2017 F1 championship set to showcase young talent

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Next year’s Formula One championship promises to showcase young driving talent keen to emulate 19-year-old rising star Max Verstappen.

Goodbye Felipe Massa, hello Lance Stroll.

So long Jenson Button, welcome Stoffel Vandoorne.

As 30-somethings Massa and Button leave F1 with more than 550 races between them, they will be replaced by the 18-year-old Stroll and the 24-year-old Vandoorne – two of the fresh faces on a new-look grid.

Stroll is taking Massa’s seat at Williams, while Vandoorne is replacing Button at McLaren.

Others, like Frenchman Esteban Ocon, will be keen to make an impression in the way Verstappen has done.

Verstappen, the youngest driver to win an F1 race when he won the Spanish GP in May when still 18, already has seven podium finishes.

But the others are largely untested.

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 25: Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium and McLaren Honda walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Vandoorne has raced once this year, as a stand-in for Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain GP in April, while Ocon has nine races after making his F1 debut at the Belgian GP in August.

But it will be new territory for Stroll, the son of Canadian billionaire investor Lawrence Stroll.

Williams announced earlier this month that Stroll would be taking the seat vacated by Massa, who is retiring.

Stroll, who was part of the prestigious Ferrari driver academy, won this year’s European Formula 3 championship by a large margin.

“I want to be a quick driver – maybe the quickest one day,” he said. “If Williams didn’t think that I am ready, I wouldn’t be here.”

Williams’ deputy team principal Claire Williams certainly thinks he is.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 24: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“He’s absolutely got the talent. We are going to have high expectations of him next year,” she said. “Anyone that has met Lance knows and understands that he deserves that promotion into Formula One. He’s extremely intelligent, a very quick learner.”

Stroll will be the youngest driver on the grid and F1’s youngest since Verstappen made his debut last year at 17.

Stroll, the first Canadian in F1 since 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve, has been financially backed by his father since he was eight.

“Without that (backing) I wouldn’t have been able to move from Canada to Europe and pursue my dream,” he said. “No matter how much money you have, if you are not able to be quicker than the rest you don’t get anywhere.”

His father’s influence helped his son get a taste for the sport.

“I watched F1 races with my dad early on Sunday mornings in Canada when I was very young. Then I got hooked,” Stroll said. “When I look back at those days, it was fantastic sharing this passion for motorsport with my dad. Michael Schumacher was also a huge inspiration for me.”

Vandoorne, meanwhile, won the GP2 series last year, and is so highly rated that Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said in August that McLaren would be “crazy” not to take him.

Filling in for Alonso in Bahrain, the Belgian driver made an immediate impression.

In qualifying, he was actually faster than Button – the 2009 F1 champion – and finished a creditable 10th in the race.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 24: Esteban Ocon of France and Manor Racing talks in the Paddock during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Ocon made his F1 debut a month before his 20th birthday. He began this year racing for Mercedes in Germany’s DTM touring car championship and was a reserve driver for Renault until the Manor F1 team snapped him up.

He will have a quicker car when he joins Force India next season on a multi-year contract, replacing German Nico Hulkenberg, who will drive for Renault.

Ocon has strong credentials, winning the European F3 series in 2014. That year, Verstappen finished third.

“As much as it’s sad to be losing a couple of the Formula One legend drivers, it’s going to be really exciting next year,” Williams said.

The first race of the season is the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 26, where German driver Nico Rosberg will defend his title after clinching it at Sunday’s Abu Dhabi GP.

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”