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!

F1 Preview: 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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The third trip to the Baku City Circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix comes slightly earlier in 2018 for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Contested in June each of its first two years, the event was moved to April for 2018.

Although the circuit was initially criticized for its close quarters, its mix of tight corners and high-speed sections has produced quite a lot of action.

Last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix was particularly eventful. Sebastian Vettel intentionally hit Lewis Hamilton under a Safety Car after he thought Hamilton brake-checked him, and Vettel was given a 10-second stop and go penalty. Later, the headrest of Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas W08 came loose, forcing him to make a late pit stop.

The Sahara Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon saw their budding rivalry come to blows, as they made contact while battling inside the Top 5.

Valtteri Bottas finished second after early-race contact with Kimi Raikkonen, and Bottas pipped Lance Stroll for second at the finish line. Stroll, for his part, scored his first career podium.

And, Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from an unscheduled pit stop early in the race – Red Bull Racing had to clear debris out of the brake scoops due to overheating – to take a stunning victory that featured a remarkable three-wide pass on Stroll, Felipe Massa, and Nico Hulkenberg. Highlights of last year’s race can be seen here.

Will this year’s race produce as many thrills? Talking points ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix are below.

Hamilton Seeks First Baku Podium, and First Win of 2018

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The first two trips to Baku have not been kind to four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. His 2016 outing was fairly unremarkable by his standards, as he finished fifth after qualifying tenth.

The 2017 event might have been a victory for him if not for the aforementioned problems with Vettel and a loose headrest. Alas, he again finished fifth.

It’s hard to believe that Hamilton does not have a victory through the first three races of 2018. Combine that with his desire to erase the bad memories of Baku from 2016 and 2017, and the Briton will be extra motivated to stand on the top step of the podium.

Red Bull Looks to Keep Momentum

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Red Bull Racing is riding high after the Chinese Grand Prix, when Daniel Ricciardo took a shock win due to tire strategy following a Safety Car.

And the Baku circuit is one that Ricciardo likes, and not just because of last year’s victory, but also because it presents a lot of chances for overtaking.

“Baku is different to other street circuits – because there are places where you can pass,” Ricciardo asserted in a preview on Formula1.com. “Actually, lots of places where you can pass. As opposed to Monaco and Singapore where there’s not many places to overtake really.”

He added that the track’s combination of high-speeds and tight corners put a premium on getting your braking points exactly right, otherwise the track will bite you.

“The trickiest thing in Baku is braking. There’s so many braking points where you have to commit and you have to brake as late as you can – but there’s no room for error,” he detailed. “Once you’ve committed to that braking point, if you’ve locked a wheel, you’re in the wall. I’d say the hardest part about Baku is finding the limit with braking, and just having that confidence.”

Teammate Max Verstappen, meanwhile, looks to rebound after again catching the ire of many rivals and onlookers for his contact with Sebastian Vettel in China. Further, Verstappen looks to avenge last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, in which he dropped out following a power unit failure.

“Last year was a very unfortunate weekend for me. It was a shame because the car felt really good but I encountered a lot of problems which ultimately meant I missed out on a potential podium, perhaps even a win. I’m hoping this year I can make up for that lost opportunity,” said Verstappen in the aforementioned preview piece.

Ferrari Looks to Reclaim Dominance After China Hiccup

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

After winning the opening rounds at Australia and Bahrain with Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Ferrari had their first hiccup of 2018 in China, when a Safety Car butchered their tire strategy and left them vulnerable when others, chiefly Ricciardo and Verstappen, pitted for new tires.

Vettel was relegated to eighth after spinning following contact with Verstappen, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished third, his second podium in three races to start 2018.

Baku was one of the races from 2017 in which Vettel drew criticism for his on-track antics – see the aforementioned collision with Hamilton – and he’ll hope to get back on the podium to avenge both his struggles from China and from last year’s Baku outing.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, will look to get back to his winning ways for the first time since 2013.

Misc.

  • McLaren F1 Team sits a much-improved fourth in the constructor’s championship on the strength of two double-points finishes, with Fernando Alonso leading the way. Alonso has finishes of fifth, seventh, and seventh after three races, while Stoffel Vandoorne has points finishes of ninth and eighth to his name so far.
  • Sahara Force India still only has one points finish in 2018 – Esteban Ocon’s tenth in Bahrain. It’s hard to believe how far this team has fallen, even if the midfield is jammed with ultra competitive teams. That they have been off the pace to start 2018 is genuinely surprising.
  • Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team have been the strongest of the midfield teams so far, along with McLaren, and they should contend once again for points this weekend.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix rolls off at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday.

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