MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Belgian GP

2 Comments

After a four-week break, Formula 1 returns for the second half of the 2014 season with the Belgian Grand Prix. The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is the perfect location to herald the end of the summer break and the start of the run-in, given that it is perhaps the most notorious and famous track on the calendar. Throw in weather that won’t make up its mind, 22 drivers, 22 cars and droves of passionate fans, and it is easy to see why this race is one of the best of the year.

For the MotorSportsTalk writing team, this is one of the most difficult grands prix to predict. After the summer break, we usually see a slight shift in the pecking order that sets the tone for the rest of the season – this is where Sebastian Vettel started his winning streak in 2013 – and this year may be no different.

Williams is certainly snapping at Mercedes’ heels, and with the likes of Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Force India all in the hunt for the podium positions, the fight will be wide open when F1 descends on the Ardennes forest this weekend.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton. At the behemoth that is Spa, you cannot leave anything in the motorhome: tackling this circuit requires serious gall and skill. It’ll be another tight battle, but I’m going to have to side with Lewis for this weekend’s race.

Surprising finish: Felipe Massa. Dear old Felipe hasn’t had much luck this season, but that could change at Spa this weekend. I’m backing him to secure his first podium finish in Williams colors on Sunday.

Most to prove: Andre Lotterer. Well this is someone I never expected to be picking. Andre Lotterer must prove to F1 just why he is doing this. If he gets outclassed by Marcus Ericsson, it wouldn’t be great for justifying the decision to take part in a one off race. However, I do expect him to live up to the hype suitably.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Valtteri Bottas. I’m going bold. Or I’m just bored of picking Mercedes drivers. Post the summer break and with Williams making all the noise saying they can snatch a win either here or Monza, I’ll say Valtteri follows through on all his promise this season and makes his first trip to the top step of the podium.

Surprising finish: Romain Grosjean. At the track where he made headlines for all the wrong reasons two years ago, perhaps Lotus’ upgrades can turn both his and the team’s fortunes around. A good weekend here could kick their second half of 2014 off on the right foot.

Most to prove: Jean-Eric Vergne. Poor “JEV” has been plagued with mechanical unreliability more often than not and now has the misfortune of being kicked out of Toro Rosso for young Max Verstappen in 2015. Spa’s renowned as one of the great driver tracks left on the F1 calendar, and a strong showing from Vergne in his first race of his final eight at STR will show the paddock his worth. That’s the hope, anyway.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton. Another coin-flip race between the Mercedes pilots, who should be quite stout at the high-speed Spa. Nico Rosberg’s never hit the podium at Spa, but that should change. Still, I’ll go with Hamilton, who won this race in 2010 with McLaren.

Surprising finish: Sergio Perez. Hungary finally saw Force India go scoreless for the first time in 2014, but their Merc-powered machines should do well this weekend. Seems like a good time for Perez to finally earn his first career points in the Ardennes (DNFs in 2011 and 2012, 11th with McLaren last year).

Most to prove: Jean-Eric Vergne. The final eight races of the year are now the most important of the Frenchman’s racing career after Scuderia Toro Rosso gave his race seat for 2015 to teenager Max Verstappen. His quest to show the F1 paddock that he deserves a spot on next year’s grid has begun.

Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski)

Race winner: Nico Rosberg. It’s time for Nico to put some distance between himself and hard-closing Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. Just 11 points separate the two. Rosberg and Hamilton have little to worry about in terms of other challengers: Third-ranked Daniel Ricciardo is a distant 71 points behind Rosberg and 60 points in arrears to Hamilton.

Surprising finish: Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has to prove he’s still relevant. Sure, he’s fourth in the F1 standings, but he’s so far behind in points that he is somewhat of a forgotten man. A podium finish at the very least, if not a win, would help prove Alonso is still a top talent.

Most to prove: Andre Lotterer. The three-time Le Mans winner makes his Formula One debut at Spa. He has a lot to show and to prove, but he also has immense talent. While we don’t expect Lotterer to win or even come close to winning Sunday, he’ll be hoping to run as close to the top ten as possible. If he can do that, it would be a significant achievement.

Ferrari has burning ambition to win 1st Monaco GP since 2001

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MONACO (AP) Having closed the gap to dominant Mercedes in an incredibly close-fought Formula One season, Ferrari has another burning ambition: Winning the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Italian manufacturer’s barren spell in Monaco dates to Michael Schumacher’s win in 2001, and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel is determined to put that right.

“I would say it is about time that Ferrari wins again here,” said Vettel, who has 44 career wins.

“If you could have the freedom to choose any race on the calendar that you would want to win, it would without doubt be Monaco. Ask up and down the paddock and you would get the same answer.”

Schumacher, who won a record seven world titles and 91 races, also won at Monaco driving for Ferrari in 1997 and ’99.

Vettel’s Monaco win was in 2011, when driving for Red Bull. He was fourth here for Ferrari last year while teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not finish the race. In 2015, the year he joined Ferrari, Vettel was second and Raikkonen was sixth.

Ferrari has stepped up the pace this year and, with increased reliability, is matching Mercedes, which has won the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

After five races, Vettel leads the championship by six points from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton; while Mercedes is eight ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race.

But Ferrari may be a bit quicker than Mercedes this year, and the increased pressure has forced some uncharacteristic errors.

During the second practice on Thursday, Mercedes made a sloppy mistake when misjudging a tire switch onto the quicker ultra-soft compound. That allowed Ferrari to top the charts in P2, with Vettel fastest and Raikkonen third.

“It is important to start from the front of the grid, here more than anywhere else,” Vettel said. “I am not counting out Mercedes. I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday (for qualifying).”

Ferrari’s vastly improved reliability suits Vettel perfectly. The German driver is remarkably consistent if the car allows him to be – like it was when he won four straight titles with Red Bull. But he is also quickly irritated when the car lets him down, as it often did last year.

There have been no Vettel tirades over the race radio. He has placed in the top two in all five races, winning in Australia and Bahrain.

“The single-lap pace is very promising,” Vettel said. “The aim is to get faster.”

Vettel’s confidence has definitely returned, along with some of his old panache.

At the Spanish GP two weeks ago, he was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and could not find a way past. So he tried a move from his karting days; a dummy move from right to left and then swiftly back right again to pass Bottas on the inside.

It is highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that on Sunday, given that the narrow and sinewy Monaco street circuit is arguably the hardest track in F1 to overtake on. Drivers are often brushing the barriers anyway, and this year’s wider cars make that an even more perilous possibility.

“Here you are not entirely the master of your own fate, as many things can happen in a long race,” said Vettel, who has twice been forced to retire during the Monaco GP. “Let’s keep the fingers crossed.”

Esteban Ocon making a name for himself as a rising F1 star

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MONACO (AP) Esteban Ocon is described by one member of his Force India team as a “sponge” because of his capacity to absorb information.

The 20-year-old Frenchman is one of the rising stars of Formula One. Although he has not made the same impact as 19-year-old Max Verstappen – a once-in-a-generation driver – Ocon is making a name for himself with his consistency and some audacious overtaking.

He has scored points in all five races so far, placing a career-best fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago. Prior to that he was seventh in Russia, and overall he sits in eighth place, one spot behind Force India teammate Sergio Perez.

That would be good enough for most drivers early in their careers, but Ocon is in a hurry.

“It is my personal target to get a podium and I want to have it as soon as possible,” Ocon said prior to this weekend’s Monaco GP. “It makes me confident to have a great start like this, progressing all the time, fitting very well into the team. I think we can achieve great things.”

Ocon broke into F1 last year, making his debut for the now defunct Manor team a month before his 20th birthday at the Belgian GP in late August. He has only competed in 14 career races but has managed to make an impression several times.

None more so than at the season-opening Australian GP, where he overtook Fernando Alonso with a passing move down the right that the two-time F1 champion himself would have been proud of. The timing of the attack, where he patiently prodded behind Alonso before swooping around him in a flash, bore the hallmarks of a future great.

“I loved the move against Fernando,” said Ocon, the youngest French driver to score points in F1. “That was pretty solid.”

After getting past Alonso, he then held him off while also repelling an attack from the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. That was only his 10th F1 race, yet he defied two drivers with 400 between them.

Verstappen, the youngest F1 driver to win a race when he clinched the Spanish GP last year, has a similar instinct for overtaking and also possesses the acute concentration and calmness required to properly defend a position under extreme pressure.

That Ocon beat Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title in 2014 – winning it with a round to spare and earning himself a spot on the prestigious Mercedes F1 junior program – hints at untapped potential.

“He’s quick. He proved that in junior categories,” said Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate. “You know Esteban got that (F3 title), so he’s obviously talented.”

Moreover, Ocon is incredibly committed to understanding the intricacies of the Force India car, which runs on Mercedes engines.

“I don’t believe too much in the concept of luck. Behind results there is always hard work,” Ocon said. “I always go to the factory between the races to have intense debriefs with my engineers and do simulator work, for hours and hours.”

His propensity for learning astounds senior team members.

“He’s like a sponge and he just absorbs information as fast as you can give it to him. His want and his desire are unquestionable,” said Andrew Green, the team’s technical director. “He absolutely wants this and he has the talent to do great things, but he is going about it the right way. I have no doubts that he is going to get to where he wants to be in a few years’ time.”

Green further describes Ocon’s intuitive understanding of how far he can push the car.

“I watched him for quite a long time in the simulator last week, pounding around the (Monaco circuit), and his car control was incredible,” Green said. “He’s an amazing talent. Can he get a podium? Well, we need to give him the car to do that. But he has an uncanny ability to finish races.”

Button gets 15-place grid penalty in Monaco after power unit issue

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jenson Button looks set to start his one-off Formula 1 appearance in 2017 from the back of the grid after being handed a 15-place penalty for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Button stepped away from racing full-time in F1 at the end of last year, only to be drafted back in by McLaren for Monaco following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Button has impressed throughout practice, ending FP3 12th-fastest despite not having driven the McLaren-Honda MCL32 before Thursday.

However, the 2009 world champion’s weekend has now taken a hit after it was confirmed on Saturday morning that he would serve a 15-place grid drop for changes to his power unit after practice.

“We have changed Jenson’s MGU-H/TC after detecting an issue with his MGU-H after FP2,” Honda said.

“The MGU-H/TC will be Jenson’s fifth, which means he will receive 15 place grid penalty for the race.”

Button’s teammate for the weekend, Stoffel Vandoorne, is also due to take a grid drop of three places as a sanction for his clash with Felipe Massa in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Vettel lays down ominous pace in final Monaco F1 practice

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sebastian Vettel appears to be the strong favorite for Formula 1 pole position for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix after dominating final practice for Ferrari on Saturday morning.

Vettel set an unofficial lap record through FP2 on Thursday afternoon, but was able to gain even more time through FP3 for Ferrari as he shaved another three-tenths of a second off his best lap.

The four-time F1 champion ended FP3 with a fastest time of 1:12.395, giving him P1 by three-tenths of a second ahead of Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Mercedes vowed to bounce back on Saturday after going in the wrong direction with setup in FP2, but struggled to make any serious impression at the top of the timesheets. Valtteri Bottas was third, while teammate Lewis Hamilton finished eight-tenths of a second off Vettel in fifth place.

Red Bull put itself in the fight for the front two rows of the grid as Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and sixth respectively, while B-team Toro Rosso got both of its cars into the top 10. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished seventh ahead of Daniil Kvyat in P8.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Red Bull, though, with Ricciardo suffering a brake-by-wire failure at the very end of the session, forcing the Australian to abandon his car at Sainte Devote.

Kevin Magnussen took ninth place for Haas ahead of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, with Jenson Button taking 12th in the second MCL32 car. Button will be subject to a 15-place grid drop, though, following an engine change since Thursday.

Force India’s Esteban Ocon became the second driver of the weekend to suffer a crash, shunting his VJM10 car into the barrier at the exit of Swimming Pool after clipping the barrier and breaking the steering arm, leaving the team with plenty of repairs to complete in time for qualifying.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.