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Hawksworth back to full strength, looks to add to Toronto success

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TORONTO – We’ve had one first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season (Carlos Huertas), and rookie Jack Hawksworth could well be another one in this weekend’s Honda Indy 2 in Toronto (Saturday & Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports Live Extra).

First off, Hawksworth is back to full strength behind the wheel after his Pocono accident two weeks ago. He did some training this week, his first since the accident on July 5.

Secondly, if the talented 23-year-old English rookie loses either of the two Toronto races, it’ll mark his first time not winning on the streets around Exhibition Place.

Hawksworth, driver of the No. 98 Castrol Edge BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda, is a perfect three-for-three thus far in Toronto in his career. He swept the pair of Pro Mazda (then Star Mazda) races in 2012 and added a third victory in Indy Lights last year. All three have come from pole position.

Rather than take the opportunity to toot his own horn, Hawksworth was modest and praised his equipment when it comes to his Toronto success.

“I’ve always had good cars, and really, that’s the big thing here,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk. “It’s a technical street track and I tend to run well on street and road courses. Really we’ve just been able to convert. It’s a fun place here; there’s a lot to it, and it takes nailing the concrete patches and surfaces.”

Hawksworth also praised the nature of the 1.755-mile street course, which he said is a nice change of pace compared to some of the other street courses on the schedule.

“This place is really fun, and it’s so much different than a generic one,” he said. “Houston for example is 90 (degree) left (corner), 90 right, 90 left, 90 right, whatever.

“Here, it’s very different. It’s 90 and widens out, then has a tight corner after long straight (Turn 3), a fast (Turn) 6, then has like a road course section left, right, left. There’s so much going on here you’re trying to keep up! It’s a 59-second lap in an IndyCar… you think it should be a 2-minute one with what you’re fighting.”

While Hawksworth is a perfect three-for-three in Toronto entering the weekend, he looks to better his best result of third overall in IndyCar, set in Houston Race 2.

Reports: Maldonado working with Pirelli to develop 2017 F1 tires

SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 25:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus walks in the paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 25, 2015 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Ex-Williams and Lotus Formula 1 driver Pastor Maldonado is working with Pirelli to develop its new specification tires for the 2017 season, according to reports.

Both Autosport and motorsport.com reported earlier this week that Maldonado had agreed to work with Pirelli, and has already tested the new tires on a GP2 car at Mugello in Italy.

Maldonado was left without an F1 seat after his financial backing from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA fell through over the winter, ending his five-season stint in the series.

However, he now appears to be back in action, with Autosport also reporting that he is working alongside former Caterham driver Giedo van der Garde to develop the new tires using a GP2 car.

Van der Garde is balancing this role with his racing commitments in the European Le Mans Series and select rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship with Jota Sport.

Maldonado is still without a race seat, but this testing will help to keep him sharp as he continues to pursue new racing opportunities.

After gaining approval for increased testing in 2016 to design its new tires for next season earlier this month, Pirelli completed a private test with Jean-Eric Vergne and Ferrari on Tuesday at Fiorano.

The test was undertaken using a 2014 Ferrari car, meaning that it does not cut into the 25 days of testing Pirelli secured with current-year racers at the meeting with the teams and the FIA.

Red Bull needed an excuse to promote Verstappen; Kvyat gave one in Russia

xxxx during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 19, 2015 in Bahrain, Bahrain.
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This morning’s news that Max Verstappen would be replacing Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull racing with immediate effect took the majority of the Formula 1 fraternity by surprise.

Just three weeks after the Russian had stood on the podium and ruffled the feathers of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with a bold move at the start of the race, his F1 career now appears to be in tatters, while Verstappen’s is set to reach a rapid new height.

Yet none of this was totally unexpected. If anything, Verstappen replacing Kvyat was an inevitability. It’s simply the timing that has been so surprising.

Verstappen's 2016 portrait. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Verstappen’s 2016 portrait. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MAGNIFICENT MAX

Ever since making his F1 debut with Toro Rosso at the age of 17 last year, Verstappen has been living up to the considerable hype bestowed on him.

He finished 2015 as F1’s top rookie, easily outscoring teammate Daniel Ricciardo and narrowly missing out on his first breakthrough podium in both Hungary and Austin. He has long been tipped as F1’s next megastar; the man who can mount a serious challenge to the records set by Michael Schumacher, statistically the greatest driver the sport has known.

Red Bull knew all of this when it signed him to its young driver program midway through 2014. Verstappen had caught the eye of many during his early single seater days and karting career, leaving him at a juncture where two options lay before him: Mercedes or Red Bull.

Behind Max is his father, Jos, himself an F1 driver in the 1990s and early 2000s. Jos, of course, was a young talent thrust into the limelight early – coincidentally as Schumacher’s teammate at Benetton in 1994 – although he failed to deliver on the promise he showed. He has been the driving force behind his son’s career, giving him the support and guidance required to shape him into an F1 driver.

Max’s management were adamant when negotiating with Mercedes and Red Bull that it was F1 or nothing for 2015. Mercedes was unable to meet this, instead preferring him to work his way up the junior ranks. Red Bull, by virtue of its junior Toro Rosso team, could do so. And so followed his surprise appointment at the age of just 16 years old.

The concern was that Verstappen would sink, not swim, when thrown into motorsport’s top echelon. His inexperience has shown at times through a short temper, seen most clearly at this year’s season opener in Australia when he spun while trying to pass teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. for position. Otherwise though, he has been a revelation. Verstappen is brave and exciting to watch, showing a maturity behind the wheel that far exceeds his relative youth.

This is why Red Bull has taken the opportunity to push him up into its senior F1 team at the earliest possible moment. Verstappen is good enough to cut it at the top level, and it wants to give him the best possible tools with which to do so. Naturally, Red Bull is a better bet than Toro Rosso, particularly now that the Renault… er, TAG Heuer engine is up to scratch once again.

Yet you cannot help but feel for Kvyat.

Kvyat’s 2016 portrait. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

HAS DANY DONE ENOUGH?

Kvyat’s F1 career hasn’t been spectacular, but it hasn’t been an abject failure. It’s been good. Solid. Fair. Pick your moderately positive adjective of preference here.

The Russian got his break thanks to a particularly impressive charge to the GP3 title back in 2013. It was enough to convince Red Bull that he should replace Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso when he moved up to its senior team in place of the retiring Mark Webber. Antonio Felix da Costa was tipped to be Red Bull’s next big star, yet his failure to dominate either GP3 or Formula Renault 3.5 gave Kvyat an opening. He grabbed it with both hands.

Kvyat’s first season in F1 with Toro Rosso was, again, solid if unspectacular. He got to grips with the car quickly and was a good match for teammate Jean-Eric Vergne, but did not blow the doors off the Frenchman as Vettel had with Vitantonio Liuzzi in his early Red Bull days, nor did he enjoy the edge Ricciardo had over Vergne.

And yet he soon found himself being announced as Vettel’s replacement. He was given four-time World Champion-sized shoes to fill. But the appointment was more by coincidence than anything.

Vettel was never supposed to leave Red Bull in 2014. The team expected him to continue with Ricciardo as a teammate into 2015, and had already announced that Verstappen would race alongside Kvyat at Toro Rosso, leaving Vergne without a seat. For the future, the likes of Alex Lynn and Pierre Gasly were waiting in the wings, but their chances would come at a later date.

Vettel’s decision to walk away from Red Bull was not an easy one. However, after a tough year and with Ferrari looking to oust Fernando Alonso, an opportunity arose for him. He reportedly broke down in tears when he informed Red Bull team principal Christian Horner of his decision to leave ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix weekend, yet Red Bull was ready. A statement soon followed confirming that Kvyat would be replacing him.

Had Red Bull not already sacked Vergne, there’s a chance he may have been given the nod to replace Vettel. After all, he had more experience in F1 and had worked extensively with Ricciardo in the past. Yet Red Bull could not be seen to backtrack on the decision made. If JEV wasn’t good enough for Toro Rosso, he wouldn’t be good enough for Red Bull.

So Kvyat’s arrival was one of surprise. He certainly didn’t disgrace himself during his first year with Red Bull though, beating Ricciardo in the final standings. However, he lacked the pace his teammate showed in both qualifying and the race, and crucial errors in Austin and Japan raised question marks. They were errors Red Bull did not want to see its drivers making.

Since the beginning of the season, there has been an air of skepticism about Kvyat’s future with Red Bull due to the immense talent that Verstappen boasts. He struggled to match Ricciardo’s pace in Australia or Bahrain, and despite finishing third in China, he was just six seconds ahead of his teammate who had suffered a puncture, been caught out by the safety car and dropped to the back of the pack. The pace difference was noticeable.

And then came Russia.

Moment of contact in Sochi. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

THE TURNING POINT

Kvyat arrived in Sochi for his home grand prix as the poster boy for the event. A grandstand at the Sochi Autodrom bears his name and is emblazoned with a giant picture of him on the side. With president Vladimir Putin also in attendance and F1 growing at a rapid rate in Russia, it was a big weekend for Kvyat.

Qualifying proved to be a tight affair, with a last-ditch lap in Q2 getting him into the top 10. He was once again unable to match the pace of Ricciardo though, falling three-tenths of a second back to start the race eighth.

Keen to make an impression, Kvyat went out with all guns blazing at the start. He had done the same in China to maximum effect, irking Vettel in the process who called the Russian a “torpedo.”

The two would come to blows once again, although this time around, Vettel’s language was far less savory.

While trying to make up for his poor qualifying result, Kvyat tried to get on the brakes as late as possible on the run into Turn 2. However, all he did was slam into the rear of Vettel’s car, leaving the Ferrari driver with damage. Ricciardo was also caught in the melee, although he had also been clipped by Sergio Perez in the opening stages.

Vettel and Kvyat continued into the long left-hander at Turn 3, the former hobbling after the hit. His car slowed midway through the corner, leaving Kvyat to slam into his rear and punt him into the wall. Vettel was furious. Ricciardo was furious. Red Bull team advisor Helmut Marko was furious. Team boss Christian Horner was furious.

Kvyat, though, was relatively unapologetic.

“Probably the whole paddock wants an apology from me, but we’ll speak inside the team after analyzing,” he told NBCSN’s Will Buxton in the media bullpen.

“It’s easy to attack now. Go on, attack me, no problem.”

An inquest would inevitably follow, but few thought it would take the form that it has and result in Verstappen and Kvyat swapping seats for Spain.

Verstappen in winter testing in Spain. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

A GOOD EXCUSE

Red Bull has needed an excuse to get rid of one of its drivers to make room for Verstappen. With Ricciardo provisionally pinned down for 2017 and continuing to lead its charge though, the man to make way was only ever going to be Kvyat.

The Russian’s antics in Sochi have proven to be the catalyst for change. Just three weeks after hitting the podium in China, he is being sent back to the training ground to prove himself, while Verstappen – a man with far less experience – has the opportunity to prove himself in a top level team.

Much of this is driven by Red Bull’s desire to fend off any interest from rival teams – namely Mercedes and Ferrari. Verstappen signed a two-year deal with Toro Rosso from 2015, but even in the early stages of the contract, Jos and his other manager were keen to break him out of that and give him more flexibility.

By pushing Verstappen into the senior team, Red Bull will have likely ended all chances of him leaving at the end of the year. It is a huge change to have made, but Kvyat’s actions proved to be a good excuse to switch things up and give Verstappen the guarantees desired.

From here, there are a number of big questions that need to be answered. Firstly, where does Kvyat go from here? Even if he impresses back at Toro Rosso with a team he knows well and in an environment where the pressure to succeed is eased, there is no way back for him at Red Bull. That line-up is firmly set with Ricciardo and Verstappen for the foreseeable future.

Secondly, can Verstappen cut it with Red Bull? Most probably, the answer will be yes. Just how he stacks up against Ricciardo will be fascinating to see, but all of the signs from his fledgling career thus far suggest he will take to Red Bull like a duck to water.

How the future pans out for Toro Rosso will also be interesting. Sainz is now in a position where, despite doing a very good job with Toro Rosso, he doesn’t really have much of a chance of moving up to Red Bull unless Ricciardo were to move away. He’ll likely be joined by Gasly for 2017 after the Frenchman spends a second year racing in GP2.

As for Red Bull? As this affair has done is reinforce its reputation for being ruthless when it comes to dealing with its drivers. Kvyat has been hard done by, but he was racing on borrowed time regardless. Should Verstappen excel, it will look like a masterstroke.

Regardless, there is an awful lot riding on the rest of the season for Red Bull, Verstappen and Kvyat.

SH Rallycross/DRR extends WIX Filters partnership

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Photo: SH Rallycross
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Longtime SH Rallycross/DRR partner WIX Filters continues with the team in 2016, the team announced Thursday.

A full release is below:

SH Rallycross/DRR is excited to announce WIX® Filters as a primary sponsor for three races during the 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross Supercar championship series. The No. 07 SH Racing Ford Fiesta, driven by Jeff Ward, will sport WIX livery in Daytona on June 19, Seattle on September 17 and during the final weekend of the season in Los Angeles.

In addition, WIX, a sponsor of the team since its debut at the 2013 Los Angeles X Games, will serve as a major associate sponsor for the remaining races, providing filters to the team and branding for the Ford Fiesta.

“We’re thrilled to have WIX Filters back with us for a third season in Red Bull Global Rallycross,” said Dennis Reinbold, co-owner of SH Rallycross/DRR. “WIX has been and will continue to be a tremendously valued partner to our entire Rallycross operation. We are looking forward to competing all season in 2016 and want express our deepest gratitude to the entire team at WIX Filters for their trust and commitment to our Red Bull Global Rallycross programs.”

WIX Filters’ products include oil, air and fuel filters that have been track tested and proven in all levels of stock car, dirt track, off-road and drag racing. WIX uses motorsports as a grueling testing ground for scenarios involving high temperatures, fluctuations in pressure and rapid breakdown of engine oil.

“Ward is a seasoned driver with remarkable racing experience, making him a perfect fit for WIX,” said Jennifer Gibson, brand manager for WIX Filters. “We’re excited to see his legacy and fan base grow as part of this series, and look forward to another season partnering with SH Rallycross/DRR.”

Ward was recently announced as the driver of the No. 07 Ford Fiesta ST for the 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross season and is a member of both the Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He is a three-time X Games medalist (two gold), has four top-five Indianapolis 500 finishes, two Super Moto championships and seven AMA Motocross championships. The 2016 season will be Ward’s first full-time Red Bull Global Rallycross season after making his series debut in 2015 with three starts.

“I am honored to be representing WIX for the 2016 season,” said Ward. “I look forward to continuing the success they have enjoyed with the team the last two seasons and competing for the championship this year.”

SH Rallycross/DRR is entering its fourth season of competition and third full season (ran one race, the X Games Los Angeles in 2013). The team finished fourth in the championship standings the last two seasons. Last year, the team had its best season with four podium performances, including a win in Washington D.C. It was also the only supercar team to make every main (final) event.

SH Rallycross/DRR previously announced that the No. 07 car will have primary sponsorship from MET-Rx at eight of twelve Red Bull GRC races this year and major associate backing from 360-degree video camera, 360fly Inc., for all twelve races.

The 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross season opens May 21 in Phoenix, AZ.

Ecclestone ‘struggling a little bit’ with Las Vegas F1 deal

LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 25: Hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip are seen on February 25, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone says that he is “struggling a little bit” to agree a deal to hold a grand prix on the iconic Strip in Las Vegas.

Ecclestone has been pushing to get a second grand prix in the United States for some time, having previously agreed on an F1 race in New Jersey before the project ran out of steam.

Ecclestone confirmed at the beginning of April that he was in talks with promoters over a race in Las Vegas, suggesting that it could join the F1 calendar in the next couple of years.

However, speaking to reporters in Russia last weekend, Ecclestone confirmed that he was struggling for progress with the deal, but hinted that there were more options for a second race in the USA.

“We are struggling a little bit, yeah,” Ecclestone said of the Vegas deal.

“I want to make sure we are on The Strip, so when people turn their television on, they immediately know it is Vegas.

“We missed out a little bit on New York, but lots of places are talking about it.”

Should a new American venue be found for F1, it would join as an additional race to the existing United States GP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.