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.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

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Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”

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