Amped is a good word to prep for Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000 2017 season previews

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While the Verizon IndyCar Series always gets the headline status at the start of the new season, it’s the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires’ start of a new year that always provides the first glimpse into the potential future stars you could see in IndyCar one day.

The traditional six-pack of races on the streets of St. Petersburg sets the tone for the start of the new year as the run for the more than $2 million in Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships awarded at year’s end gets going.

With that, here’s a look ahead to the respective seasons:

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Few would argue last year’s Indy Lights field was one of the strongest in quality in nearly a decade. Seven different drivers won races and six were in contention for the championship with just two race weekends to go.

There’s always going to be a bit of upheaval with a new season and of those top six drivers, only two of them return for 2017, which means both enter as the joint preseason title favorites.

Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Kyle Kaiser could emerge as this year’s champion. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In a nutshell, Kyle Kaiser has consistency and stability in his pocket while Santiago Urrutia has speed, car experience and a change of scenery that he didn’t have this time last year.

The 21-year-old Californian, Kaiser won his first two races at the Phoenix oval and Monterey road course, scored poles there and on the streets of St. Petersburg and finished third in points. A well-rounded driver, Kaiser has grown in maturation over the season and if he can turn some of his sixth places of a year ago into top-fives – he had six of them in 16 races – he could win the title for Juncos Racing.

Urrutia, meanwhile, is in a title-or-bust scenario for his sophomore season. The Uruguayan has speed to burn and the confidence of knowing he can win in Indy Lights, which he did at three different permanent road courses last year.

Urrutia moves to Belardi for 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Urrutia moves to Belardi for 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He and engineer Tim Neff move to Belardi Auto Racing in a move that should shore up his oval progression; this has been the type of track that’s given him trouble the last two years. Improve on ovals, and the title is there for the taking after his tough loss a year ago, which he handled with maturity beyond his 20 years.

The five other returning drivers for 2017 – Shelby Blackstock, Zachary Claman De Melo, Dalton Kellett, Neil Alberico and Juan Piedrahita – finished between eighth and 13th in points a year ago with only one combined podium finish (Kellett was third at the Freedom 100).

Of those five, you’d have to say Alberico has the highest upside given his usual year-to-year growth in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda when he contended for the title then, and with mechanical issues stunting his first year, he has a chance with Carlin to emerge as that team’s lead driver. Blackstock (Belardi) and Claman De Melo (Carlin) switch teams this offseason. None of these five would be considered a preseason title favorite but two to three of them, at least, should move forward from where they were a year ago.

The eight rookies set to debut at St. Petersburg boast a fascinating mix of talent, speed, personality and family history that will serve Indy Lights well.

Telitz keeps his eyes on the prize. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Telitz keeps his eyes on the prize. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Belardi Auto Racing fields Aaron Telitz, the Wisconsinite who completes his journey up to final step on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder after winning races in USF2000 and winning last year’s Pro Mazda championship. Telitz, engineer Kent Boyer and the John Brunner-led, Brian Belardi-owned team have clicked during the offseason and he should be an instant contender.

Andretti Autosport has two traditional rookies in Nico Jamin and Ryan Norman. Jamin, the 2015 USF2000 champion and the only other driver in Telitz and Pato O’Ward’s zip code in Pro Mazda last year, will no doubt impress in his step up to Indy Lights, and like Telitz seems a probable first-time winner at some stage this year. Norman enters rather under-the-radar but has experience in the Atlantic series and will look to surprise as the year progresses.

The eyes, the helmet is all Herta... this one's Colton instead of dad Bryan though. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
The eyes and the helmet is all Herta… this one’s Colton instead of dad Bryan though. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

There’s a third rookie from the Andretti stable that will draw a lot of interest in Colton Herta, who at 16 will be one of the youngest drivers in series history and will be the top family storyline going into the year. Herta, the son of Bryan Herta, drives for Michael Andretti (himself the second generation in a three-generation racing family) and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, who brings that family’s winning history from the New York Yankees into racing with the Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry. Young Herta has a lot of experience in Europe and is back Stateside for the first time since 2014, when he raced in USF2000.

Carlin has a pair of rookies in Garth Rickards and Matheus Leist. Rickards, the Pennsylvania native, will look to do what RC Enerson did in 2015 – step up from USF2000 to Indy Lights directly and win a race. Rickards’ qualifying didn’t always bare itself out in great USF2000 results so if he can keep his qualifying performance up in these cars, he could shine. Leist, the teenaged Brazilian, moves Stateside after winning last year’s BRDC British F3 title. He will have to learn quickly.

Lastly a pair of Latin American drivers will be keen to impress. Argentine teenager Nico Dapero came on quickly at the end of last season with Juncos Racing in Pro Mazda and will continue to grow with the team this year. Meanwhile Mexican teenager Pato O’Ward, confirmed only for St. Petersburg with Team Pelfrey, looks to upset the apple cart with nothing to lose and everything to gain in his own step up from Pro Mazda.

The 16-race schedule features no races on the West Coast with Phoenix and Monterey both dropped (probably to Kaiser’s chagrin), and Gateway added. The Freedom 100, Iowa, Gateway and Watkins Glen races are single events with the rest doubleheaders for a total of three oval, four street course and nine road course races.

Four of the five returning teams all won races last year (Pelfrey the exception) and all five made the podium at least once. While a 15-car grid falls short of continuing to build upon the 16 that started last season, it is fortuitous most of the equipment from the disbanded Schmidt Peterson operation found a home elsewhere on the grid for 2017, and keeps the quality of the field still relatively high.

Kaiser and Urrutia enter as the drivers who immediately should be considered preseason title favorites, but the number of rookies that could win races is very intriguing as well. And if any of the other returning drivers make that next step forward this year, then we may well be writing about the seven different winners once again.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

One of the challenges within the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is that as drivers move on, either further up the ladder to Indy Lights or to sports cars, sometimes one of the three MRTI series is hit with a lower car count than you’d hope.

That series happens to be Pro Mazda in 2017, in the final year of its existing chassis with the rotary powered Mazda engine in the back, with car counts only scratching or exceeding the surface of double-digit entries.

But as Indy Lights struggled with single-digit fields as recently as 2013, and is now almost double that, this is very much a “survive and advance” year for Pro Mazda before the new Tatuus PM-18 debuts next season. And if last year with a similarly low car count is any indication, the loss in quantity can be offset by good quality.

Will the Pro Mazda field be seeing Martin's Soul Red up front this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Will the Pro Mazda field be seeing Martin’s Soul Red up front this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indeed four of the top five from last year’s Pro Mazda field – Telitz, O’Ward, Jamin and Dapero – have advanced into Indy Lights this year. It leaves a gaping hole at the top of Pro Mazda, of course, but one that several key drivers will look to fill.

USF2000 champion Anthony Martin should be at the head of the field from the off, as he’ll be back in a single-car effort for Cape Motorsports. The Australian overachieved in a single-car team with John Cummiskey Racing in 2015 in USF2000 and translated what he learned then into moving into title ascension with Cape last year. He’ll have full focus on his car this year and because he won’t be in the position of having teammates take points off each other, he has a good chance to match Matthew Brabham as the last driver to win USF2000 and Pro Mazda titles in successive years (2012-2013).

Or will Pelfrey yellow rule the day once again? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Or will Pelfrey yellow rule the day once again? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Team Pelfrey, meanwhile, will look for its third straight title with three new full-season drivers. The lone holdover is TJ Fischer, the Californian who made a midseason step up from USF2000 to Pro Mazda and learned the ropes. He should make a step forward this year. Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin rarely featured in two seasons of USF2000 but should do better here. The wild card is teenaged Brazilian Carlos Cunha, new to the series and the tracks, but a fast prospect who could surprise. Urrutia and Telitz – Pelfrey’s last two champions – have worn Soul Red for Mazda in Indy Lights the following year.

The remainder of the field does not, at present, boast significant title prospects but will look to intermingle at the top when the opportunity presents itself. That said, a surprise or two could emerge from the late entries.

An additional incentive program announced by series operators Andersen Promotions helps, as does the fact it’s only a six-weekend, 12-race schedule with a tripleheader at Mid-Ohio and single oval at Gateway joined by doubleheaders at St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, Road America and Watkins Glen.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

While Indy Lights features a bevy of rookies and Pro Mazda features a number of new potential race winners, it’s USF2000 that features both, plus the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis that figures to throw a monkey wrench in the formbook for 2017.

Thompson (90), Gabin (91) and Franzoni (9) among three of the returnees. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Thompson (90), Gabin (91) and Franzoni (9) among three of the returnees. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

More than 20 cars figure to start the season opener at St. Petersburg this weekend and there’s about half the field, split between returning drivers and talented rookies, who could make some noise.

Cape Motorsports has won the last six series titles but faces a threat to its supremacy in 2017.

The veterans still in USF2000 are all hungry for different reasons. Three drivers enter their third years, and all of Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), Luke Gabin (Exclusive) and Ayla Agren (Team Pelfrey) have the most race experience within the series. Whether that translates well with the new car, however, remains to be seen.

Series sophomores Robert Megennis (Pelfrey), Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing) and Dakota Dickerson (Newman Wachs Racing) all impressed at various points last year and only Megennis returns to the same team in 2017. It would not be a surprise to see any of these three win their first races.

But it’s the rookies, who without the background of having the previous car and needing to re-learn this one, and with wide-eyed optimism and enthusiasm, who figure to make a big splash.

Askew is overflowing with promise. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Askew is overflowing with promise. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Chief among them is Oliver Askew, who’s a name you should put on your radar sooner rather than later given his star potential. The Floridian has won the Team USA Scholarship and the USF2000 shootout in successive months, and excelled in his first official test with Cape at Homestead-Miami. He’ll win races, the question being when they’ll happen and if it’s enough to give Cape a seventh straight title.

Newman Wachs’ Andre Castro and Pabst Racing’s Rinus Van Kalmthout are two rookies who also figure to make some noise. Two others made one weekend appearance apiece last year, Kaylen Frederick of Team Pelfrey and Devin Wojcik of ArmsUp Motorsports.

The rest of the rookies are sprinkled in at Cape, ArmsUp, DE Force Racing, RJB Motorsports, Pabst, Benik, John Cummiskey Racing and Exclusive Autosport. So there’s plenty of first-year drivers to go around.

Like Pro Mazda, USF2000 only has one oval on its schedule, in Iowa instead of Gateway. That race and Watkins Glen are single races with the rest doubleheader weekends.

You might not know the USF2000 names now but as recent drivers like Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Sage Karam have proved, IndyCar is within reach down the road.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.