his inner Marshawn Lynch, and “Beast Mode’s” famous/infamous “I’m here so I won’t get fined” Super Bowl availability – than allowing himself to think about the title.

“It’s not something I’ve been thinking about,” Rosberg said of the title.” I’m not sure how much pressure Lewis has put on himself. For me it’s business as usual. I’m just trying to win the race this weekend, like I have the last three years.”

Rosberg continued with the stoic focus for further questions.

“I definitely don’t put any thought into that at all,” he said about second places. “I’m going for the win this weekend and that’s it. I’m not going for second places or anything as such.”

He also refused to acknowledge his past record, noting he’s already carrying a nine-six win edge over Hamilton heading into the weekend and has proven he can win at tracks where he hasn’t in the past. In Austin, he’s come second to Hamilton each of the last two years after starting on pole.

“It’s something I don’t think about,” he said. “As we’ve seen so often this year it has no importance. I can win on any track against Lewis. This weekend for me we’re starting from scratch. It’ll be difficult against him always. He’ll be motivated. He’ll be at his best. We’ll see.”

This morning, Hamilton said if he didn’t win the World Championship, he’d “take it like a man.”

Rosberg wouldn’t answer how he’d feel if he didn’t win it, because, as he noted, he’s not thinking about it.

“I haven’t thought of that because I’m planning to go for more race wins at the moment, and that’s it,” he said. “If I can repeat what I’ve been saying. Negative thoughts, I’ll fully avoid. That won’t make me faster. How would I feel if I lose? That won’t work.”

But Rosberg did say why he was a happy camper for this session.

“All I’m thinking about is Austin GP weekend,” he said. “I just called my wife before speaking to you guys. That’s why I’m in a good mood.”