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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.”

5 wins in 9 years: Will history again be on Scott Dixon’s side at Mid-Ohio?

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If history is any indicator, Scott Dixon will end up in the winner’s circle following Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

The New Zealand native and defending Verizon IndyCar Series has an incredible streak going at the 2.258-mile road course in Lexington, Ohio.

In his last nine IndyCar starts there, Dixon has won five times and finished third yet another time, leaving him with an average finish of an amazing 2.7, best of any active IndyCar driver.

In addition, he has two poles, an average starting position of 5.7 and has finished all 780 laps contested.

But here’s an interesting twist:

In his first five races at Mid-Ohio under the IndyCar banner (he finished 12th and 5th in his two Champ Car races there previously), Dixon won every other year. In other words, Dixon had three wins in five years (2007, 2009, 2011).

Then he began another streak in 2012, having won every other race from that point (2012, 2014). So, if you go by history, Dixon – who finished fourth in last year’s race – is due to win yet again, making it three of the last five just like the previous streak.

Needless to say, Dixon is looking forward to Sunday’s race and potentially closing the gap on points leader Simon Pagenaud. Dixon comes into the race fourth in the standings, 83 points behind the Team Penske driver.

There’s the additional motivation, now, of wanting to win for Target – as it begins its final five races on Dixon’s car.

“I have a soft spot for Mid-Ohio, to be honest,” Dixon said. “I think we have five victories there over the years and 10 or so with the team in total.

“It’s a place that we always feel that all four of our teams will have a shot at winning, and there aren’t many tracks out there where your confidence level is that high as a team. It’s a track that really feels like home to me.”

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F1 Preview: 2016 German Grand Prix

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 20:  A general view of the track and stands during the German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring on July 20, 2014 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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After two years away, Formula 1 returns to Hockenheim this weekend for the German Grand Prix with the title race finely poised between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Hamilton took the lead of the drivers’ championship for the first time in Hungary last weekend, chalking up a fifth victory in six races with a controlled display.

The tables have turned since the Spanish Grand Prix in May where Rosberg led by 43 points, leaving him under pressure to reduce the six-point deficit on home soil this weekend.

As the final race before the summer break, this weekend is set to be a pivotal one in not just the title race, but also in the battles further down the grid.

Here’s our full preview of the German Grand Prix.

2016 German Grand Prix – Talking Points

Back to Germany

Germany holds an important place in F1’s past and present. Michael Schumacher helped foster a generation of racing fans in the 1990s and early 2000s, while we currently have a German team, Mercedes, ruling the sport with a German driver, Rosberg, behind the wheel.

The loss of the German Grand Prix last year was a great disappointment to all in F1. Hockenheim may be a shadow of its former self, yet the return of a grand prix to the track is something most are pleased by. Germany is a crucial market for the sport – even if ticket numbers in 2014 left much to be desired.

The Nürburgring told NBC Sports earlier this week that hosting the German Grand Prix must be “economically justifiable”. Last year it wasn’t. Will it be in 2017? Or will this be the last race in Germany until 2018 at the earliest?

Hamilton looks to keep his run going

After being down in the dumps on Saturday in Monaco and with penalties looming, Lewis Hamilton could not have imagined such a turnaround in fortunes before the summer break.

Hamilton seized the lead of the championship in Hungary last weekend, and now has the chance to extend his lead to 13 points with victory at Hockenheim.

Two years ago, Hamilton fought from the back of the grid to finish third after a crash in qualifying in a display that did much to keep his title hopes alive. At Rosberg’s home race, he could deal another killer blow in the battle for the 2016 crown.

Rosberg über alles?

Two years ago, Nico Rosberg capped off a memorable couple of weeks by winning his home grand prix for the very first time. Germany had just won the FIFA World Cup, he’d just got married and signed a new Mercedes contract.

Fast forward two years, and Rosberg remains at F1’s top table. Although he may trail Hamilton by six points, he once again has a new Mercedes deal in his pocket, and will fancy his chances of scoring a second home victory.

Momentum has been the name of the game in the title race this season. Rarely is it as important as when you’re on the cusp of the summer break.

Ferrari begins life after Allison, looks to revive fortunes

Ferrari arrives in Germany this weekend fresh from announcing that technical director James Allison has left the team after three years.

While the split was mutual and amicable, Ferrari finds itself once again looking at the ruins of a disappointing season that could get even worse should Red Bull pass for second place in the constructors’ championship.

Sunday’s race will be Sebastian Vettel’s first on home soil in Ferrari colors, bringing back memories of Michael Schumacher’s successes at Hockenheim in front of a baying home crowd. Those in the grandstands hopeful of a Vettel win may need to cool expectations.

School’s out for summer!

It feels weird to be previewing the summer break on the German Grand Prix weekend given that Hungary is the usual host. Alas, there is still the same feeling that school is almost out for summer.

The teams will take full advantage of their enforced shut-down, getting some much-needed rest and recharge in ahead of the final run-in from Belgium to Abu Dhabi.

The only downside is that there is no racing for almost a month…

2016 German Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Hockenheim
Corners: 17
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:13.780 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
2014 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:16.540
2014 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:19.908
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T4 to T6

2016 German Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 4am ET 7/29
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 8am ET 7/29
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 5am ET 7/30
Qualifying: NBCSN 8am ET 7/30
Race: NBCSN 7am ET 7/31

Hulkenberg confirms he’ll remain with Force India for 2017

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg has confirmed he will be racing for Force India in Formula 1 next year, extending his stint with the team into a fourth season.

Over the British Grand Prix weekend, Force India team owner Vijay Mallya stated he had signed both Hulkenberg and teammate Sergio Perez for next season.

Perez cast doubt on Mallya’s comments, remaining coy about his future and saying he would take some time over the summer break and talk with his sponsors before making a final decision.

Hulkenberg was asked about his future in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the German Grand Prix, in which he confirmed Mallya’s comments were accurate.

“Everything is easy and relaxed. There’s not much more to add,” Hulkenberg said.

“I think Vijay said what the situation is, and just focus on this year now. That’s the main focus really.”

When asked if he would be racing for Force India in 2017, Hulkenberg replied: “Yes.”

While half of Force India’s line-up for next season now looks firmed up, Perez’s future remains unclear.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, the Mexican confirmed it was possible that he would not be racing for Force India next year.

“It’s up to me and [my] group of sponsors on what to do,” Perez said.

“The decision is not only down to me, as I’m a very lucky driver to have so much support, and if we’re moving around teams we take the decision together with the group of sponsors I have. That decision has not been taken.

“I hope I can come back after the summer break knowing what the future holds for me, that would be ideal.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App this weekend.

PREVIEW: Honda Indy 200

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After the Verizon IndyCar Series’ trip north of the border to Canada a couple weeks ago for the Honda Indy Toronto, another Honda Indy follows this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, in the form of the Honda Indy 200 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, CNBC with re-air 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Traditionally the stomping ground of Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal scored a well-judged win there last year following a caution that shook up the order.

But all eyes will be on the Team Penske title tilt between Will Power and Simon Pagenaud at a track where, hard as this is to believe, neither has won in an IndyCar. And it’s also at a place where Team Penske hasn’t won since 2008 (Ryan Briscoe); instead, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams reeled off six wins in a row from 2009 to 2014 before Rahal’s victory last year.

Here’s some of the talking points going into the weekend:

2016 Honda Indy 200 – Talking Points

Power vs. Pagenaud, again

Simon Pagenaud’s points lead shrunk below 50 points leaving Toronto for the first time since Barber Motorsports Park more than three months ago – after Round 4 of the season, Pagenaud led Dixon by 48 points.

Here’s been his points gap to second, since:

  • Angie’s List GP: 76 points to Scott Dixon (242-166)
  • Indianapolis 500: 57 points to Dixon (292-235)
  • Detroit 1: 59 to Helio Castroneves (313-254)
  • Detroit 2: 80 to Dixon (357-277)
  • Road America: 74 to Castroneves (375-301)
  • Iowa: 73 to Josef Newgarden (409-336)
  • Toronto: 47 to Will Power (432-385)

Now, with five races remaining (four full races and the Texas resumption), Pagenaud’s lead is at 47 points over Will Power, who’s gained 90 points on Pagenaud in the last six completed races.

Power has the momentum but he’s yet to tick the Mid-Ohio win box. His best finish is second, twice, in 2010 and 2012.

Same story applies for Pagenaud, who has won at the track in other series (American Le Mans Series, 2009) but has three non-win podiums in five prior IndyCar starts.

Both drivers have three wins this year and if either gets to their fourth, it could put them in a potentially upper hand in the title fight.

Dixon’s last stand, now for Target?

After getting caught out by an ill-timed yellow in Toronto, renowned Mid-Ohio master Dixon – a five-time race winner – sits 83 points back of Pagenaud with just the five races to go. He’d have to gain an average of 16.6 points on Pagenaud over the final five races to overcome that gap, plus climb over not just the title leader but his two teammates, Power and Helio Castroneves, ahead of him.

It’s certainly not impossible and after his 40-plus point, one-race turnaround to steal last year’s title in Sonoma, he can’t be ruled out. But much the same as last year, when we wrote Dixon needed a big Mid-Ohio result (where he ultimately gained 14 points on Juan Pablo Montoya) to complete a title comeback, he’ll need an encore or close this year – especially following Wednesday’s news that this will be his last season driving a Target-sponsored car.

Rahal, and Honda, needing a rebound

A myriad of issues, many outside of Graham Rahal’s control, have left the defending Mid-Ohio race winner 11th in points heading into this weekend. It’s a bit of a misnomer because he and the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake RLL Racing Honda team have run better than that this year, but the results read like a roller coaster: 16, 5, 15, 2, 4, 14, 4, 11, 3, 16 and 13.

Rahal scored a famous win at his home race a year ago and will look for an encore this time around.

Meanwhile Honda has won only once this year, at the Indianapolis 500, and will be desperate to not let another win slip away at a race it sponsors. Barring a strategy play to help get them back in contention, it might be a tough weekend for them at their home race.

Montoya seeks to break results drought

Passion isn’t the question for Juan Pablo Montoya even though he’s gone through a rough patch results-wise at the moment, with three 20th place finishes in his last four starts.

Montoya’s generally done better at Mid-Ohio than at other permanent road courses since his IndyCar return. He probably could have won last year had he not been caught out on a yellow, ultimately falling to 11th, and at Road America he engaged in an epic scrap with Josef Newgarden for seventh.

“Mid-Ohio… we really qualified well there last year,” Montoya told NBC Sports. “I’m hoping… we qualify well there and we race well there again this year. If find some more things in the package, we can turn this run around.”

Enerson’s debut and others who need a standout run

A new face will make his debut in the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend, as RC Enerson steps into the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Enerson really could surprise and in terms of realistic targets, a qualifying run in the 17th to 19th range and finish in the 12th to 16th bracket would be an excellent job done – anything beyond that is a bonus. The 19-year-old from New Port Richey, Fla. is vastly experienced at Mid-Ohio and has past wins there in both USF2000 and Indy Lights.

As for others who could use a result?

  • Rookie Max Chilton hasn’t finished better than 18th in the last five races. He’s not been that bad, but a couple tough moments and one or two mistakes has dropped him back.
  • Same story for Jack Hawksworth, who lost a potential top-10 at Toronto after reported late race contact from Simon Pagenaud at Turn 5. Outside of two 11th place finishes, Hawksworth has been 15th or worse every other race, and that hasn’t belied his practice pace.
  • Conor Daly’s Mid-Ohio race debut will come at long last, and he was poised for a top-10 at Road America before his rear wishbone failure. He’s due to snap a tough run his last three races.

The final word

From Tony Kanaan, driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet: “This team obviously has a strong history at Mid-Ohio and it’s a really good feeling to be able to come into a race weekend knowing that this team knows how to get it done here. It’s a difficult road course with the passing opportunities being so limited, but the atmosphere is always so great. You can just tell that the Mid-Ohio fans really love the shows we put on for them.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 29
10 – 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2 – 3:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, NBCSN (Live)

Saturday, July 30
9:45 – 10:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (Live)

Sunday, July 31
10:15 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:58 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2:38 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
2:45 p.m. – The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (90 laps/203.22 miles), CNBC (Live); re-air at5:30 on NBCSN

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Graham Rahal
2. Justin Wilson
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Scott Dixon (pole)
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Tristan Vautier
7. Ryan Hunter-Reay
8. Jack Hawksworth
9. Carlos Munoz
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Will Power
3. Sebastien Bourdais
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Josef Newgarden
6. Charlie Kimball