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.

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.

Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”

Teams load up on supersoft tires for Italian GP

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There’s almost no variety in team Pirelli tire selections for the Italian Grand Prix, with nearly all teams going with two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for next week’s race. All teams have selected just one set of mediums.

The only variance comes with Mercedes, Force India and Haas going with three sets of softs and nine supersofts. The rest are all the same choice, two softs and 10 supersofts.

Monza comes a week after Spa this week.

Pirelli’s tire breakdown is below.