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Remembering Lewis Hamilton’s F1 debut, 10 years ago today

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A friendly warning before you read this piece: prepare to feel old.

As we begin to get ready for the start of the new Formula 1 season in Australia next Sunday, the preseason favorite is Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.

With three world titles to his name and more than 50 race wins chalked up, Hamilton is one of F1’s modern-day superstars. As well as showcasing devastating speed on-track, he has developed a burgeoning celebrity reputation off it, gracing red carpets all over the world.

There can be little doubt that Hamilton is one of the most famous and talented drivers in F1’s history, but there was a time when things were very different.

Ten years ago today, a young kid from the rather unremarkable town of Stevenage, England made his grand prix debut in Australia. There were no piercings; no tattoos; no celebrities on his arm. Only his father and mentor, Anthony, was there to cheer him on in the garage. But the on-track display that was delivered made the world stand up and take notice of Lewis Hamilton.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 18: Lewis Hamilton (L) of Great Britain and McLaren Mercedes pictured with his father Anthony Hamilton after the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 18, 2007 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Hamilton had been under McLaren’s wing for the bulk of his junior racing career. Having first met McLaren F1 boss Ron Dennis at the age of nine at an awards ceremony, Hamilton told him there and then he wanted to race for his team one day. On March 18, 2007, it became a reality.

Hamilton had been lighting up GP2 through 2006, enjoying a title fight against fellow up-and-comer Nelson Piquet Jr. Hamilton’s season was defined by a charge from 18th to second in Turkey, and the title was wrapped up in Monza.

McLaren had already announced at the end of 2005 that two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso would be joining in 2007, with Kimi Raikkonen bound for Ferrari as Michael Schumacher’s replacement. However, Alonso’s teammate was still a big question mark through the summer of 2006. Juan Pablo Montoya had sensationally walked away from F1 midway through the year, leaving Pedro de la Rosa to take his seat for the remainder of the season. The Spaniard was a definite contender to continue in 2007.

But Hamilton was able to put a spoke in the works. McLaren did look at parachuting him into a team down the grid for 2007 to give him some racing experience, but after an impressive three-day test in September at Silverstone, Dennis’ mind was made up: Hamilton had to be in F1 next year. He would be the man to partner Alonso.

Hamilton once again displayed a rapid pace through preseason, but few expected him to enjoy the debut he did in Australia. Even if he was F1’s latest golden talent, the occasion would surely prove too great for him. It was his first race, after all.

Oh how wrong such an assertion proved to be.

Hamilton took the weekend in his stride. Following a wet first practice, he finished third in both FP2 and FP3, establishing himself as one of the main contenders for pole in qualifying. He finished a narrow second in Q1 behind Raikkonen and eased into the top-10 shootout. Raikkonen was able to turn up the wick and score pole for his Ferrari debut, while Alonso secured second. Nick Heidfeld took a respectable third for BMW Sauber, beating Hamilton, who would start P4.

“I’m overwhelmed to be on the second row for my first grand prix,” Hamilton said. “This weekend is what I have been preparing myself for during the past 13 years and I’m enjoying every moment.”

Despite being one of the leading drivers all weekend long, Hamilton’s goals for the race remained casual: “I want to get a good start and then work hard to score as many points for the team and myself. I’m not going to make any predictions because anything can happen but so far so good.”

Hamilton’s initial getaway from the grid wasn’t great. His silver and red McLaren was slow to get moving, allowing BMW’s Robert Kubica to swarm him. But no matter; Hamilton thought fast and dived from the inside to the outside, and proceeded to pull off one of the most iconic overtakes of his career.

In the sister McLaren, Alonso was committed to the inside of the corner and had to slow right down, also proceeding to back Kubica up. Now on the outside, Hamilton was able to float around and follow Heidfeld past Alonso.

McLaren’s star man had been usurped by his rookie teammate at the first very corner. It would set the tone for a frosty year to come.

As Raikkonen peeled away up front, Heidfeld was able to keep Hamilton at an arm’s length, but his low fuel load that had given him such good pace in Q3 forced the German into an early stop, lifting Hamilton to second. With Alonso in tow, Hamilton made it through the first round of stops without any incidents, now running second behind the leading Ferrari.

After giving Alonso first service in the pits earlier in the race, McLaren opted to bring Hamilton in first the second time around. Alonso was able to go far longer on his second stint before coming in, emerging with a healthy buffer to Hamilton.

Come the checkered flag, Hamilton was unable to bridge the gap to Alonso in second, but he remained an easy third, 20 seconds clear of Heidfeld. Race one: podium finish. Not bad for starters.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 18: Fernando Alonso (L) of Spain and McLaren Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain celebrate their podium positions after the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 18, 2007 in Melbourne, Australia. Alonso finished second and Hamilton third in his debut race. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

“I’m absolutely ecstatic – today’s result is more than I ever dreamed of achieving on my grand prix debut,” Hamilton said.

“A big thank you to the team who have worked so hard during the winter to make sure I was as prepared as I possibly could be.

“The race was intense, and I was working very hard. I made a few mistakes but nothing major and really enjoyed myself.”

As stunning as Hamilton’s debut display was, it was merely the start. He would be a permanent fixture on the podium for the first nine races of the year, including wins in Montreal and Indianapolis, and launched a remarkable fight for the title. And this was all against the backdrop of a bitter rivalry with Alonso that forced the latter out of the team after just a single season.

While Hamilton would fall a point short of the title in his debut season (Raikkonen won with 110 points; Alonso and Hamilton both finished on 109), his breakthrough crown would arrive the following year. A mixed period with McLaren followed before he moved to Mercedes for 2013, starting the most dominant stint of his career that included title wins in 2014 and 2015.

Hamilton is now statistically one of the greatest drivers in F1 history, having more wins than any driver except Michael Schumacher and more poles than all bar Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.

And it all started 10 years ago today.

Report: GP Association of Long Beach ‘most qualified’ firm to run race

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Not for the first time, the future of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was in the news earlier this year, and the question of whether Formula 1 could re-enter running the race it did from 1976 to 1983, or whether North American open-wheel racing, in INDYCAR, would keep it up.

The city of Long Beach decided to conduct a study using accounting firm KPMG, and paid the firm $150,000 to evaluate whether existing race operators the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, led by Jim Michaelian, or Chris Pook’s World Automobile Championship, would be best to run the race. Pook founded the event in the 1970s but has in recent years, harbored the return of F1 and suggested it would be a more viable economic prospect.

Per the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the study has now concluded following proposals and interviews from both camps. In a memo obtained by the Press-Telegram, the report indicated the existing GPALB “as the most qualified firm to promote and operate the Long Beach Grand Prix race.”

Michaelian told the Press-Telegram this was an “first but important step” in the process for the race to build a new contract with a city; the existing contract runs through 2018.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, in a statement released to the Sports Business Journal, appreciated the recommendation: that statement is below.

This appears to be a key step towards INDYCAR, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach and the city of Long Beach all working towards an agreement that will keep INDYCAR racing at its most successful, longest running, and marquee street course event on the calendar.

The 2017 Team USA Scholarship candidates revealed

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ trip to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is usually the time of year when we first hear of the candidates for the next year’s Team USA Scholarship, as Jeremy Shaw’s program identifies the next round of talented American drivers who could go on to greater success in racing.

Shaw, known as perhaps the most ardent and best scout of North American driving talent since the program’s inception in 1990, and the program have revealed the 10 candidates who will participate in interviews and further evaluation this weekend before the finalists are named at a later date.

The full release is linked here, while the 10 drivers selected are below.

This year’s Team USA Scholarship candidates are (with age, DOB, hometown and current racing affiliation):

• Sabré Cook, 23, Grand Junction, Colo., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Konrad Czaczyk, 20, Jupiter, Fla., F1600 Formula Tour Championship (Canada)
• Elliot Finlayson, 21, Yorkville, Ill., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Aaron Jeansonne, 18, Sulphur, La., Lucas Oil School of Racing
• Kyle Kirkwood, 18, Jupiter, Fla., F4 U.S. Championship powered by Honda
• Jonathan Kotyk, 23, Atlantic Beach, Fla., F1600 Championship Series
• Jacob Loomis, 17, Corinth, Texas, F4 US Championship/Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
• David Osborne, 21, Cincinnati, Ohio, F1600 Championship Series
• Simon Sikes, 16, Martinez, Ga., Skip Barber Racing Series
• Carter Williams, 18, Clovis, Calif., Formula Car Challenge Presented by Goodyear

Rahal, RLL on a roll heading home to Mid-Ohio

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Graham Rahal’s potential last best chance to close a boatload of points in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase comes this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and it couldn’t come at a better time on the calendar.

He sits tied with Will Power for fifth in the points, 64 behind championship leader Scott Dixon (423-359) with five races remaining. Closing that gap to within 40 or less this weekend will provide him a realistic shot at securing his first title.

A nightmare start to the year saw Rahal finish no better than 10th in the first four races, and left him 17th in points with 59 total, 100 back of then-leader Simon Pagenaud.

In the last eight however, he’s finished between first and ninth in all but one of them. His lone finish outside the top 10 came at the double points Indianapolis 500, with a late-race flat tire resigning him to 12th place there.

That score of 300 points over the last eight races is second in the series, only two behind Helio Castroneves with 302, and with both drivers ruing an ill-timed caution flag last race at Toronto that cost both likely chances at another victory this season.

On the whole though, the single-car No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been a regular consistent threat at the front of the field, same as it has in 2015 and 2016 even despite being up against a trio of four-car entries from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Rahal’s qualifying lap on used Firestone red alternate tires at Toronto netted second on the grid and he hailed it as one of the best laps he’s ever completed in his career.

Graham’s performance and the recent run of form has Bobby Rahal pleased as the team heads into its spiritual home race in Lexington, Ohio this weekend, where driver and team scored a popular victory in 2015.

“If you look at the start of the year at Long Beach we qualified sixth, but we were running in the train – fourth or fifth right to the end of the race and had the flat tire,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We just couldn’t seem to get a good break.

“Clearly when we got to the Indy Grand Prix we had problems in qualifying, but the race pace was there. Then a flat tire hit in the 500. We led the race from where we gridded (14th) and we could have threatened at the end. It’s been a little bit snake bit prior to this.

“But clearly the pace was there. Texas finishing fourth there was a good finish. Fifth at Iowa was good. Unfortunately in Toronto, and we had the great qualifying performance I thought, I don’t think anyone was happy post-race! I think even Roger Penske told Graham we got screwed, and even though he won, his own car (Castroneves) lost!

“Still the fact we did it on used reds versus new reds, I thought was pretty impressive. In Toronto we were pretty good – maybe not as good as we were in Detroit – but still pretty good and kept getting better and better.

“I think he’s driving very well. I’m pleased about that. What’s so hard about that qualifying there, is you only have one lap to do on tires on Toronto for example. It’s easy to overdrive a car in that situation, but he hasn’t. I think he’s done a good job in that respect.”

Graham Rahal

For Graham Rahal, who loves coming home to Mid-Ohio, this is an important weekend but one that he always takes the opportunity to savor.

“It’s always great to go back to Mid-Ohio,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories, and have had a lot of great days there. Obviously winning there in 2015 really highlighted my career thus far. I’m excited to get back and hopefully see a great crowd once again. I know we will have a lot of support and I’m very appreciative of that.  Hopefully we can have a great run in the Steak ‘n Shake Honda because we definitely need it at this point in the championship.”

Rahal’s road course performance hasn’t been stellar this year in qualifying with 21st and last at Barber, 20th on the grid at the INDYCAR Grand Prix in Indianapolis, but then a big jump to sixth at Road America, making the Firestone Fast Six. Finishes of 13th, sixth and eighth have represented good comeback drives in the race.

“My hopes and expectations are high,” said Rahal. “We have struggled with our road course setup this year but at the same time I think we are capable of overcoming that. Our guys have put a lot of effort, a lot of time and mental energy into figuring out what we need going forward.”

One of the areas that will help him is his pit position this week. Having qualified second at Toronto last race, Rahal has nearly the perfect pit spot this weekend, as pit lane and track position at Mid-Ohio are crucial.

“Our pit position in Mid-Ohio, based on qualifying second in Toronto, is going to be great. It’s flat so that is going to help us a lot.  Obviously you want to be pitted with the good guys.  You want to be right down there where the fast guys and championship contenders are and we’re right there with them,” he said.

Rahal is in championship contention despite that rocky start to the year and will be looking for some home cooking to fire up the final five races of the season.

New 2018 IndyCar aero kit makes its formal test debut at IMS

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After months of buildup and following Monday’s reveal, Tuesday marked the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit’s official debut on track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

INDYCAR’s release, with a handful of social media posts embedded, is below:

If the first day of on-track testing is any indication, the new Verizon IndyCar Series car is well on its way to making Indy car racing in 2018 even better.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia turned more than 100 laps each on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in their respective Chevrolet- and Honda-powered Dallara IR-12s equipped with the universal aerodynamic bodywork kit making its public debut ahead of being used by all competitors next season.

Afterward, approval of the new car’s bolder, sleeker look and performance was unanimous from everyone involved. Buy-in from the two test drivers – among the most veteran and respected around – was essential and secured from the outset.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said the 43-year-old Servia, who has driven Indy cars since 2000. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away.

“I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

INDYCAR, sanctioning body for the Verizon IndyCar Series, announced in April 2016 its intent to move away from aero kit competition to a universally supplied kit in 2018. Dallara, a series chassis supplier since 1997, was named to produce and supply the universal kit.

“It’s exciting because, for the first time in the car, it drives really, really well,” said Montoya, 41 and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “I think they addressed a lot of the things and the car looks great. I think having one aero kit for everybody is great for the sport. The car looks good and it drives really good.”

Montoya’s car was prepared by Team Penske and Servia’s by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, though INDYCAR is retaining control of the cars until testing is complete in late September. INDYCAR officials watched with nervous excitement as the two cars took to the track for the first time shortly after 9 a.m. ET and methodically worked through the test checklist. By 5 p.m., the checklist had been completed and a potential second day of testing Wednesday was deemed unnecessary.

“We were pleased,” said Bill Pappas, INDYCAR’s vice president of competition/race engineering who headed up the technical development of the universal kit. “It matched up with our numbers that we predicted in the wind tunnel and CFD (computational fluid dynamics), so we were very happy for that.”

Pappas said the test list included short runs by each car to “ensure that there weren’t any surprises,” followed by longer runs on the 2.5-mile oval to check for durability issues. Everyone at INDYCAR and Dallara felt confident the test would be a success, but there are never givens in racing.

“This is my first experience being part of a car being designed,” Pappas said. “Obviously, Dallara did a great job helping us, but you hold your breath until the first competitive laps are run.”

Love this place. @indianapolismotorspeedway is sooo much fun in an @indycar @teamchevy @team_penske @fitzgeraldgliderkits

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Old Boys. @indycar #2018 #shapingthefuture #future #racing #indy500

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Mission accomplished, at least for the first phase of testing. Additional tests for the two cars are scheduled for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 1), Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26). But the fact that this opening test was completed in half the allotted time is reason to celebrate, if only for a short time.

“Everything we had planned to do in two days, we already accomplished in the first day,” Servia said. “We did lots of laps, long runs, and the car feels good. The car feels very benign.

“It just feels right and we’re not having any issues or moments out there. Very consistent. My second long run, I think, was one of my most consistent runs I’ve done at this track in all of my years.”

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season resumes this weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Live race coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with an encore telecast at 7 p.m. on NBCSN.