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.

Palmer ‘gutted’ after spin costs him first F1 points in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Jolyon Palmer felt “gutted” after a likely top-10 finish in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix was lost following a spin in the closing stages, costing him his first Formula 1 points.

2014 GP2 champion Palmer joined Renault for its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, but arrived in Hungary without a point to his name from the opening 10 races of the season.

Palmer was left disappointed on Saturday after a red flag knocked him out of qualifying at the first hurdle, but a long first stint brought him into contention for points.

Palmer moved into the top 10 after jumping Nico Hulkenberg in the pits, only for Renault’s hard work to be undone when he spun off at Turn 4, losing three positions in the process.

The Briton was ultimately classified 12th after Esteban Gutierrez’s time penalty, extending his points drought to 11 races.

“I’m gutted as my first points in Formula 1 were there for the taking,” Palmer said.

“The car was good and I was driving well within myself in P10. I turned in the same as normal at turn four – I wasn’t hanging everything out and I was looking after the tires – but for some reason I lost the car in a massive snap.

“I need to look at everything with my engineers to see if there is anything we could have done to prevent it.

“I was running tenth, we had completed all our pit stops, we had good pace relative to those ahead and behind so it looks like we’ve made a real step forward this weekend.

“It was the best drive of my career today and just one small spin took away those points.

“I’m gutted today but I’ll be fighting to get in the same position or better in Hockenheim.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton moved into the lead of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship for the first time this year on Sunday after a masterful victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Despite facing race-long pressure from pole-sitter and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton held his own at the front of the pack to lead all but two laps en route to his fifth win at the Hungaroring.

The result sees Hamilton open up a six-point lead over Rosberg in the championship with 10 rounds remaining, having cut the gap down from 43 points six races ago.

The race in Hungary offered a number of interesting fights and strategic battles up and down the field, resulting in an entertaining affair.

Debriefing all of the action in Budapest with interviews and analysis, NBCSN’s Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Defending champs bank first FIA WEC win of 2016 at Nürburgring

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At the same site where the trio of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley set sail for their eventual 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship title, the Nürburgring, the trio took their first win in their title defense year at the same circuit in Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring.

That win last year kicked off a string of four wins in a row through Shanghai.

This year, it’s Porsche’s third win in four races to open the 2016 FIA WEC season, although this one was a far more straightforward performance compared to the fortunate wins at Silverstone (Audi disqualification) and Le Mans (Toyota’s turbo failure). Audi then won at Spa in the Le Mans warm-up act.

Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest car during the weekend, the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid otherwise avoided trouble during the majority of the race and inherited the lead with just over an hour to go when the sister No. 2 car’s race came unglued in the final two hours.

The No. 2 car – driven by 24 Hours of Le Mans winners and points leaders Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb – controlled the middle portion of the race, before an ambitious move occurred at Turn 7 by Lieb when trying to overtake the polesitting GTE-Am class car, the No. 88 Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR (Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Heinemeier Hansson and Patrick Long).

Lieb darted to Al Qubaisi’s inside at the last minute of the downhill right-hander, with pitched the GTE Porsche into a gravel and triggered a drive-through penalty for the avoidable contact.

Lieb, to his credit, offered no blame elsewhere, went to apologize and took it in stride.

“These are the rules, and I caused the accident,” he said. “I hit the 88 car. We accept the decision. It’s tough. But in these cars, you make decisions quickly. I tried to pass on the inside. But that’s racing.”

That penalty brought the No. 2 car into the pits and when it returned, it was in third behind the No. 8 Audi R18 (Loic Duval, Lucas di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis).

A battle between Jani, who took over from Lieb, and then Andre Lotterer in the No. 7 Audi followed. Lotterer got by Jani into the chicane and with Jani’s momentum slowed, he was then hit in the left rear legality panel by one of the SMP Racing BR01 Nissans. Lotterer then proceeded to barge past Jani at Turn 6, unpleased by Jani’s late-race racecraft.

An eventual black and orange flag was displayed to the No. 2 car, and it was brought into the pits for repairs with just over half an hour remaining. It dropped that car off the podium for the first time this year, down to a season-worst fourth.

By contrast, the two Audis were both on the podium for the first time this year, with the car’s higher downforce package proving a more viable one after its relative struggles at Le Mans.

The aforementioned No. 8 car of Audi’s younger guns finished ahead of the No. 7 Audi, driven only by Lotterer and Marcel Fassler with Benoit Treluyer sidelined due to injury and thus missing the first race of his FIA WEC career.

Toyota Gazoo Racing – the Le Mans dominators – struggled at its second “home race” as it’s based in nearby Cologne. A lapped fifth and sixth was all that was on the cards for the Nos. 5 and 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrids with its ultra-high-downforce package.

Among the LMP1 privateer entries, Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 Rebellion R-One AER picked up the win with Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Matheo Tuscher. Nick Heidfeld, Nico Prost and Mathias Beche were second, the latter in his first Rebellion start this year after Nelson Piquet Jr. ran the first three rounds.

Poor Team ByKolles suffered yet another fire with its CLM P1/01 AER, after two during Le Mans week, as noted by Oliver Webb. Credit though must go to Webb and Pierre Kaffer’s teammate, Simon Trummer, for coming up with a solid AC/DC reference…

LMP2

In LMP2 it was more of the same with the Signatech Alpine trio of Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes continuing their sterling run of form in its No. 36 Alpine A460 Nissan.

That trio won its third race on the trot, ahead of the No. 43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier JS P2 Nissan (Ricardo Gonzalez, Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque).

There was nearly a last lap change for third, but despite Jonny Kane’s closing stint in the venerable No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan, he was unable to get around Ryan Dalziel, in the No. No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan in its first race on Michelins.

Dalziel held off Kane by just 0.071 of a second for ESM’s third podium in four starts, in the car he shared with Pipo Derani and Chris Cumming. Kane shared the Strakka Gibson with team debutante Lewis Williamson doing a solid job on debut in place of Danny Watts, and Nick Leventis.

Manor, with a similarly changed-up lineup of Tor Graves joined by team newcomers Matt Howson and Antonio Pizzonia (replacing James Jakes and Will Stevens from the regular races, and Matt Rao and Roberto Merhi at Le Mans), rounded out the top five in class in its No. 44 Oreca 05 Nissan.

G-Drive Racing’s quest for its first win this year with another new lineup – Alex Brundle now in to join Rene Rast and Roman Rusinov – came undone with gearbox issues resigning the No. 26 Oreca 05 Nissan to the garage.

GTE

GTE-Pro’s Ford dominance at Le Mans did not carry over to the Nürburgring, with Ferrari back on top in a 1-2 result led by the No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE turbo of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado. It’s AF Corse’s third win of the season after the No. 71 car of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon opened the year with back-to-back wins.

Ford’s No. 66 GT of Stefan Muecke and Olivier Pla, the class points leaders heading into the race, looked set to bank a podium in third place ahead of the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which showed improved form this weekend.

But a drive-through penalty was assessed to the No. 66 Ford for a pit stop infringement; Pla served it in the final 20 minutes and that dropped that car behind the “Dane Train” No. 95 Aston Martin of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorenson.

It was a tough race for the No. 67 Ford, as it was at Le Mans, this time with a pit fire striking when Andy Priaulx was behind the wheel. Priaulx emerged unscathed though.

GTE-Am witnessed the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8 back on top for its second win this year with the trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda. The No. 78 KCMG Porsche 911 RSR and No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia completed the class podium.

A crowd of 58,000 was reported for the race, and the date confirmed for a Nürburgring return next year, about a week earlier – July 14-16, 2017.

The FIA WEC resumes at the inaugural Six Hours of Mexico City on Sept. 3, at the redone and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

It’s a massive event for the RGR Sport team, Gonzalez serving as both that team’s owner and co-driver, and the event’s promoter.

Vettel ‘expected a bit more’ than fourth in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel says Ferrari “expected a bit more” than fourth place in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix as Red Bull moved to within a point of the Italian marque in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship.

Vettel claimed his second race win for Ferrari in Hungary last year, but was left to settle for P4 this time around after failing to pass Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo for third in the closing stages.

The result extended Ferrari’s winless run in 2016, and allowed Red Bull to pull up just a point behind in the constructors’ championship.

When asked by NBCSN if Ferrari now how to admit it was in a battle for second, Vettel said: “We never denied it! We have to fight Red Bull.

“Our target is always to fight for P1 but Mercedes is strong. It’s not big news. We try everything. So is Red Bull.

“I think we had a good package today. We expected a bit more. But we’re up against it trying to improve it. We have the best pace right behind it.

“We need to get better Saturdays to have a chance on Sundays.”

Vettel was left fuming over the radio on multiple occasions during the race on Sunday after getting stuck behind lapped cars, calling for blue flags to be respected.

“I calmed down. I don’t think they showed the bit where I said please wave a blue flag,” Vettel said after a couple of his messages were broadcast, albeit censored.

“Obviously you get the impression you lose more than others. Lapped cars are usually doing a good job.

“Mirrors aren’t that big. It’s not like a 75 inch 4K resolution mirror you’re looking into. And we’re quite a bit faster in three to four corners.

“I know that I got pretty loud in the car but I’m not going to criticize anyone.”