Ten with Townsend: Toronto debrief

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With the Honda Indy Toronto doubleheader in the books, we again had the chance to catch up with our NBC Sports Network IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell for his thoughts on the weekend. With a busy schedule that’s also included his racing three other types of cars just since the last NBCSN race at Milwaukee, we definitely thank him for his time. Without further adieu, the latest from Townsend (see all prior installment links here):

-Toronto had a crazy first race, little quieter second. Do you think doubleheader format worked well here or is this place crazy enough that they better to pack all the action into one race?

I thought it worked well although I don’t want doubleheaders to start reducing the overall number of events on the calendar.  Clearly with Jakes’ accident on Sunday we are finding the limits of driver fatigue in doing both races.  Electric power steering might be a good consideration going forward.  That’s the intelligent solution to the problem I think.

-Standing starts – pass or fail? 

Pass. But let’s not pretend we are trailblazing here.  Let’s adopt the FIA F1 process for standing starts, lock, stop, and barrel and just replicate everything.  From how to treat aborted starts to what the lights look like and where they are placed.  It works, fans understand it, and it frees the series up to put their talents into greater challenges.  I think standing starts should become the standard on road/street, rolling starts on ovals.

-How much of Scott Dixon’s incredible last eight days do you put down to him, and how much to the team and what they may have found both in new engine spec and from their test at Sebring?

You have to give Scott full credit here.  He is executing on another level than the rest right now.  No mistakes, no dramas, just cleaning up.  He has been capable of that since Indy Lights.

-Should Helio be shaking in his boots at Dixon’s form or do you think that will motivate him and the Penske team to fight back harder? 

He should be nervous.  Ganassi looked untouchable at Toronto in both races for pace and consistency and we have a stretch of road and street circuits coming up.  Helio should be proud where he performed relative to Will Power- the standard bearer for Penske.  I think that shows Helio has studied Will and raised his game.

-Do you expect RHR to bounce back from a tough weekend? We’ve seen him be resilient before.

He always does bounce back.  He didn’t like my assessment of the accident with Power on Sunday but I’m always impressed with how he bounces back from drama.  Regardless of blame.  He is a quarterback-pedigree guy now and will lead his team down the stretch.

-From what you know about Tom Brown and his experience level, how much has his presence helped Bourdais and the Dragon team? Impressed at how quickly they have gelled?

I would say it’s been everything to do with the results.  Tom is among the very best in the sport and it’s a powerful combination when you pair him with a championship caliber driver.  I think they’re just getting started.  Have to respect Jay Penske’s passion for being the best too.  He is driven by one thing: winning.  Actually two things:  winning and beating his Dad.

-Biggest surprise and disappointment from Toronto weekend.

Biggest surprise:  Carlos Munoz– zero experience in an IndyCar on a street circuit, zero time to prepare.  Mistake free run and a star of the future.  Credit to John Barnes for giving another Lights guy a chance.

Biggest Disappointment:  Probably Mike Conway in qualifying because we all were expecting and hoping for another miracle like Detroit.  He still did a very solid job given the circumstances.  Nobody pushes harder than that guy.

-With so little track time for IndyCar on these doubleheader weekends, what could be done to improve the amount of track time other than slashing number of series on track or dropping the second race? 

Don’t need it.  I only had 3 laps of practice in SST before our standing start.  And there were two new ramps that we had never even seen on course for the race!  Why should IndyCar drivers get it any easier??!

-You’ve driven a little bit of everything since we last chatted with GRC, ALMS Ferrari at Lime Rock and Stadium Super Trucks at Toronto. You’d been used to the Ferrari but what did you make of your GRC and SST opportunities, and their horsepower amounts?

Xgames Munich with GRC was awesome.  Cars are amazing.  Super fast.  I was so stoked to win the LCQ and finish 6th in the main in my first attempt, especially with new sponsor- Royal Purple- on board.  Great event all around.  Plus I get mad street cred for banging doors in the air with Ken Block.

SST in Toronto was simply insane.  Insanely fun.   Robby and PT were my IndyCar idols growing up for their brash and wild demeanor.  So to roll out for practice with both of them, with 600 hp trucks and steel ramps was the ultimate joy ride!  The crowd loved it and we had a blast.

I’ve been very lucky this year to get to do so many different cool things behind the wheel.   Indy, Ferrari ALMS, GRC, SST, even a 3 million dollar vintage Indycar at Milwaukee.  I feel like Jim Carey in “Yes Man”.  Let’s hope it continues.

-Lastly, what was working with Steve Matchett like on the IndyCar side? 

Very good.  I have worked with Steve in the past with F1 on SPEED Channel and we picked right up where we left off.   His natural technical curiosity serves the fan well I think as he is literally exploring under the hood right along with the viewer at home.  I think that makes for good TV.  Hope to work with him again.  Also thoroughly enjoyed scaring the $%#@ out of him in the pace car.   Does that mean I need therapy?

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

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The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso

Hinchcliffe endures tough night in Phoenix to finish 12th

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James Hinchcliffe, off to one of the best starts he’s ever had in the Verizon IndyCar Series (certainly his best since his two wins in four races to start 2013) endured possibly the most frustrating race of his 2017 season Saturday night at Phoenix.

Down on pace to the Chevrolet cars, particularly those from Team Penske, Hinchcliffe had resigned himself to aim for “best in class,” and he had enough speed to run solidly in the top ten. However, as he explained, poor fuel mileage saw him be the first driver to pit during green flag pit stops, which elongated his final stint and forced him to make a late stop for fuel, dropping him to 12th at the end.

“Man, we just weren’t getting the mileage the other guys were. It’s too bad because the ARROW Electronics car was actually pretty strong,” he told NBC Sports. “We survived that first turn thing; it was unfortunate to see Mikhail (Aleshin) caught up in that.

“And we had decent pace, we were kind of hanging with Scott (Dixon) there in the first stint and ended up just having to pit way before anyone else. And five or six laps a stint compounding, we just never got the yellow at the right time to equalize the field and put us on the same page as everyone else. And at the end, we had to come in for that splash and go.”

Of course, the night could have been much worse, as he barely avoided the first turn pileup that collected five cars after teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun in Turn 2. “It was close, man. I saw Mikhail start to spin and come down, and then Marco (Andretti) hit the brakes and locked up and went around. I was lucky to avoid it, to be honest,” he said of the incident.

Despite finishing 12th, Hinchcliffe held onto fifth place in the standings, 39 points behind new championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

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Newgarden finishes ninth after two wing changes in Phoenix

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The Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix had a promising beginning for Josef Newgarden, who rocketed up to second on the opening lap after starting fourth. However, a pair of front wing changes put paid to any chances of a win, and the Barber Motorsports Park winner was relegated to ninth at race’s end.

“It was a rough night, pretty much as rough as it can be for the No. 2 car,” he told NBCSN’s Robin Miller after the race. “The good news is I think we had speed, I think all the Penske cars did. Simon (Pagenaud) was awesome tonight so congrats to him for getting the win. It’s a victory for all of us at Team Penske, so I’m happy to see that. Will (Power) was good too, and obviously Helio (Castroneves) starting the race up front.”

It was unclear what caused the initial damage, which was on the left-front end plate and happened in the early laps. But, a lap 138 caution when Takuma Sato crashed allowed the team a chance to replace the wing.

From there, Newgarden charged back toward the front and was battling for a podium finish when contact with the lapped car of Ryan Hunter-Reay damaged the new wing, this time on the right-front end plate.

Newgarden described the incident and revealed that there was nothing he could do to avoid contact. “I was following Scott (Dixon), and I had Helio breathing down my neck. We were just trying to ride and catch a podium to recover for the day, essentially. Scott got on the inside of Ryan into (turn 3), they went two-by-two and so I followed Scott through. But as soon as Scott got clear, Ryan wanted to get back down immediately. And I just had a head of steam coming with Scott. I didn’t have any time to check up, I tried to check up and hit the brakes, but I’m in the middle of the corner, so I couldn’t really do much to miss him.”

Hunter-Reay described the view from his vantage point to NBCSN’s Marty Snider: “It’s just very frustrating. I couldn’t do anything with the car all night, because I love short ovals. Survived the start. Then we get a puncture or whatever. Dixon came up behind me, stuck his nose in, I was worried I might have turned across him. I went into the gray and two guys got by me. The car wouldn’t turn at all. Bent the right rear toe link. It was a really tough ride today. It was way too complicated.”

Newgarden pitted a second time for a new wing and ended up finishing ninth. He now sits third in the championship, 26 points behind teammate Simon Pagenaud for the lead.

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Hamilton struggles to fourth in Sochi after ‘very tough weekend’

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Lewis Hamilton endured one of his toughest Formula 1 races in recent memory in Russia on Sunday, finishing fourth at the Sochi Autodrom as Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas took his maiden grand prix win.

Hamilton qualified fourth on Saturday, almost half a second back from Bottas and the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen who locked out the front row of the grid.

Bottas was able to pass both Ferrari drivers on the first lap en route to victory, but Hamilton struggled to keep up with their pace, finishing some 36 seconds behind his teammate.

“It’s been a very, very tough weekend. I can’t remember having as difficult a weekend,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the race.

“Probably the last time I remember is Baku or something like that. Just ultimately not quick enough, not got the car where I was comfortable, and then in the race I was overheating so just had to settle for fourth.”

Bottas’ success came in just his fourth race for Mercedes, having replaced F1 world champion Nico Rosberg for 2017 following the German’s shock retirement.

Hamilton has spoken warmly of Bottas on a number of occasions, and was full of praise for the Finn after his success in Sochi.

“Big congratulations to him. He’s done such a great job,” Hamilton said.

“Fantastic teammate to work with. It’s an amazing feeling to win your first grand prix. It will mean a lot to him and his family.”

With title rival Sebastian Vettel finishing second, Hamilton is now 13 points adrift of the championship lead ahead of the fifth race of the year in Spain on May 14.