Formula 1 Roundtable: Summer Break

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While the Verizon IndyCar Series may be springing back into life this weekend with the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, there is still one more week of summer to soak up before Formula 1 returns with the Belgian Grand Prix on August 27.

Sebastian Vettel moved into a 14-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship with victory in Hungary at the end of last month, leaving Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton on the back foot once again after reeling him in at Silverstone two weeks prior.

With the early season blows being exchanged, Vettel and Hamilton are now gearing up for the home stretch to Abu Dhabi, starting at Spa next weekend.

In the third edition of our Formula 1 Roundtable series this season, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavigne cast their eye on the year that has been so far and look ahead to what may come in the next three months.

1. What has been the biggest storyline for you in Formula 1 so far this season?

Luke Smith

There are so, so many to choose from. The most surprising storylines have to be Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 run and Robert Kubica’s comeback from injury (more on that later), but the biggest? Ferrari’s return to the front of the pack, led by Sebastian Vettel.

It was an alliance born with great expectations, but after such a miserable 2016 season, it seemed possible that Vettel could leave Maranello in the same fashion Fernando Alonso did: frustrated, disappointed and without another title to his name.

Alas, Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, with Ferrari’s SF70H car easily being the best it has produced in almost a decade. The pre-season testing showing was not a bluff, and while Mercedes may have since bridged the gap and perhaps even moved ahead in the development race, Vettel is in with a real shot of a fifth title this year.

There may be no favorites in F1, but having its most visible brand fighting at the very front of the field once again can never be a bad thing.

Tony DiZinno

A welcome championship battle between two teams again, and two of this generation’s best drivers in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Some circuits have favored Hamilton’s Mercedes and others Vettel’s Ferrari. Their rivalry was healthy and in good spirits at Spain; by Baku it had become tense once again.

Championship battles are the best in F1 when they feature either the greatest drivers or the greatest teams duking it out between themselves and after a period of Mercedes dominance, followed previously by a period of Red Bull dominance, it’s been nice to have a genuine back-and-forth cage match this season.

Kyle Lavigne

Most likely, the three best drivers on the grid are Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. Yet, despite being on the grid together since 2008, rarely have all three clashed together on the track, let alone of a full season. The only time all three entered the final race of the season with a shot on the world championship was in 2010, the first of Vettel’s four Formula 1 world championships.

While Alonso is unfortunately saddled with subpar equipment (his McLaren-Honda saga has been well-documented all year), Vettel and Hamilton each finally have the right tools to succeed in the same year…and we are being treated to a truly titanic duel. And not just between the drivers, but also between the teams, as the still relatively new Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team goes head-to-head with the powerhouse Scuderia Ferrari.

The ebb and flow of the season has Vettel on top right now (202-188), while Mercedes leads the constructor’s world championship (357-318).

As Tony previously mentioned, having a genuine championship between two of the sport’s best drivers and two of the sport’s best teams, especially after years of dominance first by Red Bull Racing and then Mercedes, is a welcome change.

2. Silly season is ramping up in F1 – but which story has grabbed your attention the most?

Luke

Robert Kubica’s possible comeback has been the real story of silly season so far. For a driver largely seen as one of the sport’s lost talents, the Pole’s return from serious injury has been nothing short of staggering. No-one could have seen this happening.

But it is happening. After an initial run in a 2012 Lotus F1 car ‘for fun’ – like Kubica ever does things for fun – two further tests followed, the final one being against the rest of the F1 field. Kubica was on the pace and consistent as anything.

It all boils down to whether Kubica feels physically ready to get back into F1 full-time. The pace is there. Renault should jettison Jolyon Palmer at the end of the season, if not earlier, and if Kubica is ready to step up, it would be amazing to have him back in action where he belongs.

Tony

The Robert Kubica story is huge, no doubt, because of its surprise element and then the reality that oh, he’s still got it, and is in serious contention for a race return. I’m not sure what else to add here because Luke does a really good job of it above.

Elsewhere, the season-long McLaren, Honda and Fernando Alonso saga has been a talking point. One feels the combination can’t all continue together but yet where else do each of them have to go?

Kyle

Where Fernando Alonso goes is probably the most intriguing silly season story, mostly because he could literally go anywhere. It’s possible he stays at McLaren if Honda shows dramatic improvement, or at least plans for dramatic improve. He could jump to another team within Formula 1 as well.

And, of course, he could completely leave the sport all together for something in the World Endurance Championship or the Verizon IndyCar Series. Or maybe he tries something completely out of the left field and gives the NHRA or power boat racing a go. (Okay, this last part is jest).

In all seriousness, any one of a number of scenarios surrounding Alonso seem equally possible, and it will likely be the biggest domino that impacts F1’s silly season.

3. Who has been your driver of the season so far?

Luke

There have been a number of excellent drivers through this year – Vettel, Hamilton, Carlos Sainz Jr., Esteban Ocon all rank highly for me – but I have to go with Valtteri Bottas. For a driver many were uncertain about as Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes replacement, the Finn has surpassed all expectations and become a real challenger at the front of the pack.

Bottas has raced like a true champion, soaking up pressure from Vettel in both Russia and Austria to hang on for victory. Not only were those defensive drives important for his own standing, but they could prove crucial come the end of the season in Vettel’s title fight with Hamilton.

Is Bottas in the race for the championship? Yes – but only just. In reality, this should boil down to Vettel and Hamilton in Abu Dhabi. But as number twos to have in your corner, there is no-one better right now than F1’s newest flying Finn.

Tony

This largely boils down to expectations – we knew Hamilton, Vettel and the Red Bull pair would be fine but we didn’t know how Valtteri Bottas would have slotted in to Mercedes at late notice, and replacing outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg. He’s done rather well.

Bottas has been a far more consistent scorer than Hamilton, making fewer mistakes and then seizing the opportunities when he’s had them himself against Vettel. Neither his Russia nor Austrian Grand Prix wins were thrillers in the traditional sense of passing in-race beyond the start, but that he didn’t crack owed to his steely resolve. He’s lived up to the task at hand.

Further down the grid I’ve been fully impressed by Esteban Ocon at Force India. It’s easy to overlook this is his first full-time season although he isn’t classed as a rookie owing to his starts last year. Pushing Sergio Perez to the edge, occasionally overstepping it, has seen him take up the reins nicely vacated by Nico Hulkenberg and solidified Force India’s standing as best of the rest beyond the top four. It’s been impressive work so far by the young Frenchman.

Kyle

I’m with my MotorsportsTalk colleagues on this. Valtteri Bottas has done a great job into the Mercedes team late in the game and getting himself up to speed. With a pair of wins and and eight podiums to his name this year, he has done more than enough to solidify his place as a big player on the F1 grid.

It’s highly unlikely he’ll emerge as a world championship contender this year, but future seasons could certainly see him as a legitimate title contender.

Honorable mentions: Esteban Ocon (for pushing Sergio Perez to the limit and helping to make Force India nip occasionally nip at the heels of Red Bull for third best amongst, Daniel Ricciardo (for getting as much of the Red Bull, and it’s under-powered Renault power unit, as he can, even sneaking out a win at Azerbaijan), and Alonso (his P6 at Hungary may be the drive of the year, and he has handled a very difficult situation with great dignity and humor).

4. Who will win the F1 drivers’ championship in 2017?

Luke

I’m torn – but I’m going to tip Sebastian Vettel to claim a fifth world title. I do believe that Mercedes has made serious gains on Ferrari in recent weeks to move ahead in the development race, but the Prancing Horse remains strong.

Spa and Monza will play towards Mercedes, but Ferrari should smash Singapore. The rest of the tracks on the calendar are fairly balanced, so it may come down to who out of Vettel and Hamilton can deal with the title pressure better.

The formbook favors Vettel. His second-half form in all four of his title wins was remarkable, particularly in 2012 when he overturned a 42-point deficit to Fernando Alonso to win the title, and in 2013 when he won the final nine races of the year.

This will go all the way to Abu Dhabi, but I’m thinking we will get – only just – a first Ferrari world title win since 2007.

Tony

The title will come down to the mental and psychological battle between Hamilton and Vettel as the year goes on – both have been tested so far, and it’s a question of who can respond when a big moment is needed.

Vettel, since joining Ferrari, has alternated between helping to lead the team’s rally back and then falling into a trap of petulant radio messages and outbursts. Quite how he handles adversity if he faces it the rest of the way – let’s say Mercedes gets on a mini-run at some point – will be fascinating to watch. His one bit of help is that he has a teammate in Kimi Raikkonen, who is undoubted second fiddle.

Hamilton has a more complex scenario to factor in the rest of the way. Bottas risks taking points off him at various races, but, Bottas has also proven more adept at denying Vettel points when the opportunity is there. Hamilton is also keen to get to a fourth World Championship, which would match Vettel. Beating him in a straight fight is something he hasn’t done in either of his previous three. His motivation to not lose a second straight title is incredibly high. For that, I’ll tip the Englishman to get the title this year.

Kyle

Although Vettel maintains the upperhand at the moment, until someone firmly unseats Mercedes, who still lead the constructor’s championship, I have stick with Hamilton. Vettel’s propensity to occasionally come unglued (see Azerbaijan) is a definite chink in his armor. Although he somehow got away without losing points to Hamilton that day (he can thank Hamilton’s cockpit surround working its way loose for that), that propensity could ultimately cost points and/or a race suspension if it surfaces again, which swing momentum in a big way toward Hamilton’s favor.

I genuinely believe this year’s title will be a knockdown, drag-out duel to Abu Dhabi, but I see Hamitlon coming out on top.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

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.

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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.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“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.”