Sonoma Pack - IndyCar

Year after year, IndyCar has delivered championship thrillers

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For the last decade, NASCAR has utilized a playoff-style format – the Chase for the Sprint Cup – to determine the champion of its top-tier series. But INDYCAR has not done the same thing for its IZOD IndyCar Series.

The latter is all the better for it. Because while the Chase is designed to juice things up by resetting the field for the final 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, there’s something to be said about INDYCAR opting to let its competitors settle their title disputes on their own and without gimmicks.

In each of the last seven seasons, the IZOD IndyCar Series championship has come down to the final race of the year. And with the 2013 campaign winding down, it seems like a good time to take a quick look back on all of those thrilling battles from 2006-2012.

2006 – Sam Hornish Jr. over Dan Wheldon

The entire ’06 season was basically a duel between Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves versus Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. The foursome earned 12 wins in that year’s 14-race schedule, and they were the ones to duke it out for the title in the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.

Castroneves entered the Windy City with a one-point edge on Hornish, but on race day, a speeding penalty on pit road forced him to rally from the back of the field. He made it back toward the front but problems with lapped traffic caused him to finish fourth. Wheldon and Dixon took a 1-2 finish for Ganassi, but Hornish’s third-place finish ensured that he would win the title on a tiebreaker – his four wins besting Wheldon’s two.

2007 – Dario Franchitti over Scott Dixon

Dixon started to set the stage for a dramatic ’07 finale against Franchitti with a second-place finish at Kentucky that pulled him within eight points of the Scotsman. Then he moved into the championship lead with a win at Sonoma that came about after Franchitti made late-race contact with Marco Andretti.

But things got even more heated at Detroit, when an incident on the penultimate lap involving Scott Dixon and Buddy Rice sent the former into a spin (and the latter into the tire barriers). Franchitti tried to go to the outside of the spinning Dixon, but Dixon’s car then moved across and blocked Franchitti.

Franchitti was still able to finish sixth and headed to Chicagoland with a three-point lead over Dixon. Fittingly enough, the two drivers fought each other over the final 50 laps for the win and the championship. But on the last lap, Dixon’s car ran out of fuel in Turn 3 while leading the race, enabling Franchitti to zip past and take the IndyCar title in dramatic fashion.

2008 – Scott Dixon over Helio Castroneves

Castroneves did his best to whittle down his deficit in the standings to Dixon late in the ’08 season. In Sonoma, Castroneves took the checkered flag and chopped the gap to 43 points with two races left. Detroit saw him penalized for blocking late in the race, but while it cost him the win, he still moved within 30 points of Dixon going to Chicagoland for the finale.

There, Castroneves did everything he could do right. Despite starting dead last after running below the white line during qualifying, Castroneves still managed to win the race by .0033 of a second. The only problem? Dixon, a six-time race winner in ’08, was there with him at the finish – netting a runner-up result that garnered him a second IndyCar title by 17 points over the Brazilian.

2009 – Dario Franchitti over Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe

Briscoe emerged as Team Penske’s lead driver over the winter and took a 25-point lead over Franchitti into the final two races after his third win of the season at Chicagoland, the third-to-last race of the year. That put him in position to beat the pair of Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates.

But an incident leaving pit lane at Motegi, the second-to-last race, left him 18th on the day and with a minimum 12 points achieved. The Target teammates went 1-2 there, led by Dixon. Then at the finale in Homestead, a fuel mileage derby, Franchitti ran slower but pitted one less time; DIxon and Briscoe needed a final splash of fuel in the last eight laps. That left Franchitti, back in IndyCar after a year’s sojourn to NASCAR, champion with 616 points to Dixon’s 605, and Briscoe’s 604.

2010 – Dario Franchitti over Will Power

On the strength of five victories, most in the field in 2010, Will Power was poised to capture his first championship in his first full season with Team Penske. It all went for naught though at the final race in Homestead, where Power entered with a 12-point lead over Franchitti.

There, Franchitti took pole and Power qualified third. Needing to at least shade Franchitti or hope the Scotsman didn’t win the race, Power made the first of his title-losing mistakes – with contact in the wall between Turn 3 and 4. His crew worked valiantly to get him back out but he retired after 143 laps with suspension damage. That left Franchitti firmly in the driver’s seat and with eighth place and Power 25th, Franchitti won the title by five, 602-597, over Power.

2011 – Dario Franchitti over Will Power

Power had six wins to Franchitti’s four entering what became, unfortunately, the season finale in Kentucky. The Australian led the Scotsman by 11 points going into Kentucky, 542-531. Power took pole at Kentucky and despite a dominant first half of the race, contact when Ana Beatriz hit Power’s left side sidepod put a dent in his chances. He raced the rest of the day with the aero deficiencies and finished 18th.

Franchitti, meanwhile, lost in a photo finish to Ed Carpenter in Carpenter’s first career win and the first for Sarah Fisher Racing. Franchitti carried an 18-point lead, 573-555, over Power into Las Vegas. The Las Vegas race, however, saw neither driver qualify well (Power 17th, Franchitti 18th in the 34-car field). Power was then caught up in the horrific, 16-car pileup through Turns 1 and 2 that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. The race was canceled and the points final as of Kentucky, with Franchitti claiming his third consecutive championship.

2012 – Ryan Hunter-Reay over Will Power

Sensing a theme here? Power came second yet again in the title chase after entering the season finale with a lead for the third straight year. After flops at Homestead and Kentucky, the 2012 season finale was held at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana (Power led by 17 points over the resilient Ryan Hunter-Reay).

Again, while neither driver started well (Power 13th, Hunter-Reay 22nd in the 26-car field), they ran in tandem for the first portion of the race. On lap 55, it happened again – Power hit a bump between Turns 1 and 2 and lost control, spinning out, hitting the wall and narrowly avoiding Hunter-Reay. “RHR” prevailed with fourth place – even despite Power’s crew again performing a heroic effort to get him back out and gain two more points – and the American duly captured his first championship by three points over Power (468-465).

CHASE COMPARISONS

Jimmie Johnson’s run of titles from 2006 through 2010 removed some drama from NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup in those years. The 2010 showdown versus Denny Hamlin was perhaps the most memorable, when Johnson overcame a deficit in the last two races. But in the last two years, battles between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (2011) and Brad Keselowski and Johnson (2012) have come down to the wire. The 2011 season ended in a tie, with Stewart beating Edwards thanks to winning more races.

Force India takes upper hand in Malaysia qualifying as fight with Williams continues

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The battle between Williams and Force India for fourth place in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship is poised to rage on in Malaysia on Sunday after just five places covered the teams’ four cars in qualifying.

Force India currently occupies P4 in the teams’ standings, pulling a single point clear of Williams last time out in Singapore after previously losing the position two weeks earlier in Italy.

Both teams look set to exchange blows to the end of the season, but it was Force India that enjoyed the advantage in qualifying in Malaysia on Saturday.

Sergio Perez led the team’s charge, qualifying seventh ahead of teammate Nico Hulkenberg. McLaren’s Jenson Button split the teams in P9, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas following for Williams in 10th and 11th respectively.

“I’m very happy with our performance. It was very important to execute a perfect qualifying session and I think that is what we did,” Perez said.

“It was a mega effort by the whole team. The whole qualifying hour was very intense because you could see how close together the lap times were for all the cars and I had to maximize each lap.

“I made a little mistake in Q2 on my last run, which could have cost me a place in Q3, but fortunately I managed to make it through. The result today means we are in a great position to fight for strong points tomorrow.”

“I am quite satisfied with how today went and my starting position for the race,” Hulkenberg added.

“When the top three teams lock out the first three rows, seventh and eighth is the best we could have achieved.

“In the end, my lap was not good enough for P7: I felt a bit more comfortable and had a better rhythm at the start of the session and it fell away slightly in Q3 – perhaps the track cooled and that’s one of the possibilities we will try to understand tonight.

“Still, eighth is a very good position to start tomorrow’s race. It’s going to be really close behind the leaders: I hope we can keep up with the cars in front and take the opportunity if anything happens. Our priority is to stay inside the points and maximize what we can get out of this race.”

Both Massa and Bottas conceded they felt disappointed with qualifying, but remain hopeful of scoring points to re-take fourth in the constructors’.

“I think qualifying was going well, but for sure we expected to finish higher up. I had the pace in Q2 and it was a big fight for a couple of tenths,” Massa said.

“Unfortunately, we are three places back on where it was possible to be. Anyway, the race is tomorrow and I really hope the strategy, the pace, the weather and everything can be in our favor and can help our race. We will try everything we can.”

“That was quite a tricky qualifying session for us. I actually wasn’t very happy with the front end of the car, I felt like the balance was better in today’s practice, especially around turns six, seven and eight,” Bottas admitted.

“I struggled with understeer and because of that I didn’t quite get a perfect lap in. It was very close and I’m sure tomorrow will be just as close.

“We do have a free choice of tires to start tomorrow’s race, so our goal is still to have both of our cars ahead of Force India. I believe it’s possible. We can definitely score some good points from where we’re starting and I’m sure the understeer and balance of the car will be better for the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Verstappen hopes clutch setting changes will end run of poor starts in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen hopes that changes made to the settings on his clutch will end his run of poor starts in Malaysia on Sunday after qualifying third at the Sepang International Circuit.

Verstappen qualified second in Belgium before bogging down at the start and tangling with Kimi Raikkonen, before making poor getaways in the next two races in Italy and Singapore.

The Dutchman has not finish any higher than sixth since Formula 1’s summer break, but hopes that he can end this poor run of form after qualifying well in Malaysia.

“I thought it was going to be a tough race for us before we came here. Now it seems like the balance of the car is there, the long runs seem good and we have improved our short run pace a lot,” Verstappen said.

“We were pretty close to the Mercedes on the front row and I’m really enjoying the new surface here, the car is working very well on it. For both of us to be on the second row, in front of Ferrari, means we can be very pleased with today’s work.

“Out of the past three or four races this has been my best long run pace on a Friday, we haven’t changed much on the car so it should be similar tomorrow.”

Verstappen confirmed that setup changes had been made following Singapore as a result of the poor start that compromised his race, with particular attention being paid to his clutch.

“After Singapore I talked with the team and we changed some things on the car and it seems to have worked, hopefully we can keep improving in this way,” Verstappen said.

“We have made some changes to the clutch so we shall see if it has improved tomorrow, so far everything looks positive.

“The set up feels really good here and we will no doubt check everything tonight to make sure we are in the best position possible on race day.”

Teammate Daniel Ricciardo qualified fourth in the sister Red Bull, and is braced for a battle to complete the podium behind the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“It was quite an exciting quali session and my lap was pretty clean. I pushed quite a bit in the first two sectors,” Ricciardo said.

“I think I got more out of the tires compared to the last sector where I struggled for traction and lost a little bit of time. From where we were yesterday, I am pretty happy. We made quite a few changes overnight and they definitely helped me out today, so I was feeling a lot more comfortable in the car.

“Our race pace is looking good too as we saw from Max’s sessions yesterday. We should have a nice battle for the podium tomorrow and we’ll try to stay ahead of the Ferraris. They are normally pretty good on their tyres here but we have an extra set of soft tires for the race which should work well for us.

“As a team we are pumped to lock out the second row at this circuit and we should have a good race on our hands for tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Vettel disappointed to finish behind Red Bulls in Malaysia F1 qualifying

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel was left disappointed following qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday at Sepang after finishing behind both Red Bull drivers in Q3.

Vettel took his first Formula 1 victory for Ferrari in Malaysia last year, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as the team has slipped behind Red Bull in the pecking order.

With Mercedes dominating proceedings in Malaysia over one lap, Vettel had hoped to finish as the best of the rest in qualifying.

However, the German could only finish fifth in Q3, over seven-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and just two-tenths off P3 on the grid.

“We expected it to be tight, but we thought that we could have the upper hand in the end,” Vettel said.

“So I am disappointed to see both Red Bulls in front of us, but they were just a bit quicker. There was not a lot missing, but just enough, just over a tenth.

“We need to have a look into our data and see if we can pick it up later. In the end, we were hoping to be one row higher up, so in second, right behind the Mercedes.

“But for the race, nervertheless, we should have a good speed: the strategy will also be important tomorrow.

“There is a bit of room for manoeuvre, as everybody has to use the harder tire, which might make it interesting. And then there is also the fact that we are in Malaysia, so there might be some rain, or just the heat as a factor.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth in the second SF16-H car, the Finn left frustrated by traffic during his final qualifying attempt.

“It was a pretty smooth running until the last try: then I had some traffic on the out lap and struggled with the tires to make them work in the first two corners, so I ran a bit wide,” Raikkonen explained.

“It was a decent qualifying session but it’s painful when you have such a bad last try. The handling of the car has been pretty ok and I was hoping for a bit more, but tomorrow we’ll try to do better.

“We don’t know what will happen and obviously we are not in the ideal starting position. The tarmac is new so it’s hard to say where it’s going to go and which tire will be the best, it will be a lot down to the conditions.

“We have to do our own best and see what that brings in the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Formula V8 3.5 to race at COTA next year, supporting WEC round

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The Formula V8 3.5 Series will race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas the first time next year in support of the FIA World Endurance Championship weekend in September.

Formula V8 3.5 is currently embarking on its inaugural campaign, emerging from the ashes of the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2015 after it lost manufacturer backing.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the single-seater series would be linking up with the WEC in 2017 as a support championship, appearing on the undercard at six rounds.

On Saturday, series officials confirmed that as well as racing at Silverstone, Spa and the Nürburgring alongside WEC, Formula V8 3.5 would also be visiting Austin, Mexico City and Bahrain in 2017.

Fuji Speedway in Japan had originally been slated to host a round of the 3.5-litre series, only for the race to be moved to Austin on grounds of costs.

During its Formula Renault 3.5 days, the championship produced a number of current Formula 1 drivers including Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Its final champion was Oliver Rowland, who now races in GP2.

The addition of Formula V8 3.5 to the WEC weekend at COTA ensures that the endurance series will not race alone following the break-up of the Lone Star Le Mans double-header with IMSA for 2017.