This week’s update comes with a heavier heart due to the tragic events in Paris over the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend.
Formula 1, GP2 and the motorsports community have deep roots in France and particularly in Paris where the FIA headquarters are located. The whole sport had France in our thoughts and prayers for everyone affected by the horrible events that unfolded last Friday night. I was very proud with the way F1 paid tribute to France before the race and it was an honor to be a driver on the Brazilian Grand Prix grid.
With my impending season finale GP2 commitments, the Brazilian Grand Prix was my final F1 race for 2015 with Manor Marussia F1 Team. I’m very satisfied with my 2015 F1 debut, finishing four out of five in front of my teammate for the races and three out of five in front for qualifying. Most of all, I can say we now have the F1 foundation in place for 2016.
The Brazil weekend was up and down and we struggled to find the right balance for the car in both practice and qualifying. In quali we ended up in front of the other car, but we were still missing time and I was pushing hard on my quickest lap. For Sunday, I was battling understeer for most of the race. The first stint was good on the option tire until about lap ten and then the car became extremely front end limited.
The second and third stints we were on the primes and we made adjustments at both stops, but the improvement was marginal. As a racer your DNA is to perform, so when you’re limited by these things it can be frustrating, but then after an hour or so post-race I was already thinking about Bahrain this weekend.
I want to thank everyone at Manor Marussia F1 Team and Racing Engineering for making the switch from GP2 to F1 and back to GP2 and back to F1 again so easy. It’s quite humbling when I stop and think about how incredibly hard working, talented and good spirited the teams of people are that I have around me this year. Racing Engineering have provided me with a great platform in GP2 to show what I’m capable of and Manor F1 allowed me to do what I needed to do for 2016, and they did so with full support for me wherever I needed it. It’s been an honor to race with them since Singapore and I look forward to being back again next year.
Before the Abu Dhabi final rounds of F1 and GP2, it’s back across the Atlantic to Bahrain. On Sunday I left directly after the F1 race in Brazil for Bahrain, for the penultimate round of GP2 2015. We’ve already run a GP2 race weekend there this year, back in April with F1.
This time we’re on the same bill as the WEC teams and even though it’s the same track it’s a different challenge, partly due to the fact the WEC guys run on Michelin rubber and the track surface will behave a bit differently than a F1 / GP2 weekend, where most cars are on Pirelli tires.
As I said in a previous blog for NBC Sports just after Mexico, we did a lot of preparation for Bahrain and Abu Dhabi with Racing Engineering at their base in Spain last week. This means we are ready to go from the very first practice laps and my only goal is to lockdown second place in the 2015 GP2 championship.
I can’t wait to get back into my GP2 car. That might sound strange since I’ve just had three rounds in a row in F1, but as I’ve said all year Racing Engineering is one of the best teams in this series and together we have a package that really has a realistic chance of winning races each weekend.
It’s been a fantastic year, a year that’s met expectations in some areas, exceeded in others and no doubt has more highs to come before we are done. For now, my sole focus is Bahrain, 100%! After that box is ticked, we’ll think about Abu Dhabi and how to finish the season in style. Thank you for your support and I look forward to sharing more of my journey with you next week.
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.
“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.”
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).
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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?