Ten with Townsend: Milwaukee debrief

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As  the IZOD IndyCar Series returned to the NBC Sports Network for this past weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest, so too did we check in with our resident NBCSN driver analyst Townsend Bell for his take on the 250-lapper at the historic Milwaukee Mile.

Since Bell’s last “Ten with Townsend” after Brazil, he’s finished fourth in the GT class at the American Le Mans Series’ race in Monterey in a Ferrari F458 Italia, completed his annual appearance in the Indianapolis 500 in the Sunoco/“Turbo” Chevrolet, and made Robert Graham’s line of hats pretty noticeable (right).

Without further adieu, the latest  “Ten with Townsend” installment (St. Pete, Barber, Long Beach/Brazil) from our resident expert after the Milwaukee IndyFest:

-Since we last checked in, you had a little 500-mile race to attend to in May. Although the result was tough, how was this month of May for you as a whole?

Overall it was a great month of May. I sure wish I would’ve had a better result. But we had some issues on race day and at the Indy 500, you can’t have any mistakes. As usual, the countdown begins to next year’s race. I hope to get a chance to go back and continue to apply everything I learn each year.

-What did you make of the Detroit doubleheader weekend and Texas races?

Detroit was incredible racing, especially Mike Conway. What he pulled off there was nothing short of spectacular. I still think that IndyCar racing should be about one main event during the weekend. I’m a traditionalist (agreeing with Mario Andretti here). So from that standpoint, I don’t prefer doubleheaders.

Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Milwaukee win last year kicked off his title charge. How much better do he and the team look now a year later, after this latest win?

They’re just more confident. Ryan was already a strong driver, but winning the championship confirmed to him and everybody else what he believed for so long. Now it’s not about believing, it’s about knowing. And you see that every time he drives – he’s a little less anxious and a little more confident. I think he’s the strongest overall driver in the field right now, with a very strong team that is humming on all cylinders.

-Championship contenders at the halfway point (eight of 16 weekends down): Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Marco, Sato, Dixon, anyone else? Or probably between those five?

I think you can’t discount Will Power either, especially after a solid Milwaukee weekend. We can’t forget that he has the natural ability and every chance to go on a freakish run of street and road course victories if he can put it together. He’s certainly capable and certainly has proved that over and over in the past.

-Did you feel traffic was more of a factor than normal this year or just typical Milwaukee?

It was just typical Milwaukee.

-The way E.J. Viso is driving right now, would you expect him to join the ranks of first-time winners soon?

Maybe. But I still think E.J. has a ways to go before he has that “quarterback-style leadership” within his team. If he continues to study the way Ryan and James (Hinchcliffe) have behaved in the face of adversity, then I think he’ll have a good chance. He certainly has the ability to lay down the lap times, but piecing together an entire race weekend is still the goal for him in the future.

-Biggest surprise and disappointment at Milwaukee.

The biggest surprise to me was probably how strong Will Power was both in qualifying and the race. I think that was a huge step for him to show so well on an oval. I’m afraid the biggest disappointment continues to be Graham Rahal.

-Is this stretch of six races in five weekends too much? Too hard on the crews? Really doing its job of proving the haves and have-nots in the field?

To me, absolutely not! In a perfect world, we would race every weekend with INDYCAR straight through the summer.

-How did you enjoy the booth experience getting to work with David Hobbs? Had you two had the chance to work together previously for F1 broadcasts?

I had substituted for David Hobbs with Formula One on SPEED previously, but I had never had the chance to work with him during the broadcast. It was fantastic. His voice is iconic and he is so clever with humor and analysis.

-Lastly, what did you make of the ride in the Miller roadster for the GoPro course preview?

The Miller roadster drive will go down as one of the surprising favorite memories of my career. I thought it was gonna be like driving a tractor. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was absolutely fantastic and tempted me to push it harder and harder with each corner. But David was wishing otherwise!

Conor Daly set for American Ninja Warrior on NBC

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In a last-minute invite, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Conor Daly will get to participate in “American Ninja Warrior” on NBC. Daly posted an Instagram story with details about his call-up yesterday.

The driver of the No. 4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet has had a busy week with testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. earlier this week, then shifted to San Antonio for a regional qualifier, where he would start training for the show.

The 25-year-old follows Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden – the latter of whom is Daly’s longtime friend and rival – who were all on the show last year.

The full release from INDYCAR is below:

Conor Daly is the latest Verizon IndyCar Series driver attempting to become an “American Ninja Warrior.”

Following in the athletic footsteps of fellow drivers Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden, Daly will venture to San Antonio this weekend to participate in a regional qualifier for the Emmy-nominated NBC obstacle course challenge show that will air its ninth season this summer.

Daly, 25, will make his bid to complete the challenge course sometime after dark Sunday night. The AJ Foyt Racing driver got a taste of the task ahead when the show held a regional competition last April in Indianapolis that included Castroneves, Kanaan and Newgarden as participants. Daly was permitted to try one of the obstacles, the Circuit Board, for an online segment of “American Ninja Warrior: Crashing the Course.”

While Daly didn’t fare well that day, he is excited to compete in San Antonio. The episode from the San Antonio regional is scheduled to air June 19, the Monday leading in to the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (June 25, NBCSN).

“When I got the call saying it was a possibility for me to compete on ‘American Ninja Warrior,’ I was pretty stoked,” Daly said. “After seeing my fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers compete last year, it looked like a lot of fun. I haven’t had the chance to do much ninja training yet, but since we are already in season I’m pretty happy with my physical fitness level.

“I certainly was not born a nimble ninja, I’ve always been a bigger guy, so this should definitely be interesting.”

Since he experienced the “American Ninja Warrior” competition in 2016, Castroneves offered some sound advice for Daly.

“Take your time, don’t rush into the next obstacle,” the Team Penske driver said. “Obviously, observe the others that are able to pass through. Don’t focus on only one stage, that was my mistake last year. You should be thinking about the other ones. I was so worried about the first two that I forgot the third one. So if he can see all the stages and look through those things, hopefully he can do really well.”

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe hasn’t been through the grueling competition, but as one of Daly’s best friends, felt compelled to offer his advice as well.

“We saw last year with Josef, Helio and TK that it’s no mean feat to do that,” said Hinchcliffe. “Those guys are all good athletes and it certainly highlighted how difficult of a challenge that competing on it is. I wish him all the best and just hope he comes back in one piece.

“One thing I have to say is that he doesn’t get to come back after it and call himself a ninja. No way!”

“American Ninja Warrior” is conducting regional competitions in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Denver, Cleveland and Daytona Beach, Florida, over the next two months. Qualifiers from each of the regionals advance to the Las Vegas finals in late June. There, anyone who can conquer the Mt. Midoriyama course can win $1 million.

Castroneves, who has also represented INDYCAR on “Dancing with the Stars” and “Celebrity Family Feud,” recognizes the importance of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers appearing on popular national TV shows.

“It helps people who are not race fans see not only that drivers are athletes and able to do other things than driving a race car, but they can actually see the personality of each individual,” said the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “We all are able to demonstrate that we don’t need to be punching people to get attention.”

NBC’s partner network, NBCSN, is telecasting 12 Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2017.

Daniel Ricciardo: Australian GP pole ‘a stretch’ for Red Bull

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Daniel Ricciardo believes that scoring pole position for Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia would be “a stretch” for Red Bull following a difficult day of practice at Albert Park.

Red Bull appeared on-track with a much-revised RB13 car compared to the one that featured in pre-season testing, with a number of bodywork updates being brought in time for the Melbourne event.

Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen impressed to finish third and fourth in FP1, but could not carry this form through to second practice.

Ricciardo struggled for pace throughout the session, winding up fifth-fastest, while Verstappen’s running was cut short after he ran wide at Turn 12 and damaged the floor of his car.

Ricciardo revealed after the session that Red Bull had gone in the wrong direction on his setup, and that it would be taking a step back ahead of Saturday’s on-track running.

“I think this morning was promising and we tried a few things this afternoon. I think it’s fair to say that they didn’t work as much as we’d like,” Ricciardo said.

“So we’ll go back a bit and then understand what we can do better for tomorrow. I think Mercedes sure it quick, but it’s more Lewis [Hamilton] at the moment than Valtteri [Bottas].”

Hamilton finished half a second clear at the front of the pack in FP2, with Ricciardo a second off the Briton’s best lap time of 1:23.620.

While Ricciardo thinks pole is out of reach given Hamilton’s form, he is confident of battling with the second Mercedes of Bottas, who was third-fastest.

“Valtteri looks like he’s in our group or in the group with Ferrari, but I think we can be there,” Ricciardo said.

“Pole would be a stretch, but I think we can be in that next little group.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Ferrari’s F1 pre-season pace hard to find in Australian GP practice

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Following one of the most impressive pre-season performances in recent times, Ferrari headed into the new Formula 1 season facing the expectation and anticipation of a title challenge against Mercedes, the sport’s incumbent team to beat.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished as the two fastest drivers in Barcelona earlier this month, with the SF70H appearing to have locked in well to the new technical regulations for 2017.

For the first time since – one may argue – 2008, Ferrari entered the season looking like a serious title threat; perhaps even the fastest team.

Yet you would not have thought so judging by its Friday form in Australia as F1 got its official running underway for 2017.

FP1 saw both Vettel and Raikkonen lose track time due to some minor problems with their cars, the pair only getting in a couple of quick laps to leave them P5 and P6 overall.

Most expected a clearer picture to emerge in FP2 when both qualifying and race simulations would be completed by Mercedes and Ferrari, with Vettel and Raikkonen getting a chance to impress on low fuel and the ultra-soft tire compound.

But once again, they could not match the pace of three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who led Mercedes’ charge. Vettel finished the session second and beat Valtteri Bottas in the second W08 – but it was the half a second gap to Hamilton that sparked concern. Perhaps Ferrari testing form wasn’t all that it seemed.

Vettel downplayed the importance of Ferrari’s Friday display after the session, telling reporters that it would be Saturday in qualifying when its battle with Mercedes would play out in full.

“Today is not really that important. It’s very important but not if you look at the final standings and one lap only,” Vettel said.

“I think overall it’s been OK. We had some small trouble this morning that cost us some track time, so it took us a bit longer to get into the groove.

“Overall I think we can still improve. The car does not yet feel as good as it should and as it can, so I’m confident we can do something.”

Raikkonen – fourth-fastest in FP2 – echoed his teammate’s sentiments.

“I didn’t really expect anything because it’s like in testing, we had no idea what others were doing, we only know what we are doing,” Raikkonen said.

“For sure we cold have done slightly more straightforward running today and small things here and there, but I think overall we have to be happy and we go forward tomorrow.”

The true difference between Ferrari and Mercedes will become clear in qualifying – but until then, it is feasible that the game of bluffs that played out through testing may just be continuing.

Hamilton boosted by ’99 per cent perfect’ F1 practice in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton was given a boost ahead of the first round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Sunday by enjoying a near-perfect day of practice at Albert Park.

Hamilton endured a difficult end to pre-season testing in Barcelona two weeks ago as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel surged clear in the timesheets.

Ferrari’s pace was such that Hamilton said it was the favorite for victory this weekend in Melbourne, with the SF70H car produced by the Italian manufacturer appearing to have adjusted best to the new regulations for 2017.

Hamilton offered a plot twist in practice on Friday, though, heading up a Mercedes one-two in FP1 before leading once again in FP2, finishing half a second clear of the pack.

“It’s great to be back in Australia and I’m super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect,” Hamilton said.

“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tires performed really well today too.”

Hamilton refused to read too much into Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari in practice, believing the true difference between the two teams will only become clear in qualifying on Saturday.

“Coming into today, we really didn’t know where we’d be,” Hamilton said. “We knew from FP1 that the Ferrari’s weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.

“I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There’s always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I’m just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.