Thanks to Wehrlein addition, F1 has a rookie battle now set for 2016

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Last year, the rookie storyline in Formula 1 was an intriguing one, because you had three drivers in realistic points-scoring scenarios with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. at Scuderia Toro Rosso and Felipe Nasr at Sauber.

Then you had the lesser fancied rookie pair of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi – and later a welcome five-race cameo from Alexander Rossi – at Manor Marussia.

Point being, there was a lot of “new” to digest in the 2015 campaign and until Manor’s confirmation of Pascal Wehrlein earlier Wednesday there wasn’t going to be much on the new driver front in 2016, with Jolyon Palmer the only first-year driver.

In fact, outside of Renault with a completely altered lineup of Palmer and returnee Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team in its maiden season and with Manor set to complete the field, there have been no changes at all up-and-down the grid for 2016, making for a fairly static setting.

Neither Palmer nor Wehrlein is going to set the world on fire in 2016, but they’ll both be facing intriguing teammate situations and with lower expectations, have the opportunity to overachieve.

The rookie story won’t be a huge one this year, but the fact there’s now two first-year drivers on the grid means there is at least the potential of a story – both between them directly, and between them and their respective teammates.

In Palmer’s case, the 2014 GP2 champion will be fresh off a year of FP1 running and no actual racing, and matched up comparably to Magnussen, who spent the year sidelined after his unceremonious dumping by McLaren.

Magnussen will be keen to get on and assert team leadership within Renault, an opportunity he didn’t have afforded to him at McLaren, and reveal the talent those who’ve followed him through the ranks know is there.

Remember, hard as it seems to believe given McLaren’s downturn in fortunes through its nightmarish 2015, this was a driver who delivered a stunning runner-up finish on debut in Melbourne two years ago ahead of Jenson Button, in what was a McLaren double podium and the team’s most recent podium finish.

The closer Palmer can match Magnussen, and occasionally beat him – he’d have to hope more than Pastor Maldonado did to Romain Grosjean the last two years – the more his own stock will increase.

He’s a year and a half older than Magnussen so he’s at roughly the same career point, save for the single year of F1 race experience Magnussen has, so he stacks up more than favorably.

Wehrlein, perhaps, will enter Manor Racing with a slight edge over whoever his teammate is by the sheer virtue of the fact he’s been named to the team first, and he’s got the Mercedes tie-in as the team embarks with its new Mercedes power units – which ironically, were in the Renault camp last year, then as Lotus.

The 21-year-old German has been in line for a race seat for a couple years given his Mercedes reserve duties and occasional Force India testing; in theory, he’d have been a natural for Force India if one of its two drivers moved on or out for 2016. He’s a past DTM champion and he enters the sport highly rated.

He’s arguably Manor’s best rookie since the late Jules Bianchi three years ago, and the thinking could be that Wehrlein has the potential to overachieve at the back of the grid the same as Bianchi did in what was then a Marussia-Cosworth, in 2013, the final year of the V8 era. Once Marussia got Ferraris the following year, Bianchi’s stock only continued to rise.

Whether Rossi or Stevens gets the nod alongside – from an American standpoint, selfishly, you’d like to see Rossi confirmed and hopes are high in his camp he will – they’re probably going to enter the year on a slight back foot.

Reason being, Stevens was dependable but never otherworldly last season and Rossi, when he had his late season opportunity, left Stevens in arrears more often than not. In short, both seasons were incomplete, although in Rossi’s case, the potential was higher for more if he can continue into 2016.

Neither the Renault nor the Manor figures to be a frontrunner or even lead the midfield this season. Points will be at a premium; it’s going to be the moments where Palmer and/or Wehrlein outperform their teammates, get out of Q1, finish in the 12th to 13th range that will really catch some eyeballs or show their worth to the F1 world at large.

Fortunately though, the fact there is a rookie battle does add at least one intriguing subplot to the season.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”