Sage Karam leads Gabby Chaves at Pocono (IndyCar photo)

Track the “X-factor” for Indy Lights title rivals Karam, Chaves

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Firestone Indy Lights Series title protagonists Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves are series rookies, but comfortable battling each other. The two fought for the Pro Mazda, then-called Star Mazda title, a year ago before both graduated to Lights with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Now, the teammates head to a rare unknown for them – a 2.0-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. – a type of oval completely different to the short ovals and flat 2.5-milers they’ve run this year.

“I think the biggest thing for me and Gabby right now is the track is the X‑factor,” said Karam, who leads Chaves by 16 points (425-409) entering the weekend. “If he’s nervous, if I’m nervous, it’s because we don’t know about the track. The only thing we’ve ever seen is data and on‑board video.”

Added Chaves, “When you go to a track that you’ve been to, you know what you’re expecting, and you can kind of play your cards based on that. But here none of us have been there, so we don’t know what to expect.  We don’t have very much practice time.  I believe we got one practice and then we go straight into qualifying.  So it’s going to be difficult, obviously, but I have so much confidence in my team.”

Karam has three wins and Chaves one in this 2013 season. It’s been difficult for the title contenders – these two plus presumptive preseason favorites Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Munoz – to be appreciated for their efforts while the series has faced scrutiny over low car counts and been sold to Andersen Promotions during the year.

They’ll each have to put in a strong effort over the 50-lap, 100-mile race. The last race with Firestones will likely see a more substantial dropoff in performance compared to a road or street course race. Karam explained how he thinks he’ll manage it.

“The tire degradation does play a key role in this, so it’s going to be on Friday, figure out how we’re going to plan out our race, if we’re going to go out hard and hope the tires hang on or if we’re going to go out kind of slower and then be faster at the end,” he said. “I guess it all depends really where we’re starting and how our pace is in practice when we’re running race runs.”

Chaves feels the two are evenly matched in terms of experience level for this type of circuit. While he needs to win and have Karam finish lower than fourth to take the title as his best-case, title-winning scenario, he holds his head high heading into the weekend.

“In Indy and Pocono we’re very evenly matched, so I’m expecting a bit more of that into Fontana, and for sure it’s going to be a great showdown until the last lap,” he said.

The Firestone Indy Lights season finale airs at 7 p.m. ET, Saturday, on NBCSN.

F1 2017 driver review: Kimi Raikkonen

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Kimi Raikkonen

Team: Scuderia Ferrari
Car No.: 7
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 7
Best Finish: P2 (Monaco, Hungary)
Pole Positions: 1
Fastest Laps: 2
Points: 205
Laps Led: 40
Championship Position: 4th

While this may have statistically been Kimi Raikkonen’s best campaign since his first year back in F1 in 2012, there is a good case for it being one of his most disappointing to date.

Raikkonen’s continued role at Ferrari has been questioned on a number of occasions, but the Finn looked capable of answering his critics heading into 2017 after impressing through pre-season testing as he appeared to get to grips well with the new-style cars.

But we soon grew accustomed to the same old story: flashes of potential, but otherwise an underwhelming, unsatisfactory campaign that saw Raikkonen be dwarfed by his teammate, Sebastian Vettel.

Raikkonen’s charge to his first pole position for over eight years in Monaco gave hope of a popular win, only for Ferrari to play its strategy in favor of title contender Vettel – why wouldn’t the team do so? – to leave him a disgruntled second.

While Vettel was able to impress at the majority of circuits, Raikkonen only looked strong at tracks that were unquestionably ‘Ferrari’ tracks, such as Hungary and Brazil. Like Vettel, Raikkonen should have racked up a good haul of points in Singapore, only for the start-line crash to sideline both Ferraris before they even reached Turn 1.

Again there is the question of ‘what could have been?’ in Malaysia had it not been for the spark plug issue on the grid, yet in Japan, Raikkonen was nowhere, finishing behind the Mercedes and Red Bulls.

Finishing just five points clear of Daniel Ricciardo despite having a much faster car for the best part of the season and the Red Bull driver’s own reliability issues sums up the disappointment of Raikkonen’s campaign.

He should have been an ally for Vettel in the title race by nicking points of Lewis Hamilton, much as Valtteri Bottas was doing for his Mercedes teammate. Instead, Raikkonen seemed to be tagging along for the best part of this season.

Season High: Pole in Monaco, his first since the 2008 French Grand Prix.

Season Low: Finishing a distant P4 at Spa – a circuit he made his own in the 2000s.