Tough day for big names in St. Pete qualifying

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While the likes of Takuma Sato, Simona de Silvestro and Tristan Vautier made the Firestone Fast Six, and Dragon Racing’s Sebastian Saavedra surprised with a solid ninth place qualifying effort, some of the biggest names in IndyCar will need some help to produce a good result in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing failed to get either of its two cars into the Firestone Fast Six at St. Petersburg for the second consecutive year. Dario Franchitti clocked in 10th with Scott Dixon unable to better 20th on the 25-car grid.

“We have just been a bit behind in getting the Target cars up to speed here this weekend for some reason,” said Dixon. “I keep finding myself fighting understeer in the car.”

Dixon has traditionally had poor luck at St. Pete; despite three runner-up finishes since 2005, Dixon has failed to finish better than 16th in four of the last five years. Franchitti won at St. Pete in 2011.

The frustration with Honda’s lack of pace, compared to Chevrolet, appears palpable in the Honda camps. Ganassi told the AP’s Jenna Fryer that Honda “has some work to do, but I think they know that.”

Justin Wilson and Charlie Kimball just missed advancing from the first qualifying session in either of their two groups.

Some fellow strugglers from the Honda camp included both Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entries (Graham Rahal 15th, James Jakes 18th), a pair of 2012 IndyCar rookies in Josef Newgarden (16th) and Simon Pagenaud (19th) and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Alex Tagliani, who in the team’s first St. Pete race with Honda (they raced a Lotus the first three races of 2012), lines up 17th.

The biggest name from the Chevrolet camp knocked out in Q1 was Saavedra’s Dragon teammate Sebastien Bourdais, who has been off pace all weekend in his adopted American hometown. Bourdais, who made his American open-wheel racing debut in the 2003 Champ Car race in St. Pete, lines up 21st.

Whether any of the above drivers opt for an off-sequence strategy for what should be a three-stop race remains to be seen.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”