Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull GRC: Lites champ Cabot Bigham steps up with Herta

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Californian driver Cabot Bigham’s social media channels branded him a year ago with the moniker of “Follow the Ham,” which is both clever and accurate at the same time.

For one, it makes a fun play on words of his surname – Bigham immediately makes one break the word down into “Big Ham,” which then leads to thinking about bacon, which then leads to the logo that has developed for his driver identity.

And second, perhaps more importantly, it’s a perfect double meaning for what “Following” the Ham actually means. From a social media context, it means following him via his various posts. But on the race track, it means others were following him on track.

Bigham scored a surprise but well-judged GRC Lites championship in his debut season, defeating 2015 champion Oliver Eriksson, talented veterans Alex Keyes and Alejo Fernandez, and a host of notable rookies including Miki Weckstrom in the process.

Bigham, 20, will now step up into Supercars for 2017 with Bryan Herta Rallysport, as the replacement for Patrik Sandell in the team’s No. 2 MSport Ford Fiesta. Nick Franzosi is the team manager. Bigham carries support from Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Oral IV and Fuel Clothing, with team partners to be announced later.

With the Swede moving to Subaru’s program, the door opened for Bigham to graduate as the first Lites champion to do so since 2014 champ Mitchell DeJong, who only made his Supercars debut at last year’s season finale in Los Angeles in a wild card third entry for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE.

The Mill Valley, Calif. resident who drove the Paratek Pharmaceuticals entry for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last year won twice, scored five podiums and eight top-five finishes in 11 starts. But down to both Eriksson and Weckstrom going into the final race of the season in L.A., Bigham needed a minor miracle to pull off a championship victory.

He got it when after starting 10th and last in the final, an accordion effect accident that happened in front of him was akin to his personal “parting of the red sea” as he made into second behind DRR teammate Keyes merely several turns into the 10-lap race.

“It’s exactly that – everything fell into place!” Bigham told NBC Sports. “We couldn’t have predicted a more ideal scenario for where we were starting. I got inside of Alejo into Turn 2. That gave me the proper positioning to get inside the wreck, avoid it all, and slot in behind Alex.

“But at the checkered, I couldn’t really comprehend the emotions! So much is going through your head. Prior to the race start, I said, ‘There’s a pretty slim chance I could battle for second.’ It didn’t occur to me I could win it, but I never said I couldn’t win it. That was a huge learning experience to tech me to never give up, no matter the situation.”

Bigham then had the option of returning for a GRC Lites title defense or instead moving up to Supercars.

Once Sandell announced his departure after two solid seasons with Herta’s rally team, suddenly the two-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner had a void to fill in the team that still has his name.

“We looked at all our options. I talked to a great number of drivers – GRC veterans and other racing championships – and also rookies to rallycross,” Herta told NBC Sports. “There wasn’t a particular mould but someone we could fit.

Photo: Tony DiZinno
Photo: Tony DiZinno

“But with Cabot, I saw he won the championship. I was able to watch. I tend to watch the Lites stuff when I can. But I hadn’t met him much in person. He’s young and doesn’t have a lot of racing experience yet. Traditionally it’s a two-to-three year process for most people. But he sort of mastered it in his first year.”

Bigham had become aware of Herta via a Skip Barber shootout and also through Herta’s own son, Colton’s, burgeoning racing career. Bigham called the meeting and now subsequent opportunity with Herta a “full circle” moment.

Putting together the deal took a couple months before today’s confirmation.

“Moving up as a rookie, you need to secure the time with team owners to talk, and secondly to find the finding,” Bigham explained. “Everything slots into place usually from December to February. That’s when the driver releases and contracts get signed. We try to get signed as quickly as possible, but without rushing.”

The single-car Ford team is the second confirmed Ford entry for the season, along with the two-car Loenbro Motorsports effort. For Bigham, he’ll have the team’s singular focus while for Herta, the opportunity to expand to a two-car team in Red Bull GRC would only come with the right manufacturer opportunity.

“This should ensure we have everything at our disposal for great results,” Bigham said. “It’ll be the same car as they’ve had the last two years (Ford), which is an appealing aspect. There’s always a couple years of R&D. I’m glad there’s a consistency there.”

Herta added, “Red Bull Global Rallycross gets a lot of looks from new manufacturers and it’s been a goal/business plan to position ourselves as a one-car team. Expanding to multiple cars is something we’d only do with a manufacturer partner involved with us.”

Bigham said the series’ trip to Canada in June for a doubleheader is the race weekend he’s looking forward to most, as it will mark the first time he’s raced outside the United States.

Matched up against some of the more experienced names in Red Bull GRC, this is quite an opportunity for Bigham and a shot to impress in the championship.

bigham2

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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