Smiling Through the Rain: Silverstone proved that it isn’t all doom and gloom in F1

3 Comments

When you think about the British, a number of stereotypes will most probably come to mind. As MotorSportsTalk’s resident Brit, I can probably set a few of them straight.

No, we don’t all drink tea – although my friends do think it strange I prefer coffee.

Yes, we are overly polite and say ‘sorry’ far too often. We then apologize for apologizing.

However, the biggest thing that we are known for having is a ‘stiff upper lip,’ defined as “remaining resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity”.

And in the case of Formula 1, the British mentality was much-needed over the past weekend.

There is a great deal of doom and gloom in F1 at the moment, as perfectly exemplified in Friday’s FIA press conference when Force India owner Vijay Mallya coined the term “uncrap” and Lotus CEO Matthew Carter blamed the media for being too negative about the sport.

F1 is by no means perfect at the moment. The financial crisis rages on, and the on-track action has left much to be desired. However, you should have tried telling that to the 140,000 fans that packed out Silverstone on Sunday for the grand prix.

And boy, did they get a reward for their passion and support.

The British Grand Prix was perhaps the best of the season so far. I noted after the race that it was an ‘average result, but a far from average race’ – it was one that captured the imagination of the watching public and really left you on the edge of your seat.

It was totally different to the grands prix that we have seen of late. Although they have been entertaining in places, few have had much of a fight at the front of the field. It has ordinarily been left to either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg to dominate proceedings and the rest to fight over the scraps.

At Silverstone though, we were treated to a brilliant four-way fight for the win as Williams got in the mix. The British team once again opted to play it safe, not splitting Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas’ strategies, which ultimately left them fourth and fifth at the flag after queuing in the pits late on.

It was a terribly British affair, even right down to the weather. I wrote in my preview earlier this week that Britain was in the midst of a heatwave. Having spent Tuesday baking in the sun in London and most of Wednesday complaining about my sunburn, I expected the heat to transfer to Silverstone for the race and play into Ferrari’s hands.

Ironically, it was a rain shower that actually worked for Ferrari by giving Sebastian Vettel his first podium finish since the Monaco Grand Prix. “In the end, that’s England for you,” he said after the podium. “[A] couple of minutes later you have sunshine.”

The rain did spice up the race, undoubtedly. Without it, Hamilton would most probably have eased home, leaving Massa, Bottas and Rosberg to fight over P2, P3 and P4.

However, the shower made the Briton work for his victory, bringing out the best of him both as a driver and as a strategist. The brilliance of his call to pit for intermediates cannot be underestimated.

Will the race go down as an all-time classic? It’s unlikely. However, it will go down as an important one in Lewis Hamilton’s career, and in the context of the 2015 season, it brought some joy to F1.

Because if you believed that all was discussed with regards to F1 was negative, 140,000 fans would not have flocked to Silverstone on race day. Perhaps the more impressive fact is that 110,000 ventured to the remote Northamptonshire circuit for qualifying. These are big numbers that few other circuits can even get close to.

What must be accepted is that occasionally a grand prix won’t feature dozens of overtakes or a big crash or anything of note. Some races are akin to the 0-0 draw in soccer. That is the nature of sport.

In soccer though, you aren’t restricted to just 19 games per season – 380 Premier League matches alone in 2014/2015 – showing how F1 has far less of a opportunity to get it right.

And the fans that went to Silverstone on Sunday knew that it could easily have been a dull affair. Few would have begrudged Hamilton a dreary win, such is his support at his home race, but the neutral in the stands may have questioned whether spending £300 on a grandstand ticket was a wise investment.

That is the nature of the British fan, though. A passion and fervor exists that makes Silverstone a race like few others – in my eyes, Austin and Montreal are the only ones that compares in terms of atmosphere – and it was exactly what F1 needed. In a time of dwindling track attendances, the British Grand Prix swam against the stream.

What is required in F1 at the moment is a little more acceptance. Times do get tough. Races will sometimes be a little tedious.

But when you get a weekend like this, with 140,000 fans sticking it out in the pouring rain to cheer on an enthralling on-track spectacle, you remember just why F1 is dubbed the pinnacle of motorsport.

F1 could perhaps stand to be a little more British in its approach. Get the stiff upper lip and get through the tough times instead of pointing the finger and making knee-jerk changes, because it isn’t all bad.

Even through the rain of Silverstone, the sun can shine.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

1 Comment

In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

NHRA
Leave a comment

After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski