MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Belgian GP

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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.

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”

F1 Strategy Group meeting reveals shark fin, ‘Shield’ plans for 2018

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Tuesday’s meeting of the F1 Strategy Group and F1 Commission in Paris took a couple big steps towards forward in the look of Formula 1 cars for 2018, as the cockpit “Shield” and shark fin/T-wings were among the items discussed.

This meeting included CEO of Formula One Group Chase Casey for the first time, along with FIA President Jean Todt and the key other stakeholders in the meeting.

The “Shield” concept for additional frontal protection moves up in the priority list. Per the FIA’s release, the plan is to go ahead with additional track testing this year before a 2018 implementation:

“A number of more integrated solutions for additional frontal protection have been studied, and the decision has been taken to give priority to the transparent ‘shield’ family of systems. The FIA aims to carry out track tests of this system during this season in preparation for implementation in 2018,” the release said.

The ‘Halo’ and aeroscreen ideas were trialled last year (see below):

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP sits in his car fitted with the halo in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA – APRIL 29: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Meanwhile the shark fins and T-wings, which have come back to the cars this year over the engine cover, are set to be restricted to a box next year. The structural rigidity of those from some teams have come under scrutiny this year.

“Changes in the regulation boxes around the engine cover have been made so that designs incorporating the ‘t-wing’ and ‘shark fin’ will be strictly limited,” the release said.

Three other sporting and technical changes were released:

  • Measures will be taken to ensure that oil will not be used as fuel. In addition, only one specification of oil may be used for any given power unit during an event
  • Pirelli will be allowed to develop 2018 wet weather tyre compounds using previous specifications of cars and wheel dimensions
  • In the event of a red flag period during a race, the race will be resumed from a standing start

In two other bits, from the Spanish Grand Prix on May 14, the sporting regulations will be strictly enforced to ensure drivers’ car numbers and surnames will be made bigger and more visible. Although permanent numbers have come into play starting in 2014, where a driver picks one number for the entirety of his or her career, none has really been that big on an F1 base chassis.

Lastly, per the release “Representatives from the non-member teams will now be invited to meetings of the F1 Strategy Group to have access to the discussions, demonstrating the effective commitment of both the FIA and the Commercial Rights Holder to improve transparency in the sport.”