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F1 Preview: 2017 Russian Grand Prix

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Before the bulk of the European season begins with the Spanish Grand Prix in a little over two wees’ time, the Formula 1 paddock is gearing up for one final flyaway in Russia this weekend.

The Russian Grand Prix has become a key part of the post-Winter Olympic legacy for the seaside resort of Sochi, which hosted the games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom winds throughout the Olympic Village, offering a happy medium between street and road course that makes it a challenge to drivers.

In all three of the world championship races that have been held in Russia, Mercedes has been untouchable. Lewis Hamilton and now-retired Nico Rosberg have led every single racing lap in the history of the Sochi Autodrom, making the Silver Arrows the cars to beat this weekend.

However, 2017 has been a year for surprises, with Ferrari enjoying a revival thanks to Sebastian Vettel. The German has won two of the first three races this season, the latest coming in Bahrain two weeks ago to give him the championship lead.

In the city that offered us so many international battles three years ago, another is set to play out on Sunday: but will it be a Briton, a German, or even a Finn that strikes gold in Sochi?

Here are the key talking points for the Russian Grand Prix.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Ferrari bask in best start since Schumacher

Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari back in 2015 was always seen as a nod to his hero, Michael Schumacher, whose career trajectory took a similar turn in 1996. The links are only continuing this year, with Vettel’s start to the season being the best by any Ferrari driver since Schumacher back in 2004.

It’s been a surprising purple patch of form for Ferrari, which hasn’t looked as strong as it is now since – truthfully – 2008 when it went head-to-head with McLaren for the title. It bodes well for Vettel, who is in the final year of his Ferrari contract and desperate for a fifth world title that would justify his decision to move to Maranello two years ago.

Russia could be a more challenging race for Ferrari, given temperatures won’t be as high as they were in Australia or Bahrain, playing into Mercedes’ favor. But should Vettel overcome this and bag a third win, it would surely signal to a title bid that is still only being whispered about by the Prancing Horse for fear of tempting fate.

Hamilton, Bottas seek responses to Bahrain disappointment

Mercedes hasn’t spent much time on the back foot in recent years, but it arrives in Sochi looking for a response to a disappointing defeat in Bahrain. After locking out the front row in style, a number of small factors conspired to hand victory to Ferrari, leaving Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to settle for P2 and P3 respectively.

Hamilton’s track record in Sochi is impressive, having won the 2014 and 2015 races before fighting from an issue in qualifying that left him 10th on the grid to finish second. Bottas has also finished on the podium before (2014), and will want to run the leading duo close after a generator issue spurned his hopes of a maiden win in Bahrain last time out.

Bottas could be a dark horse for victory here. The Finn has been growing in confidence through his first three races in a Mercedes, with his charge to pole in Bahrain surprising even Hamilton. So don’t rule him out of a maiden victory in Russia to kick-start his season.

Kvyat returns home, one year after career-changing race

There is no better place for Daniil Kvyat to celebrate his 23rd birthday than his home race, even if returning to Sochi will bring back memories of a disastrous 2016 race that changed his career trajectory.

Then racing for Red Bull, Kvyat headed to Sochi with his tail up after scoring his second F1 podium at the last race in China. However, two crashes with Vettel on the first lap in Russia ruined his race and gave Red Bull the excuse it needed to promote Max Verstappen into a race seat, sending Kvyat back to Toro Rosso.

The incident had a profound effect on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the season trying to regather himself, something he struggled to do until after the summer break. Red Bull backed him to respond and kept him at Toro Rosso in 2017 when it could have easily dropped him, and Kvyat has looked content so far this season.

The ghosts of Sochi may still linger for Kvyat, but this weekend, he will be the crowd favorite. How he charges this positive pressure will be of particular interest.

Has Haas found the answer to its brake issues?

Since joining the grid at the start of 2016, one of Haas’ biggest issues has been brakes. Repeated failures and problems hindered the American team’s form through the backend of last year, and with more issues arising in the early part of 2017, a change in supplier was actively pursued.

Having used Brembo for its racing commitments, Haas tested Carbon Industrie brakes in Bahrain and noted an improvement in performance, much to Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen’s pleasure. Although there will still be lots of work to do to map the brakes and fine-tune the settings, the switch for this weekend’s race in Russia could give the team a much-needed boost.

The Haas VF-17 car itself is strong. That much is clear. But if the brake issue is truly resolved, then we could see the team get a march on its midfield rivals.

One stop race on the cards

Tire degradation at the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, but with the extra-conservative tires that have been provided to F1 by Pireli this year, it is a near-certainty that this year’s Russian Grand Prix will be a one-stopper.

The cooler temperatures should play into Mercedes’ hands, but we saw in both Bahrain and Australia that Hamilton and Bottas found it difficult to stretch out their tires at points. These struggles cost Hamilton victory in Australia, and if Ferrari can get close once again this weekend, Vettel may have more confidence in the ultra-softs and be able to force another mistake.

Either way, don’t expect to see a strategic masterclass on Sunday in Sochi. It’ll be one stop and one stop only.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Sochi Autodrom
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:39.094 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:35.417
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:39.094
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T10 to T13

2017 Russian Grand Prix – TV Times

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.