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The state of play in F1’s driver market heading towards 2018

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Already?

Yep, already.

We may be just six races into the 2017 Formula 1 season, but the driver market for next year is already up for discussion.

The inspiration for this article came from an impromptu chat with my colleague, Tony DiZinno, following the announcement from Haas that Antonio Giovinazzi would be taking part in seven FP1 sessions through the second half of the season. As such, we shall take Giovinazzi and Haas as our starting point for piecing together next year’s driver puzzle.

Such an intensive preparation program is usually a signal that a race seat awaits, with the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Daniil Kvyat, Jolyon Palmer and Max Verstappen enjoying something similar in recent times.

Giovinazzi certainly has the quality to race in F1, as proven by his GP2 campaign last year and impressive (albeit crash-strewn) showing in the first two races of the season when deputizing at Sauber for the injured Pascal Wehrlein. So for him to be in contention for a race seat with what will be the only Ferrari customer team on the grid next year is no surprise.

The strange part of the announcement was who Giovinazzi would be replacing in the FP1 sessions. He’ll take Romain Grosjean’s seat in the VF-17 for one practice, and leave Kevin Magnussen on the sidelines for the remaining six. It’s unbalanced. With Magnussen on a multi-year deal, it may not point to him being the driver who would get the boot should Ferrari usher Giovinazzi in – but it’s hardly going to fill the Dane with confidence.

Ferrari’s own driver situation is of definite interest. While the Prancing Horse has once again broken into a canter after three race wins to kick off the season, neither championship leader Sebastian Vettel nor teammate Kimi Raikkonen are signed to a firm deal for next year.

Vettel will be Ferrari’s most pressing concern for 2018. His initial three-year deal is up at the end of the season, yet with the team enjoying some of its best form since the end of the Michael Schumacher era in 2006. If Vettel can continue this early season form, it seems difficult to see him leaving the team he has become so entrenched in and comfortable with, even if Mercedes may be an attractive proposition (one I shall get to shortly).

As for Raikkonen? Ferrari really has to ask itself the same question it has done for the past three years: do we want to keep Kimi around? The Finn has been solid this year, albeit unable to match Vettel for pace, and gets on well with his four-time champion teammate. Ferrari may see keeping Raikkonen, who is 38 at the end of the season, as a way to keep Vettel sweet. It may also decide that enough is enough, and that a younger driver who is perhaps more capable of challenging Vettel is required. That is a dilemma for Messers Marchionne and Arrivabene to stew over in the coming months.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO – MAY 27: Pole position qualifier Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari gives the fans a thumbs up in parc ferme during qualifying for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 27, 2017 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Will Taylor-Medhurst/Getty Images)

Should Ferrari look elsewhere for a driver, it has few obvious options. Romain Grosjean has been linked with Ferrari in the past and has been racing for the customer Haas team for over a season now, so there is a connection. Sergio Perez is another name that has been thrown about as a future Ferrari driver, being one of the top midfield runners with Force India.

If Ferrari wants the best driver possible, then Daniel Ricciardo may be an option. The Australian is locked in to a contract with Red Bull for next year – then again, so was Vettel, and it didn’t stop him moving – but could favor a change of scenery if he believes the grass to be greener. Things are harmonious for now at Red Bull between Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, but when – or indeed if – success comes, tensions could flare.

Ricciardo moving to Ferrari would be a loss for Red Bull, yet it would also help free up a current blockage in its driver program. Carlos Sainz Jr. has been prolific with Toro Rosso for much of his time with the team, hardly shaming himself when alongside Verstappen, and is deserving of a call-up. The Spaniard is doing everything right – so surely if a move up to Red Bull didn’t come for 2018, he would then look elsewhere. Indeed, Ferrari might decide he is the Red Bull-backed driver it wants to sign.

Were Sainz to move up, then GP2 champion Pierre Gasly could get the nod to partner Daniil Kvyat. If Ricciardo and Sainz both stay, then it is Kvyat who would likely find himself in the cold.

So if Red Bull and Ferrari can be tied together in one ‘bracket’ of this driver market, then McLaren and Mercedes can be together in another. Ah, nostalgia…

For Mercedes, the decision for its driver line-up for 2018 seems quite clear: Valtteri Bottas will surely stay beyond his existing one-year deal. The Finn has seamlessly fitted in at Brackley, working well behind-the-scenes and putting in a number of impressive displays on-track, with his maiden F1 victory coming in just his fourth race for the Silver Arrows. Sure, he’s not been beating Lewis Hamilton hands down – nor would that be expected – but he’s certainly stepped up to life in a big team very well.

What’s even more important is the impact he has had on Hamilton. Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff noted over the Monaco weekend how different Hamilton was in himself now Nico Rosberg was out of the team, going as far as saying he could see the Briton seeing out the rest of his F1 career at Brackley. It’s definitely imaginable – and you could see Bottas being there all the while before becoming team leader when Hamilton calls it quits.

This is bad news for Fernando Alonso. Now back from his Indianapolis 500 adventure, Alonso will once again go back to a life of frustration and untapped potential as a McLaren-Honda driver. Out of contract at the end of the year, unless McLaren were to offer him a sugary sweet deal – say, freedom to go and down the Indy 500 and Le Mans as and when he pleases – and show some sign of progress on-rack, it’s hard to see Alonso sticking around.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 24: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 24, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Alonso has said that he will consider his options after the summer break, with Red Bull being the only team he couldn’t really move to give their drivers are sewn up contract-wise. I noted in a column earlier this year that a return to Ferrari was not out of the realm of imagination, yet in reality, a Vettel-Alonso partnership would not end well, as exciting as it would be for the neutral.

So that leaves Renault as Alonso’s only real option for 2018. It’s based on little more than romanticism, frankly. Alonso won his two world titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006, and returned for a second stint with the team in 2008-09 after his ill-fated year with McLaren. Renault is rebuilding, and needs a driver who is a big, big name to really lead its program – Nico Hulkenberg is a very capable driver, but he’s not Fernando Alonso… – so it would make sense.

It’s really a question of whether Renault would want to have a third whirl-around with Alonso and what it could expect to achieve in the process. Alonso would also be insistent on having the freedom to do events such as Le Mans and Indy, the latter possible (ironically) because of Honda. Renault would have to accept that if it wanted to make a deal possible.

And where does that leave McLaren? Honestly, if Alonso does indeed bail, the British team will need to think fast if it wants a replacement who even sort of fits the bill for a ‘McLaren driver’.

None of the top drivers would be interested in a move to McLaren, and if we quickly tidy up the other teams, you can see who is left up for grabs.

  • Esteban Ocon looks set at Force India until a place at Mercedes frees up in the future.
  • Williams will surely keep Lance Stroll given his funding. Felipe Massa seems to be enjoying himself and is quick on-track, so could stay on.
  • Mercedes may try and move Pascal Wehrlein into either Force India or Williams should a seat arise, given Honda’s arrival at Sauber, who I imagine will want one of its own juniors to partner Marcus Ericsson.

So who does McLaren call? Perez is a no given his one-year stint in 2013. The same is true of Magnussen from the following season. Sainz might be of interest if Ferrari passes over him and he’s had enough of staying at Toro Rosso. Grosjean is an option, but again, would he want to drop Haas for McLaren, particularly if Raikkonen stays on at Ferrari? Or would Kimi himself fancy a return to McLaren for a season..?

It’s really hard to see who McLaren can sign if Alonso does leave. Jenson Button enjoyed his one-race comeback in Monaco, yet he showed little desire to make a full-time return. He’s enjoying his life too much for that, spending time with his girlfriend and his dogs, and occasionally jumping in a race car. Why change that?

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO – MAY 24: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda poses for a portrait over looking the harbour during previews for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 24, 2017 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

Thinking left field: does McLaren resolve this problem in the same way it appeased Alonso, by dipping into IndyCar and finding a Honda-associated driver? Does it decide to place all of its chips on the future, and pick Formula 3 junior Lando Norris, widely perceived as Britain’s next great F1 star, to partner Stoffel Vandoorne? Or will the heritage, prestige, and resources McLaren still undeniably boasts prove attractive to an experienced head on the existing grid?

The driver market for next year is going to be a strange one to work out. Unlike the all-out mayhem in the midfield teams that was expected last year – and only really arrived when Nico Rosberg hung up his helmet – this one will be a trickle-down market.

Once Ferrari and Mercedes make their first moves, then the rest will follow – but don’t leave it too late, or you’ll be the team to pick up the scraps and get a line-up you never really wanted.

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.