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SPEED's Varsha Talks F1 Stretch Run, Schumacher and more
The 2011 Formula One season has offered many interesting storylines both on track and off. As the series heads into the final eight races – starting with the Aug. 28 running of the Belgian Grand Prix live on SPEED at 7:30 a.m. ET – it seems as if Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel has a stranglehold on a second-straight World Championship.

SPEED is also scheduled to cover practice two (8 a.m. ET) on Aug. 26 and qualifying (8 a.m. ET) on Aug. 27, while the first and third practice sessions can be seen at SPEED.com.

But the drama is far from being over as series announcer Bob Varsha, Voice of Formula One on SPEED, recently relayed his thoughts on the current season, Michael Schumacher and the upcoming 2012 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Here is what he had to say…

SPEED: Can anyone catch Sebastian Vettel for the championship during the last eight races?

Bob Varsha: Realistically no, I don’t think anybody is going to catch him with an 85-point lead, which is three full races worth of points. He’s scoring at an average of over 20 per race. Nobody else is close. Barring some sort of total and bizarre collapse, I think it’s a safe bet that he’ll clinch the championship. All he needs to do, if you look at it this way, is net 15 more points over the second place driver in the next four races, and he’ll clinch. Having said that, Vettel went 0-for-July in terms of winning, and now we have a fascinating fight over second among Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at McLaren, and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. In fact, Hamilton, Button and Alonso have won four of the last five races. I expect they’ll win some more, and it’s not out of the question that someone from those two teams could get much closer to Vettel before it’s over.

SPEED: Drivers like Jenson Button have come on strong as of late, that team seems to have figured it out.

Varsha: Both McLaren and Ferrari are interesting to watch. I think the drivers with the lesser results – in this case Button and Massa – are probably more representative of where the (actual) speed of the car is which means Hamilton and Alonso are really driving well to get as much as they have out of their cars. We saw that most recently in Hungary, where Fernando Alonso was all over the road, simply because I think he was trying so hard to squeeze every ounce of performance out of the Ferrari. They’ve definitely closed the gap, if the driver can give the ultimate effort at every race. I think we can count on that because with Vettel’s lead being what it is, guys like Hamilton, Button, Alonso and Massa are going to be trying to win races as it’s realistically the only glory they’re going to be able to grab.

SPEED: What’s the biggest surprise – and disappointment – thus far?

Varsha: The biggest surprise was how wrong-footed the rest of the field was by Red Bull’s superiority. I realize the reasons for that are probably clever technical innovations, more than anything else. Things like the exhaust blown diffusers and so on. The pace of development of these cars in Formula One is so rapid and so intense, that it’s possible to watch the underdogs come forward with this or that tweak to their cars. Of course, in this case, that’s once again McLaren and Ferrari. I think the biggest disappointment this year has to be Mark Webber, who has the same car that teammate Sebastian Vettel has, but Webber hasn’t been able to do anything with it. He’s qualified well on occasion, but it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. He’s either qualifying very well, by which I mean at the front of those top six drivers from three teams, or he hasn’t… meaning that he’s at the back of those six drivers and three teams. No matter where he qualifies, he’s been absolutely awful in terms of getting away. His starts have been just brutal this year, and it’s hurt him on more than one occasion. Being the kind of straightforward guy Webber is he would probably admit that he’s pretty disappointed in himself in the way that he’s performed, as well.

SPEED: Who’s been the most impressive driver outside the top 10 in points this year?

Varsha: Paul di Resta (currently 16th), who in his rookie year, has performed really, really well for the Force India team. He’s been the class of the rookies. Sergio Perez (15th) has done very well, although, he suffered bad crashes at Monaco and Montreal. I think he perhaps has a little more race car than di Resta does. Pastor Maldonado (21st) has shown well as a rookie, but mainly because so little was expected of him in the first place. He has outshown his vastly more experienced teammate Rubens Barrichello in the Williams – which has been a disappointing car. I think Maldonado deserves credit for making the most of his situation. But if I had to pick one guy who’s performed really well it would be di Resta.

SPEED: Where is Michael Schumacher in his career?

Varsha: Michael is a very savvy operator when it comes to dealing with the press. I still think Michael has tremendous reserves of performance. His career speaks for itself. It’s not as though Michael has forgotten how to drive a race car, and I don’t think he’s gotten a lot slower because of his personal fitness routine and the amount of pride he has. The Mercedes is not very good. If Webber has been disappointing among drivers, Mercedes is the team candidate in that category. They won the World Championship in 2009 as the privateer Brawn team, and in the two years since, it’s been amazing to me with the talent they have with (Technical Director) Ross Brawn, the financial backing from Mercedes and with all that they have in the way of tools at their disposal, they’ve really not put a great car out there. Now, Michael has been outperformed by Nico Rosberg, no question about it. But it isn’t by much – as in the case of Webber and Vettel – that Schumacher has underperformed in an equal car. Michael said something interesting recently. He told the press that when he came back, it was mostly for fun. But now, and I’m paraphrasing, now he sees how much really has to be done to get the bit back between his teeth. Obviously, time is working against him as he’s about to turn 43, but I think Michael has enough pride to realize that he hasn’t done what he’s wanted to do in his return. I think he wants more than ever to get some results before he hangs it up. I think it will happen shortly, but I think he wants to get a result first. He’s planning a celebration of the 20th anniversary of his first F1 start in Belgium, the next race, and it’s clear the sport still means a lot to him. If there is a chance for him to stick around and win again, he’ll do it. Mercedes has so much invested in his comeback that they’ll do anything they can to make it happen. I think Michael signs a new contract and is around for at least two more years.

SPEED: Expand a little more on Mercedes…

Varsha: It’s all about technology and resources – and the personality of your technical director, Ross Brawn. Seven years ago he was at his best. In the more restricted budget environment of Formula One these days, you can no longer go out there and spend a pot load of money investigating all sorts of new technologies. You have to make very carefully reasoned decisions about what types of technology you are going to pursue in terms of development. Whether it’s blown diffusers, forward-exiting exhausts or whatever, we’re going to see who the really talented managers are because they have to make good decisions as to what best to commit resources to. I think that’s what happened at Mercedes is that they’ve made a few wrong decisions, and are having to find their way again.

SPEED: What do you think about the rumored move of the USGP in Austin to November?

Varsha: Austin, we all realize, is a very tough place to put on a race in mid-summer. The June date was impractical. I think the rumored date for November is much better for everybody. Now the teams are concerned about having three sets of races on back-to-back weekends in the final couple of months of the season, including Austin and Brazil to close out the season. Right now it appears those concerns won’t be addressed, but we’ll have to wait and see. Ideally, what I feel would work is a North American swing, either in the spring or in the fall, bunching Canada, USA and Brazil together. There is a lot of turmoil when it comes to the schedule right now because Germany, Belgium, and other races are on the ropes financially, Bahrain is a huge political question, and there are rumors Spain might lose a race, or run the two they have in alternate years. There are even discussions about having a second race here in the USA in the New York City market as early as 2013. It’s going to be really interesting to watch this thing unfold. I know the folks in Austin have said they are confident that Formula One will do everything they can to make the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin a success, and I certainly hope that’s true. Obviously, you don’t want your date kicked all over the calendar. You want to find dates where these races can stay for a while, where they can build up a following and people know they are going to happen year after year.

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