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With his future uncertain, Palmer keen to improve at Baku

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The early part of the 2017/2018 Formula 1 silly season has thus far centered around the seemingly disintegrating McLaren Honda relationship from a team front, and on the underperforming Jolyon Palmer on the driver front.

Renault Sport Racing Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul has said Palmer, who is scoreless this season while teammate Nico Hulkenberg has scored all 18 of the team’s points, isn’t directly under threat but must improve as the year goes on – preferably sooner rather than later.

“No one is safe in F1,” Abiteboul told Autosport last week.  “F1 is not an environment where anyone can say loudly, ‘I’m safe.’

“To a certain degree there are two questions. There is Jo, and there is a second driver. Right now my focus is on Jo. Jo has to deliver.”

So, in terms of Jo delivering. He’s at least come closer to scoring with finishes of 11th place in each of the last two races, but with high attrition in both races – 13 cars finished in Monaco and 15 in Canada – it feels as though potential opportunities have slipped through his grasp.

Palmer says he likes street courses though and thinks Baku this weekend will be a place where he could improve.

“I’ve loved street circuits ever since I drove Marrakesh in F2 and then Monaco in GP2,” Palmer said in the team’s pre-race advance. “I’ve always got on well with them. I’m looking forward to getting back out on another city circuit and approaching it very differently to Monaco and building up a little bit more. It’s great when you’re so dialled in and you get close to the walls; that’s the best buzz for us.

“That is two 11th place finishes in a row. I think in Baku we can at least be in the top ten, maybe top eight. We are doing well at the moment, we will keep going and I am feeling strong, I need to work on qualifying pace and being higher on the grid.”

Palmer will be looking to improve from this race last year where he started on the last row and ended 15th.

“It is always tricky getting to grips with a new circuit, it is very high speed and it brought a lot of challenges,” he said. “We now know where the bumps are and which gears to use. I qualified on the final row last year and managed to work my way up to fifteenth in the race. I think I put in the eighth fastest lap of the race which is very positive, I am looking forward to getting out there and building on that knowledge.”

Abiteboul said consistent improvement is the only goal for Renault as the year goes on, and with its place in the Constructor’s Championship in a four-way battle for fifth place, getting the most out of both drivers is key.

Toro Rosso currently sits fifth on 29, with Williams on 22, Renault on 18 and Haas on 15 – so points are at a premium for these four teams.

“It’s an event we’re looking forward to as it’s another opportunity for us to improve and develop, which are the keywords for our season,” Abiteboul said heading into the weekend.

“Baku is an especially exciting and testing circuit on the Formula 1 calendar and it is important that we add to our success from Canada with another points haul. Baku presents a fairly similar task to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with some long straights finishing in hard-braking zones.

“Everything we learned in Montréal should be very useful for building towards a clearer picture for Azerbaijan. Last year was a step into the unknown but there is a positive feeling this time around as we have the know-how on what to expect.”

As there are four races left until F1’s summer recess in August, Baku this weekend before the Austrian, British and Hungarian Grands Prix in July, the time is now for Palmer to build his case for his future with the team and in the sport before his place could be under threat.

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”