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F1: The Midfield Merry-Go-Round

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Who will sign who in the midfield pack?
(Photo from: www.cdn.autoindustriya.com)

Following the announcement that Nico Hulkenberg will be joining Renault in 2017 after Force India allowed the German to move to the French Manufacture, it begins the driver merry-go-round which will begin in the coming weeks. But who has seats up for grabs and who is in danger of losing theirs.

FORCE INDIA

We shall start with Hulkenberg’s former team Force India who now have a seat available. It will come as a shock for the Silverstone based team, as Hulkenberg was contracted for 2017 with top figures confirming that they intended to keep their driver duo and remain stable going into major 2017 rules changes.

But who could replace Hulkenberg? A major contender must be Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein who has had a very impressive debut season, scoring a point in Austria being a highlight. Wehrlein is a Mercedes junior driver, a team Force India has strong connections with and has test drove for the team on multiple occasions. However Wehrlein’s seat may depend on where Mercedes opt to place him so this deal may be out of the team’s hands.

Another option would be Felipe Nasr. Nasr boasts the prospect of further funds, funds which has aided Sauber hugely in the last two seasons and has also shown signs that he can develop into a top driver. Nasr, like Wehrlein, has also been rumoured to be in contention for the second Williams seat, should the team retain Bottas, following Felipe Massa’s announcement that he would retire at the end of the 2016 season.

A driver that may have a chance of being in contention for the second Force India seat is Brit Jolyon Palmer, currently at Renault. With Renault seemingly perusing the opportunity to add Esteban Ocon to their driver line up, it would mean Palmer would be left without a drive. Similar to Wehrlein, Palmer has also driven for Force India in the past, having tested for the team in Abu Dhabi in 2014.

However Force India’s final option would be to effectively swap with Renault and opt for Kevin Magnussen. It has been rumoured that representatives of the Dane have met with Force India regarding a proposed move.

RENAULT

Moving onto Renault now, and to who could partner Hulkenberg. Renault currently have two very fast drivers on their books in Magnussen and Palmer and both will be vying for that second seat however it is known Renault are looking at all possibilities.

As mentioned previously, one driver that Renault is considering is Manor’s Esteban Ocon. Like his current teammate, Ocon is a Mercedes junior driver and is highly regarding amongst the F1 contingent. He is well liked at Renault, having tested for them in their previous guise of Lotus and is currently Renault’s test driver, having appeared in Friday practice sessions for the manufacture before his race debut at Spa.

Renault’s second option other than their two current drivers is Finn Valtteri Bottas. The Williams driver has the option to extend his contract with his current team however it is understood this clause includes a hefty pay rise, something that is proving a stumbling block. It is known that Renault was talking to Bottas before the Hulkenberg announcement and may still be interested to partner the duo together.

Other options for the French manufacture may come from outside the current crop of Formula 1 drivers. Currently, Renault has Sergey Sirotkin and Oliver Rowland on their junior driver books as well as Ocon and both are proven drivers in the lower formulas, with Rowland being the defending Formula Renault champion. Although these are options, both are currently unlikely to get the odd over other drivers in contention.

WILLIAMS

Williams also have a large influence on the F1 driver market following the Felipe Massa news and the possibility of Bottas leaving the team. It is likely that current Formula 3 Europe champion Lance Stroll will get one of the two Williams drives up for grabs, but who will get the second?

Other than Bottas, Williams have a few options. As mentioned previously, both Felipe Nasr and Pascal Wehrlein have spoken to the team regarding their 2017 prospects with Nasr the more likely due to the funds that he brings with him and his previous experience with the team, having been a test driver for them in 2014.

Does Pascal Wehrlein hold the key to the 2017 driver market? (Photo from: www.formula1.com)

Does Pascal Wehrlein hold the key to the 2017 driver market? (Photo from: www.formula1.com)

However Marcus Ericsson has also confirmed that he too has spoken to Williams about the possibility of a 2017 drive, with the guarantee of funds being bought to the team. Although Ericsson would be an unorthodox move by Williams, it may make financial sense if they are in need of funds. Ericsson now has plenty of F1 experience and this may work in his favour.

Like Renault, Williams has a junior driver programme, with Stroll being on that however another driver in the programme is current test driver Alex Lynne. Lynne is currently racing in GP2 and although his results have not been outstanding this season he could see himself in the running for the second seat, though if Stroll is to be confirmed imminently the chances of Williams hiring two rookies is slim.

HAAS

The final team that may see changes is Haas as they have only got both Esteban Gutiérrez and Romain Grosjean on one year contracts. Although it has been unofficially announced that Grosjean will be remaining with the team in 2017, Gutierrez has not had such news. Although it appears likely the Mexican will remain with the team next year, Haas may find themselves with additional options.

One option will be hiring any driver that finds themselves without a drive. Drivers such as Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen have been rumoured with the team as one will definitely be dropped for next season. Another current F1 driver who has been linked with the American outfit is Daniil Kvyat, as he is likely to be replaced at Toro Rosso by Frenchman Pierre Gasly, who is currently second in GP2.

Haas may also look at drivers outside of F1 to fill their second seat. The two that currently stand out both have links with Ferrari which will continue the connection between Haas and the Italian manufacture. These are Antonio Giovinazzi and Charles Leclerc. Giovinazzi is currently leading the GP2 standings in his debut season whereas Leclerc has just dominated the GP3 Championship as well as being a Ferrari junior driver. Both are talented however it all depends whether Haas are willing to employ a rookie going into major rule changes next season.

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Grading 2018′s New Driver/ Team Pairings – Alex Bowman/ Hendrick Motorsports

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Undeniably the apple of an entire nation’s eye for over two decades, Dale Earnhardt Jr poignantly announced in the spring of 2017 he would step away from driving in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season.

 

Once the initial shock value wore off, reality set in. Who could possibly fill the shoes of the sport’s most popular driver? Dale Jr’s lasting impression on legions of fans young and old is unparalleled. Ultimately the conundrum of the century would centre around who might fill the gargantuan shoes little E would leave behind.

Dale Jr’s departure from Hendrick Motorsports left one the sport’s most coveted rides up for grabs. Immediately the rumour mill was set ablaze with potential candidates loyal Dale Jr supporters fancied.  Following three months of intense speculation, Rick Hendrick would reveal Dale Jr’s replacement in late July 2017.

 

Next man up for the #88 team a tall lanky fella from Tucson Arizona.  Chances are y’all probably remember him as the kid that subbed for Dale Jr while he recovered from concussion-like symptoms that kept him from the seat of the Nationwide Chevrolet in the fall of 2016.

 

Certainly no stranger to the Monster Energy Cup Series (Made 81 Career starts from 2014-2016), Alex Bowman makes his triumphed return as a full time driver on the circuit for the first time in nearly two years. Driving the #88 car for Hendrick Motorsports axiomatically elevates Bowman from enchanting underdog to proverbial impact player. No longer a low man on the totem pole expeditious results at HMS would give credence to an emerging young star hoping for a rebirth following past failures with BK Racing & Tommy Baldwin Racing.

 

Thrust into a precarious position at the age of 21, Alex Bowman exhibited incredible poise in the face of adversity. Visibly Alex was not equipped for the competitive environment that cup racing bestowed upon him back in 2014. One quality season (2013 – 2 top 5’s, 6 top 10’s 2 poles, 11th in the driver standings) in the Xfinity Series cannot enumerate impending success on the other side.

Instead of licking his wounds Bowman bided his time wisely eventually earning the opportunity to sub for Dale Jr in the fall of 2016.  What could have easily morphed into catastrophic gaffe #3 for Bowman positively altered his career saving him from infinite anonymity.

 

In the 10 races (2016) Alex piloted the #88 car he made quite an accounting for himself (3 top 10’s, 1 pole) earning the respect and confidence of both Mr. Hendrick and Dale Jr.

 

The simple formula for success in 2018 relies squarely on the shoulders of Alexander Bowman.

Bowman’s familiarity with crew chief Greg Ives and the entire #88 team perpetuates some of the chemistry established back in 2016.  A contingent of smart fans out there including myself firmly believe Alex Bowman was on his way to capturing the checked flag at his home track(Phoenix) in November of 2016. On this day Bowman dazzled, starting the race from the pole ultimately leading 194 laps on his way to a career best 6th place finish.

 

Even though the former self-proclaimed bad luck Bowman left the desert without the checked flag, indisputably he walked away a winner.  Bowman’s courageous showing converted the cynics into believers. Without this fine performance in the bag Bowman could have found himself easily lost in the shuffle never to be heard from again.

Perseverance spearheaded the rise of Bowman mania. The whimsical wave of momentum Bowman’s been on since that race at Phoenix spilled over into 2017. Bowman turned heads in February finishing third in the Clash at Daytona, once again piloting the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet. He would also capture his first career Xfinity Series victory at Charlotte in the fall of 2017 driving for Chip Ganassi.

 

Perceptibly this young buck is completely equipped for the fate that awaits him once the green flag drops on the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series at Daytona in February.

Rick Hendrick has all the confidence in the world in Bowman’s capabilities. Mr. H could have taken the high road and hired an established veteran driver, instead trusting Bowman’s youthful exuberance lets the entire racing world know he’s committed for the long haul.

Alex Bowman has the credentials to resuscitate Rick Hendrick’s anaemic #88 team from the ashes. Fresh blood can unite an entire nation of fans that are starving for a breath of fresh air.

 

Don’t Be Dale Jr, Be Alex Bowman. That’s paramount.

 

Alex Bowman has an entire nation on his side. So watcha  gonna do when Bowmanmania runs wild on you?

 

Final grade – B

 

Photo courtesy of Autoweek

 

 

 

 

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Recap of the Go Bowling 400

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For the second time in as many races at Kansas Speedway, Martin Truex Jr flexed his muscle and totally outclassed his comrades leading 104 laps of the scheduled 267 run on Saturday night.

Positive karma was certainly on the side of NASCAR’s resident Jersey boy on Saturday night as he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the closing laps of the race. After letting one slip away at Kansas last season there’s no way Truex Jr would be denied on this night.  Once Martin finally cleared Ryan Blaney who arguably had the fastest car of the evening on lap 249 there was no going back.   The race was in the bag despite a few late restarts that Turex Jr ultimately controlled down the final stretch.

Saturday night’s victory was the seventh since 2015 for the powerhouse combination of Martin Truex Jr and Furniture Row Racing. Who are clearly primed for another deep playoff run once the chase starts in the fall of 2017.

 

While the Furniture Row Racing team celebrated in the winner’s circle the entire NASCAR community was overcome with deep despondency.  Overshadowing Furniture Row’s jubilation was one of the most vicious wrecks in recent memory. On lap 201 Joey Logano’s car got loose and sent Danica Patrick hard into the  wall in turn 1, in the process collection an oncoming Aric Almirola.  The Richard Petty Motorsports driver would take the hardest lick of the three drivers involved in the wreckage.

After several tense moments Almirola with the assistance of the Kansas Speedway safety crew would be cut from his car, and air lifted to a local medical facility.   Richard Petty Motorsports released a statement early Sunday morning that Aric Almirola suffered a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra. He returned home to North Carolina Sunday and his driving status at this time has yet to be determined.

As for Danica Patrick, Saturday night’s carnage was the cherry on top of a melted sundae that is the queen of speeds hellacious 2017 campaign.

Heading into next weekend’s Coca Cola 600, Danica Patrick sits 33rd in the driver standings, making this the worst start to her five year Monster Energy cup career.

Danica’s slow start has many speculating 2017 could indeed be the final year we see the popular driver turns laps on Sunday afternoons.

One of these weekends Ryan Blaney is going to put it all together and capture his first career Monster Energy Cup series victory.  If it weren’t for bad luck Ryan Blaney would have no luck at all in 2017.  With that being said the second generation driver put some of the bad karma behind him at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night. Ryan Blaney looked untouchable for a better part of Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400 before Martin Turex Jr passed him and put of bow on the race.

Moral victories don’t count however bringing home a 4th place finish after several weeks of unfortunate misfires is a step in the right direction for the Wood Bros and young Ryan Blaney.

Momentum breathes confidence.

Despite the fact Blaney should have scored 3 victories by my account this season, putting these failures in the back of the ol memory bank makes this guy one of the most intriguing drivers to keep an eye on as the summer months roll on.

 

Although Ricky Stenhouse Jr failed in his bid to go back to back fresh of the heels of his first career cup win, he and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Trevor Bayne continue their meteoric rise to the top of the heap in the Monster Energy cup series.

The Roush Fenway Racing drivers finished 10th & 11th respectively in Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400.  If the chase stared today both drivers would be firmly in the thick of the title picture.

While Stenhouse Jr is working on a career year ( 1 win, 3 top 5’s, 5 top 10’s, 1 pole) though the first 11 races, his teammate Trevor Bayne continues his vast improvement finishing inside the top 20 in 8 of the 11 races run this season.

 

Daniel Suarez is one incredible driver. Is he not?

The 2016 Xfinity series champion continues his march towards the winners circle just 11 races into his cup series career.

Suarez tied his career best finish of 7th on Saturday night.

In a time when Joe Gibbs Racing looks completely out of sync, Daniel Suarez represents a beacon of hope for an organization in desperate need of a pick me up.

Despite being unexpectedly trust into the role as driver of the #19 Toyota weeks before the Daytona 500 and working with two different crew chiefs this season Suarez has completely shattered all expectations while looking like a seasoned pro instead of a green horn.

 

 

 

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F1: Russia Preview

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2017 is what we have been wanting for years
(Photo from: www.bleacherreport.net)

Three rounds down, and 2017 is already shaping up to be a classic season in the making with little to choose between two of the best drivers in the world, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. Between them they have won seven of the last eight world championships, dating back to 2010 when Vettel won his first of four.

Now with Ferrari he is hoping to end Mercedes’ dominance of the hybrid era by taking his fifth crown and become only the third driver to achieve this feat. He will face tough competition throughout though from Hamilton who will be hoping to add to his three titles and become the only British drivers to win four World Championships.

After three fly away races, Formula 1 returns to Europe this weekend for the Russian Grand Prix. First held in 2014 around the Winter Olympic park in Sochi, the circuit has become popular amongst fans, who cheer on local hero Daniil Kvyat. Although the circuit has been praised by drivers, it has often played host to rather monotonous races, due to the low degradation surface, which ensures drivers are able to often complete the race with only one pitstop.

However, the race has already to some championship defining moments such as in 2015 when Nico Rosberg’s throttle developed problems and forced him to retire, effectively ending his championship aspirations.

Leading up to this weekend there have been many stories breaking regarding the drivers and the sport’s governing body, the FIA.

The latest piece of news which has broken this morning (Thursday) is that the FIA will begin to enforce old rules regarding the size of a car’s number and driver name, ensuring that fans will be able to see who is who out on circuit, effective from Barcelona. In a letter composed by race director Charlie Whiting will state that “We feel that to be clearly visible the numbers should be no less than 230mm high, have a minimum stroke thickness of 40mm and be of a clearly contrasting colour to their background.”

Whiting also confirmed that if these requirements are not met then the car in question could be deemed ineligible
to race.

The FIA also announced this week that changes in dimensions will ensure that T-wings and shark fins are banned for 2018. These design features have appeared and reappeared this season following a loophole in the regulations after the area opened up for development around the car after changes were made elsewhere in the regulations.

From 2018 onwards the rules now state that bodywork above the engine cover is now banned.

The next piece of news is regarding the Sochi circuit as speed bumps have been added to the exit of turn 2 in an attempt to stop drivers from gaining an advantage if they run wide and miss the turn 1 apex. In previous seasons, we have seen multiple incidents where drivers have missed the first bend or been forced of the circuit and returned to the circuit with a much larger gap than they had previously.

If the changes have the desired affect then we could see an interesting race this weekend. What happens though, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are destined to be close.

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