BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Formula One leader Nico Rosberg questioned whether its governing body has put entertainment ahead of safety by approving the layout for the inaugural grand prix on the street circuit of Baku.
The close proximity of walls in the narrow section that threads through the heritage-listed center of the Azerbaijan capital city was designed as a feature of the circuit to contrast the cutting-edge F1 cars with buildings that date to the 12th century.
Speaking Thursday, drivers described the European Grand Prix circuit variously as “unique,” “exciting,” and “fun” due to its narrow confines, but Rosberg was less enthusiastic when asked about the unforgiving closeness of the walls and barriers, and lack of runoff space at several corners.
“There’s a little bit of concern with the runoffs,” Rosberg said. “There are two or three which are not looking good, which is not great.
“I trust the FIA (F1 governing body) to get the job done, they have all the calculations and simulations. I hope they stuck to them but I am doubting it a little bit, looking at those corners.”
Rosberg’s cautiousness contrasted with the cavalier attitude of teammate Lewis Hamilton, who said he found the circuit “very easy” in his brief time on the simulator, and said he “kind of like the idea of going on the track tomorrow without seeing it.”
The opposing outlook reflected the altered dynamic of the championship race, with Rosberg on the defensive against his refreshed teammate. Hamilton, coming off back-to-back wins in Monaco and Montreal, has sliced Rosberg’s championship lead from 43 points to just nine.
“I haven’t been counting points,” Rosberg said. “It’s not a blow to me because I am not thinking in that sense. What is a blow to me is my results.”
Most drivers have done little or no work on the simulators to prepare for the race. McLaren’s Fernando Alonso said he has not driven one lap, and Hamilton said he’d done just eight. So Friday’s practice will be their first chance to try out the circuit for real, and decide which to prioritize in car set-up: Down-force to improve cornering speed in the twisty sections, or low drag on the two-kilometer (1.3-mile) long main straight.
While Hamilton drove impressively to win the past two races, Mercedes’ once prodigious performance gap on its chief rivals has been whittled down significantly. His win in Monaco owed more to a botched Red Bull pit stop, and in Montreal to a flawed Ferrari strategy, than they did to a performance advantage.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was bullish about his chances this week after the strong performance in Montreal.
“It’s a completely new track but it looks very exciting, so I’m very much looking forward to it,” Vettel said. “A thrill to go in the car tomorrow.”
While Ferrari is expected to take the challenge to Mercedes again in Baku, Red Bull’s chances look diminished. Helmut Marko, the trackside proxy for team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, estimated the Red Bull cars will lose a full 1.2 seconds to Mercedes on the main straight alone, and even their cornering strength will not be able to make up for that.
“The track looks really tight, we will get pretty close to the wall there and push it to the limit,” Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo said. “1.2 is a big difference, I hope Helmut is wrong.
“It’s hard to know where we will be on this track. Our shot at winning is probably not as good as previous races, but you never know.”
Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24
There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.
And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.
In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.
Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.
But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.
“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.
“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”
After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.
“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.
“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”
Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.
“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.
“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”
Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:
Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.
“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”
Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”
Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.
“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”
Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”
Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”
Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”
Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.
“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”