NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Alonso’s Peculiar Start at Catalunya, & the Spanish GP

One of the stories garnering a good deal of attention is anything involving Fernando Alonso.  His decision to skip the Monaco Grand Prix, the marquee event, to race the Indianapolis 500 brought all kinds of reactions from the fans, drivers, management and the press.  Rightly so.  Alonso is a double world champion and is still considered one of the best drivers on the grid, even if McLaren and the Honda power unit have failed to give him anything to work with these past couple years.  

His relationship with McLaren is a difficult one to assess, seemingly like that of a child and parent, both adversarial and loving, frustrating and encouraging.  His contact with the team is up at the end of the Formula 1 season and it appears that the team is doing everything they can to keep him, hence one of the reasons for allowing his Monaco-Indy swap.  There’s still the issue of the car.

The opening press conference for this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, therefore, should have given no one any surprise when Alonso plainly stated that he’s looking for any team that can give him a competitive car, because earning his third championship is still the goal.  His feelings are known to McLaren which made this weekend so interesting, a pendulum swing of performance

On Alonso’s outlap in the first practice, he drove all the way to the third corner before losing the car and parking it – as oil streamed out from underneath.  When the track safety personnel removed the car by picking it up with the crane, the oil then poured out, an odd effluvium rarely seen in F1.  To say that his racing weekend started off poorly would likely be considered a bit of an understatement.  As his team could not be expected to have the car ready for that practice, the Spaniard took the time to work on his fitness and then ready himself for practice two.

Driving through the second and third practices, Alonso appeared to be back to the meddling McLaren form, but something changed in qualifying, as not only did he make it all the way to the third qualifying session, but he managed to put his car seventh on the starting grid.  That result is a remarkable turnaround, especially considering McLaren’s speed and reliability this year.  It is also a display of the hopeful promise that the troubled McLaren-Honda relationship can produce, and really, was to be expected regularly toward the end of last year.  

Odds & Sods

– There’s another former champion who holds a contract that ends with the close of the season.  Sebastian Vettel, who is currently leading the driver’s standings, will be a free agent and there are some rumors that he may be making the move from Ferrari to Mercedes.  Aside from the possibility that such a rumor was printed for click-bait reasons, there are a couple ideas for such rumors.

vettel 517 afp
Sebastian Vettel wouldn’t actually leave Ferrari at the end of the year, would he? (PHOTO: TOM GANDOLFINI / AFP)

 

First, there’s the obvious attempt by Vettel to squeeze money from Ferrari by leveraging his talents.  That type of thing is all too typical.  Then there’s the German connection, with Mercedes having hinted before that they would love to have a German driver in the fold.  OK, that could be a possibility too.  Then there’s Ferrari management who refused to hold contract talks last year and told him to focus on his driving, which may have opened a rift between the two entities.

As it stands, Niki Lauda, of the Mercedes team, has called the rumors “bull sh*&,” though he was the one that may have said something about such a move during the preseason.  Vettel himself is playing coy, having neither denied nor affirmed anything, allowing everyone to stew in the beginnings of the silly season rumors.  That Valtteri Bottas is driving on a one-year contract means that the seat could open at Mercedes – but why would Vettel leave Ferrari just when their car is becoming a threat for championships?

– The Spanish GP marks one of the times of the year when upgrades abound.  With the fly-away first section of the calendar in the vapor trails, teams have more ability to bring changes to their cars.  Many have not disappointed, as Mercedes debuted a changed nose, Red Bull offered some changes, while even teams like Renault have introduced minor alterations.  Whether or not any of the changes will be significant will be the thing to watch as qualifying provided a bit of the same ol’ same ol’.  

That is to say that Lewis Hamilton took the pole, eking by Vettel’s flying lap, with Bottas hanging about in third followed by the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.  The race may bring about different results but right now, it still looks like the other teams better get cracking to close the gap.  

The Spanish Grand Prix

First held in 1913, this race is a storied one and acts as a kickoff to the European part of the schedule.  There have been a total of eight different tracks associated with the grand prix, with the current one being the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.  The track first opened in 1991 and is 2.89 miles in length with the course being comprised of 16 turns.  Kimi Raikkonen holds the track record, at 1:21.67, set in 2006 when at Ferrari for his first stint.  He and Fernando Alonso are the active drivers with the most wins, having two apiece, though Michael Schumacher holds the most all time with six.  Max Verstappen won last year’s race in his debut with Red Bull, a result that has sent his career skyrocketed upward – though it should be mentioned that Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed each other out on the first lap.  

Coverage

In the U.S., race coverage begins on NBCSN on Sunday, May 14th at 7:30 AM EST.  

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