Lotterer debut a refreshing tonic for F1, Caterham

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It used to be in Formula One that in-season replacements were more common, and occasionally, surprising in their choice. But they’ve become less frequent in recent years, and more predictable.

Each of the last two years, the only team that’s required an in-season replacement driver has been Lotus. Jerome d’Ambrosio, then Lotus reserve driver, got the call to replace the suspended Romain Grosjean at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix. “JDA” had been in F1 with Virgin, now Marussia, the year previous but wasn’t able to make the most of a difficult situation in that cameo.

Meanwhile a year ago, following Kimi Raikkonen’s injury that cost him the last two races of the season, Lotus went for a trusted veteran in Heikki Kovalainen rather than shaking up the status quo by bringing in its actual reserve, Davide Valsecchi. While Kovalainen brought experience to the table, he wasn’t able to deliver in his assigned task for the United States and Brazilian Grands Prix: delivering additional points.

You’d have to go back to 2011 to see the last real, major, raft of in-season replacements and what they brought in terms of unpredictability to F1.

There were several changes. Lotus, then Renault, was at it again: Bruno Senna replaced Nick Heidfeld the second half of the year, in a season where both were in essence, injury replacements for Robert Kubica. Pedro de la Rosa deputized for an injured Sergio Perez at Canada. And then, there was a then-unheralded Australian rookie named Daniel Ricciardo who was quietly drafted in at HRT to replace Narain Karthikeyan the second half of that year. Karthikeyan’s Indian countryman, Karun Chandhok, also made a one-off cameo at the Nurburgring in for Jarno Trulli at Lotus, now Caterham.

All of this preamble brings us to Andre Lotterer, who will make a surprise but welcome F1 debut this weekend with Caterham in place of Kamui Kobayashi at the Belgian Grand Prix.

Lotterer, while he has been one of the world’s top sports car drivers for five seasons, still has a tall task in front of him with Caterham. He can’t embarrass himself and he also has to have the realistic goal of beating his teammate Marcus Ericsson, who has a year’s worth of running with the CT05 chassis.

But his is a refreshing appointment compared to the usual reserve driver, retread, or prodigy-in-waiting that has been the general call in recent years.

Ferrari, for instance, had a golden opportunity to promote someone outside the realm of normality in 2009 following Felipe Massa’s injury in the Hungarian Grand Prix. But veterans Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella failed to take advantage of the lifelong dream the pair had, struggling with a geriatric chassis and earning a wealth of criticism from onlookers.

Renault seized an opportunity to promote Grosjean in the same season, to replace Nelson Piquet Jr., but as reserve and with the cloud of controversy that hung over the squad in the wake of Piquet’s “Crashgate” scandal at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Grosjean was nothing more than a stopgap measure for the time being and really wasn’t able to prove himself.

Jaime Alguersuari at Toro Rosso, also in 2009? He entered F1 with nothing but question marks surrounding his readiness as the then-youngest driver in history, a mark that will be beaten in 2015, in the same team, by Max Verstappen.

And then whether it’s been de la Rosa, Kovalainen, Chandhok, d’Ambrosio or Vitantonio Liuzzi as the pop-up, replacement driver, you’ve had guys who are devoid of any real “star” value and with the mystery and mystique surrounding them as to how well they’ll do. Basically, you knew what you’re getting as all these guys have been solid but never superstar-worthy in their F1 careers.

For Lotterer, he may well be a colossal flop or he won’t be able to outperform his machinery, but his presence as a three-time Le Mans winner, a driver in the peak of his powers in a different discipline, adds a level of intrigue not present for some of the other in-season replacements in recent years.

He makes Caterham an interesting team to watch, instead of merely the also-ran at the back of the grid it’s been for most, if not all, this season.

He has track experience (he raced at Spa earlier this year in the FIA WEC) and has still actively maintained a single seater career in Japan, so he’s as fresh as a daisy.

For F1, it can claim for the first time in 20 years it has the active 24 Hours of Le Mans winner in its field – and a guy who’s adept at handling some of racing’s newest technology with aplomb.

In short, Lotterer’s one of the most intriguing in-season replacements, and for that matter, debutantes, F1 has seen in years. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how he goes.

Azerbaijan GP red flagged after 22 laps following chaotic sequence

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The Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been red flagged for debris following a chaotic sequence of laps that saw three safety cars be deployed following multiple incidents, leaving the track covered in debris.

The first safety car was called after Daniil Kvyat stopped out on-track, with the marshals able to recover it with relative ease, but the bunched field on the restart soon descended into chaos.

Debris from Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari caused a second safety car period to be called within a lap, but the marshals were again able to clear this easily, allowing Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to lead the field away for the second restart.

Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel made contact twice behind the safety car, leaving debris on-track at Turn 15, with both drivers blaming each other for the incident.

The greater clashes came on the first lap of green flag running as Force India teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon clashes at Turn 3, the latter bumping Perez into the wall. Both were required to pit for repairs, and while Ocon could get back out, Perez was less fortunate, retiring from the race.

A third safety car was called, with the stewards then deciding to throw a red flag to allow the debris on the track to be cleared.

More to follow…

Hunter-Reay leads warmup at Road America

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A weekend that has been dominated by Chevrolet and Team Penske so far saw Honda jump to the top during morning warmup. Ryan Hunter-Reay was fastest for Andretti Autosport, followed by Max Chilton for Chip Ganassi Racing. Hunter-Reay’s teammate Alexander Rossi ended the session third, making it a Honda 1-2-3 in the morning warmup.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was the quickest of the Chevrolet camp in fourth, followed by A.J. Foyt Racing’s Carlos Munoz in fifth.

Only 19 of the 21 drivers turned laps during the session, with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato failing to put laps in. Dixon’s No. 9 NTT Data Honda was suffering from fuel pressure problems that kept it in the garage, while Sato was feeling under the weather during the morning, and the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda team elected not to go out.

Coverage of the Kohler Grand Prix begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

 

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Nato takes F2 sprint win in Baku after Leclerc penalty

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Norman Nato picked up his first win of the 2017 FIA Formula 2 season on Sunday after a post-race penalty denied Charles Leclerc a weekend double in Baku.

Ferrari junior Leclerc took an emotional victory on Saturday just days after the death of his father, and charged from P8 on the reverse grid to take the lead from Nato late on.

However, the Monegasque driver was denied the first perfect weekend in the category (including GP2) in eight years when he was hit with a 10-second time penalty for failing to slow under yellow flags.

Despite the penalty, Leclerc was still classified second behind Nato, with Nicholas Latifi completing the podium for DAMS.

Jordan King took fourth place for MP Motorsport, while Sergey Sirotkin was fifth on his stand-in weekend at ART Grand Prix ahead of fellow Russian Artem Markelov.

Nobuharu Matsushita took seventh ahead of Luca Ghiotto, while Ralph Boschung and Sergio Sette Camara rounded out the top 10.

With second place, Leclerc extended his F2 championship lead to 42 points after chief title rival Oliver Rowland retired after leading the early part of the race.

The F2 season resumes in two weeks’ time in support of the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg.

Lauda on Hamilton’s Baku pole lap: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

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Formula 1 legend and Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda was quick to heap praise on Lewis Hamilton after qualifying in Azerbaijan on Saturday, saying he had “never seen anything like” the Briton’s Q3 pole lap.

Hamilton charged to the 66th pole of his F1 career at the Baku City Circuit on Saturday after a last-ditch effort took his four-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton was overjoyed by the lap, having struggled to tame the Baku circuit during its inaugural race in 2016, and three-time world champion Lauda was equally as impressed.

“We had some problems on Friday, but the team really did a fantastic job to set the car up in the right way. And Lewis with his lap today… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lauda said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It was not plain sailing at all, but a lot of thinking, digging, back to the factory, and in the end the improvement the engineers and mechanics did to the car is outstanding.

“And then Lewis, what he did today, no one else I think can do that.

“He’s fantastic, especially thinking about his lap time here, because the difference he makes to everybody – it’s only Lewis.”

Hamilton will go in search of his fifth win of the season in Baku on Sunday, with coverage of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET.