Monday Motor Sport Report

V8 Supercars: The Marcos puzzle

THE whole thing has a certain, almost disturbing, strangeness. Why would a former two-time V8 Supercar champion – who has been away racing for nearly a decade in the planet’s top flight tin-top championship – announce his return to the local series, and then after only three weekends of competition suddenly step down for an undefined period.

Yes, Ambrose’s results have not been spectacular, but we hadn’t expected him to return and conquer. Suggesting a dose of reality, he pre-empted modest results before the season started, insisting it would take time to return to competitiveness. After all, the game had moved on and his DJR Penske team was handicapped by running just one car.

While pleading for time to get on the pace, did Ambrose inwardly believe he would come back and immediately be fighting at the pointy end?

Yet to stop after just two outings this year is mystifying, more so remembering that Ambrose qualified in the top 10 for one of the Clipsal 500 races in Adelaide… better than he and the team promised and publicly anticipated. Maybe he considered that an aberration.

At Albert Park, Ambrose was wrecked in the first of four heats so we all knew his weekend was shot to pieces. The races were meaningless anyway.

Coming home and getting to grips with the new-generation V8 racers was never going to be a quick and easy process, and perhaps he now doubts if he has the commitment and drive to stomach the punishment of hauling the DJR Team Penske to the front in V8 Supercars.

Why, though, did Ambrose choose to step down just before his home race at Symmons Plains? He was the ‘face’ of that race.

Will he in fact return to the team later in the year? Has he driven his last V8 Supercar race? He claims he needs time to get up to speed in the new-generation cars, but how does he expect to do this by standing down? The heart of the battle is the best environment to sharpen skills.

May I say here that I have no doubt that Marcos would have worked his way back to regular competitiveness. He knows how to race. He’s both a natural talent and a thinker. He is only 38, younger than Craig Lowndes and Jason Bright, and a mere seven months older than Garth Tander.

After nine years racing in the biggest motor sports show in the US – and the biggest ‘touring car’ circus anywhere – perhaps Ambrose found coming back to Australian V8 Supercars a little hokey, a comparative backwater.

Ambrose has lived for racing. And every year NASCAR handed him about 38 weekends of dramatic, big-time racing. Contrast this with Supercars’ 14 championship weekends plus the nothingness of the GP meeting.

In Australia, there is a requirement for stars like Ambrose to be front and centre at a myriad of corporate commitments through the season, with no relenting on race weekends. There is also the press stuff, which he has always struggled with. Ambrose loosened up somewhat in the US – he had to – but is still uncomfortable with our more brutal press probers.

When the team announced Ambrose had asked to be "temporarily relieved" as the team's driver, the actual duration of his absence from driving was not mentioned, although it was suggested he would be available to partner Scotty Pye in the three enduros.

To unclutter his thoughts and attempt to find resolution to the issue, Ambrose has taken off into the Aussie outback for his version of a Tassie walkabout.

While it’s anyone’s guess what Ambrose will decide, his call to step down increased the odds of him not racing full-time again.

It must have been an enormously difficult call for this proud man to walk away – and upset a team controlled by the most powerful man in American sport. If Roger Penske is a gent who doesn’t take lightly to being shunned, Ambrose might struggle to secure a drive again in North America – should he want to continue racing.

Maybe the motivation has gone. He doesn’t need the bucks; Ambrose is very well off after years in the Sprint Cup. He is a family guy, too, and maybe his priorities have shifted.

So many questions; so few answers. The only potential source of a full explanation sits in that complicated zone between Ambrose’s ears

Formula One: German GP apparently a goner

IT SEEMS it’s not enough for Formula One to create a frighteningly expensive and technically difficult set of engine rules that has handed one team an advantage that appears set to turn the world championship into a Silver Arrows romp this year. To a dodgy soundtrack of droning and flatulence…

Now the orchestrators of the F1 calendar look hell-bent on destroying more of the sport’s rich heritage. With the season already underway, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see a German Grand Prix this year – and it’s anyone’s guess whether it will ever be reinstated to the calendar.

The long-running event-sharing agreement between the Nurburgring and Hockenheim has evaporated because neither wants to host the GP and accept the increasingly onerous financial imposts.

The last time Germany disappeared from the calendar was in 1960, a decade after the commencement of the F1 world championship. Before F1, the race's history stretches back to 1926. Only Belgium and Italy have held races for longer.

With stars like Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg, and the championship-winning Mercedes team to the fore, if Germany can’t have a GP then something is very wrong in Bernie World.

Ecclestone does operate to a strange set of priorities, with profit at the top and what’s good for the sport much further down the list.

F1's fan base is in Europe, and so is the bulk of television viewers. But France, where the sport started, was unceremoniously dumped seven years ago, with little chance of it returning.

Bernie Ecclestone doesn’t hold much of a brief for tradition or history. If a promoter can’t or won’t agree to his ever-impactful and alarming financial demands, he has no compunction in changing his attention to someone who will.

In recent years, GPs have been held in places with no notable racing heritage, including Turkey, Korea, India, Bahrain, Russia and Abu Dhabi. Next year that epicentre of motor sport, Azerbaijan, will hold an F1 race.

Turkey was actually one of Herman Tilke’s better track designs. But no-one attended, so Bernie quickly boned it.

Bahrain continues to be part of F1, despite human rights issues.

This year the Indian Grand Prix was cancelled for the second consecutive year following disputes between the FIA and the Uttar Pradesh government.

After being removed in 2014, the poorly attended Korean Grand Prix was scheduled to return this year, but that didn’t happen.

Hyped up, too, has been the Grand Prix of America, originally planned for 2013 at a street circuit in New Jersey. It has been delayed for a third straight year.

Alarmingly, Ecclestone has indicated he will not renew Italy's deal when it expires next year, citing disastrous commercial outcomes. No-one except Bernie believes a calendar without Monza is acceptable.

Though the traditional circuits pull big crowds, they struggle to make enough money to offset the fees Bernie charges for his circus. Some, like Australia, could not survive without government assistance.

Yes, crowd numbers were way down at recent German GPs. Maybe the Germans, a smart bunch of people, know when they are being gypped. Perhaps it’s just not enough to watch Mercedes trundle around at the head of the pack.

A warning, perhaps, for all who host grands prix?

F1: Sauber resolves saga with van der Garde

GIEDO van der Garde's case against the Sauber F1 team has been resolved, after the warring parties – with lawyers at 20 paces – finalised a settlement.

The Dutchman took to court claiming Sauber had reneged on a contract for him to race with the Swiss team in 2015. He reportedly had paid Sauber eight million euros ($11.1m) last year.

The legal fight between the two parties continued in the Supreme Court in Melbourne in the days leading to the Australian GP. The court ruled in favour of van der Garde, but both parties agreed to settle the dispute leaving Sauber to go with its plan of running Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson at Albert Park.

Sauber has subsequently ended the case by agreeing to pay van der Garde €15m ($20.9m), a sum that will hit the embattled team hard.

Van der Garde concedes his F1 career is likely over, but in a statement declared: “My future in motorsport has not finished: on the contrary, I see this as a new beginning. I will sit down with my management in the coming weeks to discuss my future plans.

“I would love to take part in the WEC and the Le Mans 24 Hours in an LMP1 car. Former Formula One drivers do very well in this series. We also have our eye on other series such as the DTM in 2016 and beyond.”

And it’s not all bad news for the team. Sauber performed unexpectedly strongly in the AGP, overcoming its distractions to score points (and money), rookie Nasr mightily impressive in finishing fifth, and Ericsson eighth among 11 finishers.

The team is consequently third in the constructors championship, just one point behind Ferrari and ahead of Williams and Red Bull.

F1: Vettel up close and personal… with Mercedes

SOME light press conference banter between German rivals Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel in Melbourne might see the Ferrari driver making a visit to the Mercedes garage in Malaysia this weekend.

When Lewis Hamilton and Rosberg insisted that they hoped their team might be put under some pressure by its rivals this season, Vettel wryly commented: "Be honest. Do you really hope so? Seriously? You finished 30 seconds ahead of us and you hope it's going to be closer? So you hope you slow down? Is that what you're saying?"

Back came the Rosberg rejoinder: "I hope that you can give us a challenge because it's important for the sport and for the fans. And I do think about the show. Half of me – or a part of me – thinks about the show because I want to give people a great time at home watching on TV or at the track. If you do come a bit closer, that would be awesome for everybody.”

"First suggestion," replied Vettel, "if you don't mind, I think your garage becomes public for Malaysia and everyone can have a look. No? I'm joking.”

But Rosberg was happy to keep the dare going. "You can come if you want; we can invite you," he said.

"Okay, thank you for the invite… I'll come." laughed Vettel

"Friday, Malaysia… okay," confirmed Rosberg.

"Engineers' room? Debrief, I'll be there," smiled Vettel.

On Tuesday, there were further developments when Rosberg confirmed via Twitter that the 'invite' still stands. He wrote: "I spoke to Toto and Paddy about an invitation for Sebastian and they are easy with it. Dear Seb, this is the official invitation to join our debrief Friday 16.00 at Sepang. See you there, don't forget your notebook! :)"

INDY LIGHTS: Matt Brabham makes St Pete return for Andretti

MATT Brabham will return to Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport for the first event of the 2015 season at St Petersburg in Florida on March 27-29.

The arrangement sees the Brabham and Andretti names come together once again after a successful first Indy Lights season in 2014 and clinching the Pro Mazda Championship together in 2013.

Brabham has had a great deal of success at St. Petersburg in the past. He dominated both races in the Pro Mazda Championship in 2013 to start his record-breaking championship year, which saw him take 13 wins, including seven in succession.

In the 21-year-old’s first Indy Lights race there last year, he qualified third and was pushing for second before a brush with the wall dropped him to ninth.

Though the current arrangement with Andretti is initially just for this weekend, Brabham hopes it may lead to a full campaign.

“Having won both races at St Pete in Pro Mazda and being quite strong there last year, I’m confident of hitting the ground running,” Brabham said. “It’s a great track and I love street courses, so we’ll be aiming to be in the mix. It’s a brand new car this year, so there is a bit to learn.”

The Indy Lights Championship consists of 16 rounds at 10 events supporting the IndyCar Series. St Pete will be the first event with a new-generation Dallara Indy Lights chassis.

ARC: Evans number one seed for ARC. But which one?

TWICE national champion Eli Evans, in his first outing as Citroen Australia’s lead driver, will head the 2015 Australian Rally Championship field ahead of brother and four-time ARC champ Simon Evans, who makes his ARC return at the wheel of Eli’s former Honda Civic Type R.

The opening round of the ARC, the Quit Forest Rally in WA, fires up this coming weekend with 22 entries and a return to a fully seeded running order.

The change will see the Outright 2WD, National 4WD and Classic Rally Challenge competitors starting in their seeded order, and the top 10 alone features an incredibly diverse range of cars.

The Evans family feud will be one of the highlights. But not the only one.

South Australian flyer Henry Nott will start fourth in his recently acquired Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX, ahead of young gun Steve Mackenzie’s front-drive Ford Fiesta ST and Mark Pedder’s newly imported Peugeot 208 ‘Maxi’ car.

WA teen Dylan King lines up eighth in a Subaru Impreza WRX, against vastly experienced local Doug Tostevin in a similar Impreza, while the final place in the top 10 goes to Toyota’s Neal Bates, with four Australian titles to his name, in the first of the Classic entries.

The strength of the field is obvious with a scan of the entry, with Adrian Coppin and Tony Sullens both in Citroen DS3s, the return of Molly Taylor in Scott Pedder’s championship-winning Renault Clio R3 and Ashlea James’ first foray of the year in his new VW Polo.

The Quit Forest Rally gets underway on Friday with the first of two runs around the 2.66km Busselton Super Special Stage, before continuing across two full days of competition in the forests around Nannup.

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