F1 2015 Primer: The Drivers

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off on Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, and the class 0f ’15 is raring to resume racing after a long winter and testing period.

As part of MotorSportsTalk’s ongoing preview of the new season, here’s a run-down of the drivers that will be racing in F1 this season. Most of the old hats return, but with four rookies on the grid, there is a fresh feel about the sport in 2015.

MERCEDES

Lewis Hamilton #44
The defending world champion was in devastating form last year, scoring 11 race wins to beat teammate Nico Rosberg to the title in Abu Dhabi. Hamilton can match his hero Ayrton Senna with a third championship in 2015, and is the pre-season favorite.

Nico Rosberg #6
2014 was Rosberg’s first taste of a championship battle, and although he emerged the loser, the German learned plenty and will be hoping to use this experience in 2015. Qualifying is his key strength, but he’s yet to prove he can beat Hamilton in a straight fight on-track.

RED BULL RACING

Daniel Ricciardo #3
The affable Australian was the breakout start of the 2014 season, scoring three wins and putting four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in the shade at Red Bull. Now he is team leader, Ricciardo will be hoping to build on this form and return to the top step of the podium in 2015.

Daniil Kvyat #26
Kvyat’s rookie season in F1 with Toro Rosso was solid if unspectacular, but he did enough to secure a seat at Red Bull for 2015 in what will be his sophomore year. The Russian still has plenty to prove, and all eyes will be watching closely to see if he can be a suitable replacement for Vettel at Milton Keynes.

WILLIAMS RACING

Valtteri Bottas #77
Besides Ricciardo, Bottas was the other surprise package of 2014, scoring six podium finishes for Williams en route to fourth place in the drivers’ championship. The flying Finn will have his sights set on a maiden race win in 2015, with the Williams FW37 looking to be a strong car once again.

Felipe Massa #19
Massa may be entering the final few years of his F1 career, but the Brazilian proved in 2014 that he still has what it takes to cut it at the very top. Misfortune limited him to just three podium finishes last year, so with a better run of luck, Massa could yet match his younger teammate at Williams.

SCUDERIA FERRARI

Sebastian Vettel #5
The four-time world champion follows in the footsteps of his hero, Michael Schumacher, by joining Ferrari when the team is by no means a leading force in F1. Vettel has the chance to truly establish himself as an all-time great by picking the team up and leading its charge back up the grid.

Kimi Raikkonen #7
Raikkonen’s motivation came into question last year as he struggled to adapt to the 2014 Ferrari car, but the Finn has lost none of his pace. 2015 could be a make or break year as he considers his future in F1 and motorsport.

MCLAREN

Fernando Alonso #14
Forced out of Ferrari, Alonso has returned to McLaren in a move that many would have thought unthinkable following their turbulent one-year relationship back in 2007. Both the team and the driver need each other more than ever, but time will tell if the scars have healed.

Jenson Button #22
Button was almost dropped by McLaren in favor of reserve driver Kevin Magnussen, but retained his seat after taking a pay cut. A two-year deal means he will be in F1 until he is 37, and the 2009 world champion will be keen to lead the team’s new era with Honda engines.

FORCE INDIA F1 TEAM

Nico Hulkenberg #27
Hulkenberg led Force India’s charge in 2014 with a very consistent display, but is still seeking that elusive first podium finish. The German driver will balance his F1 commitments with two races for Porsche in the FIA World Endurance Championship, racing for the marque at Spa and Le Mans.

Sergio Perez #11
With Esteban Gutierrez losing his seat at Sauber, Sergio Perez will be the only Mexican driver to race at his returning home grand prix in November. After being jilted by McLaren in 2013, Perez has revived his F1 career at Force India, and will look to build on a solid 2014 this year.

SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO

Max Verstapppen #33
At just 17 years old, Verstappen will smash the existing record for the youngest driver to start a grand prix on Sunday. His rise to F1 has sparked controversy, but he appears to have the makings of a champion. Toro Rosso will be the perfect training ground for the Dutchman.

Carlos Sainz Jr #55
Son of rally legend Carlos Sainz, “Carlitos” enters F1 after winning last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 championship. He was not Toro Rosso’s first pick for the race seat, so has plenty to prove in 2015, but should not be underestimated in the fight against his junior teammate.

LOTUS F1 TEAM

Romain Grosjean #8
Grosjean’s stock rose considerably in 2014 despite scoring just eight points, as he couldn’t do much more with the difficult Lotus E22 car. This year, the team has switched to Mercedes power and appears to be far more stable, paving the way for Grosjean to move back up the grid.

Pastor Maldonado #13
A one-time grand prix winner, Maldonado’s reputation has been blighted by a number of incidents and accidents. If the E23 Hybrid car allows him to though, points could be on the cards for the Venezuelan in 2015, providing a chance for him to atone for past mistakes.

MANOR MARUSSIA F1 TEAM

Will Stevens #28
Stevens made his F1 debut under unusual circumstances at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year for Caterham, but now has a shot at a full season with the revived Manor team. The car won’t be competitive, so taking his results with a pinch of salt will be key in 2015.

Roberto Merhi #98
Merhi had been due to make his F1 debut for Caterham last year before the team folded, but he has been given a second chance with Manor. The Spaniard enjoyed an impressive junior career, and brings plenty of experience from all forms of racing to the team for the new season.

SAUBER F1 TEAM

Marcus Ericsson #9
Ericsson is one of the few drivers to come out of the Caterham mess better off, securing a seat with Sauber for the new season. He made big improvements towards the end of 2014, and will be looking to carry this form over to his new team for 2015.

Felipe Nasr #12
Finishing third in last year’s GP2 championship, Nasr has proven his pace in junior categories, but perhaps lacks that killer instinct. His F1 debut has been a long time coming, and one can only hope that the Brazilian is able to prove his worth with Sauber this year.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500