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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.

George Russell joins Mercedes F1 junior program

George Russell
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Mercedes has announced that British racer George Russell will join its young driver program ahead of the 2017 racing season.

Russell, 18, raced in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship last year, finishing the season third in the final standings with two victories to his name.

Russell will move into GP3 for the 2017 season, linking up with ART Grand Prix, a team that fellow Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon and recently-appointed Mercedes Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas have both enjoyed success with.

Russell becomes the third member of Mercedes’ young driver program, joining Ocon and Sauber F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein.

“It’s great to be part of the Junior Program. It is an incredible opportunity to have the backing of the Formula One World Champions,” Russell said.

“I’m proud to have been given this kind of recognition for all the hard work that’s gone into my career over the years so far.

“I’ve started doing some work with the team in the simulator and it’s already become clear to me that I’m working with people who are the best in the business, who I know will help me develop as a driver and as a person.

“Of course, my priority is to get the job done over the coming season in GP3 and I’m fully focused on that. But this opportunity is a huge motivation and I’m looking forward to the challenge. It should be an exciting year ahead.”

“George has shown impressive form in the junior categories and we’ve been keeping a close eye on him for a while now,” Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff added.

“It’s still early days in his career but we see great potential in him. For 2017, George will compete in the GP3 Series with ART Grand Prix on Formula One weekends, following in the footsteps of fellow Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Junior Esteban Ocon and, of course, newly announced race driver Valtteri Bottas – both of whom won this championship en route to F1.

“George’s next challenge in GP3 will provide a good test of his credentials for the future. We have already seen with Esteban how effective this series can be as a training ground and, of course, this is the championship which propelled Valtteri [Bottas] into Formula One, so we will follow George’s progress with great interest.”

‘Next year’ is now a quest for Pagenaud to defend IndyCar title

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Throughout his IndyCar career, Simon Pagenaud was the quintessential example of a driver who would give it all, but at season’s end would invariably fall short, likely saying to himself, “Wait until next year, we’ll get ‘em then.”

Well, Pagenaud can’t say that anymore. As the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, the French native is now in an all-new position in the open-wheel series: that of the hunted rather than the hunter.

But that’s fine with Pagenaud. He firmly believes there’s still a lot more to draw upon after last season’s career year.

“There’s still a lot to iron,” he said at Wednesday’s Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s only our second year together (with Team Penske), so we still have a lot to improve, so that’s what’s exciting for 2017.

“I think it’s about being disciplined. It’s easy to relax after you’ve won one time, but it’s about being disciplined. Myself, it’s to reflect on ’16 and see how I can improve myself physically, mentally, all the aspects of driving, the craft basically. I can definitely improve on a lot of those things.”

Which is not good news for his opponents.

Pagenaud roared through last season, capturing single-season career-highs in wins (five), podiums (eight) and poles (eight) in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.

By comparison, coming into 2016, Pagenaud had earned just four total wins, 12 podiums and two poles in his 85 combined Champ Car and IndyCar starts.

Now, after nearly doubling most of those totals in just one 16-race season, Pagenaud can’t wait to get started on this season’s 17-race campaign – and potentially a second consecutive championship.

One of the biggest keys will be not to become complacent.

“One of the big things for us having won is not to rest on our laurels and keep going, keep pushing to get more,” Pagenaud said. “So being hungry is going to be very important for everybody, not just me but the whole team. … But we can do better.”

While it’s hard to say Pagenaud had any marked weaknesses after the season he just had, he admits he needs personal improvement on ovals.

“I think it’s mostly focusing on the oval for 2017 and trying to raise the level there,” Pagenaud said.

Now that he’s won his first IndyCar championship, the next big goal on Pagenaud’s agenda is to win the Indianapolis 500.

In five starts to date in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, success has been mixed for Pagenaud. His best finish was eighth in 2013 for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. His second-best finish – 10th — came in 2015, his first season for Team Penske, and that was one where he had a car to contend.

Ironically, even with the overall stellar season he had in 2016, his finish at Indianapolis left Pagenaud with a bad taste in his mouth. A mechanical issue relegated him to a 19th place finish, his worst finish ever at the legendary 2.5-mile Brickyard.

Pagenaud knows that as good as his season was in 2016, he could just as easily have a bad campaign this coming season. But he’s ready for it all and however it turns out.

“It’s a job — it’s endless, this job,” he said. “There’s no limit to improving. … You can always improve. It’s just you being curious about it and trying to find more ways.”

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Franchitti: ‘Exceptional’ Dixon deserves more credit, draws comparison to Alonso

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, walks on pit road during Star-Telegram Qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti believes that Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon deserves more credit for what he has achieved through his racing career.

Franchitti, who still works with Ganassi in an advisory role, and Dixon raced together as teammates between 2009 and 2013. They shared four of the five IndyCar titles up for grabs through that period, their dominance only broken by Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012.

Dixon finished in the top three of the drivers’ standings for nine straight years from 2007 to 2015, with his run to sixth in the 2016 championship being his lowest finish since 2005. The New Zealander has four titles to his name, the most recent coming in 2015.

As well as enjoying enormous success in IndyCar, Dixon has won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice overall and also raced at Le Mans last year in Ganassi’s new Ford GT program, finishing third in class and setting fastest race lap in the GT Le Mans class.

“I think Scott deserves more credit,” Franchitti told NBC Sports at Autosport International last week.

“He’s bloody impressive in what he’s able to do in an IndyCar and what he’s able to do in any car. He went to Le Mans last year and I believe he was the quickest guy in that particular car.

“He just goes about it with such a low-key approach. He’s not a ‘song and dance merchant’ like Helio [Castroneves] for instance. You can’t deny what he’s done.”

Franchitti ranked Dixon as one of his most capable teammates from his time in racing, praising his ability to make the most of a sub-standard car.

“Having been his teammate I know how bloody good he is and how hard he is to beat,” Franchitti said.

“I would say of all the teammates I’ve had, he’s the one who can make the most out of an average car. Part of my job with working with the Ganassi team is helping him to push him to make the car perfect.

“That was always my side of the desk when we were teammates, I was pushing to make the car absolutely perfect. He taught me that sometimes you’ve just got to hang onto it. I taught him that you’ve got to make the car absolutely as spot on as it can be.

“I still do that with him now more so because that’s my job. I love it when I can help him out a bit. He’s an exceptional, exceptional driver.”

Franchitti compared Dixon to two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso, who has also carved a reputation for enjoying remarkable success with an off-the-pace car throughout his career.

“He’s also got that thing with Alonso of never giving up. Every lap he’s relentless and Scott’s that way,” Franchitti said.

“I’ve been on the losing side of that! He just keeps going.

“Another interesting thing about Scott: obviously he’s been very successful and won a lot of championships and made a very good living, and has a very lovely family. But his enthusiasm and his passion for it and his commitment hasn’t dulled at all.

“I spoke to him [a couple] days ago, had a quick chat. He’d dropped the girls off at school, and he’s straight to the gym, every morning. Boom boom.

“He gets in that car and he’s still hungry, he still wants to do the job, he still wants to be the best. It’s pretty impressive.”

Jean Argetsinger, pillar of U.S. road racing, dies at 97

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 08:  (EDITOR'S NOTE: Image was processed using digital filters.)  A general view of the track prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2015 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) Jean Argetsinger, the matriarch of early American road racing and a leader in the creation of the International Motor Racing Research Center, has died at 97.

Argetsinger died Monday of natural causes at her home in Burdett, New York, according to Glenda Gephart, director of administration and communications for the research center in Watkins Glen. Argetsinger was predeceased by her husband, Cameron, in 2008.

The Argetsingers are credited with the rebirth of road racing in the United States after World War II. In establishing Watkins Glen as one of the most important racing venues in the world, Jean Argetsinger was at the forefront in hospitality, publicity and community involvement. She was a founder of the IMRRC, an archival and research library that’s dedicated to the preservation and sharing of the history of motorsports, all venues and all series worldwide. She served on the IMRRC governing council since the center opened in 1999.

“It was Jean’s vision, quiet determination and relentless pursuit that made it all a reality,” John Saunders, president of International Speedway Corp., said Wednesday. “While her spirit lives on, I truly will miss the first lady of American road racing.”

In the first years of racing in Watkins Glen, Argetsinger was at the side of her husband, welcoming drivers from around the world to parties at her house and putting together race event programs. In 1958, she established the Paddock Club, now known as the Glen Club, as “a civilized retreat for drivers’ wives and visiting celebrities.”

“I never thought racing would be my life. I don’t know much about cars, but I do know about the people who drive them,” Argetsinger said in 1999 when introducing a film documentary about the history of Watkins Glen racing. “When Cameron presented the idea of a road race to SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) at a cocktail party in Indianapolis, a distinguished member of the group put a fatherly arm around my shoulder and said, `Don’t do it. You’ll work hard, and nobody will come.’ ”

The Argetsingers were honored in 2009 with a Watkins Glen International Legend of the Glen Award.

“Jean will be missed by the entire racing industry, as the matriarch of racing at Watkins Glen and for her support of the racing community as a whole,” Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup said. “What Jean and Cameron accomplished in our small town will always be relished.”

Argetsinger, who raised nine children, was a founder of the League of Women Voters of Schuyler County and the Burdett Players theatrical group. She also was an 11-year member of the Watkins Glen Central School District board and led the Watkins Glen Public Library board for 24 years.

The New York State Legislature named Argetsinger a Woman of Distinction in 1999, the first class of honorees. She also was a columnist for The Watkins Review, a local weekly newspaper, and wrote a history of St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church as well as several books on county history.

A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church in Watkins Glen.