Franchitti earns fourth pole of 2013 at Sonoma

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Dario Franchitti took home his fourth Verizon P1 Award Saturday at Sonoma, in qualifying for Sunday’s IZOD IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (4 p.m. EST, NBCSN).

Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon have maximized the pace of their Dallara DW12 Hondas in testing and practice at Sonoma and parlayed that into the fastest two laps on Saturday. Franchitti clocked in with a best time of 1:17.5271 and Dixon was just behind at 1:17.7196 to lead the field for Sunday’s 85-lap race.

“Obviously both Target cars have been fast all weekend, and in the test as well,” said Franchitti, whose pole is the 33rd of his illustrious career. “We made a lot of changes, but seemed to go back where we started. Q1 we just did the one lap on the reds and it was the quickest time, so they pulled me in and we felt that there was a lot of good still left in the tires. So we put those on for the second run and the car was good again, and I managed to make a couple of mistakes, actually, so I was surprised to be as close to the guys on the new reds.”

Come the Firestone Fast Six, Franchitti admitted he made even further mistakes but still had enough pace to compensate.

“We had the new reds on obviously for the Firestone Fast Six, which is just as well because I did a good job at the 10 and 11 corners and royally screwed up Turn 6 both laps, so luckily I had the advantage in the other corners to make it. So really happy, good to have 1-2 and all three of the Ganassi cars in the top six is pretty cool,” he said.

Besides the Target twins, Mid-Ohio winner Charlie Kimball continued his run of form in the No. 83 Novo Nordisk CGR entry, helping put all of Ganassi’s cars into the Fast Six for the second race running. He’ll line up sixth after his third Fast Six appearance of 2013, having made it in on all three permanent road courses. It’s a nice result for the team as it’s the first race since the passing of Chip’s father Floyd earlier this week.

The three non-Ganassi interlopers were the pair from Team Penske – Will Power and Helio Castroneves in third and fifth – and they sandwiched Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Autosport entry in fourth. The qualifying result is the fourth consecutive year at Sonoma where five of the six Firestone Fast Six participants are from the Ganassi and Penske camps.

Justin Wilson, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais advanced from Q1 into Q2, but got no further. Wilson matches his season-best start (also achieved at Mid-Ohio), while former Newman/Haas teammate Rahal’s ahead of RLL Racing teammate James Jakes for only the third time since Brazil in May. It’s Rahal’s first top-10 start on a road or street course this year.

Also of note, JR Hildebrand (18th) outqualified Ryan Briscoe (22nd), with the Barracuda Racing Honda ahead of Hildebrand’s old Panther Racing Chevrolet. Other part-timers James Davison (21st) and Lucas Luhr (25th) were unable to make too much of an impression; Luhr was nine tenths in arrears of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing teammate Josef Newgarden.

GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma
Qualifying Times

SONOMA, Calif. – Qualifying Saturday for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 2.385 mile(s) Sonoma Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 01:17.5271 (110.748)
2. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 01:17.7196 (110.474)
3. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Chevy, 01:17.9735 (110.114)
4. (1) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.1314 (109.892)
5. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.1766 (109.828)
6. (83) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.2009 (109.794)
7. (19) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.2138 (109.776)
8. (15) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.3051 (109.648)
9. (27) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.3135 (109.636)
10. (77) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.3787 (109.545)
11. (25) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.6230 (109.205)
12. (7) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Chevy, 01:26.7515 (98.972)
13. (14) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.9164 (108.799)
14. (55) Tristan Vautier, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.3141 (109.635)
15. (5) EJ Viso, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.9344 (108.774)
16. (11) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.3318 (109.611)
17. (67) Josef Newgarden, Dallara-Honda, 01:19.0094 (108.671)
18. (98) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Honda, 01:18.7114 (109.082)
19. (16) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 01:19.1563 (108.469)
20. (6) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.8967 (108.826)
21. (18) James Davison, Dallara-Honda, 01:19.5285 (107.961)
22. (4) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Chevy, 01:18.9743 (108.719)
23. (78) Simona De Silvestro, Dallara-Chevy, 01:19.5298 (107.960)
24. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Chevy, 01:19.2376 (108.358)
25. (97) Lucas Luhr, Dallara-Honda, 01:19.9805 (107.351)

Steve Nielsen appointed new F1 sporting director

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Liberty Media has continued to bolster Formula 1’s management team by announcing that Steve Nielsen will take up the role of sporting director on August 1, reporting directly to Ross Brawn.

Nielsen has worked in F1 across four decades, most recently as Williams’ sporting manager, but was known to be leaving the team at the end of July, handing his duties over to inbound Dave Redding.

F1 confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that Nielsen would be joining the management team established by Liberty Media following its takeover of the sport in January, working with sporting managing director Brawn.

“I have known Steve for many years and have seen at first hand his skills and ability,” Brawn said.

“His appointment will strengthen the working group we are setting up to work with the FIA and the teams in defining a framework for the technical and sporting regulations for Formula 1’s next phase.

“Steve’s main responsibility will be related to sporting and organizational matters, for example by attending the meetings of the Sporting Working Group.”

F1 Strategy Group introduces Halo for 2018

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The Halo is coming to Formula 1 in 2018, having been confirmed at Wednesday’s F1 Strategy Group meeting.

This brings the first level of additional frontal cockpit protection to being after several years of discussions and a couple years of testing itself. As of August last year, the idea to introduce the Halo was delayed until 2018 at the earliest for a full introduction.

Here was the statement from the FIA:

“Following the unanimous agreement of the Strategy Group, in July 2016, to introduce additional frontal protection for Formula One and the repeated support from the drivers, the FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018. With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced.

“Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance.”

Both the Halo and the Shield concepts have been tried, with an updated Shield tried most recently by Sebastian Vettel in Friday first practice at the British Grand Prix.

But Vettel spoke of a dizziness in comments after the test, and one could figure those comments were taken into consideration when it came to the decision to go with the halo.

The Halo drops over the cockpit and has three prongs with how it’s positioned. A center post has been right in front of the cockpit during the tests.

Hungarian GP tire picks reveals big supersoft preference

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Teams have selected their sets of tires for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the next round of the Formula 1 season.

Pirelli’s supersoft tire, the softest compound on offer, is the popular choice with all 20 drivers selecting between eight and 10 sets of supersofts for the weekend.

The only real variance comes within the soft sets, some opting for two sets and others as many as four.

No one has selected more than one set of the hardest compound on offer for the weekend, the medium.

The full selections are below.

RLL working towards BMW renewal, IndyCar second car

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One of Bobby Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strengths for the better part of the last decade has been the ability to run two parallel programs – one in IndyCar and one in sports cars – that contend for wins and championships on an annual basis.

And the goal is to continue that into 2018 as one of its programs comes up for renewal.

BMW Motorsport has partnered with RLL, under the BMW Team RLL banner, for nearly a decade since 2009. In that time frame, BMW and RLL have combined to launch the M3, Z4 and M6 GTE spec models, winning races seven of the nine years.

There have been 13 combined wins – seven with the M3 from 2009 to 2012, four with the Z4 from 2013 to 2015 and now two with the new M6 this year – along with the 2011 ALMS GT title for Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and a pair of back-to-back Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins in 2011 and 2012.

While the contract is up for bid and as rumors swirl of a possible change by BMW to another outfit, Rahal is optimistic the years of success achieved by the combined unit will be able to continue together for 2018 and beyond as the new M8 GTE makes its debut.

“BMW is our priority – we’ve been with them nearly 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course it’s a contract year. I would presume given our success that should mean something to them, and that the relationship would continue.”

BMW finally has come to the fore in GTLM. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The pair of back-to-back wins this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park could not have come at a better time.

Balance of Performance adjustments seem to have adversely affected BMW Team RLL and the M6 GTLM more than other cars within the stacked GT Le Mans class, and through a combination of bad luck, pace restrictions and the heavier car, the M6 was stuck in a near two-year rut from when it got introduced prior to 2016 through mid-year this year.

That was a challenge to team morale, but it was something Rahal was keen and focused to lead the team through.

“It’s been a long time coming as you say. Let’s face it; there were mechanical issues we started out with when the car first showed up, and then BoP came in and knocked the wind out of our sails for most of the rest of 2016,” he reflected.

“Even Sebring this year, we were so far off. I thought it was a hell of a job to finish on the same lap as the leaders almost at Daytona and Sebring, as we didn’t have anywhere near the pace (timing data backs that up; best race lap at Daytona was a 1:44.247, one of only three cars in 11 in the 1:44s while rest in 1:43s and at Sebring, best race lap 1:58.376 more than a second off leaders). That was just good consistent running and pit stops.

“As I told people recently, I think Sebring was the longest 12 hours of my life – it was painful. We didn’t stand a chance. To sit there and pound around there knowing that, the crew pushing on anyway, depressing was a good word.

“We finally got the BoP back starting at Austin as we were on equal ground, and now we actually had a shot. At least you’re in the race with a chance. We saw that in Austin and then it kept going at Watkins Glen and Mosport.”

Both lineups have changed this year with Alexander Sims and Martin Tomczyk joining BMW American veterans Bill Auberlen and John Edwards, respectively, in the Nos. 25 and 24 BMW M6 GTLMs. These two are largely new to the American scene but have adapted rather well.

Rahal also harbors Le Mans ambitions for his team, and while that is highly unlikely to be with BMW given it will have the M-TEK team running the M8 GTE in Europe, he’d one day like to run an LMP2 entry there and have a heavy American presence in the driver lineup.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda drives during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As for on the other domestic front, one of the annual questions that arises with RLL – which consistently overachieves as a one-car team in the Verizon IndyCar Series – is whether it will expand back to a two-car program full-time for the first time since 2013. A second car has run part-time each of the last four years, including this one.

The possibility is greater of that happening with again, rumors of teams switching manufacturers. If Honda has available units in the bank, that enhances the chances that a second RLL car will appear on the grid. Rahal remains adamant though that such a driver would need to enhance the overall competitiveness of the program.

“Having a good two-car team is better than a good one-car team, but the second car has to be a contributor, not just a second car,” Rahal said.

“But I feel pretty good about our opportunities in that respect. We’re talking to several people – and the thing is we’re looking for our own money so we don’t need a driver with money. We’re not there yet, but odds are good we’ll have a two-car team.”

Past RLL veterans Takuma Sato and Oriol Servia would make sense there; Sato if Andretti Autosport shifts from Honda to Chevrolet as is possible and Servia, who’s been off-and-on with RLL since 2009 on several occasions but never enjoyed a full-time season with the team. Servia is undertaking the Honda development on the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit and his setup presence would be invaluable.

“There’s some good teams that could look to improve their lineups, or teams that aren’t doing so well to improve their driver lineup. Then teams will add, like presumably us. It’s interesting to watch.

“As I’ve said all along, whoever is in the second car, it’s gotta be a competitive race car. A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago. Hinchcliffe is on the market. If I look at the driver, you look at what combination works, and there’s other guys out there. Those two would get along. There’s even Oriol, who works very well with the team.

“There’s a number of options, so the goal is to get the most competitive guy you can get.”