Here’s the news from the world of motorsports:
• Testing Update: Formula 1 pre-season testing continued apace last week, with the majority of teams working at Spain’s Jerez de la Frontera circuit. Renault, McLaren, Honda, Williams, Toyota, BMW, Midland and Scuderia Toro Rosso all logged laps at the Spanish circuit, while Ferrari tested alone at its private facility at Fiorano, Italy and the Red Bull team did two days at Silverstone. Defending World Champion Fernando Alonso continued to set the pace at Jerez, posting the week’s fastest lap at 1:16.956 on Wednesday. Honda’s Jenson Button was second-fastest for the week, clocking in at 1:17.114 on the same day. McLaren showed improved form during the week, with Juan Pablo Montoya going third-fast with a 1:17.273, closely followed by McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa at 1:17.425. Scuderia Toro Rosso debuted its new car, the STR01, which is very similar to last year’s Red Bull RB1. The Cosworth V10 car was driven by both Vitantonio Liuzzi and American Scott Speed, and slotted in on the speed charts near the bottom, just above the Toyota V8-powered Midland cars. Testing will continue next week at Valencia, with a few teams heading to the Bahrain circuit and Ferrari staying home at Fiorano.
• McLaren Unveils New Livery: We usually don’t report on paint jobs, but McLaren unveiled a striking new livery for 2006 last week that caught everybody’s attention. The car is primarily chrome, with black and red accents. The team indicated that the chrome finish will serve as the foundation of the team’s livery for years to come. Livery change is no small matter at McLaren, as it hasn’t had many. There was the original McLaren orange (which has been used on the MP4-21 in off-season testing), then the Marlboro red-and-white era, the West silver-and-black era, and now this. It reminds one of Darrell Waltrip’s chrome Western Auto Chevy in NASCAR, and should be spectacular on the track.
• Alonso/Montoya Seat Swap? Speculation in the F1 world (Speculation? In F1? I’m shocked…) says that Juan Pablo Montoya’s manager has held talks with Renault about the possibility of the former CART and Indy 500 winner moving to the French cars when Fernando Alonso moves to McLaren next year. The prevailing thinking is that McLaren favors “Iceman” Kimi Raikkonen over Montoya, and that the Colombian will be the odd man out. However, Renault has Giancarlo Fisichella and next-big-thing Heikki Kovalainen waiting in the wings as a test driver. Would Renault dump Fisichella for Montoya and promote Kovalainen to the front line? Well, that’s what speculation is for, isn’t it?
• Spa Officially Off for 2006: The FIA announced last Wednesday that the Belgian Grand Prix at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps circuit is officially cancelled for 2006. The event, which was scheduled for September 17, fell into financial troubles that seem to have been resolved by a deal struck between Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management and the local government. However, the circuit needs substantial repairs and upgrades that cannot be completed in time for this year’s race. The race is expected to return to the schedule next year.
• Want a Berger With Your Red Bull? Former F1 star Gerhard Berger has bought a 50pct share of the Scuderia Toro Rosso team. Berger, who like Red Bull owner Dieter Mateschitz is Austrian, has stayed active in F1 since his retirement as a driver, having most recently worked as director of BMW Motorsport. Berger owns a trucking company in Austria, and it is reported that Mateschitz has bought a stake in that company, no doubt to help transport those millions of cans of Red Bull around Europe.
• Renault Boss Says F1 Program is Year-to-Year: Renault chairman Carlos Ghosn said something last week that had to send his F1 marketing department into shock. "We are going to see how things go year by year," he said. "We'll look at the situation in 2007, then 2008, and again in 2009." With the impending departure of primary sponsor Mild Seven (Japan Tobacco), his team is looking for a replacement, and most big companies aren’t looking for a year-to-year deal. It’ll be interesting to see if Ghosn back-pedals on those comments in the weeks to come.
• Rookie Hamlin Takes Shocking Shootout Victory: Joe Gibbs knows talent when he sees it, and NASCAR Nextel Cup rookie Denny Hamlin proved it in Sunday’s Budweiser Shootout, becoming the first rookie ever to win the special non-points event, which is open to pole winners from the previous season and former Shootout winners. In only his eighth Nextel Cup race, Hamlin looked like a seasoned vet as he held off the best in the business to win the 72-lap race at Daytona International Speedway, the first Nextel Cup event of the 2006 season, which was postponed from Saturday night by rain. Hamlin took advantage of some sage pre-race advice, and some support during the race, from teammate Tony Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champ, and drove a smart, savvy race. It looked like a Gibbs 1-2 at the finish was in the making, with Stewart chasing his young teammate, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. edged Stewart by inches in a photo-finish for second place. Scott Riggs finished an impressive fourth for the new Evernham No. 10 team, with Jimmie Johnson finishing fifth. Roush Racing teammates Matt Kenseth (who fought back from early overheating problems), Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray finished sixth through eighth, with Joe Nemechek and Dale Jarrett completing the top 10. The race was punctuated by a couple of accidents, mostly caused by over-aggressive driving by young drivers, but luckily with no injuries. Kevin Harvick retired early with engine trouble, and Jeff Gordon also fell out early after damaging his oil cooler in one of the accidents. A couple of drivers were invited to visit with NASCAR officials after the race, including Carl Edwards, who was penalized (wrongly, in this writer’s opinion) for diving under the yellow line to avoid cars that were pitting (in what looked like a smart move to avoid an accident), and Kyle Busch, who was a little over-exuberant in his driving on more than one occasion. The teams now get another week at the beach, but this one ends with the Daytona 500, which is for keepsies, not to mention the sport’s biggest race.