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.”

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).