Ten with Townsend: Mid-Ohio debrief

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Here’s the latest added insight from our NBC Sports Network IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, the Mid-Ohio edition of “Ten with Townsend.”

Busy as always, Bell will be in action in this weekend in the American Le Mans Series’ race at Road America in the No. 23 Team AJR/West/Boardwalk Ferrari F458 Italia in the GT class. Before he races though, some great nuggets to digest from the IZOD IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy 200.

Previous editions are linked here.

– General race overview: Did you think three stops and flat out was going to work with the 5 added laps or did you think two could work? 2013 better or worse than a typical Mid-Ohio race?

We really expected everyone to have to 3 stop but we were way off on our fuel mileage projections.  But obviously when RHR made his first stop on lap 30 we knew it was on.

– Your biggest surprise and disappointment from Mid-Ohio weekend.

My biggest surprise was that we went caution free again!   Unreal.

The biggest disappointment was that I was not driving the NSX in the GoPro Course Preview!  I’ve had a soft spot for that car since I was 17.

– Charlie Kimball’s growth and maturation, we’ve seen it over a three-year period and particularly on the road courses. What are some elements that he’s improved that have allowed him and the team to raise their game.

I think he has taken a very surgical approach towards improving every facet of his game.  I’m most impressed that he never took off more than he could chew like most of us did when we started out as rookies.  Frankly, I don’t see any reason why he can’t finish top-five in the championship at his point.   Thats why I will now refer to him as “Super Chuck.”

– Rank the likelihood of the actual first-time winners going into this year, Hinchcliffe, Sato, Pagenaud and now Kimball. Who was most likely and least likely to you out of that group?

Tough question.  I would say Pagenaud most likely.  I was actually most surprised by Hinch. (least likely)

– More surprising: those four plus Conway winning races in 2013, or Will and Dario not winning?

Definitely Will not winning.  Statistically you would say that was just about impossible based on prior years form.

– What did you make of Helio’s race minimizing damage and actually increasing points lead? 

I think it shows how prepared and committed he is to winning his first championship.  Taking maximum points from what’s available and not trying to force more. I’m very happy to see him closing in on that dream. He has analyzed himself and his approach a lot over the last few years and has made improvements to what was already a very strong approach.

– Do you think Marco Andretti’s team should make a strategist change? It seems every race, despite Marco’s definite improvement and pace this year, the strategy just seems off (started on blacks here).

I think I would just copy what RHR does at this point with setup, strategy, etc.   On balance, that seems to be easily the best path.  Sometimes you just have to bolt on what’s clearly working and go out-drive your teammate.

– Do you have any idea what is going on with Graham Rahal? Engineering change needs more time, just out to lunch on setup?

I have no idea.  I can only imagine how frustrating it is for Graham, especially at his home track of Mid-Ohio.   You can see how “Super Chuck” has thrived within the Ganassi system, where Graham last raced, aided by so much setup experience and data to draw from the Target program.

When I watched practice at Mid Ohio in Turns 4,5,6, it was clear to me that Graham was trying to force the car to do what he wanted. In a way, I wonder if the process that Marco employed to improve this last off season would serve Graham well? It’s easy for me to critique from the outside, without knowing all the details, but something has to improve soon.  There is too much pride and money on the line to accept anything less.  Bobby Rahal will continue to turn over every stone to get it right.  You can point to the excellence of his ALMS BMW program to see they know how to win.

– Your brief thoughts on the two series debutantes, Luca Filippi and James Davison.

Amazing job from both of them.  They each are the embodiment of desire, really working their tails off, for years, to secure that one chance. I wish James would have defended a little more on his final out lap, he could have finished even higher. He was too nice, but you can’t blame him in his first start.

Luca’s qualifying mistake was so costly, but he showed great pace and the Herta team gave him high marks on every level.  I hope we’ll see both of them again soon in IndyCar.

 – Lastly, you’ve raced against him, so how did Ryan Briscoe fare in the booth and for your GoPro Course Preview?

Ryan was excellent. You would think he ‘pillow talks’ for practice every night with a veteran broadcaster. Oh wait…

It was a little embarrassing trying to impress/scare him in the pace car but he was a good sport, as always.  Will be interesting to see where he lands for next year.  It’s amazing he is still only 30 years old after so much experience in F1, IRL, sports cars and IndyCar.

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told Supercars.com.

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.