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NHRA: As 2017 season begins, will it be able to top 2016 for excitement and drama?

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As the 24-race 2017 NHRA national event season kicks off this weekend at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, California, it’s going to be hard to write a better script than how the 2016 season ultimately played out.

When the final race ended in November, we saw two three-time champions emerge across the sport’s four pro categories: Top Fuel pilot Antron Brown (won three titles in the last five seasons, including the last two) and Pro Stock winner Jason Line.

But it was the two first-time champs in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle that stole the show.

After trying for 20 years and finishing runner-up several times over the years, Ron Capps finally broke through with his first career Funny Car championship.

It was one of the best feel-good stories the NHRA has seen in years – only to see yet another great feel-good story emerge at the same time in the person of first-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie.

Savoie could wind up going down in NHRA history as having one of the most unique paths to a championship of any driver or rider.

First off, Savoie was an aspiring motorcycle drag racer in his teens and early 20s, only to abruptly end racing at the age of 23 when he began to raise a family and grow his business.

And what a unique business it is: Savoie is an alligator “farmer” that oversees a herd of 60,000 gators in the Louisiana bayou.

After nearly 30 years away from racing, Savoie began his comeback of sorts in 2011 and finally reached the pinnacle of his sport last season in dramatic fashion.

After trailing the points leaders for the first 23 races, Savoie roared to win the championship in the season’s final race, holding off multiple championship winners such as Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey (who used to babysit for Savoie’s children before beginning her own racing career).

But 2016 is gone and it’s time to focus on 2017.

Where do we start? How about five questions or things to watch in 2017 for each of the top four pro classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle?

Here goes:

Top Fuel:

  • Can Antron Brown make it three championships in a row and four in the last six seasons?
  • After coming so close to his first championship, can Doug Kalitta finally do so in 2017?
  • Can the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, win his ninth title (and first since 2009)?
  • After overcoming adversity in 2016, including losing her ride early in the season (only to bounce back and catch on with Don Schumacher Racing), could this be the breakout season for Leah Pritchett?
  • And what about Brittany Force, who had a breakout season in 2016? Can she do even better and be a bonafide championship contender?

Funny Car:

  • 16-time champ and the winningest driver in drag racing history, John Force, turns 68 in May. He came close to another championship in 2016, but fell short in the playoffs. Can he capture title No. 17 in 2017?
  • Can former two-time champion Cruz Pedregon bounce back from the worst season of his career and become a championship contender again?
  • Courtney Force struggled in last season’s playoffs. Can she finally earn her first championship in 2017?
  • Tommy Johnson Jr. had an outstanding season in 2016. Can he keep it going in 2017?
  • After more than 20 years of trying, Ron Capps finally earned his first Funny Car championship in 2016. Can Capps do it again in 2017?

Pro Stock:

  • After winning a combined 15 races and back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, Erica Enders failed to win even one race in 2016 and was all but eliminated from the championship after failing to qualify for the first of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Her team goes back to Chevrolet power after one year with Dodge/Mopar. Will that be the ticket to return to the prominence and domination of 2014-15?
  • Will KB Racing continue to dominate Pro Stock like it did in 2016 with series champion Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson, who combined to win 16 of the season’s 24 races?
  • Shane Gray finished third in 2016 and then promptly turned over the keys to son Tanner for 2017. How will the younger Gray fare?
  • Four drivers appear to be ready for breakout seasons in 2017: Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha and Bo Butner. Which one breaks through?
  • Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, Jeg Coughlin, is a five-time Pro Stock champion. But in his return to full-time racing last season, Coughlin struggled just as much as Enders, finishing 10th in the standings. With Elite’s return to Chevrolet after a one-year stint with Dodge/Mopar, will Coughlin be able to get his game back to the way it used to?

Pro Stock Motorcycle:

  • Jerry Savoie had one of the most inspiring seasons – and stories – that NHRA has seen in the last 20 to 30 years. Will Savoie once again roar to win a second consecutive championship?
  • What happened to former champs Andrew Hines and teammate Eddie Krawiec last season? How is it they couldn’t hold off Savoie? Will they bounce back this year and battle each other for the title once again?
  • In her first full-time season back after a long hiatus, Angelle Sampey showed she hasn’t forgotten how to ride, finishing fourth in the championship battle. Could Sampey return to championship form again in 2016?
  • Veteran rider Chip Ellis had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, finishing fifth in the PSM standings. Can Ellis have a similar – if not better – season in 2017?
  • Veteran Steve Johnson, one of the most popular riders on the circuit, failed to make the Countdown in 2016. Can Johnson reach back in 2017 and give fellow riders like Hines, Krawiec, Sampey and Savoie a run for their money?

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Sauber announces multi-year F1 engine deal with Ferrari

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Sauber will continue to race with Ferrari power units in Formula 1 next year after announcing a new, multi-year deal on Friday morning.

Sauber has enjoyed an engine supply from Ferrari since BMW pulled its factory support ahead of the 2010 season, but announced in April that it would be working with Honda from 2018.

The deal was thrown into doubt when CEO Monisha Kaltenborn left the team following a dispute with its owners, with ex-Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur drafted in to replace her.

Reports suggested that the Sauber owners were not keen on working with Honda in 2018, leading to the deal being canceled, as announced by the team on Thursday.

Less than 24 hours later, Sauber confirmed that a multi-year deal to use up-to-date Ferrari power units had been agreed, starting in 2018.

“I am very pleased to confirm that we will continue to work with Scuderia Ferrari as our engine supplier in form of a multi-year agreement,” Vasseur said.

“The shared experience between the Sauber F1 Team and Ferrari has built a strong foundation, which will allow us to move forward swiftly and efficiently, also in terms of the development of the 2018 car.

“I am convinced that together we can achieve the results which reflect the passion and determination that is, and always has been, behind the Sauber F1 Team.”

The confirmation of Ferrari power may open up a possible seat for one of its junior drivers for 2018, with Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi both making strong cases to step up to F1.

It does, however, not appear to bode well for Mercedes-backed Pascal Wehrlein, who has led Sauber’s charge alongside Marcus Ericsson. The latter is understood to have links to the team’s owners, making his seat secure.

Ricciardo quickest as Red Bull leads opening Hungarian GP practice

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Daniel Ricciardo made a flying start to the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend by topping the opening Formula 1 practice session at the Hungaroring for Red Bull, beating rivals from the Ferrari and Mercedes teams.

Red Bull has been running as the third-fastest team for much of the F1 season so far behind Ferrari and Mercedes, but hoped to make up some ground in Hungary given the tight and twisting nature of the circuit on the outskirts of Budapest, suiting the RB13 chassis.

Ricciardo was able to live up to the hopes through FP1 by soundly beating the rival teams, recording a fastest lap of 1:18.486 to finish two-tenths of a second clear at the front of the pack.

The Australian was tailed by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in second place, with five-time Hungarian Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton taking third for Mercedes ahead of Max Verstappen in the second Red Bull.

Valtteri Bottas took fifth for Mercedes, while championship leader Sebastian Vettel wound up sixth, more than a second behind Ricciardo at the front.

McLaren enjoyed one of its strongest sessions of the season so far as both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne made the top 10, taking P7 and P8 respectively.

Renault was also able to get both of its drivers up into the top half of the order, with Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer ending up ninth and 10th. Palmer did suffer a late crash that meant FP1 ended under a red flag, continuing his recent plight.

The session saw Alfonso Celis Jr. and Antonio Giovinazzi, development drivers at Force India and Haas respectively, get some track time, but things did not go entirely as planned.

Giovinazzi suffered a shunt that cut his session short, forcing the Italian to return to the paddock on foot and leave the Haas team with a quick repair job to complete ahead of second practice later today.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.