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Signs of F1’s evolution present as COTA enjoys solid 2017 weekend

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Proof of the United States of America being a true melting pot of diversity was evident in the buildup to Sunday’s United States Grand Prix.

How on Earth would you expect to fathom seeing former President Bill Clinton, Olympic hero Usain Bolt and quintessentially American pre-event host Michael Buffer to all be present in the same place at the same time?

You wouldn’t, but that’s the power of Formula 1, and the uniqueness of America on its calendar – a race that for the first time in Circuit of The Americas’ six-year history hosting the event, had something of a “normal” weekend in that the only abnormal weekend content was the weekend schedule, not debates or concerns about the race’s future itself.

The first event in 2012, of course, had all the buzz of being an inaugural event. A mild sophomore slump followed in 2013. The yo-yo continued with new cars in 2014 that lacked the same sound, and a reduced 18-car field as both Manor and Caterham were no-shows, then the rain-drenched 2015 debacle saved only by a dramatic race, and finally a big bounce back weekend for the event last year that featured Taylor Swift and Usher concerts.

For once, the 2017 edition of the USGP at COTA didn’t have questions about the race’s future itself as it enters the second five-year run of its initial 10-year plan. It did, however, feature the latest examples of new owner Liberty Media’s plans to shake up the format.

COTA again pulled in a big concert draw with Justin Timberlake performing on Saturday (and then Stevie Wonder on Sunday), but Timberlake’s set (recapped here by Austin American-Statesman) was scheduled sooner after qualifying finished.

Sure, there were complaints from the teams about qualifying running two hours later than normal – and the media who were left waiting longer to cover the session both during and afterwards – but that was small sacrifice to ensure the paying customers didn’t have as much lag time between that ending and the concert starting.

Call this a trial balloon to see if it’s something that can be utilized on other weekends, and as Liberty’s Ross Brawn said by helping COTA, this helped the overall weekend draw.

“Here we moved the qualifying back two hours to 4pm, and [circuit boss] Bobby Epstein told me this morning that he had 20,000 more spectators for qualifying than he’s ever had before,” Brawn said, via Eurosport.

“So we’re very receptive with how we work with the promoters, and I promise you that was not the case in the past.”

Where the race weekend turned quintessentially American though was in the extended pre-race buildup, featuring 30 Texas bands, marching bands from Prairie View A&M and Texas State, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and, of course, the Michael Buffer driver introductions. What this served to do was make the drivers seem like humans, for once, rather than the focused metronomes we rarely get to see outside of the car.

The fact it was Buffer, a renowned showman, uttering the words “Dany ‘The Torpedo’ Kvyat” in real life amplified this was truly the U.S. round of the series – what other country would allow the damning nickname of the now dumped Russian, again, to be publicized in this manner right before he raced? Kvyat promptly then turned in his best drive of the season, as if to blow aside the nickname and the controversy over some races in his past.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Boxing announcer Michael Buffer on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Daniel Ricciardo clearly got into it, the usually ebullient Australian who’s never made a secret of his love for the U.S. and Austin then hopping out and jumping with his usual enthusiasm. You didn’t even need the sound on to see how happy he was.

Last out, Lewis Hamilton continued his love affair with the U.S. crowd and then was staged next to title rival Sebastian Vettel for the final display before the drivers moved to their cars. It’s a shame, of course, the points gap is such that there is little to no chance Hamilton will lose this year’s title but the optics of the two drivers that will have won eight of the last 10 World Championships between them set as prize fighters made proper sense.

“I think it was amazing,” Hamilton said post-race. “There was a little bit of waiting in the hallway, waiting for everyone to go out. That part felt a little bit long but I think they just made the Super Bowl here, they made the race, I think the entertainment was the best I think we’ve seen, with the drum line, the whole band.

“Yeah, I think the whole set-up. It was great to see something different. For many many years, the whole ten years, it’s been the same old boring thing on the grid except for now you have the national anthem but not really too exciting.

“I think this one was just much more like an NFL game which is exciting, with the fireworks and everything so I think they did a really great job and I think even from this they will learn and grow from that but we also had such a great turnout today.”

As for the race, Hamilton dominated although he still needed a pair of passes to ensure his latest U.S. win – his sixth in seven attempts, fifth in six COTA races and fourth consecutive at this circuit. The post-race drama centered over Max Verstappen’s pass of Kimi Raikkonen for third, negated when Verstappen got docked a five-second time penalty for gaining an advantage by leaving the track.

That was the sour note but not something that, in the grand scheme of things, was the F1-centric portion of the event.

The event-specific elements of cool were that you had Clinton giving out the trophies on the podium, and Bolt conducting the podium interviews.

We all know Clinton has his detractors but there is still something special about a past head of state handing out the hardware; interestingly, it might have made more sense if possible to have native Texan George W. Bush handing out the trophies on home soil had he been there.

As for Bolt, when greatness recognizes greatness, it just amplifies the greatness quotient for everyone. We’ve marveled at Bolt’s heroics in Beijing, London and Rio the last nine years over three Olympic games. He is in the discussion for being the greatest athlete on Earth at the moment, even as he’s retired.

So seeing him in F1’s world, there with Hamilton, doing a hot lap with him pre-race and then handling the podium interviews was a special moment. F1’s had actors and paddock insiders primarily do the podium interviews since the format was changed to ditch the TV unilaterals from inside the press conference room a few years ago, but rarely do they have athletes from other disciplines. In that respect, having Bolt do so was a coup, and the payoff moment came when Hamilton learned to do “the Bolt” once the interviews were complete.

Of course, not everyone was a fan of the proceedings. Vettel downplayed the extra showy pre-race festivities. Raikkonen was peak Kimi, by contrast, saying it can work if done properly, even if he would prefer it wasn’t done at all!

“I really don’t mind it as long as it’s done at the right time in the right place but it doesn’t make everything a big hassle because usually we have to run around quite a bit on Sunday and it’s far from ideal but I don’t mind these things as long as they are done well and actually if it works out it’s nice.

“I think it’s something different but everybody knows my option, what I would take.”

Raikkonen is one of the last links to F1’s “old guard” of drivers – he, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa all debuted in either 2001 or 2002, the earliest years of action for drivers still on the 2017 grid.

The “new guard” though is coming both in the field itself, and in the presentation leading up to it.

“Easily the best U.S. Grand Prix,” track chairman Bobby Epstein told the Austin American-Statesman post-race.

If COTA was a sign of the future and a test case for other countries to add country-specific amplified events that snap F1 out of its state of normality, it was hard to disagree with him.

President Bill Clinton with Lewis Hamilton during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Getty Images

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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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.