Euro NASCAR gearing up for 2019 with new rules package

NASCAR Whelen Euro Series (NWES) is entering its seventh season in its current format, and a new rules package is set to bring the racing closer than ever while making the series more accessible to drivers, teams and fans alike. Announced in early January, the regulation change is promoting ‘pure racing’ with new tyres, suspension and aero, as well as more stringent technical inspections.

NWES has grown significantly since it first got sanctioned by NASCAR in 2012; the fan base has extended across Europe and the calibre of drivers continues to improve, making the series highly competitive.

Credit: Reuben Inganni

Only four drivers have been officially confirmed for 2019 so far, with all of them competing in the Elite 1 class. Francesco Sini and Alex Sedgwick are both returning to the series after making their debuts last season. They will be joined by Ellen Lohr, DTM’s only female race winner, and 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, both of whom are returning to racing and making their debuts in NWES.

We spoke to Alex Sedgwick at Autosport International about the series and how it differs to its American counterpart.

“The main difference is that the Euro series is mainly road courses compared to ovals. In Europe, we have a lot less ovals than in America in the first place, so we go to places like Valencia, Brands Hatch, Hockenheim and Zolder. We still do one oval this year, Venray which is in Holland. That’s the main difference really, and also the backgrounds of the drivers. I came from Clios and Ginettas, Villeneuve has come from F1 and we’ve got guys who have done Le Mans whereas in America it’s sort of NASCAR, NASCAR, dirt racing, NASCAR! It’s NASCAR with a European input, that’s the way to look at it really.”

“The NWES cars are a little lighter than the American cars with fibreglass bodies instead of steel bodies, but they’re also a little less powerful. They only have about 400 horsepower, whereas in America they’ve got 600 to 650 horsepower. Other than that, because we mainly go to road courses, the cars aren’t set up to just turn left, we’ve got a Watt’s link in the rear rather than a track bar to help it turn both directions and make it a little bit more agile. It’s not the most agile thing in the world anyway but it helps. They’re the main differences really but the basics are all exactly the same – a big 5.7 litre V8, 4-speed manual, solid rear ends, no brakes, no grip and loads of drifts, so it’s good fun!”

Credit: Reuben Inganni

Having a name like Villeneuve in the series is significant for its popularity, but he is not the first big-name driver that the NWES has attracted.

“I started last year in the series and we had Bobby Labonte (2000 NASCAR Cup champion). My teammate’s Marc Goossens (Le Mans veteran), we’ve also got Christophe Bouchut (1993 Le Mans winner) and now Villeneuve; it’s certainly a cool time to be part of NWES. It brings more credibility and attention to the series from the European side and the fact that the names that we’ve had in the series so far haven’t run away with it, they’ve struggled to get into the top five or even top ten, shows the level the championship’s at – it’s a hard series to do well in.”

One of the main aims of the new rules package, aside from improving the on-track show, was to make the series more affordable for teams and drivers – an aim that Sedgwick believes has been achieved.

“It’s well cheap! Because it’s racing, it’s still expensive but you’re going to seven different countries across Europe, racing a proper stock car in front of an average of 40,000 spectators at each round and it’s less than you’d pay to race in Ginetta Juniors in the UK. In terms of that, and for what you get out of it, it’s a bargain!”

With NWES growing as a series, the opportunities it can provide for the drivers are also increasing with the series definitely a viable route for making a career in America.

“My aim is to use this as a stepping stone to hopefully go from this to something like K&N or Trucks in America and just see what happens really. With the way the series is, and the way that it works, there’s a lot of opportunities to make that happen – it’s not like Clios in the UK where you need a lot of money to race and at the end of the year, you’re left with nothing. We’ve got prize money and the chance to win drives in America. In terms of making a career out of it, it’s quite a good place to be.”

The NWES season kicks off on the 13th April at Valencia with the rest of the calendar as follows:

April 13th/14th – Valencia, Spain
May 11th/12th – Franciacorta, Italy
June 1st/2nd – Brands Hatch, UK
June 22nd/23rdundisclosed street circuit, France*
June 29th/30th – Most, Czech Republic
July 13th/14th – Venray, Holland
September 21st/22nd – Hockenheim, Germany
October 5th/6th – Zolder, Belgium

*non-championship

 

[Featured image credit: Reuben Inganni]

Fernando Alonso: What’s Next?

Image courtesy of Pirelli

Motorsports After coming perilously close to drinking the milk at the end of the 2017 Indianapolis 500 race, speculation over whether Fernando Alonso would take the leap from Formula 1 to the Verizon IndyCar Series began to spread across the paddocks on both sides of the pond.

It was confirmed in November of this year that Alonso would throw his hat into the ring once again driving for McLaren, working with Andretti Racing, in the hopes of obtaining the unofficial ‘Triple Crown’. There is much speculation as to whether Alonso would be interested in becoming a more permanent fixture in what some motorsport fans consider the ‘American Version’ of F1, however, nothing has been set in stone.

Talking with journalists following his last race in Formula 1 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Alonso is in no hurry to make plans: “I needed a break and I need to find motivation again.

“For 2020, I don’t know exactly what I will do or what will be the plan. I am open to different things – maybe a full season in IndyCar, maybe a full season in F1 again.”

Alonso wouldn’t be the first Formula 1 driver to make the transition. He would be following iconic drivers such as Rubens Barrichello, Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya, and with the interesting mix of street and oval circuits, the series offers a new challenge for Alonso after 18 years in F1.

In the run up to the end of the Formula 1 season, Alonso signed himself up to a mixture of endurance races. He is scheduled to complete the remaining 3 races in the World Endurance Championship, finishing in Le Mans, before heading to Indianapolis for the second time to hopefully take the win.

Not long after reaching the chequered flag in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Alonso was back in the driving seat, this time having swapped cars with NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson. It was thought that Alonso’s interest was in testing Johnson’s car in preparation for the Daytona 500, which he has since confirmed he will be a part of.

Interestingly enough, Johnson’s contract with NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports is set to end in 2020 and having already expressed an interest in IndyCar. Though it is highly unlikely Johnson would ever drive in F1 (apart from the one-off car swap), taking an open-wheel car out for a spin has given him a new outlook on his abilities:

“What I take away from that F1 experience is I climbed in an unfamiliar car and environment and did really well. My natural instincts, my ability to drive, my ability to scare myself and challenge myself hasn’t gone anywhere.” Perhaps the pair are beginning to lay the foundation for a standalone McLaren team in the Verizon IndyCar Series?

It’s probably best not to get carried away just yet, as Alonso has also confessed his departure from F1 might be short lived: “I’ve been doing this my whole life. Maybe next year by April or May I am desperate on the sofa, so maybe I find a way somehow to come back.” Perhaps he will follow in ex- Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa’s footsteps in announcing retirement, before returning unexpectedly to race another season.

Only time will tell, but for now keep an eye on Alonso, his career certainly isn’t over yet!

Fernando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson complete Bahrain car-swap

A mere 14 hours after his emotional goodbye to F1, Fernando Alonso was already back at a race track and at the wheel of an F1 car. The car in question was the 2013 McLaren, the last of the V8’s in F1, though that was not his main focus for the day. Alonso was there to try out Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR, with growing speculation around a potential Daytona 500 entry for the Spaniard in the coming years. While Alonso got his first taste of NASCAR, Johnson, in turn, got his first experience in an F1 car, having already spent a day in the McLaren simulator in Woking.

As day broke at the Bahrain International Circuit, Johnson headed out for an installation lap in his #48 NASCAR. He gave Alonso a few pointers and showed him how to exit the car in the customary NASCAR way… through the window. After that, Alonso emerged onto the Bahrain track for the first time since his seventh-place finish in April, with the two-time F1 champion also completing installation laps in the McLaren.

They’d given their own cars a run, but now it was time for them to have a go in each other’s cars, as that was the whole reason they were all there in the first place! Alonso, impatient as ever, was the first to head out, taking time to adapt to the different challenges that the NASCAR posed compared to his F1 car. The biggest change for Alonso was the braking and downforce of the NASCAR, which were nowhere near the levels of F1, as well as the sheer weight of the #48 and its tendency to slide through corners.

For all the difficulties Alonso had, Johnson had them pretty much in reverse. He had to deal with huge levels of acceleration and deceleration, not to mention the G-forces that go with it, and the increased downforce of the F1 car, meaning he had to completely rethink his driving style. While some of that could’ve been recreated on the simulator, the over 6 Gs of loading could not, so Johnson was in for quite a shock when he hit the brakes for the first time. Afterwards, he took to Twitter to say how this loading made his eyes ‘lose focus’ and his ‘vision to go blurry’.

But, despite the challenges, Johnson certainly impressed Alonso with his attitude and times, ending the day only a few tenths shy of the Spaniard’s morning benchmark. Equally, Alonso impressed in the NASCAR, but then that was to be expected – he’s already proven he’s a weapon in any car he drives, and this was no exception.

Alonso ended his F1 career by doing donuts on the start/finish straight at Abu Dhabi with fellow champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. He ended the car swap by doing donuts with Johnson, with both soon mastering the donut technique needed in their new cars.

Although this was all posed as a bit of fun, it did have true meaning, for Alonso at least, as he eyes up opportunities across the racing world. He’s likely to be driving a NASCAR in anger in the not too distant future while Johnson, as impressive as his times were, is unlikely to climb in an F1 car again unless it’s for an event like this. But, either way, both drivers seemed to have a brilliant time in Bahrain, getting a taste of each other’s worlds and attracting a lot of media attention in the process.

Knowing Alonso and Johnson, that probably won’t be the last of their adventures together… who knows what the next chapter might involve!

#JJxALO

Featured image courtesy of Andy Hone/McLaren

Fernando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson announce car-swap

After just over two months of teasing, Fernando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson have finally announced that they will be driving each other’s cars at the Bahrain International Circuit on the 26th November, the day after the Abu Dhabi GP. No more information than that is given in the admittedly cringe-worthy fifty-second clip posted on both driver’s social media accounts, but it does at least draw some sort of an end to the speculation that had been conjuring up ever since this was first hinted at in mid-September.

The first video, posted on 12th September, set up the idea of a car-swap scenario with both drivers expressing interest at the events on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Really, this goes back much further than September, in fact back to late January when the pair took part in a rather amusing photo-shoot at the Daytona 24 hours, which can be essentially described as a staring competition (with a cameo from Lando Norris).

The next teaser came nearly two weeks ago with another equally cheesy clip, showing Alonso and Johnson going about their training regimes while watching each other’s races, though both of them were winning their races so it must have been from quite some time ago!

This whole saga has been very typical of Alonso’s appearances on social media of late, generally communicating through the medium of cryptic GIFs and tweets. Basically, it’s made everyone do what we’re doing now, talk about both Alonso and Johnson, whose careers have taken respective nose-dives in recent years. Johnson hasn’t won a race all season in the NASCAR Cup Series, his last win was back at Dover in 2017 and many have been speculating about his future in the series. It’s a very similar story for Alonso whose winless drought stretches back to the 2013 Spanish GP, with his F1 career coming to a conclusion at the end of this season.

The car-swap could be seen as a publicity stunt for both drivers, both wanting to remind the world of their greatness despite their respective lulls. Equally, they could just be doing it for a bit of fun; they’re both of a similar ‘drive anything’ type of personality and have clearly formed a strong friendship over the years… This kind of thing has probably been on the cards longer than anyone else knew, they just had to work out how to make it feasible.

Alonso himself may view this as the start of his 2019 ventures which remain as of yet unannounced. He’s hinted that he’ll probably not be doing a complete season of anything but instead dipping in and out of various series with the Indy 500 obviously a target and rumours that he may be attempting the Daytona 500 as well.

Whatever the reason behind it, the car-swap will be very interesting to see with more focus probably on Alonso’s NASCAR performance than Johnson’s F1 run for a multitude of reasons, mainly that the Spaniard will almost certainly drive a NASCAR again whereas Johnson is unlikely to get another go in an F1 car.

Bring it on… #JJxALO

Featured image courtesy of Steven Tee/McLaren

NASCAR: Controversial Victory for the #3 at the Daytona 500

Despite the absence of long-time Most Popular Driver, the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr, the stands appeared densely packed for the 2018 Daytona 500. There was, of course, still an Earnhardt in the field, with Jeffrey Earnhardt ensuring the family name was represented for the 40th consecutive time in the Great American race. Dale Jr himself was the one to get the race started with the infamous words “drivers, start your engines.” But little did we know then that the eventual race winner would be none other than the car sporting Earnhardt Sr’s legendary no. 3.

Perhaps befitting the Earnhardt legacy, Austin Dillon’s win was nothing short of controversial, securing the win on the last lap by appearing to wreck the no. 10 car of Aric Almirola in front. Dillon’s wasn’t the only questionable move of the race, however, with a host of at-best opportunistic and at-worst dirty manoeuvres leading to big wrecks in the first two stages. As a catch-up for anyone who’s not watched NASCAR in a while, a reminder that since 2017, races have been split into three stages, with drivers able to collect points for each stage as well as for the overall result.

Stage One

Cars were running three and even four-wide at the outset, with Denny Hamlin’s no. 11 car looking comfortable in the lead. However, that all changed during the first caution, as Hamlin overshot his pit box, backing the car up, but not far enough, earning himself a 1 lap penalty. Meanwhile, the other big names were on the move, with Jimmie Johnson working his way quietly through the field in the no. 48 and Kyle Bush showing promise until he suffered a puncture in the no. 18. The young guns were well-represented early on, with Alex Bowman (no. 88), “Bubba” Wallace (no. 43) and Erik Jones (no. 20) running towards the front of the pack for much of the first stage. Stenhouse (no. 17) and Logano (no. 22) ran confidently up front as the stage progressed, with Chase Elliott on the charge in the no. 9 Chevrolet.

On the final lap of the stage, Ryan Blaney (no. 12) was blocked (by all accounts, pretty aggressively) by Stenhouse who then drifted up the track, causing Jones to get loose, and ultimately setting off a domino effect which eventually collected Suarez, Johnson, Larson and others, with Chase Elliott doing an impressive job to avoid it. Meanwhile, Kurt Busch (no. 41) remained out front as the drama unfolded behind him, earning him the first stage win of the season.

Stage Two

Kurt Busch started the second stage off with the same 1 lap penalty for a pit box violation that scuppered Hamlin’s hopes early on, while Hamlin himself was now back on the lead lap. Blaney and Bowman, both lucky to have avoided the wreck at the end of the first stage, led the field. The no. 24 car of William Byron brought out the caution with a puncture on lap 93, with reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr now leading the field after electing not to pit. Blaney (apparently feeling the force as a huge Star Wars fan) promptly took the lead back as the race returned to green.

With 18 to go in the stage, another big wreck unfolded, as Chase Elliott moved down the track to block Brad Keselowski in the no. 2, in a move which did neither of them any favours. Elliott’s no. 9 was sent spinning by the contact, eventually coming to a stop after collecting Kasey Kahne in the no. 9, and Danica Patrick in the no. 7, prematurely ending Patrick’s final Daytona 500.

With that wreck having depleted the field once again, the aggression died down a little, as Aric Almirola in the no. 10 and Wallace cleanly worked their way up in to the top 5, with Ryan Blaney eventually taking the second stage win in the no. 12 Penske.

Stage Three

Entering the final stage of the race, Blaney, Logano and Hamlin made up the top 3, and, with much of the field running single-file, things seemed to settle down somewhat, with cars pitting under the green flag with 43 laps remaining, and little drama of note, besides Kyle Busch adding to his difficult day with a penalty for speeding.

With 32 laps to go, the leaders hit traffic, but made it through cleanly, despite some wobbling from the lapped no. 1 car of Jamie McMurray. More pit stops under green followed, with Hamlin making a strategic error, pitting a lap later than the rest of the field, and Logano dropping a lap down after getting loose and speeding on pit road, earning himself a penalty. Following Hamlin’s stop, Blaney was now back in the lead, followed by Truex Jr and Kurt Busch.

After a surprisingly long green-flag period, Byron brought out the caution with 11 laps to go with a dramatic right-front tyre failure. Blaney, who by this point had led 118 laps, found himself crowded out and it looked as though he might drop way back in the pack, but he fought back up towards the front despite little help from those around him. The fight at the front was now heating up, with Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney all jostling for the lead.

Hamlin, now leading, blocked Kurt Busch, pushing him back towards Blaney. While it looked like the pair didn’t make contact, Kurt Busch spun, causing another big wreck, collecting Stenhouse, Truex and others. When the green flag waved once more, Almirola looked confident at the head of the field, clear of Hamlin and Dillon behind him. On the final lap, Dillon made what was to be the deciding move of the race, sending Almirola ungracefully into the wall and taking the win for himself. Meanwhile, Wallace and Hamlin fought tooth-and-nail for P2, with Bubba coming out on top in an incredibly close finish.

On his win, Dillon said that he had done what he had to do, while a devastated Almirola gave his opponent more credit than he perhaps deserved in his dignified post-race interview. While it might not have been the way it should have ended, there’s no denying that for many fans, there was a special kind of symmetry to seeing the no. 3 return to Victory Lane on the 20th anniversary of the late Dale Earnhardt’s win.

What did you think of Dillon’s move? Was it a step too far, or would any other driver have done the same?