Davey Hamilton, Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson, Simon Pagenaud, Heather Lovier

Friday Sonoma notebook: Schmidt and Honda, JR, Briscoe return and more

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This morning at Sonoma Raceway, three IndyCar press conferences were held. Here’s a few bits and pieces from those and other news and notes from around the paddock at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (4 p.m. EST, Sunday, NBCSN):

  • Sam Schmidt’s team is the first to announce it will continue with Honda powerplants into the 2014 season, as Honda switches from single to twin turbochargers, for the Schmidt Hamilton and Schmidt Peterson teams. Schmidt is likely to retain Simon Pagenaud in the No. 77 HP SHM entry; HPD vp and COO Steve Eriksen and the rest of the manufacturer rate Pagenaud highly. Interesting to me here is that Schmidt’s group is ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing in confirming; CGR was Honda’s anchor team when engine competition was reintroduced in 2012. I spoke to team co-owner Ric Peterson, who said rookie Tristan Vautier has an option for two further years, and he also hopes his team’s three Indy Lights drivers will continue for a second year. The only way that changes is if either Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam or Jack Hawksworth wins the title, and is awarded the champion’s incentive from IndyCar to move up.
  • Ryan Briscoe returns to action this weekend for Panther Racing, with a brace on his right wrist. He has gotten several days of testing in, first with Panther at Sonoma last week and again on Wednesday, and also in his Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b P2 class car at Austin earlier this week. Asked if a Panther/Level 5 weekend double-dip at Baltimore was possible, Briscoe said, “I wanted to and I pushed hard for it. But it came down to whether Level 5 would let me do it. It’s funny because earlier this year, when I said I’d do some Indy races, I said, ‘Come on, nothing will happen.’ And then I broke my wrist – so I lost that argument!”
  • For JR Hildebrand, there isn’t so much any extra “motivation” or anything to prove on his return to the series with Barracuda Racing. “I don’t look at it like that,” he said. “It’s more about me coming out here, doing a good job and collectively putting together a good weekend.” He said the situation differs from his last one-off outing for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, also at Sonoma, in 2010, because now he has 2.5 years of experience to draw on that has made him more prepared. He said he seriously enjoys working with team boss Bryan Herta, and seems fairly relaxed. The irony for JR this time around though is that his Barracuda team is parked right next to his old squad, Panther Racing, in both the paddock and pit lane.
  • Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Will Power have had two interesting media events with a Hitachi technology event at a Penske Nissan Infiniti dealership in downtown San Francisco on Thursday night, and a Google+ Hangout through Verizon Wireless this morning. A full replay of the Hangout is linked here on YouTube.
  • Josef Newgarden showed off a new “Power Nap Pillow” a fan gave him in the paddock before first practice, linked in the below tweet. Newgarden was one of six drivers who took a tour of Twitter’s headquarters Thursday in San Francisco, an event Tristan Vautier raved about. Meanwhile as to the business of Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team, which fields a second car this weekend for Lucas Luhr, team co-owner Fisher told IMS Radio during first practice that expansion to a second full-time entry is the goal. “We need to be in a second car situation to be in the premier elite and help him grow,” she said. Luhr, for what it’s worth, is in a new RW/SFHR firesuit and now his usual one he wears in the ALMS for Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.