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.

Theriault clinches ARCA title before finale at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) There is no long, convoluted story about how Austin Theriault came to Ken Schrader Racing, forging a team that so dominated the ARCA Series that it captured the title simply by showing up for the finale.

“We both wanted something to do,” the folksy Schrader said with a smile and shrug before Friday night’s race at Kansas Speedway. “He didn’t have a car to drive and I didn’t have a driver.”

So, they solved each other’s problem.

Theriault hopped into the seat and proceeded to win seven times over the first 19 races, building such a lead on his nearest challenger that he sewed up the title at Kentucky. And that made for a rather enjoyable weekend at Kansas, where all the pressure was off their team.

Along the way, Theriault became the first driver to win at a superspeedway, short track, dirt track and road event in the same season, and he swept the superspeedway and short-track challenges.

If there was something to win, he won it.

“I hoped we’d have a shot at it and it’s proved out this year that we’ve really exceeded anybody’s expectations,” Theriault said. “We had some things to work on early. We kind of dusted off a bit, went back to work. We had some time between Daytona and the mile-and-a-halfs that came up later in the season, and we realized where we were strong and where we had to work.

“But in the end it came back to pure dedication, I think,” he explained. “The amount of time it took behind the scenes to make this happen.”

The 23-year-old driver from Fort Kent, Maine, knows something about dedication. He appeared to be on racing’s fast track, scoring a Truck Series ride a few years ago for Brad Keselowski, when a terrifying crash at Las Vegas left him with a broken back and sitting on the sidelines.

The best ride he could find last year was in the K&N Pro Series.

It was at a trade show in Indianapolis last December that Theriault ran into Schrader, who was busy putting together a team for this season. They had dinner a couple nights later and, Schrader said, it was his wife Ann who came away impressed by the yes-sir, no-sir driver.

“My wife doesn’t go to all the races,” Schrader said. “After we talked she said, `I like that guy. How good is he?’ She doesn’t know. I knew he was racing well in Keselowski’s truck, had an unfortunate wreck, had to sit out a bit. I told her, `That’s somebody who could make us very happy next year.”‘

Theriault delivered on that promise.

They weren’t the only ones happy Friday, either. Zane Smith earned his second pole of the season, beating teammate Sheldon Creed to earn the top spot for the Kansas ARCA 150, while 20-year-old Natalie Decker announced a full-time ride with Venturini Motorsports next season.

“This is obviously a big step in my career,” said Decker, who made six starts as a rookie this season. “I’m confident and ready for this next move. After tonight my focus shifts to next season. We’ll be ready to go at Daytona.”