Sebastian Vettel

F1 silly season kicks into gear in Hungary

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As Formula 1 quickly approaches its summer break, the moving and shaking in the driver market – also known as ‘silly season’ – is starting to begin.

It is a double-edged sword that is loved and loathed by the F1 community in equal measures. The last few years have seen a number of drivers linked with a number of seats, be it Alonso to Red Bull, Vettel to Ferrari or Hamilton to Mercedes (one out of three isn’t bad), but once again, all three are now coming under scrutiny ahead of the summer break.

The missing jigsaw piece in all of this is McLaren. Although the team has been dithering towards the backend of the top ten so far this season, the arrival of Honda engines in 2015 is thought to be a huge draw for a number of drivers. Jenson Button is yet to confirm what he is doing next year, be it staying with McLaren or retiring from F1, meaning that a seat with the team may be available.

Fernando Alonso is thought to be considering his future with Ferrari. The Spaniard has continually laughed off rumors linking him away from Maranello, but following another disastrous year for the team, he could not be blamed for looking elsewhere. Ron Dennis has said that he would welcome Alonso back to McLaren despite their fall-out in 2007, although Fernando has denied contacting any other teams regarding a drive.

If you were in Alonso’s shoes though, there’s only one car that you really want to drive: a Mercedes. With Rosberg on a new long-term deal and Hamilton in some of the best form of his life there, surely that’s a closed door?

Maybe for Alonso, but not for Sebastian Vettel. According to Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko, the four-time world champion has been approached by the German marque as well as McLaren.

“Of course they target him,” Marko said to Sport Bild with reference to Mercedes. “And they are not the only team. McLaren-Honda made Sebastian an outrageously high offer.”

Outrageously high? Hardly surprising, given his form with Red Bull over the past few years. Now that he is no longer in the quickest car, Vettel has seemed – for want of a better word – average. Even new teammate Daniel Ricciardo has the edge on him in 2014.

The German remained passive when asked about the rumors concerning his future.

“I think any offer has to be considered but nothing has changed,” he said. “I still don’t talk about these things. I don’t know which sources Helmut has, or doesn’t have, but they seem to vary, let’s say.”

So where would that leave Hamilton? Potentially out in the cold. He confirmed on Thursday that he is hoping to open negotiations with Mercedes about a deal soon, given that his contract runs out at the end of next season.

However, non-executive Mercedes director Niki Lauda was having none of it. Speaking to AMuS writer Michael Schmidt, he said: “We’ve never talked to Vettel about driving for us. There is no demand for new drivers at Mercedes.”

Quite clearly, silly season is really beginning to do the rounds.

So what is the incentive for leaving a team? It essentially comes down to two things: a better car or more money, with the former being more important (one would hope). It really does depend how ‘outrageous’ McLaren’s offer to Vettel was, but it would take something astonishing to pull him away from Red Bull.

We looked at the reasons behind his tame title defence earlier this year, and the idea of Red Bull losing the mojo that has yielded four straight titles wasn’t one of them. Many of the issues stem from the Renault power unit, but the RB10 car itself is still very sound. Paddock consensus suggests that a Mercedes-powered RB10 might be the best combination on the grid.

Williams is a bit of a simpler enigma to decipher, with both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa impressing the F1 world this season. Massa confirmed on Thursday that he has a firm contract for next season, saying: “Next year as well, so you cannot write what you’re thinking!” Ah, silly season…

Back to Alonso. The big question mark for him is whether he could get out of Ferrari even if he wanted to. The suggestion in the paddock this weekend is that the Spaniard may have a clause in his contract allowing him to walk away if the team is lower than third in the constructors’ championship. Currently, Ferrari sits fourth behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Williams. Has the blue-touch paper already been lit? Would he really be willing to hinge his hopes on McLaren-Honda being the winning partnership in 2015?

You can also look at the other teams on the grid. Lotus is a funny one, given that Mercedes power appears to be on the way for 2015. This would appear to put an end to its partnership with Total fuel to make way for Petronas, yet Romain Grosjean’s backing comes from the French company. Pastor Maldonado has unsurprisingly stayed put for 2015, but will RoGro remain at Enstone?

Toro Rosso is, likewise, about one seat. Daniil Kvyat has been very impressive during his debut season, but Jean-Eric Vergne is struggling to beat his inexperienced teammate. The Frenchman could be replaced by Carlos Sainz Jr. come the end of the year as the Spaniard looks set to win the Formula Renault 3.5 title.

At Sauber, we have five drivers – Esteban Gutierrez, Adrian Sutil, Giedo van der Garde, Sergey Sirotkin and Simona de Silvestro – vying for two seats, and the arrival of Alexander Rossi at Marussia has also put him in the running should Jules Bianchi find a seat further up the grid. Caterham is an enigma worth any guess, but Force India seems to be set unless Nico Hulkenberg is lured away; he is known to be on Ferrari’s radar.

Silly season: hated, adored, but never ignored. It’s a crazy phenomenon that cannot be avoided in Formula 1.

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.