Dario Franchnitti

Despite tough weekend, IndyCar dodges major bullet in Houston crash

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The words “Las Vegas” and “IndyCar” used together in a sentence still tend to send chills down the body after the horrific, 15-car pileup in the 2011 season finale that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.

Still, the words “catch fencing” and “pack racing” – two of the biggest factors in the “perfect storm” that contributed to that accident – aren’t as widely discussed until either IndyCar or NASCAR comes to a circuit where those elements really enter into the race. And really, going into this weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, the odds of us talking about any of those things were remote at best.

From a mainstream perspective, IndyCar has struggled to gain traction since the Las Vegas accident even as it introduced a car, the Dallara DW12, which for two seasons has actually contributed to some of the best on-track racing in years.

Three of the four terms – pack racing aside – came to light again the wake of Sunday’s last-lap accident where Dario Franchitti’s car went airborne over the back of Takuma Sato, slammed into the catch fencing and came back down on course.

It’s no secret Franchitti sustained injuries. The four-time series champion sustained two fractured vertebrae, a fractured ankle and a concussion in the accident and was held overnight in hospital for observation. Still, a quote issued via his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, and a tweet of his own on Monday, were very positive signs that things could have been much worse.

Perhaps Wheldon’s legacy, as much as his on-track achievements, is that his development of the fourth-generation IndyCar chassis has prevented further severe or fatal injuries.

The DW12, introduced with Wheldon’s direct input as the car’s test driver, has several driver safety improvements over the previous car. Energy-absorbent materials were mandated for the driver leg protection, wider cockpits were made for better driver extraction in the event of an accident, and a wider underwing, wheel fairings and rear crash structure reduce the risk of cars riding over competitors’ wheels, protecting the drivers and allowing safer competition.

Now you’ll say here that even with the rear wheel guards, Franchitti still launched over Sato and got airborne, which is true. But that’s purely down to the immutable laws of physics. Sato’s car washed out on the marbles – the dirty line – and was going through the highest speed corner on the track at a reduced rate. If Franchitti was going to hit him, he’d do so at his normal speed, which was faster.

“It’s so difficult to work out a way to stop the car from climbing up over the back wheels,” Power told USA Today’s Jeff Olson. “It’s hard to make something strong enough, but they’re always looking at things like that. The series is very safety conscious, but we can never get complacent or stop searching.”

A similar high-speed incident of a car actually going over the rear wheel guard occurred at Long Beach in 2012. Marco Andretti launched over the right rear wheel guard of Graham Rahal under braking for a 90-degree right-hander, Turn 8, and spun around into the tire barrier. But in that instance, both drivers were unhurt. The absence of the rear wheel guards, in theory, could have seen Andretti take off at an even higher altitude and potentially suffer serious injury. A video of that impact is below.

Perhaps the closest similar accident to the one that occurred on Sunday was one suffered by Conor Daly at Monaco in a GP3 race last year; Daly was a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and finished third in Saturday’s Indy Lights race at Houston. Daly, who was getting ridiculously blocked by another driver, tried a passing move but rode over that car’s wheels and got air.

Where injuries have tended to occur on the DW12 has been to drivers’ wrists, but that’s largely down to the steering column and a lack of power steering on these cars. That’s not related to catch fencing or the rear wheel guards.

The catch fencing, too, is now in the crosshairs as a result of the accident. Ovals tend to have a different degree of layering for the catch fencing; for example, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage explained his track’s fence design in a January 2012 RACER magazine article this way: “from the racetrack to the grandstand it goes SAFER barrier, wall, cables, upright posts, mesh fencing.” He dismissed suggestions that a Plexiglas or reinforced Perspex-type material could work better as an alternative.

In this case, on a street course, you don’t have the SAFER barrier but you do have tire barriers. Power, who won Race 2, told Olson the fence actually did a good job in this instance. Although small pieces of debris did enter into the grandstand, the fence helped send Franchitti’s car back onto the course. Any stronger material for the fencing could have injured Franchitti worse; had it been a mesh fencing as exists on some ovals, it might not have been strong enough to prevent more debris leaving the track.

Power, and new series points leader Scott Dixon, were less impressed with the grandstand actually being in that part of the track and having to drive through the wreckage. Dixon said the words “remnants of Vegas” in the post-race press conference, describing the similarity to the one lap conducted under yellow at Las Vegas before the race was red flagged, and ultimately canceled.

The catch-fence topic is still a discussion point across all forms of motorsport, though. A case in point is the opening race of this year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series championship at Daytona International Speedway. Kyle Larson was sent airborne in a last-lap incident on the frontstretch. Upon impacting the fence, debris and car parts were sent through the fence and into the grandstands. Larson survived the incident, but at least 28 fans sustained injuries.

And in a couple weeks, NASCAR heads to Daytona’s restrictor-plate cousin, Talladega Superspeedway, where the specter of multiple car accidents that often occur from pack racing have the potential to rear their ugly head. Assuming they do happen, the wish then is that they occur at a spot on the track away from the catch fencing where fans are directly behind.

If I’m honest, a lot went wrong for IndyCar this weekend at Houston. The lack of ample time to prepare the circuit, the inevitable issues that did occur once cars did get on track, the resulting schedule adjustments, the temporary chicane, several miscommunications, and stifling heat and humidity, then bipolar swing to rain Sunday morning could all be viewed as weekend negatives.

But given all that, despite the severity of the accident, all we had was a driver who was injured and will be able to recover, and fans who were sitting in that section and affected with only two taken to hospital for further evaluation.

No one was killed or seriously injured. It could have been much worse.

Wolff praises Hamilton’s resilience and attitude amid struggles

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 team boss Toto Wolff has praised Lewis Hamilton for his resilience and attitude after suffering yet another setback during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

For the second race in a row, Hamilton was sidelined in qualifying by an issue on his power unit that means he will start today’s race in Sochi from P10 on the grid.

Mercedes was able to fly in the required parts from its engine base in Brixworth, England to Sochi overnight, ensuring that Hamilton will not take a grid penalty.

Hamilton was bitterly disappointed by the issue, while Mercedes technical chief Paddy Lowe said on Saturday that the team had let him down.

Staring down the barrel of a 36-point deficit to Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship, Hamilton will be doing everything he can to stop his pole-sitting teammate from extending that lead on Sunday.

“The power unit is a core element of performance and one of our biggest strengths,” Wolff said on Saturday after qualifying.

“We are pushing hard to find lap time in every area and it’s inevitable that sometimes you reach limits in that process.

“Lewis has handled everything so far this year with calm and professionalism. He is resilient and showing a great attitude, even though this is a tough time for him.

“For tomorrow, it’s clear we are in a strong position in terms of performance. But like the saying goes, to finish first, first you have to finish…”

WATCH LIVE: Russian GP on CNBC, Live Extra from 7am ET

during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Nico Rosberg will line up on the grid for today’s Russian Grand Prix knowing that a seventh straight grand prix victory and a championship lead of over 40 points are well within his grasp.

The German driver swept to his second pole position of the year on Saturday with a fuss-free display, taking advantage of the bad luck that befell Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton.

In a repeat of the power unit issue that saw him fail to take any part in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks ago, Hamilton was forced to sit out Q3, leaving him 10th on the grid for today’s race.

With Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel also dropping back by virtue of a grid penalty for a gearbox change, Rosberg’s main rivals are now out of the picture. But can he keep his cool and win his first Russian Grand Prix?

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground in Sochi, Russia.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race, which kicks off at 8am ET at the Sochi Autodrom.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Russian Grand Prix (CNBC, Live Extra from 7am ET)

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29:  Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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If Nico Rosberg thought that all of his good luck had been used up in the first three races of the season, he was sorely mistaken.

The German driver arrived in Russia with a 36-point lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship thanks to his own flawless displays and the Briton’s tough start to the year.

Hamilton said in China that he wanted the “dark cloud” hanging over him to pass, but it showed few signs of doing so on Saturday in Sochi when a repeat of his power unit failure in China left him P10 on the grid.

With Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel also dropping to seventh on the grid, two of Rosberg’s biggest rivals are realistically out of the picture for the race win.

Standing on the brink of a 40+ point lead in the championship and a seventh straight victory, can Nico handle the pressure?

2016 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Nico’s race to lose

With tire wear typically low at the Sochi Autodrom and overtaking coming at a premium around the tight layout, it seems impossible to think that Nico Rosberg won’t win the race.

Relying he makes a good start and can stay ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen around him, Rosberg should be able to storm to his seventh straight victory. Mercedes’ pace has been well clear of its rivals all weekend along too.

Rosberg’s biggest strength is being calm under pressure; simply getting the job done with little fuss. If he can just do it again on Sunday, his championship lead will be over 40 points – a big mountain to climb for Hamilton.

Who can beat Rosberg?

Realistically? Only Rosberg himself. Mercedes’ reliability has been a big talking point in recent weeks given Hamilton’s struggles, so it is likely that keeping Rosberg’s car running will be a worry for the German marque.

Hamilton is a fighter and will hope to battle his way into contention for the race win, but without a safety car, it is hard to see him being able to rival his teammate.

Otherwise, Raikkonen and Bottas will hope to get the jump at the start, yet with both Ferrari and Williams struggling to keep up with Mercedes so far this weekend, any advantage may be short lived.

This is Rosberg’s race to lose.

Damage limitation the focus for Hamilton… again…

“If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all” is a cliched, meaningless saying – yet it applies quite well to Lewis Hamilton at the moment. His start to the season has been miserable, with incident after incident stopping him from even thinking about a race win.

Hamilton has not gone wheel-to-wheel with Rosberg yet this season, but it makes no difference mathematically. He still trails by 36 points, and will likely trail by even more by the end of the day.

As a result, Hamilton will be focusing on damage limitation once again. The podium should be within reach considering the pace of the W07 Hybrid, but he’ll need a clean race to get there.

On-track battles key with lack of strategy variety

Tire wear around the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, and this year is no different. With Pirelli opting against bringing the ultra-soft tire to the race, we look set for a one-stopper yet again with the super-soft and soft compounds.

As a result, we are unlikely to get the kind of variety that we have seen in the opening three races with strategy. Track position will be key in the on-track battles, but with the midfield still so tightly knit, there will hopefully be no shortage of action in today’s race.

Haas hopes to bounce back

Haas’ F1 honeymoon came to an end in China two weeks ago when Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez endured miserable races, with the setup of the VF-16 car never quite gelling with the track.

Both struggled once again in qualifying in Sochi, ailing to P15 and P16 on the grid respectively. Strategy has been a big strength for the American team so far this year, but again, this is unlikely to be worth much in Sochi.

With a few surprises, perhaps Haas will bounce back. But it seems somewhat unlikely should we have a ‘normal’ race.

2016 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas Williams
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Felipe Massa Williams
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari*
8. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull
9. Max Verstasppen Toro Rosso
10. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
11. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
14. Fernando Alonso McLaren
15. Romain Grosjean Haas
16. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
17. Kevin Magnussen Renault
18. Jolyon Palmer Renault
19. Felipe Nasr Sauber
20. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
21. Rio Haryanto Manor
22. Marcus Ericsson Sauber

* grid penalty

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

IMSA: Mazda’s first pole highlights Continental Tire GP qualifying

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There’s a pair of two-hour races for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix on Sunday, Round 4 of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season for the Prototype, Prototype Challenge and GT Le Mans classes and Round 3 for GT Daytona.

The P/GTLM race will run first, with the PC/GTD race second. Air times are below, as are the qualifying reports.

P

Mazda Motorsports has done it.

The SpeedSource crew that has worked tirelessly to make the program not just reliable but now competitive has parlayed their practice pace at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca into the pole position for Sunday’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix.

Tristan Nunez led a Mazda Prototype 1-2, in the Mazda MZ-2.0T gasoline powered entry, in the No. 55 car with Tom Long in second in the No. 70 car. Nunez will share his car with Jonathan Bomarito and Long with Joel Miller.

Nunez clocked a 1:18.143 to Long’s 1:18.379 lap.

Nunez’s last pole came Sept. 7, 2013, also at Mazda Raceway, but then in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series in the GX class, in a SpeedSource Mazda 6 diesel.

It’s the first pole for a Mazda-powered prototype since Oct. 4, 2013 at Virginia International Raceway, in the American Le Mans Series, with Dyson Racing and a Lola LMP1 chassis.

A pair of Corvette DPs were third and fourth, the No. 31 Action Express Racing entry qualified by Dane Cameron just ahead of Ricky Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing entry. Neither were within striking distance though, at 0.929 and 0.976 of a second back respectively.

The Mazda front row lockout came after a Mazda 1-2 ST sweep by Freedom Autosport as well, when Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer beat Andrew Carbonell and Liam Dwyer in a pair of MX-5s in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race.

“This is a good start! The car was unbelievable. Huge effort by the guys at SpeedSource. We have a fantastic car. This is one of those moments we’ve all been waiting for here at Mazda, especially at Mazda Raceway. I was pushing my heart out and I wanted that pole,” Nunez told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in the immediate aftermath.

GTLM

Ferrari vs. Ford. That just feels good to write.

And for the first time in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, that’s what the pole battle was in the GT Le Mans class.

Major credit must go to Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team – along with Risi Competitizone the only privateer efforts in class – which topped the factory Ford program in the hands of Chip Ganassi Racing, with Multimatic, for the class pole.

Daniel Serra in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE took that new car’s first pole on U.S. soil, as well as the first for Los Angeles-based Scuderia Corsa within GTLM, courtesy of a last-lap flier at 1:22.867 at the 2.238-mile road course.

Serra’s time beat the pair of Ford GTs, the No. 67 car of Ryan Briscoe and No. 66 car of Dirk Mueller, respectively, which clocked their best grid positions this year in second and third at 1:22.946 and 1:23.115.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, qualified by Tommy Milner, lines up fourth with Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari in fifth, qualified by Toni Vilander. The best BMW was seventh with the best Porsche in eighth.

Serra will co-drive with Alessandro Pier Guidi, who finished second in the World Challenge race last September in Monterey. Briscoe and Mueller share their cars with Richard Westbrook and Sacramento native Joey Hand, respectively.

Milner and Oliver Gavin – or the No. 3 Corvette C7.R – look to deliver Corvette Racing its 100th win as a team on Sunday, and seek to rebound after the hard-luck, late-race dump the No. 4 car took at Long Beach.

PC

Prototype Challenge had a barnburner of a qualifying session as several drivers exchanged the top spot; ultimately Robert Alon took his first pole in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 over James French in the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports car and Alex Popow in the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry.

Alon was due to start first in Long Beach on points, as the session didn’t meet its minimum green flag time. But after causing a yellow flag, that meant he would have his fastest time get deleted.

The Mazda Prototype Lites graduate atoned nicely and was super emotional afterwards in an interview with IMSA Radio. He’ll share the car with Tom Kimber-Smith on Sunday; French co-drives with Kyle Marcelli and Popow with Renger van der Zande.

GTD

The quirks and intricacies of the FIA Driver Ratings system meant four drivers you could reasonably classify as pros, even if their results actually classify them as “ams,” made it into the top six on the grid in the in theory pro-am GT Daytona class.

Again, all credit to the teams who’ve figured out how to master their lineups good to the regs, though.

Alex Riberas was best of the bunch in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, taking his first class pole on track debut with a best time of 1:25.775. He’ll share his car with Mario Farnbacher; Riberas, the ex-Porsche Junior driver, takes over from Ian James as Farnbacher’s full-season co-driver this weekend.

Christina Nielsen and Patrick Lindsey – two proper Silvers in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, respectively – clocked in second and third.

Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan look for their second win in a row this year after winning Sebring while Lindsey and Spencer Pumpelly seek a race repeat after winning here last year.

Cedric Sbirrazzuoli in the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, then a pair of unrelated Davises – Brandon in the No. 007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3 and Andrew in the No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS – completed the top six. Each of these three is a talented pro in their own right.

You could argue Bret Curtis in seventh in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 is the first true am on the grid, and credit to him for getting the white and black aFe Power car that high up. Dodge was the only manufacturer in class that failed to qualify within the top 10 of the 17-car grid.

TUNE-IN INFO

Tomorrow’s split race times and channels are linked below.

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