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F1: What’s coming to an end at Abu Dhabi, 2017

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The end of a Formula 1 season always means the ends of some partnerships or tenures. Here’s a look at what’s coming to an end, or could be coming to an end, after this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix:

MCLAREN AND HONDA’S RELATIONSHIP

It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

McLaren and Honda getting back together was meant to be the storied reunion of the glory years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It instead produced the biggest combined flop in recent F1 memory.

Honda was a year behind on F1’s new power unit cycle that came in in 2014, and the results have been disastrous thanks to a horsepower deficit, a spate of failures, and an avalanche of grid penalties. This led to an early but ultimately necessary parting of ways announced formally at the Singapore Grand Prix, and a switch to Renault from 2018.

MONTREAL, QC – JUNE 09: Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda waves to the crowd after his car stopped on track during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 9, 2017 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Barring a shock result, McLaren and Honda’s best result in 60 starts from 2015 to 2017 will be fifth, achieved three times by Fernando Alonso (Hungary 2015, Monaco and USA 2016).

Heading into the weekend, McLaren Honda has only scored 131 points total over three years (27, 76 and 28) – a number 50 points lower than McLaren Mercedes scored in 2014 alone (181), the 20th year of that partnership. It will have finished last but one twice in the constructor’s championship in ninth – ahead of only Marussia in 2015 and only Sauber this year. To put that in perspective, McLaren finished ninth in 1980, then from 1981 through 2014, McLaren finished between first and sixth every year with the exception of 2007, when the team was excluded from the constructor’s championship over the “spygate” scandal.

The glory days of the past seem even more far gone now. In a way, it’s rather fitting this partnership ends at Abu Dhabi, where the initial signs of trouble were spotted on an interim chassis from its first test after the 2014 season concluded.

FELIPE MASSA’S F1 CAREER… AGAIN

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 12: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams walks with son Felipinho on track before the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 12, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

As was more heavily chronicled around the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend, this weekend now marks the actual, expected end of Felipe Massa’s Formula 1 career, unless it has yet another final act.

The Brazilian has been a crowd and paddock favorite over 15 years from 2002 through 2017. Provided he starts this weekend, his 269 starts place him sixth on the all-time list, behind five of his longtime rivals in Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.

He’s not had the easiest of seasons in 2017, with only 42 points scored – a number that would be his lowest since his injury-interrupted 2009 campaign when he banked only 22. This would also mark the first season he hasn’t had a single top-five finish if he can’t end fifth on Sunday, which would require a bit of attrition from any of the top three teams.

But a fighting seventh place at Brazil, holding back the advances of his old adversary and teammate in Alonso and also Sergio Perez, proved Massa more than still “has it.” A true gentleman of the sport, Massa’s passion and dedication won’t soon be forgotten.

TORO ROSSO AND RENAULT’S BITTER BATTLE 

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 and Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS17 during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The impasse between Scuderia Toro Rosso and engine partner Renault reached a fever pitch in Brazil, with a war of words between the two sides then needing Red Bull’s motorsport advisor Dr. Helmut Marko to step in and attempt to save proceedings as best as possible.

The midfield subplot that’s gained a bit more attention than normal thanks to the championships being decided will reach its climax this weekend, as Toro Rosso holds a four-point lead over its engine partner for sixth in the constructor’s battle (53-49) heading into the weekend. The run of unreliability has hit Toro Rosso’s pair of drivers Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley in their handful of races thus far, and left the young guns unable to show their potential.

Renault and Toro Rosso have been the “odd couple” of 2017. The year began with Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso, and Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer at Renault. Hulkenberg is the only one of those four who’s been in the same place all year long, Sainz having been switched to Renault, the new kids coming in at Toro Rosso and Kvyat and Palmer both in-season casualties.

Somehow, Kvyat has managed to get dumped twice by Toro Rosso, yet the Russian’s 10th place point in his final start in Austin might be enough to keep Toro Rosso ahead of Renault at year’s end.

Toro Rosso picks up McLaren’s Honda engine package for 2018 and optimism exists here that didn’t at McLaren, because the cash infusion and lowered expectations for a quality midfield operation is a better scenario than being a team with a title-winning pedigree attempting to recapture the good old days. In their last race with its existing partner, Toro Rosso will look to stick it to their supplier by finishing one spot ahead in the constructor’s standings.

ONE OR TWO SAUBER DRIVERS?

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden and Sauber F1 and Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Sauber F1 walk to 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)

Neither Marcus Ericsson nor Pascal Wehrlein has had a bad year, but they’re in the unfortunate position of being the drivers on the 10th-placed Sauber team, which in itself has a better year in 2017 than in 2016 (only one points score) and 2014 (none). This could be the last Grand Prix for both drivers at Sauber, which makes it an important one if they’re to have future chances from 2018 and beyond.

Wehrlein’s year got off to a rocky start with his Race of Champions accident and injury costing him the first two races. However he delivered nice rebounds to score in Spain (eighth) and Azerbaijan (10th) were solid results, and races where with a bit of luck Ericsson could have scored too as he came 11th in both. Ericsson’s recent form has been solid, particularly in Mexico, but the Swede stands on the precipice of his third scoreless season in four full-time campaigns, a record not fair to Ericsson’s ability level.

With one or both of Ferrari juniors Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi (Wehrlein’s injury replacement) poised to join Sauber in 2018, here’s what lies ahead for its pair of incumbents:

Ericsson’s chances of staying in 2018 are aided by his close relationship with Sauber owners Longbow Finance, and optimism would exist with current spec Ferrari engines rather than Hondas coming on for 2018 to replace the year-old Ferraris in 2017. Wehrlein seems a Williams-or-bust driver at this stage, and having been passed over elsewhere on the grid this year, seems closer to the end of his F1 career than the start.

LIBERTY MEDIA’S ROOKIE STRIPES

MONTREAL, QC – JUNE 09: Ross Brawn, Managing Director (Sporting) of the Formula One Group, Chase Carey, CEO and Executive Chairman of the Formula One Group and Sean Bratches, Managing Director (Commercial Operations) of the Formula One Group in a press conference during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 9, 2017 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

This weekend Liberty Media completes its first year as owners and stewards of the sport, with a fresh approach offered by the triumvirate of Chase Carey, Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches.

Events such as “F1 Live London” and the revised pre-race festivities in Austin were positive examples of fan-focused tweaks, and Liberty also revealed an F1 social media presence far more open than in the past (driver’s meeting highlights being shown, and a full race replay of the 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix on YouTube among examples).

That being said, the training wheels are now off for the new heads of the sport after this weekend. A political storm is simmering over the distribution of finances and new engine regulations, Ferrari’s already made its not-new quit threat, and the recent security incidents in Brazil has put the relationship among the promoters, F1 and the teams potentially at loggerheads.

No different than a driver who will look to enhance his or her status in a second year, or an event needing to prove its maiden year success wasn’t down to the first year novelty, Liberty’s second year at the helm in 2018 will tell a greater tale about the eventual direction of the sport as it moves further past the post-Bernie Ecclestone era.

HALO-FREE COCKPITS… MOST LIKELY

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) in the Pitlane with the halo fitted during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Enough sessions have occurred over the last two years where F1 teams have trialled the “Halo,” ahead of its planned introduction full-time in 2018. Provided nothing changes again over the winter from a regulatory standpoint, Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix seems set to be the last with a purely open view of the open cockpits.

FINAL BROADCASTS FOR F1 ON NBC

October’s news that ESPN will take over the broadcasting of F1 races in the U.S. from 2018 means this weekend will be the last shows for the F1 on NBC crew, with production done at NBC’s headquarters in Stamford.

NBC took over the rights from 2013 and has steadily increased the ratings and audience for F1 in the U.S., and will wrap its run after five years and 98 Grands Prix this weekend.

The on-air team of Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Will Buxton are the most widely known individuals for the shows, but far from the only ones as you can see below.

Between the production and video teams in Stamford, and my primary colleague Luke Smith, who’s been our lead F1 writer on MotorSportsTalk since we started in 2013, there are dozens of people who’ve contributed to our shows and the growth over this period (several of whom aren’t pictured above).

This makes this a bittersweet weekend ahead, but as the old saying goes, don’t cry it’s over – smile because it happened.

Here’s the times for this weekend, and here’s a link to another treasure of the NBC shows the last five years, Sam Posey’s essays.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500