It’s been a busy week for racing in Florida. NASCAR is cranking up its 2014 campaign at the Daytona International Speedway, while IMSA’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge are testing this week at Sebring International Raceway.
Of course earlier in the week, it was IndyCar at Sebring, for two days with a handful of teams. Some notes from those two days of running and elsewhere in the IndyCar paddock:
The busiest driver outside of the NASCAR world this week? That would be Justin Wilson, who got two days worth of IndyCar running in for Dale Coyne Racing on Monday and Wednesday, then has shifted into Michael Shank Racing’s Ford EcoBoost Riley Daytona Prototype yesterday and into today. He’ll race it at the 12-hour next month. On day one in the Honda-powered IndyCar, Wilson tweeted, “It was a good first day of testing. The car went well and we are just trying to test a few bigger items.” On day two: “Yesterday’s @IndyCar test was good. Learned a few things. @josefnewgarden was the man though. I think that’s the quickest a DW12 has gone.”
Wilson’s aforementioned fellow Honda runner, Josef Newgarden, was also back in the saddle this week for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Of note, the SFHR team tested in a black primer car, not in the same livery as adorned the No. 67 car in 2013. The test was Newgarden’s first in the new calendar year.
A.J. Foyt’s new month of May recruit, Martin Plowman, had his first day of running in the Dallara DW12 on Wednesday, as he took over Takuma Sato’s usual No. 14 ABC Supply Honda. Plowman contested three IndyCar races in the previous chassis in 2011, but had yet to sample the new one after two years in sports cars. Tweeted Plowman after the day, “Fitness wise I held up well…but….G-forces under braking, boy… I feel like my neck is 3 inches longer! Need to change my bio to 5ft 9.”
Team Penske got in another day’s worth of testing Thursday at Barber Motorsports Park for all three of its drivers, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves and Will Power. With IndyCar’s official preseason test set for Barber next month, the Penske team has an extra day’s worth of data to sift through in advance of that day. “The reason we can come to Barber and win it is because the cars are really quick here and seem to work pretty well,” said Montoya, via Al.com.
Simon Pagenaud’s new firesuit at IndyCar media day included both Charter and Valspar listed underneath the series and Honda manufacturer logos. Both companies have past histories in IndyCar with the Panther and Dreyer & Reinbold teams.
Bryan Herta Autosport posted a generic “great test last few days” and “happy to be back at the track again” tweet after its two days with Jack Hawksworth. But noteworthy there was the fact the car did not run in full livery, with the same dark and light blue color combination with Barracuda not flanking the sidepods or wings. Make of that what you will.
Panther Racing, which didn’t attend either the Sonoma test on Feb. 12 or the Sebring test this week, has announced its second public relations representative change in the last three months. Panther has not confirmed its 2014 plans as yet.
It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.
Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.
Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.
However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.
As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.
And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”
Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.
A Journey Into the Unknown?
Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.
And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.
“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.
That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.
Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth
Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.
Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.
Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.
With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.
Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil
It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.
And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.
As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.
“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”
Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.
“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”
Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.
“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”
Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.