Getty Images

F1 Preview: 2017 Japanese Grand Prix

Leave a comment

The 2017 Formula 1 season enters its final quarter this weekend with the Japanese Grand Prix at one of the world’s most famous and revered racetracks: Suzuka.

Ordinarily a mighty challenge, the stakes have been raised once again in 2017 with the new-style high downforce cars with wider tires, prompting a number of drivers to pick Suzuka as the circuit they were most looking forward to tackling in them.

Last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix saw both of the championship protagonists endure a rollercoaster ride of fortunes, but it was Lewis Hamilton who emerged with his lead extended.

Sebastian Vettel put in the drive of the day by charging from P20 to fourth, yet it was not enough to prevent Hamilton from going 34 points clear with five races remaining.

Neither were victorious at Sepang, though, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen taking a dominant victory that proves the team is a serious threat

Here is what to watch for in this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.

2017 Japanese Grand Prix – What to watch for

Will Malaysia victory kick-start Verstappen’s season?

Max Verstappen’s stunning victory last weekend in Malaysia was remarkably just the second time he had stood on the podium all season long, the first occasion coming in China back in April.

Various on-track incidents and reliability issues had denied Verstappen the chance to dice at the front, but Red Bull’s pace for much of the year did that anyway, with the team being largely marooned in P3 behind Mercedes and Ferrari.

Yet Malaysia saw Red Bull not only fight against but also overcome its rivals, proving the development the team has undertaken throughout the year and the progress made, setting it up well for the final five flyaways.

The high-downforce tracks should play towards the strengths of the RB13, meaning the team has most likely not seen its final chance to win this year pass by if its Malaysia form is to be trusted.

Hamilton closing in on the numbers game

Hamilton is close to being mathematically in control of the championship and not need another victory this year. Nico Rosberg moved into that territory at Suzuka last season by taking what will likely be his final F1 win, barring a shock comeback, allowing him to finish second behind Hamilton at the remaining races and still be world champion.

Hamilton will reach that point so long as Vettel does not outscore him by six at Suzuka, but this is a circuit the Ferrari driver has excelled at in the past. With the top three teams also looking tighter than at any point so far this season, there are no guarantees Hamilton will be able to find that breathing room.

Suzuka has been the site of many classic F1 showdowns through the years. Seeing Hamilton and Vettel go toe-to-toe would be a perfect chapter to add to the narrative of this season.

A final home hurrah for Honda with McLaren?

The Japanese Grand Prix has always been an event of pride for Honda, but this year’s race will offer bittersweet feelings as it teams up with McLaren at Suzuka for the final time.

Three weeks after their divorce for 2018 was confirmed, McLaren and Honda will enjoy the bulk of local support from the fans at Suzuka, even if their hopes of a big result are going to be very slim indeed.

But there have been good signs of progress in recent weeks. Stoffel Vandoorne has scored back-to-back P7s, overtaking teammate Fernando Alonso in the drivers’ championship, and the team is slowly reeling Haas in for P8 in the constructors’ championship.

While this will be a final goodbye for McLaren-Honda at Suzuka, there will undoubtedly be a good deal of expectation for the entire team to impress on Honda home soil.

Driver market continues to piece together

With five races to go, we’re starting to get towards the endgame in the driver market for 2018 following reports that Williams is set to hold a shoot-out between Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta to replace Felipe Massa.

Suzuka has been an important place for driver announcements in the past – Michael Schumacher confirmed his final retirement here in 2012; Sebastian Vettel left Red Bull in 2014 – but it does not appear there will be any news on the main focal point for next year’s market: Fernando Alonso.

Alonso said in Malaysia that he wanted his future decided by the time F1’s heads to Austin for the United States Grand Prix, making the off-weekend following Japan crucial. The signs suggest he will re-sign with McLaren, but might there be a twist?

Sauber also has two seats going, with one seeming certain to go to Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc, who can wrap up the Formula 2 title at Jerez this weekend. Pascal Wehrlein finds himself floating about a bit with no real way of fitting on the F1 grid for 2018 as things stand.

Let’s see what movements we get on the driver side for next year.

New cars take on iconic Suzuka

When the new, high-downforce cars were introduced for the 2017 season, a couple of tracks stood out as being favorites for drivers to thrash them around on. Suzuka typically was the number one pick though.

The esses in the first sector are where the new cars will be particularly effective by comparison to last year’s models, with the added grip allowing the field to take more speed and get on the power earlier. Even through the Degners, Spoon and 130R – the latter being easy flat and very, very fast – the 2017 cars should be at home here.

Expect some happy drivers and some spectacular racing this weekend.

2017 Japanese Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Suzuka Circuit
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:31.540 (2005)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:30.647
2016 Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:35.118
DRS Zone: T18 to T1

2017 Japanese Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

GAINSCO partners with JDC-Miller for Simpson, Goikhberg

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The bright yellow No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson, nicknamed the “JDC Banana Boat,” will morph into the latest incarnation of the bright red “Red Dragon” for 2018.

The now GAINSCO Auto Insurance-backed No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson will run the full 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, and the new livery will be revealed at the Roar before the Rolex 24.

GAINSCO revealed last month it wouldn’t run its own team, having partnered with Bob Stallings Racing for more than a decade with great success in GRAND-AM Rolex Series competition. But it was still going to partner with a team and received multiple proposals from other teams. The initial deal with JDC-Miller Motorsports is one year for 2018 with an option for 2019, but both parties envision this growing into a multi-year deal.

The last few years the team has run only on-and-off, with a one-off appearance in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona as Alex Gurney scored pole, but a devastating accident for Memo Gidley having left him seriously injured. Gidley has made significant strides in his recovery.

Since that point, GAINSCO/BSR moved into Pirelli World Challenge, running first a Hyundai Genesis, then a McLaren 650S GT3, and then a Porsche 911 GT3 R with Gurney’s longtime co-driver Jon Fogarty. The same level of success was hard to find and while the team scored several podium finishes, wins eluded them over two years.

Alas, this provides John Church’s quality operation a major supporter both from visibility and agent standpoints, as GAINSCO is one of the biggest at-track activators in the sport. Primary drivers Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg continue for the full season with Chris Miller the third driver for Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds.

A fourth driver will be named later (likely within the next week to 10 days), but won’t be Jon Fogarty, as Bob Stallings offered him the opportunity but Fogarty declined owing to other business commitments.

“We offered Jon Fogarty the opportunity, took a couple days (to think), he couldn’t feature anyone else driving but him… he has successful business ventures and that takes priority at this time,” Stallings said.

Church and Stallings. Photo courtesy of GAINSCO Racing

Stallings, Executive Chairman of GAINSCO, as well as the founder of the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Race team, recently decided not to run his own race team, but is committed to continuing the legacy of the Red Dragon by partnering with an organization capable of a long-term winning program.

“We had many opportunities to continue our quest for championships and JDC-Miller MotorSports was an easy pick,” said Stallings of the Minnesota-based team. “John Church and John Miller have established themselves as a team to be reckoned with, even against the formidable competition in IMSA.”

“We are very honored to gain the support of GAINSCO Auto Insurance and to carry on the livery of the No. 99 Red Dragon,” Church added. “It was immediately evident that the GAINSCO folks are as committed as we are.  This is a tremendous opportunity for JDC-Miller MotorSports and we look forward to the season ahead.”

Andy Jordan, Sr. Vice President of Marketing and Business Development led the search for the GAINSCO’s 2018 racing partnership.

“We were amazed and flattered by the amount of interest we received from teams who felt their racing programs would be elevated by an opportunity to partner with us and run the famous “Red Dragon” livery.  There were several important considerations for GAINSCO; the team had to compete at the highest level, and it had to feel like the kind of family we could be a part of and believe in.

“JDC-Miller Motorsports was the team we kept coming back to.  They race prototypes, they are great people, they are committed to win and the parallels between JDC-Miller Motorsports today and GAINCSO/Bob Stallings Racing in 2006/2007 were abundant.  I couldn’t be prouder and more excited to join John and his team for the 2018 season and hopefully beyond.”

JDC-Miller is adding a second car this season, with Simon Trummer its first confirmed driver and Robert Alon having tested with the team at Daytona earlier this month. This car will maintain the “banana boat” livery and will announce the rest of its program later.

Church said there “hasn’t been a discussion” in terms of adding Bob Stallings Racing personnel to JDC-Miller’s lineup as it sits, but it could be integrated.

The JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA