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Force India duel to spice up the crowd at Mexican Grand Prix

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MEXICO CITY (AP) There have been death threats. Crashes on the track. Bitter arguments between teammates and strict warnings from team leaders to tone it down.

The fiercest rivalry in Formula One this season hasn’t always been at the front in the battle for the season championship. The duel between teammates Sergio “Checo” Perez and Esteban Ocon in the cockpits of the pink Force India cars is the one that has come closest to a brawl.

All of which could make for a rough Mexican Grand Prix for Ocon. Perez is the favorite son of the Mexican fans, and Ocon could face some tough driving through jeers from the massive grandstands at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Rivalries are as much a part of racing as the checkered flag. Over the past three seasons, Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were constantly in the headlines as they fought for championships and their childhood friendship was sacrificed.

Anticipating a rowdy Mexico City reception, the Force India drivers insist they came to the race on good terms. Perez even gave Ocon a pat on the back after last week’s U.S. Grand Prix, a rare public display of unity.

“Look, we are all good together,” Ocon said ahead of Sunday’s race. “There are no problems between us. For sure we had issues in the past but we spoke. There is a lot of respect between us … I’ve actually had a very warm welcome.”

Then he revealed how the death threats have been coming in for months and as recently as Wednesday.

“I don’t know if you take that seriously or not,” Ocon said.

Seriously enough that in a city plastered with giant billboards urging “Vamos Checo!,” Ocon has been supplied with bodyguards this week, French news agency AFP reported.

“That will show him that you have to think twice before messing with a Mexican,” said Carlos Rojas, a 21-year-old student who wore a Perez hat and jacket to the track Friday. “I know that maybe someone will try to scream something at Ocon, but I’m not going to do it. We are here to root for Checo.”

Ocon joined Force India this season in a move that matched the 21-year-old Frenchman, considered among the rising stars of F1, with a savvy and solid veteran in Perez.

Their rivalry has been running since the opening race in Australia. Perez and Ocon have finished within one place of each other 10 times, with Perez usually getting the upper hand. Ocon has been so steady as a young driver that he set an F1 record by completing his first 26 races dating to his 2016 debut.

Sometimes they ran into each other.

In Baku, Azerbaijan, they collided while fighting for position after a safety car restart. Before the hit, they were running fourth and fifth. Perez dropped out and Ocon finished sixth, spoiling what could have been a double-podium finish.

“The way he raced today wasn’t right,” Perez complained. Ocon insisted Perez hit him first and later said the team found both drivers at fault. That’s when the social media chatter got mean, warning Ocon to be ready for some abuse when he got to Mexico.

Their cars touched again on the first lap in Hungary. Then came the blowup in Belgium .

Before the race, Ocon had declared, “I’m not here to be behind him all the time.” And 29 laps in, he was trying to pass when Perez squeezed him into a wall at more than 180 mph. Perez got a tire puncture. Ocon’s front wing was damaged and he limped home in ninth place.

Perez “risked our lives,” Ocon raged after the race. Then he posted “he tried to kill me” on social media.

That was enough for Force India bosses, and the drivers were put in a closed-door meeting to settle their differences and calm down. The team also issued new racing orders: they had to hold their position when next to each other on the track. It would stifle their racing instincts but would prevent collisions. The last few races have been incident free.

Force India ranks a solid fourth in the team standings, making them the top team outside of the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Perez said he hopes drivers will be allowed to race each other Sunday. The Mexican fans will want to see some action.

“We should be able to race here,” Perez said.

Perez urged Mexican fans not to be too hard on Ocon. It’s a delicate week for both drivers. Perez is not yet under contract for 2018 and Ocon had meetings all week with the team’s major Mexican sponsors. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has been a major backer of Perez’ racing career.

“We obviously had a bad relationship since Baku and especially we hit a very low point in Belgium. I think that respect is there now,” Perez said. “I see no reason why fans should be bad to him. They really like the sport and at the end of the day, it’s just a sport and that’s how it should be.”

Race fan Christian Alexis Antonio, 24, said the crowd should honor Perez’ request.

“A lot of Mexicans are used to defending their countryman when someone is in trouble, but I don’t think a death threat is the way to do it,” he said. “We are the hosts and we should treat everyone with respect.”

It’s official: Laguna Seca to host INDYCAR for at least next 3 seasons

Laguna Seca, from the 1991 CART race there. Photo: Getty Images
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INDYCAR made it official today: the 2019 season-ending race will move a couple of hours down the Northern California coast to WeatherTechRaceway Laguna Seca.

Sonoma Raceway, which has hosted INDYCAR since 2005 – including the last five season-ending races (that includes this year’s upcoming season finale) – will not be part of next season’s schedule.

Earlier today, the Monterey County (Calif.) Board of Supervisors, which oversees operation of the iconic racing facility, approved a three-year agreement with INDYCAR to host next year’s season finale on Sept. 20-22, 2019.

The remaining two race dates for 2020 and 2021 will be announced later, according to an INDYCAR media release.

The 2.238-mile permanent road course previously hosted CART and Champ Car World Series Indy car races from 1983 through 2004, including the season-ending races from 1989 through 1996.

“I can’t imagine a more attractive destination location for INDYCAR’s season finale,” Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said in a statement. “Monterey is a place people want to be, and we will bring all of our guests. I think it’s a great choice for us.”

Bobby Rahal, former CART/CCWS driver and current INDYCAR team co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, won four of the prior 22 previous Indy car races at Laguna Seca, all consecutively (1984-87).

“It’s great news, but I might be biased,” Rahal said. “I personally won four Indy car races there and won my first Can-Am race there. Our Indy car team won with Bryan Herta and Max Papis and our sports car team won IMSA races there.

“So I would almost bet you that Laguna Seca is the site of more victories for me as a driver and team owner combined of any track I’ve ever raced on.

“There is nothing better than the Monterey Bay area, and it’s a great circuit that always drew great crowds. So I’m thrilled to have Indy car racing coming back to a circuit I love so much. We will put on a good show, for sure.”

In addition to Rahal as a multiple winner, two-time winners at Laguna Seca were fellow current INDYCAR team co-owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta, INDYCAR on NBCSN analyst Paul Tracy, Danny Sullivan and Patrick Carpentier.

“The return of INDYCAR to its spiritual road racing home of Laguna Seca is a tremendous honor and testament to the appeal of Monterey, and through the support of the County of Monterey will provide a significant economic benefit to our area businesses,” said Timothy McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, “We are looking forward to creating more memories in race fans’ minds like Bobby Rahal’s four consecutive Indy car wins from 1984-1987, Mario Andretti’s farewell race in 1994 and Alex Zanardi’s last-lap overtaking of Bryan Herta in the Corkscrew in 1996 that simply became known as ‘The Pass.'”

NBC Sports Group has secured exclusive domestic television and digital media rights for INDYCAR races beginning in 2019. Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, agreed that Laguna Seca is an ideal venue to close out the schedule.

“We commend INDYCAR for returning to Laguna Seca, a historic track and an inspired place for the 2019 season finale,” Miller said. “The 2019 season will be our first as the exclusive media rights partner of INDYCAR, and we could not be more pleased to broadcast the championship from beautiful Monterrey.”

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