F1 Grand Prix of Belgium - Practice

Spa provides a poignant reminder that F1 must remember its roots

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At last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix, the FIA confirmed that Formula 1 would be returning to Mexico in 2015 for the first grand prix to be held at the Autodromo Hermonos Rodriguez since 1992.

The news was received very well indeed: it is a classic circuit; there are two Mexican drivers on the grid; there is a huge fanbase hungry for Formula 1. It has all of the requirements to not only host a grand prix, but be a successful event.

On the same day, Bernie Ecclestone confirmed that F1 would also be heading to Azerbaijan for the Grand Prix of Europe, set to take place in 2016. The former Soviet state has little motorsport heritage; the track will be a street circuit constructed around the nation’s capital, Baku.

The two events provide a perfect juxtaposition for the future direction of Formula 1: the old and the new. However, as we head to Spa-Francorchamps this weekend for the Belgian Grand Prix, we are reminded about the rich history of this glorious sport, and how we must keep it alive.

F1 going to Azerbaijan is not a bad thing. Races in nations that would not immediately spring to mind for F1 have been successful: Singapore, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi etc. Of course, there have been failures (Korea, India) but F1’s global outlook is a good thing. It has been Bernie’s perfect formula since the 1980s that has made the sport so big.

However, we sometimes get a bit nostalgic on weekends such as this. When you drive into Spa, the first corner you see is Eau Rouge. No other corner is as recognizable or famous in Formula 1, but of course, the argument is: “Well it’s not what it used to be!”. And indeed, it is not – but it might just get close to its glory days this year with the new cars. Eau Rouge will no longer be a flat corner (apparently this is easy). Of course, you’ve got Blanchimont and Pouhons and La Source and… the list goes on. It is an awesome circuit.

It is a track that has hosted many a classic grand prix over the years. At its most fearsome, the circuit was some 14km long, seeing drivers such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Juan Manuel Fangio dart through the Belgian countryside at terrifying speeds. Much like the old Nordschleife circuit in Germany, it had to be changed to meet modern safety standards, but it does retain some of the old characteristics. It is still a favorite for all of the drivers on the grid.

Despite this, the Belgian Grand Prix is not secure on the calendar, nor has it been since the turn of the century. In 2003, the race was cancelled due to the nation’s stance on tobacco laws when cigarette advertising essentially funded the sport. The circuit owners were told to improve the facilities for the 2007 race, meaning that 2006 was also a Spa-less year. The new facilities and final sector are certainly improvements on what we had before, but when it comes to race fees, there are bigger fish to fry.

Take Monza. The track has been synonymous with Formula 1 and Ferrari since the first world championship race back in 1950, hosting all but one Italian Grand Prix in that time. However, the sport has said that a move away could be on the cards, perhaps in favor of a Rome street race or Mugello.

The most recent concerns about Monza arose when pictures revealed that the gravel at the famous Parabolica corner had been replaced by a tarmac run-off area. The F1 community cried out, bemoaning the fact that yet another classic corner had been neutered. However, as safety standards need to be improve, changes must be made, even if it does come at the cost of making a corner that extra bit more challenging.

So how relevant are Spa and Monza in the future of Formula 1? Will both races still be on the calendar in years to come?

Quite simply, they really need to be. Whilst the sport’s global expansion and outlook has been generally positive, we must hold on to some of the most famous and historic races. F1 must remember its roots.

It’s for this reason that Spa-Francorchamps is such a favorite on the calendar. The entire F1 community is excited for the sport’s return after the summer break, but at the same point, it is excited for Spa. If the Bahrain Grand Prix was the first race back after the summer break, it’s unlikely that this weekend’s race would be so hotly anticipated.

Driving into the circuit this morning with some colleagues, it was clear that the tiny town surrounding the circuit does love F1. The banners are up, the appropriately-named Pit Lane Cafe is open, the smell of Belgian waffles is in the air…

And through the mist, you see Eau Rouge. The fearsome kink peeks through the trees; there in plain sight is the reason why this circuit is adored by the sport’s following.

As impressive as the Abu Dhabis and the Singapores of Formula 1 are, there’s nothing quite like the Spa and Monza double-header to bring us back down to earth and remind us of where we came from. The sport may be focusing on moving forwards and continuing to expand, but at the same time, it must keep the classics alive.

Following Spa and Monza, just two of the tracks left on the calendar this season – Suzuka and Interlagos – are ‘classics’. The others are all new-builds, typified by lots and lots of corners, long straights and hard stops. They are impressive, but lack the charm that only a circuit with history can boast.

Spa or Abu Dhabi? As grossly impressive as the latter is, I think I speak on behalf of the entire F1 community by saying that I would take Spa any day of the week. Long may it be a part of the F1 circus – it is a favorite act for many.

Rosberg leads as Ricciardo debuts new Aeroscreen in Russia FP1

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Like in preseason testing, Mercedes AMG Petronas topped the timesheets in first practice for the Russian Grand Prix but the story of the session was elsewhere as one of the new cockpit enhanced devices made its debut at the start of practice.

Nico Rosberg was fastest in the W07 at 1:38.127 on Pirelli’s supersoft compound, while Daniel Ricciardo introduced Red Bull Racing’s new Aeroscreen to the world for an installation lap.

The device was installed on Thursday and Ricciardo rolled out with it to start practice. Following an installation lap it was back to removing the device and running in standard configuration. The Aeroscreen is one of two cockpit enhancement devices to have made its debut this year, Kimi Raikkonen having rolled out the “Halo” concept at Barcelona for preseason testing.

Alas in practice, several drivers spun on the low-grip Sochi Autodrom circuit – Lewis Hamilton at Turn 2, Jenson Button at Turn 15 and Sebastian Vettel at the same corner shortly thereafter, and local hero Danill Kvyat later in the session at Turn 17. Jolyon Palmer also had a spin at Turn 17 just after the checkered flag.

Further down the grid Manor Racing had a difficult start to the session with a floor change on Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis and an unspecified technical issue for teammate Rio Haryanto. Both made it out for some laps later in the session.

Rosberg topped Hamilton by 0.722 of a second with Vettel third, Raikkonen fourth and Felipe Massa fifth. Ricciardo was sixth in his usual car configuration.

Two drivers stepped in for race drivers this session, with Russian Sergey Sirotkin ending a respectable 13th in his debut with the team in FP1.

That being said, his number choice of 46 inspired Kevin Magnussen, who was sidelined for the session, to throw a bit of shade on Sirotkin after getting the Romain Grosjean treatment in sitting out.

Alfonso Celis Jr. also ran for Sahara Force India in place of Nico Hulkenberg and propped up the timesheets, 5.305 seconds off Rosberg and a full 3.1 seconds and change behind teammate Sergio Perez in ninth.

Times are below. You can see FP2 live on NBCSN from 7 a.m. ET, and also via live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra.

Ricciardo debuts Aeroscreen in FP1 in Russia (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo has rolled out with the team’s new Aeroscreen, the windshield cockpit device making its formal debut during FP1 for the Russian Grand Prix.

The Australian started the session with the device, ran an installation lap and then brought it in the pits. Once under normal chassis conditions, he ended sixth.

The device is one of a couple being tested in preparation for possible 2017 enhanced cockpit protection, which go along with the regulations, to see the driver cockpit area continue to be improved for safety purposes.

Quick photos of Ricciardo’s rollout are below, along with a couple videos released by Red Bull of the Aeroscreen being tested:

More to follow later today.

Hawksworth’s team’s labor hasn’t yet borne fruit of better results

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What do Jack Hawksworth and Allen Iverson have in common?

Practice, man.

“The Answer’s” famous – or perhaps infamous – “We talkin’ ‘bout practice, man” riff a number of years ago remains the go-to line whenever practice comes up in conversation.

It’s practice where the seeds of success are sown for a team when it comes to game day.

And for Hawksworth and the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda team, it’s been practice where the team has starred in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.

But thus far, following practice, it’s been a case where the rest of the weekend has gone downhill for a variety of small but niggling reasons.

“If it was based off practice one I’d be leading the points!” Hawksworth told NBC Sports Thursday, and the thing is, he’s not joking.

In the three road or street course races this season, Hawksworth has ended second (St. Petersburg), third (Long Beach) and second (Barber) in first practice.

He’s followed it up with fellow top-10 runs in second practice of eighth, ninth and second again, respectively.

But come qualifying, it’s gone awry.

Starts of ninth, 20th and 14th have followed and in the races, it’s gone even worse with results lower than his grid spot: 11th, 21st and 19th. Toss out the Phoenix oval, because that was a nightmare weekend for him.

If ever there was a case where stats are misleading, it’s here, because Hawksworth and the team are clearly better than what they’ve been able to produce results-wise this year, and also far more gelled as a unit now compared to where they were 12 months ago as a new collective group.

“Our team is full of good people; we really believe in the 41 garage,” he said. “We did a lot of hard work over the winter. We haven’t seen the fruits of it yet.

“It looks like we’re a long way away, but we’re incredibly close. It’s a few small details, little tweaks and we’ll be at the front. It’s imminent. We’ve not shown it yet but we know it’s coming.”

The big change occurred this weekend was seeing Daniele Cucchiaroni promoted to lead race engineer on the No. 41 car, replacing the departed Dan Hobbs.

Hawksworth and Cucchiaroni worked together at Bryan Herta Autosport in 2014 and he joined the Foyt team last year with Takuma Sato’s effort. Hawksworth called him one of the brightest minds in the paddock.

He said it’s not the operating window of the Honda aero kit that the team has missed, but it has just missed getting the setup right for the qualifying and the race, where mere thousandths of a second make a difference.

“The cars are sensitive to track temperature… the conditions… it’s easy to get outside the window, but our problem hasn’t been balance or anything,” he said.

“You’re completely right in that we’ve had very quick cars at times. We haven’t understood the (Firestone) reds yet. Really, it’s just executing the qualifying and the race, with having a quick car and right car. It sounds crazy, but it’s worked out that way.

“There’s many reasons for that. We’re narrowing them down for the next couple races. It’s just small but vital things that have tripped us up. It’s been frustrating. Different at each race as well.”

Hawksworth also said he was doing everything possible to get out of the way at Barber when leaders Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud were trying to overtake him in the final stages.

“What happened there was a funny deal. To be honest, with the day we were having, the last thing I want to do is get in the way of leaders,” he said.

“I really don’t care who wins if it’s not me. But for courtesy, you don’t want to wreck the leaders.

“So I ducked out of Turn 5 to go to the left, that was the only place I could go. I saw Graham and Simon were side-by-side. If I’d have gone to the outside or stayed in the middle I’d have caused a crash. The only place to go was the inside. Rahal tried to get a tow off of me but he misjudged it and clipped my rear pods. That’s just racing.”

Hawksworth’s race was compromised to begin with when Mikhail Aleshin on the start clipped him, after Carlos Munoz clipped Aleshin. All three had to restart at the back of the field.

“The problem is mate, when you qualify (poorly), you’re in the middle of the pack. So we were on the bad side of the 26 and the 7, then you go to the back and toss around all day… much the story of our season.

“I spoke to Brian (Barnhart, Race Director) about it. The rule is, if you don’t reclaim your position by start of the pace lap, you automatically start at the back. With me being at the back, but going onto the grass to avoid running into the side of Aleshin, they deemed that the pace lap. It was a rules thing.”

Hawksworth said he’d like to see the gray areas of the rulebook examined for future use to try to remove warnings and unclear calls as best as possible.

“I’d beat on the drum of making it as black and white as possible. If you cross a line, you cross a line. We need to simplify the rules as much as we can to where things are a straightforward decision. There still seems to be a bit of the gray area.

“Still, it’s up to the series. It’d be easier for them too (to go black and white).”

Heading into May, Hawksworth sits 20th in points (50 points) while Takuma Sato is 40 points ahead, but in ninth.

Hawksworth’s season to date:

	FP1	FP2	FP3	QUAL	WU	RACE
STP	2	8	2	9	21	11
PHX	22	21	-	17	-	19
LB	3	9	11	20	17	21
BAR	2	2	11	14	8	19

Hakkinen sure Rosberg is ready to become F1 world champion

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win with his team during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2016 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Two-time Formula 1 world champion Mika Hakkinen believes that current series leader Nico Rosberg is now ready to follow in his footsteps and win his first title in 2016.

Rosberg has finished second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the past two seasons, taking the championship to the final round in 2014.

Having won the last six grands prix, Rosberg is in the form of his career and is the early leader in the 2016 championship, enjoying a 36-point advantage over Hamilton after three races.

Rosberg has cooled talk of the championship with 18 races still to go in the season, but Hakkinen now believes the German is ready to win his first world title.

“I remember how he walked around as a four or five-year-old with a small helmet in his hand,” Hakkinen told Spox.

“When I see him now, I’m very proud of him. He has developed fantastically. He has became a man and a father with the responsibility of a family.

“What many people underestimate [is that] the path to being world class is incredibly long, arduous and painful. The emphasis is on pain. Since it does not matter if your own father himself was world champion or not.

“Although he has his friends and family on the side, at the end you are still alone, with an immense burden, especially mentally, to cope.

“The physique and talent were always there. Now he has the goal clearly in mind and says with conviction: ‘Yes, I want to become world champion!’ He has risen to the challenge.

“Therefore my answer is yes, he is ready for the world title.”