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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.”

Friday at Mid-Ohio: A busy day before rain stops play

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – There are a lot of things to like about combined Verizon IndyCar Series/Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires/Pirelli World Challenge weekends, primarily the variety of content on track and the flurry of non-stop action from dawn to dusk.

One of the things not to like, though, is the sheer volume of things that come out of each of the three – and when you cover each of the three regularly, it’s easy to get behind.

That being said, here’s an attempt to recap all that’s taken place here today:

INDYCAR

  • There were two practice sessions as noted (Scott Dixon led first practice, Will Power second), although the second one ended early due to rain (I blame myself following my run back from the IndyCar Radio booth…).
  • Have to give a shoutout to rookie RC Enerson, who was seriously impressive in his first full official day at the office. Enerson took what he learned from the test day last week with Dale Coyne Racing and was even more comfortable. He’ll have to adapt to the Firestone red alternate tires in qualifying tomorrow – it’s something that challenges even veterans – but he’s impressing the team with how much he’s taken in that’s getting thrown at him. Seventh in practice is remarkable; we’ll see how well it translates tomorrow.
  • There were also a couple media availabilities during the day. The first was Graham Rahal, defending race winner, for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks, but Rahal made a couple interesting points. One, he addressed the Target departure – he had a sense this day would come even going back to when he was a member of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams in 2011 and 2012 – but said partners are out there, they just need to be found. He also noted how having only one car has hurt RLL this year, given the volume of in-season testing, and the relative lack of data gathered compared to four-car mights from Team Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Last year, without that same amount of in-season testing,
  • The Target bit dovetails nicely, perhaps, into Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi’s media availability – the first for the two since the announcement earlier this week that Target would end its IndyCar relationship with Ganassi after 27 years. Ganassi, who did most of the talking in the 20-plus minute gathering, dismissed the idea that this was an IndyCar-related decision or a TV-related decision. He said it was a pure business decision and that he has nothing but praise for Target for all they’ve done for his team, and by default, the sport of IndyCar racing on the whole. More to follow from this availability in the coming days.
  • We mentioned Honda’s “Christmas in July” camping theme earlier? Now, there’s Santa hats to match
  • Our social team was busy; Conor Daly did a Twitter takeover on the @IndyCaronNBCSN feed (you can view that here; here’s Daly saying thanks), and Rahal also did a Facebook Live video (available to view here).
  • Two memorials were held to celebrate the lives of two amazing women. The first was for NBCSN pit producer Jenny Nickell this morning at the IndyCar Paddock Club (watch video produced by Taylor Rollins, narrated by Bob Jenkins here). The second was at Honda hospitality for Brenda McHale, wife of veteran Honda PR man T.E. McHale, who died earlier this year. T.E. is one of the true gems in the IndyCar paddock and it was great to see the outpouring of support from the community at both events, which were overflowing despite the small tent sizes.

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

  • The busiest series of the three today was the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, which held both qualifying and its first race of the weekend. Australian Anthony Martin won both sessions for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, the latter coming with a pivotal swing in the championship – a cut tire resigned his teammate and prior points leader Parker Thompson to 17th. Martin went from 20 down to nine up going into Saturday’s race two of three this weekend. Victor Franzoni (ArmsUp Motorsports) and Luke Gabin (JAY Motorsports) completed the top three finishers, ahead of Jordan Lloyd and Dakota Dickerson.
  • Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires also got in two sessions, practice and qualifying. Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) has the pole for the first of two races this weekend, courtesy of a new track record (1:18.138) that beats a 10-year-old mark of 1:18.300 set by Ryan Justice in 2006! Aaron Telitz qualified second with Pato O’Ward, his Team Pelfrey teammate, only fifth.
  • The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires only got one practice in with its second session scrubbed due to rain. In the first and only session, Santiago Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports led from Shelby Blackstock, with Ed Jones and Dean Stoneman only sixth and eighth. They qualify and have their first race tomorrow.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

  • Owing to the rain and the fact they were scheduled when they were, the only session of the day was GTS qualifying from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. ET. Both GT practice and the GTS first race were scrubbed due to the rain; they were set to run from 4:15 to 4:45 and 5 to 6 p.m. ET, respectively.
  • Here’s how GTS will work: Saturday’s now considered second race of the weekend will be run using today’s GTS qualifying times and be a standing start. The postponed race will be a makeup round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and feature a fresh qualifying, making that finale now a tripleheader.
  • The other big news of the day? The provisional 2017 schedule is out, and the word “provisional” cannot be stressed enough. The determination of which classes have which drivers, which races fall under Sprint versus Sprint X designation, and which races are standalones versus on IndyCar weekends will all be further explained in the days to come. This release comes on the heels of the SRO announcing its 2017 schedules at the Total 24 Hours of Spa weekend (release here, calendars here).
  • With GT practice scrubbed, so too is the opportunity for fans and onlookers here to see the new Acura NSX GT3 – tested by Peter Kox this weekend – on track in practice. The car remains on display throughout the weekend and a photo opportunity will come on Saturday morning.

Buemi set for first F1 test in two years next week with Red Bull

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 3:  In this handout image supplied by Formula E The Podium.
Sebastien Buemi (SUI), Renault e.Dams Z.E.15. during the London Formula E race on JULY 3, 2016 in Battersea Park, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Adam Warner/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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Formula E champion Sebastien Buemi will enjoy his first Formula 1 test in over two years next week when he represents Red Bull in the latest Pirelli tire evaluation runs ahead of the 2017 season.

Buemi raced for Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, between 2009 and 2011 before being dropped to make way for Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.

Red Bull kept ties with Buemi, hiring him as the team’s test and reserve driver, a role he continues to enjoy in tandem with commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship and Formula E.

His last F1 test came with Red Bull following the Spanish Grand Prix in 2014, and also completed a filming day for the team in Barcelona last year.

The Swiss driver won the second Formula E title in London at the beginning of the month with Renault e.dams, and is now set to get back behind the wheel of an F1 car as part of the ongoing evaluation of Pirelli’s new tires for 2017.

Buemi will get behind the wheel of a ‘mule’ car – a modified RB11 used in the 2015 season – and try out the wider tires on Wednesday and Thursday at Mugello, as confirmed by Red Bull’s chief engineer Paul Monaghan on Friday.

Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes have already conducted testing to evaluate the new compounds for 2017, but the wider treads will first hit the track on Monday.

Sebastian Vettel will complete the first day of testing with Ferrari at Fiorano, followed by Esteban Gutierrez on Tuesday before Buemi’s stint at Mugello.

Lowe: Hamilton’s reaction to yellow flag saga in Hungary ‘regrettable’

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the media during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe believes that Lewis Hamilton’s reaction to the yellow flag saga in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was “regrettable”.

Hamilton was denied pole in Hungary after Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg beat his time with the final lap of Q3, despite completing part of it under yellow flags.

Hamilton told NBCSN on Thursday in Germany that the saga had set a precedent for drivers to follow in the future, and believes it could cause safety issues in the future.

Reports over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend claimed that Hamilton went to FIA race director Charlie Whiting and asked him to investigate Rosberg’s lap.

On Friday, Lowe said he believes Hamilton did go and see Whiting after qualifying to seek clarity regarding yellow flag rules, not to try and get his teammate stripped of pole.

“It’s my understanding that Lewis did go and see Charlie but it wasn’t in any way to seek a review of Nico’s lap,” Lowe said.

“It was for his own understanding of what should be done in the future, how that should work for him in the future.

“I think that was regrettable. Personally, he should have kept to advice from the team and we can obtain that from Charlie as necessary.

“But I don’t think there was any harm done. It was just a misjudgement from that point of view.”

Whiting confirmed on Friday that if double waved yellow flags are shown during qualifying from now on, the session will be red flagged immediately to prevent a repeat of the saga from Hungary.

Power leads before it pours in Mid-Ohio second practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Will Power topped the timesheets before the rains hit the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in the second 75-minute Verizon IndyCar Series practice of the day – albeit only 45 of which was run before the Mid-Ohio circuit turned into a water park.

Times descended a bit from the morning’s 1:04.4 best lap achieved by Scott Dixon in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Power clocked in a 1:04.1962 in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet this session at the 2.258-mile road course.

Power was one of 16 drivers in the 1:04 bracket, an improvement upon the morning session when only the top 11 were in the 1:04 range.

There were no incidents of note other than a couple off course excursions before the rains hit.

Videos of the session are below:

Team Penske waits out the rain

Josef Newgarden and his recovery from his hand injury

Alexander Rossi returns to another familiar track

Times are below.

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