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Rossi: Looking back on a US GP that was everything I wanted it to be

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It’s hard to know where to start when looking back at the last week and everything that has happened in New York, Austin and LA since my last blog for NBC Sports. The simplest thing to do is take you through the last week chronologically, and hopefully this will illustrate a picture describing why the last seven days have been so mega, and a culmination of 15 years of hard work.

First up was New York for a couple of days of media interviews. We arrived on Sunday night and started early Monday with an appearance on the Fox Business Network. Then it was a trip uptown to Bloomberg and then to the NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Connecticut, while in between conducting a series of phone interviews with national and international media.

Tuesday I appeared on the new Sports Illustrated TV show on NBC, so watch out for my appearance on that. It was a real pleasure to meet them and see how they’re embracing F1 at the magazine and the show and to see their excitement about my F1 role and being the only American in the sport.

New York was non-stop and then it was straight down to Austin, where we arrived Tuesday night.  Wednesday was another early start with a full day of media around Austin, including some filming with the guys at The Chive.

If you don’t know The Chive, it’s a hugely popular website based in Austin and one that hasn’t really done much with F1 before. This year that changed and we hung out for a couple of hours – I helped them teach visitors to their site how to drive a stick shift as part of a new segment that they’re running on the site. It was a blast and we had the chance to mess about with a car they’d been lent for the filming. It was a really good way of not thinking about F1 for a couple of hours and I’m sure you’ll like the end result when it’s up on their site.

Thursday, it all started coming together as we began the serious work on track. COTA had done a great job preparing for the race weekend, especially with the terrible weather conditions that were predicted, and it was awesome to see how excited everyone at the track was about the weekend ahead. This is the fourth year of the US Grand Prix at COTA and I’ve been to every one, driving in FP1 in 2012 and 2013, but this year was different. I was really touched with the warm welcome from everyone: fans, locals, media, airport and hotel workers, everyone! The list is too long to name them all but everyone was amazing, it really has been a truly special time.

Thursday was my first FIA press conference, an event that’s broadcast around the world with five other F1 drivers taking part. This was a fantastic experience and obviously an important opportunity for me to be selected on the driver panel. I look forward to the next one and fielding more questions from the world’s media.

The rest of Thursday on track was actually pretty normal. We did the track walk with the engineers, had a bunch of interviews with the F1 media pack, and then headed back into town to take part in COTA’s Fan Forum that they’d organized at their FanFest venue. The rain that had been falling, and with even more predicted for the whole weekend, hadn’t put off any fans. The place was packed and again I was humbled by the reception I received. It meant even more to me to hear that it wasn’t only the US fans who were pleased about the event, but also for those who had flown in from all around the world.

The Fan Forum events are always great. It’s a casual atmosphere and the questions are often more direct than you might get from traditional media outlets. One of the first questions asked was about 2016 and me being in F1 for full season.

This was a standard question over the whole weekend and I’m very pleased to give the same answer; things are moving along perfectly and while nothing is confirmed yet, I’m very confident I’ll be racing in F1 next year. I have a fantastic team of people that allow me to focus on my job behind the wheel and off track and who are helping put 2016 in place.

Friday… well, let’s just say it was wet, very wet! We put 11 laps on the board in FP1 but FP2 was cancelled due to the horrible weather conditions. We knew it was going to rain but in the end Austin had some of the heaviest downpours of the year in a very short space of time, continuing on Saturday when FP3 ran as scheduled, but qualifying was pushed back to Sunday.

That sort of chaos could be very distracting for everyone involved, including drivers. We prepare physically and mentally for the job you have to do in the car, and then it all changes. It’s not great for anyone, the teams, the officials and particularly the fans. It all came good on Sunday and it’s fair to say everybody was rewarded with one of the greatest races in recent memory.

With quali being pushed to Sunday morning we had a much earlier start than originally scheduled. I love driving in the wet so I was really looking forward to the session and it came good for me, out-qualifying my teammate and without any moments on track in the very tricky conditions.

With the various penalties for other drivers kicking into play, my grid position was 17th. The build-up to lights out, as you can imagine was very surreal. Hearing the Star Spangled Banner playing on the grid was a perfect start to my first home Grand Prix. It was a huge honor, privilege and responsibility to be on track representing the USA in F1.

With the wet surface the race started on we were all on intermediate tires. My start was OK but I was involved in turn one contact and had a broken front wing. I made it back to the pits for a new nose and nursing a punctured tire. This was not the start I’d planned but had nowhere to go when the impact happened. As drivers we have to adapt to what happens in these situations and I was focused on getting back to the pits to resolve the problems. Fortunately the in-lap was under caution so I did not lose much time.

From there I seriously enjoyed myself. The car felt great, and yes we’re down on power and aero compared to the cars ahead, but there is still an immense amount of torque to control and manage. With the package Manor has in place for 2016, I’m sure they’ll be making huge progress as the team does an incredible job with the budget and facilities they have access to.

I obviously couldn’t see what was unfolding at the front of the pack. I was making very sure I wasn’t in the way of anything that could affect the front runners, but after the start my race went pretty much exactly to plan.

I had a good little battle with Felipe Nasr for a few laps as the track was drying out. I overtook him under braking at one point before his better power performance pushed him back ahead. As the track dried out I had my first taste of COTA on dry tires with a 2015 spec car. I’d driven COTA in the dry in a modern F1 car with Caterham in 2012 and 2013, where both times I was limited by their FP1 runplans and on the harder prime tires. So finally I had the chance to really push on the option tires and with the fuel levels dropping, that was pretty special!

As the race unfolded I saw the attrition rate was helping push us up the field. I was just focused on my race, but at one point I did see I was in tenth and had a moment of “what if”, but I knew that we would need more cars to stop ahead to be into a point. At the end I was absolutely delighted with 12th and my plan is to build on that for Mexico.

This was my third F1 race and 12th equalled Manor’s best result of the year. The conditions had a big effect on the race and a few guys succumbed to what was going on around them, so to bring my car back and have a strong result at my home Grand Prix was a fantastic feeling.  This was a great reward for the fans who stuck it out in these conditions and for everyone who’s working so hard for my career.

After the race I caught up with the media and debriefed with the engineers, thanked everyone in the team for working so hard and then was straight on a plane to LA for some more engagements before heading to Mexico.

I’m in LA for two days and then flying down to Mexico City for the next F1 race, and I know what it’ll mean to Sergio Perez to be racing at home in F1 for the first time. After the reception I received last week and this week in California, I can tell him it’s a very special responsibility.

Looking back, my first US Formula One Grand Prix was everything I wanted it to be. I want to thank everyone who helped make it possible. Now though, Mexico is upon us and there is a lot to do! After that, it’s Brazil and then Bahrain and Abu Dhabi to cement my second place in the GP2 Championship.

After that it’s all back to F1 and finalizing the plan for 2016.

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

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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 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500