© Getty Images

As F1 silly season winds down, who’s in the race for the final four seats?

Leave a comment

The past two weeks have seen the 2017 driver markets for MotorSportsTalk’s two primary series, Formula 1 and IndyCar, develop very, very quickly.

Over in IndyCar, a flurry of confirmations mean that just two seats remain up for grabs: one at Chip Ganassi Racing, filled in 2016 by Max Chilton, and one for the street and road courses at Ed Carpenter Racing.

The F1 driver market was expected to be particularly volatile heading into 2017, but Red Bull’s early promotion of Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s decision to keep Kimi Raikkonen on for another year left it looking pretty stationary.

Things moved along quickly when Nico Hulkenberg decided to leave Force India for Renault, setting off a chain reaction that has seen Esteban Ocon move up as his replacement, Kevin Magnussen move to Haas and leave just four seats up for grabs: two at Sauber and two at Manor.

So who is in the race for the remaining seats? The names to work with here are Felipe Nasr, Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Gutierrez, Rio Haryanto and Jordan King. It is likely that four of the six will fill out the grid.

Sauber F1 Team

Sauber’s fortunes for 2017 may remain bleak given the team’s decision to stick with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit.

Yet with Longbow Finance’s takeover complete, the recruitment drive ongoing and, most importantly, the team poised for a multi-million dollar windfall all thanks to Felipe Nasr’s ninth-place finish in Brazil, things aren’t as bad as they once looked.

The result saw Sauber move above Manor in the constructors’ championship, with the difference between P10 and P11 equating to a reported $15 million in prize money.

Both Nasr and Ericsson pushed to secure a move to Force India, only to lose out to Ocon. Both bring decent financial backing to Sauber, with Ericsson also reportedly enjoying links to Longbow. As a result, it would be a big surprise to see the Swede racing elsewhere in 2017.

The question mark hangs over Nasr. He may have been a step above Ericsson on track, but off it, his reliance on Banco do Brasil and the current financial crisis facing Brazil may be an issue.

A possible option for Sauber is Gutierrez, who spent two years racing with the team in 2013 and 2014. His departure wasn’t on the best of terms, but he was spotted talking to his former boss, Monisha Kaltenborn, in Brazil; no real effort was made to hide that fact, either.

Gutierrez brings decent backing from Mexico, so would definitely be an option, relying the scars of his exit have healed for both sides.

Manor Racing

Just as Nasr’s points in Brazil boost Sauber’s fortunes, they hamper Manor’s. The British minnows will most probably need to secure a pay driver’s services for 2017 as a replacement for the Force India-bound Ocon.

Wehrlein’s debut season in F1 has been an odd one. His charge to P10 in Austria marked just the second points finish in Manor’s seven-season history, yet his failure to outclass early-year teammate Rio Haryanto and subsequent struggles against Ocon, who only made his debut in August, piqued enough concern for Force India to pass on him as Hulkenberg’s replacement.

Wehrlein will be keen to remain with Manor next year, and it could be that the likes of Gutierrez and Nasr push to join him. Both have backing (the latter’s admittedly uncertain), and both will benefit from 2017-spec Mercedes engines. It’s not unthinkable that Manor should run ahead of Sauber in the pecking order next year, making a move to the team desirable.

Haryanto was forced to give up his seat after Germany due to a shortfall in funding, but the Indonesian is apparently back in contention for a seat next year. Another option is Jordan King, who races in GP2 and is Manor’s development driver. He too would bring some backing.

Manor has no shortage of pay drivers to choose from. The big questions that will determine its decision are how crucial keeping Wehrlein is to its relationship with Mercedes, and what level of funding is now required after losing P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Perhaps the oddest thing in all of this is that both F1 and IndyCar look set to have their 2017 grids set before the end of the calendar year. As my colleague Tony DiZinno noted yesterday, Dale Coyne Racing has traditionally left things as late as possible; Manor is perhaps the equivalent in F1.

If things can be firmed up early, though, then the team will surely benefit from the stability that comes with it.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

Follow@KyleMLavigne