Italian GP Paddock Notebook – Friday


When it comes to the classic circuits in Formula 1, few are as famous as Monza. The track has hosted all but one Italian Grand Prix since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and has a firm place in the heart of the sport.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a favorite for the drivers and teams, making this weekend’s race a hotly-anticipated one. Throw in some tension at Mercedes at the height of the championship battle, and you have the ingredients for a superb F1 weekend.

The on-track action got underway today with the first two practice sessions. Unsurprisingly, Mercedes dominated proceedings once again, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton each topping one session. However, Hamilton did come unstuck in FP2 when an electrical problem sidelined him for over an hour. He eventually rallied to finish second to his teammate at the top of the timesheets.

Away from the track, it was a busy day. The F1 Strategy Group team principals met with Bernie Ecclestone for a meeting, the FIA press conference saw hot topics such as Russia and fan engagement come up, and IndyCar racer Juan Pablo Montoya even made an appearance.

Montoya, Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella all at Monza? Is it 2001 again?



Practice is always something of a double-edged sword. Teams can be encouraged by the pace that they show, but it is of course not entirely representative.

Take Ferrari’s pace today. The Italian team went into this weekend fearing the worst, but practice has been more encouraging today as both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen flirted with the top five positions. However, just as the team has done on many occasions this year, this pace could yet fade away when it matters in qualifying. Nevertheless, the Tifosi was happy; the grandstands always go crazy when the red cars tear past.

Mercedes is once again the team to beat, and after the spat in Spa, all eyes will be on Lewis and Nico to keep it clean. Both drivers will know that anything other than a one-two finish will be a disappointing result, given that the circuit is perfectly suited to the W05 car. However, if Hamilton hits more trouble like he did during practice today, the team could be left ruing its luck yet again.

As for the other pretenders? It’s a very fine battle. Williams, Red Bull, McLaren and Force India should all be in the mix on Sunday for some good points, with Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa the favorites to trail the Silver Arrows home. It could be a big weekend for Williams in the race for third place in the constructors’.

We must also give a big pat on the back to Caterham’s Roberto Merhi, who enjoyed his first outing in an F1 car today. Despite having never driven one before, he still managed to finish ahead of Marcus Ericsson in FP1. Surely the Swede’s days are number at the end of the season? For the second weekend in a row, someone who has never driven the car before has immediately bested him.

The team principals’ press conference was an interesting affair. Despite the apathy that questions about the Russian Grand Prix met last time they were asked in Hungary, there were more questions today. One about the possibility of sporting sanctions from the EU and NATO left them stumped, but the group line remains the same: if F1 goes to Russia, we go to Russia.

Sitting in the media centre, you cannot help but marvel at the passionate Ferrari fans sitting in the stands. However, among the flags cheering on Kimi and Fernando (and even Stefano Domenicali!), there was one that really stood out.

The irony is that this was put up in the best seats in the house; they were angry enough to give the sport they appear to hate money so they could moan about it.

Pirelli’s Paul Hembery made a very good point in the press conference, scoffing at the fact that the banner moaned about “ugly new circuits” at Monza of all places.

General consensus is that Formula 1 is putting on one hell of a show this year. Long may that continue.

Join us tomorrow for final practice (Live Extra, 5am ET) and qualifying (NBCSN, 8am) for the Italian Grand Prix.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”