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 X4I9294Spa Francorchamps. It doesn't matter if it's bucketing down with rain or if, as looks likely this year, the four miles of organic, snaking asphalt is bathed in golden sunlight. This place is special.

The Belgian Grand Prix has become the back-to-school event of the F1 calendar. As if Spa wasn't already a one-of-a-kind track, its place in the annual timetable provides even more anticipation and excitement, as the mid-season lull comes to an end and life is breathed into the final fight to the championship conclusion.

Walking through the paddock this morning, however, I sensed an even greater awareness of eagerness than normal. In a three-week break usually devoid of news, there was one story that stood out and filled me with an immense feeling of expectation. Rio Haryanto hadn't done a bad job in his half an F1 season, and he's a perfectly lovely chap, but a potential champion he never was, his seat thus represented a wasted opportunity for a driver of greater talent.

 ONY8795Step forward Esteban Ocon. A driver of unquestioned potential. A driver around whom hope and excitement swirls.

I am tremendously excited by the prospect of watching this young man in a Formula 1 car. A Formula 3 and GP3 champion, his pedigree is phenomenal. At just 19 years of age he is part of a burgeoning gang of drivers with incredible levels of skill, who have youth very much on their side.

In the right cars, these are the drivers who could define the next generation of our sport. Ocon, of course, beat Max Verstappen to the F3 title two seasons ago before stepping up to GP3 and putting in one of the most remarkably consistent campaigns in any category this decade.

Mercedes has placed Ocon at Manor to line him up against their other junior Pascal Wehrlein, who didn't exactly demolish Haryanto. Wehrlein is gifted, unquestionably, but Ocon will form a far tougher challenge than the diminutive Indonesian. Mercedes no doubt hopes the increased challenge from the opposite side of the garage will spark the German into raising his game.

While neither driver will be fighting for wins, their battle could be one of the most important in the sport in this second half of the season. Duking it out in equal machinery, their target is the continued favor of Mercedes and a positioning as the future for the factory team once either Hamilton or Rosberg moves on.

Ocon's promotion flies at odds with McLaren's handling of its own protégé. Stoffel Vandoorne has been ready for Formula 1 for two years. It seems that Formula 1 isn't quite ready for him, however. At least not at the black and silver squad. But it is impossible to hold back the sea, as his incredible Bahrain debut proved. The force of the Belgian's talent is so strong that if McLaren doesn't ride that wave, the rip tide will carry him elsewhere next season.

Sources close to the team say it's already a done deal. Stoffel Vandoorne will line up alongside Fernando Alonso in 2017. And about time, too.

Consider then the other young drivers waiting in the wings, and the sport's future line-ups are tantilizing.


Such a statement might cause some consternation. Really, Buxton? Alfonso Celis Jr. and Santino Ferrucci? Tantilizing? Lay off the cool aid, sunshine.

 L4R6707I know what you're saying. I was genuinely staggered to speak to the guys at Force India and hear nothing but positive feedback about "The Fonz." First of all, I'd like to put on the record that I regard with the utmost suspicion anyone who deems it acceptable to provide their own nickname. I was known as "Reggie" for four years at school. To this day I don't know why. If it had been up to me I'd have picked "Nimrod," "Vulcan," or "Geoff." But you don't get to choose your own nickname. That's not how it works, "Fonz." Henry Winkler, you 'aint.

Second, this very positive appraisal of a driver in whom I have never seen anything resembling the sensational, left me in a quandary. Either my talent gauge, which I've always considered fairly locked on, is way off kilter, or there's something else at play here.

Hearing drivers I've never considered as anything above average described in glowing terms is tantamount to discovering that McDonald's has been awarded a Michelin Star for its newest salad. (Don't get me started on McDonald's selling salads.)

The point is, either I'd have been underestimating the quality of food on offer at the Golden Arches, or a Michelin Star wouldn't have been reflective of the quality that once it was.

Could it be that the modern Formula 1 car really is too easy to drive?

 R3I2114Next season can't come quick enough. The new regulations will sort the wheat from the chaff. No matter the size of one's wallet, it won't make up for the performance differential at the wheel of a car that is not child's play to drive. That's the theory, anyway.

While many of the old guard are awaiting the return of these powerful, aggressive, grippy behemoths, it is in the young drivers that my hope holds true. Not the rich kids playing at being F1 drivers in cars which require gentle stroking, but the truly gifted few who will be able to tame the beasts underneath them in 2017.

I don't have a crystal ball, but in five years' time I can see an F1 field filled with the best of today, joined by some truly special drivers. Alongside Verstappen and Ocon, give me Vandoorne and Leclerc. Give me the as yet unaffiliated Lando Norris.

As the Formula 1 World Championship gets back to racing this weekend, there's more than just this season to be eager about. Esteban Ocon's promotion to a race seat is another step towards a future in which we should all be excited.

Lewis Hamilton Belgian GP F1 2016 Mercedes

Mercedes F1 director Toto Wolff believes a perfect storm of conditions is hurting his team's hopes of success in the Belgian Grand Prix.

The super-soft tire is not one that works for Mercedes at this track, in particular given the high temperatures and its abrasive nature, with polesitter Nico Rosberg suggesting he will not use it at all in the race.

For Lewis Hamilton, who will start on the back row of the grid after accruing 55 places in penalties for three power unit changes, his hopes of a charge through the field could also be affected.

"We seem to struggle more than other teams with overheating and blistering," said Wolff. "It's odd that it's on particular surfaces and circuits, and as a consequence, the normal one-second gap from the soft to the super-soft doesn't materialize, because the super-softs give up.

"Our performance on the soft would be what we deem as normal, but we are not able to extract more from the softer tire."

Hamilton could miss next Mercedes upgrade

Wolff said Mercedes is finding it difficult to pinpoint the cause of its difficulties.

"There is not one factor that makes it go out of control," he said. "The asphalt is very abrasive, it's very stony, and that uses up the tire much more. But if all odds go against us  a particular tarmac, the heat, high-energy corners, and the super-soft  then the consequence can be like we've seen today."

Given the problems, Wolff suggested on reflection taking Hamilton's penalties at the next race at Monza might have been preferable given the current championship leader faces a tough race from the back.

Lewis Hamilton Belgian GP F1 2016 Mercedes

"In hindsight, if we had known  which we didn't then Monza would have been the better choice," said Wolff.

"I am 100% convinced, given the parameters and information we had before Spa, taking the penalty here and getting a new engine into Lewis' car was the right decision. But if you look at gaps now and if it's hot tomorrow  then it's going to be very difficult for him to recover to a sensible position."

Hamilton won't catch leaders - Ricciardo

Assessing his prospects, Hamilton believes it may be a tough ask to even get into the points.

"With these tires the way they are which are a bit of a mess  it's going to be tough out there for everyone, and it will definitely be tough to come through and get on the podium or win," said Hamilton. "Being in traffic, it's very unlikely I'm going to get to my stop target, or go longer than the guys that are in front of me.

"I envisage tomorrow is going to be hard to even get into the top 10 with the tires the way they are.

"I hope I prove myself wrong, and I am pleasantly surprised."

 

Originally on Autosport.com

DOLE VIR 2016 fri RD2 0077After leading Friday's second practice session and Saturday morning's final practice outing, The No. 3 Corvette Racing C7.R and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 completed the hat trick with pole positions in GT Le Mans and GT Daytona, respectively.

Atop the field, Jan Magnussen won the internecine duel with Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette as he took his first pole since 2014 (1m41.557s) by displacing his teammate (-0.011) by the slimmest of margins. Joey Hand in the No. 66 Ford GT (-0.260) completed the top three in GTLM.

"I'm so happy," Magnussen said. "It's an overall pole; it's even better. I knew we had to get every single one-hundredth to beat the No. 4 car. Can't wait for tomorrow."

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In GTD, Snow – one of IMSA's youngest drivers – earned his first WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona pole as ambient temperatures crept over the 90-degree mark. The 20-year-old was decidedly faster than his rivals as the V10-powered Lamborghini (1:44.956) cleared Matt Bell in the No. 9 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS GT3 (-0.291) and the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 piloted by Cedric Sbirrazzuoli (-0.295).

"The track was perfect," Snow said. "We didn't make many changes from the last session. Got it done. It's nice to put it on top; the Paul Miller guys have this car setup and we took it right to the front."

The GTD championship-leading No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 driven by Christina Nielsen will have some work to do with teammate Alessandro Balzan after qualifying eighth (-1.041) in the 12-deep class.

Click here for full results.

UP NEXT: Pre-race warm-up, Sunday, 8:05 a.m. ET.

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Nico Rosberg claimed pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix, but was pushed hard by Red Bull Formula 1 rival Max Verstappen.

With Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton choosing not to try for pole, on account of a 55-place grid penalty for multiple F1 engine changes so far at Spa, Rosberg looked set to face a relatively unchallenged run to pole.

He was fastest in Q2 on the soft tire with a 1m46.999s lap, which was quicker than Verstappen could manage on the super-soft.

Rosberg bolted on the super-softs for Q3, but couldn't find much more time on them. He improved to a 1m46.744s best on his first run in Q3, which was enough to beat Verstappen to pole by 0.249 seconds when neither driver managed to go faster on their final runs.

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Kimi Raikkonen was third fastest for Ferrari, almost two tenths clear of teammate Sebastian Vettel, who lost time to a big oversteer moment at the Bus Stop chicane on his final flying lap. Raikkonen also dropped time at the end of his lap, and felt that cost him a shot at pole.

Daniel Ricciardo was fifth fastest in the second Red Bull, just over three tenths down on Verstappen. Ricciardo endured a poor first run in Q3, but improved enough on his second to make the top six.

Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg took sixth and seventh places, respectively, for Force India, while fellow Mercedes customer team Williams suffered software problems with both cars in Q3. This meant it couldn't run full qualifying mode on the engines, restricting Valtteri Bottas to eighth and Felipe Massa to 10th.

Massa also locked his brakes heavily at La Source on his single Q3 run, and Jenson Button's McLaren-Honda was able to squeak ahead of him into ninth place. Button's place in Q3 came at the expense of Romain Grosjean's Haas, which ended up missing the cut by 0.265s.

Renault delivered its best qualifying performance of the season so far with Kevin Magnussen 12th fastest and teammate Jolyon Palmer 14th. They were split by the second Haas of Esteban Gutierrez, which faces a five-place grid penalty for impeding Pascal Wehrlein's Manor at Raidillon in final practice.

ocon spaWehrlein made it through to Q2, but wound up last in that segment, after a disappointing run in which he went slower than he did in Q1. Carlos Sainz Jr. was just ahead of him in the first of the Toro Rossos, also unable to improve on his Q1 best.

Felipe Nasr failed to escape Q1 in the heavily revised Sauber by just 0.048s and wound up 17th overall, a tenth ahead of Manor debutant Esteban Ocon (pictured).

Daniil Kvyat endured yet another Q1 exit for Toro Rosso, ending up 19th fastest, fractionally ahead of the second Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.

Reigning world champion Hamilton set the 20th-fastest time in the second Mercedes, completing a leisurely run to simply register on the timesheets, knowing he would start at the back of the grid.

Fernando Alonso's McLaren-Honda broke down before he could complete an out-lap in qualifying, so he failed to set a time. Honda found what it described as a "data anomaly" with Alonso's engine after the final practice session, but elected to send him out without making an engine change.

PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID:

PosDriverCarTimeGap
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m46.744ss 1m46.744s
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 1m46.893ss 0.149s
3 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m46.910ss 0.166s
4 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m47.108ss 0.364s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 1m47.216ss 0.472s
6 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1m47.407ss 0.663s
7 Nico Hulkenberg Force India/Mercedes 1m47.543ss 0.799s
8 Valtteri Bottas Williams/Mercedes 1m47.612ss 0.868s
9 Jenson Button McLaren/Honda 1m48.114ss 1.370s
10 Felipe Massa Williams/Mercedes 1m48.263ss 1.519s
11 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 1m48.316ss -
12 Kevin Magnussen Renault 1m48.485ss -
13 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1m48.888ss -
14 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso/Ferrari 1m49.038ss -
15 Pascal Wehrlein Manor/Mercedes 1m49.320ss -
16 Felipe Nasr Sauber/Ferrari 1m48.949ss -
17 Esteban Ocon Manor/Mercedes 1m49.050ss -
18 Esteban Gutierrez Haas/Ferrari 1m48.598ss -
19 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso/Ferrari 1m49.058ss -
20 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1m49.071ss -
21 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m50.033ss -
22 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Honda - -

 

Originally on Autosport.com

16MIS1jh 03814For the second time this season, NASCAR Sprint Cup teams unloaded at Michigan International Speedway and were greeted by the proposed 2017 rules package.

The sanctioning body first ordered a reduction of downforce last season after a decade spent increasing it and reducing overall horsepower. These regulations have built upon the success of the 2016 campaign and have reduced the rear spoiler from 3.5 inches high to 2.5 inches.

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The width of the spoiler has also been reduced in width from 61 inches to 53 with the inclusion of a deck lid fin. NASCAR has also decreased the length of the underside of the front splitter by about three inches and eliminated rear skew – the angle of the rear-end housing that aids rotation in the center of a corner while generating side force.

League officials had actually considered returning to Michigan with the standard 2016 package but ultimately chose to use the same rules used back in June.

For this weekend, the changes mean drivers will enter the corners with increased speed from last season (nearly 220mph) while also having to lift off the throttle to make it through to the other side. This makes the cars unstable – and that's good for the long-term improvement of the racing product, according to Brad Keselowski.

"The cars are very loose," Keselowski said. "They are very difficult to drive and they should be. That causes a lot of wiggles and bobbles, all those things on the racetrack that tend to lead to a lot of excitement. Hopefully, more than anything, it gets the cars to where we can run closer and tighter as a pack and have even more passing."

mis 2016But not only are drivers lifting in the corners this weekend, they're having to use the brakes more than they have in years,  according to Austin Dillon.

"With this package, you carry a lot more into the corner and have to back it up with the brake pedals," Dillon explained. "The bigger brake packages you see out there, that's going to be a part of the race and keeping your brakes good.

"At Michigan, you can roll the corner and lift early, so that's not a big deal, but the shorter tracks could make it become a huge deal."

It's important for NASCAR and the teams to test this package one more time because it won't be used during the Chase for the Championship – the most important stretch of the season. Additionally, Goodyear would like one more race day environment to help the tire maker prepare for 2017 as well.

This combined with the pre-existing data from the June race, made the Pure Michigan 400 the obvious choice for one final package experiment.

Nico Rosberg said the Formula 1 halo did not disturb him at all as he set the Belgian Grand Prix opening practice pace while carrying the device on his Mercedes.

Rosberg became the first driver to do more than an installation lap with the halo when he used it for two runs at Spa on Friday morning and set the session's benchmark lap in the process.

"It was good to try it and they've done a great job with it because it doesn't disturb me at all when I'm driving, it just increases the safety a lot," said Rosberg. "I know it's not nice visually, looking from outside it doesn't make the cars prettier of course. But it's such a big step in safety and I think it's a good thing."

He said if anything the structure could be brought closer to the driver's head.

"You don't even notice the top part," Rosberg said. "They could even come down with that."

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Four drivers tried the halo for the first time at Spa, with Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, Force India's Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso's Carlos Sainz Jr. completing installation laps with it. Teams are currently making their own halo molds to the required shape to conduct visibility tests, but the prototypes being run are evidently not full-strength versions.

Sainz echoed Rosberg's view that it had no negative implications.

"My biggest concern was visibility. Visibility is not a problem," he said. "Through Eau Rouge, you don't have to go like this [ducking his head] to see where the corner goes.

"Obviously, when you leave the box you have this thing in the middle which disturbs you a bit but at the end of the lap you don't even notice it's there anymore.

"The eyes get used to it, they get used to looking across it. That's why we have two eyes!"

Still, he did feel the current iteration of the device creates access difficulties.

"Probably the biggest concern and margin for improvement is that getting in and out of the car is quite tricky at the moment," Sainz added. "I defend the halo a lot and I am a big supporter of it because it can save lives, but if there is something to be improved we need to say it. At the moment extraction is not easy."

Hulkenberg was one of the leading skeptics when the halo was first unveiled, and he remained equivocal about its merits after trying it (below).

"It felt weird," he said. "To have something there which limits you, it was a new experience.

"The visibility was not too bad. But also I only did an installation lap."

 

Originally on Autosport.com

Lewis Hamilton Belgian GP F1 2016 Mercedes

Mercedes has used five development tokens on upgrading its Formula 1 engine ahead of this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix.

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Only works drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg ran with the new specification from the start of first practice at Spa, although Mercedes has not specified which areas of the power unit have been upgraded.

Mercedes' customer teams – Williams, Force India and Manor – all received an updated specification of engine for the German GP at Hockenheim, and when each team decides to take its next fresh unit they will then be able to take the latest upgrade.

Mercedes now has six tokens remaining of the initial 32 available for the year, although there is no obligation on the team to use them.

At present, the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka remains the scheduled point for the works team to receive its final upgrade of the season, although this is subject to change.

Championship leader Hamilton has taken two fresh systems at Spa – the first ahead of FP1, and the second prior to FP2.

That has led to two separate 15-place grid penalties, for a 30-place drop overall, and a back-of-the-field start for Sunday's race alongside McLaren's Fernando Alonso and Sauber's Marcus Ericsson.

TOKEN USE SO FAR

Ferrari 29 (3 remaining)
Honda 29 (3 remaining)
Mercedes 26 (6 remaining)
Renault 11 (21 remaining)

Originally on Autosport.com

2016LM24 MarshallPruett 618 2102France's Larbre Competition has inked IMSA star Ricky Taylor to replace Paulo Ruberti for the next three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The former Grand-Am Rolex Series champion, who drove for Larbre in 2013-'14 and joined the factory Corvette Racing team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, will drive the No. 50 Corvette C7.R alongside Pierre Ragues and Yutaka Yamagishi in Mexico, at the IMSA/WEC double-header in Texas, and close his stint with the team in Japan.

"I am very excited to join Larbre for these three rounds of the WEC championship," Taylor said. "The team has proven its great pace this season by clinching good results. I am looking forward to supporting the squad to more success and to do my part to contribute to some points for the championship for Pierre, Yutaka and the team. I have enjoyed my other experiences with the outfit so it will be a nice experience to be back."

Team principal Jack Leconte has high expectations for Taylor as part of the No. 50 Corvette driver rotation in GTE-Am.

"As the FIA WEC is heading for overseas rounds, Larbre Competition is delighted to welcome back Ricky Taylor," he said. "If we made him discover the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2013 and 2014, roles will be reversed on the other side of the Atlantic thanks to his experience and knowledge of American racing.

"I am convinced that Ricky will fit very quickly with this teammates, especially as he and Pierre got on extremely well when they raced together in La Sarthe two years ago. Yutaka will help us with his experience of the Fuji circuit during the Japanese round. With three podiums out of four races, and a solid display at the Le Mans 24 Hours, we want to continue on the same trend to confirm our top three position in the championship."

Locked in a battle for the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship title in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP, Taylor will race both cars at Circuit of The Americas and will have an easier time at the conflict-free Mexico and Japan WEC rounds.

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