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IndyCar 2014 silly season update, round 1

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The championship is in the books for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, and while my colleague Chris Estrada and I will have a bevy of postseason wrap-up content to come, it’s never too early to look ahead to 2014. And thus far, there’s been no shortage of announcements and already a healthy portion of the field confirmed.

Here’s what we know thus far:

CONFIRMED (14)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (3 cars, Chevrolet): Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball. The champ is staying until 2015 as announced back in March, “TK” made his switch from KV and the team’s move from Honda to Chevy official at Houston and Kimball will seek to grow even further in his fourth season. We’ll touch on the fourth car in a moment.
  • Team Penske (3 cars, Chevrolet): Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power. Castroneves and Power stay with Penske for their 15th and sixth seasons, respectively, while “JPM’s” shock move from NASCAR was revealed in September.
  • Andretti Autosport (3 cars, Honda): Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay. This trio continues on but Andretti may have a new livery in his Dr Pepper Snapple car, Hinchcliffe will for sure with new sponsor United Fiber & Data, and Hunter-Reay switches back from No. 1 to 28, the latter number he won the 2012 title. Honda switch also was announced at Fontana.
  • Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports (Honda): Simon Pagenaud. Team announced Honda at Sonoma and Pagenaud will drive his third consecutive season with Schmidt, but with a new primary sponsor yet to be determined.
  • KVSH Racing: Sebastien Bourdais. The two-year deal announced just prior to Fontana did not make mention of the team’s engine manufacturer or Bourdais’ teammate, but a switch to KV is an upgrade from Dragon for the four-time Champ Car champion.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Graham Rahal. The first year of Graham’s homecoming wasn’t stellar so he’ll be looking for a turnaround in year two. A second full-time car is likely, and a third possible for at least selected races.
  • Ed Carpenter Racing: Ed Carpenter. About as shocking as Rahal staying at Rahal and Andretti at Andretti, really…
  • Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Josef Newgarden. The American enters the third and final year of his rookie contract in 2014, and seeks his first career win after a much-improved sophomore season.

ALL BUT OFFICIAL (2)

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (fourth car, Chevrolet): Dario Franchitti. It’s all but a formality even though Franchitti was careful to say earlier this year he wanted to return but didn’t have anything official done. As he recovers from his Houston injuries, the team seems set to keep Fontana replacement Alex Tagliani on standby for offseason testing. But this is Dario’s car for 2014 unless he decides otherwise.
  • Dale Coyne Racing: Justin Wilson. Yes, it was announced back in March that the lanky, talented and personable Englishman had signed a contract extension with Coyne. That aside, nothing is ever official with Coyne until Practice 1 at St. Petersburg is underway. The biggest thing here is that like Franchitti, Wilson recovers from his late-season injuries and gets back to being a badass behind the wheel.

VERY LIKELY (2)

  • Andretti Autosport (fourth car, Honda): Carlos Munoz. Assuming the funding comes together, this car seems earmarked for the Colombian who’s paid his dues in Indy Lights, starred in his IndyCar cameos, and is ready to make the jump to IndyCar.
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises: The eponymous team owner said in a conference call prior to Houston that the returns of Takuma Sato and Honda were close, but not finalized. Sato’s ragged second half of the season didn’t help his cause and all weekend at Fontana, my sources were alternating between “yes, he’ll be back” and “no, he won’t” on a consistent basis. I’d lean toward the former at the moment for consistency’s sake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they go a different direction, either.

LIKELY (2)

  • Barracuda Racing: Luca Filippi. From his three weekend outings, Houston in particular, Bryan Herta’s team was floored by Filippi’s pace, his candor, and his team interaction. JR Hildebrand gave it his best shot at Fontana, but given the higher volume of road and street course races, Filippi is a better full season candidate here.
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Tristan Vautier. Per team co-owner Rick Peterson at Sonoma, the intention and goal is for Vautier and SPM to carry through to a second season, where he can grow further and eliminate some of his mistakes. He’s a good kid with a lot of potential but a couple things work against him: he won’t have the Mazda scholarship support next year – that now goes to this year’s champion Sage Karam – and he had to make due with a consortium of backers on the No. 55 Honda this year. It might be a patchwork project again.

2013 FULL-SEASON DRIVERS LOOKING TO LAND

  • Simona de Silvestro. De Silvestro will be somewhere in 2014 after her best season, and while a KV return is possible, her management team told me at Fontana they are exploring all their options.
  • James Jakes. In roughly the same boat. A RACER.com story earlier this year said Jakes would at least like to consider getting paid as opposed to paying his way via his family’s Acorn Stairlifts business. Still, was one of the year’s most improved drivers and a second year at RLL would give both driver and team a chance to grow further.
  • E.J. Viso. Perhaps hamstrung by the investigation into Venezuelan funding for race drivers, Viso’s a big question mark at the moment as to where he fits into the equation.
  • Sebastian Saavedra. Dragon hasn’t made overtones yet about an IndyCar return, and Bourdais has already bolted, but it has already announced a Formula E program. So, make of that what you will for Saavedra. 
  • Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, Mike Conway, JR Hildebrand, Ryan Briscoe, etc. Wait and see for all of these drivers, who ran part-time 2013 seasons and traditionally haven’t brought budgets to seats. In other words, just another offseason.

2013 TEAMS LOOKING FOR DRIVERS

  • Second cars at RLL Racing and KVSH Racing will be in play, with RLL’s potentially not requiring a paying driver, if the National Guard-to-RLL story Robin Miller wrote a couple weeks ago for RACER.com comes to pass.
  • The second Dale Coyne Racing car is likely to go to the highest bidder, the latest bidder, or a combination of drivers who come up with the budget to put the year together as was the case this year. Not worth even discussing until St. Petersburg, most likely.
  • Panther Racing has nothing for 2014 confirmed, with seasonal layoffs coming and the potential of losing its title sponsor per that aforementioned Miller report.

If you project maybe one or two full season car losses from 2013, but add the third Penske and fourth Ganassi full-time entries, respectively, the 2014 grid will look fairly similar in terms of overall car count (24-25). Second cars from single car teams are always “possible” but rarely bear fruit. It’s only the end of October, so things will change soon enough.

RC Enerson stars in first official day in Coyne’s No. 19 IndyCar

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – On Friday, 19-year-old rookie RC Enerson delivered arguably one of the most impressive debut days in an IndyCar in recent memory – if not ever.

With only one day of testing, Enerson took what he learned from his first day last week and translated it into some seriously impressive practice pace for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy 200.

Enerson went from 1.1042 seconds off the pace in the first 75-minute practice session in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 21st, all the way to within 0.5322 off in the second – all the way up to seventh in that session and second Honda in the field, only behind defending Honda Indy 200 race winner Graham Rahal.

That time in free practice two left Enerson a combined 10th on the day, again second among the Hondas only to Rahal.

It didn’t really surprise those who’ve followed his career in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires closely. However, it did wow the paddock at large.

It was fitting, perhaps, Enerson was behind Rahal and then was sat next to Scott Dixon in the day end press conference because Rahal also starred as a teenager in his first season in open-wheel – 2007 in Champ Car – while Dixon became IndyCar’s then-youngest winner at age 20 in his first season in CART in 2001… before Rahal beat that in 2008 at age 19.

“I grew up watching a lot of these guys race,” Enerson explained during the post-practice press conference. “My first Indy 500 was when I was three years old, and seeing these guys go around, and now I’m 19 years old and there’s a lot of the same guys still there.

“It’s kind of like I get to race with my idols, really,” he added, to a room full of laughter.

Dixon followed, “We must have had a good generation, I think.”

But putting aside the obvious “yeah, he’s young” line – trust me as the youngest full-time member in the IndyCar press corps I get that joke at least once per weekend – what Enerson did on Friday was take in a wealth of information the team was throwing at him and translate it into pace on paper.

“It was incredible. It’s completely different than anything I’ve driven, and coming from — every time I come here, I always tend to do alright, and it’s one of my favorite tracks,” he said.

“It’s got this thing about it that it fits the driving style really well, and I’m just excited to be here, and this is probably — it’s probably the best track to make my debut at.”

Enerson, as he told me prior to his race debut last week, noted the difference in the step up from the Cooper tires he used throughout his Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career versus the Firestones now.

Enerson was really good at learning tire conservation there since there are no pit stops. But he noted the change in grip level on the Firestones, especially since the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is one of the highest grip tracks on the calendar.

“These ones tend to — after the first couple laps where you get your fast time, they tend to not fall off very much and you can keep your speeds up, and it’s amazing. It’s a completely different experience, and it’s challenging,” he explained.

On the tire note, where Enerson will have to learn, and learn quickly, is once he gets his first crack at the Firestone red alternates for qualifying later on Saturday, provided the session is dry.

“With the reds, we don’t get to see them. I’ve never driven on them, so the first time I’m going to get to see them is qualifying,” he said.

“So that’s what I think is the biggest thing for the rookies, I guess, is they don’t get to see those until it’s when it counts, so it’s hard to extract all that not knowing going into it, and I think that’s what comes with the experienced drivers where they’re able to know how much grip they’re actually going to gain to be able to push it to the max right off the bat.”

Still though, his debut impressed many in the IndyCar paddock.

Teammate Conor Daly in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda told IndyCar Radio of Enerson, “We have RC here this weekend, and he’s new – but he’s doing a great job.”

Daly’s engineer Michael Cannon, himself a key talent evaluator in his long career in the sport, told me Enerson has “taken like a duck to water” to an IndyCar and is handling everything the team is throwing at him with aplomb.

And Dixon, arguably one of the best drivers of his generation? He knows what it’s like to “wow” people when you’re the new kid on the block, as he did some 15 years ago.

“I think it’s great to see young talent coming through. It’s part of the sport. It’s part of what we need to see,” he said.

“We’ve had a good influx of recent, and it’s pretty cool in the fact that we have a series that, okay, so there’s some bigger teams and some more teams that have done better jobs, but in layman’s terms, you pretty much have the similar equipment. So it’s nice that you can come, and if you’re good you can get close.

“The only hard part with rookies now is the testing program. At least this year was a little more open. It was good that RC had the opportunity to test here last week, but still, you’re competing against guys that have been coming here for years and they’ve had a ton of test days.

“It’s so close right now that you’re looking for hundredths and tenths of a second to make the difference.”

Grosjean set for five-place grid drop in Germany after gearbox change

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean is set to receive a five-place grid penalty for this weekend’s German Grand Prix after a gearbox change on Saturday morning.

Grosjean has led the new Haas Formula 1 operation’s charge in its debut season, scoring all 28 of its championship points thus far.

The Frenchman arrived in Germany hopeful of ending Haas’ difficult run of form, the team having recorded just one top-10 finish in the past seven races.

However, his challenge looks set to become all the more daunting after Haas was forced to change the gearbox on his VF-16 car during FP3.

FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer confirmed in his report that Grosjean’s existing gearbox had not completed the six consecutive events required before a change is permitted, prompting the matter to be referred to the stewards.

Grosjean will therefore drop five places on the grid from wherever he qualifies later today at Hockenheim.

Qualifying for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Hamilton called before stewards over unsafe release in Germany FP3

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain drives the 4 Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been called before the Formula 1 race stewards over a possible unsafe release in the pit lane during final practice for the German Grand Prix.

Hamilton was released into the fast lane by his Mercedes team at the start of FP3, forcing the oncoming Romain Grosjean to hit the brakes and stop.

The stewards confirmed in a short statement issued on Saturday morning midway through the session that the Briton was to reported to the stewards at 12:30pm local time.

The incident could spell trouble for Hamilton given he has already received two reprimands so far this season, with a third resulting in a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton told NBCSN earlier this week that he expects to start last in either Belgium or Italy as a result of an inevitable engine penalty, but if the stewards hit him with a reprimand, it could add another challenge to his title bid.

Hamilton received his first reprimand in Bahrain for reversing a few inches in the pit lane, and hsi second for not adhering to race control’s instructions after running wide at Turn 2, failing to take to the left of a bollard laid out.

Qualifying for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Track limits extended at Turn 1 ahead of German GP qualifying

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain drives the 4 Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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FIA Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting has informed teams that track limits have been extended to the outside edge out the curb at Turn 1 ahead of Saturday’s running for the German Grand Prix.

Whiting sent a note to all teams after first practice on Friday saying that a three-strike rule would be in play at Turn 1 after drivers exceeded track limits 93 times in the space of the session.

However, after a meeting with the drivers on Friday night, this rule has been tweaked to allow drivers to run to the outside of the curb at Turn 1.

“Based upon our observations of the way in which the new curb on the exit of Turn 12 is used, and the comments made in the meeting yesterday evening, we feel that the usable track limit at Turn 1 should be the outer edge of the curb, i.e. the edge furthest from the track,” Whiting’s note read.

“The performance of any driver going beyond this point, with any part of the car, will be examined in order to establish whether or not an advantage was gained by exceeding this limit.”

Qualifying for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET.