Rossi hoping to run in most practices including Austin (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Alexander Rossi is hoping to take part in a practice session for most of the remaining grands prix on the 2014 Formula 1 calendar following his move to Marussia.

The American F1 hopeful parted company with Caterham earlier this month, appearing to dent his hopes of moving up to a full-time seat in the sport in the future. However, he is delighted to have swiftly jumped ship to Marussia, with whom he hopes to enjoy more running.

“This past week has been very difficult for a lot of reasons, a lot of changes have gone down,” he explained to NBCSN. “I left Caterham about ten days ago, did a GP2 race with a different team in Germany, and now here we are in Budapest back in the Formula 1 paddock with Marussia. I’m really thrilled to be here, so thankful for the opportunity, and I can’t wait to be in the car.

“It came about quite quickly if I’m honest. When I announced my departure from Caterham, we got a phone call from Marussia kind of within 48 hours, and they expressed an interest in having me as part of the team, and it became about making it work and trying to make it happen.

“It was something quite good for me, and there’s a possibility I might be back in that car. however, the focus is now to be back in the F1 car as soon as possible.”

Rossi said that he is hoping to run in most of the free practice one sessions until the end of the season for Marussia, replacing either Max Chilton or Jules Bianchi each time.

“The plan is to do the majority of them from here on out,” he explained. “I’ll be missing this one unfortunately due to just the timing of everything. Obviously the announcement just came out about ten minutes ago so to get a seat made and to get into the car for tomorrow is impossible, but definitely I’ll be in the car for Spa.”

Rossi also confirmed that he will be definitely taking part in practice for the United States Grand Prix, meaning that there will be an American running in an F1 car at the Circuit of the Americas later this year.

“That was kind of my biggest fear more than anything, was the fact that when we left Caterham, if there wasn’t another F1 team on the table that I wouldn’t be able to drive in Austin and I wouldn’t be able to be an American on the grid,” Rossi revealed. “That weighed heavily on me, but now that this deal is done, that’s definitely going to be my highlight again and I can’t wait to go back.”

Restoration complete of Justin Wilson’s first Champ Car winner

All photos: LAT and Mower Family
Leave a comment

Earlier this year, preparation began to restore the first Champ Car Justin Wilson won in, a Lola-Ford Cosworth entry he took to victory lane for the RuSPORT team at Toronto in 2005.

The full release and details are below:

The restoration of Justin Wilson’s first Champ Car race-winning chassis is complete. Set to benefit the Wilson’s Children Fund, which was created to ensure the long-term financial security for Wilson’s daughters after he was killed in a racing accident in 2015, the immaculate, historically important Lola will be sold through auction or private acquisition in the months ahead. All proceeds will be donated to the WCF (www.wilsonchildrensfund.com).

More than a dozen key contributors made the charity project possible, starting with former PKV Champ Car team owner Dan Pettit and his wife Kelly, who owned and graciously donated the Lola B05/00 chassis Wilson used to earn his first and second Champ Car wins at Toronto and Mexico City in 2005.

The idea for the restoration, which began in January, came when Pettit and fellow PKV alumni Jimmy Vasser, who used the car as a display vehicle in one of his auto dealerships, were considering what to do with the Lola which carried a generic Champ Car livery.

On a lark, Vasser, became inspired to research the Lola’s history and soon found it was the same car that carried Wilson to his first wins in America with the RuSport team after transitioning from Formula 1 to Champ Car.

With PKV’s purchase of RuSport in 2006, Wilson’s race-winning chassis remained within Pettit’s inventory when the series folded in 2008. It eventually made its way into Vasser’s dealership where it sat until curiosity struck the 1996 CART IndyCar Series champion late last year. Once the car’s true identity was revealed, the Pettits welcomed the suggestion to restore the chassis back to its original condition and make it available for purchase to help Wilson’s family.

“It has been our dream to help Justin’s (Wilson) family in some meaningful way and to say thank you for all the joy he brought to us,” the Pettits said. “For some unknown reason we kept one of our old cars from the racing  team.  When Jimmy Vasser suggested we donate it with the proceeds going to the Wilson Children’s Fund, we thought it was brilliant.”

With the need to relocate the car from the west coast to Indianapolis for its restoration, Vasser and former KV Racing team manager Chris Mower began searching for a base to perform the Lola’s overhaul. Verizon IndyCar Series team Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, which fielded Wilson for two seasons, kindly invited the restoration project into its shop where a complete teardown, refurbishment of mechanical and electronic components, and painting and reassembly of the rolling chassis (minus engine) took place in recent months.

Finished in its immaculate Toronto livery, which featured CDW as the primary sponsor, the Pettits were understandably pleased with the outcome.

“As we researched the car and found out it was Justin’s (Wilson) car he won his first race in, then we knew the reason for keeping the car,” they said. “Thanks to everyone who has donated time and energy into getting the car ready for sale.”

Not only does the mint Lola B05/00 represent an important vehicle in the life of a beloved driver, it also carries many of the personal items Wilson used–the sculpted seat, seat belts, and molded steering wheel—that were used on the path to victory. Wilson’s race-used seat, left inside the car, will go to its eventual owner with the full blessing of Justin Wilson’s widow Julia, who also helped with the restoration in Indy.

Indebted to the many individuals and companies that donated time, materials, parts or equipment to bring Wilson’s Lola back to its original state, Mower expressed immense appreciation for the selfless acts that made the restoration possible.

“When Jimmy (Vasser) approached us with the idea, we felt very honored to be involved in restoring this car, and such an important part of Justin’s motor racing history,” said Mower, who served as Wilson’s team manager on two occasions. “More importantly, my wife Marianne and I, were graced with the titles of godparents to Justin’s daughters Jane and Jess, so to help on this project and aid our goddaughters’ future was an opportunity we can’t help but feel the big man himself may have steered our way!”

With a small army of volunteers and supporters to thank, the project leader revealed a list that speaks to the respect and admiration Wilson garnered during his 12 seasons in Champ Car and IndyCar.

“We had amazing mechanics and engineers who completed the tear down and rebuild on their time off, including Richard Howard, Tim Finley, Michael Cannon, Josh Junge, Ryan Stott, and my wife, Marianne,” Mower said. “We must thank TJ Eacret at Passport Transport for delivering the car at cost from Las Vegas, Dennis Reinbold and Chase Selman at DRR for giving this project a home, KV Racing for providing equipment and hardware for the rebuild, Alex Londe from Can Am Cars for providing all the original Lola parts we were missing for the rebuild, and Ken Kane from Sherwin Williams for donating all the paint.”

The community-based effort, which drew from numerous local race teams and businesses that support the industry, added further depth to the benevolent endeavor.

“With Sherwin Williams’ help, then the car went to Tod Weed at Indy Paint Shop who completed the awesome paint job,” Mower continued. “Justin’s dear friend and RuSport manager Jeremy Dale provided the original livery rendering and paint code numbers. Kathi Lauterbach chased down missing files for the graphics we needed, and Nick Ford and graphics crew from Chip Ganassi Racing produced and applied all the decals.

“Bill Lefeber at IS-Motorsports rebuilt the steering wheel back to original specifications, Mark Williamson at Performance Tire and Bridgestone donated and mounted the new set of Bridgestone tires, and at the very beginning, the genesis of the project, Jeremy Shaw researched and confirmed the history to validate this was indeed the chassis that Justin drove to his first Champ Car win. Every contribution, at every step, was so incredibly important, and now we’re finished.”

The next step for Wilson’s Lola, and whether it will be offered via auction or to a direct buyer, will be determined after Sunday’s Indy 500.

Indy history, banter displayed at Chevy stage, day before next ‘500

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – One-by-one, six of Indianapolis’ living legends took the stage at Chevrolet’s display Saturday afternoon. Three of them still have a race to run on Sunday.

Respect flowed in for each. The banter followed.

Between two of the three four-time Indianapolis 500 winners in A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears, the lone active three-time winner in Helio Castroneves, a pair of two-timers in Juan Pablo Montoya and Al Unser Jr. and the 1996 champion Buddy Lazier, a total of 16 wins in the past 100 ‘500s were represented.

There were nearly as many one-liners uttered than that 16, if not more so.

Asked by the event moderator, WRTV-6 Sports Director Dave Furst, what Foyt’s first impression of the Speedway was, the four-timer had a four-word answer.

“Make the damn race!” laughed “Super Tex,” whose wins in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977 made him the first four-time winner in race history. “We had 120 or 125 cars going for 33 of them spots.”

A tribute to Foyt, now 82 and just off of stem cell surgery earlier this year, is happening at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. A video where Foyt and NBCSN reporter Robin Miller toured the museum is linked below.

Castroneves, who has Mears as both Penske’s driver coach and his spotter, showed up a bit late to this event after returning from the IMS Festival Parade (airs tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Asked what advice he’d get from Mears, Mears returned his own volley of a deadpan.

“Shut up and drive,” said Indy’s third and most recent four-timer, having won all four of his for Penske in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991.

Mears hailed his 1991 drive where he had his battle with Michael Andretti as his favorite, in part because he didn’t recognize the magnitude of his 1979 win as a race sophomore.

“I didn’t appreciate the first one as much as I probably should have,” Mears said. “I didn’t grow up here (he grew up as part of the ‘Mears gang’ in Bakersfield, Calif.) so I wasn’t quite aware of the spectacle. I never even dreamed I’d be driving here, let alone with Penske, let alone winning.

“In 1991, I had what you dream of as a kid when you’ve been driving here, is that late race shootout. And in ’91, that was my opportunity.”

Mears, always introspective and reflective, then responded to another question about whether he had any regrets for whether he retired too early, when he did after 1992.

“No,” he laughed, to which Unser Jr. responded, “Oh I absolutely agree with that. Rick, you retired just perfect!”

Unser Jr.’s 1992 win has been, understandably, getting a bit of attention this year. It marks the 25-year anniversary of the victory when he beat Scott Goodyear in the closest finish in Indy history. The great finish helped to erase memories of an otherwise dreadful race, dominated by Andretti before retiring just over 10 laps from the finish, and after cold temperatures contributed to a wreck-filled race that left Andretti’s father, Mario, and cousin Jeff, among several drivers taken to the hospital.

It was the 1989 race, though, that Unser Jr. talked about today, as he recalled a funny story about his dice with Emerson Fittipaldi that year that saw him come up short because of their famous – or infamous – coming-together in Turn 3.

“That dude,” Unser Jr., who is Gabby Chaves’ driver coach at Harding Racing this month, joked about Fittipaldi, the Brazilian who would then become his teammate at Team Penske in the mid-1990s.

“It was Turn 3, last lap of the Indy 500 going for the win. Of course only one of us was going to come out unscathed.”

Unser Jr. had planned to deliver Fittipaldi the “one-finger salute” of a middle finger after getting out of his car at the finish. Fittipaldi won his first ‘500 that day while Unser Jr. would have to wait three more years until 1992 for that elusive first victory.

Unser Jr. said the IMS Safety Crew gave him the go-ahead to deliver that message.

“So I’m going out on the track after I’m out of the car,” Unser Jr. recalled.

“And the safety crew asked me, ‘You want to flip him off?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘Go right ahead!’

“But then I thought about his day in full. He had led all day. I was essentially standing in the middle of a football stadium, among the 125,000 or so people in that part of the track.

“And I thought, Emerson is a good man. And he’d be the last one to hit anyone intentionally. So instead of flipping him off, I was the first one to congratulate him on his win!”

Montoya, who entered into the CART series in 1999 – winning the championship as a rookie in Unser Jr.’s final year with Team Penske, and in CART, before returning to Rick Galles’ team in the Indy Racing League in 2000 had the counter to that one.

“You showed him the finger, but the wrong one,” he laughed.

Montoya and Castroneves continued their own playful banter, and even that was followed later when Lazier – poking fun at himself and the little, family-run team that could out of Vail, Col. – when he showed up last to the dais.

“You guys have got the police escorts back here from the parade,” said the 49-year-old, the oldest driver in the field by a full seven years and change (Tony Kanaan is next at 42).

“Meanwhile I’m starting back on Row 10, and I’m stuck in traffic!”

Lazier only runs this race each year (this will be his 20th start, one of only eight to do so), and if he completes 153 laps on Sunday, he’ll pass Johnny Rutherford for sixth all-time in laps/mileage completed. He’s also in the Top 10 in career earnings.  He has one fewer top-five than Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser, and one more than Rutherford.

Perhaps even more cool is the fact his crew includes four brothers who are firefighters in Irving, Texas and his engineer and car chief, Indy veteran Mitch Davis, is also going to be a tire changer in this race.

As a driver who first attempted to qualify for that 1989 race Fittipaldi won and Unser Jr. crashed out of, who was an early retirement in 1992 when Unser Jr. finally won and Mears and Foyt retired, and who won in 1996 and has raced Montoya and Castroneves as early as 2000 and 2001 in each case (these two drivers won those two races), Lazier is the link between the generations past and present at Indianapolis.

“The reason I stayed here (in IRL in 1996) is that I’d been trying for years to be a part of a program where I had a car that could win. Ron Hemelgarn gave that for me,” Lazier said.

“But now, I’m so looking forward to the next five years – and there’s so much technology here now.”

Foyt had ripped on how relatively easy it seems to drive now compared to back in his day, thanks to that technology.

“Now y’all have got (fuel or engine) map one, or map two. I did it manually. I just used a hammer,” he said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if someone won seven or eight of these deals… if these guys stay on the ball!”

It was a great contrast to earlier in the day, when Chevrolet’s three youngest drivers in this year’s race, Gabby Chaves (23 years old), Zach Veach (22) and Sage Karam (22) all gave event car rides while driving a Chevy SS, thus making the days for people who now got to experience a lap or two of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of Chevrolet’s event car program.

“I’m used to driving paddle shifts. I haven’t driven proper stick shifts in a while!” Karam laughed before doing his own laps.

Indy’s history is what makes it great.

Seeing the three young guns, part of a group eager to prove themselves in a forum, while then also seeing the legends laugh about the history and about what’s still to come proved that point.

All, connected by a Bow Tie.

IndyCar Roundtable: Indy 500

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Ahead of Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, our MotorSportsTalk writers look back at the Verizon IndyCar Series season thus far and look ahead to race morning and the biggest race day of the season.

My colleagues Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1), Kyle Lavigne (@KyleMLavigne) and Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski) will all be assisting on Indy 500 race coverage on NBCSports.com.

What have you made of the season so far? 

Tony

It’s been strange to be honest because there hasn’t been a real rhythm that’s emerged. With five winners from five different races and Simon Pagenaud somehow flying under the radar as the defending champion and points leader going into Indianapolis 500 qualifying – before being usurped by Scott Dixon – it’s not felt as though a firm form book has been established. Add in the qualifying crash at Indianapolis that’s taken this year’s best dark horse, Sebastien Bourdais, out of action for the foreseeable future and an air of unpredictability about the Indianapolis 500 beyond the Fernando Alonso talking point, and I’m as perplexed as I ever have been in 20-plus years of fandom and 10-plus years of covering.

Luke

It’s been a very mixed-up season so far. Team Penske seems to be the outright team to beat on pace alone, as evidenced by its run of victories in the past three races, yet Honda has been resurgent. Sebastien Bourdais’ victory in St. Petersburg really set the tone for the year to come. It’s a real shame he’s now out injured as he could have been a surprise contender in the title race.

I think the real stand-out theme for me has been the close-knit nature of the front-running teams. Penske’s out front, sure, but Chip Ganassi Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Andretti Autosport, Ed Carpenter Racing – heck, even Dale Coyne Racing – all look like operations capable of winning races right now. It’s a fascinating prospect as we head into the thick of the season.

Kyle

The unpredictability of the Verizon IndyCar Series has not changed in the 2017 season. Through five races, the series has five different winners from three different teams. While Team Penske has won three races in a row, the season opened with wins from the smaller operations of Dale Coyne Racing (with Sebastien Bourdais) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (James Hinchcliffe). The powerhouses of Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing are currently winless, and that’s unlikely to continue. So, the number of different winners could easily hit double digits.

What’s more: Honda has clearly closed the performance to Chevrolet and road and street courses, and appears to have retained its speed advantaged on the big ovals. And then, of course, we have Fernando Alonso deciding to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IndyCar has long been recognized as one of the most unpredictable motorsports series on the planet, and that trend has gone even further in that direction in 2017.

Jerry

It’s been an interesting season thus far. One of the biggest surprises has been the performance of Josef Newgarden. Any time a new, young driver joins a major team, there’s typically a time of transition and learning. But Newgarden has fit into Team Penske in outstanding fashion. That’s why he’s third in the standings. On a more overall perspective, Team Penske has been so dominant, with all four of its drivers in the top-5, and three of them already capturing wins, including Newgarden. If Team Penske wins the Indy 500, they threaten to start making this a runaway season overall for its four drivers. On the flip side, knowing the driver potential at play, it’s disappointing the slow start that Carlos Munoz (16th) and Conor Daly (19th) have struggled in their first season with A.J. Foyt’s team – but they are learning a new package with Chevrolet. Munoz typically does well in the Indy 500, so with a strong finish Sunday, it would boost his season overall.

What is your favorite part of the Indy 500?

Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Tony

Without question, race morning. After the incessant amount of buildup and long hours in the two weeks that precede the race, you’re so ready for race day. And the buildup from the moment you get to the track at o’dark thirty, through all the pomp and circumstance that is quintessentially Indiana, to the drop of the green flag provides a rush of exhilaration you can’t get at any other race event in North America. Having covered the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that’s the only thing comparable. The race itself feels a three-hour breeze… and then you’re back to the hours of post-race work to comprehend what you’ve just digested.

Luke

I adore the show that surrounds the Indianapolis 500. F1 types may not like the idea of the ‘500 being called “the greatest spectacle in racing”, but it totally is. The spectacle is stunning. From the hype surrounding the drivers in the lead up to green to the traditional ceremonies after the race, it all makes the ‘500 what it is.

If Liberty Media wants to make F1 more entertaining, it should really look to the excitement that the ‘500 creates. F1 has said it wants 21 Super Bowls per year – why not have 21 Indy 500s a year? Why not create that same hubbub that the ‘500 does on a regular basis, all over the world?

And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle

Most recently, it has been the race itself. Since 2012 and the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis, each Indy 500 has been a slip streaming war that has featured well over 30 lead changes in each race (the all-time record was set at 68 in 2013, and the 2016 race featured 54 itself).

And it’s featured some of the most epic battles in the history of the race. Takuma Sato crashed while trying to take the lead from Dario Franchitti on the final lap in 2012. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves swapped the lead no fewer than four times in the final laps in 2014, with Hunter-Reay coming out on top. And in 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya outdueled Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Charlie Kimball in the final 15 laps.

Quite simply, the race has been a thrill ride, and this year should be more of the same.

Jerry

Obviously, the last lap. But there are so many other elements I enjoy. There’s the people watching, especially pre-race on the grid when you see so many luminaries of the sports and entertainment worlds. There’s “Back Home Again In Indiana,” which always gives me goose bumps (and I so much miss Jim Nabors’ rendition). There’s also the start of the race, the first roll into Turn 1, and just an overall day that thoroughly envelopes your senses, from sights to sounds, smells to feels, etc. Oh yes, and then there’s arguably the greatest victory lane celebration in any form of motorsports. Love the milk, love the horseshoe of flowers and then the kissing of the bricks, which is a perfect way to end the day.

Who is your pick to win the Indy 500?

Tony

From the “full-time IndyCar beat reporter” standpoint, I’ll get this out of the way first: I’m firmly in the “I want Fernando Alonso to do well, but not win,” camp. An ideal scenario for me would be where he comes close enough to win – say fourth to eighth – and gets the competitive juices flowing that he’ll want to come back.

As for the win, there’s any of about 10 or 12 drivers I could pick. But the man who’s under-appreciated as the driver that is among the greatest of his generation is Scott Dixon, who starts from the pole. Dixon’s due a ‘500 win and if his Honda engine holds together, he could run into the wind.

Tony Kanaan was my preseason pick so I feel bad reneging on that but he’s not looked as strong thus far. If it’s not a member of the Ganassi team, and it’s worth noting both Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are top dark horses, a win from either Ed Carpenter Racing driver (Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand) would be cool to witness.

Luke

Yes, I’m being that guy. Fernando Alonso. Because the narrative surrounding the ‘Alonso 500’ means it would be rather fitting.

Alonso may lack the experience of racing on ovals, and the opening stages are going to be a bit of a shock to him. But if he can keep things clean and make sure he’s there at the end, then I’d want him in my corner.

And if like 2016 this race comes down to a fuel save for victory, Alonso might just be thankful for all of the struggles his Honda F1 power unit has put him through this year…

I’ll say we get an Alonso-Dixon-RHR podium on Sunday.

Kyle

Picking winner is a toss-up. There are about 12-15 drivers for whom a victory would be no surprise, and that list includes multiple one-off entries. Complicating matters even more: the Hondas have been faster, but with multiple engine failures so far, appear more fragile.

My pick will come out of the Chevrolet camp, and it will involve a story of redemption. JR Hildebrand avenges his 2011 disappointment by drinking the milk in Victory Lane this year.

Jerry

I admit it, I’ve caught Alonsomania. But then, is it really that much of a surprise to want to pick him when we’re talking about a former two-time Formula 1 World Champion? The biggest question is how will Alonso operate in traffic, particularly in the closing laps, when normally sane drivers oftentimes do some insane-like moves in a last desperate bid to win the biggest race in the world.

If Alonso does not win, my second pick to win is James Hinchcliffe for sentimental reasons. He came back a long way from his near-tragic crash in 2015 by winning the pole for last year’s race, but he left some unfinished business. I want to see him win the 500 not only for him but also for team owner Sam Schmidt and the entire organization. But if it comes down to a drag race to the checkered flag between Alonso and Hinchcliffe, I want the mayor of Hinchtown to rule supreme.

Formula 1 Roundtable: Monaco

Getty Images
Leave a comment

As part of the motorsport trifecta that makes this weekend arguably the biggest of the racing year, things will kick off on Sunday morning with Formula 1’s annual glamor event: the Monaco Grand Prix.

On the streets where high society meets high velocity, there is no better place to be seen than Monaco this weekend – even if Fernand Alonso may disagree following his decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500 – both on- and off-track.

Following our first roundtable pieces at the start of the year, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavinge are back to share their thoughts after the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and preview this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

What have you made of the season so far?

Luke Smith: F1 2017 has lived up to all of the pre-season hype and then some. The new cars have been brilliant, delighting fans and spectators as well as posing a significant challenge to the drivers behind the wheel. Sure, overtaking hasn’t been coming as thick and fast, but as I wrote post-China, that’s no bad thing.

The rivalry hotting up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has the makings of a classic. Ferrari and Mercedes are so evenly matched this year that I expect this title to be decided by fine margins – every race and point counts.

In short: F1 is awesome right now. Let’s relish the season that is unfolding.

Tony DiZinno: It’s been a needed start to the year in 2017. Even if the racing itself hasn’t been scintillating, the drama has – for the first time in five years there seems a proper question over who’s going to win at a given weekend. It’s not a slam dunk, and that’s brilliant.

We’re getting treated to the Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton bout the sport has so richly deserved, and the new cars are back to looking like badass F1 cars again. Add in the packed battle in the midfield and there’s been more variety than normal this year, which is a good thing.

Kyle Lavigne: The 2017 season has actually been better than I expected. Amongst all the talk about new cars and aerodynamic regulations, concern was high that the racing would suffer.

While overtaking is down a little, the races have all been very compelling and featured a fantastic balance of driver skill and strategy. And, overtaking hasn’t suffered as much as maybe we thought (e.g.: Lewis Hamilton’s outside pass of Sebastian Vettel during the Spanish Grand Prix).

And for Ferrari to be so even matched with Mercedes makes this season a proper fight amongst two giants of Formula 1. Quite simply: this is the best Formula 1 season we’ve had in years.

What is your favorite part of the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: The pizzazz and show surrounding Monaco speaks for itself, but my favorite part of the weekend is the on-track challenge that is posed to drivers.

The close confines of the street course with the armco barrier waiting to punish any mistakes make this one of the biggest challenges in all of motorsport, just as rookie Lance Stroll found out on Thursday. And believe it or not, what you see on your TV screen makes the the track seem much wider than it actually is!

So that’s why I love Monaco. No, we’re not going to get hundreds (or maybe even tens) of overtakes. But you do get to see drivers pushing to the absolute limit on a track that has no right to host a grand prix. It’s magic.

TDZ: The contrast. The atmosphere between the streets, glitz and glamour of the backdrop of the race versus the intensity of the drivers wheeling between those armco barriers is great.

I’ve also been a big fan of this race’s unpredictability. Sometimes you get a genuine shocker of a result and the race sticks out in your memory afterwards.

KL: Formula 1 cars are pure thoroughbreds…fighter jets on wheels, if you will. Watching cars of that caliber speed through streets as narrow as the ones in Monaco is hair-raising, and those walls are always so close to grabbing you (as Luke mentioned: Lance Stroll learned that the hard way earlier in the weekend).

Overtaking is always a challenge, but that also means the ones we get will be breathtaking. I expect yet another intriguing race of driver skill and strategy.

Who is your pick to win the Monaco Grand Prix?

LS: I’ll go with Sebastian Vettel. Ferrari and Mercedes have been so evenly matched this year that picking between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton is tough. But with hot conditions expected all weekend and Mercedes having struggled to get to grips with the softer tire compounds, I think it will play into Ferrari’s hands.

It would be a key victory for Ferrari as it looks to break a long-running hoodoo in Monaco. The Scuderia has not won in the principality since 2001 when Michael Schumacher stood on the top step of the podium.

As Vettel continues to trace his hero’s footsteps, victory in Monaco would be poignant.

TDZ: If not this year, then when for Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari at Monaco? In the fightback battle where no one has yet won two races in a row in the opening five races – it’s alternated between Vettel (Australia), Hamilton (China), Vettel (Bahrain), Valtteri Bottas (Russia) and Hamilton (Spain) – I’ve got my money on Vettel to bring it home.

KL: Sebastian Vettel was nearly half-a-second quicker than anyone else in FP2. He and Lewis Hamilton seem to be alternating wins this year. Hamilton won the last race, so Vettel is my pick to win this race.

However, this might also best chance for Red Bull Racing to make some noise. Max Verstappen was third in FP1, while Daniel Ricciardo was second in FP2. If not for a strategy blunder, Ricciardo was looking good to win this race last year. It’s difficult to imagine anyone beating Ferrari or Mercedes straight up right now, but this may represent Red Bull’s best shot.