As he looks to win the Singapore Grand Prix for the third time this weekend, Sebastian Vettel has sent out a signal of intent to his rivals by finishing fastest in second practice at Marina Bay on Friday night.
Vettel was joined by teammate Mark Webber at the top of the timesheets as nearest rivals Mercedes could only finish one second behind the German driver’s best time, suggesting that Red Bull may be in line for a third consecutive victory as their stranglehold on both championships tightens.
Following on from FP1, the majority of the drivers came out early to post a time on the medium compound tire. Having failed to challenge the top two during the first session, Sebastian Vettel quickly set about establishing his dominance by posting a blistering time of 1:46.853 early on to lead from Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso. Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber were quick to join the party, with the Australian driver going fastest of all; a full three-tenths up on his teammate’s time. The two teammates traded fastest times, but Webber remained ahead after the teams had completed their first runs.
Daniel Ricciardo was the first driver to switch to the super-soft tire, immediately jumping up to P2 behind future teammate Vettel. The rest of the field soon followed suit, with the difference in performance between the two available compounds this weekend being significant (1.5 seconds according to Webber’s engineer). Vettel soon proved this by going almost two seconds quicker than his teammate, with Webber improving to cut that gap to just six-tenths. The rest of the field seemed unable to respond: Nico Rosberg was Red Bull’s closest challenger, a full one second slower than Vettel.
Following these runs, the majority of the teams opted to focus on their long runs in preparation for the race on Sunday, thus failing to improve on their quickest times. Ferrari’s struggles from FP1 persisted as both Alonso and Felipe Massa wrestled with the back-end of the F138 through the final sector. Williams’ good form from the first session failed to continue as they dropped down the order and Pastor Maldonado spun on two separate occasions. Caterham resumed normal service to move back ahead of Marussia, albeit only by a couple of tenths.
Despite laying down an ominous pace, Vettel will know from experience that poor luck can scupper all hopes of winning a race. At Silverstone earlier this year, he led the majority of the grand prix before suffering from a gearbox failure and being forced to retire from the race. However, he and Red Bull will be encouraged by their showing on Friday.
DiZinno: Target’s IndyCar departure a stinging sign of the times
In the era of opulence in North American open-wheel racing, when activation was everywhere from retail companies, to cigarettes, to car manufacturers, it was as much a battle off track as it was on track.
You didn’t just have to have a superior product on-track, and that often depended on whether you had the right “package” of chassis, engines and tires.
No, you also had to showcase your drivers in commercials, stores or print advertisements in any way you could.
And for about a four-year period from 1996 (the year of Ganassi’s first title and the split) through 1999 – my formative years as a racing fan that eventually helped lead me into the role I have today – no company did that better than Target.
Yes, there were the Andrettis selling you Texaco and Havoline for your car, but when you’re 6 or 7 years old, you’re not exactly thinking about oil changes. Yet, anyway. Same with Shell (Team Rahal) and Pennzoil (Jim Hall Racing).
Cigarettes? I knew the Marlboro Team Penske cars looked cool, but I also knew I never wanted to have anything to do with smoking one of those bad boys. Same goes for Player’s despite their cool blue cars, Hollywood and its eye-popping multicolor scheme featuring Brazilian drivers, and eventually, the Team KOOL Green cars.
Beer? Despite being a connoisseur now, again, when you’re 6 or 7, you’re not thinking about chugging Miller Lite or Budweiser. And as an informed beer drinker who prefers craft and microbreweries anyway, you’re still not thinking about drinking either product. I do miss the old Budweiser frogs and lizards, though…
Telecommunications? LCI and MCI were on cars before cell phones had even taken off.
Other B2B-type sponsorships – the Hogan Truck Leasing, Alumax Aluminum and the like – didn’t make sense to me at the time although those type sponsorships are the ones that are commonplace today.
So almost my process of elimination but also through the series of engaging, often humorous and mega TV spots, I discovered Target – by way of Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi.
It was engaging. It was relatable. And it was reliable.
The banter these two had – whether it was joking about picture sizes, racing motorhomes around Gateway, introducing flags or Zanardi explaining how he “passed” his driver’s test – was unparalleled and served as a perfect compendium to the races I was watching.
“Look,” younger me thought as I’m watching the CART race from wherever it was that weekend, say a Detroit, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto or Road America. “Here’s the guys I’m watching on the TV, and now they’re joking with each other in the commercials breaks. I like these guys!”
As my Dad and I headed to races on the West Coast like Fontana (now Auto Club Speedway) and Long Beach, the goal was simple: buy Target-branded merchandise and root for the Target cars during the race.
That made it a damn sight unfortunate when after Zanardi had clinched his 1997 CART title, his first of two in a row, my Dad had purchased a “Donuts, not just for breakfast!” T-shirt that weekend to pay tribute to Zanardi’s winning trademark. Except Zanardi got hurt during the weekend in a practice crash and didn’t even get to race!
Arie Luyendyk got drafted in last-minute and the “flying Dutchman,” the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and current INDYCAR Race Steward, got taken out by Arnd Meier in the race.
But my quest to meet Zanardi would not go unfulfilled. At Long Beach, 1998, I’m now 8 and I’ve staked out the Target paddock – autograph achieved. Zanardi then promptly delivered one of his best wins ever, coming back from a lap down to win the race, after making another move on the guy he always seemed to make incredible moves on – Bryan Herta. A then-unheralded Dario Franchitti scored his first career podium that day too, in second…
That day, I saw my favorite driver growing up finally do those donuts.
When Montoya entered in 1999, the change was notable. And Montoya – who I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know much better now in covering the series full-time – was a different force then.
He was – and still is – a ridiculously focused driver with surreal car control. But he wasn’t the same as Zanardi outside of the cockpit, and despite the infamous/famous Vasser and Montoya “snipe!” ad they put together there never felt the same bonding to me growing up.
The Target drawdown in TV ads began about 2000, when Ganassi’s fortunes began to shift as a team.
The previously dominant Reynard/Honda/Firestone package was tossed aside for Lolas and Toyotas. Gone were Vasser and Montoya, and in were the then unknown Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian and Memo Gidley. Kenny Brack and Dixon joined in 2002. The team switched series in 2003, and despite Dixon winning the 2003 Indy Racing League title, there was never the feel that Target had the same motivation for activation.
Yet even through those rough Toyota years of 2004 and 2005 – Dixon recently recalled to me at Iowa that in 2005 at Milwaukee, they wrote off several cars and Darren Manning got canned – Target endured.
Target has continued with Ganassi through open-wheel’s rough patches, as noted above. They were always on par with Marlboro as one of the two most well-known sponsors in the sport through the needed open-wheel merger of 2008, and became the pre-eminent sponsor in the sport when new tobacco restrictions forced Marlboro colors off the Team Penske cars at the end of 2009.
Target continued. Still. And from 2008 to 2011, they won four titles in a row – again – a feat they did together from 1996 to 1999.
And yet now, when it feels as though IndyCar racing is back on something of an upswing, with Dixon and Ganassi serving as ambassadors for the company because you know every single race that Dixon is a threat to win as one of the greatest drivers of his generation, is when Target pulls the plug, owing to a change at the top of the company.
Signs have been evident and building, though, that this day would eventually come.
Target scaled back from two cars to one in the last couple years, and then this year they brought back the famous “lighting bolt” at the start of this year. Yes, it pays tribute to the past but in hindsight, it felt like a move that signaled the beginning of the end.
The departure comes because the new people in charge of overseeing the marketing programs don’t see the ROI and value in IndyCar racing today, plain and simple.
And despite recent small upticks in TV numbers the last two or three years, this is a legacy departure that comes as a result of the 12-year split through 2008 and the lack of value that has persisted in the interim years, especially in comparison to NASCAR.
The NASCAR sponsorship continues for one more year anyway because even though Kyle Larson usually finishes in the teens and 20s, he’s being seen by 5 million people – as was witnessed with Sunday’s Brickyard 400 – whereas IndyCar fans are pleased if a cable broadcast today can reach 500,000-plus. Dixon wins races, Larson wins eyeballs.
Here’s where this really stings: in appealing to my generation – the 20- or 30-somethings who maybe got hooked on racing, like me, in the 1990s, who have only known IndyCar racing with Target Ganassi entries.
We grew up with Target Ganassi cars as part of our identity, as something to root for, as something to get behind. We knew that through thick and thin, whatever construct North American open-wheel racing would be, we knew there’d be at least one, but usually two, Target Chip Ganassi Racing entries.
Dixon and Ganassi will continue but without the company that’s served them both the longest.
It’s more than just a void on the sidepods that needs to be filled.
Target has confirmed it will end its 27-year run with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, the longest team/sponsor relationship in North American open-wheel racing, on Wednesday.
The decision, first reported by the Associated Press although rumors of which have been swirling throughout the year, particularly in recent weeks, will see Target end its sponsorship of Scott Dixon at the end of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. A team spokesperson confirmed the news to NBC Sports as well.
Recent management changes within the company have driven this decision, although the AP report indicated and the team confirmed Target will continue with Kyle Larson’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series program through 2017.
Dixon, Ganassi’s longtime stalwart driver, has driven a Target-sponsored car since 2002 when he joined the team midseason and won four championships.
“I can’t thank Target enough for their partnership on and off the track over the years,” Dixon said in a quote released by the team.
“They have been with the INDYCAR team for an amazing 27 years, which is unheard of in professional sports, and on the car I’ve driven for the past 15 seasons. I have nothing but great memories and much thanks for Target being great partners for so long. I’m looking forward to being in the 9 car for years to come and fighting for more wins and championships with Chip and the team.”
Target first joined the team in 1990 and while it was a presence on Ganassi cars for its first six years through 1995, in 1996 when the team shifted to an all-red livery with the yellow lightning bolt – a paint scheme which was brought back for the start of the 2016 season.
Together, Ganassi and Target have won 11 championships and four Indianapolis 500s. Champions for the team include its first champion, Jimmy Vasser, then Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course serves as the second-to-last weekend for the first two rungs on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder and the second-to-last doubleheader weekend for the top one.
In simplest terms, each of the seven races at the 2.258-mile road course will be pivotal for the respective championship chases, and will likely play a key role in who wins the Mazda advancement scholarships for the following year.
Here’s what’s ahead for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championships:
None of the three primary title protagonists – Ed Jones (Carlin), Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport) and Santiago Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) – had a banner weekend in Toronto and Stoneman was the one who drew the shortest end of the stick with a mechanical issue sidelining him before the second race even started.
Meanwhile in the second tier of title contenders, Kyle Kaiser reasserted himself as a still-in-the-frame driver after a pair of third place finishes on the streets of Toronto. Finishes of second and 10th (Felix Serralles) and ninth and sixth (Zach Veach) didn’t truly help either of them, although Serralles moved up on the heels of Stoneman’s DNS.
With Felix Rosenqvist not racing this weekend as he’s at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, after dominating the Toronto doubleheader, the win chances are reopened for one of the remaining drivers in the field.
The top six – Jones, Urrutia, Serralles, Kaiser, Stoneman and Veach – are separated by just 47 points with five races remaining, including two this weekend.
These two races last year were the definition of chaotic and controversial with Jones and then-title rival Jack Harvey (Schmidt Peterson) having their coming together and Spencer Pigot (Juncos) avoiding the controversy and coming out cleaner from a points standpoint. Meanwhile RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson) and Sean Rayhall (8Star Motorsports) won the two races.
Neither Enerson nor Rayhall is back this year but in the “they could they be a first-time winner” file, respective replacement drivers Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson) and Garett Grist (Team Pelfrey). Grist is a past Mid-Ohio winner (Pro Mazda, 2014) and Negrao, who was on the podium again in Toronto, seems closer than ever to his first win this year.
Neil Alberico – who’s had a nightmare season in terms of mechanical failures with Carlin – is also a past Mid-Ohio winner in Pro Mazda along with Urrutia, as the pair split the wins last year. In a year where nothing’s gone right for Alberico, on the heels of a decent Toronto weekend and a recent trip to Carlin’s UK headquarters, this could be the weekend when things come right.
Shelby Blackstock has also podiumed at Mid-Ohio before – he did so last year in Indy Lights and has in Pro Mazda as well – and if Andretti Autosport’s road course setup is better than its street course one he could be a sleeper.
Dalton Kellett and Zachary Claman De Melo, who tested an IndyCar last week at the track, round out the reduced 12-car field, a season-low. Rosenqvist is absent owing to his European commitments while Juan Piedrahita, a several-year Mazda Road to Indy veteran, has withdrawn his entry from Team Pelfrey.
Only once this year has the Pro Mazda weekend featured split wins – the season opener at St. Petersburg when Pato O’Ward and Aaron Telitz won the pair of races.
Since, O’Ward and Telitz have gone on respective weekend runs of their own. O’Ward did the business at Barber, the Indianapolis road course and the lone oval at Lucas Oil Raceway for five in a row with Telitz now on a four in a row run after sweeps at Road America and Toronto (blog on it here for Team USA Scholarship website).
Fittingly, the Team Pelfrey teammates enter this weekend tied on 297 points, although O’Ward has six wins to Telitz’s five. Simply put, whoever emerges ahead here emerges ahead in the title run in the penultimate weekend of the year.
There’s also a tie for third between Nico Jamin and Will Owen on 207 points, Jamin having finally hit the sweet spot on setup with three straight podium finishes. At a track where he swept all three USF2000 races last year, Jamin could be well poised to win his first Pro Mazda race and break the Pelfrey perfection from the first 11 races.
Owen’s Juncos Racing teammates Jake Parsons and Nico Dapero are then only split by seven points for fifth (177-170). Parsons needs a clean weekend after two accidents in Toronto.
Both Pro Mazda races are Saturday at Mid-Ohio, one in the morning and one to close the day’s activities.
After a few weekends where it appeared his Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Anthony Martin (No. 8) held the edge, Parker Thompson (No. 2) regained the momentum on the heels of a third place and then a home country win in Toronto on Sunday, while Martin soldiered on despite a hand injury.
Thompson now holds a 20-point lead (270-250) heading into the Mid-Ohio tripleheader, at a place both drivers raced at but didn’t podium last year. All of Telitz, Jamin and Jake Eidson locked out the podium – Jamin winning all three races.
At 42 points back (228), ArmsUp Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni is about the only other driver in with a realistic title shot with five races remaining. But he’d need a Jamin-like Mid-Ohio weekend sweep to realistically account for that deficit, and/or have to hope for both Thompson and Martin to hit trouble. It’s not impossible, but it’s not entirely likely either.
Elsewhere in the 22-car grid, it’ll be interesting to see the respective fortunes at Pabst Racing and John Cummiskey Racing this weekend. Jordan Lloyd made it to second in race one in Toronto in a familiar car – his 2015 JCR chassis – following a deal reached between the two teams to run it after his own crash in his own car in practice.
The situation was made easier by the fact Ayla Agren wasn’t in Toronto, and thus her car was available.
With Agren making a welcome return this weekend though alongside Lucas Kohl, the question becomes which car goes where in a case of musical cars. Lloyd and Garth Rickards both had incidents in Toronto; Rickards, in particular, is owed a trouble-free weekend without issues. Meanwhile Yufeng Luo, the third member of Pabst’s trio, has been steady if unspectacular with fifth to ninth place finishes in six of the last seven races.
Luo is only one point ahead of Robert Megennis, the 16-year-old rookie out of New York who’s been dynamite this year on a one-car Team Pelfrey. Coming from 18th to fifth in Toronto, and keeping the car clean all weekend on the menacing street course, is no small feat. Those two sit behind Luke Gabin, fifth in points, still in search of his first win.
Elsewhere on the grid, Team USA Scholarship winners Dakota Dickerson (Mazda scholarship driver) and Michai Stephens have started to find their form of late – fourth and ninth last time out in Toronto marked both drivers’ best results this year. Jordan Cane is also looking for his first top-five since switching to Cape, and either he or Nikita Lastochkin could essentially knock Franzoni out of the title chase if they get ahead of the lead ArmsUp driver.
The USF2000 field has one race apiece on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
We checked in with NBCSN analyst Anders Krohn, who plays a color role for Red Bull GRC Supercars and GRC Lites races, for his take on how the year has gone thus far:
MST: The Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team has come out even stronger to kick off 2016. How impressive has their start been to witness?
Anders Krohn: “Though they’ve been impressive, it hasn’t come as a surprise considering the pace and consistency they had towards the end of last year. I actually think a lot of people expected them to dominate even more than they have so far. With that said, when they have a trouble free run, nobody can really challenge.”
Tanner Foust and Scott Speed clearly gel as teammates and have a strong relationship. Do you think it will be tested at all if it is super close between them in a battle for the championship down the stretch?
“It’s bound to get intense as the season carries on if they continue being as close as they’ve been all year. Not sure it’ll be a Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton situation, but it should be very interesting to watch the complexity between the pair. All I know is I’ve got my bucket of popcorn ready, because it could be a good one.”
Would you agree Steve Arpin and Chip Ganassi Rallycross have been the pleasant surprises of the season? What has that team done to make the key strides they have thus far this year?
“They have indeed been a pleasant surprise, but a needed one for sure. With a year under their belt in GRC, Chip Ganassi Racing will be expecting the wins to start racking up, and Steve has enough experience by now. Last year he was solid, if a little anonymous. He needs to keep up the aggressive moves early on in the races to stand a chance against the might of the Germans.”
Have the new Hondas been about where you thought they’d be, ahead of where you thought they’d be, or behind at this juncture?
“They started the year way ahead of where I expected them to be, but the development hasn’t been quick enough. They’re still quite a ways too heavy so until they get closer in this area, it could be tough going for them. Their strong suit is how good they are off the line with the long wheelbase and what appears to be a very nice, progressive torque curve. Now they need some less body roll to look more like the VW’s in the twisties.”
Patrik Sandell and Herta’s team got the win in Dallas. But they haven’t had the luck. Do you think they can bounce back?
“For their sake, I hope so. They’re sort of the small team fighting against the big dogs, so it’s always nice (and needed) to see them do well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Patrik is a ridiculously talented driver and given the right machinery, he can win in almost any category with four wheels. Herta’s done a great job with the resources/equipment they have. If only Ford were to step in with a crack factory outfit they’d be tough to beat I reckon.”
What do you make of the other team seasons thus far (Ward/SH Rallycross, Dyne/AD Racing, Millen/Subarus)?
“The Ward/SH Rallycross combo has probably been the letdown thus far. I’m assuming that’s why they’ve elected to put Piquet in the car for this weekend, to see if it’s the driver or the car lacking. Having talked to Sulli several times, they didn’t skimp on resources when it came to rebuilding the car in the off-season, and considering the pace Ward showed in his limited program with CGR, I think everyone (myself included) expected them to be at the sharp end of the field.
“I think Austin Dyne has been massively hampered by not having a teammate this year. Last year, using Sandell’s data, he progressively got stronger and stronger, but this year has been a big struggle. If they get their second car up and running with an experienced shoe in it, the whole team should be able to push forward.
“Millen is just a wheelman. His chassis is from 2002, engine is from the late 1930’s (kidding, maybe) but he’s still not that far off pace. Just look at practice times when it comes to learning new tracks, he’s always right up there. Maybe we should put together a letter to Hyundai asking to start ponying up with Rhys again.
“Subaru has done tons of test miles, but close to no race mileage so far this year. The program looks to be a lot further ahead compared to last year, but they would have benefitted from being on the grid from the drop of the green in Phoenix.”
With three of the first four weekends planned doubleheader weekends, and the next several weekends intended to be single races, how much easier do you think the single weekends are for teams with only one race focus as opposed to the doubles where there’s often long tear downs and repairs in between races?
“The double-headers are BRUTAL. ALL CAPS. The GRC crew guys work harder on race weekends than any other crews I’ve seen. Every single session the cars are torn up and the double headers makes it really tough if you have a cracked/bent chassis to be ready in a proper manner for the second day of racing. The one-race weekends also makes the climax of that race a little more special in my opinion, so that’s what I prefer.”
What was your favorite race to call this year? I know you weren’t at New River but it was gnarly!
“New River looked absolutely amazing. T-Bell, Toby and Kristen did a heck of a job with that one under the nastiest of circumstances. Outside of that, Dallas was pretty special because we all expected VW to run away with everything this year, and then Sandell/Herta/Ford proved that with right timing, a little luck and perseverance you can make it happen. It opened up the championship and made us realize that there’s more than two horses in the race.
Who are some of the stars you could see emerging out of GRC Lites, in what seems to be a deep field there this year?
“I could write a novel on this, but neither you, TDZ, nor any of the readers would have the patience to read through it! Long story short, GRC Lites has the most competitive field we’ve ever seen and there’s at least a handful, if not more, drivers I can easily see moving up to Supercars and doing well. The Lites action has been fantastic all year long and the championship battle is really heating up.”