On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, we looked at the struggles Jimmie Johnson and his team have had over much of the last six weeks. There’s no question Johnson has been in a bit of rut and must turn things around as the end of the regular season approaches. Kyle Petty said Johnson is not used to the new playoff format and must hit the ground running in the first three races or fear being left in the dust.
Formula 1 makes its second visit to the historic city of Baku in Azerbaijan this weekend with the title race closing up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
The Baku City Circuit arrived on the F1 calendar in 2016 as host of the European Grand Prix, but the event has since been renamed the ‘Azerbaijan Grand Prix’.
The track itself received a lukewarm reception initially given its exceptionally tight nature, yet it ultimately proved to be an exciting mix of high-speed sections and tight, twisting challenges for drivers.
Nico Rosberg won last year’s race as part of his march to the F1 title, with Hamilton enduring a rare off weekend that saw him struggle for pace throughout.
The Briton will be keen to make up for the mistakes of last year as he looks to further cut the gap to championship leader Vettel, having sliced the difference to just 12 points with victory last time out in Canada.
As the season nears its midpoint, will Baku prove to be a decisive battleground in the championship fight as it did last year?
Here are the key talking points heading into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Talking Points
Hamilton chasing redemption after 2016 struggles
Lewis Hamilton very rarely has an ‘off’ weekend where he is completely out of the loop with the front-runners, yet last year’s race in Baku ticked that box fully.
Throughout all of the sessions, Hamilton struggled to find his mojo, suffering two offs in qualifying and eventually finishing fifth, over a minute behind race winner Rosberg. Come the end of the season, it was a points swing that was decisive in the title race.
Hamilton and Mercedes appear more relaxed heading to Baku this time around, though, with both parties expressing confidence about what exactly caused such struggles last year, ensuring that the same mistakes won’t be made twice.
Hamilton is on a high after his emphatic win in Canada, cutting the gap to championship leader Vettel, and if a similar momentum swing takes place in Baku, the Briton could find himself at the top of the standings again.
Vettel, Raikkonen seek response for Ferrari
While Hamilton and Mercedes impressed in Canada, Ferrari had its toughest weekend of the season so far. Contact at the start left Vettel fighting back throughout, eventually recovering to P4, while an issue left Kimi Raikkonen limping home at the end to seventh.
The result saw Mercedes move back into the lead of the constructors’ championship thanks to its one-two finish, leaving Ferrari in need of a response if it wants to stop the momentum gained by the Silver Arrows as soon as possible.
The high temperatures and soft compound tires should play in Ferrari’s favor, as should the variable nature of the circuit. It requires a bit of everything – slippy on the straights, planted through fast corners, quick out of slow ones – and the SF70H appears to be the most well-rounded car on the grid. It bodes well for the Scuderia.
Another rough weekend in store for McLaren
If Fernando Alonso’s late retirement while running in the points was bad for McLaren, then things are only to get worse this weekend as power unit penalties put the British team on the back foot.
Ongoing problems with Honda have caused the relationship with McLaren to near breaking point, with the team currently considering its options for a power unit supply beyond 2018.
If Honda is hoping for a boost anytime soon, it won’t come in Azerbaijan. Power unit changes are set to send Alonso and Vandoorne to the back of the field regardless of their qualifying position. To make matters worse, there’s a lack of overtaking opportunities on part of the track, and down the main straight, engine power is crucial – something McLaren doesn’t have.
It doesn’t bode well for the British team, but if a race of attrition sets in, then an opportunity could yet arise.
Will Baku go bananas this time around?
The circuit in Baku has the ingredients for a pretty crazy race, as seen with the GP2 kids last year when all hell broke loose, allowing Antonio Giovinazzi to fight from the back to win the race.
Most expected at least some drama in the F1 event, only for a pretty straightforward race to unfold without a single safety car period or any major incidents.
So will things be different this time around? The wider cars will certainly add an extra dimension to things, particularly in the Turn 8 uphill section. The greater downforce will make the fast-flowing final sector all the more spectacular, though, even if the top speed of last year won’t be matched.
It may be a street course, but that’s no reason why this can’t be a memorable, spectacular event.
Sauber begins life without Kaltenborn
The big news heading into the Azerbaijan F1 weekend was the parting of ways between Sauber and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, whose departure was confirmed on Wednesday.
The announcement came at a time when Sauber is continuing to rebuild and plan for the future, having negotiated some choppy waters in recent times amid financial struggles and difficulties, with Kaltenborn largely steering the ship.
The news came as a surprise to most of the F1 paddock, including Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, with things changing quickly in the space of 48 hours.
With no team leader now in place, it will be interesting to see how Sauber moves in the coming races and begins to change direction away from Kaltenborn’s vision.
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Baku City Circuit
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:46.485 (2016 – as European Grand Prix)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:42.758
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:46.485
DRS Zone: T20 to T1, T2 to T3
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After a hectic period in the lead-up to and run through the Indianapolis 500 in May, then into the first two and a half weeks of June, the Verizon IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend with the KOHLER Grand Prix at picturesque Road America.
The race’s return last year after nine years away proved a hit for drivers, teams and fans alike and the encore will also be one to watch.
With that, here’s some story lines to look out for the 2017 KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
2017 KOHLER Grand Prix – Talking Points
Does a Will Power “summer smackdown” begin now?
Last year, Power’s win at Road America was his second in a row after winning Detroit race two, and the second race in his ludicrously good run of four wins and two second-place finishes in six races. He enters the 2017 Road America race in exactly the same position, fresh off a dominant win in the race beforehand.
Power’s Texas win was authoritative and didn’t really seem in doubt, even as Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato posed late-race challenges before they collided. Power seems in a good spot mentally this year, more so than in past years, and a second straight win both in 2017 and at Road America would fully serve as a warning shot to the rest of the field that his title pursuit is underway.
How will the IndyCar trio at Le Mans fare back at Road America?
Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin return to action in their day jobs this weekend after racing at last week’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. There wasn’t much of a hangover here, last year.
Dixon and Kanaan qualified second and third, with Dixon running strong early before a mechanical issue. Kanaan, meanwhile, had probably his best drive on a road or street course in years, ending just behind Power in second. Aleshin had a somewhat quiet weekend, qualifying 13th and finishing 16th.
Can Rahal’s roll continue?
Graham Rahal had a very strong weekend here with a sixth place start and podium finish in third. He’s had struggles on permanent road courses so far this year, though. At Barber he qualified 21st and last and finished 13th; at the Indianapolis road course he was 20th on the grid but recovered to sixth.
A good qualifying effort will be key to snapping that rough run on the road courses and continuing the overall roll he and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team have been on in the last month, with the doubleheader sweep in Detroit and a fourth place at Texas.
Will testing help the six-pack of Hondas that tested here?
Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and one Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda all tested here last week, to get an early leg up on the track for 2017 ahead of the rest of the field. It’s been rare in 2017 – Indianapolis aside – that teams have got the opportunity to test at the same track so soon to race day, but the Andretti and SPM teams cannily used an Indy Lights test day to ensure their primary drivers got an extra half day of running in. Coyne, too, got Ed Jones a day on track in an IndyCar here. Jones was in the crosshairs in a crazy Indy Lights weekend here last year but has been much calmer, and solid, in his first season in IndyCar.
Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske also tested at Watkins Glen last week for a Firestone tire test, so they’ve had a bit of extra running in too.
Five extra laps of fuel doom?
At just over 4 miles, there’s no room to be wrong on fuel strategy at Road America. You run out, and it’s likely game over – the strategy has to be pinpoint perfect.
This year’s KOHLER Grand Prix has been extended five laps to 55. It makes the race longer but it also forces teams into a very tight window of either three or four stops. Usually a fuel stint here is 12 or 13 laps; it can possibly be stretched to 14.
With pace laps to factor in early, pitting sooner on the first stop is possible. Can teams make it home on three stops this year or will a fourth be needed?
The potential eighth winner list has some good potential candidates
Besides the obvious driver you’d have expected to have a win but doesn’t so far in 2017 – Dixon – there’s also the names like Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and even Max Chilton or Ed Jones who could be considered potential eighth different winners of the IndyCar season. Marco Andretti has looked strong in road course practice this year but it hasn’t translated to qualifying or a result.
The final word
From Power, who seeks both his second straight win in 2017 and a second straight at Road America: “I’m really looking forward to racing at Road America after the race at Texas. It was a crazy race but the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team worked hard together to pull off a win. I’m confident that the momentum we’ve built off of that win can definitely be a huge benefit for us as we head to Elkhart Lake and get into the championship hunt. It’s a fun, energetic crowd there and a fun course. I’m just ready to get back on track.”
Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:
At-track schedule (all times local):
Friday, June 23
10:45 – 11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15 – 4 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
4:05 – 4:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
Saturday, June 24
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5 p.m. ET, same-day delay)
Sunday, June 25
8 – 8:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
11:32 a.m. – Driver introductions
12:10 p.m. – Command to start engines
12:17 p.m. – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)
Here’s last year’s top 10:
1. Will Power (pole)
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Graham Rahal
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
8. Josef Newgarden
9. Spencer Pigot
10. Carlos Munoz
Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:
1. Will Power
2. Scott Dixon
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Graham Rahal
Esteban Gutierrez’s winding road to being confirmed in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda for the remainder of the 2017 season, starting at Road America for this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series KOHLER Grand Prix, has come only after a circuitous few weeks since his series debut in Detroit earlier this month.
On Thursday morning, the Coyne team has confirmed Gutierrez will be in the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda for the remaining races until Sebastien Bourdais returns. This ends a driver rotation since his accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 20. James Davison, Gutierrez and Tristan Vautier have been in the car since.
As for Gutierrez, he made his debut on the street course at Belle Isle Park, only for his FIA Formula E Championship team Techeetah to have alleged a breach of contract by Gutierrez for taking on the IndyCar opportunity to replace the injured Sebastien Bourdais with Coyne.
Team owner Coyne told IndyCar Radio at Detroit he expected Gutierrez in for Road America and said he’d have a test day later in the month.
The next obstacle for Gutierrez was seeing if he could get an oval test to race at Texas Motor Speedway. But with IndyCar on a test blackout those days in-between Detroit and Texas, that wasn’t cleared, and Vautier filled in.
Gutierrez indeed tested at Road America on June 14 as scheduled, however was doing so under the auspices that he couldn’t post anything about it nor could the team say anything about it, reportedly due to the ongoing Formula E situation whereby Stephane Sarrazin wound up replacing Gutierrez at Techeetah. Gutierrez briefly posted a tweet from the test, but deleted it mere moments later.
Sarrazin was only cleared by the stewards mere hours before the start of the Berlin ePrix weekend as it was deemed a late driver change.
While Gutierrez was, again, still expected for Road America, the fact Team AKKA-ASP announced Renger van der Zande to fill in for Vautier in the team’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 at the weekend’s Blancpain Endurance Series race at Paul Ricard stoked rumors that Vautier might have an encore performance after his Texas showcase. The entry list was released on Tuesday with TBA by Coyne’s No. 18 car.
Alas, the long and short of all of this is Gutierrez is in for Elkhart Lake to kick off the rest of his season, and now has a test day in an IndyCar under his belt and past race experience there in Formula BMW, albeit a decade ago.
“I’m very happy to finally announce my racing program for the rest of the season,” Gutierrez said. “To represent Mexico in the Verizon IndyCar Series has a huge significance to all the fans that have been following the series through history and I’m very grateful to fill in this position.
“IndyCar has highly competitive teams and drivers and the challenge for me will be great, but I will use all my experience from Formula 1 with Sauber, Haas F1 Team and Ferrari in order to adapt quickly to the car and the tracks. I look forward to continue working with Dale Coyne Racing and Honda, I put my trust in them to achieve great results together. I cannot wait to jump in my Unifin #18 car at Road America this weekend!”
Coyne added, “We’re very pleased that Esteban can join us for the remainder of the season. Esteban did a very good job in Detroit despite having a lot to learn in a short amount of time. He fit in very well with the team and I look forward to our next races with him, starting with Road America this week.”
Qualifying coverage on NBCSN takes place Saturday at 5 p.m. ET with the race live Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET.
GENEVA, Switzerland – Formula 1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey says that Liberty Media has begun to narrow down its target cities for a second grand prix in the United States.
Liberty Media completed its takeover of F1 in January, with Carey being appointed the sport’s new chief in place of Bernie Ecclestone.
Liberty has expressed a desire to expand F1’s footprint in key markets such as the United States, with a second grand prix to accompany the existing USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being a key objective.
Speaking to reporters at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week, Carey confirmed that Liberty was continuing to explore options for a second US race, narrowing down the possible locations.
“There’s probably some that we’ve ruled out, but it’s certainly more than a few. We still have multiple cities, and in a couple of cities, there are multiple options or multiple potential options,” Carey said.
“I don’t think we’re going to get too deep into what I think are private discussions. I think these discussions are better-had privately between parties. We’re not looking to go out and publicly play cities against each other and venues against each other.
“I think we want to make a decision that’s best on the merits for the sport and its fans. It’s a priority so we’re actively engaged on it. We’re moving forward, but we’re not going to put a deadline on it or go through the process publicly.”
Carey has previously expressed a strong desire to take F1 to big cities all over the world, and named New York, Miami and Las Vegas as possible targets for street events, although he recognized that getting grands prix in the very heart of them may prove difficult.
“I don’t think they’ll be [permanent] tracks, because I guess the cities we’ve cited like New York, Miami, Las Vegas, there aren’t tracks. So we’re not going to build a track in Miami or New York,” Carey said.
“But I don’t think we’re going to be racing down 5th Avenue in Manhattan either, so I think we like the connection to cities.
“By definition in those certain places we’ll use street races that will be upgraded to a place where they have the quality and requirements necessary to host a race.
“So clearly there will have to be things done to make that circuit ready.”
F1 is also set to put on more events in cities in host nations in the lead up to grand prix weekends, with several days of activities being the goal for Liberty moving forward in a bid to build interest.
“We’d like to be connected to the city. In many ways if you want a week-long event the events up to the race weekend are probably more city-centric and you evolve towards the track as you get to Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Carey said.
“So having that connection to the city is something that we lack. I think we can make it work in places where they’re further afield as some of the historic tracks exist, but I think that connection to the city enhances the ability to engage the city.
“Silverstone is a way outside London and yet we’re going to have stuff in London that is celebrating the week in Silverstone.
“So just because you have the distance, I think if we have the opportunity to be more connected to the city, we think that presents interesting and fun opportunities.”