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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.”

Rosberg eases to Russian GP pole as Hamilton hits trouble

during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Nico Rosberg will start Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix from pole position after easing to P1 in the final stage of qualifying at the Sochi Autodrom.

Rosberg arrived in Russia 36 points clear of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship, and is chasing a seventh consecutive grand prix victory on Sunday.

The two Mercedes drivers exchanged fast times in both Q1 and Q2, with Rosberg finishing half a second clear heading into the final fight for pole in Q3.

However, there was no battle as had been anticipated after a power unit issue arose on Hamilton’s car, meaning that he could take no part in Q3.

Using the same unit that had caused trouble in China two weeks ago, Hamilton reported a loss of power at the end of Q2, forcing him to sit out of the final session.

As a result, Rosberg was able to ease to his second pole position of the season by posting a fastest lap of 1:35.417 in the final stage of qualifying.

The German went eight-tenths of a second faster than nearest rival Sebastian Vettel with his first lap in Q3, but an error on a later lap meant he could not improve on his time.

Nevertheless, it was more than enough for pole, with Vettel finishing seven-tenths of a second back for Ferrari in P2. However, he will drop to seventh for the start of Sunday’s race due to a grid penalty.

Valtteri Bottas enjoyed his best qualifying of the season to date to finish third ahead of fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari, while Williams teammate Felipe Massa qualified fifth.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge in P6 ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, with home favorite Daniil Kvyat finishing eighth. Max Verstappen finished ninth ahead of the luckless Hamilton in P10.

McLaren’s hopes of scoring a first Q3 berth since the end of 2014 were dashed late on in Q2 as Jenson Button missed by just one-tenth of a second. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished just ahead of the Briton in P11, while Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg followed in 13th ahead of Fernando Alonso in the second McLaren in P14.

Haas’ recent difficulties continued in qualifying in Sochi as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez could only finish the session 15th and 16th. Grosjean struggled with the balance on his VF-16 car, sliding off the track late in the session, but managed to outqualify his teammate once again by six-hundredths of a second.

Renault once again struggled for pace in qualifying as Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer failed to make it out of Q1 once again, finishing 17th and 18th. Felipe Nasr’s new Sauber chassis did not give him the boost required to make it into Q2 as he ended up 19th. Manor drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto impressed by outqualifying Marcus Ericsson in the second Sauber, who propped up the timesheets.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday, with lights out at 8am.

Sauber financial difficulties ‘not a secret’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sauber team manager Beat Zehnder says that the financial difficulties currently facing the Swiss outfit are “not a secret”, but that it is now in a more comfortable position.

Sauber has faced a great deal of uncertainty in the past three years, but the ship appeared to have been steadied in 2015 after the arrival of drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr, both of whom brought sizeable backing.

However, the team was late in paying its staff earlier this year, and is currently running short on spare parts according to Autosport.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, Zehnder said that Sauber was already in a more comfortable situation than earlier in the year, but that regular income did not got far enough.

“We’ve been in a more comfortable situation already,” Zehnder said.

“We have financial difficulties, it’s not a secret, but I think the good thing is we are still around. We’re working hard to solve all the problems but it’s not easy.

“An annual budget this year is just a massive one and to just cover it by sponsors and the income from Bernie [Ecclestone] is just not sufficient at the moment.”

Zender also said that the loss in value of the Swiss franc in recent years has hit Sauber hard.

“In 2007, one dollar was 1.5 Swiss francs. Now we have parity. So what we had income in dollars is now worth 50 per cent less,” Zender said.

“Switzerland doesn’t make it really easy. The other thing is that obviously F1 personnel, technical, mechanics, you kind of have a pool in the UK, we don’t have it in Switzerland.

“So for motorsport, it’s maybe not the best place to be although we have wonderful living!”

Lewis Hamilton closes out Russian GP practice fastest

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton edged out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg for top spot in the final practice session for the Russian Grand Prix thanks to a late lap in the 60-minute session.

In a session that saw a number of drivers struggle with the low temperatures and low grip afforded by the Sochi Autodrom circuit, Mercedes once again dominated proceedings as its drivers swept to a one-two finish.

Rosberg and Hamilton exchanged blows throughout the session, having already split top spot in the two sessions on Friday, as Mercedes completed a significant amount of running on the super-soft tire.

Rosberg enjoyed the advantage heading into the final few minutes, running four-tenths of a second clear of Hamilton as the Briton struggled with traffic.

However, Hamilton was able to eke out another late lap with just seconds remaining on the clock, posting a time of 1:36.408 to finish just six-hundredths of a second clear of Rosberg in P1.

Rosberg was left to settle for P2, but Mercedes’ advantage was clear once again as nearest rival Sebastian Vettel finished six-tenths of a second down on Hamilton in P3.

Kimi Raikkonen followed just behind his Ferrari teammate, finishing fourth, while the Williams duo of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas ended the session fifth and sixth.

Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. ran well for Toro Rosso to finish seventh and ninth respectively, with McLaren’s Jenson Button splitting the duo as he bids for the team’s first Q3 berth in over a year later in qualifying. Sergio Perez rounded out the top 10 for Force India.

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET.

Boston race seemed to have a lot of corporate partners lined up

<> on January 5, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.
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The thing that makes me think INDYCAR wanted to make Boston work is that the race – and the people who worked for it – appeared to have a lot of corporate partners lined up.

And to be honest, it takes a lot of corporate partners to get an event off the ground – particularly a first-year street race.

Start first with the Grand Prix of Boston powered by LogMeIn presenting sponsor – LogMeIn – which was announced last October.

Here’s what was said at the time, via a release:

LogMeIn has always been committed to investing in our Boston community and having a positive economic impact on the city and the Fort Point neighborhood.” said W. Sean Ford, LogMeIn’s CMO. “The Grand Prix represents an opportunity to continue to solidify Boston as the hub of innovation for the Internet of Things, and showcase Xively, our award-winning Internet of Things platform and application solution. We are extremely honored to be the presenting sponsor of the first ever INDYCAR race in Boston.”

“This is a great win for the City of Boston – we’re expecting an influx of tourism and support for local businesses, and residents will be able to see one of America’s greatest sports featured right here our City,” added Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “The Grand Prix of Boston represents the latest success on the South Boston waterfront, and we’re excited to work with IndyCar and companies like LogMeIn to give the best sports fans in the world one more thing to cheer about.”

And here’s what LogMeIn had to say late Friday, after news the plug was getting pulled on the event, via Bruce Martin for National Speed Sport News:

“We’re really disappointed,” LogMeIn CEO Bill Wagner told the Boston Globe, via National Speed Sport News.“The level of excitement among our employees [about the race] had exceeded my expectations. It had a much broader appeal than a lot of people expected.”

Coors Light came on board. One of the key brands in the MillerCoors portfolio was announced in February as Official Beer for the race. MillerCoors made a bigger investment in INDYCAR earlier this month.

As recently as last week, seven new partners were announced, which according to the event, brought the partner portfolio to more than 100.

Grand Prix of Boston CEO John Casey said in that release, which came out April 21, “An event of this magnitude isn’t possible without corporate partners and we continue to be amazed by the desire of so many Boston and regionally based companies who have joined us for the inaugural Grand Prix of Boston powered by LogMeIn. Having more than one hundred sponsors for this year’s event is an amazing number for a long-standing event, let alone a first time event like the Grand Prix of Boston. We hope to continue to build on this momentum as we get closer to September.”

That release came out only a week after the Grand Prix of Boston announced a Signing of License Agreements and Memorandum of Understanding with City of Boston, State Agencies.

So with the news the race is off now, here’s all the corporate partners who are now wondering, “now what?” when it comes to their investment, listed in order from the event website (before it gets taken down):

  • LogMeIn
  • AllTown Market
  • ExxonMobil
  • Coors Light
  • Firestone
  • Safety 1st
  • Absolut
  • Ivora Ella
  • Verizon
  • Konica Minolta
  • WEEI 93.7 FM / WAAF 97.7/107.3
  • NewBalance
  • Polar
  • Herb Chambers
  • The Westin Boston Waterfront
  • MMB
  • Leader Bank
  • Delta
  • Compass Furnished Apartments
  • Roxbury Technology
  • Massachusetts Fallen Heroes
  • Veteran Homestead
  • The Play Brigade

Beyond that list, there’s more than 30 additional partners listed below those on the website in smaller scale.