MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 2

1 Comment

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.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (VIDEO)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Formula 1 returns to Europe this weekend with the renamed Azerbaijan Grand Prix from the Baku City Circuit. The track is the second longest on the schedule and the race is renamed after being called the European Grand Prix last year (all times for the weekend via NBCSN or CNBC here).

Here with the latest from the paddock in Baku is the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, with F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton joined by producer Jason Swales.

Swales celebrates his 300th Grand Prix on site this weekend, a major milestone after his 250th was celebrated a couple seasons ago at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas. As you can see below, McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso has joined in the festivities.

There’s plenty of fun to recap and plenty of important angles to preview in this week’s show, which you can see below in three parts.

 

Raikkonen prepared to sacrifice himself to help Vettel

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Kimi Raikkonen is prepared to sacrifice himself in order to help Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel win a fifth Formula One title.

Vettel leads the championship by 12 points ahead of Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton after seven races. Raikkonen is fourth and already trails Vettel by 68 points.

“When I don’t have a chance mathematically to fight for the championship, for sure I will help him. I have no issues with that,” Raikkonen said Thursday. “It’s about the team and the first thing is to try and make sure we are at the top with Ferrari.”

Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen won his only title in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

In the constructors’ battle, Ferrari trails Mercedes by eight points heading into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

“We have a good car everywhere. Hopefully we’ll be at the front again,” Raikkonen said. “It’s been close every race this year.”

Although the Finnish driver looked set for victory at the Monaco Grand Prix last month, his hopes were ended when his team brought him into the pits for a tire change earlier than he wanted. That left Vettel in the clear to race away to victory, with Raikkonen finishing second.

Even though Raikkonen was disappointed in the aftermath of that race, and made his frustration known, he now appears fully committed to helping Vettel when the time comes.

“I think we have very clear rules in the team and what the team wants us to do. It goes by those rules,” Raikkonen said. “Nothing has changed and we know exactly when things will go either way. That’s fine.”

The 37-year-old Raikkonen acknowledged that Vettel’s consistency makes him the obvious choice as the team’s No. 1 driver.

“Seb has done very good races so far and has been strong everywhere,” Raikkonen said. “I was not starting very well the first races. I was not where I wanted to be.”

Kanaan finding IndyCar ‘more competitive than ever’

Photo: INDYCAR
Leave a comment

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan believes that the Verizon IndyCar Series is becoming “more competitive than ever” as the championship’s plans for the future begin to become clear.

INDYCAR bosses have outlined a five-year plan for the series moving forward, with a universal aero kit in 2018 and a push for a third manufacturer to join Chevrolet and Honda in the future on the agenda.

The 2017 season has kicked off in an unpredictable fashion as seven drivers have shared the opening nine race wins, with Will Power and Graham Rahal being the only repeat winners.

Kanaan feels that the series is only becoming more and more competitive, with the introduction of the universal aero kit poised to aid that from next year.

“I think it is going to be more competitive than ever as we still have different aero kits that can make a difference. Next year is going to be even tougher,” Kanaan said.

“At the last race [in Texas] we had 15 cars and two-tenths of a second. I think it is the right direction, and they are also trying to keep the costs down which is the biggest challenge in racing all over the world, to get the teams to afford to be there.

“The way they are doing the kits, trying to get more teams and new teams into the series, and it is working. We had three new teams at Indy 500 and they are looking forward to coming back. We should try to add more teams and not lose cars.”

Kanaan added that a third manufacturer would be “a big help” for IndyCar, saying: “They are in talks with two others but I don’t know who they are but more people, cars, manufacturers, teams will always help.”

Having made his debut in American single-seaters back in 1998, Kanaan has raced through many different eras, but does not believe the series has ever been more competitive.

“It doesn’t get any easier and I don’t get any younger. It goes the opposite way!” Kanaan chuckled.

“It is amazing as you cannot afford to have one little problem or one little hiccup in a race. Before if you did that you would finish third or fourth but now you will finish 15th.

“You have 22 cars and in some races 21 of them on the lead lap and five seconds from one another. It raised the game for the mechanics too with the importance of pit stops.”

Sauber driver Ericsson dismisses talk of favoritism in team

Getty Images
Leave a comment

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson has dismissed talk of favoritism within Sauber following the unexpected departure of team principal Monisha Kaltenborn.

Kaltenborn, who was also Sauber’s chief executive officer, left Wednesday by mutual consent. The news came shortly after another team statement denying reports of unfair treatment between the Swedish driver and German teammate Pascal Wehrlein.

“There were a lot of stories in the press about this unfair advantage for one driver. It was upsetting, disrespectful, it’s false and untrue,” Ericsson said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “For me and Pascal, it’s been very clear that’s not the case. We’ve both been given equal equipment.”

Ericsson has yet to score a point after seven races, while Wehrlein has four points after an eighth-place finish at the Spanish GP in May.

“We’re not going to go on holiday together, but as teammates goes we’ve been working really good together so far,” Ericsson said. “When we try different things across the cars, we discuss things.”

Sauber’s statement said Kaltenborn left “due to diverging views of the future of the company.” Her successor has not been announced.

The 46-year-old Kaltenborn joined Sauber in 2000 as head of its legal department and later became chief executive officer.

“We have to trust the owners that they know what they’re doing, and that they have a good plan for the future,” Ericsson said. “I have a lot to thank Monisha for. She was the one who gave me the chance to come here after my year in Caterham.”

Wehrlein also praised Kaltenborn for standing by him. He missed the first two races of the season after injuring his back in a crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January, sustaining hairline cracks in vertebrae and compressing some of his intervertebral discs.

“Monisha was very close to me at one of my toughest times in my career so far,” Wehrlein said. “I am very thankful for that, and this is something that I will never forget.”