F1 silly season kicks into gear in Hungary


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.

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”