F1 Championship Flow Japanese Grand Prix Thoughts and TV Schedule: - Plus Nicholas On Location In Maranello, At Ferrari Portofino Unveiling
By Nicholas Frankl
Senior Editor and Motor Racing Correspondent
The Auto Channel
With a record 70 pole positions and currently 34 points ahead of the fast but seemingly fragile Ferrari – also celebrating a 70th anniversary this year - Lewis Hamilton is looking good for his 4th World Championship. His record of finishing every race this season, as opposed to Vettel’s eight, tells most of the story, although the silver Mercedes has been off pace on slow, twisty tracks like Monaco and the Hungaroring that require better mechanical grip. Now in the home stretch, the season has been more invigorating with the new ownership, seemingly more approachable and welcoming to all, not just the VIPs but the often forgotten grandstand fans, too. With many of the old guard ‘Bernie bunch’ now ‘retiring’ from the F1 circuit there is certainly a breath of fresh air in the paddock and a lighter atmosphere too, something that has been poorly missing for a decade or more.
F1 management have now dumped NBC sports and ex-ESPN boss Sean Bratches has done a deal with his ex-employer which will see a far more expanded commitment including key races like Monaco and Austin on ABC TV. This ‘inside deal’ is much needed to grow F1 in the USA, potentially F1’s biggest market which is woefully behind in fans, ratings, races and sponsors for this global series. ESPN has global reach including South America where the chances of a return to glorious Argentina, where I attended the last race in 1997 and keep fond memories, is also a management desire. I only hope ESPN hire quality commentators or maybe keep one or two of the best current ones, who have deep relationships and understanding of the sport.
The past few weeks have been filled with Ferrari. First an invite to the spectacular launch of the new V8 Ferrari Portofino, in the impossibly romantic and charming Italian hillside town, which Ferrari effectively privatized for three days, producing an epic launch with the town as a backdrop to the huge custom built floating stage. The all new 600bhp convertible arrived to much fanfare and rapturous applause driven slowly by Vettel into the spot lights. It’s certainly a thing of beauty and brilliant engineering. With a lower roofline, less complex (and therefore lighter) construction and more power, according to chief test driver and all round good guy Raffaelle, it’s s much more precise and performance-oriented than the previous, already class leading, California. The car should hit the dealers in mid-2018 and I’m excited to drive it.
The day after Portofino roughly 500 of Enzo’s finest creations descended from around the world to the automotive equivalent of Mecca. Armed with a gorgeous matte white 2017 V8 super charged 650BHP Cadillac CTS-V I made light work of the trip from Monaco and the tight, two lane highway from Genoa to the A1 Milan interstrada, helped in no small way by Ferrari Challenge and fellow Gumball 3000 champion and social media star Josh Cartu, who came up behind me about 20 km outside Portofino in a white blur of V12 fury, namely a F12 TDF with grenade launchers as exhaust pipes! By any account Josh is commonly referred to as a ‘fast driver’ and he seemed in a particular hurry to get to the celebrations - the Ferrari appearing to have only two modes – on or off. I bolted the CTS-V onto his rear bumper the best I could whilst he dispensed with the swarm of mostly German, Italian and Dutch caravans and the odd indifferent motorbike gang who clogged up the outside lane. Josh, of course, didn’t know where I was going nor how fast and capable the world beating 200mph sub-8 minute Nurburgring Cadillac is and was suitably impressed by his inability to ‘lose me’.
Unsurprisingly ahead of schedule I checked into the factory located Maranello Palace, proudly breaking up the sea of prancing horses at valet with America’s finest sedan. Fiorano was HQ for the ‘big’ 70th anniversary celebration and RM auction, which included the donation of the last La Ferrari Aperta to a children’s charity raising over eight million dollars. With thousands of fans flooding the streets it was a carnival atmosphere culminating with an Olympic Games quality ceremony showcasing the racing and road history over the past seven glorious decades. In fact I recognized it was produced by the same team as the Torino Olympics which I attended back in 2006 with my Hungarian bobsled team. Attended by all the top collectors and many of the best ex-F1 drivers it was an honor to experience. Jean Alesi was excited to chat about the new Paul Ricard Grand Prix, set for June 24th 2018, although I’m advised that the track is fairly boring and won’t suit overtaking with modern F1 cars. Stefan Johansson is a vocal critic of modern F1 racing, suggesting that the cars are way too reliant on aero and confined by irrelevant, onerous and draconian technical restrictions that should be mostly deleted to allow for 1,500BHP and half the aero grip! I’m all for it and it would be very interesting to see how the modern drivers might handle a bit of old school brute power!
Over dinner with a current leading F1 driver in Monaco I learnt that Red Bull is spending millions on a part I’d never heard of – fuel flow regulators. Regulated and controlled by the FIA the manufacturing tolerances allow for variations that can produce a higher flow and more power. Not enough to feel in the seat but certainly enough to measure on the stop watch, and apparently worth up to a 10th of a second a lap, which is huge and worth millions in performance advantage. It’s all down to luck, but a number of drivers have benefitted over their team mate and competitors at various times over the season.
Luck isn’t an element that has featured heavily in the McLaren/Honda partnership. After three awful years CEO Zak Brown and McLaren’s owners decided it was just too damaging for the team and the McLaren brand to continue. Although Honda was not only the free engine but also a significant sponsor to the tune of $20m+/year, McLaren - despite having no title sponsor - have swapped to Renault for 2018. The French manufacturer is investing heavily and seems to be on track to win championships in the next two to three years, no mean feat given the current Ferrari / Mercedes dominance but, I believe, a realistic ambition. This leaves Red Bull with no factory deal for 2019 /20 unless Cosworth, Porsche (likely) or Aston Martin (unlikely) can join the ranks with the new engine rules starting in 2021.
For 2018, the top four teams are steady - driver consistency being one of the most valuable formulas in the sport - with US team HAAS struggling slightly more in its second season and Force India up for sale and, possibly, about to be purchased by Canadian fashion mogul Lawrence Stroll for his son, Lance, to race. How sweet!
Suzuki is this Sunday and I expect Lewis to shine again. He’s nabbed 43 out of a possible 50 points for the last Asian races. Vettel would really have to get his act together, stop faffing about and ranting over every other driver, and actually win a race. Lewis knows how to win a championship and playing a tactical game could bring his dream home by Abu Dhabi.
F1 JAPANESE GRAND PRIX: TV LISTINGS FROM SUZUKA
Here's where to find the race:
Thursday, October 5
F1 Japanese Grand Prix, practice 1, 9 p.m. Streaming**
Friday, October 6
F1 Japanese Grand Prix, practice 2, 1 a.m. NBCSN
F1 Japanese Grand Prix, practice 3, 11 p.m. Streaming**
Saturday, October 7
F1 Japanese Grand Prix, qualifying, 2 a.m. NBCSN
Sunday, October 8 RACE DAY
F1 Countdown, midnight, NBCSN
F1 Japanese Grand Prix, 1 a.m., NBCSN
F1 Japanese Grand Prix*, 9 p.m., NBCSN
**NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app