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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.”

Ocon crowned GP3 champion after edging Ghiotto in finale

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
Esteban Ocon (FRA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C8630
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Esteban Ocon became the sixth winner of the GP3 Series on Sunday in Abu Dhabi after edging out championship rival Luca Ghiotto in a tantalizing title decider at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Ocon entered the final race of the season leading Ghiotto by six points after taking pole position on Saturday and finishing fifth following a time penalty.

The two championship protagonists started fourth and fifth on the grid, but it was Ocon who made a better start to jump ahead of Ghiotto.

Contact was made between the duo, costing Ghiotto a small part of his front-wing endplate and dropping the Italian down to P7.

Ghiotto fought his way back up to fourth place, knowing that he had to catch and pass Ocon in third if he was to stand any chance of winning the title for Trident.

However, Ocon managed to eke out a small advantage over the laps that followed, dropping Ghiotto into the clutches of Jimmy Eriksson behind.

Although Ghiotto managed to stay fourth, he could not catch Ocon, who kept his cool to cross the line third and claim the series title.

Despite winning just one race all year long, a further 13 podium finishes in 18 races proved crucial as Ocon beat Ghiotto by eight points in the final standings.

“It’s what we wanted to achieve since the beginning of the season, and I’m very happy to finally achieve it,” Ocon said.

“It was a long season, and especially a long weekend, a lot of stress but yes, very happy to end up with the championship win.”

The Frenchman recently joined Mercedes’ driver academy as a full member, and has been tipped for a move into either GP2 or DTM for the 2016 season.

The race in Abu Dhabi was won by Campos Racing’s Alex Palou, marking the young Spaniard’s first victory in GP3. He beat Ferrari youngster Antonio Fuoco by 4.4 seconds as the Italian picked up his second podium finish of the year.

Hamilton nominated for BBC Sports Personality award

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks to the drivers' parade before the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 29, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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2015 Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton has been nominated for the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

Hamilton won the award for the first time in 2014 after clinching his second F1 title, and will defend his crown at a ceremony in Belfast, Northern Ireland on December 20.

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year award celebrates the highlights of the British sporting year, and has previous winners including David Beckham, Steve Redgrave and Lennox Lewis.

From F1, Hamilton is not the only former winner: Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell and Jackie Stewart all winning the trophy in the past in recognition of their on-track feats.

Hamilton features on a shortlist of 12, and is joined by tennis player Andy Murray following Great Britain’s first Davis Cup win in 79 years, boxer Tyson Fury after his defeat of Wladimir Klitschko on Saturday night and Tour de France winner Chris Froome.

You can see the shortlist in full here.

GP2 season finale cancelled due to barrier damage

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
The cars queue up in the pit lane during the red flag.
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBL0365
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The final race of the 2015 GP2 Series season in Abu Dhabi was cancelled on Sunday after a multi-car crash on the first lap caused damage to one of the barriers.

The crash was sparked by DAMS driver Pierre Gasly, who spun at turn two before trying to point his car back in the right direction, only to move into the path of the oncoming cars.

Nicholas Latifi, Artem Markelov, Daniel de Jong and Sean Gelael were all caught up in the accident, spearing into the barrier on the left-hand side of the track. Sergey Sirotkin and Arthur Pic also collided in a separate incident.

Race officials acted quickly to throw the red flag so that the cars could be recovered, only to find that the barrier had been severely damaged.

A lengthy wait followed as the marshals tried to repair it, but with the season-ending Formula 1 grand prix’s start time drawing ever nearer, the race eventually had to be called off.

Alex Lynn had been leading, but with less than a single lap completed, no points could be awarded for the race.

Subsequently, the standings following Saturday’s feature race in Abu Dhabi would stand as the final championship result with title winner Stoffel Vandoorne finishing the year 160 points clear of American driver Alexander Rossi in second place.

Sirotkin held onto third place despite not scoring in Abu Dhabi, while Rio Haryanto ended the year in fourth just one point further back. Mitch Evens ranked fifth in the final standings ahead of Lynn, Raffaele Marciello and Gasly who all finished on 110 points.

The GP2 teams will return to the track in Abu Dhabi later this week for the beginning of winter testing.

Despite late start, CGR Rallycross started first Red Bull GRC season strong

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MotorSportsTalk takes a look back at Chip Ganassi Racing Rallycross’ first season in the Red Bull Global Rallycross. First up is a look at how the season started, and how late things came together for the two-car effort, with a further look at the season after the first couple races coming in part two.

At the start of the season, Chip Ganassi said of his latest new racing project, a two-car Ford Fiesta effort in Red Bull Global Rallycross, “I’m the person that likes to come in and under promise and over deliver.”

Mission almost accomplished.

About the only thing the new CGR Rallycross program didn’t achieve in 2015 was a final round victory in its first year.

It sounds bad on the surface, but consider the competition level and the fact Ganassi didn’t win its first IndyCar race until its fifth season in 1994, and you get the sense CGR Rallycross is closer to a breakthrough than its IndyCar program was at the same time in its lifespan.

The fact the team even ran two cars this season was testament to an incredible last-minute effort of preparation, as the cars were received mere weeks before the season-opening round at Fort Lauderdale, May 31.

Team manager Carl Goodman explained how close it came to missing the planned debut.

“We only just got the first one just a couple weeks before,” Goodman told MotorSportsTalk. “We had three days of testing this year; a three-day test in Florida before season started. And the drivers had to share that car… it was only one car!

“We didn’t even know if we’d have a second car in moving from Ft. Lauderdale to Texas (for X Games). So every race weekend has been a test for us.”

The team’s lineup of Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan didn’t actually debut in full until X Games, and Jeff Ward filled in for Deegan at Daytona and Washington D.C. due to conflicts.

Arpin, who was the team’s only entry at Ft. Lauderdale, added more to how tight the timeline was.

“Honestly if stuff got pushed back one week, it would have been trouble,” said Arpin, driver of the team’s No. 00 Loenbro entry. “Once we got the cars, we were lucky because they were good off the boat.

“We just dove in. All these guys, except for Carl, it was their first time seeing and working on a rallycross car. We did some simulation stuff here at the stop. So we got acclimated, quickly.”

Speaking even more to the newness of the program, Goodman, Arpin and Deegan were the only team members who had any sort of past rally experience.

Goodman, an M-Sport veteran, was re-entering the rally world after eight years in NASCAR with Michael Waltrip Racing. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, given the Charlotte CGR team base and MWR’s own dwindling efforts in NASCAR.

“I was with M-Sport for about a month or two short of 10 years. But I left them at the end of 2006, just as they won a rally World Championship, the manufacturer’s championship,” he said.

“I moved to the U.S. and had my time with was MWR until about a year ago. So eight years of Cup years. When this opportunity came up, and with an M-Sport car, it just made it easier. I knew the car, how it’s built, all the parts fell together. It was a big professional team in CGR. All the parts came together at the right time. I’d had quite a break between M-Sport and rallycross.”

Goodman noted there were four full-time crewmembers, three with NASCAR experience, one with road racing and one with a dirt track background, with four others drawn from the workshop for race weekends.

“I think some of the guys were a bit daunted at first, but they’re all professional racers,” Goodman explained. “They all have that solid background of being at a track, so they’re not overwhelmed or awed by being there.

“They expected to know what to do, maybe not on this type of car, but they’re all very well versed in racing. It sounds on the face of it to be a completely different things, these cars blasting and jumping on the dirt, but they’re professionals and they adapted.”

Red Bull GRC courses, by their nature, are very different than any normal type of circuit racing. Some are more dirt-heavy, some more pavement-heavy but all have a dirt component, a jump and the Kobalt Tools Joker Lap.

Preparing the cars for these circuits helped take the crew out of their comfort zone, Goodman said.

“The main tools are there, with the springs, dampers and just your normal suspension tuning… the added tool is the differentials,” he said.

“In general the cars are quite soft. Everything is a compromise about them. Even if you have fast sections, you have tight and dirt sections. That can stop you from going too extreme, either direction.

“Barbados or even Daytona, they’re race tracks. You could turn up with a classic touring car. But with dirt and a jump, you can’t do that. You’re always governed by the fact that they have to get through the dirt. That’s the level of all the tracks.”

Things started well enough. Arpin was seventh at Ft. Lauderdale but a charge to second, a Silver medal, in only the team’s second ever start at the X Games at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas, was one of the season highlights.

“X Games… Steve just raced great and drove through the field. That certainly showed the potential of the car,” Goodman said.

Arpin added, “For the rewards, the X Games was the standout, but the final race in Vegas was the best for us.”

In part two of our look at CGR Rallycross, we’ll look at the remainder of their season after those opening two rounds that laid the groundwork for a successful first campaign in the championship.