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In racing and in soccer, Germany’s success perpetuates

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HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY – Being a German sports fan at the moment must be pretty great. Not only has your national soccer team just won the FIFA World Cup, but you have a German driver and a German team leading the F1 world championships.

Mercedes has dominated proceedings so far this season, and although the fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg is set to rage on this year, the advantage currently lies with the latter by four points.

In fact, since the turn of the century, there have been just three championship victories that have no relation to Germany: Fernando Alonso’s titles in 2005 and 2006 with Renault, and Kimi Raikkonen’s victory in 2007 with Ferrari. Michael Schumacher won every championship from 2000 to 2004; Sebastian Vettel secured four titles on the bounce between 2010 and 2013; Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button won their titles in 2008 and 2009 using Mercedes-powered cars.

Frankly, it is a staggering record. Even if you look at soccer, there is a clear pattern of success as this golden generation comes to the fore. Bayern Munich has become one of the most dominant club teams in the world, winning the UEFA Champions League in 2013, and Germany’s World Cup win wasn’t exactly surprising – they had the best team, consensus suggests – and the dismantling of Brazil will go down as one of the great all-time soccer games.

The feeling in Germany at the moment is wonderful. Being English, I’ve never had the chance to revel in a World Cup win (1966 was quite a bit before my time), so it is interesting to come to a country that is doing exactly that. There is World Cup fever still almost a week since the final. German flags are still draping from buildings and are stuck to car windows; German football shirts are being worn on every street corner; even Coca-Cola has branded its cans with names such as “Bastian” and “Mesut” in honor of the victorious players.

You only have to look at the parade that took place in Berlin following the final. The nation is unified – quite literally in the sense that this was the first World Cup win not as West Germany – by success.

And the same can be said for Formula 1 at the moment. Sebastian Vettel went from a “crash kid” (to quote one team principal) to champion of the world four times over, and is perhaps one of the greatest we have ever seen. Nico Rosberg has stepped out of his compatriot’s shadow, and is now putting the dominant Mercedes W05 Hybrid to good use in his first bid for a world championship. German engineering is dominating in both F1 – Mercedes – and in endurance racing. Audi has won 13 of the last 15 24 Hours of Le Mans races, and Porsche’s return to the LMP1 class has also been successful.

Back in F1, Nico Hulkenberg is one of the most underrated drivers on the grid, and is sniffing at a move to Ferrari in the near future. Adrian Sutil has been solid if unspectacular, and other drivers such as Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld have podiumed in the past. Then, of course, we have the greatest: Michael Schumacher. 91 race wins, seven world championships, and a statistical record that is second to none.

So what is it that causes Germany’s racing success to perpetuate? Much of it comes down to the last name on that list: Schumacher. “For us, we’re the generation after Michael and Michael was a big inspiration,” explained Vettel on Thursday. “So for sure, when Michael made Formula 1 really a sport in Germany and made it big, a lot of fathers with their sons went to the go-kart tracks and wanted to do like him.

“I think it’s chances. In the end, if you have a thousand kids trying rather than ten, the chances that one or two end up in Formula 1 are obviously a lot greater.”

Brazilian driver Felipe Massa made a quick getaway from testing last week so he could see the match against Germany. Naturally, our first question in jest to him was “have you recovered from the result?”. He laughed and smiled, but then went on to make some very interesting points about Germany’s recent success both on the track and on the soccer pitch.

“If you see how Germany rests and how Germany is preparing everything on the sport, about Formula 1, about the World Cup, about the other categories,” he began. “It’s the country that has the most drivers racing. It’s the country that has more championships as well.

“In the football as well, the job they did was brilliant, amazing, the preparation, the way they worked.

“I think it’s something we need to learn and we need to always try and improve, but definitely we expect – by being Brazilian, by playing the World Cup at home – to be in the final fighting, and we were not, so now we need to concentrate to improve things for the future.”

After all, it was meant to be Brazil’s World Cup to win; the sixth star. Instead, it fell apart in the semi-final at the hands of Joachim Löw’s squad.

Massa’s point about Brazil needing to play catch-up is also relevant in racing. The nation has a wonderful heritage in motorsport, but if Massa were to leave F1 and not be replaced by a fellow countryman, it would be the first time in over 40 years that there has not been a Brazilian driver in the sport. Felipe Nasr is the only Brazilian of note coming through the junior ranks, currently racing in GP2, but there are few other than him.

Instead, there are a number of European h youngsters coming through the ranks that are attracting attention: Sainz, Ocon, Marciello and Vandoorne to name just four. Germany also has one to watch for the future in the shape of Marvin Kirchhofer in GP3. It’s all down to preparation.

The good feeling in Germany is set to last for some time following the national team’s victory in Brazil. However, one eye will unquestionably be on the future; how can the team continue to grow and develop in order to create a legacy?

The same will be on the mind of the management at Mercedes. It is an inevitability that the German marque will win the constructors’, and one of its drivers will definitely win the main title. However, it cannot go down as a flash-in-the-pan success like we saw with Renault in 2005 and 2006. The groundwork was made in the years leading up to Fernando Alonso’s title wins, but it did not go beyond that when he left for McLaren. Mercedes has a perfect opportunity to lay down a Ferrari-esque streak (2000-2004) and create a legacy in F1 with Rosberg and Hamilton leading its charge.

Germany’s sporting scene is in superb shape right now. However, with expectation comes pressure – will the weight prove to be too much for Nico Rosberg this weekend at Hockenheim? A win for Lewis would put the momentum firmly in his direction as we pass the halfway point in the championship.

For Germany, now is about letting the good times roll and the party atmosphere continue. The fans at Hockenheim have their tents up in the woods around Hockenheim, and following the example set by his soccer-playing compatriots, all eyes will be on Nico Rosberg to step up to the plate this weekend.

Flavio Briatore: Fernando Alonso won’t take vacant Mercedes F1 seat

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 24:  Flavio Briatore, his wife Elisabetta Gregoraci and their son Falco Nathan attend the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 24, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Flavio Briatore has dismissed speculation suggesting that Fernando Alonso could replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for the 2017 Formula 1 season.

Briatore previously managed Alonso and remains a close friend of the Spaniard, who currently races for McLaren.

Rosberg announced just five days after winning his maiden F1 title that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, freeing up the most coveted seat on the grid.

Alonso is known to be desperate for a third world championship, having not claimed a title since 2006, leading to speculation that he could push for a move to Mercedes for 2017.

Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff said that Alonso was a driver that officials at the German marque “have to consider”, but was quick to acknowledge the contract in place with McLaren.

Briatore has become the latest figure to dismiss the idea, also making light of the fact that Alonso is linked to every free seat of note in F1.

“How is it that whenever there is a seat, you always think of Fernando?” Briatore told Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“But there is a contract and we respect it.”

Alonso broke out of his Ferrari deal early at the end of 2014 to move to McLaren, but Briatore insisted that this was due to an escape clause in his contract.

“The situation was different. We had a pact with [Ferrari president Luca] di Montezemolo,” Briatore said.

“If we didn’t win the championship in 2014, we would be free, and Luca kept that promise.

“[Ferrari team principal Marco] Mattiacci offered a three-year renewal, but we refused.”

F1 2016 Review: Stories of the season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16- Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the field at the start during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The 2016 Formula 1 season may have ended a little under two weeks ago now, but it was perhaps right that we let the dust settle before kicking off our series of year reviews on MotorSportsTalk.

Last Friday saw Nico Rosberg perform the ultimate mic drop by announcing his immediate retirement from racing just five days after winning his first F1 World Championship.

We’ll get to that in a bit when looking back on the stories of the season – but through the rest of the year, F1 offered a number of intriguing and notable moments.

Here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the 2016 F1 season.

MERCEDES MAKES IT THREE

Mercedes winning a third straight championship double may not seem like a big story at face value, but it really, really is. Given we are now three years in to the V6 turbo era of F1 and the field has noticeable converged, for Mercedes to have racked up a record number of wins, points and poles is an astonishing achievement.

Very rarely have we seen a true threat to Mercedes’ surpremacy, either. In 2015, Sebastian Vettel’s three victories came on weekends where Mercedes was simply second best. This time around? The two blots on Mercedes’ record book – Spain and Malaysia – were due to mitigating circumstances.

Red Bull and Ferrari may have lurked at times, but in reality, the gap at the front only grew bigger in 2016.

HAMILTON/ROSBERG RIVALRY GETS ANOTHER (FINAL) CHAPTER

The rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg reached a fiery crescendo in 2016. On-track clashes in Spain and Austria stoked the fire nicely, forcing Mercedes to revise its “terms of engagement” with both drivers to prevent recurrences.

While we failed to see any titanic on-track battles between the duo, this was certainly the bitterest year yet in Hamilton/Rosberg relations. The lengths that Hamilton went to in the title decider to stop his teammate winning was evidence of how sour relations had become, yet he was gracious in defeat once Rosberg had clinched the title.

Following Rosberg’s retirement, it looks like we’ve seen the last chapter of one of F1’s most intense rivalries. While it may have been messy at times, it has at least ensured that Mercedes’ spell of dominance was not a complete procession.

ROSBERG DROPS THE MIC

The last F1 story of the year was the biggest. Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after winning his maiden world championship shocked the entire F1 paddock (well, except Lewis Hamilton) and the sporting world in general.

Everything about the story was a surprise: the decision itself; the nature in which it happened; the ‘OK-ness’ about it all, as well. F1 will be without its champion next year despite him being perfectly fit and well, young, and coming off the best season of his career. It’s a weird situation…

It also brings into question the legacy that Rosberg will leave behind. Will he be remembered as the driver who defeated one of F1’s all-time greats in Hamilton? Or as the man who was ‘one and done’? Time will tell.

HAAS HITS THE GRID

The star-spangled banner returned to the F1 grid full-time in 2016 as NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous operation make its debut. Most were unsure what to expect from Haas F1 Team during its debut season, making Romain Grosjean’s charge to sixth on debut in Australia a surprise for most.

Grosjean went one better at the next race in Bahrain, finishing fifth, but it proved to be the high point of the season. The strategic mastery we saw early on disappeared, and the teething problems that come with any new project began to crop up time and time again. The team scored just one point in the second half of the season.

Nevertheless, it was a strong start to life in F1 from Haas. Let’s see what more it can do in 2017.

FERRARI STRUGGLES, RED BULL EXCELS

When Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen vaulted to the front of the pack on the opening lap of the season in Australia, it seemed our prayers had been answered: finally, there would be some resistance to Mercedes’ steam-roller act we’d seen for the previous two years in F1.

It was about as good as things got for the Scuderia though. Come the end of the year, both Vettel and Raikkonen ended up winless, with Ferrari slipping behind Red Bull to third in the constructors’ championship. It was a big come-down after the hope that ran through the 2015 campaign and off-season.

As for Red Bull? 2016’s success was a big surprise. Renault finally got its act together on the engine side of things, giving Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo the tools with which to win one race each, and even light the fire under the Mercedes boys later in the year.

VERSTAPPEN STEPS UP, STEALS THE SHOW

Max Verstappen’s promotion into a Red Bull seat just four races in to the new season was a major story, with the crest-fallen Daniil Kvyat moving back down to Toro Rosso. We knew this teen protege was going to be special, but few could have predicted just how special he would be through 2016.

From victory on debut (albeit a fortunate one) to his defence of Hamilton in Japan, and, most impressive of all, his magic in the rain at Interlagos, this was a memorable year for Verstappen.

Don’t go thinking this is the finished product yet. Verstappen’s qualifying form remains a bit patchy, lacking the ouright pace over one lap of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and there were costly errors through the year (the start at Spa being one).

But boy, if this is Verstappen as a sophomore, we can’t wait to see what’s to come in his twenties.

TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATION

2016 was a year for the next generation of F1 to come to the fore. Besides Verstappen’s growing stardom, we saw his ex-teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., lead Toro Rosso and mark himself as one of the best up-and-comers on the grid.

Mercedes youngsters Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon both enjoyed impressive campaigns, the latter making his debut at Spa, with both now being linked to the vacant Mercedes seat.

We also saw Stoffel Vandoorne make his race debut, replacing the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain ahead of his full-time bow with McLaren next year, and had GP3 champion Charles Leclerc run in practice for Haas.

With Lance Stroll also poised to join the grid next year, we’re talking more and more about a younger generation in F1.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Tying in with that theme, 2016 saw the last hurrahs in F1 for Felipe Massa and Jenson Button, two of the sport’s veterans. Although Button could yet return in 2018, it’s highly unlikely.

Both ended their careers gracefully, bowing out with class in Abu Dhabi, although it’s hard to play their seasons up as being overly impressive given their form compared to teammates Valtteri Bottas and Fernando Alonso.

With Rosberg now also out of the picture, the F1 grid is becoming more and more unrecognizable to the one we had 10 years ago.

Some of the other big stories were:

  • Force India’s best-ever finish in the constructors’ championship, beating Williams to fourth.
  • Liberty Media’s plan to buy F1, announced back in September.
  • F1’s first race in Baku, Azerbaijan, which proved to be a pleasant surprise.
  • McLaren’s continued revival as Honda makes progress.
  • The reliability of Lewis Hamilton’s car (or lack of) through the season.
  • The power struggle at McLaren that led to Ron Dennis’ exit.
  • Continued efforts to improve safety in F1 with the Halo device.
  • After a damp 2015, the roaring, record-breaking USGP in Austin in October (with a hat-tip to Taylor Swift).

And it is with a T-Swift lyric we shall close things out in our stories of the season. 2016 may have been a bit of a rough year for the world, but the F1 season acted as a kind of escape; a way to shake it off.

John Force Racing will ‘Advance’ with new sponsorship for Courtney Force

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BROWNSBURG, Indiana — John Force likes to use the word “advance” in discussing the long-term future of his four-car race team.

Friday morning, Force literally put “advance” into action, as he announced daughter Courtney Force’s Funny Car will be sponsored during the 2017 24-race NHRA schedule by Advance Auto Parts stores, beginning with the season-opening Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California. The deal is for multiple seasons.

“This is all about building John Force Racing for the future,” Force told MotorSportsTalk. “We had a great run with Traxxas, they’ll be staying in the sport, which is great. And now we’re partnering with Advance Auto Parts, which we’re very excited about.”

Advance Auto Parts replaces Traxxas, which produces radio-controlled race cars, and which had sponsored Courtney Force for the past five seasons. Traxxas will remain involved in the sport as sponsor of the Traxxas Shootout, a special race-within-a-race for both Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters contested during the annual U.S. Nationals in Brownsburg.

Advance Auto Parts, which has nearly 5,400 retail stores across the country, is no stranger to John Force Racing. The auto parts supplier sponsored John Force’s PEAK Chevrolet Camaro at several events during the 2016 season, including a victory in the NHRA Carolina Nationals, which kicked off the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“The opportunity came to grow the deal and they were interested in Courtney so it was a perfect match,” John Force said. “I have done shows with Advance Auto Parts in the past and am looking forward to working with them again.”

Both John and Courtney Force will be featured in several upcoming advertising and marketing campaigns for the company.

 

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Gustav Malja joins Racing Engineering for 2017 GP2 season

2016 GP2 Series Test 3
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Wednesday 30 November 2016.
Gustav Malja (SWE, Racing Engineering) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SLB2993_1
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Racing Engineering has announced the signing of Gustav Malja for the 2017 GP2 Series season following the Swede’s rookie campaign.

Malja, 21, made his GP2 debut in 2015 before embarking on his first full campaign in the Formula 1 support series with Rapax.

Malja scored points in the opening round of the year in Spain, finishing ninth, before highlighting his season with a run of top-10 finishes from Hockenheim to Sepang.

The run saw Malja finish second in the Spa sprint race and third at Monza in the feature event, enough to give him 13th in the final standings.

Malja will now move up to Racing Engineering for 2017, the team having worked with Norman Nato and Jordan King for the past season.

“I’m excited to join Racing Engineering for the 2017 GP2 season. We began getting to know each other in Abu Dhabi last week, and I immediately felt very much at home,” Malja said.

“It’s a team with a long and successful history in GP2, and I’m convinced it’s the ideal place for my continued development as a driver.

“I’m also very pleased to have everything in place at such an early stage. It will ease preparations this winter and give us all some peace of mind.”

Malja is the fourth driver to confirm his entry to GP2 for 2017, joining Sergio Sette Camara (MP Motorsport), Charles Leclerc and Antonio Fuoco (both Prema Racing) on the grid.