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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.”

Faster cars set for track in Barcelona ahead of new season

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives during the launch of the Mercedes formula one team's 2017 car, the W08, at Silverstone Circuit on February 23, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Formula One returns to action next week with a test session ahead of a highly anticipated season featuring wider and faster cars to make the series more exciting.

The revamped cars will be on the track in Barcelona on Monday when teams and drivers will get their first real look at what 2017 is going to be like.

“Next week is when we really get to unleash it,” Lewis Hamilton said after Mercedes unveiled its car on Friday.

A second four-day test session will take place in Barcelona from March 7-10.

The first race is the Australian GP on March 26.

The season arrives with regulation changes that significantly altered car design and performance in an attempt to attract more fans and increase track attendance and television audiences.

New aerodynamic and tire rules have given the 2017 cars a meaner look, making them wider and boosting downforce and grip. That translates into faster speeds and, hopefully, more overtaking maneuvers on the track. The rear wings are lower and many of the cars will use a “shark fin” wing on top of the engine.

“The car is wider, tires are bigger, we have a lot more downforce,” Hamilton said. “It’s like taking a small propeller plane and comparing it to a Boeing 737. It’s got so much more performance on it.”

The bigger and quicker cars are also likely to be harder to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills and physical conditioning.

Teams are expecting lap times to be three to five seconds faster compared to last year.

“Let’s wait and see,” McLaren veteran Fernando Alonso said. “I think there is some hope that with these regulations we will improve the show. Next week we will have some answers in Barcelona. But definitely it’s a good change for Formula One, something that we probably needed, to have fast and good looking cars.”

The new season will begin without defending champion Nico Rosberg , who retired after winning his first title. Former champion Jenson Button also left, and the Manor team ended, leaving the grid with 20 cars.

Bernie Ecclestone is gone after nearly four decades as F1’s boss. In charge now is U.S. sports and entertainment firm Liberty Media, which took over to try to win back dissatisfied fans and make the series thrilling again.

Here are other things to watch for this season:

MERCEDES’ DOMINANCE

The changes in regulation could help teams cut the gap on Mercedes, which won both the driver and team championships the last three seasons.

The first test session could give an indication of whether teams such as Ferrari and Red Bull will be able to pose a bigger challenge than in 2016. Williams, McLaren and Force India will be hoping to take advantage of the new rules to challenge at the front. Toro Rosso, Renault, Hass and Sauber will try to be near the front more often.

“Maybe we are not going to win 50 races in three years. Maybe we are going to win a couple of races, hopefully a championship. Maybe not, maybe somebody else has done a better job,” Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said. “It’s all back to square one.”

DRIVER CHANGES

Red Bull, Ferrari and Toro Rosso are keeping the same driver lineup from last season. They’re very much the exception.

Valtteri Bottas got the grid’s most-desired seat at Mercedes, replacing the retiring Rosberg. Bottas’ departure from Williams prompted 35-year-old Felipe Massa to end his own retirement and return to the team.

Former Manor driver Pascal Wehrlein takes Felipe Nasr’s job at Sauber, while Kevin Magnussen left Renault to join American team Haas. Nico Hulkenberg replaced Magnussen at Renault after leaving Force India.

YOUNG TALENT

A few new drivers will be trying to emulate the success of Max Verstappen, who stunned F1 last season by becoming the youngest driver to win a race at age 18.

Lance Stroll, 18, will be replacing Bottas at Williams, while 24-year-old Stoffel Vandoorne comes in for Button at McLaren.

Esteban Ocon, 20, made nine starts with Manor last season and secured a ride with Force India for 2017.

The 22-year-old Wehrlein will not be able to test his new Sauber next week because he injured his back at a racing event last month.

MCLAREN DOUBTS

Going back to the orange livery from the 1960s, McLaren will be hoping to win its first race since 2012.

But there are doubts about whether the renewed partnership with Honda will finally start paying off after two disappointing seasons in which the team struggled to contend for victories or even podium finishes.

There was improvement a year ago, but the pressure for better results this season will increase.

Fresh reset on tap for Takuma Sato at Andretti Autosport

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For a driver you don’t think of as having been long a part of the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, Takuma Sato is that and more as he prepares to enter his eighth full-time season in 2017.

Sato’s longevity is such that he did parts of seven years and 90 Grand Prix starts from 2002 through 2008, before a one-year gap prior to his arrival in IndyCar in 2010, where he’s now made 118 starts in seven years.

With KV Racing Technology, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Sato was very much enigmatic. His speed and determination was never in question and he produced a number of edge-of-your-seat highlight reel moments; few will forget his daring attempt on Dario Franchitti to win the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with RLL, for example, and a year later he finally secured his first win with Foyt at Long Beach on a track he’s long excelled at.

But despite his undoubted pace, his “no attack, no chance” style sometimes got him into more trouble than he desired.

Sato’s presence in the paddock is a good one because his attitude is forthright, he’s very good with the media (both the American and Japanese media) and he has a seemingly eternal, effervescent smile on his face.

He doesn’t look a day over 32 years old, even though he turned 40 in January.

And with Andretti Autosport, Sato has his best team dynamic available yet as he moves into one of the generally considered “big three” teams for the first time in his career.

He’s been on a single-car team at both RLL and Foyt, a two-car team at Foyt and a three-car team at KV, but has not yet been part of a four-car effort as he will have at Andretti. He’s in the No. 26 Honda with teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti.

“I’m very excited. Obviously you want to have more time in the car for the preseason. But there is a lot of progression to be done over the winter,” Sato told NBC Sports.

“I’m already having a good time together with the team.”

Sato will be reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he worked with at KV his first two years in the series. Together, Sato won his first two poles at Iowa and Edmonton.

Both Sato and Rossi suffered setbacks during the Phoenix test, both drivers losing the back end in Turn 2 and hitting the wall. Both were on qualifying simulations.

Despite that, Sato felt positive with the improvements made to the car on a short oval compared to last year. Foyt’s team struggled on the short ovals with the same Honda package, which is a bit down to Chevrolet on the short ovals, and Sato was able to denote the differences and enhancements Andretti’s team had made.

“In the end it was a qualifying simulation and balance was off. It was a shame and I hate it for the crew,” Sato said.

“Other than that, we made a car that was much better car. We made good progress with all four drivers working together, and our engineering is strong.”

One of the things Sato is renowned for is his ability on street courses. He’s been rather exciting to watch on those circuits over his career, and his setup and feedback work should help the team going forward on these tracks, starting with St. Petersburg.

One of Sato’s teammates, Hunter-Reay, called Sato “one of the fastest guys out there” and is “looking forward to hearing his perspective.”

Expectations aren’t the highest given the struggles of the Honda package compared to Chevrolet. And Sato’s career place in the standings hasn’t been higher than 13th in seven years – incidentally, in 2011 when he last worked with Mothershead.

Although the field is deep, Sato is hopeful of a couple steps forward results and points-wise this year. The Andretti Autosport team wants to be best in class among those with Hondas.

“I have good memories in St. Petersburg! So hopefully we’re competitive there,” Sato said.

“Hopefully we can win a race. Since it’s a frozen package this year, I don’t see a big difference compared to last year. But the personal situation is that I’m in a different team and environment, and that’s big. I’m looking forward to it.”

Renault F1 completes first running with R.S.17 in Barcelona

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Renault Sport Formula One team's 2017 car, the RS17, is unveiled on February 21, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Renault has completed its first on-track running with its 2017 Formula 1 car, the R.S.17, at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain ahead of pre-season testing next week.

Renault unveiled its new car on Tuesday, with the R.S.17 sporting an aggressive new look and a revised color scheme that incorporates more black into its yellow look.

Like many of its rivals, Renault opted to make use of some of its filming day allowance this week to check all systems were running as expected prior to the start of testing.

Renault hit the track on Saturday with Jolyon Palmer receiving the honor of christening the R.S.17 on-track.

Renault will enjoy its first public run with the R.S.17 on Monday with the start of collective pre-season testing in Barcelona.

McLaren confirms F1 testing running schedule for Barcelona

Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 24 February 2017.
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McLaren has become the latest team to confirm its running schedule for the upcoming Formula 1 pre-season test days in Barcelona, Spain.

McLaren launched its new car, the MCL32, at its base in Woking, England on Friday, with drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne on-hand to unveil the team’s new orange look.

Alonso and Vandoorne will split testing duties next week with the start of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

Alonso will enjoy the first public run behind the wheel of the MCL32 on Monday before handing over to Vandoorne on Tuesday. Alonso returns on Wednesday, with Vandoorne then closing out the first test on Thursday.

McLaren is also set to complete a filming day in Barcelona on Sunday, which will represent the first on-track running for the MCL32 after an extensive development phase.