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2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview

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Veteran Formula 1 journalist Joe Saward raised quite an interesting point in his most recent blog post ahead of this weekend’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

“There are times when one wonders whether NASCAR is smarter than F1 by making sure that every championship showdown has four contenders,” he wrote.

“Why is F1 so stuck in its own mud that it will not consider any kind of play-off format? I know that it was not like that ‘in my father’s day’, but a scoring system is a scoring system – and teams deal with the rules they are given. In any case, points systems have changed in F1 many times, so comparing the different eras is of no great value.”

Indeed, Joe is right. The Chase, while having its critics, does ensure that the NASCAR season has a dramatic and exciting finale – something that F1 risks not having, and so frequently misses out on.

2015 is one such example. The championship was mathematically settled in Austin one month ago, yet there has been little doubt since Italy who would be winning the title. In fact, some may say that Lewis Hamilton had the championship in the bag as early as Hungary last year when he crushed Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes mind-games.

And yet we arrive in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year with so much to play for and plenty still waiting to be settled. There are engine dramas still ongoing, two seats on the 2016 grid to be confirmed, and a revival from Rosberg that Hamilton will be so very keen to put a stop to.

For one last time in 2015, here is your complete weekend preview featuring talking points, track stats and TV times ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Talking Points

Nico’s charge continues

Five straight pole positions and two comfortable victories in Mexico and Brazil not only confirmed that Rosberg will finish this year as runner-up to Hamilton once again, but have set the German up nicely for a renewed charge in 2016.

Rosberg was wry when told on the podium in Brazil that he needed to drive like this earlier in the year, but knows it to be true. If this form is anything to go by though, at a time when Hamilton seems to have become almost too comfortable, Rosberg may yet be a genuine candidate for the championship once again next year.

Victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday would also act as some kind of pain relief for Rosberg at the site of his bitter loss last year. The demons of 2014 are slowly being chased away. It may have taken him a year to do so, but Rosberg looks to be turning a corner.

Catch me if you can

Ferrari’s performance in Brazil once again stoked the fire for a close fight at the front of the pack in 2016 between F1’s two biggest manufacturers as Sebastian Vettel applied pressure on Rosberg and Hamilton throughout the race.

We therefore arrive in Abu Dhabi with hopes of a repeat, which at at track where the SF15-T should fare better still and in a race with a knack of the unexpected could offer a tremendous battle at the head of the field.

Just as Rosberg is banishing the misery of last year and suggesting that the best is still to come in 2016, Ferrari will want to do exactly the same thing on Sunday.

Fight to the Finnish

Apologies for re-using this pun, but the fight for supremacy between Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen has rumbled on for many weeks now. Their rivalry – if such a thing is possible between Finns – has been one of the interesting subplots in F1 of late thanks to their clashes in Russia and Mexico.

It’ll finally be settled this weekend in Abu Dhabi, but we all know that Bottas is the real winner. Beating Raikkonen in an inferior car is an impressive feat. However, not beating Felipe Massa with comfort in the same car may have ended his hopes of replacing Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2017.

A year changes plenty

Lots has changed in F1 over the past 12 months. Last year, there was no sign of Marussia, yet it outlived Caterham who did race at Yas Marina. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have both added to their greatness with impressive seasons, while the stock of others – mainly those powered by Honda – has fallen.

It’ll be interesting to see where we stand in one year’s time. The 2017 driver market promises to be one of the most active and eventful in years with plenty of top seats up for grabs, while we’ll have been back to Germany and even to Azerbaijan at this point in 2016.

And we’ll most probably either have a four or five-time world champion on our hands. Either way, we’re witnessing greatness in this period.

Say hello, wave goodbye?

On the same day that a number of teams have announced new sponsorship deals, we must also consider those who we may be waving goodbye to following this weekend’s race in Abu Dhabi.

Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s future may still not be totally sewn up, but both will be on the grid next year. The same cannot be said of Roberto Merhi, though, who is likely to lose his seat at Manor, while the team itself faces an uncertain winter after the exits of Graeme Lowdon and John Booth.

We’re also not sure what the future holds for Lotus. Autosport reported on Thursday that the team needed help to make it to Abu Dhabi from Bernie Ecclestone, as the deal with Renault is still being finalized.

One thing we do know for sure is that Haas F1 Team will be joining the grid next year – they’ve even got a pit gantry – without a toaster in sight (props if you get that US F1 joke…).

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Yas Marina Circuit
Laps: 55
Corners: 21
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:40.279 (Red Bull, 2009)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft (Option); Soft (Prime)
2014 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:40.480
2014 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:44.496
DRS Zone: T7 to T8; T10 to T11

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 4am ET 11/27
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 11/27
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 5am ET 11/28
Qualifying
: CNBC 8am ET 11/28
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 11/29

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500