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.

Pippa Mann adds Lamborghini ST to schedule in all-female entry

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Pippa Mann, who will seek to make her sixth start in the Indianapolis 500 a little over one month from now with Dale Coyne Racing, will have additional races on her plate this year in an all-female driver entry in this year’s Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America championship.

Mann and Jackie Heinricher, herself a sports car veteran with some Lamborghini ST experience, are among a four-car entry for the Prestige Performance team in the IMSA-sanctioned series, which is operationally run with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship powerhouse team Wayne Taylor Racing.  They’ll share the team’s No. 57 Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in the pro/am division.

“I am thrilled to be joining Prestige Performance and Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2017 Super Trofeo season. Learning a new car, a new team, a new series, and new tracks will be a big learning experience for me, and I’m extremely excited not only to have this opportunity, but to have this opportunity with such a great team,” said Mann, who’s already had a couple tests in the car.

Heinricher added, “I am excited to be involved with Prestige and Wayne Taylor Racing in the season effort and for the incredible opportunity in joining a professional team for long-term growth in sports car racing.”

The other lineups see rising sports car star and a couple-time IMSA series champion Trent Hindman (in both Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Lamborghini) with Riccardo Agostini in the No. 1 car, and Alex Popow and Michele Beretta in the No. 10 car – both of those are pro/pro entries.

A fourth car, the No. 11 entry, has a lineup still to be determined and not yet confirmed. However, sports car aces Dion von Moltke and Stevan McAleer were posted on the No. 11 car for the Circuit of The Americas entry list.

“Wayne Taylor Racing is excited to step into the 2017 season with such a great list of drivers and to have David Wagener returning on our engineering side,” said Travis Houge, Team Manager, Wayne Taylor Racing.

“We are looking forward to continuing the success of last season. Similar to our other racing endeavors, we have worked hard to build a program that not only wins races but also builds lasting and successful partnerships. We feel we have found that with the Lamborghini Group.”

The Lamborghini ST season begins next weekend at COTA in Austin. The 12-race calendar is spread over six venues: COTA, Watkins Glen International in early July, Road America and VIR in August and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September, before the season finale and World Final run in Imola, Italy (former site of the San Marino Grand Prix) in November.

Rossi returns to two overlooked great ’16 runs, Phoenix and Indy GP

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The amount of words written nationwide and worldwide about Alexander Rossi’s win in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil are probably in the millions.

The number of words written about Rossi in two pivotal races leading up to that win at Phoenix and the INDYCAR Grand Prix? It’s probably only in the hundreds, by specialist media only.

Yet it was those two races – at Phoenix’s oval and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – that laid the groundwork for Rossi’s eventual win at the ‘500 because of the progress he and the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda team made in a finite amount of time.

Rossi didn’t get to test at the series’ official open test at Phoenix in 2016 because his deal was struck with the team so late in February. Outside of a rookie day, his first real running at his first ever oval race came that weekend in April, which was a couple weekends earlier in the month.

Yet Rossi drove smartly in his first ever oval race, climbing from 14th on the grid up to seventh before needing to pit for low fuel under a closed pit lane. A quick washout in Turn 4 near the end of the race from a puncture brought out a full-course caution and left him in 14th at the finish, a result unrepresentative of his pace and performance.

“At Phoenix we were a lot stronger than 14th,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “We were in a position to take the last restart in second or third, but we had the pit miscommunication and we had to start at the back.

“Phoenix was so strong for us – which was a surprise for myself and the team. It gave us a big confidence boost because the next oval was the big one. At the time, I took on what was a terrifying experience and made it through the weekend, to fight through something positive. It took the anxiety away from everyone that I’d be OK.”

Angie’s List Grand Prix, May 12th, 2016
Photo: IndyCar/©2016 Walt Kuhn

The INDYCAR Grand Prix in mid-May then, three races later after tough Long Beach and Barber weekends, saw Rossi take the lead on setup and direction within the Andretti Autosport quartet for the first time.

As at Phoenix, the box score didn’t tell the story. Rossi started 12th and finished 10th. But he had the fastest race lap and was well-poised for his first career top-five finish before falling back.

“Indy GP – that was the first time where it clicked for me in an IndyCar,” Rossi explained. “I was able to lead the team in terms of car setup. We were the quickest Andretti car throughout the weekend. I think we could have been top-five. Considering the start, that would have been a strong result. Those were two of my strongest tracks that people don’t really know about.”

That weekend allowed Rossi to find his footing within the engineering meetings, which has come through in every race since that point.

“Kind of from the Indy GP on, I knew what the car needed – and that was the big thing we needed as a team,” he said. “Prior to that, I didn’t know what it needed for lap times. It was difficult to contribute too much because I hadn’t figured it out myself. But it’s progressed pretty quickly.

“The great thing about this team is it’s such an open book. It’s counterintuitive to a lot of teams. These guys work as well as they do because of that. I struggled at Barber, but it wasn’t down to lack of information. We couldn’t find something that worked for me. It was a lot of brainstorming sessions with the other engineers. Sunday afternoon it clicked, and that’s how it all works.”

Rossi had what could be perceived as a setback in this year’s Phoenix open test, held in earlier February. He crashed on his first flying lap on Saturday on a qualifying simulation, which to this point is his only accident in an IndyCar (he got hit during the pits at Pocono last year in a freak incident).

But Rossi explained how that accident actually came as a result of a confidence boost to begin building up to the limit, and some sage advice from his co-owner, Bryan Herta.

“The test was actually positive. Day one was really good and what happened in the qual sim was a combo of a couple things, “Rossi said.

“The biggest advice I got from Bryan last year was , ‘If anything feels wrong, just pit.’ And that makes sense, right? It’s so difficult to drive around issues on an oval. Phoenix is the one track where you trim out so much from qualifying downforce to race downforce. The car is on edge.

“I’d never pushed the envelope on short ovals last year, so I didn’t really know how much of an abnormal feeling was OK. I’d never had an incident, so… I didn’t know. But now I know! I felt it was pretty loose on the warmup lap coming to speed. To be up front at Phoenix, the car has to be on a knife edge. Then, it was clearly too much. So in a way, it was almost good it happened, and it was great it happened at the test and not the race weekend to avoid it happening again.”

With qualifying shifting from Friday afternoon to Friday night this year, it figures to mirror conditions much closer in Saturday night’s race (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“I’ll miss the nighttime practice; that was a bit of a shame,” Rossi admitted. “But night qualifying is great. It’s way easier because the temperatures are down; when you trim out it’s not as hairy. It’s the same conditions as nighttime. You can still learn about the car setup and keep a development direction.”

It’s been a funny start to the 2017 season for Rossi, who moved up from 18th to 10th in points after finishing fifth in Barber last week. Rossi started eighth and fifth at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, while at Barber, he advanced from 18th up to fifth.

“It hasn’t been great because we haven’t had a super smooth weekend yet. Qualifying was good, then the races weren’t. Then Barber it was the opposite. Now, we’re due for one at Phoenix,” he said.

Red Bull GRC: Switched-up field seeks to topple Speed, VW, Andretti

Photo: Chris Tedesco/Red Bull Content Pool
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Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks off its season this week from Memphis, a new event on the calendar and the series’ fourth different kickoff site in as many years. It also starts a month earlier than the past, with Barbados (mid-May, 2014) Ft. Lauderdale (late May 2015) and Phoenix (third week of May 2016) having been the curtain-raisers in the past few years.

Race coverage is on NBC network on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

With the trip down South the first step in the 12-race championship, it again provides a first look at whether anyone can topple Scott Speed and Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, as the two-time champion looks for a three-peat in his latest iteration of a Beetle GRC beast.

Most of the field is switched; at least one driver or team per entry is different for all teams this year, with the exception of Andretti.

Here’s the tentative field breakdown (field may be subject to change and extra additions):

Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, Volkswagen Beetle GRC

34-Tanner Foust
41-Scott Speed

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will be the mantra here, as Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross and Scott Speed seek their third straight title. Teammate Tanner Foust arguably had the better 2016 season – he won four races to Speed’s three – but lost the championship in a tough dynamic in the Los Angeles doubleheader, his weekend delayed a bit with the need to run an LCQ and thus losing track position if he’d make the final.

Speed’s enjoyed his time in GRC to this point, as he recounted in his first NBCSports.com blog of 2017, and has become one of the series’ marquee faces. While a three-peat would be good for him, it remains to be seen whether that is in the best interest of the series. Nonetheless, anything less than another round of victories and title contention from Red Bull GRC’s dynamic duo would be a surprise, and a disappointment.

Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, Honda Civic Coupe

16-Oliver Eriksson (R)
24-Mitchell DeJong (R)
93-Sebastian Eriksson

Red Bull GRC’s version of “Name that Eriksson” sees the unrelated pair of Swedes, Oliver and Sebastian Eriksson, racing for the Andreas Eriksson-led team whose success is world renowned in rallycross – except last year. In a rare off year for OMSE, the team spent more time dialing in the setup of it early before contending on outright pace. They got there by the end of the year but despite preliminary wins, never won a main event.

That should well change this year with Sebastian Eriksson the undisputed team leader in now his third season. Having two hungry young chargers alongside in past GRC Lites champions Oliver Eriksson and DeJong, the latter of whom has one Supercars weekend under his belt at Los Angeles last year, will only serve to push this team forward.

Subaru Rally Team USA, Subaru WRX-STi

18-Patrik Sandell
55-Chris Atkinson

Two lackluster years and only a handful of decent results have forced a major course reset at Subaru, and one which should see them back on proper race win-contending form throughout the 2017 season. If the enhancements from the team weren’t coming, particularly with a new car, it’s likely they wouldn’t have convinced Patrik Sandell to have left Bryan Herta Rallysport, where he overachieved and won races each of the last two seasons.

Sandell’s an ace and past Subaru World Rally Championship driver Chris Atkinson brought a degree of pace to this program that was lacking previously when he came in for the final events of 2016. The Australian figures to be a frontrunner as well.

Loenbro Motorsports, Ford Fiesta

00-Steve Arpin

A change in ownership and branding sees the former Chip Ganassi Rallycross program, which popped up before 2015 and did a two-year entry, now under the Loenbro Motorsports umbrella albeit with nearly all the same staff and crew intact. It is a big step for the company and for driver Steve Arpin, the likable Canadian who now lives in Minnesota, to strike out on their own. Arpin won his first Supercars final last year but may find the sledding tougher against the factory efforts and other privateer teams.

Bryan Herta Rallysport, Ford Fiesta

2-Cabot Bigham (R)

For a second straight year, Bryan Herta will have the fun situation where his name and team are separate in Red Bull GRC from Michael Andretti’s even though the two work together in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In Bigham, Herta’s found a potential diamond in the rough. The Northern California native took a surprise, but well-judged, win in last year’s GRC Lites season and has found the necessary budget to come up to the next level. “The Big Ham” will need to get his feet wet the first couple events but should start playing with the big dogs as the season progresses.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Ford Fiesta

14-Austin Dyne

After striking out on his own last year with AD Racing, a year after running under the Herta tent, series CEO Colin Dyne’s son Austin will now work with another IndyCar outfit in RLL Racing, which makes its Red Bull GRC debut this year. The deep field has made it harder for Dyne to stand out – he has just three final round top-five finishes in the last two years – but with the RLL preparation behind him, it should see the series veteran improve this year.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.