F1 Grand Prix of Italy - Previews

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.

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.

‘Uncle Bobby’ Unser turns 83 today

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February 20 is quite a day for birthdays in the North American racing world. “The Captain,” Roger Penske, turns 80, and the Shaker Heights, Ohio native continues at the head of his incredibly successful race team and automotive group without so much as a sweat.

One of Penske’s longtime drivers has his birthday today, as well. Bobby Unser, or “Uncle Bobby,” turns 83.

A member of the famed Albuquerque family, Unser won three Indianapolis 500s (1968, 1975 and 1981) before moving into broadcasting after he retired, working with ABC at the ‘500 and throughout the IndyCar schedule. A legend on Pikes Peak as well, Unser has more than a dozen wins there.

As time has passed, Unser’s forthright, candid insights have really stood out in a time where fewer drivers have properly spoke their minds.

Last May at Indianapolis ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500, I had the opportunity to chat with “Uncle Bobby” about his life and career at the Speedway. A selection of those quotes are below:

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been coming every year since 1959. I saw the lights blinking on track and wonder what just happened!” he said. “This place has been going 100 years, and I’ve been a part of it for a long time.

“There’s been too many changes and I couldn’t remember them all in my head anyway. I don’t like the changes I’m seeing, but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I don’t know why I got into TV; I didn’t even go to high school. Yet I’m an engineer! Who’d ever thought Bobby Unser would do television? I ended up with a really good group at ABC. I didn’t think I could ever do it – but I did! I enjoyed myself.

“I lost a brother here. And I lost an uncle who was preparing to come here. My brother Jerry was killed here, and my uncle Joe was killed preparing to come here in a car. We were testing it in Colorado. We’ve lost two Unsers here – we don’t need a medal – but it hasn’t all been peaches and roses.

“The evolution of cars was easy. It was better to do it when we’re young! I’m not kidding. One of my heroes was Don Branson. He was a dirt track legend for sure, but he was good here too. He was the upper end of years, and I was gonna get his car. I didn’t know he’d get himself killed… we had it preplanned. But he was gonna quit driving and work for Goodyear as field manager for their racing tires. That was a big step for me.

“Don, I’m not gonna tell you I’m better than him. But he didn’t like the rear-engined cars. I’m young. He’s older. So I stepped into a rear-engined car and it feels fine to me! Some of them couldn’t hack it going from the roadster to rear-engined car. But it was easy for me, and for my brother Al. I think a lot of that is the experience you have, and the age.

“This is a tough place. Arguing about the cars now could be another deal. Most anyone could run the cars today… but I don’t want to go down that road and take up more of your time.

“Mario (Andretti) was one of my closest friends in those days. We’d fly together as I had a junky old airplane that barely made it, but it beat driving to races!

“Foyt’s Foyt. He’s a grouchy old fart, you know? But he’s a hell of a race driver. I wish the younger generation would have seen him when he was young… he was a fireplug. He was fast, he was a chassis man, and he understood engines. He was so good.

“It’s ’68, obviously (my favorite ‘500 win). You never know you can do it. There’s so many guys in this race that could be leading, two laps or 10 from the end the car quits. There’s so many of them like that. How many times are you’re leading Lap 150, and then ain’t gonna win it?

“You don’t know you can win it until checkered flag falls. The next one’s easier.”

Team Penske restores iconic ‘Blue Hilton’ Indy 500-winning transporter

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Photo courtesy of Team Penske
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Few teams have as great an appreciation for their own history as Team Penske, so it’s only fitting that on a day when Roger Penske turns 80, the team reflects on the first transporter that helped launch the team into the national stratosphere.

Penske’s first of 16 Indianapolis 500 victories was achieved in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and the transporter that carried that No. 66 Sunoco McLaren Offy was a customized 1972 International Fleetstar truck known in the racing circles as “The Blue Hilton.”

This transporter served Team Penske well, carrying both Indy cars and sports cars that dominated in Can-Am in the early 1970s with George Follmer and Donohue.

More than 8,000 man hours went into the restoration of this transporter, which was only found in 2015 after concerns it’d been scrapped. Penske Truck Leasing’s James Svaasand, Michael Klotz, and David Hall and Team Penske Historian Bernie King led the restoration and can thank Jerry Breon, a long-time Penske team member, who found the truck for sale.

“After we confirmed that it was, in fact, the Blue Hilton that was for sale, I called Brian Hard (president of Penske Truck Leasing) and we agreed that we had to find a way to bring her back to life,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said in a release. “This transporter was there when the foundation was laid for Team Penske and it is symbolic of the way in which we operate today.  Everyone at PTL did an unbelievable job restoring this vehicle.  I can’t wait for Roger to see it in person, as it is something he will cherish.”

The transporter will be on display at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.

You can read the full release here. A few photos of the transporter are below, courtesy of Team Penske:

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Testing confirmed, races not yet for Mikhail Aleshin in sports cars

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin will focus primarily on the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, but may still be busy with sports car commitments with SMP Racing.

His sponsor he has in IndyCar is working on a new non-hybrid LMP1 car for 2018, as SMP Racing’s technical partner BR Engineering is working with Dallara on that new chassis.

Aleshin said via a press release he’s already been busy working on the development of that car ahead of its planned introduction next season (more info here via Sportscar365 and Endurance-Info).

The new creation stems from the fact BR Engineering was not granted a place to continue with its BR01 LMP2 chassis, which raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship and also won the pole for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the ACO confirmed just four chassis constructors would continue in LMP2 in 2017 to coincide with new regulations (Onroak, Oreca, Riley Multimatic, Dallara). BR and other constructors were removed from the field as a result.

Intriguingly though, Aleshin was also listed as the nominated driver for SMP Racing’s Dallara P217 chassis for both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans doesn’t clash with an IndyCar weekend, while the ELMS and IndyCar have one clash, the weekend of August 26 when IndyCar races at Gateway Motorsports Park and ELMS is at Paul Ricard.

Aleshin may be active in a number of sports car races this year, as he has been off-and-on the last two years. But he doesn’t know his exact schedule yet.

“Well we’re working to produce our own car for 2018… and I’m one of the test or development drivers,” Aleshin told NBC Sports.

“I don’t know yet (Le Mans)… maybe I’ll be there. Well, it’s good to be a placeholder! But hopefully not for every event.

“For me the main thing this year is to concentrate on two things. Number one is IndyCar. But I have a very similar responsibility on taking care of our LMP1 project with SMP, as that will be very big.”