‘Helmetgate’ is just the latest storm in a teacup for F1

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Earlier this week, the F1 Commission met in Geneva to discuss the future of the sport. Up for discussion were louder and bigger engines, new aerodynamic designs and a far more radical path for the future.

Ultimately though, none of that was actually agreed on, ratified or confirmed, with the decision being to have another meeting in one year’s time and re-evaluate the situation.

Instead, what was actually agreed on was a blanket ban on helmet design changes across the course of the season. Sebastian Vettel’s tendency to bring a new one to each race did irk a few people in 2014, and has prompted a widespread change in F1 to prevent a repeat occurrence.

There was an immediate outcry from the F1 community, with a number of ex-drivers and pundits having their two cents and making their bemusement clear. The ‘issue’ of changing helmets was more of a minor annoyance or tick than a serious problem that really needed to be dealt with.

It’s just the latest storm in a teacup to come out of Formula 1. The winter has been a particularly turbulent one, with two teams fighting tooth and nail to survive, one collapsing completely, and the big questions about the cost crisis that engulfs the sport still being asked with very little in the way of a firm answer.

The benefits of forcing the drivers to stick with the same helmet design are quite obvious. Much like a number, it makes them instantly recognizable for fans watching on TV or in the grandstands. Throughout the history of the sport, many drivers have sported an iconic design throughout their careers that has become a part of their legacy: think of Ayrton Senna, Gilles Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher, to name but three.

It is certainly something that has been lost in recent years. Lewis Hamilton traditionally ran with a bright yellow helmet during his karting and junior racing days, but dropped it upon his move to Mercedes in 2013. Vettel’s constant chopping and changing of designs mean that you cannot possibly explain what his helmet looks like – there are too many to choose from.

A very pertinent comment came from ex-F1 and now-WEC driver Alexander Wurz on the subject: “It shall remain our free right of expression”. It is one of the few things that a driver can control. Fernando Alonso traditionally has yellow and blue on his helmet, the colors of Oviedo, his hometown. Others all have certain symbols and messages that are important to them and them alone.

But for some races, they will want to make a change. Home grands prix and special events such as Monaco are particularly popular for drivers who want to make alterations to their design. Kimi Raikkonen famously ran with a James Hunt design on his helmet in Monaco a few years ago, whilst Romain Grosjean less famously paid tribute to actor Matt Le Blanc with his helmet in Austin last year. Again though, it is their freedom of expression.

It is strange that issues such as these sit on the agenda list. In reality, it is such a menial and minor thing that it shouldn’t even come into the F1 Commission’s remit or sphere. The task is to improve the show and to make F1 a generally better sport. It certainly needs improving, but fans will be more deterred from going to a race by extortionate ticket prices than the fact that their favorite driver might have a different helmet.

Yet again, F1 appears to have missed the point. Double points was another example of a storm in a teacup: a measure that was introduced as a knee-jerk response to a problem that was not fully explained or explored.

The fact that drivers are changing helmet design every other race is neither here nor there if we are to look at the big picture: it just is what it is. It doesn’t deter fans’ enjoyment of the sport; it’s merely something the cynics will moan about because they need something to slate.

After all, there’s no need to make mountains out of molehills. F1 should focus on the actual problems at hand and try to make real progress in improving the sport, instead of picking on the minor annoyances that we can quite easily live and race with.

Scott McLaughlin will make IndyCar debut for Team Penske at St. Pete

Scott McLaughlin IndyCar debut
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Two-time defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will make his NTT IndyCar Series debut with Team Penske in the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

McLaughlin, 27, drove for Penske in preseason IndyCar testing at Circuit of the Americas, Sebring International Raceway (in a rookie evaluation) and Texas Motor Speedway, and he was announced Feb. 5 as making his debut with the team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic delayed the start of the season.

Travel restrictions also made it difficult for the New Zealand native to leave Australia, where he leads the points for DJR Team Penske in the Virgin Australia Supercars series with three races remaining. He set a Supercars record last season with 18 victories.

The Supercars season will conclude Oct. 18 with the prestigious 24 Hours of Bathurst. McLaughlin then will head directly to the States to drive the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet at St. Pete as a teammate of Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” McLaughlin, who also has won at Barber and Indianapolis while unofficially finishing first in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, said in a release. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my IndyCar debut.”

McLaughlin, whose wife, Karly, is from New York, said he has discussed racing in America with car owner Roger Penske since he was hired by the team for the 2017 season.

“I’ve always said I’d love to have a crack at something else,” McLaughlin told reporters in February during the preseason test at Austin, Texas. “My goal was always to win the championship in Bathurst and Australia. I ticked those boxes, and then opportunities arise over time. The conversation between me and Roger was pretty short. ‘Would you be interested in IndyCar?’ I’d literally drive a wheelbarrow with a Team Penske sticker on it. I’d race anything that comes with the opportunity.

“I’ve always intended I’d love to get America one day potentially if I’ve done my goals in Australia. I’ve always said whether it’s now or 30 years down the track, I’d love to finish up (in America). I’ve promised Karly that we would come back here eventually. She’s not pushing me by any means, but I’ve always had a passion for American motorsport and certainly would love the opportunity.”

McLaughlin also has indicated a desire to try racing in NASCAR for Team Penske. He discussed his comfort with stock cars during a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast (click on the link below to hear it).

Here’s the release from Team Penske:

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (September 17, 2020) – Team Penske announced today that Scott McLaughlin, the current Virgin Australia Supercars Championship points leader, is scheduled to make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the series’ 2020 season finale on the Streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday, October 25.

The two-time and defending Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) was set to compete in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race earlier this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced several delays and postponements on racing schedules, along with international travel restrictions. Before the pandemic shutdown, McLaughlin participated in the INDYCAR SERIES preseason open test at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, where he ran consistently well and posted the third-fastest time of the test session. The 27-year-old native of New Zealand also competed in separate tests at the Sebring International Raceway road course and the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” said McLaughlin. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my INDYCAR debut. I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with the series this year, from watching as many races as I can on TV to even talking to the drivers and some of the engineers back at the Team Penske shop. I never knew if I would be able to get behind the wheel of one of these cars this year due to all the COVID-19 restrictions, but I wanted to be ready if it became an opportunity.”

McLaughlin currently leads the Supercars point standings with just three rounds of competition remaining on the 2020 schedule. McLaughlin has produced a series-best 10 wins and 10 poles and holds a 143-point lead over Jamie Whincup entering this weekend’s race at The Bend. Over the course of his Supercars career, McLaughlin has won an impressive 53 races and 71 poles, while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019 and winning the driver’s title in each of the last two seasons. He also earned his first win in the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in 2019 with co-driver Alex Premat. Though he is in just his fourth season competing for Team Penske, McLaughlin already ranks third on the organization’s all-time wins list, trailing only Brad Keselowski and Mark Donohue.

Earlier this year, McLaughlin made his “virtual” INDYCAR debut, competing in the series’ iRacing Challenge and winning two races among the full field of current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers that were competing against each other while traditional racing was put on hold.

“Our plan has always been for Scott to run a race in the INDYCAR SERIES this season, but we never wanted to take the focus away from the main goal, which is winning another Supercars Championship,” said Team Penske President Tim Cindric. “COVID-19 certainly altered those plans early on, but with the way the schedules have lined up at the end of this season, St. Pete became an available option and we remain committed to getting him some INDYCAR seat time. We know Scott is ready for this challenge and this should add even more excitement to the 2020 season finale in St. Petersburg.”

McLaughlin will pilot the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Dallara/Chevrolet at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was postponed from its original date in March and will now take place on Sunday, October 25. The race on the 1.8-mile street circuit will be seen live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, with radio coverage on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network and SIRIUS XM.