Jenson Button seeks rebound at Azerbaijan after Montreal last-place disappointment

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To say it has been a disappointing season thus far for McLaren driver Jenson Button is an understatement.

The 2009 Formula One champion has continued the same struggles he had in 2015. He finished last season 16th in the final F1 driver standings and through the first seven races that’s where he’s at thus far in the 2016 standings, as well.

The 36-year-old native of Great Britain has earned just five points since the start of the season.

Now it’s on to a brand new race and track, the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe at the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan.

Things were starting to look up for Button in the three races before Montreal, with finishes of 10th at Sochi and back-to-back ninth-place outings at Catalunya and Monte Carlo.

But his last-place finish (22nd) at Montreal, dropping out just nine laps into the 70-lap race due to engine failure (for the second time this season) – was not what he anticipated coming into that race.

Now it’s on to a new challenge at Azerbaijan, with a new street course and renewed optimism that things may get back on track for Button and his team.

“After a disappointing end to what was a fairly positive weekend in Canada, I’m already relishing the prospect of the next race,” Button said in a media release. “The Baku City Circuit looks pretty cool – especially as the city center has so much history attached to it, yet we’ll be roaring over the cobbles there at over 300km/h (186mph) in the middle of the city walls.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ve transformed the area to accommodate a Grand Prix race. I’ve heard good things from Fernando (McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso) about the layout too, with some really exciting narrow sections mixed in with wider areas that should be promising for overtaking.

“It’ll be tough on the car with its long, fast straight, strong loads on the ERS and high fuel consumption, so we need to buckle down and work hard to get our package set up as quickly as possible for the demands of this circuit.”

The new track, coupled with limited time and practice and no prior race data, could make this a more wide open affair than usual. But at the same time, Button and his team are also working on a strategy that they hope helps them stand out from the rest of the race field.

“In terms of things like strategy, tires, temperatures, of course we have a lot of simulator data – a few of the guys in the team have visited and already have a pretty good handle on the conditions – but until we get there, it’s all a bit of unfamiliar,” Button said. “Having a new circuit on the calendar definitely does spice things up a bit and puts everyone back on a more level playing field, at least initially, so I’m looking forward to the challenge of a new track.”

It’s important to stay positive and keep looking forward, Button noted.

“It’s imperative we bounce back quickly from the disappointment of Canada,” he said. “And the fact we go to a completely new Grand Prix means the focus will rapidly shift from one to the other. There’s definitely a heightened sense of anticipation and excitement for the next race.

“We’re working hard to keep improving race to race and despite the blip in Canada, hopefully we can continue seeing gains – however small – in the next few crazy weeks of back-to-back Grands Prix.”

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.