Houston weekend truly a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly

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This weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston IndyCar doubleheader was truly a case of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” From attending 10 of the 15 race weekends (13 of 18 races) thus far this season, I’d have to rate this one lower than all the rest.

Most of you who read my work will know that I usually want to give IndyCar the benefit of the doubt, and I’m generally more positive than not. But there was almost no way to spin this weekend in Houston as a positive.

A few thoughts on winners, losers, and things that need fixin’:

THE GOOD

  • Scott Dixon. I touched on this earlier today but Dixon’s first and second-place finishes were his latest weekend success story in doubleheader races. As you might expect given the bad luck that hit him in Sonoma and Baltimore, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team came out firing.
  • Single file restarts. A rather inspired decision, actually, by INDYCAR given the nature of the last left-hand sweeper leading onto the front straight to have the cars restart single-file rather than double-file. While there were cautions in both races, none came as a result of the restarts. The only thing to monitor from here is where the leader launched from; perhaps moving the acceleration zone closer to start/finish would ensure a closer restart.
  • Corporate sponsorship and attendance. Everywhere around the 1.7-mile MD Anderson Center Speedway at Reliant Park street circuit, there were a flood of banners. Verizon, blu eCigs and of course, title sponsors Shell and Pennzoil had a heavy presence. The Houston Chronicle said organizers projected a weekend crowd of 150,000 fans. It certainly wasn’t that many but the grandstands looked relatively full after a six-year absence for the race.  At the very least, there was enough interest to want to see the race continue on an alternate date next year assuming changes are made.

THE BAD

  • Reliant round-robin. Anyone working the event will have had their heads spin at some point over the course of this weekend because there were four buildings, all sponsored by Reliant, you had to keep straight. The track itself is called Reliant Park, with the media center in Reliant Arena, which is inside the track and pit lane. The place to pick up media credentials, though, was in Reliant Center – outside the track and a ways from most parking lots. Add in Reliant Stadium, the current football stadium for the Houston Texans, and Reliant Astrodome, the sponsor of the now-dilapidated “eighth wonder of the world,” and it was a challenge to make sure you were in the right place.
  • Logistical shuffling into pits. For all series racing at Houston – IndyCar, the three Mazda Road to Indy divisions, Pirelli World Challenge and the Mazda MX-5 Cup series – there were just two ingress/egress points to move all cars and equipment from the paddock into pit lane. All cars entered at pit in, left at pit out, and it was a circus watching all cars and equipment from the next series move into place as the others exited stage right.
  • Helio Castroneves’ weekend. Gearbox gremlins strike at the worst possible time. Twice. I can’t help but feel the Brazilian is snake bit.

THE UGLY

  • Turn 1… The timeline to build the track was condensed down to 5 days for race promoter Lanigan Promotions after the Texans’ game last Sunday went into overtime. And while a track build of 5 days is still plenty impressive considering most street courses take weeks, there was an obvious lack of foresight in seeing that Turn 1’s bump was going to be a problem. No cars had properly driven over that surface in anger in six years, and no tests of any kind were conducted before Friday’s first session. I had a radio in for Pirelli World Challenge practice and on the first lap, a call went out, “We have reports of cars launching all 4 wheels airborne at Turn 1.” And so the weekend of chaos began in earnest…
  • …Then the temporary chicane. A quick fix, no more, no less. After the delay for track repairs on Friday, all sessions ran with the chicane, but come Saturday, that was reduced to just USF2000 and Pro Mazda the rest of the weekend. So that meant the chicane was sometimes there, sometimes not, and caused delays to what was already a fragmented schedule.
  • …And the schedule. The Friday delays meant Indy Lights got one practice session canceled. Series had qualifying changed to practices. Mazda MX-5 actually ran its first practice in the dark with only some floodlights on Friday. And then the Sunday accident actually meant the rest of the day’s sessions would be canceled, so MX-5 didn’t even get to race. Throughout all of this, there never seemed to be a coherent, consistent message as to what the schedule was and how it was evolving. It was haphazard and felt almost as if it was made up as we went along. This is my eighth season covering motorsports and other than Friday of Baltimore Year 1, I cannot recall a worse weekend schedule.
  • …And the resulting communication breakdown. So as we’re trying to figure it all out as we go, the disinformation and misinformation shifts to Sunday morning, when rain threw another monkey wrench into the weekend and canceled IndyCar qualifying. Fair enough, so we’ll set the field by entrant points, and Scott Dixon will be on pole. A photo gets taken, Dixon comes into the press conference room. And then an hour or so later I get a text from my colleague Chris Estrada – who was also on site and provided excellent coverage this weekend – saying “I’ll update the story now that Helio is on pole.” What. The. Fill-in-the-Blank here. Apparently the rulebook states that if qualifying is canceled for a race during a doubleheader weekend, entrant points do set the grid – but it’s entrant points entering the weekend, not after Race 1. OK, then. Last but certainly not least…
  • …And of course, the last-lap wreck. Icing on the cake, really, for what I only half-jokingly referred to as a “goat rodeo” of a weekend. Racing is dangerous and accidents happen. You accept those risks going into it. The fact of the matter though is that on street courses, accidents such as Dario Franchitti’s are infrequent, and have a lower probability of happening because cars don’t run in huge packs or at their terminal velocity. Mainstream coverage from the “passerby national media” followed – same as it did after Las Vegas, 2011 – where agendas usurped fact-checking on their checklist and questions about IndyCar’s safety and “what happened to Ashley Judd’s ex-husband” were asked. It was salt in an open wound.

THE VERDICT

Much of what happened this weekend was preventable in advance. It’s a hit to street courses, most of which are a big draw for IndyCar’s business model because of the “bring the race to the people” mindset that can work if done properly. It’s a hit to the city of Houston, which was hoping to showcase itself in a grander light on a national scale and instead is now as damaged as the interior of the Astrodome. Most of all, it’s a hit to IndyCar, whose often excellent on-track product was simply unable to overcome the challenges faced this weekend.

Hamilton: Monaco ‘the unicorn of races’ in F1 career

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Lewis Hamilton has called the Monaco Grand Prix the “unicorn” of races through his Formula 1 career, having claimed only two wins in 10 attempts around the streets of the principality.

Three-time F1 champion Hamilton is a resident of Monaco and has regularly been in contention for victory, but only reached the top step of the podium in 2008 and 2016.

Both wins were hard-fought, with his 2008 victory coming after an early pit stop due to a puncture. Last year, Hamilton pounced on a mistake by Red Bull to jump ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and take his second Monaco victory.

“I’ve not won here many times. With the pace I’ve had over the years, it’s always proven to be, not the Achilles heel, but the unicorn of races,” Hamilton said.

“That one that just always gets away from you. There’s definitely been, I would say, at least two – maybe three – that I should have had but other things came into play.

“But I’m grateful for the ones I’ve had. Not many people can say they have a Monaco Grand Prix win under their belt. And especially the way those two wins came about in 2008 and 2016.

“Sometimes quantity isn’t everything. Those were real quality races that I really earned, so I’m proud of those ones.”

Hamilton made a strong start to this weekend’s running in Monaco, leading first practice on Thursday morning.

Ganassi heads into Memorial Day weekend with three points leads

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INDIANAPOLIS – Three entirely different types of cars, series and racing formats have produced similar results for one team going into Memorial Day weekend, easily the biggest racing weekend of the world on the racing calendar.

Chip Ganassi Racing heads into the 101st Indianapolis 500 (Verizon IndyCar Series) and Coca-Cola 600 (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) with the points lead in these two championships with Scott Dixon and Kyle Larson. That marks the first time in the team’s 20-plus year history it has held each championship lead simultaneously.

And for good measure, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team leads in the FIA World Endurance Championship GTE-Pro class going into that series’ marquee race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place June 17-18.

It’s only in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where the team sits second in the GT Le Mans class, that a Ganassi car and driver (or drivers) don’t have the points lead.

In IndyCar, Dixon moved into the points lead – albeit unofficially, as IndyCar doesn’t release updated points until after the Indianapolis 500 – following his pole position secured Sunday for next week’s race. He gained 31 more points than Simon Pagenaud and went from 10 down (191-181) to 21 ahead (223-202) going into the race. Oddly though, despite five top-fives in as many races since Ganassi switched to the Honda aero kit and engine package, Dixon is yet to win!

In NASCAR, Larson’s storming start on the strength of one overall win plus two additional stage wins sees him 44 points clear of Martin Truex Jr. (475-431), with Brad Keselowski the only other driver within 100 points. Larson has not finished worse than 17th in 11 races this year in his Chevrolet. Jamie McMurray sits fifth in the points, as well.

And in the WEC, after two races, the trio of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Pipo Derani won the 6 Hours of Silverstone to kick off the year in their No. 67 Ford GT. They hold a two-point lead over the pair of AF Corse Ferrari drivers, heading to the double points Le Mans race.

In IMSA, the pair of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand sit six points (124-118) behind Corvette’s Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen after four races. Mueller and Hand co-drove with Sebastien Bourdais to win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona; Mueller and Hand will have a new teammate at Le Mans while Bourdais recovers from his injuries sustained in an accident in qualifying at Indianapolis.

Although Ganassi is split between three bases – its IndyCar and IMSA arms are stationed in Indianapolis off Woodland Drive, its NASCAR hub is in Charlotte and its WEC hub in partnership with Multimatic is in the U.K. – the one team spirit is fully present as all three teams, and three manufacturers, are off to the strong start.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“It’s important to win… and it’s important to lead a championship,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports about the strong start.

“That’s an enormous motivating factor for everyone that works on our product, no matter if it’s IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC or IMSA. It validates the volume of work that people do for your race team. That includes the people who are visible and work really really hard, under the three locations, in order to achieve success.

“It represents what teams of people can accomplish when they work together.”

Ganassi, who celebrated his 59th birthday on Wednesday, is yet to win a NASCAR championship at the Cup level but Larson is presenting his best chance. It’s been in IndyCar where the team has had its greatest success, with 11 championships between 1996 and 2015. Ganassi has won multiple sports car championships in IMSA’s past iteration as the GRAND-AM Rolex Series, and won Le Mans last year but are yet to win a WEC title.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Ford Chip Ganassi GT of Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell and Pipo Derani drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

As Hull deadpanned, leading now is nice, but it’s at the end of the year when it actually matters.

“What has contributed to all that, is challenge,” Hull said. “When passionate people are challenged, what they come to realize quickly is achieve any amount of success on a daily basis on Sunday. We enjoy challenge; we love challenge, change and we love working together. That’s a perfect combination.

“We’re really excited when you’re leading the championship, but let’s be honest… you want it on the last lap of the last race.

“It’s positive and an optimistic start. We just need to keep to working at it, for the end of the year.”

Hamilton leads first Monaco F1 practice, Button makes solid return

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Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel’s ongoing battle for supremacy in Formula 1 continued during first practice for the Monaco Grand Prix on Thursday morning as the duo locked out the top two positions.

Hamilton and Vettel have won four of the opening five rounds of the 2017 season and look set to enjoy a season-long fight for the championship, representing Mercedes and Ferrari respectively.

Hamilton drew first blood in Monaco, turning in a best lap of 1:13.425 around the tight streets of the principality to finish two-tenths clear of Vettel at the top of the timesheets.

The session saw Mercedes and Ferrari run close once again, yet Red Bull was also able to get into the mix at the head of the field with Max Verstappen finishing third-fastest, three-tenths of a second off the pace. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo was fifth-fastest.

Valtteri Bottas was fourth in the second Mercedes, but Kimi Raikkonen was less able to match his teammate’s pace, coming home seventh for Ferrari, half a second down on Vettel’s time in the same car.

Toro Rosso and Force India both had impressive sessions as both teams got their drivers into the top 10. Daniil Kvyat was sixth for Toro Rosso as teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. was ninth, sandwiched by Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon for Force India.

Jenson Button’s first running in a 2017-spec F1 car was impressive as he finished 14th for McLaren ahead of his one-off grand prix return. The Briton turned in 31 laps in total and lapped less than two-tenths of a second slower than teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, proving he has lost little of his touch over the winter.

Running in Monaco continues with second practice live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Thursday.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.