MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 1

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Nine of 16 racing weekends, and 10 of 19 races are in the books in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. It’s a season thus far defined by parity, relative struggles by the long regarded top two teams in the series (Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing), and the emergence of several new stars.

In the first of our two-part midseason review (the second part, each of our top five stories this year, will be posted on Thursday), my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I examine the bests and worsts of the first half of the season purely from an on-track standpoint. At this point, much of the off-track hand-wringing that always seems to pop up in some way, shape or form, has been relatively minor and in the background.

Without further adieu, our take thus far:

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport. The champion has come out firing to dismiss suggestions his 2012 title was a “fluke,” with two wins, two poles, a 4.6 qualifying average through 10 races and just 9 points off Helio Castroneves.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Helio Castroneves, Team Penske. With just one finish outside the Top-10 this season (and a victory at Texas Motor Speedway), the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is showing the consistency he’ll need to finally bring home that elusive series championship.

MOST DISAPPOINTING FIRST-HALF DRIVER

TDZ: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing. I like Tag and I like the team. But via some mix of bad luck, bad timing, struggling to acclimate to the 2013 Firestone tires, either the pace or the results haven’t yet synced up on a weekend for the veteran Canadian this year. Through 10 races, I’m sure they expected a lot more than one top-10 finish and two top-10 starts.

CE: Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing. Graham Rahal was in this spot until his Top-5 run at Iowa last weekend. As a result, I have to go with Tagliani and Barracuda, who’ve led just one lap all year and have finished outside the Top 20 in the last six races (four of which ended in DNFs). If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.

MOST IMPROVED FIRST-HALF DRIVER

TDZ: James Jakes, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. E.J. Viso a close second here, but Viso’s had potential for years. Meanwhile Jakes has undoubtedly risen the most year-on-year, has taken nicely to RLL’s team and setup and starred on multiple occasions.

CE: E.J. Viso, Andretti Autosport. Some of us were thinking the well-sponsored Venezuelan was simply going to be the “money man” for the Andretti foursome. But Viso has taken advantage of his team’s plentiful resources and is putting together the most competitive season of his IndyCar career so far.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE

TDZ: Brazil. With the level of passing and drama on the streets of Sao Paulo, ending with a last-lap, last-turn pass, it’s hard to say any race beat it – even Indianapolis despite its record 68 lead changes.

CE: Brazil. It was, quite simply, the best street race in IZOD IndyCar Series history and one of the best it’s had overall. James Hinchcliffe’s race-winning pass on the final corner gives this race the award over perhaps the most competitive Indianapolis 500 ever.

WORST HALF-RACE

TDZ: Texas. Thing is, it wasn’t that bad – it just was a combination of a package that had been slightly overdone and a presentation that left a little to be desired.

CE: Detroit, Race 2. The second doubleheader race around Belle Isle Park ended well enough with Simon Pagenaud getting his first victory, but getting there was brutal – with the low point being a 10-car pileup coming off a restart. For the series, it wasn’t the best way to follow up a thrilling Indy 500.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY 

TDZ: For me, it’s Alex Zanardi attending the Indianapolis 500 and being presented with the car that he made “The Pass” – his legendary move on Bryan Herta at the 1996 CART race at Laguna Seca.

CE: INDYCAR is finally implementing a long-range plan to bring back technical innovation and ramp up the speeds. Fans that have been clamoring for something besides a spec product are hoping it comes off.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Aero kits. To me, they’ve been nothing short of a boondoggle since they were first announced in 2010. Now, INDYCAR has announced they’ll finally be implemented in 2015… allegedly. I’ll believe them when I see them, and I’m not sure if they’ll generate much buzz beyond the hardcore fans that are already there.

CE: Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles is certainly working hard trying to boost INDYCAR’s profile, but his apparent preference to end the season around Labor Day is worrisome. Unless he’s also trying to gain warm-weather events that can push the start of the season back into February, we’re looking at six months of nothing again. Not acceptable.

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.