Belgian GP Paddock Notebook – Sunday

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There was I thinking that Friday had been pretty ‘chaotic’ as Marussia played flip-flop with its drivers. Compared to what we have seen on race day in Belgium, that was nothing.

It has been a quite remarkable day at the paddock. What started out as a disaster for Mercedes at Les Combes on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix has now turned into a full blown civil war. Frankly, this latest fall-out between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg might just be irreparable.

Anyhow, let’s deal with the race winner first: congratulations to Daniel Ricciardo for claiming his third career F1 victory. Yet again, he was there to pick up the pieces when Mercedes faltered. The Australian’s win gives a good news story to an otherwise tenuous weekend.

Here’s the final round-up from the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps.

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

What a day. As Rosberg extends his championship lead to 29 points, Mercedes stands on the brink of civil war – and it’s hard to see a way back now.

When Hamilton said after the Monaco Grand Prix that he and Rosberg were no longer friends, it was personal; it didn’t involve the team. It was soon patched up with a cute throwback picture on Twitter that made it all better.

This time around? There is no way back. Hamilton and Rosberg are now bitter rivals embroiled in a tight title fight, and boy is it shaping up to be a classic.

Let’s deal with the facts here. Firstly, Nico Rosberg hit Lewis Hamilton on lap two of the Belgian GP, ruining the Briton’s race. Rosberg went on to finish in second place, extending his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to 29 points. His move was immediately condemned by the powers at Mercedes, but general paddock consensus was that it was a “racing incident”.

Then, a few hours after the race, Lewis Hamilton confirmed to the media that Rosberg had said he had the chance to pull out of the move and avoid the accident, but chose not to. This was then verified by the team’s management and communications department. Rosberg insists that he did nothing wrong, but frankly, it is impossible to lay blame with Hamilton here. Rosberg is 100% at fault. He was never going to find a way past around the outside of the corner. Vettel had tried the lap before, only to take to the run off area, just as Nico should have done.

This incident does put into doubt the assumption that his ‘mistake’ in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix was indeed that: a mistake. Rosberg was asked in the press conference about the notion of his move today being deliberate; he brushed it off, why of course not. Now we know that it was – to some extent, which I’ll come to – it puts his character into question.

Another fact is that Rosberg did not go into this race planning to hit Hamilton. He went into it stewing over his defeat in Hungary, yes, but then he said on Thursday that he had “moved on”. Rosberg has traditionally been a very cool and collected character. Today, we saw a very different side to him, someone who was feeling the pressure of a fight for the world championship. Hamilton is winning the mind games here.

Nico therefore went into this race not planning to hit Hamilton, but he was not willing to be as subservient to the Briton as maybe he has been in the past. He was not willing to pull out of a move. A month ago, he would have gone on at Les Combes just like Vettel did. This time, he didn’t, and the consequences are clear for everyone to see.

It will be interesting to see how things go at Monza. Rosberg seemed to be the good guy in the past, but now that has changed. He is the villain in this case – will this play on his mind?

Hamilton may leave Spa with a huge points deficit to make up, but Rosberg has his reputation to save in two weeks’ time.

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.