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MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 2

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Yesterday my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a look back at some of the key players from this 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, in examining the goods and bads this year. Today, we pick our top five stories of the year to date, in no particular order:

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five:

Andretti’s assault on the season: There is no question who the best team has been thus far this year: Andretti Autosport is firing on all cylinders. Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay has come out motivated and determined to silence the critics who said he “lucked” into last year’s championship and is driving like a man possessed – he has six podiums when no one else has more than four, a pair of dominant wins and his qualifying has improved.

Engineering changes in the offseason have actually played to their benefit; renewed with Craig Hampson after his rookie season in 2011, James Hinchcliffe has a series-high three wins and is poised for title contention, Marco Andretti’s offseason work has come to fruition with a solid start to the year, and E.J. Viso and Michael Cannon, together again, have produced some outstanding qualifying efforts that haven’t yet borne fruit in the race. Even rookie Carlos Munoz stunned at Indianapolis by qualifying and finishing second.

Parity early ceding to “big team” rise: Through the seventh race of the year at Detroit, 13 different drivers from eight different teams had scored podium finishes. In the last three races, those numbers have dropped to five and three, respectively. The manic stretch of six races in five weekends has been the ultimate strain on crews and the underdogs who starred early in the season are starting to slip back, if slightly. The authoritative nature of the Andretti Autosport and Team Penske squads, in particular, has started to emerge.

Ganassi more than Honda struggling: Honda hasn’t had the easiest first half but on the days that they have come good, it’s been other teams – Foyt, Coyne and Schmidt – delivering the goods rather than Target Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s not as though Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti have forgotten how to drive, but adjusting to this year’s 2013 Firestone tire compounds has been a challenge, as has nailing the setup. A year with only one podium finish and no wins through 10 races is nothing short of a shock.

KV’s changing fortunes: KV always seems on the verge of entering IndyCar’s “top team tier,” but its form is so erratic that it can never truly be mentioned in the same breath as an Andretti, a Penske or a Ganassi. Tony Kanaan’s been revitalized with Simona de Silvestro there to push him, as ever, his oval form has been stellar – including a popular and overdue first Indianapolis 500 victory. But man, for de Silvestro, she needs the road and street courses to come back up. A relatively promising start to the year saw her score three top-10 finishes in the first four races, and feature more regularly at the sharp end of the leaderboard. But on the ovals, she’s been a disappointment, and I’m not sure how much of it is driver versus her car and engine. Regardless, her fast start has fizzled, and she needs to recapture it in the second half.

“Turbo” or bust?: There’s undoubtedly going to be more to come on this front when it premieres July 17, but much of the second half of the season will revolve around how well DreamWorks Animation’s “Turbo” will do at the box office, and the impact it has to a broader sphere of potential viewers. In the first half of the year, we’ve seen the Sunoco/ “Turbo” car on track on several occasions – Kanaan picked up the backing for a four-race deal and has two podiums in his first two races in these colors. Townsend Bell ran the livery for Panther Racing at Indianapolis. Helio Castroneves also had “Turbo” on at the start of the year in an associate sponsorship role. Stay tuned for more.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five:

Tony Kanaan finally wins the ‘500’: We had seen Tony Kanaan come so close to winning the biggest race in the world on numerous occasions. In 2004, he was running second to Buddy Rice when a severe thunderstorm ended the race with 20 laps left. In 2009, he was running third when he suffered a drive shaft failure and slammed into both the backstretch and Turn 3 walls. The next year, he charged from 33rd and last all the way to second before having to pit for fuel with four laps left. But in his 12th Brickyard start this past May, the fan favorite finally got to drink the milk after getting past Ryan Hunter-Reay on a Lap 198 restart. To say it was a well-deserved victory for Kanaan is a vast understatement.

Small teams have their days: With the level of talent as high as it has been in a long while, any victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series these days is a serious accomplishment. In the first half of the season, we saw several of the series’ smaller teams come up big – none as big as KV Racing Technology, who won the Indy 500 with Kanaan. But let’s not forget A.J. Foyt Racing’s first checkered flag in over a decade at Long Beach with Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing’s triumph at Detroit (Race 1) with Mike Conway, and Sam Schmidt’s win in the second Detroit race with Simon Pagenaud. Sato and Pagenaud’s wins were their first in their IndyCar careers.

Ganassi off-Target: After a mixed 2012 season for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, I think we all figured a year’s worth of experience on the Dallara DW12 would enable them to find the “sweet spot” and get their drivers, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, back to their normal, dominant selves. But the turnaround hasn’t come in the first half of 2013. Granted, Honda could be doing better but it’s been really surprising at times to see how far off the pace Franchitti and Dixon have looked. Still, no one is going to count this first-class team completely out, not with their resources or pair of “all-world” drivers.

Let’s race two: When former INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard (now with ‘rural lifestyle’ TV network RFD-TV) unveiled the doubleheader format last year for Detroit, Toronto and Houston, the usual “gimmick” charges got thrown around a bit. And there were concerns about how the teams would grind through two full races in one weekend. But the first of those doubleheaders on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park went off smoothly, even if some of the on-track proceedings were cringe-worthy (see my Worst First-Half Race Award). The event also pulled in a hefty three-day weekend crowd as well. Perhaps Bernard was on to something with these doubleheaders.

An emotional issue: INDYCAR took some heat following the Detroit doubleheader for fining Sebastian Saavedra $30,000 after he flipped off Marco Andretti, and putting Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais on probation – Power for throwing his gloves at Bourdais following an accident and Bourdais for comments toward officials on pit road. It all led to questions about INDYCAR muzzling their drivers’ personalities, and with the series fighting for any public attention it can get outside of the Month of May, those questions may be valid. “If a guy gets upset and throws a glove or something like that – it’s a glove, it’s not going to hurt anybody,” Helio Castroneves told the Associated Press at Texas on the subject. “…You can’t just start throwing fines just because the guy had a bad day.”

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Abu Dhabi GP

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 world championship over a month ago now, but there is still plenty to play for as the paddock arrives in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year.

Nico Rosberg’s resurgence may have been too little, too late for this year’s title fight, but the German driver is currently on a run of form that will undoubtedly make him a contender once again for the 2016 crown.

Abu Dhabi has a knack for the spectacular, running as the only twilight race on the F1 calendar and boasting the Yas Viceroy hotel as its impressive centrepiece – under the lights, the stars come out.

For the final time in 2015, here are the MST team’s picks for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Be sure to let us know in the comments section your thoughts and make your own picks.

For full TV and streaming details ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP weekend, click here.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race WinnerNico Rosberg. Two on the bounce and having finally banished the demons of 2014, I’m tipping Nico to edge Lewis again in Abu Dhabi. It’ll set things up beautifully for 2016.

Surprising FinishMax Verstappen. Abu Dhabi has a habit of producing unpredictable races, so I’m tipping F1’s unofficial rookie of the year to come through strongly once again.

Most to ProveLewis Hamilton. It may be a little harsh to say that the world champion has to prove himself at the last race of the year, but he can’t afford to lose any more ground to Rosberg heading into the winter.

Additional Storyline to Watch: Bon voyage, Romain. After ten years of association with the Enstone operation, Romain Grosjean will bid farewell to Lotus this weekend ahead of his move to Haas in 2016. Grosjean has been the on-track heartbeat of the team through some tough times, so will hopefully get the send-off he deserves.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. The talking point from a Mercedes standpoint going into the weekend is one of a psychological match-up. Rosberg’s lost the 2015 season long war, of course, but has firmly gained the upper edge in battle the last two races. For offseason momentum, if there is such a thing, Rosberg stands to gain the most with a third straight win, and even though this is a track Hamilton has dominated at in the past, Rosberg’s riding the hot hand of form right now.

Surprising Finish: Kimi Raikkonen. He’d never say it publicly, but Raikkonen should desperately want to finish ahead of his countryman and recent rival Bottas in the “best of the rest” category behind the top three. Third and fourth is about where the drivers should finish in the standings, given the Ferrari’s pace.

Most to Prove: McLaren Honda. At the track where the engine made its debut last year in the post-race test, I’m praying there’s a trouble free weekend for them. That’s all I ask.

Additional Storyline to Watch: The ends of eras, and the loose ends to tie up. Several eras come to an end this weekend, and there’s several items to get tied up this weekend (Red Bull engines, and more). The paddock drama may trump on the on-track drama this weekend.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Rossi: A time to be thankful

2015 GP2 Series Round 10.
Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain
Friday 20 November 2015.
Alexander Rossi (USA, Racing Engineering) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C0782
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It’s Thanksgiving Day back home this week, and I’m very thankful for so many good things in my life.

On the racing front, my GP2 team Racing Engineering deserve every bit of thanks and praise for preparing and delivering me a race car this year that has been an utter joy to drive, even when the fates conspire against us as they did in Bahrain last weekend.

Even on those odd weekends, we’ve been able to show incredible pace and as a true team we work through the good and bad days. My sincere thanks to them!

To the organizers of the GP2 series, I am very thankful. They have yet again staged a spectacular championship. The GP2 family is tight, friendly and competitive, and the ideal environment in which to work for drivers, engineers, mechanics and everyone involved pushing towards the highest level of motorsport. I’ve been very fortunate to be part of the GP2 family.

This past race in Bahrain, we had one of those weekends which you want to hit restart on. Practice was great – we were immediately quick and then went faster still and maintained P1 as everyone went onto their long runs. In qualifying we had some braking issues and ended up ninth, not what we had targeted at all and that meant race one would be a fight. However, it was still a decent position from which to fight for points and a good starting position for the sprint race.

Our long run race pace had been really good in practice, so we knew we had a good shot in the feature race. I was pushing hard right up to my stop, and when I came out I was within reach of second place, but then had contact with Mitch Evans and had to pit for a new nose. There wasn’t anything I could do from that point and finished up 18th. Starting ninth and being very close to second showed yet again that we had a very good race car and our strategy for the race, starting from ninth, was good.

Finishing 18th on Friday meant I started the Sprint Race in the same position. With a strong field ahead it was always going to be a challenge to finish in a high points-scoring position. I had a mega start and the car was great again and I ended up ninth – not too bad considering where we started. Obviously this was not the goal for the weekend, but we maintain a strong second position in the driver’s championship.

I’m thankful to immediately have another weekend in Abu Dhabi to cement second place in the GP2 championship. I’ve had a lot of success racing around Yas Marina Circuit and my thanks must go to the people behind the circuit. They’ve made a true racer’s paradise! The track is very flat with some extremely challenging sections – some high speed, a few heavy braking zones and a technical section under the Yas Viceroy Hotel, where traction is very important to really maximize performance.

Around the circuit you have an amazing environment, all built to put on a great show for the fans. If you haven’t been before, you should try. This is especially true in late November with mild weather and there’s always an incredibly warm reception from everyone who works or comes to the events.

Next up my sincere thanks to Manor Marussia F1 Team who helped make my 2015 F1 debut happen, and I look forward to more good things with them in 2016. I could not have asked to race with a better group of people, many of whom I know from last year, in 2014 when I first started working with them.

This year the opportunity to race with Manor F1 came up quite fast and without a lot of time to prepare. Singapore was my first F1 race and everyone at the team did everything they could to make my transition from GP2 to F1 seamless. I hope to have repaid them with my performances, as these past five F1 races were important leading into 2016. I enjoyed every second with them and am very thankful for the opportunity.

Finally, I must thank the group of people that are around me, allowing me to focus on racing and my fitness. Every driver has a similar team and 99% of the time they are not seen or mentioned. My team work tirelessly both physically and mentally to help me achieve my goals. I am very blessed to have such good people on my side.

Enjoy this weekend’s races in Abu Dhabi, the finale for both the F1 and GP2 Championships. Thank you all for your support and for everyone back home, have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day celebrating with family.

Many Blessings,


Raikkonen: 2015 an improved but “average” year

xxxx during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen has called 2015 an “average” year and said that his performances are still far from where he wants them to be.

After a miserable 2014 campaign that saw him finish 12th in the drivers’ championship, Raikkonen has enjoyed an upturn in fortunes this year partly in thanks to the improvements made to the Ferrari car.

However, the Finn has still failed to match the results of teammate Sebastian Vettel, scoring 131 fewer points and 12 fewer podium finishes than the German driver this year.

When asked ahead of this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix how he would sum up the year, Raikkonen was his usual blunt self, saying that his performances were still a far cry from where he wanted them to be.

“Pretty average, I must say,” Raikkonen said. “Better than last year but still far away from what it should be.

“But there’s life and next year we’ll try again. Obviously this year has been a lot stronger year from the team than previous year and you can easily see it from whichever way you look at it and it all comes to next year.

“Obviously that’s the aim: the aim is always to try to be in the front and Mercedes has always been very strong last years and everybody else tries to beat them. Is it going to happen? Are we going to be in a position next year? We hope so at least.”

Much has been said about a possible challenge to pace-setters Mercedes by Ferrari in 2016, but Raikkonen is waiting to reserve judgement until the 2016 car has hit the track.

“We have to wait until we put the cars on the circuit in a test and the first few races, then we really see where we are,” Raikkonen said.

“Obviously there’s a lot of work being done at the factory, number and stuff but it’s never the same until we’re really on the circuit. Then we can see it pretty well, or feel it quite quickly, after a few laps, if it’s going to a good one or not so good one.

“I’m sure we’re going to have a strong package, but is it strong enough? Time will only tell.”

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview

xxxx during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Veteran Formula 1 journalist Joe Saward raised quite an interesting point in his most recent blog post ahead of this weekend’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

“There are times when one wonders whether NASCAR is smarter than F1 by making sure that every championship showdown has four contenders,” he wrote.

“Why is F1 so stuck in its own mud that it will not consider any kind of play-off format? I know that it was not like that ‘in my father’s day’, but a scoring system is a scoring system – and teams deal with the rules they are given. In any case, points systems have changed in F1 many times, so comparing the different eras is of no great value.”

Indeed, Joe is right. The Chase, while having its critics, does ensure that the NASCAR season has a dramatic and exciting finale – something that F1 risks not having, and so frequently misses out on.

2015 is one such example. The championship was mathematically settled in Austin one month ago, yet there has been little doubt since Italy who would be winning the title. In fact, some may say that Lewis Hamilton had the championship in the bag as early as Hungary last year when he crushed Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes mind-games.

And yet we arrive in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year with so much to play for and plenty still waiting to be settled. There are engine dramas still ongoing, two seats on the 2016 grid to be confirmed, and a revival from Rosberg that Hamilton will be so very keen to put a stop to.

For one last time in 2015, here is your complete weekend preview featuring talking points, track stats and TV times ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Talking Points

Nico’s charge continues

Five straight pole positions and two comfortable victories in Mexico and Brazil not only confirmed that Rosberg will finish this year as runner-up to Hamilton once again, but have set the German up nicely for a renewed charge in 2016.

Rosberg was wry when told on the podium in Brazil that he needed to drive like this earlier in the year, but knows it to be true. If this form is anything to go by though, at a time when Hamilton seems to have become almost too comfortable, Rosberg may yet be a genuine candidate for the championship once again next year.

Victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday would also act as some kind of pain relief for Rosberg at the site of his bitter loss last year. The demons of 2014 are slowly being chased away. It may have taken him a year to do so, but Rosberg looks to be turning a corner.

Catch me if you can

Ferrari’s performance in Brazil once again stoked the fire for a close fight at the front of the pack in 2016 between F1’s two biggest manufacturers as Sebastian Vettel applied pressure on Rosberg and Hamilton throughout the race.

We therefore arrive in Abu Dhabi with hopes of a repeat, which at at track where the SF15-T should fare better still and in a race with a knack of the unexpected could offer a tremendous battle at the head of the field.

Just as Rosberg is banishing the misery of last year and suggesting that the best is still to come in 2016, Ferrari will want to do exactly the same thing on Sunday.

Fight to the Finnish

Apologies for re-using this pun, but the fight for supremacy between Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen has rumbled on for many weeks now. Their rivalry – if such a thing is possible between Finns – has been one of the interesting subplots in F1 of late thanks to their clashes in Russia and Mexico.

It’ll finally be settled this weekend in Abu Dhabi, but we all know that Bottas is the real winner. Beating Raikkonen in an inferior car is an impressive feat. However, not beating Felipe Massa with comfort in the same car may have ended his hopes of replacing Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2017.

A year changes plenty

Lots has changed in F1 over the past 12 months. Last year, there was no sign of Marussia, yet it outlived Caterham who did race at Yas Marina. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have both added to their greatness with impressive seasons, while the stock of others – mainly those powered by Honda – has fallen.

It’ll be interesting to see where we stand in one year’s time. The 2017 driver market promises to be one of the most active and eventful in years with plenty of top seats up for grabs, while we’ll have been back to Germany and even to Azerbaijan at this point in 2016.

And we’ll most probably either have a four or five-time world champion on our hands. Either way, we’re witnessing greatness in this period.

Say hello, wave goodbye?

On the same day that a number of teams have announced new sponsorship deals, we must also consider those who we may be waving goodbye to following this weekend’s race in Abu Dhabi.

Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s future may still not be totally sewn up, but both will be on the grid next year. The same cannot be said of Roberto Merhi, though, who is likely to lose his seat at Manor, while the team itself faces an uncertain winter after the exits of Graeme Lowdon and John Booth.

We’re also not sure what the future holds for Lotus. Autosport reported on Thursday that the team needed help to make it to Abu Dhabi from Bernie Ecclestone, as the deal with Renault is still being finalized.

One thing we do know for sure is that Haas F1 Team will be joining the grid next year – they’ve even got a pit gantry – without a toaster in sight (props if you get that US F1 joke…).

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Yas Marina Circuit
Laps: 55
Corners: 21
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:40.279 (Red Bull, 2009)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft (Option); Soft (Prime)
2014 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:40.480
2014 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:44.496
DRS Zone: T7 to T8; T10 to T11

2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 4am ET 11/27
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 11/27
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 5am ET 11/28
: CNBC 8am ET 11/28
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 11/29