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.

Tony Kanaan had a blast despite finishing 100th Indy 500 in fourth

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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He wasn’t in winning contention until late after starting 18th, but after back-to-back DNFs from accidents the last two years, fourth was almost a welcome tonic for Tony Kanaan and the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I had a blast,” he said post-race. “I had the time of my life.”

Kanaan was one of the favorites to win, after setting the fastest lap in final practice for the race with a speed of 226.280 mph. It was clear the Ganassi team had made enough strides to his car on race setup to pull it off.

“When you have a good car all day and you’re fighting for the lead you cannot say it wasn’t fun,” Kanaan added.

Kanaan was still running fast at the end of the race, but rookie winner Alexander Rossi’s fuel mileage strategy made the difference in victory.

Among the top five drivers, Kanaan posted the fastest last lap with a speed of 220.294 mph. On fumes, Rossi was running 179.784 mph. Kanaan pitted with eight laps remaining in the race.

“Obviously toward the end there it got a little messy with where we were going to finish. We had to pit; this is racing.”

Hinchcliffe ends Indy 500 seventh, doubts victory was possible

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe felt content with his run to seventh in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil despite starting from pole and remaining in the lead group of cars for much of the race.

Hinchcliffe spent much of the first stint of the race exchanging the lead back and forth with Ryan Hunter-Reay, but a fuel issue cost him time at the opening round of pit stops in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver battled his way back into contention for the win, only to suffer a loss in grip in the closing stages as temperatures rose at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A late splash-and-dash for fuel with four laps to go ended Hinchcliffe’s hopes of a famous victory, just over one year on from his devastating accident, leaving him to settle for P7 at the checkered flag.

“I have to give everybody on the Arrow crew a ton of credit for the effort the entire month,” Hinchcliffe said after the race.

“Coming in third at the GP of Indy, qualifying on the pole and the race here, it was a solid effort.

“We were super strong the first half and definitely had one of the cars to beat. It was really just track temperatures that caught us out there.

“We started losing grip as the temperatures came up late in the afternoon and the last two stints were a real struggle when we tried to make the tires last. Well, more than a stint because we came in for that splash of fuel at the end.

“A couple guys out there took a punt on fuel – congrats to Alex [Rossi, race winner] and great to see Honda back on top.

“Realistically, I think we had a third or fourth place effort today, which is nothing to turn your nose up at.”

Combined with the points for pole position, the ‘500 has seen Hinchcliffe rise from eighth to fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ championship, ranking as the lead Honda driver on 205 points.

Third in Indy 500 a bitter pill to swallow for Newgarden, ECR

during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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INDIANAPOLIS – This month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was generally accepted that Josef Newgarden and the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing was best of the “Bowtie brigade.”

And the 25-year-old American was ready to unleash a full serving of awesome sauce on the field in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil starting from second on the grid.

But despite running in the top three to five all day and leading 14 total laps – including Laps 179 to 181, 184 to 190 and 192 to 193 – Newgarden was one of most of the field who needed a late-race splash for fuel inside the final 10 laps.

It meant that Newgarden, along with runner-up Carlos Munoz, fell back behind rookie Alexander Rossi once Rossi’s Bryan Herta/Michael Andretti combo pack pulled off a strategic stunner to perfection and ran 36 laps on the final stint.

For Newgarden, third was his best career Indianapolis 500 result in five starts.

Yet in many ways, it was the worst feeling: a crushing disappointment knowing his first best chance to win this most prestigious of races had slipped away.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really heartbreaking, to be honest,” he said in the post-race press conference. “The reason is because I think we had a car to win. I’m not saying we should have won the race definitely because we had the best car, I just think we had a car that could have won.

“What I wanted was an opportunity to try to race those guys at the end. We didn’t get that. That’s no fault to my guys. I think that’s just how the race fell. Sometimes it doesn’t fall your way. Today was a day it didn’t fall our way.”

Newgarden admitted that he was underwhelmed by the fuel conservation finish that allowed Rossi to pull it off. That being said, he said had he been in Rossi’s shoes, he’d have been OK with the outcome.

“I think if I was in Alex’s position, I’d be the happiest man in the world right now. I wouldn’t care how we won the damn race. We won the damn race. So that’s one part of it,” he acknowledged.

The thing was though, a Newgarden and Munoz shootout likely would have been a better show for the fans rather than the somewhat anticlimactic final lap. And again, that’s with no disrespect to what the No. 98 team achieved.

“Congratulations to Rossi and Honda. It’s a huge achievement to win around here,” he said, graciously, in defeat. “I just wish we had an opportunity to race those guys straight up at the end. I really think we would have had something for them if we could have gone flat out there at the end and tried to beat them straight up.

“Just proud to be here, though. Shoot, just having an opportunity to be here with as good of a car as I did, not many people experience that. Today was something new to me.”

Newgarden described his would-have-been strategy had it come down to a he-and-Munoz shootout.

Sort of.

“To be honest, I was going to wing it at the end,” he explained. “My priority was staying up front, going flat out, trying to get as much speed out of the car at the end of the race as possible. I thought we had to trim this thing to win it. We had a lot of downforce at the beginning. We tried to trim and trim and trim. My sole focus was, Let’s get to the last three, five laps and be up front, then I’ll do whatever I got to do at the end to win the thing.

“That kind of sounds silly. Well, didn’t you have a plan? Weren’t you thinking of a plan the whole race? I was. I was sticking to my priority of ‘Let’s get this car up front, the keep it there for the last five laps’. When we’re up there, we’re going to have a great shot at winning the thing.

“Really, you can’t predict what’s going to happen at the end of the race. I could see how Carlos was, I could see where he was good, where he was bad. I think he had a little bit more straight speed than us, which was going to be difficult to overcome. I was going to wing it on those last three to five laps and kind of feel out what I had to do to try to beat him, if he was the guy I had to actually race at the end.”

For Newgarden though, long regarded as America’s brightest IndyCar hope the last five years and on the heels of his best month ever at the Speedway, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

He’s had some heartaches in his IndyCar career before – Long Beach and Mid-Ohio losses in 2014 come immediately to mind – but nothing like this.

“I don’t think I have a pity card to play. You could probably go through the list of guys that have nearly won this thing or that should have won the thing,” he said.

“This is really the first time I’ve ever felt like I could have won that race and it just didn’t happen. It’s really the first time I’ve ever felt that way.

“So it’s tough. I hope I have more opportunities to try to win it. You kind of feel special when you have a car that you think you can win and you got a shot to win the thing at the end. That’s kind of rare to get that opportunity and be in that spot.

“I’m thankful for that. I can’t be sour about it, like I said. There’s been a lot of guys that have had near misses around this place. It’s going to suck, but…

“The good thing is we race again next weekend. That kind of helps. I don’t have to go on the media tour, which I guess is a positive. I would have loved to do it if I won the race. I can rest a little bit now and go to Detroit and try to kick everyone’s ass again. That’s positive.”

Until he pit for fuel, Carlos Munoz ‘knew’ he had Indy 500 won

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Carlos Munoz was sure of three things throughout Sunday.

The first – the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was going to be his.

“I knew I had this won,” Munoz told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl after the race.

But the 24-year-old Colombian didn’t make this declaration as the 70th winner of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Andretti Herta Autosport driver was lamenting the second runner-up finish of his career in the race.

“My car was flying,” Munoz said of his No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda that had started fifth and was leading on Lap 195 of the race. “I was so good emotionally, physically, mentally. The car was flying.”

The second?

“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel.”

Munoz was a half-lap short on fuel and on Lap 196 pitted in order to rectify his situation. That move created the 54th and final lead change of the race, allowing rookie Alexander Rossi, and Munoz’ teammate, to assume the lead.

Rossi hadn’t pitted since Lap 164 and he wouldn’t in the last four laps.

When Munoz got back up to pace two laps later, he was in second, 16.68 seconds behind Rossi. A lap later, with the white flag displayed over the first sold-out crowd in the “500’s” history, Munoz had only gained three seconds.

“I was just cruising around flat out, saying ‘I’m not going to lift, this is my race,'” Munoz told ABC, later recalling in his post-race press conference, “‘I’m going to keep it flat. If I crash, I crash. I don’t want second; I want to win.'”

When Rossi entered Turn 3 for the final time, with his No. 98 NAPA Honda running on fumes and hope, Munoz was still a straightaway behind him.

Munoz was within 4.5 seconds of Rossi when he saw the American become the 70th different winner of the Indianapolis 500.

And he was still bemused by the fact it happened.

“I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why he’s not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did,” Munoz admitted.

“This is the 500, everything can happen. Now we’re second,” he said

The third thing Munoz was sure of Sunday is that won’t be the case in the future.

“One thing is clear, that I will win the 500 one day.”