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NHRA surprise: John Force swaps crew chiefs, teams with Robert Hight

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If there’s one thing that’s certain about 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, it’s that he never ceases to surprise fans and those in the sport.

Just two races into the 24-race 2017 season, Force unveiled his most recent surprise Thursday morning: he’s swapping teams with teammate, son-in-law and John Force Racing president Robert Hight.

Yep, that’s right, lock, stock and barrel – plus crew chiefs and team members – one week before next weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

While Force will continue driving the Peak Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car and Hight will remain behind the wheel of the Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro SS, everything else will change.

Crew chief Jimmy Prock, co-crew chief Chris Cunningham and the rest of the Peak team will now be Hight’s supporting cast.

Meanwhile, crew chief Mike Neff and co-crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch and the rest of the Auto Club team will essentially become Force’s backup band.

As for the other two JFR teams, Courtney Force and her Funny Car team and Brittany Force and her Top Fuel team will remain intact.

Schaffer was Force’s crew chief last season and now they’re reunited, just like Prock is reunited with Hight, a pairing that produced 27 wins, including the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship.

Prock also has 14 wins during his previous tenure as Force’s crew chief.

This is also Neff’s second go-round as Force’s crew chief, which includes seven wins and the 2010 championship together.

Force is currently fifth in the Funny Car standings, 128 points behind series leader Matt Hagan. Hight, meanwhile, is ninth in the standings, 152 points behind Hagan.

Since Force began JFR more than 30 years ago, it has compiled 247 Funny Car wins, including 147 by Force himself and Hight 37. Force has 16 championships, while Hight has one championship.

“My race cars are moving ahead,” Force said in a media release. “They’re running big numbers; we’re still trying to find that consistency.

“I came into the shop in Brownsburg and met with the teams and all the guys in the machine shop, the fab shop and the paint shop. I looked at the pictures on the wall, looked at Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight in winner’s circle photos, I looked at pictures of me and Jimmy Prock, I looked at pictures of me and Neff, I looked at pictures of me and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCullough – and all of a sudden, it just felt right.

“I went home, slept on it, woke up the next morning, and it felt right. The cars are all doing good, but to put Robert Hight back with Jimmy Prock, who he won the championship with, and to put me back with Mike Neff, who I won the championship with – and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, who I won four races last year with – it just made sense.

“Austin Coil (Force’s former longtime crew chief; they won 14 championships together) always told me change is good, even when things are going right. This will build us stronger in the long run.”

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Fernando Alonso will decide this summer whether to pursue F1 again

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Fernando Alonso said he will determine by this summer if he would consider a return to Formula One next season.

After announcing Tuesday that he will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May with Arrow McLaren Racing SP, Alonso said “right now the Indy 500 will take all of my concentration” but left the door open for F1 in 2021.

“In my case, probably during the summer period, I’ll make a decision on 2021 if Formula One is still appealing to me,” Alonso told IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview (watch the video above). “The 2021 rules (in F1) are definitely a step forward, and hopefully things can be more mixed and not only three teams capable of winning races. So all this factors into play. I may consider that possibility.”

Alonso won consecutive Formula One championships in 2005-06 with Renault. He has 32 victories in an F1 career that started in 2001 and also includes stints at Ferrari and McLaren.

His last victory on the circuit was May 12, 2013 in Barcelona. He is winless in his most recent 110 starts, including the past 77 races with McLaren in 2015-18.

The Guardian recently reported that McLaren CEO Zak Brown said Alonso wouldn’t be returning to F1 with the team.

Alonso also told Diffey that returning to F1 from a two-season absence wouldn’t necessarily be linked to McLaren’s performance.

“I think they did well last year, and hopefully they make another step forward and close to the top three because they deserve it and are a fantastic team,” he said.

Though he is optimistic about more parity, Alonso said six-time champion Lewis Hamilton should be a favorite for the 2020 title based on preseason testing in which Mercedes turned heads with a new steering system.

“It seemed Mercedes is still quite competitive,” Alonso said. “They show enormous potential on the development side and on the progress from one year to next. Formula One is impossible to predict because many things happen in season.

“At the starting point, (Mercedes) are the favorites. When you have Lewis in the car and Mercedes with the potential they have, they have to be No. 1 probably.”