Luke Smith

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F1 Preview: 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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Formula 1 makes its second visit to the historic city of Baku in Azerbaijan this weekend with the title race closing up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

The Baku City Circuit arrived on the F1 calendar in 2016 as host of the European Grand Prix, but the event has since been renamed the ‘Azerbaijan Grand Prix’.

The track itself received a lukewarm reception initially given its exceptionally tight nature, yet it ultimately proved to be an exciting mix of high-speed sections and tight, twisting challenges for drivers.

Nico Rosberg won last year’s race as part of his march to the F1 title, with Hamilton enduring a rare off weekend that saw him struggle for pace throughout.

The Briton will be keen to make up for the mistakes of last year as he looks to further cut the gap to championship leader Vettel, having sliced the difference to just 12 points with victory last time out in Canada.

As the season nears its midpoint, will Baku prove to be a decisive battleground in the championship fight as it did last year?

Here are the key talking points heading into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Talking Points

Hamilton chasing redemption after 2016 struggles

Lewis Hamilton very rarely has an ‘off’ weekend where he is completely out of the loop with the front-runners, yet last year’s race in Baku ticked that box fully.

Throughout all of the sessions, Hamilton struggled to find his mojo, suffering two offs in qualifying and eventually finishing fifth, over a minute behind race winner Rosberg. Come the end of the season, it was a points swing that was decisive in the title race.

Hamilton and Mercedes appear more relaxed heading to Baku this time around, though, with both parties expressing confidence about what exactly caused such struggles last year, ensuring that the same mistakes won’t be made twice.

Hamilton is on a high after his emphatic win in Canada, cutting the gap to championship leader Vettel, and if a similar momentum swing takes place in Baku, the Briton could find himself at the top of the standings again.

Vettel, Raikkonen seek response for Ferrari

While Hamilton and Mercedes impressed in Canada, Ferrari had its toughest weekend of the season so far. Contact at the start left Vettel fighting back throughout, eventually recovering to P4, while an issue left Kimi Raikkonen limping home at the end to seventh.

The result saw Mercedes move back into the lead of the constructors’ championship thanks to its one-two finish, leaving Ferrari in need of a response if it wants to stop the momentum gained by the Silver Arrows as soon as possible.

The high temperatures and soft compound tires should play in Ferrari’s favor, as should the variable nature of the circuit. It requires a bit of everything – slippy on the straights, planted through fast corners, quick out of slow ones – and the SF70H appears to be the most well-rounded car on the grid. It bodes well for the Scuderia.

Another rough weekend in store for McLaren

If Fernando Alonso’s late retirement while running in the points was bad for McLaren, then things are only to get worse this weekend as power unit penalties put the British team on the back foot.

Ongoing problems with Honda have caused the relationship with McLaren to near breaking point, with the team currently considering its options for a power unit supply beyond 2018.

If Honda is hoping for a boost anytime soon, it won’t come in Azerbaijan. Power unit changes are set to send Alonso and Vandoorne to the back of the field regardless of their qualifying position. To make matters worse, there’s a lack of overtaking opportunities on part of the track, and down the main straight, engine power is crucial – something McLaren doesn’t have.

It doesn’t bode well for the British team, but if a race of attrition sets in, then an opportunity could yet arise.

Will Baku go bananas this time around?

The circuit in Baku has the ingredients for a pretty crazy race, as seen with the GP2 kids last year when all hell broke loose, allowing Antonio Giovinazzi to fight from the back to win the race.

Most expected at least some drama in the F1 event, only for a pretty straightforward race to unfold without a single safety car period or any major incidents.

So will things be different this time around? The wider cars will certainly add an extra dimension to things, particularly in the Turn 8 uphill section. The greater downforce will make the fast-flowing final sector all the more spectacular, though, even if the top speed of last year won’t be matched.

It may be a street course, but that’s no reason why this can’t be a memorable, spectacular event.

Sauber begins life without Kaltenborn

The big news heading into the Azerbaijan F1 weekend was the parting of ways between Sauber and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, whose departure was confirmed on Wednesday.

The announcement came at a time when Sauber is continuing to rebuild and plan for the future, having negotiated some choppy waters in recent times amid financial struggles and difficulties, with Kaltenborn largely steering the ship.

The news came as a surprise to most of the F1 paddock, including Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, with things changing quickly in the space of 48 hours.

With no team leader now in place, it will be interesting to see how Sauber moves in the coming races and begins to change direction away from Kaltenborn’s vision.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Baku City Circuit
Corners: 20
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:46.485 (2016 – as European Grand Prix)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:42.758
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:46.485
DRS Zone: T20 to T1, T2 to T3

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times

F1 narrowing down target cities for second US race

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GENEVA, Switzerland – Formula 1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey says that Liberty Media has begun to narrow down its target cities for a second grand prix in the United States.

Liberty Media completed its takeover of F1 in January, with Carey being appointed the sport’s new chief in place of Bernie Ecclestone.

Liberty has expressed a desire to expand F1’s footprint in key markets such as the United States, with a second grand prix to accompany the existing USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being a key objective.

Speaking to reporters at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva earlier this week, Carey confirmed that Liberty was continuing to explore options for a second US race, narrowing down the possible locations.

“There’s probably some that we’ve ruled out, but it’s certainly more than a few. We still have multiple cities, and in a couple of cities, there are multiple options or multiple potential options,” Carey said.

“I don’t think we’re going to get too deep into what I think are private discussions. I think these discussions are better-had privately between parties. We’re not looking to go out and publicly play cities against each other and venues against each other.

“I think we want to make a decision that’s best on the merits for the sport and its fans. It’s a priority so we’re actively engaged on it. We’re moving forward, but we’re not going to put a deadline on it or go through the process publicly.”

Carey has previously expressed a strong desire to take F1 to big cities all over the world, and named New York, Miami and Las Vegas as possible targets for street events, although he recognized that getting grands prix in the very heart of them may prove difficult.

“I don’t think they’ll be [permanent] tracks, because I guess the cities we’ve cited like New York, Miami, Las Vegas, there aren’t tracks. So we’re not going to build a track in Miami or New York,” Carey said.

“But I don’t think we’re going to be racing down 5th Avenue in Manhattan either, so I think we like the connection to cities.

“By definition in those certain places we’ll use street races that will be upgraded to a place where they have the quality and requirements necessary to host a race.

“So clearly there will have to be things done to make that circuit ready.”

F1 is also set to put on more events in cities in host nations in the lead up to grand prix weekends, with several days of activities being the goal for Liberty moving forward in a bid to build interest.

“We’d like to be connected to the city. In many ways if you want a week-long event the events up to the race weekend are probably more city-centric and you evolve towards the track as you get to Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Carey said.

“So having that connection to the city is something that we lack. I think we can make it work in places where they’re further afield as some of the historic tracks exist, but I think that connection to the city enhances the ability to engage the city.

“Silverstone is a way outside London and yet we’re going to have stuff in London that is celebrating the week in Silverstone.

“So just because you have the distance, I think if we have the opportunity to be more connected to the city, we think that presents interesting and fun opportunities.”

Todt confirms interest from new teams to join F1 grid

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GENEVA, Switzerland – FIA president Jean Todt has confirmed there is interest from new teams to join the Formula 1 grid in the near future following recent speculation about some fresh projects being worked on.

Ten teams currently race in F1, marking its lowest full-season roster since 2009 following the closure of Manor before the start of the new campaign.

Speculation has emerged in recent week about new projects being worked on to get a team on the grid in the near future, with staff at current teams reportedly being approached at recent races.

Talking to reporters at the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva, Todt confirmed that there had been interest from new teams, but that an entry would be dependent on a tender being issued.

“There are always rumors, but we have had some interest from some teams,” Todt confirmed, adding the interest had come “recently”.

“When we feel it is time we will be able to make a tender,” Todt continued. “At the moment we have 10 teams and the idea is to have up to 12 teams.

“So we have an opportunity, if we have one or two strong newcomers it could be possible.

“First we need to check the request ourselves, it’s going through a kind of audit to see who are the potential buyers. If it’s a big manufacturer, it’s easy, if it’s a privateer, you need to be more careful.

“And then, once you are sure that there is a real interest, and once you’re sure that people are capable, like it was the case with Haas, for example, then we make tender.”

Todt’s comments also come in the wake of a company changing its name to ‘China F1 Racing Team Limited’ in the UK last month, appearing to add up with speculation about Chinese investment being behind the push for a new team.

Sauber parts company with CEO, team principal Monisha Kaltenborn

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Sauber Formula 1 CEO Monisha Kaltenborn has parted company with the team with immediate effect ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Kaltenborn has worked with Sauber since 1998 and was appointed the CEO of its motorsport interests in 2010, before becoming F1’s first female team principal two years later.

Kaltenborn played an instrumental role in keeping Sauber afloat amid years of financial uncertainty, with its long-term future being secured following a takeover by Longbow Finance last summer.

The new investors kept Kaltenborn on in her role as CEO and team principal, with Sauber going on a significant recruitment drive in the closing stages of last year. Sauber also recently announced a new engine tie-up with Honda from 2018.

However, news of Kaltenborn’s departure from Sauber emerged on Wednesday morning, just days before the next grand prix in Azerbaijan.

The team is yet to issue an official statement regarding Kaltenborn’s exit, but an announcement is expected later on Wednesday.

According to a report from Autosport‘s Dieter Rencken, Kaltenborn could be replaced as team boss at Sauber by Colin Kolles, who has previously been involved with the Caterham, HRT and Force India projects in the past among others.

Kolles’ most active involvement in motorsport currently is his ByKolles LMP1 team in the FIA World Endurance Championship, but this is set to withdraw from the remainder of the season after the July 16 round at the Nürburgring.

Sauber currently sits ninth in the F1 constructors’ championship with four points from the opening seven races of the season, all scored by Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein.

Le Mans 24: 2017 GTE-Pro Preview

The GTE-Pro field in 2017 is hard to project. Photo: Getty Images
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If 2016’s GTE-Pro race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans centered on throwing back to the past with the victorious return of Ford, then 2017 is about pointing to the exciting future that is held for the class.

ENTRY LIST

Ford and Ferrari’s famous rivalry will once again play out at the Circuit de la Sarthe, but with Porsche reviving its factory GT effort for 2017 with its new mid-engined 911 RSR, plus the ever-present threats of Corvette and Aston Martin, it will by no means be a two-horse race – at least that’s the hope!

The class is stronger for Porsche’s fully-fledged return, and with BMW also set to join the fray from 2018, GTE-Pro continues to cement itself as one of the most competitive, challenging and interesting categories in global motorsport. The future is looking exceedingly bright.

It’s been a split start to the year in the FIA World Endurance Championship season. Ford took Silverstone off the bat, while Ferrari’s AF Corse squad enters Le Mans on the heels of its Spa win, the traditional Le Mans dress rehearsal. Thus far Porsche and Aston Martin have looked marginally behind.

Of course, things could yet shake up at Le Mans thanks to our old friend Balance of Performance. While efforts are set to be made to avoid the mis-step in 2016 that played to Ford’s advantage, it is likely to remain the big concern and talking point for the GTE-Pro field ahead of race day.

WEC: FORD, FERRARI SET TO CONTINUE FIGHT

Mueller, Bourdais and Hand took the 2016 win for Ford. Photo: Ford Performance

50 years on from its first victory, Ford’s successful return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016 did much to stoke the fire within the GTE-Pro class against perennial rival Ferrari, who runs its AF Corse squad. All of the European full-season WEC runners will return for Le Mans, with Ford looking to bounce back from a winless start to the year. The same ringers from 2016 will be piloting the UK-run cars, with the exception of Pipo Derani, one of sports car racing’s brightest young talents, who is in the No. 67 Ford GT, and set for his final start with the team unless plans change.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

AF Corse looked very strong at Spa as its No. 51 and No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTEs ran pretty much nose-to-tail for the majority of the six hours.The No. 51 car’s revised lineup of Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado has usual Audi man Lucas di Grassi in as third driver; it’s an intriguing one that sees three good pieces on paper but hasn’t yet produced a collective Le Mans win yet. In the No. 71, it’s Sam Bird and Davide Rigon that picked up the Spa win, and will be joined by Miguel Molina here in his one-race step up from an AF-run Spirit of Race badged GTE-Am entry. However, Bird isn’t getting carried away, telling me last month that he wanted to wait and see just how competitive Ferrari was once Ford and Porsche had “thrown all the sand out”. More on BoP later.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Porsche GT Team 911 RSR of Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Of the other WEC runners at Le Mans, Porsche will be hoping to rekindle some of its old spark as the mid-engined 911 RSR hits the grid at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the very first time. Some of its drivers needs to step up and seize their opportunity. Remember Gianmaria Bruni will come on board for Porsche’s IMSA program from Watkins Glen later this month, his contract not allowing him to start until after Le Mans. Invariably that will force one of Porsche’s existing GTE drivers onto another project down the road, Estre already having been moved to WEC from IMSA.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Aston Martin Racing car of Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Richie Stanaway drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Aston Martin Racing also comes into the race feeling quietly confident, even if its start to the season has been somewhat underwhelming with runs to sixth, seventh (twice) and eighth between its two cars. Experience will play a role here; Darren Turner is always a good bet to star at some point during the Le Mans week.

IMSA: CORVETTE, RISI COMPETIZIONE IN THE MIX?

Corvette and the U.S. Fords look to beat the WEC regulars. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Joining its pair of full-season WEC entries at Le Mans, Ford Chip Ganassi Racing will once again be fielding its two cars from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, No. 68 and No. 69. IndyCar star Scott Dixon is fighting fit for the race despite his scary Indianapolis 500 crash occurring just over two weeks ago, while Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan will be making his Le Mans debut in place of the injured Sebastien Bourdais.

Ford won’t be the sole IMSA representative in GTE-Pro, though. Corvette Racing once again boasts a strong two-car effort, now with some added Le Mans experience and prestige in the form of Marcel Fassler. He will join Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 64 Corvette C7.R, while Jordan Taylor has moved into the No. 63 with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia.

Risi’s No. 82 Ferrari 488 GTE takes checkered flag in 2016. Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi Competizione also joins the overall Ferrari effort at Le Mans with its No. 82 488 GTE that is looking to bounce back from retirements in both Long Beach and Austin. Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander will be joined by new arrival and past Risi Le Mans winner Pierre Kaffer for 2017, the aim being to go one better than 2016’s second-place finish in class.

WILL BALANCE OF PERFORMANCE REAR ITS HEAD AGAIN?

The changes made to BoP on the eve of last year’s race left a sour taste in the mouths of many following the GTE-Pro class, appearing to give Ford a boost that it didn’t really appear to need.

In a bid to avoid a repeat of the controversy at WEC races 2017, the FIA and ACO announced earlier that BoP would be worked out using an automated, mathematical system from the Nürburgring onwards. For Le Mans, though, it remains open to human error, and decisions can still be made all the way up to the eve of the race.

The first tweak to be made came following the Le Mans test, with Corvette being pegged back after posting the fastest time of the Le Mans test. The likes of Ferrari and Ford remain untouched for now, though.

While further edits to BoP are set to follow through the week, one would imagine it unlikely to follow the same controversial route it did last year. Hopefully the FIA and the ACO will have learned from the fall-out and strike a good balance to ensure we have a fair, open fight in GTE-Pro.

PREDICTION: LIKE BOP, A HARD ONE TO PEG

While the drivers in GTE-Pro are anticipating an open fight between all of the manufacturers, for me, it boils down to three real contenders: Ford, Ferrari and Corvette. Porsche and Aston Martin feel the “surprise” picks if you like (more here from Mobil 1 The Grid on both LMP1 and GTE-Pro classes).

All three have been impressive in the early part of the year on either side of the Atlantic, and trying to pick between them is tough. AF Corse’s display at the Spa WEC round was particularly impressive, showing relentless pace and reliability for six straight hours.

So really, it may come down to how BoP plays out, the answer to which we may not get until qualifying when the pecking order really comes to the fore.

But to pick one car: I will say the No. 69 Ford GT with Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon. Ford looked good at Daytona, and it is a very balanced line-up. For Dixon, it would be a Le Mans victory at the second attempt, only adding to the accolades and success he has known through his illustrious career.