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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.”

Vettel rides solo en route to ROC Nations Cup win for Team Germany

ROC Nations Cup finalists Team USA NASCAR, Kurt Busch (USA) and Kyle Busch (USA) with ROC Nations Cup winner Team Germany Sebastian Vettel (GER) during the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday 22 January 2017 at Marlins Park, Miami, Florida, USA
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Four-time Formula 1 world champion Sebastian Vettel led Team Germany to its seventh Nations Cup victory at the Race of Champions on Sunday in Miami, picking up his first major honor of the 2017 racing season.

Vettel saw his individual Race of Champions title defence end in the group stage on Saturday as IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya took a shock victory on debut.

Vettel had never previously appeared at the Race of Champions without winning one of the two titles on offer, having claimed six straight Nations Cup wins alongside Michael Schumacher between 2007 and 2012.

Following a frightening crash in Saturday’s event, Sauber F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein was forced to withdraw from the event, leaving Vettel to represent Team Germany alone on Sunday.

However, the Ferrari driver made the most of the opportunity, winning all eight of his match-ups en route to an unlikely victory.

Vettel topped Group B after beating Tom Kristensen, Petter Solberg, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, sending Team Nordic and Team GB – the latter out to defend its teams’ title – home in the group stage.

Vettel faced off against Team Colombia in the semi-finals, facing Saturday winner Montoya and coming out on top. The German completed a 2-0 victory after easing past Gabby Chaves in the second heat.

The nature of the draw guaranteed either Team USA or Team Canada would reach the final, with three American teams featuring in Group A. Team USA IndyCar and Team USA NASCAR both made it through, the former courtesy of a last-ditch victory for Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay faced off against NASCAR brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, with the match tied at 1-1 ahead of the decider. Kurt Busch appeared to jump the start, moving into a lead that remained to the checkered flag, securing Team USA NASCAR a place in the final in a controversial manner.

Vettel managed to see off Kurt Busch in the first heat of the final, but a loss in revs gave Kyle Busch an advantage off the line in the second match-up. However, Vettel was able to claw it back and cross the line ahead, wrapping up a 2-0 victory and Germany’s seventh Nations Cup win.

“I had a better day than yesterday,” Vettel said. “It’s a bit of a shame that Pascal is missing, but I did my best.

“In the last round against Kyle I was really nervous. The car nearly stalled. But then I came back so really, really happy.”

Nico Rosberg: More to life than driving around in circles

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg says there is more to life than “driving around in circles” after retiring from Formula 1 at the end of last season.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi at the end of November before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing five days later.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this week, Rosberg opened up on his decision to call it quits.

“To do sport at the highest level, it is really 110 per cent focus that is required and there is no room for any compromise whatsoever,” Rosberg said.

“Everything else is secondary and far behind, and that’s even family. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter now. Friends and any other fun or exciting projects – everything is way, way behind.

“So, there’s a time for everything and I find that life has more to offer than driving around in circles and it just felt like the right moment. I want to go for new challenges.

“Of course, there is the side now of having more time for family, more time for friends and being in control of my own life as well.

“For the last 21 years of racing, even starting as a 10-year-old, the whole season is planned by other people, telling you where you need to be and especially in F1 – it’s really, really intense. And now all of a sudden I have this complete freedom.”

Rosberg said that he plans to spend some time focusing on charity work, particularly helping children.

“One of the avenues that I want to go down is to give something back, find something that really touches my heart,” Rosberg said.

“Now I have the time, I’m going to go exploring different avenues. I’m going to go to Germany and visit children who are quite ill, especially of the age of children who are really happy to see me.

“I would really like to go and see them at the age where I can give them a great time.”

Pascal Wehrlein withdraws from ROC Nations Cup on medical grounds

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Manor Racing walks in the Pitlane during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber Formula 1 racer Pascal Wehrlein will take no part in Sunday’s Race of Champions Nations Cup in Miami after being withdrawn on medical grounds.

Wehrlein sustained a frightening crash during Saturday’s ‘Champion of Champions’ event, rolling his KTM X-Bow with a passenger inside after crossing the line during a heat against Felipe Massa.

Both Wehrlein and the passenger escaped unhurt, but the Race of Champions organizers confirmed on Sunday that the German would not be racing on Sunday as a precaution.

“I’m very sorry to withdraw from today’s ROC Nations Cup. I’d really like to race again and I feel fine, but the doctors have advised me to rest so of course I will take their advice,” Wehrlein said.

“It’s no more than mild discomfort but my real priority for the coming year is my Formula 1 season. So while I’m sad to be missing out on all the action, I send my best wishes to my team-mate Sebastian Vettel and the rest of the competitors here in Miami and I wish them another exciting day’s racing.”

Event officials are yet to confirm who – if anyone – will replace Wehrlein in Team Germany’s line-up.

The Race of Champions Nations Cup takes place later today at the Marlins Park in Miami.

Juan Pablo Montoya victorious on opening day of Race of Champions in Miami

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia, driver of the #2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet prepares to practice on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya added another trophy to his cabinet on Saturday by claiming a shock victory in the Race of Champions.

The event at the Marlins Park in Miami pitted some of motorsport’s biggest names up against each other in a multi-discipline challenge, with the Race of Champions’ traditional crossover circuit style being used.

Ahead of the battle for national honors on Sunday, the 17 drivers on the entry list in Miami faced off for the individual title.

Defending champion and four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel suffered a shock exit in the group stage after defeats to Helio Castroneves and Travis Pastrana. The German won only one tie against 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, who in turn had qualified following a shoot-out against GRC’s Scott Speed.

In the bottom half of the draw, IndyCar stars James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan were eliminated in the group stages, while veteran British F1 racers David Coulthard and Jenson Button made it through. The pair were joined by nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and NASCAR’s Kyle Busch; the latter’s brother, Kurt, was knocked out at the first hurdle.

Pastrana and Castroneves both fell in the quarter-finals, losing to Felipe Massa and Montoya respectively. Massa advanced through the draw despite a frightening incident in the group stage involving fellow F1 driver Pascal Wehrlein, who flipped his car after crossing the finish line.

Kristensen edged out Button 2-1 in their best-of-three bout to reach the semi-finals, setting up a tie against Coulthard after he eased past Kyle Busch 2-0.

Massa and Montoya’s semi-final went down to a tie-breaker, with the former receiving a time penalty to hitting the wall and gaining an advantage. As a result, Montoya progressed into the final, winning the tie 2-1. Losing 2015 finalist Kristensen followed Montoya through, beating Coulthard 2-0.

Montoya won the first heat of the final in the rallycross car, edging Kristensen out by less than a car length before jumping into a KTM X-Bow for the second match-up. Despite almost jumping the start, Montoya managed to wrestle his car through the two laps before edging out Kristensen by just 0.08 seconds, securing a shock rookie victory in the process.

“Honestly I had a blast,” Montoya said. “It’s pretty amazing. I told my wife, I’ve got to make it through the first round. It just worked out.”

Montoya will race in the ROC Nations Cup on Sunday, teaming up with recent IndyCar racer Gabby Chaves for Team Colombia.