Smith: Now out of Hamilton’s shadow, what’s next for Nico Rosberg?

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Nico Rosberg’s coronation as Formula 1 world champion may have come about in the most dramatic of circumstances on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, yet the questions that followed his success could be seen from a mile off.

Does Rosberg deserve to be champion?

Did Hamilton deserve it more?

Would Hamilton have won it without his bad luck?

The questions are tiresome. So, here’s the answers: Yes, Nico Rosberg does deserve to be champion; sure, Lewis Hamilton would have been a worthy champion, but he scored less points through the season; maybe he would have won it without his bad luck, but who cares?

To question the legitimacy of Rosberg’s title victory is to do a great disservice to the German. 2016 was the year where he righted the wrongs of his championship bids in 2014 and 2015. His insular ‘one race at a time, that’s it’ public approach worked wonders, making him resistant to the mind games that Hamilton played throughout the year. Hamilton went to extreme lengths in the title decider to deny Rosberg victory, but his rival was wise every step of the way.

Yes, Hamilton won more races. But so did Felipe Massa in 2008 when he lost to, uh, Hamilton. Champions who didn’t win the most races include Alain Prost (1986 and 1989), Nelson Piquet (1983 and 1987), and Niki Lauda (1977 and 1984). Heck, even Keke Rosberg did in 1982, winning just one race all year long.

So let’s cut the ‘did Nico deserve it’ talk. He did. Hamilton was unlucky in places, yes. But he also struggled on crucial weekends such as Baku, Monza, Singapore and Japan. It was a far from perfect season from the three-time champion.

Rosberg will have woken up this morning with two things: a fuzzy head after a big party last night, and the stark realization that he is world champion. It will take a while to truly sink in, but as he is whizzed around the globe on his championship tour, it’ll truly hit him: this is what life is like as F1 world champion.

Rosberg has finally stepped out of Hamilton’s shadow after a career spent playing second fiddle. Right the way from their karting days as teammates to their time in separate teams in F1 before finally coming together at Mercedes, Rosberg has always been number two. But no more.

“It feels like I’ve been racing him for ever and always he’s just managed to edge me out and get the title even when we were small in go-karts,” Rosberg said.

“He’s just an amazing driver and of course one of the best in history, so it’s unbelievably special to beat him because the level is so high and that makes this even more… for sure, so much more satisfying for me.

“I took the world championship away from him which is a phenomenal feeling.”

But the story does not end here. What’s next for Nico Rosberg?

There’s certainly a feeling that one world title will be enough for Rosberg. When we look back on the greatest handful of races of this generation, it is unlikely the German will feature. In terms of raw talent, the likes of Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso will perhaps be remembered more strongly.

But Rosberg will forever be world champion. If he looks back on his career in 10 years’ time and still has just one to his name, it’s unlikely that he will be too disheartened by that. Sure, there could have been more titles, but he won at least one.

That’s what separates Rosberg from the aforementioned group of drivers. For Hamilton, three world titles is still not enough; four isn’t enough for Vettel; two does a huge disservice to Alonso, who could have easily won five.

But with Rosberg, you get the impression that, having reached the pinnacle after being the underdog, not adding to the haul would not offer the same kind of heartache that it has for the likes of Alonso.

If he only ends with one, he’d match among others, his father, Keke Rosberg; the only other son of a world champion to win one in Damon Hill; and the last non-Hamilton/Vettel world champion in Jenson Button, who won in 2009. They only ended with one, but none of those careers is sabotaged by the fact it’s only the one.

That said, if Rosberg can make the same kind of personal progression that he did from 2015 to 2016 after this title success, there is no reason why he can’t add to his haul of championships

He’s beaten Hamilton once. He knows the magic formula that so many drivers have tried and failed to work out over the past 10 years. If it means another year of ‘one race at a time’ and ‘that’s it’-s, then so be it: what works for Nico, works.

The other big thing that this championship victory will give Rosberg is confidence. As he dived down the inside of Max Verstappen in a pass that was crucial to his title glory on Sunday, part of me thought “would the 2015-spec Nico Rosberg have done that?” – probably not.

Had Rosberg’s new approach still resulted in a title defeat to Hamilton, the German may have been wondering what else he could do to finally be world champion. But he now has proof that this approach works. Add to that greater confidence and the positivity winning a title in such fashion gives, and we could be looking at the making of a real force in F1.

Interestingly, a similar thing happened to Button, who like Rosberg, took a decade to win his first title. He was always regarded as being a hugely talented and capable racer in F1, but it was not until his title win in 2009 that we really saw him step up to the next level. When Button joined McLaren, most expected Hamilton to wipe the floor with him – yet until Sunday, Button was the only teammate to have beaten the Briton across the course of a season.

Rosberg will now be set for one of the most content winters of his racing life. He can enjoy his time with his wife, Vivian, who was with him through all of his celebrations in Abu Dhabi, and complete regular daddy duties with one-year-old Alaïa, content in himself with a championship on his mantlepiece. Rosberg may not grace red carpets all over the world like his teammate will this winter, but that makes him no less of a champion.

Rosberg’s first title defense will begin in earnest, and we look forward to seeing just how he manages life as top dog in F1. But for now, he can enjoy the success he so richly deserves.

And as for the naysayers? Well, don’t expect Nico to dwell on things.

“I don’t drive for credit, I drive to win the world championship, and I have achieved that,” he said.

“It was my childhood dream to win the world championship and that’s done and that’s what I’m excited about.

“I look forward to celebrating with all the people who have been supporting me.”

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”