Grand Prix Of Baltimore - Day 3

Dixon and Castroneves ready for IndyCar title bout at MAVTV 500

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A majority of the pre-event media obligations are done and dusted, and so this Friday at Auto Club Speedway, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves can at long last begin the task at hand: wheeling their respective cars as they battle for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

You know most of the important details. Dixon’s seeking his third championship per his “rule of fives” (2003, 2008), while Castroneves continues to push for his elusive first in his 16-year IndyCar career dating to 1998.

In 2013, Dixon has four wins and nine top-five finishes; Castroneves has only a solitary win but 15 top-10 finishes in the 18 races. Unfortunately for him, his run of consistency and finishing every lap thus far this season was thwarted two weeks ago in his sponsor’s (Shell and Pennzoil) race in Houston. And that means Dixon enters the MAVTV 500 in Fontana, Calif. (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) with a 25-point lead on his title rival.

They actually both enter this race in a position of strength. Dixon is the epitome of a cool, calm and collected customer, who’s been here many times previously and never seems to crack. Even when he was tested in back-to-back weeks of Sonoma and Baltimore a handful of races ago, and was fined as a result of some ill-timed or ill-aimed comments, he never lost his head when it came time to get down to business on the track. A crushing win in Houston Race 1 and a nearly as successful second-place in Race 2 was all he needed to regain the momentum.

Castroneves – from appearances already thus far in Fontana – seems to relish the underdog role. He’s said repeatedly it’s a “nothing to lose” scenario because he can just purely go for the win and see where things fall as it relates to Dixon. The only thing that must happen for the popular Brazilian to have a chance is for the Kiwi to finish outside the top five.

“The way I look at it, we have nothing to lose this weekend,” Castroneves said heading into the weekend. “We have had a great, consistent year and we need to close it out with another strong finish and whatever happens will happen. I know we want to end the season with a win in the Auto Club car at Auto Club Speedway so let’s go try and make that happen.”

Dixon’s successes this year have come in a variety of ways. He’s maximized the points on the three doubleheader weekends, with a full 263 points achieved from the six races to 180 for the next closest driver.

Additionally, he’s made the most of two races where he was otherwise unexpected to post a big result. At the season opener in St. Petersburg, he rallied from 20th place to fifth at the finish. And Pocono, a race he considers his most pivotal victory of 2013, came as a bit of a shock given where the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team had been on pace prior to it.

“St. Pete for us was a big shock because we thought we came in good on the development area and testing had gone OK. But to qualify 20th, and it was a straight-up qualifying effort, it’s not like we got blocked or had a mechanical. We were 20th,” Dixon said Thursday.

“From Saturday to Sunday we reverted to all 2012 stuff on the car, so we had a good base. It was not an easy weekend but a very humbling one. It was the pure reality of not being where we needed to be. Those races are a credit to where we are now.”

And so here we are, standing on the precipice of yet another Ganassi versus Penske title battle, with two of IndyCar’s longest-serving drivers ready to duke it out for 500 miles. It should be fascinating to watch.

Aoyama to replace injured Pedrosa for Malaysia MotoGP round

MOTEGI, JAPAN - OCTOBER 15:   Hiroshi Aoyama of Japan and Repsol Honda Team (rides in place of Dani pedrosa of Spain) heads down a straight during the practice during the MotoGP of Japan - Qualifying at Twin Ring Motegi on October 15, 2016 in Motegi, Japan.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Honda test rider Hiroshi Aoyama will return to the MotoGP grid this weekend in Malaysia, deputizing for the injured Dani Pedrosa.

Pedrosa sustained a fractured collarbone after crashing during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix, with Aoyama stepping in for the remainder of the weekend at Motegi. The Japanese rider finished 15th, scoring one point.

American rider Nicky Hayden stood in last weekend in Australia, but is unable to race in Malaysia due to a clash with the World Superbike Championship. As a result, Aoyama will return for the race weekend at the Sepang International Circuit.

“I’m very glad to have the chance to ride for the Repsol Honda Team again, as in Japan it was a bit challenging to start Saturday morning from FP3, to adapt to the bike and to try and find my rhythm,” Aoyama said.

“I hope this time things will work out well and I can find a good feeling with the bike since the beginning. All of us wish for Dani coming back soon, but until he is recovered I’ll do my best for Honda and for the Repsol Honda Team.

“Tuesday was my 35th birthday and I’m simply happy to be here in Malaysia, which is a country I particularly like and I look forward to enjoy racing at the Sepang Circuit.”

Rosberg focused on winning the race, not the championship, in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg insists that he is only focused on winning the race and not the championship this weekend when Formula 1 visits Mexico City.

Rosberg is able to clinch his maiden F1 drivers’ championship this Sunday in Mexico, but only if he wins the race and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton fails to score any points.

The German has long insisted that he is approaching the championship on a race by race basis, and won’t change that stance in Mexico.

“I’m well aware of that,” Rosberg said when reminded he could win the title on Sunday.

“It’s been a great season so far which has put me in this position. It’s exciting to be in this championship battle with Lewis towards the end of the season.

“For me, my way of achieving the best possible result is to focus on the things that are in my control. In Mexico, that’s winning the race.

“For the championship, it’s not really in my control if I get it this weekend. It’s about winning the race and then see what happens.”

Rosberg maintained the approach when asked what winning the world championship would mean to him.

“It’s a childhood dream. But that’s where it ends for me,” Rosberg said.

“For me important this weekend is winning the Mexican GP.”

Rosberg was also asked about F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s suggestion over the United States Grand Prix weekend that the German winning the title would not be as good for F1 as if Hamilton won it.

“I spoke to him personally and he said that’s not exactly the way he said it,” Rosberg said.

“But for me it’s not something that’s important to me. I focus on my thing. That’s it.”

Rosberg won last year’s grand prix in Mexico when F1 returned after 23-year hiatus, and is relishing the opportunity to race in front of a passionate home crowd.

“I have great memories from here last year, winning here was awesome,” Rosberg said.

“The podium is one of the best in the year in the baseball stadium, it was absolutely phenomenal.”

Red Bull’s ‘Mad Max’ Verstappen adds flair and drama to F1

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing sits in his car in the garage before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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It’s been a wild season for young Max Verstappen.

The talented Dutch teenager has been promoted to Red Bull, become the youngest winner in Formula One history and bickered with some of the top teams and drivers in the sport. His aggressive tactics have even prompted a rules clarification for safety.

“Mad Max” is brash, won’t be intimidated and to many, he’s a much-needed dose of excitement for Formula One and a future champion. The kid seized on his chance to be fast and famous and won’t let go.

“Why wait?” Verstappen said. “I have a great car, a great team, and I want it all as quickly as possible.”

Verstappen is squeezing everything he can into this season as Formula One races this week in Mexico City. At the U.S. Grand Prix in Texas last week, Verstappen provided days of drama worthy of a 19-year-old still learning how to navigate a grown-up sport.

The teams had barely left Japan two weeks earlier when Mercedes considered, then opted not to file a complaint over his defensive moves against Lewis Hamilton in a braking zone. Verstappen finished second and Hamilton’s third-place finish pushed him further back in the 2016 title chase against teammate Nico Rosberg.

By the time drivers got to Austin, several used their Friday meeting to complain about their precocious rival. Having heard similar comments several times this season, Formula One officials issued a rule clarification: blocking during braking would be deemed illegal and punished. It took about 10 minutes for the media to call it the “Verstappen Rule.”

He shrugged.

“Maybe they can get past (me), now,” Verstappen said.

Conflicts have also flared in the Red Bull garage.

After getting an early warning during the race to save his tires, Verstappen barked over his car radio that he’s “not here to finish fourth!” A few laps later, he mistakenly went into a pit stop without a team order. He was out of the race a few laps later with a gearbox problem.

Even that disrupted teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Unable to race but still mobile, Verstappen tried to nurse his car around the track before he eventually pulled over and stopped. That brought out a yellow flag, which meant Ricciardo lost valuable time in his battle for second with Rosberg. Ricciardo finished third.

“When I saw Max out there, I thought, ‘Ah hell, my boy’s done it again.’ That was a devastating moment, but we’ll keep soldiering on,” Ricciardo said.

Team leadership was not amused.

“We have 80 engineers and strategists, but it’s all useless if a driver decides alone to come into the pits,” Red Bull racing consultant Helmut Marko told Autoweek.

Verstappen is the son of race driver Jos Verstappen, who made 106 career Formula One starts, and his talent caught a lot of attention from teams growing up. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff tried to sign Verstappen when he was 14 before Red Bull snagged him.

Wolff, whose drivers are chasing each other for the team’s third consecutive championship, has alternately called Verstappen “refreshing” and “dangerous” and has even compared him to Formula One’s revered Ayrton Senna.

“He comes in here with no fear, no respect, puts the elbows out,” Wolff said earlier this season.

That approach has worn thin on some teams, most notably Ferrari and its two former world champion drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen has warned Verstappen could cause a “massive accident” with his driving.

But Verstappen’s critics have done most of their shouting at him from the rear. Before his car failed him in Texas, Verstappen finished second in Malaysia and Japan. His five podium finishes in the last 10 races are three more than Vettel and Raikkonen combined.

And back in Spain, when the Mercedes cars knocked each other out in a first-lap crash, Verstappen leaped to the front and doggedly held off Raikkonen for his first career victory in his first race for Red Bull.

Verstappen drives with swagger and a win Sunday in Mexico would come on his 20th birthday. His critics have done little damage to his confidence or skills behind the wheel.

“No,” Verstappen said. “I am a grown-up boy.”

Williams to announce 2017 F1 line-up on November 3

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Martini Racing will announce its line-up for the 2017 Formula 1 season on November 3 following the Mexican Grand Prix.

Williams will change its line-up for the first time in three seasons next year when Felipe Massa retires from F1.

The Brazilian will be replaced by 17-year-old Lance Stroll, who won the FIA F3 title in 2016 with Prema Powerteam.

Stroll is set to join Valtteri Bottas, who, despite being subject to interest from Renault, is set to extend his stint as a race driver with Williams into a fifth season.

Stroll will become the second-youngest driver to make his F1 debut at the start of the 2017 season, and the youngest since the FIA introduced a lower-age limit of 18 to F1. The Canadian turns 18 this Saturday.

Williams currently sits fifth in the constructors’ championship with three races remaining in the 2016 season, with one podium to its name so far courtesy of Bottas in Canada.