Kanaan: The last three years have been about surviving

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If it wasn’t for an eleventh hour deal struck less than a week before the 2011 IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg, Tony Kanaan might not still be racing in IndyCar today, and have had the chance to capture his elusive first Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan lost his ride with Andretti Autosport – then called Andretti Green Racing – at the end of 2010 when sponsor 7-Eleven withdrew its longtime support. Since then, Kanaan has had to chase sponsorship on his own to help keep his career alive with KV Racing Technology, which is co-owned by Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser (pictured with Kanaan).

“The past three years I’ve been working extremely hard, probably even harder than driving the car, to find the sponsorship to keep surviving,” Kanaan said in a press conference Monday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I’m not saying I’m not going to keep doing that.  I would like to have a little bit less pressure on my side, to just really concentrate about driving.”

Even this year, several reporters have discovered that Kanaan’s No. 11 entry – which has been backed by a consortium of sponsors including Hydroxycut, Mouser Electronics, Itaipava, N-O-XPLODE energy drink, HIPPINO.com among others – did not have the full support to continue for the rest of the season.

KV has added Imran Safiulla, longtime supporter of Simona de Silvestro, to its management team to help keep the team on track with de Silvestro’s second car. Additionally, KV has re-entered a partnership with James “Sully” Sullivan of SH Racing that first occurred in 2011, to help keep Kanaan’s car sponsored.

“I’m happy where I’m at,” Kanaan said of his status at KV, as he is in a contract year this year. “I’m confident that with this we can build something solid for the following year.  We’re so sketchy up until this race, we didn’t even know if we were going to do the entire year.  Now I’m pretty sure we will.”

Vettel lauds ‘phenomenal’ Ferrari F1 car after taking Russia pole

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Sebastian Vettel was quick to heap praise on the Ferrari Formula 1 team after taking his second pole position for the Italian marque in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel edged teammate Kimi Raikkonen by just 0.059 seconds in the final stage of qualifying to grab his first pole position since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, heading up a Ferrari one-two, the first since France 2008.

The result saw Ferrari end Mercedes’ 18-race streak of pole positions and continue its impressive start to the season that has seen Vettel win two of the first three races.

“I had a good start to the session to qualifying this afternoon,” Vettel explained. “I was feeling reasonably comfortable. Then I think in Q2 I lost a little bit the rhythm, so my final run in Q2 which I thought would give me enough of an idea for Q3 for the final segment would put me in place, but it went wrong. I locked up and lost a bit the rhythm.

“Then in Q3, the first run was not really tidy, so I left it to the end. Then I got a good lap in and improved in the final sector, made up some time from the lap before. I knew it would be tight, I knew also that I would be the first one to cross the line.

“By going quicker than what I saw on the screen before with Kimi, I knew that for now I’m ahead, but then I immediately opened the radio and asked about everyone else, ‘tell me about the others!’, and then my race engineer Ricardo told me they are closing the lap, closing the lap, I said ‘yeah let me know, how are the sectors, how are the split times!’ The first one I got was Valtteri, who didn’t manage to improve, and then when I got the message that we got it, I was over the moon.”

Vettel thanked the Ferrari team that had put together the SF70H car, but stressed that there are no points awarded for Saturday.

“Big thank you to the team, I think the car was phenomenal this afternoon. It really was a pleasure to take a seat and go around with low fuel and just try and push it to the limit,” Vettel said.

“If you have rhythm here it’s just fantastic. Glad I got it back, and big thanks to the team. It’s a team effort and a great result for us to have both cars on the front row. It’s only part of the job. The main job is tomorrow, but for now, yeah, it’s an important step.

“We managed to improve a little bit. Maybe the circuit came our way as well. But it’s a very good result and I’m sure everyone is very happy and very proud, so we’ll enjoy that, but in a couple of hours obviously start focusing on the race.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Banter, competitiveness fuel Helio, TK in 20th IndyCar seasons

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The word “retire” is often thrown around to describe Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, as the longtime friends and rivals are now almost a quarter of the way through their 20th seasons in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And then you consider Castroneves took the pole Friday night in his No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet with a new track record at Phoenix International Raceway at 194.905 mph average speed – again, on a one-mile oval – and Kanaan led the way among the 13 Hondas on the grid in his No. 10 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and you need to leave the “retire” word out of the conversation.

One of the great aspects about them both is that while they’ve endured through so much change in IndyCar, the series, their competitiveness, banter and great form is still as evident now as when they were kids being groomed for success in the Indy Lights series, as teammates for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports.

Since 1998, IndyCar’s been through a boatload of different sponsors, drivers, teams, chassis, engine manufacturers, series chiefs, marketing firms, buzzwords, rivals, controversies, question marks and fantastic finishes.

But this pair of Brazilians, friends since before they were teenagers, has been a guarantee to endure.

Castroneves, Kanaan, the Borg-Warner Trophy and Gerould. Photo: IndyCar

Fittingly, then, in a city whose track’s history with North American open-wheel racing dates to the 1960s, the weekend kicked off with an homage to the two Brazilians at the Heard Museum, moderated by veteran broadcaster Gary Gerould.

These two hesitate to use the word “old” even though they are both north of 40 years old – and as Dario Franchitti joked, “no one knows how old Tony really is” – yet continue to kick ass on a weekly basis.

6 Sep 1997: Brazilian drivers Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves confers during the Toyota Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in Monterrey, California. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

Before their CART and IndyCar careers started, only one of them was going to win the 1997 Indy Lights title, both in their second seasons. And although Castroneves – then hyphenated as Castro-Neves – held a three-two win advantage, Kanaan won the championship by just four points.

Not that Castroneves thought it was all fair and square, as he joked going into Thursday night.

“I didn’t win the championship because I didn’t finish where I needed to,” he told NBC Sports. “On the celebration lap, the cool down lap, I saw something stuck on his hula hoop – or roll hoop. I stopped and after that we talked about it, ‘Tony, I meant to ask you a question, you’ve got something stuck?’

“Man, I’m telling you we didn’t have HANS devices at the time. To try to disrupt the whole rhythm and get a caution I think he was going to throw his neck support! His plan didn’t work out – he got stuck. So it was funny!”

Kanaan, who won the championship over him, noted how intense the battle between the two really was because they were unsure what would happen if only one of them made it to IndyCar.

7 Jun 1997: Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves of Brazil in the Lola Buick T97/20 for the Tasman Motorsports Racing Team during the ITT Automotive Detroit Grand Prix at Bell Isle in Detroit, Michigan. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

“Probably the best was the year we were going for the Indy Lights championship in ’97,” Kanaan recalled to NBC Sports during this year’s St. Petersburg weekend.

“That was ‘make it or break it’ for us. We actually got told that year that whoever won the championship was going to get a chance in IndyCar. At the time, in our heads, it was only going to be one of us. And we were going head-to-head. We had the same equipment. I ended up winning, but we both moved up.”

They survived that run in Horne’s team’s base of Columbus, Ohio – as the two of them joked Thursday night, there was not much to do – and then were in a sense lucky to both be able to advance into IndyCar the following year.

“Without Steve, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” Kanaan admitted. “It was a combination of Philip Morris in Brazil and him, But, he was the one who had a good team that picked us. We went to a test and it was ten guys and he hand-picked me and Helio out of those ten guys and gave us the opportunity. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”

Not that Castroneves would be sold short either. He pushed through in that aforementioned test at Firebird Raceway’s East road course – south of Phoenix – with a rib injury. While he exited the car in pain, the determination and pace shown was enough to justify Horne’s faith.

Horne was among many who paid tribute to the two Thursday night in a prerecorded message, and also gave them stick for when they collided on the first lap of an Indy Lights race in Toronto in 1996. Castroneves led Kanaan in a 1-2 in Toronto a year later, which was a welcome payback.

Andretti Green Racing’s fabulous four – Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan – capture the top four spots in the 2005 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg April 3. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Others included two of Kanaan’s past teammates in Franchitti and Bryan Herta, part of Andretti Autosport (then Andretti Green’s Racing) fabled four-car lineup in the mid-2000s, and Franchitti’s old teammate and current NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy. “PT” had perhaps the best one-liner of the night when he took the opportunity to ask Castroneves how he was taking care of his 2002 Borg-Warner Trophy, as Tracy always felt as though he and not Castroneves was the rightful winner of that year’s Indianapolis 500.

INDIANAPOLIS – MAY 26: Helio Castroneves pits his Marlboro Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the 86th Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 26, 2002. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The one shock bit of news that came out Thursday night had nothing to do with the on-track product these two drivers have delivered. It came with the off-track product Castroneves uses to keep his hair as magical as it is.

“Bedheaded,” he laughed, which caught most of the room off guard. “It doesn’t take as long as you think to get it ready. People think it takes a long time but it’s quick.”

The two drivers reflected on their careers. Castroneves has spent all but two seasons with Team Penske; that incredible 18-year run, and counting, came after a year apiece with the midfield Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams in the 1990s, where he scored his first career podiums. Sadly, with Tony Bettenhausen Jr. having died in an early 2000 plane crash and Carl Hogan dying a year later, his first two owners have long since been unable to see his career rise. His Penske opportunity also arose from tragedy with Greg Moore’s 1999 fatal accident in Fontana, but having been in the right place at the right time, he seized his chance.

Kanaan, meanwhile, had his heyday at Andretti after five stop-start years with Tasman, McDonald’s Championship Racing (a Forsythe satellite team, where he won his first race in 1999 at Michigan) and Mo Nunn Racing that always saw him showcase a lot of potential, but not consistent results. His post-Andretti career saw his attempt to lift KV Racing Technology to the top of the ascendancy, and did when he and the KVSH Racing effort broke through in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 – a result, as it turned out, which extended the careers of both entities when it was possible mid-2013 could have been the end for both.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: 2013 Indianapolis 500 Champion Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the Hydroxycut KV Racing Technology-SH Racing Chevrolet, hugs the Borg Warner Trophy at the yard of bricks during the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation and Champions Portrait Session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kanaan earned his first Indy 500 victory by winning the 97th running of the race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

A late career renaissance has occurred with Chip Ganassi Racing, Kanaan having been meant to be added in a fourth car for 2014 but shifted to become Franchitti’s replacement in the No. 10 car once injuries forced the champion Scot into retirement.

Castroneves holds the wins, poles and Indianapolis 500 victories edge, but Kanaan’s got two championships – one each in IndyCar and Indy Lights – that remain elusive for Castroneves.

Yes, they haven’t won since 2014 and yes, the questions are always whether they should move on and provide an opportunity for the younger crowd to step up to two of the primo, marquee seats in IndyCar.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan of Brazil pose on the finish line with the Borg-Warner trophy during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

But the younger drivers who have raced against them over the years will likely tell you that if you’ve beaten Castroneves and Kanaan, you’ve beaten two of the best. Doing so at Indy, where both drivers have starred and have a combined four wins, is even more of a successful feather in the cap.

Said Kanaan about his future, “In my mind, I’m still very young. I take care of myself a lot. I think I’m still in the game. I think I still I had a decent season last year, despite not getting a win. So, as long as I feel this way, I’m going to keep going. So, how I feel…I feel great.

“We’re raising the bar, between some guys in IndyCar and some guys in NASCAR, with how much we do nowadays to keep ourselves in shape. So, as long my reflexes and my health allow me to do it and I still have the motivation to stay away from the house…once this starts to weigh over me then it will be time to start thinking about that. But I still have the desire, especially with two young kids at home, I want to be on the road!”

And Castroneves added, “I was talking to someone else regarding our lives. We’re friends. We’re competing for the same job. The same seat. We were in separate parallel series, we were teammates, then we had a rivalry, and we have had all these scenarios together.

“But one thing I feel is awesome, we both work really hard and achieve the goals we’re looking for. And we still get it done!”

Malaysia planning ‘long break’ from hosting F1 after 2017

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Malaysia is planning to take a “long break” from hosting Formula 1 after deciding to end its grand prix contract early over spiralling costs, according to Sepang International Circuit chief Razlan Razali.

After previously expressing concern over the future of the race, officials at Sepang announced earlier this month that the 2017 grand prix would be the last in Malaysia, ending its contract one year early by mutual agreement with F1’s new owner, Liberty Media.

Speaking to AFP, Razali said that the increasingly unbalanced economic forecast for hosting the race made the decision to drop it a simple one, and that a return will not be considered for some time.

“Since 2014 the numbers don’t add up anymore, so it was quite an easy decision to not host Formula 1 anymore,. It was not difficult at all to be honest,” Razali said.

“Right now we are firm in our decision to take a long break. We are looking at a seven to 10-year break.”

Razali also expressed his distaste at ex-F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s recent admission that he overcharged tracks to host grands prix, believing it made Malaysia “look like idiots”.

“For [Ecclestone] to come out with that statement, we can’t help but feel suckered by him in some ways and quite disappointed,” Razali said.

“We thought we have a relationship. But I guess the reality is there are no loyalties in this business, it is all about dollars and cents.

“So with that statement, yes, it upsets us in a way.”

Vettel takes Russian GP pole, heads up Ferrari front-row lock-out

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Sebastian Vettel will start Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Russia from pole position after edging out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stage of qualifying.

Vettel turned in a fastest lap time of 1:33.194 in Q3 to wrestle pole away from provisional leader Raikkonen, who ran wide at the final corner on his last timed effort.

The mistake appeared to open the door for Mercedes to continue its pole position streak, only for Valtteri Bottas to fail to improve, finishing third.

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton also had a session to forget, ailing to fourth on the grid, finishing over half a second behind Vettel.

The result marked Ferrari’s first front-row lock-out in F1 since the 2008 French Grand Prix, when Raikkonen took pole ahead of then-teammate Felipe Massa.

Red Bull finished as the ‘best of the rest’ once again in qualifying, with Daniel Ricciardo ending up fifth ahead of teammate Max Verstappen in seventh. Felipe Massa split the pair for Williams, with Nico Hulkenberg, Segio Perez and Esteban Ocon rounding out positions eight to 10.

Carlos Sainz Jr. had hoped to compensate for his three-place grid penalty carried over from Bahrain by reaching the top 10, only to miss out by two-tenths of a second, qualifying 11th.

Lance Stroll followed in P12 for Williams ahead of home favorite Daniil Kvyat, who struggled to impress in front of his home fans en route to P13 ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.

Fernando Alonso’s woes with McLaren continued as he lagged to P15 in Q2, finishing 3.3 seconds off Bottas’ fastest time. The Spaniard called it “unbelievable” over the radio as the issues with his Honda power unit once again left him off the pace and crest-fallen.

After changing chassis overnight and engine following FP3, Jolyon Palmer’s miserable weekend continued when he crashed out at the end of Q1, leaving him 16th on the grid.

The incident sparked yellow flags and prevented a number of drivers from improving their time, with McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne ailing to 17th. Sauber drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson finished 18th and 19th respectively, the former also spinning on his final Q1 lap, while Romain Grosjean propped up the timesheets for Haas in P20.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.