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.

WATCH LIVE and notes: IndyCar at Barber (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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Coverage of the third round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, takes place today starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after INDYCAR: NEXT featuring James Hinchcliffe from Long Beach, which airs at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Leigh Diffey will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 2 to 5 p.m. CT and local time, so 3 to 6 p.m. ET.

The race sets up nicely for Team Penske and Chevrolet to get on the board with Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud starting in the top three positions.

But with the first two race winners, Hinchcliffe (fourth at Long Beach) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st at St. Petersburg) have started significantly further back. One of those trends seems set to continue today.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • With a 90-lap race, the pit windows are fairly open for a three-stop strategy. A two-stop could only be achieved with a significant amount of yellow.
  • With ambient temperatures in the mid-60s, about 20 to 25 degrees cooler than the rest of the weekend and with rain having washed rubber from the 2.3-mile circuit, expect track conditions to be significantly different on Sunday.
  • Scott Dixon starts fourth in pursuit of his elusive first 2017 victory and first Barber victory after six non-win podiums.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay will lead Andretti Autosport’s charge from P5, looking for his first win since Pocono 2015 and for his third Barber win after taking the 2013 and 2014 victories.
  • Josef Newgarden rolls off P7, as he looks for his first win with Team Penske. He won his first career race at his “adopted home track” in 2015 with CFH Racing.
  • Either or both Dale Coyne Racing drivers look to continue their incredible starts. Ed Jones and Sebastien Bourdais share Row 6, Jones having done well to outqualify Bourdais straight-up on Saturday.
  • Zach Veach makes his IndyCar debut from 19th. The 22-year-old has improved by about four or five tenths per session each session thus far for Ed Carpenter Racing, and will look for a clean race on Sunday.
  • Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown have arrived in Alabama and will make the rounds on Sunday as a get-acquainted session with the Andretti Autosport team.
  • ASIMO, Honda’s advanced humanoid robot, is the race’s grand marshal and will give the command to start engines.

The starting lineup with Firestone tire designation is below:

Indy Lights: Colton Herta rolls to win 400th Indy Lights race

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Colton Herta rebounded from a difficult Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park to dominate Race 2 of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the 400th event in the history of Indy Lights. Herta started on pole after qualifying was rained out and immediately shot off into the lead when the green flag waved. He claimed victory over second-place Kyle Kaiser by more than nine seconds to complete a dominant performance.

Kaiser’s second place mirrors his second-place finish from Saturday, while Nico Jamin backed up his win on Saturday with a third on Sunday.

Race 2 again saw an opening lap caution, this one for contact between Zachary Claman De Melo and Pato O’Ward. Both went off course between turns two and three, with O’Ward spinning and briefly stalling in the gravel trap. Each made it back around to the pits, but both retired after suffering too much damage to continue.

Santi Urrutia also went for a quick spin after the race restarted, even damaging the front wing in the process. However, his incident did not bring out a caution and the race ran green to the end.

Results are below. The race will air Wednesday 4/26 at midnight on NBCSN.

Fernando Alonso ready to tackle ‘the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure’

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With smiles, humor, wit and determination, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived in the Barber Motorsports Park press conference room and promptly delivered his second win of the season – the first coming when he, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown, Honda and Andretti Autosport combined to stun the racing world in announcing earlier this month that Alonso would be racing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Alonso’s odyssey to come over the next month or so since that announcement has a game plan, a travel schedule and plenty of words to describe the experience. He and Brown arrived in Alabama late Saturday, and the two met the rest of the Andretti Autosport team.

On Sunday, Alonso made his maiden appearance on pit road during the warmup session for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pit for his No. 28 DHL Honda.

The press conference this morning then brought the same spirit of determination Alonso has outlined as his quest for even wanting to run the Indianapolis 500 in the first place, as well as a few jokes along the way.

“It’s true! It’s my first time here, and hopefully not the last. I want to come to see more of Alabama and this circuit,” Alonso led off during the press conference.

“This has been an amazing week to 10 days from the announcement. For any racing driver in the world to compete in this race is the main goal, against the best drivers, in some of the fastest, best cars in the world.

“This is the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure. I need to go through different steps in this learning, I need to do it in a short amount of time. But it’s so exciting. I need to thank McLaren, Honda for this opportunity and all the Andretti Autosport team.”

Alonso promptly outlined the schedule he’s going to be undertaking from here. After watching today’s IndyCar race, he’ll go to Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis shop for a seat fit in preparation for his maiden test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From the shop, he’ll be off to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (TV times on NBCSN here), and then back to the U.S. after that.

“From now on, it’ll be an interesting next couple weeks. There’s a couple of trips to Europe and U.S.A. back and forth. Next weekend, we will race in Russia for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, then the test, then the Spanish Grand Prix, then come back for the Indianapolis 500. I will try to learn as quick as I can.”

Alonso said he’s been thinking about this opportunity for several years in advance.

“Let’s say four to five years ago, I started thinking about how to grow up as a driver and become more complete,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was possible. But it makes me very happy to have this first attempt.

“Winning is something really big. I take it more like an experience. I’m very open. If the race was tomorrow, I’m not ready to do it because I know nothing about it. But I will go step-by-step to do some simulator laps. I have to be as good as I can on simulator, qualifying and running alone, then traffic when it comes time.”

Brown confirmed the support team around Alonso is as solid as ever. Michael Andretti will call Alonso’s race as strategist with Andretti technical director Eric Bretzman serving as engineer. Today he added that Alonso will have Honda consultant, 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion, two-time CART champion and closed course world speed record holder Gil de Ferran there as a driver coach to aid Alonso’s development.

Alonso brought some jokes when asked about Formula 1 drivers’ respective takes on his running Indianapolis and skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, where Jenson Button will make a one-race cameo to come out of retirement to deputize.

“We don’t talk much. It’s a different world!” Alonso laughed. “The only thing I know is probably what you guys have read, which is what I’ve read too.

“Some of them are happy and curious to see how competitive we can be. Others aren’t happy with anything in life … except their own performance. It’s a different world.”

About his former sparring partner in F1, Juan Pablo Montoya: “I don’t know if he’ll be at the front!” Alonso said to more laughter.

Alonso said he’ll look forward to the simulator time ahead, and told NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy that the simulator he is used to in Formula 1 is incredible.

In terms of the best advice he’s received?

“Enjoy,” Alonso reflected.

“It’s something that this race is so unique, so I’m ready to experience these emotions. That race, that day, everything happens so quickly. You tend to forget what you are doing. I’m ready to enjoy everything I’m doing that day.”

Brown, Andretti and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, also joined Alonso on the dais. Stefan Wilson’s contribution to the effort was once again praised.

The most noteworthy piece of news to come out of this trio was that Miles confirmed he’d be going on a European promotional tour after the Phoenix race (April 29) to spread the word about IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Alonso’s attempt.

“The attention we have seen already is incredible,” Miles said. “I will be In London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and we’re going be there while he’s in Indy to tell the IndyCar story.

“I’ve read clippings back from the first race in Indianapolis, and Fernando’s presence will make it even bigger this year.”

Perhaps Brown summed up the announcement best: “This is an outstanding opportunity for the world of motorsports to be able to come to Indianapolis. And I’ve never seen a driver so excited, dedicated and motivated to run in a race.”

More to follow…

Marco Andretti leads a wet Barber warmup

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Mother Nature rolled in overnight and through the early morning at Barber Motorsports Park, dropping a lot of rain on the 2.38-mile road course. Conditions stayed wet during the Verizon IndyCar Series morning warmup, although the rain clouds had moved away by then and the track began drying out.

Marco Andretti led the way after changing to slick tires on his final run, which indicates how quickly the track dried out during the 30-minute session. Marco was the only driver to run slick tires and his quick lap of 1:14.37 was nearly 3.5 seconds quicker than second-place runner Scott Dixon. Alexander Rossi, Spencer Pigot, and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the top five, while James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin, and Zach Veach did not turn laps during the warmup.

Despite the tricky conditions, the session ran relatively cleanly. Helio Castroneves brought out a brief red flag when he went into the gravel trap in turn five, but he suffered no damage and continued on after getting a tow. Ed Jones also had a quick off-course excursion of his own between turns 12, 13, and 14, but he rejoined the track and continued.

Times are below. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama rolls off at 3:00 p.m. ET (2:00 local time).