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DiZinno: Much ado about nothing

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A driver who’s just won the IndyCar championship and a driver who’s never driven an IndyCar are the two most talked about IndyCar drivers at the moment for nothing to do with IndyCar.

Totally makes sense, right?

Indeed Josef Newgarden’s cameo appearance at the United States Grand Prix along with Brendon Hartley’s unexpected first two Formula 1 races with Scuderia Toro Rosso has gotten opinions flying about the ability of drivers to transition series, whether they can, and perhaps whether they should.

American star Newgarden’s comments about wanting to try F1 should the opportunity arise have drawn the most attention. He’s drawn a lot of support from his peers in IndyCar and elsewhere in the racing world, but he also drew an initial rebuttal from – of all people – Guenther Steiner, the team principal of the American Formula 1 team, Haas F1 Team.

Steiner initially said a straight jump into F1 is difficult, but then later clarified them when speaking to NBCSN at the Mexican Grand Prix.

“I think it’s possible if he gives himself time,” Steiner said. “My comment was based on that somebody told me, he said before he retires he wants to do a year in Formula 1. You need to make your way into Formula 1, and he knows that. He’s an IndyCar champion, and a good one.

“My comment was, ‘Yeah, we all want to do things. But it’s step-by-step. If you’re not competitive, why would you want to come here as a champion?’ So he’d need time, testing, doing simulator work. I don’t know if he’d want to do it, to start from the beginning!”

Newgarden is a rather savvy individual who knows what to say in whatever situation he’s a part of. This isn’t a unique phenomenon in racing, but it’s something Newgarden has excelled at over the course of his career.

Before he was established in IndyCar, he played an “incognito” role to perfection as a raw rookie when talking about the series’ three-time reigning champion in Dario Franchitti.

Beyond that, Newgarden’s words for the day could be as random as talking about kittens at a rescue event to save kittens, as corporate as talking about Shell oil on an oil rig, or talking about Formula 1 at a Formula 1 race.

You’d have to be blind to think Newgarden doesn’t know his audience, and if he’s at a Formula 1 race, of course he’s going to be talking about how great it would be to race in F1 if that door opened.

This is usually the main goal for any aspiring driver in open-wheel racing, but the percentage of drivers who actually make it to F1 is fractional. There’s hardly any who get near the doorstep in Formula 2 or GP3 that actually have the combination of talent, timing and crucially, budget, to enter into F1.

Newgarden’s theoretical shot at F1 ended when he came back Stateside after his lone GP3 season in 2010, a year which saw five drivers in that field eventually make it to F1 (Esteban Gutierrez, Alexander Rossi, Rio Haryanto, Roberto Merhi and Jean-Eric Vergne) but another six then eventually head to IndyCar in the years to come (Gutierrez, Rossi, Robert Wickens, James Jakes, Stefano Coletti, Mikhail Aleshin).

True to form, Newgarden’s F1 comments now come after the same realistic buildup to being considered an F1 prospect as other IndyCar champions who’ve had enough time to showcase their ability on a domestic stage.

The last IndyCar champion to make it to F1 was Sebastien Bourdais, but it took four straight titles in a depleted Champ Car field during the divisive, brutal IndyCar/Champ Car split to do so. And when he did arrive, he entered into a no-win situation as a Red Bull “outsider” cast against the energy drink’s Junior Team new “golden boy” in Sebastian Vettel, and with a car that was difficult to drive outside his preferred handling.

Prior to that, Cristiano da Matta entered into a tough situation with Toyota, in only its second year as an outfit and after winning the 2002 Champ Car title.

Both scored the occasional points finish but neither finished their second year in the sport before they were replaced. F1 is that brutal.

It’s been since Juan Pablo Montoya’s arrival in 2001 that an IndyCar champion made it to F1 and stuck, and despite Montoya’s undoubted ability and aggression, his potential never converted into a World Championship. Past Ganassi driver Alex Zanardi made his F1 return in 1999 after starring in CART three years before, and winning two titles. He went scoreless, and was dumped after one season.

29 Apr 2001: Michael Schumacher of Germany and Ferrari celebrates on the podium with Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia and Jacques Villeneuve of Canada after winning the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

Meanwhile the 20-year anniversary of Jacques Villeneuve’s famous 1997 World Championship has just passed over the last week. Within a two-year period, Villeneuve won the Indianapolis 500, the last pre-split CART title and the F1 world title. And then his career fell into a long, gradual state of decline the year after that World Championship.

Newgarden’s case for F1 is justified by winning the title in one of, if not the strongest fields, in IndyCar since that 1996 split, and certainly one of the best since the 2008 merger that brought both series back under one fold. That he did so in his first year with the most successful team on the grid in Team Penske spoke volumes of his rapid integration and learning within the team.

Even so, where would the F1 door open for him? It certainly wouldn’t be at one of the top teams, but only at a midfield squad, roughly the same as Bourdais and da Matta before him.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – JUNE 05: Sebastien Bourdais of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso is seen during practice for the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix at Istanbul Park on June 5, 2009, in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

And additionally, what’s one thing you notice in common about the championship predecessors who made it to F1? None had achieved their first round of IndyCar success driving for Roger Penske.

But in Zanardi and Montoya, Chip Ganassi Racing had sent two of its best off to F1. Once you’ve arrived at Penske, it’s hard to justify leaving of your own accord without dealing your career a significant blow.

This brings us, nicely, to Brendon Hartley and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Was there a deal actually struck between them for Hartley to race in IndyCar, or was it merely negotiations? Did there need to be a proper extrication and “long” discussions to get him out of it? Neither party will say. Perhaps they don’t need to. Alas, the fact of the matter is that Hartley won’t be in Ganassi’s No. 10 Honda IndyCar next year, and Ed Jones will be in a surprise switch to most onlookers.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – OCTOBER 29: Brendon Hartley of Scuderia Toro Rosso and New Zealand during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 29, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

Hartley’s F1 bow is created out of an entirely different situation as a potential Newgarden one would be.

Left without a home, a future or a series in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 drawdown, of course Hartley was always going to play the field and evaluate his options for a 2018 race seat.

Lest we forget, the 2018 Ganassi seat was never intended for him in the first place – it was planned for Felix Rosenqvist after a pair of tests with the team, but the Swede had a contract with the Mahindra Formula E team that couldn’t get broken and then left a seat needing to be filled. It may still become Rosenqvist’s seat in 2019.

What we do know is Hartley has proven his versatility and diversity over the last five years since his last open-wheel stint in 2012. He emerged a surprise choice for Porsche’s LMP1 program, but justified the opportunity with his combination of pace, tire management and adaptability to a team environment sharing the car with two aces in Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard. Webber, the Australian, could relate to his almost-countryman’s navigating a path to F1 from Australasia, and could advise him how to maneuver the circuitous route.

As it seems Hartley’s F1 career is only at its entry point, now two Grands Prix weekends in, the sky’s the limit for him and it shows what true talent can do in the sport when given the opportunity. Hartley has had nearly zero expectations placed on him these maiden races and so can thrive. He, like Newgarden, is a champion from another series who would need to learn the ropes of modern F1 machinery. He’s done so without any testing whatsoever, only simulation.

Hartley’s performance could be a case study in F1 teams properly evaluating other drivers from other championships to do the job, and serves as the rebuttal to Steiner’s initial comments. If you’re a champion in one field, you’ve beaten the best of your discipline.

Of course, Hartley only emerged in this F1 position because of a highly abnormal set of circumstances that all had to align for him to get this chance. His is a unique case, given the opportunity because two drivers had underperformed (Jolyon Palmer, Daniil Kvyat), one had been released early to replace one of them (Carlos Sainz Jr.), one had another Formula E contract in place despite past F1 experience and possibly better 2017 points-scoring potential (Sebastien Buemi) and one was recommended by the team’s 2018 engine supplier to go race an event in 2017 to win another championship… and then the race got canceled by weather before he had the chance to do so (Pierre Gasly).

When expectations are low, you can thrive, and Hartley’s performance is being seen as a proper validation of the sports car world and the talent level he’s beaten there – which is arguably deeper than most of the other drivers on the F1 grid. It could be a narrative changer that instead of F1 stars being “put out to pasture” in sports car racing, F1 teams could instead look to the sports car world to find the next undiscovered gem.

Newgarden would, through no fault of his own, carry the burden of past IndyCar letdowns on his shoulders. Villeneuve and Montoya excepted, it’s been da Matta and Bourdais’ struggles that loom large within the eyes of the F1 world, and perhaps that’s what Steiner was getting at when he suggested a transition for an IndyCar driver to F1 would be a difficult one. He wasn’t saying it to slight Newgarden’s talent level. But the complexities of the F1 lifestyle – not just driving the car but moving to Europe, adjusting to a ridiculous travel schedule and being more sheltered within a team atmosphere – are other challenging ingredients.

It’s no coincidence that Alexander Rossi has become more comfortable in his own skin since getting out of Manor after 2015, striking his late deal with Andretti-Herta Autosport, winning the 100th Indianapolis 500, and quickly integrating himself to the IndyCar fabric – more so in his second year than his first.

The things that make Newgarden great in IndyCar – his personality, pace, humor and candor – could be shut off in F1.

And this assumes he’d want to leave Team Penske, too. IndyCar provides second chances for people to come back after they’ve left for F1, as witnessed by each of the above drivers (Villeneuve, Montoya, da Matta, Bourdais) who came back to IndyCar later in their careers. Penske usually doesn’t.

Newgarden has the opportunity to become the true megastar IndyCar has needed for the last 20 years and as The Detroit News wrote this week, he’s Team Penske’s “new face.” And while he’d carry the flag for the series overseas, he’d be giving up that shot at dominance, historical record breaking and potential popularity he might be on the verge of now as some of his contemporaries get closer to retirement.

Could Newgarden succeed in F1? Certainly, given the right team, timing and opportunity. But is it going to happen? Highly unlikely.

Like great literature as penned by Shakespeare or great comedy as televised on Seinfeld, the Newgarden-to-F1 comments are much ado about nothing.

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.

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