F1 Grand Prix of Belgium - Practice

Spa provides a poignant reminder that F1 must remember its roots

4 Comments

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.

5 wins in 9 years: Will history again be on Scott Dixon’s side at Mid-Ohio?

Indianapolis 500
(Getty Images)
Leave a comment

If history is any indicator, Scott Dixon will end up in the winner’s circle following Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

The New Zealand native and defending Verizon IndyCar Series has an incredible streak going at the 2.258-mile road course in Lexington, Ohio.

In his last nine IndyCar starts there, Dixon has won five times and finished third yet another time, leaving him with an average finish of an amazing 2.7, best of any active IndyCar driver.

In addition, he has two poles, an average starting position of 5.7 and has finished all 780 laps contested.

But here’s an interesting twist:

In his first five races at Mid-Ohio under the IndyCar banner (he finished 12th and 5th in his two Champ Car races there previously), Dixon won every other year. In other words, Dixon had three wins in five years (2007, 2009, 2011).

Then he began another streak in 2012, having won every other race from that point (2012, 2014). So, if you go by history, Dixon – who finished fourth in last year’s race – is due to win yet again, making it three of the last five just like the previous streak.

Needless to say, Dixon is looking forward to Sunday’s race and potentially closing the gap on points leader Simon Pagenaud. Dixon comes into the race fourth in the standings, 83 points behind the Team Penske driver.

There’s the additional motivation, now, of wanting to win for Target – as it begins its final five races on Dixon’s car.

“I have a soft spot for Mid-Ohio, to be honest,” Dixon said. “I think we have five victories there over the years and 10 or so with the team in total.

“It’s a place that we always feel that all four of our teams will have a shot at winning, and there aren’t many tracks out there where your confidence level is that high as a team. It’s a track that really feels like home to me.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

F1 Preview: 2016 German Grand Prix

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 20:  A general view of the track and stands during the German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring on July 20, 2014 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

After two years away, Formula 1 returns to Hockenheim this weekend for the German Grand Prix with the title race finely poised between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Hamilton took the lead of the drivers’ championship for the first time in Hungary last weekend, chalking up a fifth victory in six races with a controlled display.

The tables have turned since the Spanish Grand Prix in May where Rosberg led by 43 points, leaving him under pressure to reduce the six-point deficit on home soil this weekend.

As the final race before the summer break, this weekend is set to be a pivotal one in not just the title race, but also in the battles further down the grid.

Here’s our full preview of the German Grand Prix.

2016 German Grand Prix – Talking Points

Back to Germany

Germany holds an important place in F1’s past and present. Michael Schumacher helped foster a generation of racing fans in the 1990s and early 2000s, while we currently have a German team, Mercedes, ruling the sport with a German driver, Rosberg, behind the wheel.

The loss of the German Grand Prix last year was a great disappointment to all in F1. Hockenheim may be a shadow of its former self, yet the return of a grand prix to the track is something most are pleased by. Germany is a crucial market for the sport – even if ticket numbers in 2014 left much to be desired.

The Nürburgring told NBC Sports earlier this week that hosting the German Grand Prix must be “economically justifiable”. Last year it wasn’t. Will it be in 2017? Or will this be the last race in Germany until 2018 at the earliest?

Hamilton looks to keep his run going

After being down in the dumps on Saturday in Monaco and with penalties looming, Lewis Hamilton could not have imagined such a turnaround in fortunes before the summer break.

Hamilton seized the lead of the championship in Hungary last weekend, and now has the chance to extend his lead to 13 points with victory at Hockenheim.

Two years ago, Hamilton fought from the back of the grid to finish third after a crash in qualifying in a display that did much to keep his title hopes alive. At Rosberg’s home race, he could deal another killer blow in the battle for the 2016 crown.

Rosberg über alles?

Two years ago, Nico Rosberg capped off a memorable couple of weeks by winning his home grand prix for the very first time. Germany had just won the FIFA World Cup, he’d just got married and signed a new Mercedes contract.

Fast forward two years, and Rosberg remains at F1’s top table. Although he may trail Hamilton by six points, he once again has a new Mercedes deal in his pocket, and will fancy his chances of scoring a second home victory.

Momentum has been the name of the game in the title race this season. Rarely is it as important as when you’re on the cusp of the summer break.

Ferrari begins life after Allison, looks to revive fortunes

Ferrari arrives in Germany this weekend fresh from announcing that technical director James Allison has left the team after three years.

While the split was mutual and amicable, Ferrari finds itself once again looking at the ruins of a disappointing season that could get even worse should Red Bull pass for second place in the constructors’ championship.

Sunday’s race will be Sebastian Vettel’s first on home soil in Ferrari colors, bringing back memories of Michael Schumacher’s successes at Hockenheim in front of a baying home crowd. Those in the grandstands hopeful of a Vettel win may need to cool expectations.

School’s out for summer!

It feels weird to be previewing the summer break on the German Grand Prix weekend given that Hungary is the usual host. Alas, there is still the same feeling that school is almost out for summer.

The teams will take full advantage of their enforced shut-down, getting some much-needed rest and recharge in ahead of the final run-in from Belgium to Abu Dhabi.

The only downside is that there is no racing for almost a month…

2016 German Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Hockenheim
Corners: 17
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:13.780 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
2014 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:16.540
2014 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:19.908
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T4 to T6

2016 German Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 4am ET 7/29
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 7/29
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 5am ET 7/30
Qualifying: NBCSN 8am ET 7/30
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 7/31

Hulkenberg confirms he’ll remain with Force India for 2017

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nico Hulkenberg has confirmed he will be racing for Force India in Formula 1 next year, extending his stint with the team into a fourth season.

Over the British Grand Prix weekend, Force India team owner Vijay Mallya stated he had signed both Hulkenberg and teammate Sergio Perez for next season.

Perez cast doubt on Mallya’s comments, remaining coy about his future and saying he would take some time over the summer break and talk with his sponsors before making a final decision.

Hulkenberg was asked about his future in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the German Grand Prix, in which he confirmed Mallya’s comments were accurate.

“Everything is easy and relaxed. There’s not much more to add,” Hulkenberg said.

“I think Vijay said what the situation is, and just focus on this year now. That’s the main focus really.”

When asked if he would be racing for Force India in 2017, Hulkenberg replied: “Yes.”

While half of Force India’s line-up for next season now looks firmed up, Perez’s future remains unclear.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, the Mexican confirmed it was possible that he would not be racing for Force India next year.

“It’s up to me and [my] group of sponsors on what to do,” Perez said.

“The decision is not only down to me, as I’m a very lucky driver to have so much support, and if we’re moving around teams we take the decision together with the group of sponsors I have. That decision has not been taken.

“I hope I can come back after the summer break knowing what the future holds for me, that would be ideal.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App this weekend.

PREVIEW: Honda Indy 200

16C_4909-1
Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

After the Verizon IndyCar Series’ trip north of the border to Canada a couple weeks ago for the Honda Indy Toronto, another Honda Indy follows this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, in the form of the Honda Indy 200 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, CNBC with re-air 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Traditionally the stomping ground of Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal scored a well-judged win there last year following a caution that shook up the order.

But all eyes will be on the Team Penske title tilt between Will Power and Simon Pagenaud at a track where, hard as this is to believe, neither has won in an IndyCar. And it’s also at a place where Team Penske hasn’t won since 2008 (Ryan Briscoe); instead, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams reeled off six wins in a row from 2009 to 2014 before Rahal’s victory last year.

Here’s some of the talking points going into the weekend:

2016 Honda Indy 200 – Talking Points

Power vs. Pagenaud, again

Simon Pagenaud’s points lead shrunk below 50 points leaving Toronto for the first time since Barber Motorsports Park more than three months ago – after Round 4 of the season, Pagenaud led Dixon by 48 points.

Here’s been his points gap to second, since:

  • Angie’s List GP: 76 points to Scott Dixon (242-166)
  • Indianapolis 500: 57 points to Dixon (292-235)
  • Detroit 1: 59 to Helio Castroneves (313-254)
  • Detroit 2: 80 to Dixon (357-277)
  • Road America: 74 to Castroneves (375-301)
  • Iowa: 73 to Josef Newgarden (409-336)
  • Toronto: 47 to Will Power (432-385)

Now, with five races remaining (four full races and the Texas resumption), Pagenaud’s lead is at 47 points over Will Power, who’s gained 90 points on Pagenaud in the last six completed races.

Power has the momentum but he’s yet to tick the Mid-Ohio win box. His best finish is second, twice, in 2010 and 2012.

Same story applies for Pagenaud, who has won at the track in other series (American Le Mans Series, 2009) but has three non-win podiums in five prior IndyCar starts.

Both drivers have three wins this year and if either gets to their fourth, it could put them in a potentially upper hand in the title fight.

Dixon’s last stand, now for Target?

After getting caught out by an ill-timed yellow in Toronto, renowned Mid-Ohio master Dixon – a five-time race winner – sits 83 points back of Pagenaud with just the five races to go. He’d have to gain an average of 16.6 points on Pagenaud over the final five races to overcome that gap, plus climb over not just the title leader but his two teammates, Power and Helio Castroneves, ahead of him.

It’s certainly not impossible and after his 40-plus point, one-race turnaround to steal last year’s title in Sonoma, he can’t be ruled out. But much the same as last year, when we wrote Dixon needed a big Mid-Ohio result (where he ultimately gained 14 points on Juan Pablo Montoya) to complete a title comeback, he’ll need an encore or close this year – especially following Wednesday’s news that this will be his last season driving a Target-sponsored car.

Rahal, and Honda, needing a rebound

A myriad of issues, many outside of Graham Rahal’s control, have left the defending Mid-Ohio race winner 11th in points heading into this weekend. It’s a bit of a misnomer because he and the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake RLL Racing Honda team have run better than that this year, but the results read like a roller coaster: 16, 5, 15, 2, 4, 14, 4, 11, 3, 16 and 13.

Rahal scored a famous win at his home race a year ago and will look for an encore this time around.

Meanwhile Honda has won only once this year, at the Indianapolis 500, and will be desperate to not let another win slip away at a race it sponsors. Barring a strategy play to help get them back in contention, it might be a tough weekend for them at their home race.

Montoya seeks to break results drought

Passion isn’t the question for Juan Pablo Montoya even though he’s gone through a rough patch results-wise at the moment, with three 20th place finishes in his last four starts.

Montoya’s generally done better at Mid-Ohio than at other permanent road courses since his IndyCar return. He probably could have won last year had he not been caught out on a yellow, ultimately falling to 11th, and at Road America he engaged in an epic scrap with Josef Newgarden for seventh.

“Mid-Ohio… we really qualified well there last year,” Montoya told NBC Sports. “I’m hoping… we qualify well there and we race well there again this year. If find some more things in the package, we can turn this run around.”

Enerson’s debut and others who need a standout run

A new face will make his debut in the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend, as RC Enerson steps into the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Enerson really could surprise and in terms of realistic targets, a qualifying run in the 17th to 19th range and finish in the 12th to 16th bracket would be an excellent job done – anything beyond that is a bonus. The 19-year-old from New Port Richey, Fla. is vastly experienced at Mid-Ohio and has past wins there in both USF2000 and Indy Lights.

As for others who could use a result?

  • Rookie Max Chilton hasn’t finished better than 18th in the last five races. He’s not been that bad, but a couple tough moments and one or two mistakes has dropped him back.
  • Same story for Jack Hawksworth, who lost a potential top-10 at Toronto after reported late race contact from Simon Pagenaud at Turn 5. Outside of two 11th place finishes, Hawksworth has been 15th or worse every other race, and that hasn’t belied his practice pace.
  • Conor Daly’s Mid-Ohio race debut will come at long last, and he was poised for a top-10 at Road America before his rear wishbone failure. He’s due to snap a tough run his last three races.

The final word

From Tony Kanaan, driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet: “This team obviously has a strong history at Mid-Ohio and it’s a really good feeling to be able to come into a race weekend knowing that this team knows how to get it done here. It’s a difficult road course with the passing opportunities being so limited, but the atmosphere is always so great. You can just tell that the Mid-Ohio fans really love the shows we put on for them.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 29
10 – 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2 – 3:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, NBCSN (Live)

Saturday, July 30
9:45 – 10:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (Live)

Sunday, July 31
10:15 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:58 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2:38 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
2:45 p.m. – The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (90 laps/203.22 miles), CNBC (Live); re-air at5:30 on NBCSN

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Graham Rahal
2. Justin Wilson
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Scott Dixon (pole)
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Tristan Vautier
7. Ryan Hunter-Reay
8. Jack Hawksworth
9. Carlos Munoz
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Will Power
3. Sebastien Bourdais
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Josef Newgarden
6. Charlie Kimball