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

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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.

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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.

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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.

NHRA: Chad Head to substitute for Alexis DeJoria in Charlotte

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Alexis DeJoria will miss this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, with her Kalitta Motorsports team confirming DeJoria will need to tend to a family matter.

Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports Director of Safety, will step into the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry this weekend. No timetable was given for DeJoria’s return; after Charlotte this weekend, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues for its third consecutive race weekend next week in Atlanta.

This isn’t the first race DeJoria has had to miss recently, as she also was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the 2016 NHRA season finale in Pomona.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Following his victory in Bahrain two weeks ago, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel arrived in Russia on Thursday targeting a third win of the year to extend his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

Not since 2004 has a Ferrari driver made such a good start to a season, putting Vettel in contention for a fifth world title this year – although with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hot on his tail, it will have to be a hard-earned success.

The fourth round of the year sees F1 head to the Olympic city of Sochi, which hosted the winter games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom played host to its first grand prix the same year, and is now a key part of Russia’s post-Olympic legacy.

Bringing you all of the latest news and interviews ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, Will Buxton brings you Paddock Pass.

 

Times: F1, IndyCar, Red Bull GRC all on NBC, NBCSN this weekend

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This is NBC Sports Group’s first tripleheader weekend of the 2017 motorsports season, with all of Formula 1, the Verizon IndyCar Series and Red Bull Global Rallycross in action across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. The full release with more information is linked here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

The IndyCar race is first up, as it airs Saturday night from Phoenix International Raceway, with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Formula 1 then heads to Russia for the Russian Grand Prix, with coverage beginning Sunday morning on NBCSN at 7 a.m. ET with F1 Countdown.

Red Bull GRC’s kickoff to its 2017 season at Memphis airs at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The full breakdown of this weekend’s motorsports coverage is below. Streaming is also available for all shows on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, with links available via NBCSports.com/live.

Following is this week’s motorsports coverage schedule on NBCSN:

Date Program Network Time (ET)
Thurs., April 27 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Bristol NBCSN 11 p.m.
Fri., April 28 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming* 4 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 8 a.m.
Mecum Auctions – Monterey (Encore) NBCSN 12 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying Streaming* 11 p.m.
Sat., April 29 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming* 5 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying CNBC 8 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 6 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix NBCSN 9 p.m.
IndyCar Post-Race NBCSN 11:30 p.m.
Sun., April 30 F1 Countdown NBCSN 7 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix NBCSN 7:30 a.m.
F1 Extra NBCSN 10 a.m.
Red Bull Global RallyCross – Memphis NBC 1 p.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 4:30 p.m.

INFOGRAPHICS

F1 (Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, Will Buxton)

INDYCAR (Rick Allen, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller)

RED BULL GRC (Toby Moody, Anders Krohn, Will Christien)

Vettel tips Mercedes to strike back at Ferrari in Russia

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have had the upper hand so far in Formula One.

They don’t expect to have it against Lewis Hamilton this weekend at the Russian Grand Prix.

The long straights in Sochi suit Mercedes, which has won all three races to date around Olympic Park.

With two wins from three races, Vettel is seven points ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but expects that lead to come under pressure from the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“On paper, it’s a very, very strong circuit for them,” Vettel said. “A lot of straights, a power-sensitive circuit, so we’ll see, but there’s also a lot of corners where I believe last year already the (Ferrari) car was very good.”

Vettel’s wins in Australia and last time out in Bahrain have already disrupted the Mercedes dominance of the previous three seasons. Turning those promising signs into a serious title challenge over the remaining 17 races is a different proposition.

“We had a great start, yes. We’re very happy about it, yes. But have we, you know, achieved anything yet? No,” said Vettel, a four-time champion with his previous team Red Bull. “Head down and full steam for this race.”

Hamilton said he was hoping for a “counterattack” in Russia, but warned that Mercedes’ history of dominance in Sochi doesn’t mean an easy win is on the cards.

“If we win, it’s going to be earned, and we’re here to earn it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Hamilton and Vettel have beaten their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in all three races this season. As the title race takes shape, Bottas and Raikkonen face being forced to sacrifice their own opportunities to help a more successful teammate’s title chances.

When Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought for last year’s title with other teams far behind, letting them fight it out on the track carried less of a risk. In 2017, Ferrari and Mercedes know that if one of their drivers fights his teammate, it could allow the other team to steal valuable points.

Raikkonen, a former champion who hasn’t won a race since 2013, said he’d help Vettel’s title hopes “if it comes to that at the end of the year,” but doesn’t see himself as No. 2. Vettel said it was too early in the season to talk team orders.

At Mercedes, there’s a stark contrast between Bottas and Rosberg, who had a fierce rivalry with Hamilton for years before winning the 2016 title and promptly retiring.

“Our job is to get maximum points (for the team). If I’m ordered to move over, I will,” Bottas said. “But I’m working to make sure I’m not in that position.”

No fan of team orders, Hamilton said Mercedes will order one of its drivers to let the other pass only in “special circumstances,” but added: “Our approach is, the team needs to win.”

Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton, who was on fresher tires, pass in Bahrain so that the British driver could attack Vettel.

“Whilst it was very tough for him, he was a great gentleman about it,” Hamilton said, adding he’d have done the same for Bottas if ordered to.

The Finn admitted he’s still learning how to get the most out of the car after joining Mercedes in January at short notice when Rosberg announced his retirement.

“It’s all about fine details in the fight between us and Ferrari and obviously it’s also very close between teammates as well, so every little bit helps,” Bottas said. “These 100 days, I’ve never in my life learned so much.”

The only team capable of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari so far is Red Bull, which showed its potential with third in China for Max Verstappen.

However, reliability has stopped Red Bull gathering much momentum, with brake failure for Verstappen at the last race in Bahrain, and a fuel pressure issue for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia.

Ricciardo said he’s hoping for “a bit of a bullet” when promised upgrades arrive at the next race in Spain. That could make the championship a “three-way fight” with Ferrari and Mercedes, he added.