Road America’s state of the union: Good NASCAR, IMSA crowds; IndyCar still waits

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I had a brief opportunity to catch up with Road America track president George Bruggenthies this weekend regarding the year to date for its two major events (plenty more, including motorcycle and vintage weekends, also take place during the year).

The NASCAR/Pirelli World Challenge weekend in June went off well in terms of ticket sales and TV appearance, despite the intermittent rain that delayed the start of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

Meanwhile this weekend’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race, a single race weekend compared to the double, one-off GRAND-AM Rolex Series/American Le Mans Series weekend that occurred in 2013, saw ticket sales close to what was achieved last year.

“We’re close on sales,” Bruggenthies told MotorSportsTalk ahead of Sunday’s TUDOR Championship race. “Last year as a one-off event with both, it was always going to draw more. But we’ve had perfect weather this weekend.”

Additional sponsors came to the NASCAR weekend in June, with two new sponsors including new race title sponsor Gardner Denver. Bruggenthies confirmed the Pirelli World Challenge will return to the track next season, as well.

But the elephant in the room continues to be whether the Verizon IndyCar Series will ever return, for what would be the first time since the former Champ Car series’ last race there in 2007.

IndyCar rookie Jack Hawksworth competed at the track this weekend for the first time; he praised it and wondered why IndyCar wasn’t at the track. Additionally James Hinchcliffe was in action as well, racing at Road America for the first time since Formula Atlantic in 2008. Sadly he wasn’t able to drive as local driver and teammate Scott Mayer wrecked out of the race on Lap 3; Hawksworth’s entry finished fourth in the PC class.

Bruggenthies, who’s told me previously that the sanctioning fee IndyCar requires has been too high, now said it’s more the schedule that’s an issue.

“With Mark Miles ending the year on Labor Day, it compacts everything,” Bruggenthies explained. “The schedule is more the issue than the business side. Of course we’d need sponsors to make it happen.

“I could do Labor Day. But there’s another event already there. Derrick Walker was here this weekend; we’ve talked.”

Perhaps the greater sticking point from an IndyCar at Road America standpoint now compared to a year or two ago is the fact the TUDOR Championship would rather position itself as a lead series, not play as a second feature on an IndyCar weekend.

IMSA President/COO Scott Atherton expanded on that in an interview with MotorSportsTalk Sunday morning from Road America, where the 2015 IMSA schedules were announced.

“We race with IndyCar in Long Beach and Detroit. We play together nicely and there is positive synergy between the two organizations,” Atherton said.

“But we’re careful to position the TUDOR Championship as a featured lead act, so to speak. When we race with IndyCar, there’s two of them in those historical venues.  Long Beach has been an open-wheel venue for 40 years, so it’s tough to be considered an equal there, but that market is so important to us and our stakeholders. If you’re a road racing product, you have to be in Southern California, and that’s the only option.”

Atherton said he would not be opposed to any additional content with IndyCar, but in terms of a joint IndyCar/TUDOR Championship weekend at Road America, Atherton said he has not had any dialogue with Bruggenthies on the topic.

Interestingly there was an IndyCar vendor presence this weekend in Elkhart Lake anyway, but not at Road America.

Andretti Sports Marketing, which promotes this upcoming weekend’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers at the Milwaukee Mile, had a presence at the iconic Siebkens Resort both Friday and Saturday night.

Bobby Rahal, Katherine Legge and Derrick Walker were in attendance Friday night – all had a vested interest in the TUDOR Championship weekend. Rahal runs the two-car BMW Team RLL entry in GT Le Mans, Legge races the radical DeltaWing coupe and Walker’s Walker Racing team operates the Team Falken Tire Porsche in GTLM. Saturday night, GT Daytona polesitter James Davison of TRG-AMR and Dodge/SRT marketing director Beth Paretta were on site.

The promotion was spearheaded by Laura Cooper, Andretti Sports Marketing Director of Marketing Services, who has local ties to the region.

“She’s been involved with a variety of events here in Elkhart Lake, Skip Barber, charity events and the like,” Bruggenthies said. “With Walker, Bobby being here it was a natural. It’s no problem for us; it’s not detrimental.”

Button to start Monaco GP from pit lane after floor change

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Jenson Button will start his one-off comeback Formula 1 race in Monaco from the pit lane after McLaren opted to change the floor on his car after qualifying.

Button was drafted in by McLaren for the Monaco Grand Prix weekend following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the 101st Indianapolis 500, with the Briton previously stepping away from F1 at the end of last year.

Despite having no prior testing heading into the weekend, Button was quick to tame the McLaren-Honda MCL32 car, taking it to ninth place in qualifying.

A 15-place grid penalty for changes to his power unit resigned Button to the back of the grid for the race, prompting McLaren to make setup alterations overnight and favor a pit lane start for Button.

“As the floor is different from the one originally used in qualifying the competitor is required to start from the pit lane,” the FIA race stewards said in a bulletin ahead of the race.

Marcus Ericsson has also been handed a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. The Sauber driver’s qualifying position remains unchanged, though, by virtue of finishing 19th.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET on Sunday.

2017 Monaco Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Romain Grosjean Haas
9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
10. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
11. Kevin Magnussen Haas
12. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
13. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
14. Felipe Massa Williams
15. Esteban Ocon Force India
16. Jolyon Palmer Renault
17. Lance Stroll Williams
18. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
PL. Jenson Button McLaren

Wolff can see Hamilton finishing F1 career with Mercedes

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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says he can see three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton completing the rest of his career with the team, something he did not think would happen one year ago.

Hamilton has raced with Mercedes since 2013, claiming two F1 drivers’ titles in that time and the majority of his grand prix victories.

Hamilton is currently in the second of his three-year contract with Mercedes, and will be 33 upon its expiration at the end of next season.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Wolff said he could see Hamilton remaining at the team “forever”, believing their relationship to be stronger than ever.

“If you would have asked me the same question one year ago, I would not have been very optimistic, but now it is different,” Wolff said.

“I have the feeling that it can’t be much better in a different place, for him and for us.

“This is very strong now, and I am not speaking only about on-track performance because there are going to be difficult moments, but I am speaking about the relationship.

“After five years, this relationship has become so strong in a way that it wasn’t last season. For Lewis it will be important to see whether we are competitive or not.

“But at the moment there is such a solid basis that I can imagine it going on forever.”

Wolff believes there has been a shift for Hamilton in the wake of Nico Rosberg’s departure from the team at the end of 2016 following the German’s world title win.

Hamilton and Rosberg enjoyed a frosty rivalry that saw them clash a number of times on-track, with the latter’s exit helping to ease some of the tension within the team.

“Definitely the biggest positive development I have seen between 2013 and now happened over the winter and after Nico left the team,” Wolff said.

“Drivers are sometimes viewed within teams as contractors and they will always look after their own agenda rather than the team’s interest.

“But Lewis is now in his fifth year with us and that has changed. He has become a part of the team.

“I would not use the world team player because that goes against the DNA of a racing driver, but I think he has realized, acknowledged and respects the whole effort that is happening in the team.

“Somehow it has become natural, he towards the team, and the team towards him. We have built a trustful relationship.”

WATCH LIVE: Monaco GP on NBC, NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET

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Formula 1 hits the streets of Monaco today for one of the most hotly anticipated races of the year – and with the grid shaken-up, we could get a Grand Prix that lives up to the hype.

F1 MONACO GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Kimi Raikkonen sprung a surprise on the F1 paddock by charging to his first pole in almost nine years, ending a drought that dated back to the French Grand Prix in 2008.

The Finn will head up the second all-Ferrari front row in the space of three races, with drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel sitting second.

Vettel’s chief title rival, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, starts all the way back in 13th after a woeful qualifying that saw his car setup problems cost him dearly.

Valtteri Bottas gave Mercedes some cheer by running to third on the grid, with the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo starting fourth and fifth.

You can see a full run-down of what to watch for in today’s race in our Sunday preview.

You can watch the Monaco Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 7:30am ET. CLICK HERE for NBC live stream.

F1 Countdown begins at 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app, and runs until the NBC coverage begins. CLICK HERE for NBCSN live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call on the ground in Monaco, with pit reporter Will Buxton providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

Ferrari F1 drivers Raikkonen, Vettel free to race in Monaco

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Ferrari Formula 1 drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel will be free to race and fight each other for victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix following their front row lock-out in qualifying.

Raikkonen stormed to his first F1 pole since the 2008 French Grand Prix on Saturday afternoon, edging out Vettel by just 0.043 seconds in the final stage of qualifying.

The result came at a time when Raikkonen has faced criticism for failing to match Vettel for pace through the opening five rounds of the season.

While Vettel has two wins and three second-place finishes to his name, Raikkonen has finished on the podium just once, and is yet to finish ahead of his teammate.

Vettel currently leads the F1 drivers’ championship ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who starts 13th in Monaco after a disastrous qualifying session on Saturday.

While Ferrari has history in throwing its support behind one driver for the championship early in a season, both Raikkonen and Vettel stressed there would be no team orders in play in Monaco, leaving the pair free to fight so long as it is clean and fair.

“We know what we are doing, we are racing for the team and, you know, we have certain rules and respect against each other,” Raikkonen said.

“We are allowed to fight but obviously, we have to do it as clean as we can and not take each other out.

“I don’t know why people expect that it is something different tomorrow than it’s been the last two years.

“Nothing has changed. Just try to make a stupid story out of nothing.”

Vettel added: “I think we have done enough races so we know what to do normally in the first corner. We’re here to race, we’re here to race each other.

“The start is important here, the first corner is important, the race is important! The start is the beginning of the race, but not the end so we’ll see.

“We know that pole is important in Monaco, so we’ll see what happens.”

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