Getty Images

Hartley’s continued F1 bow throws quick curveball to Indy silly season

Leave a comment

Yesterday’s confirmation that Brendon Hartley would be in the second Scuderia Toro Rosso race seat for at least the next Formula 1 race in Mexico this weekend does build the case that his eventual switch into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 isn’t yet solidified.

Although no one from Chip Ganassi Racing has confirmed it publicly, there’s been enough chatter among IndyCar insiders within the paddock that Hartley is destined for that team’s second seat next season alongside four-time champion Scott Dixon, in what would be an all-Kiwi lineup to counter Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ all-Canadian pairing and Andretti Autosport’s all-American quartet.

However, such a confirmation appears delayed because of the now greater possibility that Hartley’s F1 career could continue past this brief 2017 cameo.

If it did, there would be ripple effects to come, and suddenly a guy who hasn’t made his IndyCar debut is the domino that triggers what’s left of IndyCar silly season.

Essentially there’s two scenarios at play, so let’s forecast them here:

HARTLEY COMES TO INDYCAR, AND DOESN’T GET F1 SEAT

If Hartley is confirmed at Ganassi, it lessens the likelihood of significant movement in the other remaining seats. Beyond the No. 10 Honda, there are three “official” seats and anywhere from two to three “unofficial” seats still standing for 2018.

Those remaining “official” seats are the three cars that raced in 2017 but whose 2018 plans aren’t solidified: the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, No. 4 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet and No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet for road and street courses. The two or three “unofficial” seats would be one or two at Carlin, provided Trevor Carlin’s team makes a step up from Indy Lights (although they weren’t present at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and perhaps a second seat at Harding Racing, which has been rumored in recent weeks.

Incumbents Ed Jones and Conor Daly are rumored to be favorites at the Coyne and Foyt seats at this juncture, while Carpenter’s road and street course seat is a wild card. Carlos Munoz has said he’s out of Foyt, leaving the team in a Daly-or-bust situation if it’s to retain one of its two 2017 drivers.

Among others, RC Enerson is believed to be exploring his options to make a comeback into the series after his impressive three-race cameo the end of 2016.

Carlin is earmarked for Max Chilton in at least one seat but whether Charlie Kimball would come along with him seems a question mark based on what NBC Sports is hearing about the amount of potential budget he could bring to a program.

Or…

IF HARTLEY GETS 2018 F1 SEAT, SUDDENLY IT ALL CHANGES

Hartley signs for fans in Austin. Photo: Getty Images

So beyond Mexico there’s two more Formula 1 races – and for that matter two more FIA World Endurance Championship races – for Hartley to complete this year.

After Mexico, he’ll go to China for the FIA WEC penultimate round of the season on November 5, and then in succession if he got the F1 slot for the final two races he’d come back to the Americas with the Brazilian Grand Prix on November 12, then complete a Middle East double dip with the Bahrain FIA WEC finale on November 18, and then the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix November 26.

It’d be a grueling stretch but one Toro Rosso may well opt for him to do so as to stop its rotating driver lineup, with Daniil Kvyat all but dismissed again following this past weekend’s United States Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s management will have a greater sample size to judge Hartley’s potential on with at least two Grands Prix, if not four, by this stage of the season. And after Mexico this week, they’ll have their first look at a direct head-to-head matchup between Hartley and Pierre Gasly, two young drivers with a combined 3 Grand Prix starts between them entering the weekend, but two young drivers who are more in the mold of what you’d expect a Toro Rosso lineup to be.

Provided Hartley can be extricated from his potential IndyCar bow at Ganassi, if such an arrangement has already been agreed upon between the two parties, it opens up a couple intriguing possibilities with both this seat and others in the series.

One such option sees Coyne moving back to its status of “TBA” despite it wanting to keep both Jones and Sebastien Bourdais for another season.

Both Coyne and Jones said at Sonoma they hoped to reach a deal within “a couple weeks” of the Sonoma season finale but as we near the end of October, that hasn’t been done – and Coyne’s team is back to having one standing TBA driver in its lineup.

Could Jones and/or Enerson be in the frame for the Ganassi seat if it becomes available? And what then would follow at Coyne, in terms of who could line up alongside Bourdais if Jones isn’t there for a second successive season? Enerson would be a natural choice and his former Indy Lights teammate, Santiago Urrutia, is also believed to have sniffed around that team’s situation.

THE WAITING GAME

IndyCar silly season has stalled out of late, with expected confirmations coming at Schmidt Peterson and Foyt – but not at Ganassi or Carlin – in the last few weeks since the season ended at Sonoma.

The delay now sees IndyCar waiting on an F1 driver’s fate, over what is a crazy travel stretch of racing over several countries and continents.

It goes back to our pre-United States Grand Prix look at Hartley’s stunning 2017 rise, in that a guy who’s never as much even sat in IndyCar before suddenly holds the keys to the remainder of IndyCar’s 2017-2018 silly season.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne