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F1 Preview: 2016 Canadian Grand Prix

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With the first six races of the 2016 Formula 1 season being spread over a somewhat leisurely 11-week period, this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix marks the beginning of a relentless run leading up to the summer break.

Following the race in Montreal on Sunday, the F1 paddock will face a swift pack-up ahead of the jaunt over to Azerbaijan for the returning European Grand Prix in Baku, forming the first back-to-back of the season.

Six races in the next eight weeks will leave the drivers in need of the summer break that then follows, but as we saw in Monaco, just one grand prix can be enough for the momentum to swing.

Lewis Hamilton arrives at the site of his first F1 victory back in 2008 riding high after winning in Monaco two weeks ago and cutting the deficit to championship leader Nico Rosberg by almost half.

However, the two Mercedes drivers may have more than just each other to contend with in Montreal, with Red Bull enjoying a resurgence in recent weeks.

Here are our talking points, track stats and TV times ahead of this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix.

2016 Canadian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Can Lewis keep it going?

It may have taken six races for Hamilton to pick up his first win of the season and first victory over Rosberg since the 2015 US GP, but he could not have wished to do it in more emphatic fashion.

While Rosberg was made to look decidedly average, citing a lack of confidence in the car en route to a seventh-place finish, Hamilton excelled in the damp conditions Monaco offered to beat Daniel Ricciardo, who had been the fastest driver all weekend long.

Rosberg’s charge for the title in 2014 came apart after the Hungarian Grand Prix where the momentum swung dramatically in Hamilton’s favor. Could Monaco be where the tide turned in the 2016 race?

For Hamilton, Canada has been a very happy hunting ground over the years. He has won at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on four occasions, and rarely goes without being in the running for victory. The aim on Sunday will be to pick up where he left off in Monaco and whittle down Rosberg’s lead further.

Naturally, the challenge for Rosberg is to stop this from happening. We’re still yet to see a straight fight between them in dry conditions – and with rain on the horizon in Montreal, we may not for another week at least.

Ricciardo seeks redemption after Monaco blunder

Another driver whose first victory came in Canada is Daniel Ricciardo, who capitalized on a clash between Rosberg and Hamilton back in 2014 to score a popular win. Since then, he has won a further two races – but really, it should be four.

After a strategy error cost him the chance to win in Spain last month, Ricciardo stunned in Monaco by taking his first pole position, putting the newly-upgraded Renault power unit to very good use.

The race seemed to be Ricciardo’s to lose after forging a 13-second lead in the opening stages – only for Red Bull to lose it for him. A tire blunder in the pits left him a disgruntled second come the end of the race, knowing he should really have won the race.

The Red Bull RB12 is well-suited to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and with the upgraded Renault power unit now fitted to both cars, the team will be hopeful of a big result on Sunday.

Max Verstappen will hope to at least match Ricciardo, but it is the Australian who will be leading Red Bull’s bid to mix it with the Mercedes boys and make up for his Monaco disappointment.

Groundhog day for Ferrari

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is known for many things, but in particular: groundhogs, which are known to scamper across the track during the race and, as Anthony Davidson found out to his cost in 2007, occasionally get in the way of the cars.

It may be groundhog day for Ferrari once again this weekend. All season long, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen have spoken warmly of the SF16-H car, saying how it has the pace to battle at the front. And all season long, we’ve yet to see the Italian marque really take the fight to Mercedes.

With Red Bull on the rise, Ferrari risks becoming the third-fastest team once again. Another engine update has been promised for Canada, yet the previous incarnations have failed to offer the big step that had been hoped for.

So unless things change quickly this weekend, it could be another tough race for Ferrari.

Haas gets closer to home

This weekend’s race is set to be the first that Haas enjoys a sizeable amount of support at given the number of American fans that will be making the trip to Montreal.

Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez will be hope to make up for a difficult couple of races where the reality of racing in F1 has started to bite the American team.

Grosjean has ran well in Montreal before, finishing second in 2012 for Lotus, while Gutierrez’s long points drought desperately needs to end sooner rather than later.

Strangely enough, the Canadian Grand Prix is actually the closest race on the F1 calendar to Haas’ headquarters in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

By road, Google Maps estimates it would take 14 hours and 48 minutes to get from the team’s American base to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, compared to the 17 hours and 26 minutes it would take to drive to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

The reaction to Rossi

This weekend’s race is the first since Manor reserve driver Alexander Rossi claimed his stunning victory in the Indy 500 for Andretti Herta Autosport, coming hours after the Monaco Grand Prix had finished.

With Le Mans also on the horizon, it is likely that a few drivers will be asked about possible options to try something different in the future, perhaps to emulate Rossi or Nico Hulkenberg, who won the 24-hour race with Porsche last year.

Rossi won’t be in Montreal due to his racing commitments in Texas at the Firestone 600, but you can bet his name will be on many lips in the F1 paddock.

Given the Rio Haryanto’s Manor funding is only enough to get him to Hungary, could the American add some F1 races to his calendar once the F1 season is done?

2016 Canadian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
: 14
Lap Record: Rubens Barrichello 1:13.622 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Soft/Super-Soft/Ultra-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:14.393
2015 Fastest Lap: Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) 1:16.987
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T14 to T1); T12 to T13

2016 Canadian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 10am ET 6/10
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 2pm ET 6/10
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 10am ET 6/11
Qualifying: NBCSN 1pm ET 6/11
Race: NBC 1pm ET 6/12

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