F1 2014 mid-season report: Grading the drivers so far

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Following on from our review of the teams’ performances in the first half of the 2014 Formula 1 season, we now move onto the drivers that have competed in a race so far this year.

Of course, the runaway leaders have been Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes drivers have been in a class of their own at the front of the field with the W05 Hybrid car, and their tussle for the title is set to continue for the rest of the season.

Further back, we have seen a number of breakout performances and results for some of the younger drivers, whilst some have underperformed and struggled to make much of an impact. Here are our rankings for the year so far.

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – Grade: A+
He may not lead the championship, but Lewis Hamilton is certainly giving it his all to secure a second world title this year. Five wins and two incredible comebacks in Germany and Hungary leave him just eleven points behind Rosberg at the top.
Highlight so far: His monster defence to keep Rosberg back in Bahrain.

Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) – Grade: A+
When Daniel joined Red Bull, few gave him a hope in hell of beating Sebastian Vettel. However, after half a season, he has won two races and is 43 points clear of his four-time world champion of a teammate. Quickly proving himself to be the real deal at Red Bull.
Highlight so far: His moves on Hamilton and Alonso to win in Hungary.

Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – Grade: A
Like Lewis, Nico Rosberg has excelled with the W05 Hybrid, but he hasn’t quite had that killer instinct his teammate has shown. Nevertheless, he leads the world championship with eight races to go and is in the box seat to win a first world title.
Highlight so far: Winning on home soil (twice) in Monaco and Germany.

Valtteri Bottas (Williams) – Grade: A
Maybe we’re being generous with the A grades here, but Bottas deserves one just as much as the others. The flying Finn has led Williams’ charge in 2014, and is quickly establishing himself to be a star for the future.
Highlight so far: Charging from a Q1 dropout to second place at Silverstone.

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) – Grade: B+
This might be a bit harsh to grade Alonso like this, but B+ is still a great score given the state of the F14 T car. He continues to fight on his own, dragging the car to two podium finishes and enjoying some awesome battles on the way.
Highlight so far: Nearly winning the Hungarian GP with a genius strategy; eventually came home second.

Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) – Grade: B+
Yet again in 2014, Nico Hulkenberg is proving to the bigger teams that he deserves a seat with them. He has led Force India’s charge, scoring points in all but one race, and surely must score that overdue podium finish in the second half of the year.
Highlight so far: Battle with Perez for the podium in Bahrain, even if he did come fifth in the end.

Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) – Grade: B
Seb didn’t stand much chance of defending his world title with the troublesome Renault power unit, so the real marker is his teammate. The fact that he is trailing Ricciardo and wasn’t the man to score both of the team’s wins proves that he is struggling in 2014 (if you were in need of proof…).
Highlight so far: Keeping Rosberg in sight in Malaysia before finishing third.

Felipe Massa (Williams) – Grade: B
The popular Brazilian has looked like a new man since leaving Ferrari. With Williams, he is happy and he is quick. He has suffered some rotten luck this year, and would otherwise be higher than ninth in the standings.
Highlight so far: Shock pole position in Austria ahead of Bottas and the Mercedes cars.

Jules Bianchi (Marussia) – Grade: B
As we said in the teams’ review, it’s difficult to grade the backmarkers. However, Bianchi has been a revelation for Marussia, scoring its first ever points in F1 at the Monaco Grand Prix. A successful test with Ferrari has also helped his stock to rise, but will a bigger team come calling for 2015?
Highlight so far: Points in Monaco, a remarkable result for all at Marussia.

Jenson Button (McLaren) – Grade: B
It’s been an okay season so far for Jenson Button. 2013 was a disaster, and although 2014 started with a podium-by-default in Australia, the Briton hasn’t done a great deal more. Some good one-off results, but lacks the spark of his earlier years with McLaren.
Highlight so far: Coming so close to the podium at the British GP as Silverstone turned Pink for Papa.

Kevin Magnussen (McLaren) – Grade: B-
It has been a similar story on the other side of the McLaren garage. Magnussen hasn’t done a great deal of note since his podium in Australia, but has been consistent if not spectacular. Again, his abilities seem to be masked by the MP4-29 car.
Highlight so far: Second place on debut in Australia after Ricciardo’s DSQ.

Sergio Perez (Force India) – Grade: B-
A good start to the season for Perez following his McLaren sacking, with the podium finish in Bahrain being Force India’s first since 2009. However, we have seen a few mistakes cost him big results (Canada for example). A good start to 2014 all the same.
Highlight so far: Third place in Bahrain after seeing off the Williams drivers and Hulkenberg.

Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) – Grade: C+
Not a bad start to life in Formula 1. With a bit more luck, Kvyat may have scored more than his current haul of six points. Appears to have had the edge on Vergne despite his relative inexperience and has been strong in qualifying, but will want more points in the final eight races.
Highlight so far: P9 on debut in Australia; qualifying in Austria another good result.

Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) – Grade: C
Vergne leads Toro Rosso’s charge with eleven points to Kvyat’s six, but he hasn’t done a huge amount to prove to the team he is worth keeping for 2015. Will need more races like the one in Hungary to stand a chance of staying on for next season.
Highlight so far: Running second in Hungary and keeping the Mercedes cars at bay; finished ninth.

Romain Grosjean (Lotus) – Grade: C
RoGro has transformed himself from a crash kid into a star for the future over the past year, and eight points is a commendable haul given the torture that the E22 car has given Lotus. He is doing very well to keep the team’s flag flying this year.
Highlight so far: Eighth in Spain after qualifying fifth for Lotus.

Adrian Sutil (Sauber) – Grade: C-
In a terrible year for Sauber, Adrian Sutil has struggled to even get close to the top ten. When he has looked to be in with a chance, mistakes have been made (such as the spin in Germany). A very average season so far from the German driver.
Highlight so far: 11th in Hungary when the car didn’t look as bad.

Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) – Grade: D+
If Sauber is the most disappointing team of the season so far, then Kimi Raikkonen is the most disappointing driver. The so-called ‘superteam’ he formed with Alonso at Ferrari hasn’t delivered – or, more accurately, he hasn’t delivered. 27 points and a best finish of sixth is just embarrassing.
Highlight so far: Sixth in Hungary, and still he remained anonymous for much of the race.

Max Chilton (Marussia) – Grade: D
Perhaps the most average driver out there, Chilton hasn’t done a huge amount to set the world on fire in 2014. He did enjoy the measure on Bianchi to begin with, but has since fallen back behind. Most notable moment was taking his teammate out in Canada.
Highlight so far: 13th in Bahrain. Not really much more to add.

Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) – Grade: D
Just like Sutil, Gutierrez has struggled with the Sauber C33 car, but he too has made some costly errors. In Monaco, points were on the cards until he spun the car and couldn’t get it back going, and otherwise the Mexican has been very quiet all season. Needs a change soon.
Highlight so far: Hungarian GP weekend when points looked possible; sidelined by a problem on the car.

Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) – Grade: D
It’s been a tough year for Caterham, but Kobayashi hasn’t set the world on fire with his performances. Brought in for his experience, the signs are that it could be him who gets the chop if a pay driver comes knocking. Nothing really of note for the popular Japanese racer.
Highlight so far: His reaction to a question about the World Cup in a press conference, saying “I don’t care!” and claiming that Japan are rubbish at football.

Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) – Grade: E
The jokes about Pastor Maldonado this season have only continued. Crashes in qualifying for the Chinese and Spanish Grands Prix didn’t do him much good, nor has the fact that he hasn’t matched Grosjean for pace when the car has been going.
Highlight so far: Confirmation of a seat with the team for 2015. Yes, really.

Marcus Ericsson (Caterham) – Grade: E
Put Ericsson in the same box as Chilton marked “average”. Nothing special this year, has rarely looked like scoring points even if he did come close in Monaco. Unlikely to stick around for 2015 if bigger bucks can be found by the new owners.
Highlight so far: P11 in Monaco.

FIA WEC: Toyota third car, Signatech Alpine lineups revealed

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A couple more lineups for the FIA World Endurance Championship season have been announced this morning.

Toyota Gazoo Racing has welcomed back Nicolas Lapierre and added new driver Yuji Kunimoto to the lineup of its third car for the races at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans, alongside Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid.

Since Toyota didn’t retain him after 2014, Lapierre responded with class wins at Le Mans in LMP2 for KCMG and Signatech Alpine the last two years in the Oreca 05 (and rebadged Alpine A460) chassis, and swept to the LMP2 driver’s title last year with Gustavo Menezes and Stephane Richelmi.

“It’s great to be back with Toyota and I would like to thank the team for this opportunity,” Lapierre said in a release. “I’m really looking forward to racing an LMP1 car again because the cars have developed a lot since I drove the TS040 Hybrid in 2014. The Spa race is coming around very quickly so I am fully focused on preparing myself for the new season. I have stood on the podium before at Le Mans with Toyota so my target is clearly to do that again this year.”

Kunimoto is a Super GT and Super Formula veteran and is another young driver who will look to impress in his opportunity.

Lapierre will continue with Signatech Alpine Matmut for the rest of the season as part of a restructured lineup there for the Philippe Sinault-led team.

He’ll drive with Menezes and Matt Rao in the No. 36 Alpine A470 (the rebadged Oreca 07) Gibson for the other seven races of the year, with Porsche GT factory driver Romain Dumas stepping into the car while Lapierre is at Toyota.

A restructured No. 35 car sees Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and ex-Indy Lights driver Andre Negrao in that entry. Per Sportscar365, it will miss the Silverstone season opener and pick up its season at Spa.

Lest those be the only moves of late, ex-DTM shoe Miguel Molina will make his FIA WEC debut as part of a GTE-Am Ferrari entry, sharing the No. 54 Spirit of Race 488 GTE with Thomas Flohr and Francesco Castellacci.

Nick Foster replaces Adam Carroll in Gulf Racing’s No. 86 Porsche 911 RSR in the category as well, alongside Ben Barker and Michael Wainwright.

This all but completes the FIA WEC grid, with the only remaining vacancies the sixth and final driver at CEFC Manor TRS Racing in LMP2 and third driver alongside Robert Kubica and Oliver Webb at ByKolles in LMP1.

The grid then, as it stands for WEC:

LMP1

1-Porsche 919 Hybrid-Jani/Tandy/Lotterer
2-Porsche 919 Hybrid-Bernhard/Hartley/Bamber
4-ByKolles CLM P1/01 Nissan-Kubica/Webb/TBA
7-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Conway/Kobayashi/Lopez
8-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Buemi/Davidson/Nakajima
9-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Sarrazin/Lapierre/Kunimoto (Spa & Le Mans only)

LMP2 (all Oreca 07s, except Signatech Alpine with Alpine A470s)

13-Valliante Rebellion-Piquet Jr./Beche/DHH
31-Valliante Rebellion-Prost/Senna/Canal
24-CEFC Manor TRS Racing-Graves/Trummer/Vergne
25-CEFC Manor TRS Racing-Rob.Gonzalez/Hirschi/TBA
26-G-Drive Racing (TDS Racing operated)-Rusinov/Thiriet/Lynn
28-TDS Racing-Collard/Perrodo/Vaxviere
35-Signatech Alpine Matmut-Panciatici/Ragues/Negrao
36-Signatech Alpine Matmut-Lapierre (7 races)/Dumas (Spa & Le Mans only)/Menezes/Rao
37-Jackie Chan DC Racing-Cheng/Gommendy/Brundle
38-Jackie Chan DC Racing-Tung/Jarvis/Laurent

GTE-Pro

51-AF Corse-Ferrari 488 GTE-Calado/Pier Guidi
71-AF Corse-Ferrari 488 GTE-Bird/Rigon
66-Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK-Ford GT-Pla/Mucke/B.Johnson
67-Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK-Ford GT-Priaulx/Tincknell/Derani
91-Porsche GT Team-Porsche 911 RSR-Lietz/Makowiecki
92-Porsche GT Team-Porsche 911 RSR-Christensen/Estre
95-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Thiim/Sorensen
97-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Turner/J.Adam

GTE-Am

54-Spirit of Race-Ferrari 488 GTE-Flohr/Castellacci/Molina
61-Clearwater Racing-Ferrari 488 GTE-Sun/Sawa/Griffin
77-Dempsey-Proton Racing-Porsche 911 RSR-Ried/Dienst/Cairoli
86-Gulf Racing-Porsche 911 RSR-Wainwright/Barker/Foster
98-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Dalla Lana/Lamy/Lauda

Performance Tech home for Kyle Masson to flourish, star early in 2017

Kyle Masson. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing will get a lot of the accolades for completing the “36 Hours of Florida” sweep to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

But another team did so as well, with a less likely cast of characters and after two flawless runs of their own: Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports.

O’Neill took a stab at young talent, all of whom have full pro level potential but not full pro level experience yet at the top flight of endurance sports car racing. In James French (24 years old), Pato O’Ward (17), Kyle Masson (19) and Nick Boulle (27), O’Neill had a quartet of young drivers with a combined three Rolex 24 at Daytona starts. What followed was a flawless drive under the miserable conditions en route to deserved win in the Prototype Challenge class.

What better way to follow it up, then, with a second straight star turn at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring? French, O’Ward and Masson pulled off the back-to-back effort themselves after a second successive brilliant run, this time finishing fifth overall.

French, O’Ward, Masson and O’Neill. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Of the trio, Masson was the busiest at Sebring, and for good reason. The 19-year-old out of Windermere, Fla. was also starting his season in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series competition this weekend, also with Performance Tech, in the formerly L1 but now MPC class with the venerable, Elan DP02 open-top prototype (we’re trying to make this as least confusing as possible).

This meant he had three races to run at Sebring in one weekend, in two entirely different open-top cars, in two different multi-class series.

And all Masson did was go three-for-three in winning them all, sweeping the pair of MPC races before joining his teammates in the PC class in the big show to complete the Daytona to Sebring double.

As the younger Masson explained, keeping both cars straight was a challenge he had to master.

“Because everything was under the same tent, the time management wasn’t that difficult,” Masson told NBC Sports. “We entered with the focus of me winning the (MPC) races. The PC car, I could figure out in the race. The Lites was more on edge, and I had to push and figure it out.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The biggest difficulty I had was going back and forth from the Lites (MPC) to the PC car, totally different styles. They don’t drive similarly at all. The (Lites) car is so planted, it’s so physical, you have the muscle it. The PC car is delicate, twitchy, with power steering. When you’re going back and forth, it becomes tainted with elements of the other! I was learning how to re-drive the car in middle of the (Lites) races.”

There was another element that made the MPC races difficult to master. IMSA has adjusted the former Prototype Lites series to now add LMP3 chassis, which is a separate class from the MPC class, the former top class of the prototype development series when it was called L1. Because the cars have speed in different areas, Masson had to figure out how to race the new cars without them compromising his own race.

“The P3 cars had more speed on the straights and that made it more difficult to pass,” he explained. “A P3 car had held me off for a couple laps, would block in the corners and pull away on the straight. That pushed me into the JDC entry in MPC and kept us together to battle and fight. The two classes combined are a bit hectic, but we’ll learn how it goes.”

Masson had to learn Daytona from the Roar Before the Rolex 24 while at Sebring, he estimated he had more than 1,000 laps at the track a couple hours south of Orlando. For a driver who’s only been competing for two and a half years since graduating from Skip Barber, it’s already become a track he’s learned to master. That track experience made it easier, if not outright easy, to switch between the two cars.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The weather differences between Daytona and Sebring’s races could not have been wider apart, either. Daytona was rain-drenched with ambient temperatures barely above 40 degrees; Sebring, sunny in the 70s on race day, actually made it a bonus to be in the venerable open-top cars rather than a hindrance as it was in Daytona.

“Daytona was absolutely miserable. I was freezing… I think I got out with hypothermia!” Masson laughed. “But Sebring, with the cooler air, the open-top and dry weather, allowed us to stay cool in the car.”

Masson and O’Ward were the two young proteges under French, the 24-year-old out of Sheboygan, Wis. who has evolved into Performance Tech’s undisputed team leader and lead driver the last couple seasons.

Masson and O’Ward gelled from the off having been teammates with Performance Tech in the Elan MPC cars last year at Sebring, and reconnected at the all-Mazda combined Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last September. It became natural to be paired up with French, who Masson said has been an invaluable coach and resource.

“It was a daunting task stepping up. I was extremely nervous,” Masson admitted. “I know how to drive a car and use the clutch, but hopping into the PC car felt foreign. I knew almost nothing at the Roar. It was such a big jump that it felt like something I hadn’t done before.

“But James was a mentor. I always looked up to him. He was like an idol to me! He’s helping coach me along. He helps stay calm, cool and collected. He has the experience but we’re really close friends.”

Kyle and Robert Masson. Photos courtesy of IMSA

Family is a big word around both the Masson name and the Performance Tech team. Masson’s dad, Robert, is a neurosurgeon… who is also Kyle’s teammate with Performance Tech in the MPC class this season.

Meanwhile O’Neill’s team is a true privateer effort; the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-squad has a family atmosphere that drivers who’ve been there have hailed before going onto other programs. Prior to his graduation to Mazda’s factory prototype team, Tristan Nunez raced here.

“They are an amazing group of guys,” Masson said. “I only got into racing 2.5 years ago, fresh out of Skip Barber, and there’s so many paths and roads to go down. I could have gone down the Road to Indy or the Road to 24, because there’s so many teams and options. I was so lucky to meet up with Brent and Performance Tech.

“They will always be family to me now. They will be always my first family. They’re always there for me. They care so much. They want to win races so badly. The performance matters.. it’s so serious and you know they won’t sacrifice an ounce. It’s a great environment.”

At 19, there’s no knowing how high Masson’s career might rise. He’s already got a Rolex watch and a Sebring trophy under his belt… and this is in the off time when he’s not studying for a double major in business and finance at the University of Central Florida.

But there’s already a confidence there that this is just the start of great things to come for the rest of his burgeoning career.

“I had a feeling signing up for this that if everything went well, we could dominate,” he said. “We’re so consistent. Realistically, we are a team without any ‘am’ drivers, lap-time wise. We’re all running ‘pro’ times. We’re all up there on the sheet. Having that as a cushion, we don’t need to push to our limit, which keeps the car to its limit. Having that as a team in endurance racing is a big advantage.

“Since it’s my second year in these cars, my confidence has skyrocketed. Now I know how to push myself to my limit and get the most out of the car. Last year, for the JDC guys (Austin Versteeg, Clark Toppe) it was their second year and my first year in any real car on slicks.

“Now it’s a completely different story. I picked up a lot of new skills. I’m able to translate that and put it all together as best I can, thanks to the people around me.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”