Helio Castroneves

After several close calls, consistency could earn Helio a title

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As the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship enters its next-to-last event of the season with this weekend’s Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, a pair of numbers stand out: 17 and 55.

For 17 years, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves has chased a series championship that has become the last hole for him to fill in an otherwise tremendous career in American open-wheel racing.

This weekend in Clutch City, he can claim the elusive prize at last – if he can increase his lead in the championship to a margin of 55 points or more by the end of Sunday’s second race.

Consistency has been his calling card all season. Outside of the Texas-sized whipping he delivered back in June at Texas Motor Speedway, Castroneves hasn’t really floored us with outright speed but has delivered the steady stream of results that is required of all champions.

Call it boring if you like. It doesn’t matter. It’s effective. And that’s all that counts to Castroneves and Team Penske, which hasn’t had an IndyCar crown to celebrate since 2006 and saw their other pilot, Will Power, endure gut-wrenching defeats for the championship in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Castroneves has had his near-misses as well.

In 2002, Castroneves, Gil De Ferran and Team Penske made their way into the then-Indy Racing League, which was still an all-oval entity at the time. Coming over from CART, the mighty Penske juggernaut was expected by many to annihilate the IRL contingent.

Instead, Castroneves found himself battling Sam Hornish Jr. and Panther Racing for the ’02 crown in a scintillating duel, which ended with Hornish shocking the Brazilian for the second of his eventual three series titles.

The next year saw Castroneves take part in what would be a five-way dance for the championship between himself, Hornish, De Ferran, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan in the last race of the season.

Castroneves finished 13th that day, and ended up third in the points behind champion Dixon and teammate De Ferran (the latter ending his own superb career with the race win).

In 2006, Castroneves faced his now-teammate Hornish, Dixon and Dan Wheldon in the race for the championship. He came up two points shy of Hornish and Wheldon, who tied at the top with 475 markers (Hornish got the title on a tie-breaker).

Then in 2008, it was him and Dixon yet again for all the marbles – and once more, Castroneves lost out, this time by 16 points.

Three Indianapolis 500 victories. 22 overall wins. 34 poles. But no championship – unless you want to count Season Five of “Dancing With The Stars.”

That last part could change soon. But it’s far from a done deal for Castroneves.

He may be up 49 points on Scott Dixon going into Houston, but all it takes is one small misstep and the door’s open for Dixon to smash through – especially if he’s as unstoppable as he was during his sweep of the Toronto doubleheader in July.

But if Castroneves keeps getting the most out of his equipment as he has all year long – he’s only finished outside the Top 10 in one race so far – it won’t be long before he finally reaches the top.

Verstappen leads Red Bull one-two in second Belgian GP practice

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen headed up a Red Bull one-two in the second Formula 1 practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday afternoon at Spa-Francorchamps.

After seeing Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton lead for Mercedes in FP1, Red Bull bounced back in the second session with Verstappen setting a fastest lap of 1:48.085.

Verstappen finished three-tenths of a second clear of teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the top of the timesheets, giving the army of Dutch fans that had made the trip to Spa plenty to smile about.

Mercedes opted to alter its usual FP2 running plan by getting both Rosberg and Hamilton to focus on their long-run pace ahead of Sunday’s race instead of chasing optimum lap time.

Rosberg finished the session sixth-fastest as the leading W07 Hybrid driver, with Hamilton down in P13. The Briton also has a 30-place grid penalty hanging over him for the race.

Nico Hulkenberg continued Force India’s impressive start to the weekend by finishing third-fastest for Force India, with teammate Sergio Perez following half a second behind in P5. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel split the pair in fourth, while Kimi Raikkonen was seventh in the second SF16-H.

Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both finished inside the top 10 in FP2, ending up P8 and P10 respectively at the checkered flag. Jenson Button was ninth for McLaren.

The session was without major incident bar one short Virtual Safety Car period following a stoppage for Renault’s Jolyon Palmer. Palmer was able to get his car back going again while sat in the run-off area and returned to the pits.

The on-track action at Spa resumes on Saturday with FP3, live on the NBC Sports app and on desktop from 5am ET.

Hamilton gets another fresh power unit, up to 30-place grid penalty for Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has taken another fresh power unit ahead of the second Formula 1 practice session in Belgium on Friday, causing his grid penalty to rise to 30 places.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking a grid penalty at Spa for exceeding the number of permitted engine components for the season.

The F1 drivers’ championship leader was forced to make unplanned changes earlier in the year due to issues on his power unit, making a grid drop inevitable later in the season.

Mercedes confirmed on Friday morning that Hamilton had taken a fresh power unit for first practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, before taking the decision to take another new one for FP2 in the afternoon.

Hamilton has now taken seven MGU-Hs and seven turbochargers on his power unit, as well as five MGU-Ks and internal combustion engines (ICE). Drivers are allowed to use five of each component across the course of the season.

Hamilton will receive a 10-place grid penalty for the first ‘seventh’ component and five for the second, meaning the fresh power unit costs him 15 places on the grid. Combined with the penalty taken this morning, his grid drop for the Belgian Grand Prix is now up to 30 positions.

Hamilton takes initial 15-place grid drop at Spa

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has taken an initial 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 race in Belgium after exceeding the number of permitted power unit components for the season.

Issues in the early races of 2016 meant a grid drop was inevitable for Hamilton later in the year, given that drivers are limited to using five of each power unit component across the course of the season.

Hamilton confirmed on Thursday that he would be taking his grid drop in Spa in the hope that further penalties could be avoided later in the season.

Mercedes announced during first practice on Friday that both Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg had taken fresh power units for the race weekend.

“Fresh power units this morning for both Lewis and Nico,” a team spokesperson confirmed. “For Lewis this comprises ICE 4, MGU-K 4, MGU-H 6 and TC 6. This incurs a 15-place grid penalty.

“For Nico, it is his fourth of all those items.”

It is feasible that Mercedes will take additional new components for Hamilton before the race on Sunday, meaning his 15-place grid drop may grow.

However, both Marcus Ericsson (10 places) and Fernando Alonso (35) are also set to take grid drops after also exceeding the five component limit, meaning Hamilton may not start last.

Nevertheless, the advantage does lie firmly with title rival Rosberg heading into the race weekend as the German looks to cut the 19-point gap to his teammate.

Rosberg quickest in Belgium FP1 as Halo gets further tests

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo fitted with the halo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg marked Formula 1’s return from its summer break by topping the opening practice session for the Belgian Grand Prix on Friday morning.

Rosberg spent the first part of the session testing the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection device, which is going through further evaluation ahead of a possible introduction for 2018.

The Halo has previously been used only on one-lap runs, but Rosberg completed an extended stretch to aid in giving feedback. Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniel Ricciardo also lapped using the Halo in the early part of the session.

With the Halo fitted and super-soft tires on the car, Rosberg recorded a fastest lap time of 1:48.348 during the 90-minute session to finish three-quarters of a second clear at the top of the timesheets, heading up a Mercedes one-two.

Lewis Hamilton finished second in the sister W07 Hybrid, but is already on the back foot after Mercedes confirmed that he will take a 15-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Kimi Raikkonen was the best of the rest for Ferrari, finishing third ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez. Sebastian Vettel was fifth in the second Ferrari ahead of the Red Bull duo of Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who is set to enjoy a sizeable amount of support this weekend thanks to the large number of fans making the trip from his native Netherlands to Belgium.

Nico Hulkenberg finished eighth in the second Force India ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, while Esteban Gutierrez made a strong start to the weekend to finish P10.