F1 Grand Prix of Italy - Previews

The Demands of Success: Mercedes has a good problem at the top of F1

Leave a comment

MONZA, ITALY – The Italian Grand Prix is the one race in Formula 1 that is essentially a ‘home game’ for a team. Whilst other circuits usually play host to an array of fans supporting all of the teams, Monza will welcome Ferrari’s loyal fandom, the Tifosi, through its gates on Sunday.

Even on Thursday, droves of fans draped in Maranello red swarmed the paddock entrance to try and catch a glimpse of their heroes.

However, when it comes to race day, they are likely to be left disappointed. This season has been all about two silver arrows: Mercedes AMG Petronas, led by drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

The secret to the team’s success has been well documented in 2014, but in recent weeks, there have been a few cracks in the German marque’s armor. As its drivers go toe-to-toe for the drivers’ championship, the team’s own success being put at risk – and it must regain focus to ensure that it can carry its advantage into the 2015 season and beyond.

Earlier this year, it seemed likely that Mercedes would wrap up it first ever constructors’ championship at the Italian Grand Prix, relying it continued its dominant form from the beginning of the season.

In the meantime, things have changed. In fact, since the Monaco Grand Prix back in May, neither of its drivers have been the most dominant. That accolade goes to Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who has claimed three wins at Mercedes’ expense and scored more points than anyone else in Formula 1. From the darkness of pre-season, Red Bull has emerged as a force to be reckoned with once again.

For Mercedes, it has been a funny spell. Since the Monaco Grand Prix, there hasn’t been a ‘trouble-free’ race, causing some damage to its championship hunt. Both titles are still likely to go the way of the Silver Arrows, but the team will have to learn some hard lessons from the 2014 season.

It’s quite interesting to compare Mercedes’ current success with when Red Bull first dominated Formula 1 back in 2010. In both cases, the team had the quickest car and the quickest drivers, but it did not know how to win. Red Bull nearly lost both titles that year, only to come good at the final round in Abu Dhabi, but lessons were learned. This set the tone for its dominant victories in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Mercedes is currently going through a similar process. It has the tools to dominate like Red Bull, Ferrari (early 2000s) and McLaren (late 1980s) all have done in the past, but little mistakes are still being made. On all three occasions the team has slipped up this year, Red Bull has been the team to pick up the pieces.

Spa saw the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry boil over, resulting in a puncture for the Briton and ultimately a DNF after Rosberg tried an opportunistic overtake around the outside of Les Combes that was always going to be a big ask. What followed was a series of comments from Hamilton, Rosberg, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda that made it quite clear: war was afoot.

Although the situation appears to have now been remedied, the damage from Spa has been done: at the one race Mercedes should have scored a one-two finish, it limped home with just eighteen points for Rosberg’s second place finish. The prediction that the team would wrap up the constructors’ at Monza looks laughable in retrospect.

Few of their rival drivers have weighed in on the debate, but Romain Grosjean cutely commented on it in Monza: “Let’s say it wasn’t their best shot to win the grand prix.”

In fact, it was a terrible result for the team. The Hamilton-Rosberg title fight is a classic, but in reality, Mercedes will not care who wins it. Its priority is winning the constructors’ championship and ensuring that one of its drivers clinches the world title in Abu Dhabi.

source: Getty Images
Hamilton and Rosberg came together on the second lap of the Belgian Grand Prix (© Getty Images)

This was made clear to both drivers in no uncertain terms during the meeting at Brackley late last week. Hamilton and Rosberg know that they must avoid any kind of contact of controversy in the final seven rounds of the 2014 season.

You can imagine the response from the F1 community when the FIA confirmed that both of the championship protagonists would be in the press conference on Thursday at Monza. Unsurprisingly, the media room was packed: the onlooking cameras and eagle-eyed journalists wanted to witness the latest salvo between Lewis and Nico first hand.

Throughout the press conference, Hamilton looked relaxed, chilled and brushed off any questions shot at him. He even took a second to take a selfie with the assembled press. Nico, on the other hand, seemed a little more stressed and agitated. The cool character we saw win on home soil in Germany appears to have been rattled by the fierce championship battle.

However, the team line was towed throughout the press conference. Put simply: it was a mistake, and they’re not to do it again. Nico was happy to hold his hands up and admitted that, following the clash, he had to apologize and take the blame.

“Just with time, I took a week to think about it, have a look at it and discuss with the team on Friday,” Rosberg said. “In the end, I decided that it was me who should take responsibility for it.”

Accepting blame was a big step for Rosberg, but has the divide in Mercedes already been set? Neither driver thinks so. Both do not believe that their Spa spat will have affected the loyalties within the garage.

“We’ve got a very professional team, and they just want to win, so we’ll be working as hard as we can,” Hamilton said. “Also the guys that work in the garage, they work collectively for the pit stops and that, so that doesn’t even cross my mind.

“They know that we have the chance to have one-twos and to win this championship for either driver and the constructors’.”

“In general I think there has been throughout the whole season a healthy rivalry within the team, and that is why we are where we are,” added Rosberg. “We have the best car out there, we are the best team at the moment, and that’s because we work well together as a team.

“If you don’t work well together as a team, you can’t dominate the sport in the way we are at the moment.”

And indeed, because Rosberg did not work well with Hamilton at Spa, allowing himself to get a chip on his shoulder, Mercedes could not dominate the race weekend.

The team will hope that all of these points that have been made will last until the end of the season. It must focus on keeping itself at the very top of the sport, with the aim of wrapping up both championships early and putting more resources into the 2015 campaign.

source: Getty Images
Alonso and Hamilton were teammates at McLaren back in 2007 (© Getty Images)

In a rather entertaining exchange, a journalist asked Fernando Alonso – the man sat between the two Mercedes drivers – whether he could be the “ambassador of peace” between Nico and Lewis, prompting laughter from the entire press room when Alonso turned and hugged Hamilton.

“No, I don’t think I’m an ambassador for peace,” he said with a wry smile. It’s very true: no one person is an ambassador for peace in this championship battle. The onus is on Mercedes to do what it can to ensure that all things are kept equal and fair on track.

Alonso then made another salient point: “They have a good problem: fighting for the world championship.” His comment summed up what Mercedes is dealing with here. These are the demands of success.

For the watching public, this championship fight has the makings of something very special. Seven rounds to go – will it be Nico with the mathematical advantage, or Lewis with the psychological advantage who is crowned the 2014 Formula 1 world champion in Abu Dhabi this November?

You can watch the Italian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra this weekend. Click here for all of your broadcasting details.

Franchitti: Ganassi to Honda ‘creates interest in manufacturer battle’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #50 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda holds up his fist in celebration of wining the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianpolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dario Franchitti’s most successful years in his illustrious IndyCar career came with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

The Scotsman never drove for any other engine manufacturer full-time in his run from 1998 to 2013, after Mercedes-Benz initially brought him to the United States in 1997, when he debuted with Hogan Racing.

Ganassi’s switch back to Honda power and aero kits this year after a three-year shift to Chevrolet is one of the key story lines going into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and Franchitti seems bullish on the prospects.

“I think it’s good for the series to have the two top teams with different manufacturers,” Franchitti told my NBC Sports colleague Luke Smith at this weekend’s Autosport International show.

“I think it creates more interest in that battle. From that point of view I think it’s good. Obviously Penske were quite dominant last year. We need to redress that balance this year.”

Team Penske asserted itself a bit further ahead of Ganassi this past season when both teams had the Chevrolet engines and aero kits. Penske won 10 races among three of its four drivers to Ganassi’s two, achieved only by Scott Dixon.

Other gaps saw Penske saw 12 other podium finishes beyond the wins, for a total of 22, while Ganassi scored only six total podiums.

In qualifying, Penske made 28 combined appearances of a possible 60 in the Firestone Fast Six on road and street courses; Ganassi made 13. Last year Penske won 11 of 16 pole positions; in 2015, that number was 13 of 16.

The balance was more even in 2015, when Dixon edged Juan Pablo Montoya for the title on a three-two win tiebreaker. Penske and Ganassi each won three races. Penske had 12 other podiums and Ganassi seven. The qualifying advantage maintained itself with Penske ahead 26-8 in Firestone Fast Six appearances.

With the manufacturer aero kits frozen for 2017 and Honda’s behind in the road and street course and short oval configurations, wizardry and engineering from the Ganassi staff will be needed to account for the performance deficits from an aero side, while Honda should be able to make strides from a power perspective.

It’s expected the Honda kit will remain ahead on the superspeedways, which gives Ganassi’s crew a better shout at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, places they struggled this past year.

The team’s initial test with all four cars at Sebring’s short course held earlier this month was a very productive one, according to Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the program,” Franchitti explained. “In the team everyone is working. I mean you see it all the time, everyone works hard all the time, but you see a real confidence in the workshop.

“We tested at Sebring. I was talking to Mike Hull last night (Friday) and he said that everyone was feeling really good about things. Everyone is working on all aspects of our program and working really hard to improve it.”

Ganassi’s title success, bar Dixon’s 2015 triumph, have come exclusively with Honda. Last year marked the 20-year anniversary of the team’s first title with Jimmy Vasser, which set sail for the team’s first of two four-in-a-row title runs in a CART era of open chassis, manufacturer and tire competition from 1996 through 1999 with Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Montoya.

A further run of four followed once Franchitti rejoined IndyCar in 2009 after one year in NASCAR. Dixon scored his second of four titles (2008) to kick off that run in what became the all-spec Dallara-Honda period in IndyCar, and Franchitti followed with three storming runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The 2011 title was Franchitti’s fourth and last of his career, with his final win coming a year later in dramatic fashion at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. The series introduced the new Dallara DW12 chassis and the new engine formula of 2.2L V6 turbocharged engines.

It’s been funny to see Franchitti as the lone individual wearing a Chevrolet shirt at Honda hospitality the last few years so with Ganassi back at Honda, the humorous moments are resigned just to the conversations now.

“Every race I won was with a Honda, so I still have a lot of friends there. It was always a bit awkward when I went for lunch at Honda with a Chevy shirt on! But the Chevy guys with Ilmor as well, they were great guys to work with.”

Kevin Magnussen arrives for first visit to Haas F1 headquarters

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and Renault Sport F1 talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 1, 2016 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

On Monday, it was a day of confirmations – Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Williams) and Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber) – all became official after weeks of speculation.

One driver confirmed much earlier, Kevin Magnussen to Haas F1 Team, has now made his first official visit to Haas F1 Team’s United Kingdom headquarters in Banbury. He’ll be there for a couple days to complete most of the preseason marketing and media-gathering tasks.

The Dane will enter his third full-time season in Formula 1 with his third different team, as he joins Haas for 2017 and beyond after a year apiece at Renault (2016) and McLaren (2014).

Magnussen has gone through HQ and the Haas F1 social team has taken us along for the ride. Here’s a few pics:

Magnussen’s former team, Renault, was up to the task of bantering as Haas welcomes Magnussen to HQ.

Foyt’s Chevrolet contract finally made official

chevyannouncement
Photo: A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Leave a comment

Living legend A.J. Foyt turned 82 on Monday and now his team finally, officially, after months of it being expected but without a contract formally finalized, has an engine with which to power its two race cars.

After being with Honda since 2006, and having had Honda power in all five previous years of engine competition since Chevrolet re-entered the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2012, A.J. Foyt Enterprises will be back with the “bowtie” in 2017.

“I am looking forward to what will be a new chapter for us that involves returning to an old friend in Chevrolet,” said Team President Larry Foyt in a release. “There are a lot of changes happening within our team this off season and I won’t minimize the challenges, but I see a lot of potential with our plan.”

“We are pleased to welcome AJ Foyt Racing to the Chevrolet IndyCar program,” stated Mark Kent, Director Chevrolet Motorsports Competition.  “Chevrolet and Foyt both have long histories in IndyCar racing, including prior opportunities to work together.  We look forward to renewing the partnership and a strong start to the 2017 season.”

The team has a new driver lineup this year with Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly switching from Andretti Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing, respectively, in the pair of ABC Supply Co.-sponsored entries.

A.J. Foyt IV, below, ran the ABC colors and a Chevrolet in 2005.

PIKES PEAK, CO- AUGUST 21:  A.J.Foyt IV, driver of the #14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara Chevrolet, competes during the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series Honda Indy 225 on  August 21, 2005 at the Pikes Peak International Speedway in Pikes Peak, Colorado.  (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
PIKES PEAK, CO- AUGUST 21: A.J.Foyt IV, driver of the #14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara Chevrolet, competes during the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series Honda Indy 225 on August 21, 2005 at the Pikes Peak International Speedway in Pikes Peak, Colorado. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Pigot confirmed for encore with Ed Carpenter Racing

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Spencer Pigot, driver of the #20 Samsung/Fuzzyâs Vodka/ECR Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, drives during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Spencer Pigot will begin his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with the same team he ended his 2016 year with, Ed Carpenter Racing.

The 23-year-old Floridian and past Indy Lights and Pro Mazda champion will have his second season with ECR, driving the team’s No. 20 Chevrolet in the 11 road and street course races while team owner Ed Carpenter will race it on ovals.

“I’m very excited to be staying with Ed Carpenter Racing for the 2017 season,” Pigot stated. “It’s a great feeling to know that I have a secure ride for all of the road and street course races so we can start preparing for the season now. I can’t thank everyone at ECR, P1 Management and Rising Star Racing enough for their help getting this deal done.”

Although this was not confirmed within the release, Pigot would make sense to drive a third car for the Indianapolis 500 at the team. ECR has fielded a third in recent years for now full-time driver JR Hildebrand, who replaces Josef Newgarden in the No. 21 Chevrolet.

Pigot made his first three starts with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at St. Petersburg and the two Indianapolis races last year, before principal backers Rising Star Racing helped Pigot land at ECR for the seven remaining road and street races the rest of 2016.

His best finishes of seventh at Mid-Ohio and ninth at Road America came after successful tests at both venues. Pigot struggled in qualifying – his best start was only 17th – but his undoubted potential and talent shown throughout all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is still there as he’ll prepare for a second go-’round in IndyCar.

“We are happy to have Spencer back.  It was a challenging situation for him to step into the team last year mid-season as a rookie. We believe that Spencer has the potential to be a contender in this sport and we will continue to focus on maximizing that potential,” remarked Carpenter.  “It is great to have some offseason left to allow us to continue that development before the season kicks off.  We are anticipating a strong sophomore campaign from Spencer.”

Pigot’s first IndyCar test this year will be alongside Hildebrand for a test at Sonoma Raceway on February 7.

Pigot’s official confirmation all but closes the books on the 2017 IndyCar silly season, with KVSH Racing’s future uncertain if not at an end prior to the March 12 season opener at St. Petersburg. There may be an opening in the second Schmidt Peterson Motorsports seat with Mikhail Aleshin not confirmed yet, and Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker set to test for the team in March.

NBCSN’s coverage of IndyCar will kick off on April 9 with Round 2 at Long Beach.