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Doubts emerging to derail the Kubica F1 comeback ‘hype train’

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As Williams Martini Racing holds the keys to the final vacancy on the Formula 1 grid for 2018 – a rare position for the team to be in given it’s usually a low midfield to tail-end squad in this spot – the ultimate question is whether Robert Kubica will make his F1 race return after what would be a seven-year hiatus.

And after last week’s Abu Dhabi test, which featured Pirelli tire testing as part of the equation, it appears doubts are creeping in about the soon-to-be-33-year-old Pole’s ultimate pace (Kubica turns 33 on Thursday).

Getting the test evaluation out of the way first, Kubica’s best lap according to Pirelli was a 1:39.485 on Wednesday afternoon, which was set on new hypersoft tires – Pirelli’s newest compound set to be introduced next season. And looking solely at the times, that’s ahead of Lance Stroll’s 1:39.580 (day one, hypersoft) and Sergey Sirotkin’s 1:39.947 (day two, soft). All were shy of Felipe Massa’s qualifying time set on the same weekend.

However this is where the old Mark Twain line of there being “lies, damned lies and statistics” takes root for the lap times are, in this case, not the ultimate deciding factors. Temperatures, fuel levels, tire choices and engine power are.

Two leading Formula 1 journalists, Mark Hughes and Maurice Hamilton (must be something to the initials MH), have both penned recent pieces illustrating the doubts about whether Kubica’s pace is actually there or not, and how Williams’ tepid endorsement at best or lack of any endorsement at worst is complicating matters.

For Motor Sport Magazine, Hughes detailed the runs but came to this conclusion that Kubica’s pace had not ultimately been there, and perhaps was lacking that fraction that needed to be there.

“It does look as if, for whatever reason, Kubica struggled to find the best way to use the tire over one lap but that over a race run he was competitive. This would tally with suggestions in the paddock that in the Hungaroring test with the ’14 car, Paul di Resta went faster than Kubica on the low-fuel runs. Is Kubica’s one-lap struggle just missing mileage? Is there something about the tire he just cannot adapt to? Is it just a trait of the hyper soft around a track that was too demanding for it? We can see what Paddy Lowe means when he says it’s complicated.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 30: Paul di Resta of Great Britain driving the (40) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 30, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

As Hughes broke the news earlier this summer Kubica was set to have a test compared with di Resta at Hungary in a 2014 Williams, this makes this statement – among other in that article – rather telling. Di Resta of course earned plaudits in the paddock for his stand-in role for Massa at the Hungarian race this year at the eleventh hour, despite not having been in a modern F1 car in years.

For TheInsideLine.com, Hamilton summarizes the lack of oomph from Williams as disconcerting because while this would be an excellent story to trumpet from media, marketing and PR standpoints, no one within the team seems keen on doing so.

“Only Williams know the true answer to a trial complicated by track conditions, tire compounds and the time of day. You could add engine modes and fuel loads to the equation but they are likely to be as consistent as possible in the bid to make meaningful comparisons with Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin.

“Nonetheless if Kubica had produced the goods, you would think at least one person within Williams would find it difficult to resist showing some sort of positive reaction, even if only a smile and a knowing wink. But there’s been none of that.”

Another veteran F1 journalist, James Allen (deputized for NBCSN in pit lane at the 2016 Singapore Grand Prix), writes in his blog the challenges Williams would need to do to accommodate Kubica, given his arm limitations after his life-altering rally accident in 2011 that’s led to this remarkable almost comeback in the first place.

“There are a few small accommodations afforded to Kubica in order to get him comfortable with the current generation of F1 cars. His steering wheel, for example, has both up and downshift capabilities on one side to allow Kubica to change gear with his stronger hand. The cockpit headrest is also a little different to give him more space to turn the wheel.

“From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to ascertain where Kubica stacked up in the Abu Dhabi test alongside Sirotkin and regular driver Lance Stroll, as runs were prescribed by Pirelli and – perhaps wisely – Williams has also given nothing away.”

The question mark appears to be between Kubica and Sirotkin for the second seat, the Russian driver known to also have available backing for him. It seems as though Pascal Wehrlein and Daniil Kvyat, either of whom have considerable experience and would probably be more of an asset to Williams given their known points-scoring abilities, appear to be out of frame.

Modern realities of the sport dictate that a driver entering F1 has to have that nearly full package of pace, consistency, marketability and media savvy, and crucially, budget. If you have all four elements you’re usually good to go – if you have three of the four, it becomes a little harder.

Kubica would win the “better story” battle over Sirotkin in a heartbeat, given all that’s happened for him to even be in the position in the first place.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: Sergey Sirotkin of Russia and Renault Sport F1 looks on in the Paddock during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

However Sirotkin is an interesting prospect at this stage in his career. At 22, he’s not too old for a rookie although he’d be three years Stroll’s senior next season. He has a pretty good if not distinguished junior open-wheel career, with back-to-back third place finishes in GP2 in 2015 and 2016 with three race victories. He was respectable in Formula Renault 3.5 as well.

Sirotkin holds an interesting stat in the F1 record books too, in that he’s participated in three seasons of F1 without having ever made a race start. He’s had a total of seven outings in free practice with Sauber (one in 2014) and Renault (six total in 2016 and 2017). There have been a bevy of Friday-only drivers in recent years but none has appeared as frequently on Grand Prix weekends as he has over the last few years.

Stroll did a perfectly adequate job as a rookie this year and got better during the year, and has enough upside to improve into a top-line Grand Prix driver down the road, but a Stroll and Sirotkin lineup doesn’t inspire much confidence from a points-scoring standpoint. On paper, it’s similar to say Renault’s 2016 lineup of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer or Caterham’s 2013 lineup of Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic. You know they’re on the grid, and they’ve had OK to sterling junior careers, but they don’t seem set for a monster F1 campaign because neither is particularly experienced in F1 and/or the car’s not up to snuff.

Given the 2019 driver market could be significantly fluid with the number of drivers out of contract, Williams has little to lose with more to gain by running the gamble on Kubica given he’s still significantly regarded in the paddock. Lewis Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton at Abu Dhabi about Kubica: “Without even being here, he is in the top five of best drivers here. To not be in the sport but be better than three-quarters of the grid is pretty awesome. I hope he’s able to come back here and show that.”

The sound of silence, however, is deafening.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500