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.

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

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Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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