Can Carpenter be a threat once again at Indy?

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Ed Carpenter’s ability to deliver the goods on the ovals has to put him in the conversation of potential winners for this month’s 97th Indianapolis 500. As practice starts today at the Brickyard, the IZOD IndyCar Series’ lone owner/driver is aiming to be a contender at IMS like he was in last year’s race.

Carpenter started 28th after crashing his primary No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet on Pole Day and having to put a backup into the show on Bump Day. As the race wore on, he made his way up the pylon and was running third with 20 laps to go. But on Lap 181, a broken front wing adjuster on his car caused Carpenter to spin out of the battle for the lead.

“We broke a front wing adjuster in the middle of the race and I was trying to spin out on almost every lap,” Carpenter remembered going into this weekend. “But we had a fast car and I was driving it right on the edge at the end.

“It was a frustrating month of May until Race Day. Then, everything came together. Our pit stops were very good and the team made the proper adjustments during the race. It was just that wing adjuster that hurt us in the end.”

However, Carpenter and his team would eventually get that 500-mile race win in the 2012 season finale at Auto Club Speedway outside Los Angeles, as he passed Dario Franchitti on the final lap just before a wreck by Takuma Sato brought out the caution to freeze the field.

That victory gives Carpenter the confidence that he and his group can fight the bigger teams this month at Indy.

“…Winning the Indy 500 is the primary goal every year,” he said. “I know the team has worked extremely hard during the off-season to prepare for this year’s ‘500’. Our team has now won a 500-mile race and I think we are as ready as we can be to be a strong contender for another 500 [mile] victory.”

Once-dominant Mercedes gets used to resurgent Ferrari

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) For the last three years, Mercedes was the undisputed top dog in Formula One. Its drivers battled each other for the title, and no one else really had a shot.

No longer.

Ferrari has come roaring back into contention this year, as Sebastian Vettel won two of the first three races to take the standings lead ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Still, there were questions over whether that success was more about smart tactics and Mercedes’ slip-ups than Ferrari’s raw pace.

The Italian team proved it has the speed Saturday, as Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen snatched a one-two in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix. For the first time in 31 races Sunday, there won’t be a Mercedes on the front row.

“We knew at a certain stage it was going to change. Now it’s exactly the challenge that we embrace,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying.

“The Ferraris have done a very good job over the winter, and so it’s the two teams that are miles ahead of everybody else. Now we just need to be rigorous in the analysis of what’s missing, put the dots together and outdevelop Ferrari throughout the season. That is not easy.”

Ferrari’s recovery partly comes down to new regulations – which Mercedes opposed – introducing wider tires and more downforce for 2017. Getting the new tires to work at their best has been a struggle for Mercedes.

The last time Formula One had two teams in a tight, season-long battle, it was 2012 and Vettel was at Red Bull, narrowly beating Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to the title. That was followed by a season of pure Vettel dominance in 2013, then three years of inter-Mercedes battles between fractious teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning last year’s title.

When Mercedes was out in front, there was little risk in letting Hamilton and Rosberg fight each other on the track, since other teams were typically too far back to take advantage of any consequences. That’s not the case this year, and Mercedes has indicated it will impose team orders that could force Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas to let their teammate past if his pace is faster.

Bottas starts third for Sunday’s race and is keen to take the fight to Ferrari after missing out on his first win in Bahrain two weeks ago, when he started from pole but ended up third behind Vettel and Hamilton.

Hamilton, starting fourth, is downbeat after two days of struggles to find a balanced setup.

“Not every weekend goes perfectly smoothly. We worked toward improving the car, but generally it got worse and worse,” the British driver said.

Vettel seemed surprised by Ferrari’s competitiveness in Sochi, and even suggested after Friday’s practice that Mercedes had been deliberately concealing its true pace. On Saturday, Vettel was delighted to take pole position. “The car was phenomenal,” he said.

Regardless of whether Ferrari can repeat its qualifying one-two in Sunday’s race, Wolff acknowledges Mercedes’ unquestioned dominance is over.

“Every series ends,” he said. “And we cannot win forever.”

Sauber signs multi-year technical partnership with Honda from 2018

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The Sauber Formula 1 team has confirmed that it will join forces with Honda from 2018, enjoying a power unit supply from the Japanese manufacturer as part of a multi-year technological partnership.

Sauber has faced an uncertain future in F1 since BMW ended its factory support at the end of 2009, with the team working with Ferrari as a customer outfit from 2010 onwards.

Sauber was saved from collapse after a takeover by Longbow Finance last summer, and has taken another big step towards securing its long-term future by agreeing a deal to be powered by Honda.

“This extensive strategic and technological realignment creates a new basis for the team,” a statement from Sauber reads.

“This Swiss-Japanese partnership will certainly unveil future opportunities for the Sauber F1 Team and Honda, and constitutes a cornerstone for our F1 future. The Sauber F1 Team thanks Ferrari for many years of collaboration in good as well as difficult times.”

The deal marks Honda’s first foray into a multi-team supply in F1 since 2008, having solely powered McLaren for the past three years after returning to the sport.

“It is a great honor for the Sauber F1 Team to be able to work together with Honda in the coming seasons. Our realignment is not just visible through the new ownership but also now with our new technological partnership with Honda,” Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said.

“We have set another milestone with this new engine era, which we await with huge excitement and of course we are looking for new opportunities.

“We very much look forward to our partnership with Honda, which sets the course for a successful future, from a strategic as well as from a technological perspective. We thank Honda for making this great partnership happen.”

Katsuhide Moriyama, chief officer, brand and communication operations, at Honda added: “In addition to the partnership with McLaren which began in 2015, Honda will begin supplying power units to Sauber as a customer team starting from next year. This will be a new challenge in Honda’s F1 activities.

“In order to leverage the benefits of supplying to two teams to the maximum extent, we will strengthen the systems and capabilities of both of our two development operations, namely HRD Sakura and the operation in Milton Keynes.

“We will continue our challenges so that our fans will enjoy seeing a Honda with dominant strength as soon as possible.”

Penske, Chevrolet dominate Phoenix weekend

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Even though Team Penske and Chevrolet won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, the Honda teams still appeared more than capable of running with them, and the race was pretty balanced from a competition standpoint (for example: three Chevrolets and two Hondas finished in the top five, and three cars from each manufacturer made the Firestone Fast Six).

However, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix was a different story. As was projected coming into the race, the Chevrolet aero kit and power unit dominated on the short oval.

Chevrolets qualified 1-5, with Team Penske drivers qualifying first (Helio Castroneves), second (Will Power), fourth (Josef Newgarden), and fifth (Simon Pagenaud), and JR Hildebrand of Ed Carpenter Racing sandwiched the quartet in third.

And during the race, all 250 laps were led by Penske drivers. Pagenaud led the most with 116, followed by Castroneves (73), Power (59), and Newgarden (2).

“Simon drove a great race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “Kyle (Moyer) and the No. 1 team put together terrific car set up, race strategy and quick stops. Excited for Simon to get his first oval win with Chevy here at Phoenix.”

What’s more, it is the first short oval win for the Penske squad since Power’s triumph at the Milwaukee Mile in 2014, and is the first oval win period for Pagenaud. The Frenchman was understandably elated in the post-race press conference.

“It’s phenomenal. I’m just as excited as I was in the championship,” he revealed. “I think that’s going to resonate to you. I was very emotional at the end of the race there because I’ve been running after this. The desire to be good on ovals for me was really strong. I wanted to come to America and I wanted to embrace the sport, embrace the oval, and show that I could do the job.”

Conquering a short oval was makes things that much more special for Pagenaud, as he explained.

“I mean, I’m just super proud. To me, short oval is probably the hardest skill to have to win an oval,” he said. “Obviously, Indianapolis is more of a chess game, being there on the longer race, 500 miles. But here it’s very physical. You got to stay very clear in your head, despite being taxed physically, and also you need to keep up with the car very aggressively with traffic.”

Will Power had his best finish of 2017 at Phoenix Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Teammate Will Power detailed that Chevrolet has been hard at work to match the somewhat unexpected speed from the Honda teams, and firmly believes they’ll be strong at both Indianapolis races.

“Obviously some tracks suited the Honda a little bit better. But, you know, I feel like we’re going to be good,” Power affirmed. “I mean, we were good at Barber. I think we’ll be good at Indy road course. Chevy’s been working really hard to have a great engine for the 500, which I’m very confident in those guys because they do such a good job. I think they could come up with something pretty good.”

Pagenaud’s win vaults him into the championship lead by 18 points over Scott Dixon, while Power rocketed into the top ten and currently sits seventh in the standings.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

JR Hildebrand shines at Phoenix after return from injury

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JR Hildebrand had one of the best weekends of his Verizon IndyCar Series career at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. After returning from a broken hand suffered at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Californian qualified a career-best third and went on to finish third. The result is his first top five since Long Beach in 2013 and his first podium since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Hildebrand explained in the post-race press conference that he knew Ed Carpenter Racing would be strong on short ovals, and he felt pressure to make good on their potential.

“I was definitely anxious to make good on the speed. The team has a great short oval package,” he revealed. “I’m excited to get the result. The car was bitchin’. I think at the end of the race, we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to have that in it. It’s a strong result heading into May.”

And if not for traffic at the end, Hildebrand might have been able to pass Will Power for second. But, as he described, battling traffic was a main theme the entire night, especially with lapped cars battling each other for significant positions.

“For me the race ended up coming down to how you managed traffic. Guys are a lap down but racing for top-10 spots. Usually when you’re lapping guys on a road course there’s no stress. Here they were racing even harder than we were. It is a difficult thing to manage. It became about picking opportunities to pass guys,” Hildebrand explained.

In regards to his hand injury, Hildebrand described it as a non-factor and does not see it being an issue going forward. “In my hand, there was no stress. (It’s) good for (Gateway International Raceway) on Tuesday and then the whole month of May.”

The result also sees Hildebrand on the podium in new engineer Justin Taylor’s first oval start. The past Audi LMP1 engineer helped put the car right on pace, right off the transporter.

Hildebrand now sits 13th in the championship standings, ten back of tenth place Ed Jones. He gained eight positions in one race.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.