Kris Letang has been a fan of Formula 1 racing ever since his dad Claude would wake him up at 7 AM on Sunday mornings when he was a kid to watch that weekend’s Grand Prix.
The Penguins blueliner has taken karting lessons, which is how F1 drivers typically get their start when they’re young, and even got his license to operate open-wheel cars.
“It’s been part of my life for a long time,” Letang said. “It’s something that I love to do… I think it’s the thrill that you’re in a car that goes almost 200 miles per hour or whatever it is, and you’re in control of it. It’s like you and the car makes one, and it’s just so fast. And I just love it. There’s so much adrenaline going through it.”
Letang loves to attend the famous Canadian Grand Prix, held annually in his hometown of Montreal. He’s gotten the chance to meet some of the drivers and go down to the pits, saying that seeing how fast the crew works changing tires – an average stop takes about 2.5 seconds! – in person was amazing to watch.
And after many of Letang’s teammates got a glimpse of that world through the Netflix docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive, they were hooked as well.
“When you got to see the show, I think it opened up a lot of people’s minds about the kind of pressure… and it’s such a dangerous sport, too,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “I think it was pretty cool just to see the world around it. It’s kind of like a celebrity world. When you see the background and you hear the interviews and you can see what they talk about in the team stalls… I think it was just the intensity of the sport that got everybody into it.”
There are 10 teams in F1, and each one has two drivers, meaning there are just 20 spots available at the highest level of the sport. Every year, drivers and teams are scheduled to compete for the titles of World Drivers’ Champion and World Constructors’ Champion, respectively.
These titles are contested over 22 Grands Prix, which are held all over the world. The 2021 calendar began in Bahrain on March 28, and ends in Abu Dhabi this upcoming Sunday, Dec. 12. A Grand Prix takes place over three days, typically over the weekend, with a series of practice and qualifying sessions prior to the race itself on Sunday.
With the global time differences, a lot of times those sessions are televised in the morning here in North America, so the players have them on if they are in the gym or at the hotel having breakfast.
So last season, Jason Zucker had an idea. The Penguins always do a fantasy football pool during the NFL season – why not try and do one for the F1 season? And the forward was met with support from his teammates, particularly the captain.
“Zuck did a really good job kind of setting it all up, organizing it, keeping track of everything, all that stuff,” goaltender Casey DeSmith said. “Zuck was the mastermind. And then you know Sid, if it’s anything competition, he’s all about it. So I think he was pushing it, too.”
Zucker laughed that he truly had no idea what he was getting into when he first decided to put the F1 fantasy pool together, since all he really knew about the sport was what he saw in the show. But while his teammates may have given him a lot of grief at times, they credited him for finding a way to make it all come together.
“Zucker really dug down as Commissioner,” Pettersson said. “He was taking a lot of heat in the beginning with the format and everything. But it was super fun, and something that was awesome to get to the rink and watch the races and kind of compare yourself with the guys.”
After some trial and error, Zach Aston-Reese said they eventually figured it out. Every week, each Penguin would pick four drivers that had been seeded between ranks 1-2 for their first one, between ranks 3-5 for their second, between ranks 6-10 for their third, and between ranks 10-20 for their fourth.
“Then there’s two bonus questions: how many cars will finish the race, and who has the fastest lap,” Aston-Reese said. “So each week someone wins, then you keep track of total points, and there’s just a champion at the end.”
Zucker said he didn’t realize how long the F1 calendar actually was, as it spans a full 10 months. That resulted in the number of players participating in the F1 fantasy pool going from 20 to 8 once they headed to their respective offseason homes, as guys like Pettersson – who was over in Europe and went back to using his Swedish phone number over the summer – lost touch a bit.
“Because the Formula 1 season actually goes on during the offseason, guys are not in the room, so they cannot really play around talking about it,” Letang said. “So some people kind of just stopped. There’s also the fact that Formula 1, it’s kind of easy to guess who’s going to win? But at the same time, it can be unpredictable too.”
Especially since the two drivers on each team aren’t just battling with the other drivers on the track for their own individual points to gain ground in the World Drivers’ Championship – they’re also battling with each other. But at the same time, they also have to work together depending on the situation to help their team get points for the World Constructors’ Championship, which results in some very intriguing dynamics.
And this year turned out to be a great one for the pool, as it’s been particularly exciting. Heading into the 2021 calendar, Mercedes had won the previous seven World Constructors’ Championships, while their top driver, the legendary Lewis Hamilton, had won four straight World Drivers’ Championships (and seven total). But his chances for a fifth straight are being contested hotly.
That’s because the 36-year-old Brit is locked in an epic battle with young phenom Max Verstappen, who became the youngest driver to compete in F1 at age 17 and has been on a trajectory to the top ever since with his talent, confidence and swagger. Now 24, the Dutchman – who races for Red Bull – is tied with Hamilton going into the final race. It’s the first time since 1974 the top-two drivers are even in points at this stage of the game.
“Obviously Hamilton is unbelievable with what he’s done over the years, but Verstappen is pretty aggressive and it seems like he’s going to make a charge this year, or at least to have a chance to win it in the last race here,” Crosby said. “He’s been fun to watch.”
The Penguins are pretty divided on where they stand in the Hamilton vs. Verstappen battle, as they respect Lewis, but appreciate Max’s style.
“I like Max. I like the way he drives, and I’m so happy that somebody is putting Lewis in his place a little bit this season,” DeSmith said. “So I’m a fan of Max’s. And I’m Dutch, so that helps too.”
“Verstappen is a stud driver. He’s got ice in his veins,” defenseman Mike Matheson agreed. “But I’d say my favorite driver is Lewis Hamilton. To be able to be at the top and stay at the top for that long is so impressive.”
There’s also plenty of unpredictability when it comes to weather, crashes and disqualifications, and controversy on the track has led to controversy in the Penguins dressing room – particularly after the Hungarian Grand Prix back in August.
On that rainy day in Budapest, five drivers were eliminated on the first lap, with Verstappen getting struck by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas in the chaos and ultimately finishing 10th.
Hamilton recovered from being last at one point to finish third, with Sebastian Vettel finishing second and Esteban Ocon finishing first. However, Vettel was disqualified later in the day due to a fuel regulation, which meant the fields for both F1 and the Penguins were in disarray.
“It was just a crazy week because basically the top-five drivers, except for Hamilton, were out of the race. Then Vettel came second because Ocon won,” Matheson said. “That led to one guy winning the week, and a few hours later, somebody texted the group and was like nah, on second thought, you got disqualified. So there was a recount.”
Rumor has it that Crosby was the one who brought it to the group’s attention, which meant Tristan Jarry was the one disqualified.
“I’ve boycotted ever since,” the goaltender said with a laugh.
For the guys that remain in the pool, there’s just a few more days to go to find out which Penguins player ultimately finishes P1 and on the podium.
“With this year being the first time we did the pool, that’s pretty exciting. It’s been good,” Letang said. “I’m more into it than everybody else. But the guys are buying in.”
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