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DiZinno: Reflecting on racing’s rapid month of change

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My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith and I have had an internal running joke about this year, where we insert another word in-between 20 and 17 to describe the sheer insanity in racing (among other world topics) this year has been.

The last month in particular, however, has brought more winds of seismic change to the motorsports landscape than any I’ve seen in 20-plus years as a fan, and 12 as a reporter.

No matter the discipline of motorsport, the tidal wave of change is coming – and it’s up to the series’ decision makers to work on the next steps for success.

NASCAR: Where fewer dollars make more sense in youth movement

KANSAS CITY, KS – OCTOBER 16: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 16, 2016 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s silly season in 2018 combines the elements of sponsors being willing to spend less money for a certain number of races, high-priced veterans out of contract and a glut of young talent now ready to break through all happening at once.

Boiled down simply by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will head to NBC Sports next year at the end of his full-time driving career, it’s a simple matter of economics.

“You can’t pay a driver $5 to $8 million a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship. You can’t. That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore,” Earnhardt Jr. said at Watkins Glen, via NASCAR Talk.

With young talent come cheaper price tags and a next generation of stars.

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at least have multiple years under their belts. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are developing in their first full seasons. Alex Bowman and William Byron arrive in their best opportunity full-time next year. One hopes others, such as Darrell Wallace Jr. for instance, get their shot as well.

The departures of Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle are there, and with Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch all facing free agency, suddenly there are a lot of fans that will need a new driver to support. The race will be on between these young guns to capture the enthusiasm to drive NASCAR’s major generational shift in one of the series’ grids biggest upheavals.

INDYCAR: A number of big questions loom, as internal excitement remains high

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Chevrolet livery. Photo: IndyCar

Quite how the Verizon IndyCar Series progresses for the final month of 2017 and into the start of 2018 is another big question mark.

There’s a championship to sort out first; starting with this weekend’s ABC Supply 500, there’s three races in as many weeks that should begin to sort out the realistic title contenders. With four races to play, seven drivers could lay claim to this year’s crown but there’s really four that are close, with three others on the fringe.

The title battle isn’t necessarily IndyCar’s top story heading into its final month of the year though, when looking at the big picture.

Three successful tests of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit have built excitement more about the future as the manufacturer aero kit era reaches, some would argue, its merciful conclusion after three years.

The question over Verizon’s continuation as title sponsor beyond 2018 lingers, and so too does the question of what the series will develop in regards to its new TV deal, which is also set to end after 2018. INDYCAR made several long-term partnership extension announcements at the start of the year (Dallara, Firestone, Honda and Chevrolet) but these two elements are ones that have to get sorted soon.

Additionally, with Long Beach now set to continue on the IndyCar calendar following a new agreement reached between the Long Beach City Council and the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, it sets into motion the question of what tracks get renewed next for long-term deals. INDYCAR has finally, after 20 years of upheaval in the schedule, reached stability and date equity with most tracks – this needs to be a priority going forward as tracks, promoters and the sanctioning body all look to keep working together.

F1: New owners, newer stars, and the rivalry we’ve been waiting for

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 15: Third place qualifier Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari talks with pole position qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in parc ferme after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Formula 1’s major news tidal wave came earlier this year with the change at the top from Bernie Ecclestone to Liberty Media, the new group having made headlines and some interesting changes throughout the year. A focus on fans and a number of in-weekend changes have been the selling points.

Elsewhere it’s been the year on-track that’s been the top story with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel properly contending for this year’s title as the headline act. It feels as though this was predestined to occur at some point once Ferrari got its act together and now that it has, it’s forced Mercedes to raise its game after competing against each other. Valtteri Bottas has more than served as a capable replacement for outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg, and bizarrely, Rosberg’s absence hasn’t loomed large over the season.

For the future, F1’s news peg could come with the emergence of more young – or revived – stars coming into the championship. The performances of Charles Leclerc in F2 and Lando Norris, the F3 teenager, have mouths watering; meanwhile a potential race return for Robert Kubica also has activated the hype train on full bore. Its post-2020 engine formula is also a talking point, although perhaps not immediately.

FORMULA E: The electric, supersonic manufacturer boom?

Photo: Steven Tee/LAT/Formula E

The FIA Formula E Championship has, in an incredibly short period of time, gone from a newly debuting mystery on the worldwide motorsport stage to a desired platform for manufacturers to enter into.

The recent confirmations that Mercedes-Benz (having also announced the end of its DTM program after 2018) and Porsche (having announced the end of its LMP1 program after 2017) will join the championship in future years, coupled with fellow German manufacturers Audi and BMW, and in addition to the already active manufacturers including Renault, Jaguar, DS, Mahindra and Venturi means this is now the “hotbed de jour” for manufacturers to develop electric technology to go into future road cars.

Quite how this sudden surge of manufacturer interest will further the series on a worldwide stage may come down to activation, as we’ve seen with booms and busts in other championships before. When a series has that high level of investment from sponsors or manufacturers, it takes off.

For the moment, while Formula E generates a wealth of internal buzz, it hasn’t yet ascended to the level of international consciousness beyond its hardcore participants, media and fans. The fascinating perspectives about Formula E’s evolution are outlined here in columns from Smith and Parker Kligerman, who were both in Red Hook for the New York City ePrix.

It’s a championship to watch going forward because of all this new involvement, but it must guard against a spending arms race and also find a way to make electric racing “sexy” and “cool” – a bit beyond the current product it has offered on display. It says something about the sheer shock of how different this series is when its crash compilation video for season three produces the loudest moments on the circuit, rather than the racing itself.

FIA WEC/LE MANS: Reset needed following Porsche’s LMP1 pullout

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 17: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, The #7 and #8 Toyota TS050`s lead the #1 and #2 Porsche 919`s at the rolling start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the third round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Circuit de la Sarthe on June 17, 2017 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

The writing has been on the wall for LMP1 hybrid the last couple years, as the evolution to the category all began after a fascinating few months in 2015.

By mid-summer 2015, a new LMP2 formula was introduced to debut this year, which reduced the number of constructors down to a maximum of four, but with higher top speeds having been produced from the standardized Gibson V8 engine. At the same time, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the LMP1 field featured 14 cars – a grid of three Audis, Porsches and Nissans apiece with a pair of Toyotas making up 11 hybrid entries, and three more privateer cars from Rebellion and ByKolles.

It’s all evolved from there. Nissan, whose ultimately one-off front-engined GT-R LM NISMO never ran with a working hybrid system, announced the end of its efforts in December of 2015. That came as the VW “diesel gate” scandal was beginning to take earnest and take root across all the VAG’s motorsport programs. It was always unsustainable that VAG would have competing manufacturers from under its parent company racing against each other; Audi’s drawdown came first at the end of 2016 and now, Porsche has announced its to do likewise at the end of this year.

Toyota now stands alone within the LMP1 hybrid space, still devoid of a Le Mans overall win and even if it achieves one next year, with the asterisk it will have come only against privateer competition within the category. It’s an unfortunate spot for the likable German-based team and Japanese manufacturer to be stuck in.

In its sixth season, the FIA WEC now meets a sincere fork in the road, with its road map to be announced next round at Mexico City a critical one to determine the next course of action for the championship without the majority of its marquee class present. Those next steps will determine whether the championship progresses forward down a sustainable, viable path or meet a similar fate as prior world sports car championships in the past.

IMSA, PWC: American sports car series look to seize their chances domestically

Photo courtesy of IMSA

It’d be hard to chronicle a better month for IMSA, and its headline IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, than what has taken place in its last month. The confirmation of two marquee prototype programs in Team Penske with Acura and Joest Racing with Mazda add an extra degree of legitimacy after what’s already been a successful debut year for the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform. A return to Mid-Ohio also is a strong news peg.

Meanwhile North America’s primary sprint race sports car series, Pirelli World Challenge, has grown its car count by leaps and bounds – but it’s also made a good thing that was easy to follow a bit more complex in recent years. As it continues to develop as a championship, it has to be careful not to loose the roots that made it so rich for growth in the first place, as it maneuvers or positions itself towards having more standalone weekends and SprintX races away from its classic, single-driver, 50-minute format.

The nice thing for both these series is there is room for both, and is avoiding overlapping, as they continue to evolve for 2018 and beyond.

WEC ‘regrets’ Porsche’s LMP1 exit, working on plan for 2018 season

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The FIA World Endurance Championship has issued a statement following Porsche’s decision to close its LMP1 program at the end of the season, saying it “regrets” the departure of one of its most important stakeholders.

Porsche confirmed in the early hours of Friday morning that it would be pulling out of the WEC’s LMP1 class at the end of 2017 despite having one year remaining on its contract.

The German marque’s decision to quit and focus on a future Formula E entry leaves Toyota as the sole LMP1 Hybrid manufacturer on the grid for 2018, raising concerns about the future of the class.

Here is the WEC’s statement in full following Porsche’s bombshell.

Porsche, which recently confirmed its participation in the FIA LMP1-H World Endurance Championship as a manufacturer up to the end of the 2018 season, and which has been actively involved in the development of the technical regulations that will come into force in 2020, has just announced the withdrawal of its LMP1 hybrids from the end of the 2017 season.

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, promoter of the WEC and organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, regrets this precipitous departure, as it does the abruptness of the decision from one of endurance racing’s most successful and lauded manufacturers.

However, the ACO and the FIA, guardians of the existence and quality of the FIA World Endurance championship, have immediately set to work to put forward to everyone involved in endurance racing the outline of the 2018 season – a season which promises to be quite exceptional thanks to the introduction of new innovations.

Clearly, the reduction of costs and stability, but also inventiveness and audacity, will be vital in making it possible to stage an increasingly spectacular and attractive championship with the sport of endurance racing at the forefront.

This unprecedented 2018 World Championship will, without doubt, excite and enthuse competitors, partners and fans of endurance racing alike.

We look forward to seeing you in Mexico on September 2 and 3 for the next WEC event when further information will be given.

A spokesperson from the WEC also confirmed that, regardless of LMP1’s future, the series will retain its world championship status for 2018.

“The WEC will still have three world championship titles in play, even if there are fewer than two manufacturers in 2018: World Drivers title (for which LMP1 and LMP2 drivers are eligible), GT Manufacturers and GT Drivers,” said the spokesperson.

“The WEC’s world championship status is therefore not in doubt.”

FIA WEC: Porsche claims 1-2 at Nurburgring

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Porsche Team dominated proceedings in Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, the first post-24 Hours of Le Mans race of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship season.

The No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid that won at Le Mans carried through to a second straight win with the trio of Earl Bamber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. It’s also Bernhard and Hartley’s third straight victory at the Nürburgring, having done so with Mark Webber each of the last two years.

This car moved ahead of the sister No. 1 car on the final pit stop sequence, done just within the final 15 minutes of the race. The No. 1 car of Neel Jani, Nick Tandy and Andre Lotterer led most of the race but pitted for its final stop with 15 minutes remaining on Lap 196, with the No. 2 car pitting a lap later after inheriting the lead, completing a shorter stop and staying out front to the flag.

Porsche now has its first overall 1-2 finish in the FIA WEC since, surprisingly, Shanghai in 2015. Although Porsche won a number of races in 2016, all of them saw either Audi or Toyota come second.

Toyota was down to a single bullet today almost from the off, with the No. 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima having had a fuel pump issue at the start of the race, and having lost five laps.

While the car made it back to fourth overall it was never in with a shout of a result from there, finishing behind the pair of Porsches and the No. 7 Toyota, in the hands of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and the returning Jose Maria Lopez.

Jackie Chan DC Racing’s dream season in LMP2 continued with its third win in four races for the trio of Ho-Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent in the No. 38 Oreca 07 Gibson. It was a dominant win in the nearly all-spec class over the No. 31 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca and No. 36 Signatech Alpine Matmut Alpine A470 cars, the latter car having got ahead of the second Rebellion in the final hour.

In GTE-Pro, AF Corse’s No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE broke through for its first win of the year, with the new pairing of Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado winning their first race as teammates. The No. 71 car of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon won at Spa. This Ferrari victory made it the first manufacturer to get to two wins in the category after Ford (Silverstone), Ferrari (Spa) and Aston Martin (Le Mans) won the first three races.

Porsche’s new mid-engined 911 RSR looked promising after its first WEC pole set on Saturday, but was unable to break through for its first win yet on a global platform. Nonetheless the pair of cars, the No. 91 of Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki and No. 92 of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen, completed the podium for Porsche’s first double podium of the year.

Porsche’s older and previous generation 911 RSR did break through in GTE-Am with the No. 77 Dempsey-Proton Racing, the Proton team’s first win in WEC since the Bahrain season finale last year. Christian Ried shared the car with young guns Marvin Dienst and Matteo Cairoli, the latter two winning their first races in FIA WEC. The No. 54 Spirit of Race Ferrari was second with the No. 98 Aston Martin third to make it three manufacturers in as many positions.

The FIA WEC has another month-plus break before its next race at Mexico City the first weekend in September.

FIA WEC: Toyota captures 6 Hours of Nurburgring pole

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While Toyota Gazoo Racing took the pole owing to ultimate pace with its low downforce configuration Toyota TS050 Hybrid at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, courtesy of a single lap record from Kamui Kobayashi, pole for Sunday’s FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Nürburgring in high downforce spec was a bit more of a surprise.

Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez delivered the top spot in LMP1 and overall for the team not far from its Cologne, Germany headquarters in Saturday’s qualifying session with an average best time of 1:38.118. That put it just clear of the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley at 1:38.272.

With Toyota near its team headquarters and looking to return to winning after the No. 8 car won the first two races at Silverstone and Spa, and with Porsche’s No. 2 of Bernhard, Hartley and Earl Bamber having won at Le Mans but now racing on its home soil, it’s an interesting fight ahead on Sunday.

Although the TDS Racing-run No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 07 Gibson took the LMP2 pole at 1:45.001, it’ll face a steep uphill battle in the race. Roman Rusinov was assessed a three-minute in-race penalty to be served Sunday for his driving infringement at Le Mans, having taken out Khaled Al Qubaisi’s Porsche 911 RSR at the Porsche Curves there.

Rusinov shares the car with Pierre Thiriet and Ben Hanley, the latter driver standing in for Alex Lynn, who himself is replacing Lopez at the FIA Formula E Championship race weekend at the New York City ePrix.

This promotes the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca to net pole at 1:45.197 in the hands of Oliver Jarvis, Ho-Pin Tung and Thomas Laurent. The LMP2 class winners and second place overall finishers now seek their third win in four FIA WEC races this year. Vaillante Rebellion’s No. 31 Oreca of Bruno Senna, Julien Canal and Filipe Albuquerque, the car having been repaired after contact with a GT car yesterday, qualified third.

Porsche’s mid-engined 911 RSR took its first FIA World Endurance Championship pole in GTE-Pro with the No. 92 car of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen, one week after the new car took its first overall pole in IMSA courtesy of Dirk Werner at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Aston Martin Racing won the GTE-Am pole with Paul Dalla Lana and Pedro Lamy sharing the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, in a car that will also feature Mathias Lauda in the lineup.

Sunday’s six-hour race begins at 7 a.m. ET.

QUALIFYING RESULTS: Overall, LMP1/LMP2, GTE-Pro/GTE-Am

WEC Nurburgring entry list confirms FE subs, Buemi set to miss NYC

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Pipo Derani and Filipe Albuquerque are among the drivers substituting for Formula E regulars in the FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring next month, as confirmed with the publication of the entry list for the latter event.

The clash between Formula E and WEC on the July 16 weekend has been a long-running saga for both series, with no resolution workable due to a lack of communication regarding the placement of the Formula 1 race in Germany that was ultimately canceled.

With drivers racing in both series, a number were left with a key dilemma to make when picking which race to entry, ending with a majority opting to partake in Formula E’s double-header race weekend in New York.

Two drivers have chosen to prioritize WEC, including Formula E championship leader Sebastien Buemi, who is bound by his contract with Toyota’s LMP1 team. Jose Maria Lopez is also in a similar position, racing in the sister TS050 Hybrid at the Nürburgring.

Here’s a run-down of the drivers who had to work around the clashes and where they’ve ended up, and who will be replacing them.

Sebastien Buemi

Formula E championship leader Buemi had hoped to be racing in New York – where he could have sewn up the title – but is now risking a 50-plus point loss by missing the double-header.

Buemi said that his Le Mans result would decide whether or not he could have the chance to skip the Nürburgring, only for the No. 8 Toyota crew to have a miserable race, finishing eighth overall after two hours in the garage.

Buemi’s replacement for New York will need to be decided in the next 24 hours when the race stewards are informed of the entry list. Red Bull youngster Pierre Gasly is thought to be leading the chase for the seat.

Jose Maria Lopez

Like Buemi, Lopez was tied down by his Toyota contract and was not able to get out of his duties, meaning he will be missing New York as well.

Lopez will return to the No. 7 Toyota for the Nürburgring round, having been moved into the third car for Le Mans given his lack of prior experience following his Silverstone crash and the subsequent injury that forced him to miss Spa.

Lopez will be replaced at DS Virgin Racing in New York by Alex Lynn, the team’s reserve driver. Lynn, in turn, will miss the Nürburgring race with G-Drive in LMP2, with Ben Hanley taking his place.

Sam Bird

Lopez’s Formula E teammate, Sam Bird, is another driver who said his dilemma would be solved by his Le Mans result. The Briton is fourth in the WEC GT drivers’ championship with AF Corse and just 14 points off the lead, yet he opted to prioritize his Formula E duties in New York.

Bird will be replaced at AF Corse in the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE by Toni Vilander, who races in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for Risi Competizione and featured at Le Mans earlier this month.

Nicolas Prost

Renault e.dams appeared the face the prospect of having neither of its regular drivers in place for New York, only for Buemi’s teammate Nicolas Prost to put his Formula E duties first.

Prost has raced with Vaillante Rebellion Racing in LMP2 so far this season, but will step back for the Nürburgring. Seasoned sportscar racer Filipe Albuquerque takes his place.

Nelson Piquet Jr.

Nelson Piquet Jr. is another driver who had the same decision as Prost, putting Formula E over his duties with Rebellion in the sister Oreca 07 Gibson. Piquet will be replaced in the No. 13 car by Pipo Derani, whose three-race stint with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing came to an end at Le Mans.

Jean-Eric Vergne

Jean-Eric Vergne has made a flying start to life in the WEC this year with Manor, regularly featuring at the top of the timesheets, and stood out at Le Mans with some mammoth quintuple stints.

Vergne won’t be at the Nürburgring, though, putting his Formula E duties with Techeetah – a team he also has commercial interests in – first. Roberto Merhi takes his place, returning to Manor after previously racing for the team in both F1 and WEC.