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MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 2

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re continuing our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our respective bests and worsts of this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. As you’ll see below, Chris and I agreed on several items, but occasionally for different reasons…

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A no-doubter. Four second-half wins including the incredible run of three in eight days at Pocono and Toronto, a revitalized charge at Houston after getting knocked down at Sonoma and Baltimore, and a controlled drive at Fontana all did the trick for Dixon’s third IndyCar title. Helio Castroneves collected points, but Dixon went out and took points away.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s place among IndyCar’s all-time best competitors has to be secure after he charged from seventh in the standings at mid-season to his third career IndyCar Series championship. His three-race win streak in July (Pocono, Toronto 1 and 2) put him back in the title picture, but he proved how strong his resolve is after suffering twin calamities at Sonoma and Baltimore, and capitalized on the misfortunes of title rival Helio Castroneves in the Houston doubleheader with a win and runner-up. From there, he did what he had to do at Fontana and now he’s back on top of the mountain – a well-deserved triumph for one of the sport’s most tenacious drivers.

MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER

TDZ: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sebastian Saavedra’s a close second for me, but the stats don’t lie: Rahal tied Saavedra with the worst starting average in the field (17.7), had only five top-10 finishes in 19 races, and finished 18th in the standings. Plus, James Jakes hassled him way more than I thought was possible. A midseason engineering change from Gerry Hughes to Neil Fife helped, but it wasn’t enough to make a sizeable difference. Perhaps the addition of Bill Pappas for 2014, announced Thursday, will. I certainly didn’t expect this, and I’m fairly certain these guys didn’t either.

CE: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Things just never really got on track for Rahal in his first full-time season with the family team. He and the No. 15 crew are capable of better as they showed in their flashes of promise this season, like their podium at Long Beach, drive to fifth in Iowa and jumping 17 positions in Houston Race 1 for a top-10 result. It’s moments like those that should make the RLL camp optimistic about what they can do when everything does come together. But 2013 was definitely not that time.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Either “Newgy” or “Chuck strong,” Charlie Kimball, would be a worthy recipient here, and Chris hits Charlie’s case below. I’ll state Josef’s. The kid overachieved on a single-car team in his sophomore season and eliminated the mistakes that all-too-frequently occurred in his rookie year. He could have won at Brazil had it not been for ill-timed defending by Takuma Sato, and his run to second at Baltimore was one of the drives of the year. There, he started fifth, bounced from front to back to front again, and handled the track’s notorious chicane like a boss. His qualifying could be better but that’s my only demerit; 23rd to 14th is an excellent jump in the standings and in 2014 he should be contending for his first win, and a top-10 points finish, a la Kimball this year.

CE: Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. The IndyCar Series had four first-time winners in 2013, but it can be argued that Kimball’s breakthrough at Mid-Ohio in August was the most heart-warming of them all. It was the climax of a very competitive 2013 for the American driver, who logged two podiums (the other coming at Pocono), three top-5s, and 10 top-10s en route to a respectable ninth-place finish in the championship. Even better: With Kimball’s star rising on the track, he and sponsor Novo Nordisk’s noble work toward diabetes awareness is sure to resonate further off of it.

BEST RACE

TDZ: Brazil. Several second-half races challenged it from a drama standpoint – Sonoma, Baltimore, both Houston rounds and the Fontana season finale – but Brazil was the best blend of on-track drama and an incredible finish in my estimation.

CE: Brazil. Of course, this race is currently off the schedule for next season (*facepalm*). Time will tell if it comes back in 2015, but let’s hope so. This year’s running was everything a motor race should be – passes for position galore, daring maneuvers, and a battle that went all the way to the final corner. Even the most hardened oval-racing fans had to love what they saw in the streets of Sao Paulo.

WORST RACE

TDZ: Houston Race 2. The battle between Will Power and Dixon for the win was good, and there was decent passing throughout the field. So why does this qualify? The last-lap wreck that sent Franchitti airborne was the icing on the cake on what was IndyCar’s most trying weekend of the season. Franchitti and fans got injured, the national passerby media popped up again questioning IndyCar’s safety, and most folks left with a sour taste in their mouths.

CE: Houston Race 2. If you saw our coverage during the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, you’ll know that the on-track proceedings left much to be desired: Constant schedule changes, temporary chicanes, bipolar weather conditions, the botched setting of the Race 2 grid, and then, Franchitti getting sent into the catch fence on the final lap and scattering debris into the grandstands. Thankfully, Franchitti survived the incident and the injured fans weren’t severely dinged up. But altogether, it was certainly not IndyCar’s finest hour.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Going to take a step down to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder for this. The announcement that Dan Anderson and Andersen Promotions will take over Indy Lights, thus putting it under the same umbrella as Pro Mazda and USF2000, is huge. There is more cohesion, more announcements, and more possibilities for growth under one tent than separate.

CE: I don’t really see this so much as a “story,” but more so as “the right thing to do.” Shortly after the events of Houston, IndyCar drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to a local hospital to visit some of the fans that were hit with the debris from the aforementioned crash. It was a poignant reminder of just how many good people there are within the series.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Take your pick of the 2014 schedule and the doubts that raises among some IndyCar fans, the IMS road course race, the lack of a commercial division head or the rash of sponsors that are on the way out at the end of this year. To me, IZOD’s departure is the biggest – and worst – off-track story this year. It was not unexpected as signs of its leaving have been forecast for almost two years. At the moment though, there is little to no buzz about a potential replacement. I had mooted a couple suggestions a month or so ago but neither appears serious as time has passed. IndyCar has a good product, but will remain invisible on a national scale so long as it does not have a key title sponsor to activate and promote the series. This remains Mark Miles and Hulman & Co.’s biggest challenge, and as Miles performs company reorganization this winter, they seek the big fish that can help get this product to the people.

CE: I have to go with the condensed schedule rolled out for 2014. While keeping tabs on the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month, I had the rather cringe-worthy realization that IndyCar would be almost two months into its off-season by this time next fall. Nobody wants to deal with the NFL, but the proposed international winter series for 2015 better come off or the series will sink further into irrelevance thanks to its extended hiatus.

Thanks to Wehrlein addition, F1 has a rookie battle now set for 2016

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 11, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.
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Last year, the rookie storyline in Formula 1 was an intriguing one, because you had three drivers in realistic points-scoring scenarios with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. at Scuderia Toro Rosso and Felipe Nasr at Sauber.

Then you had the lesser fancied rookie pair of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi – and later a welcome five-race cameo from Alexander Rossi – at Manor Marussia.

Point being, there was a lot of “new” to digest in the 2015 campaign and until Manor’s confirmation of Pascal Wehrlein earlier Wednesday there wasn’t going to be much on the new driver front in 2016, with Jolyon Palmer the only first-year driver.

In fact, outside of Renault with a completely altered lineup of Palmer and returnee Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team in its maiden season and with Manor set to complete the field, there have been no changes at all up-and-down the grid for 2016, making for a fairly static setting.

Neither Palmer nor Wehrlein is going to set the world on fire in 2016, but they’ll both be facing intriguing teammate situations and with lower expectations, have the opportunity to overachieve.

The rookie story won’t be a huge one this year, but the fact there’s now two first-year drivers on the grid means there is at least the potential of a story – both between them directly, and between them and their respective teammates.

In Palmer’s case, the 2014 GP2 champion will be fresh off a year of FP1 running and no actual racing, and matched up comparably to Magnussen, who spent the year sidelined after his unceremonious dumping by McLaren.

Magnussen will be keen to get on and assert team leadership within Renault, an opportunity he didn’t have afforded to him at McLaren, and reveal the talent those who’ve followed him through the ranks know is there.

Remember, hard as it seems to believe given McLaren’s downturn in fortunes through its nightmarish 2015, this was a driver who delivered a stunning runner-up finish on debut in Melbourne two years ago ahead of Jenson Button, in what was a McLaren double podium and the team’s most recent podium finish.

The closer Palmer can match Magnussen, and occasionally beat him – he’d have to hope more than Pastor Maldonado did to Romain Grosjean the last two years – the more his own stock will increase.

He’s a year and a half older than Magnussen so he’s at roughly the same career point, save for the single year of F1 race experience Magnussen has, so he stacks up more than favorably.

Wehrlein, perhaps, will enter Manor Racing with a slight edge over whoever his teammate is by the sheer virtue of the fact he’s been named to the team first, and he’s got the Mercedes tie-in as the team embarks with its new Mercedes power units – which ironically, were in the Renault camp last year, then as Lotus.

The 21-year-old German has been in line for a race seat for a couple years given his Mercedes reserve duties and occasional Force India testing; in theory, he’d have been a natural for Force India if one of its two drivers moved on or out for 2016. He’s a past DTM champion and he enters the sport highly rated.

He’s arguably Manor’s best rookie since the late Jules Bianchi three years ago, and the thinking could be that Wehrlein has the potential to overachieve at the back of the grid the same as Bianchi did in what was then a Marussia-Cosworth, in 2013, the final year of the V8 era. Once Marussia got Ferraris the following year, Bianchi’s stock only continued to rise.

Whether Rossi or Stevens gets the nod alongside – from an American standpoint, selfishly, you’d like to see Rossi confirmed and hopes are high in his camp he will – they’re probably going to enter the year on a slight back foot.

Reason being, Stevens was dependable but never otherworldly last season and Rossi, when he had his late season opportunity, left Stevens in arrears more often than not. In short, both seasons were incomplete, although in Rossi’s case, the potential was higher for more if he can continue into 2016.

Neither the Renault nor the Manor figures to be a frontrunner or even lead the midfield this season. Points will be at a premium; it’s going to be the moments where Palmer and/or Wehrlein outperform their teammates, get out of Q1, finish in the 12th to 13th range that will really catch some eyeballs or show their worth to the F1 world at large.

Fortunately though, the fact there is a rookie battle does add at least one intriguing subplot to the season.

Ganassi reveals livery, sponsor for Chilton’s No. 8 car

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Photo: Chip Ganassi Racing
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Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Max Chilton’s livery and partnership for his No. 8 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing has been revealed.

The team’s full release is below:

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams (CGRT) announced today that international insurance brokerage and risk management services firm Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. will partner with CGRT’s No. 8 Chevrolet driven by former Formula 1 pilot Max Chilton in a full-season effort in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Gallagher, headquartered in Itasca, Illinois, has operations in 31 countries and offers client-service capabilities in more than 150 countries around the world through a network of correspondent brokers and consultants. This season with CGRT will be the company’s first foray into the world of motorsport partnerships.

Earlier this month, Chilton was named driver of the No. 8 entry after making 35 starts in Formula 1 from 2013-2014 for the Marussia Formula 1 Team. Most recently he contested a partial season in the 2015 Indy Lights Championship with one win, six podium and 10 top-five finishes.

“Our organization truly represents a global team effort with 17 drivers from 10 countries, in 13 cars across six series,” said Steve Lauletta, President, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams. “We have teams competing in North America and around the world throughout the racing season on any given weekend, and the most diverse driver lineup anywhere in the sport. We’re excited that Gallagher chose our team to create a new partnership with, and we’re looking forward to bringing another new global brand into the Verizon IndyCar Series.”

“We are pleased to partner with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” added Richard C. Tallo, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “Racing has tremendous global appeal and millions of fans around the world. Numerous parallels exist between race car driving and managing risk. Both in business and on the racetrack, teams have to quickly assess, calculate and manage risk if success is to be achieved.

“For nearly 90 years, Gallagher has built a strong and well-respected global insurance brokerage services and risk management business. Each day Gallagher employees help our clients mitigate and manage their risks so they are free to grow their businesses. With this exciting sport and Ganassi’s racing leadership, Gallagher will have the ability to leverage a range of marketing activities to further expand our brand awareness.”

Pascal Wehrlein to make F1 debut with Manor Racing

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 19:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP arrives in the paddock before final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 19, 2015 in Singapore.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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2015 DTM champion and Mercedes junior driver Pascal Wehrlein will make his Formula 1 debut in 2016 after securing a seat with Manor Racing.

Wehrlein, 21, has previously tested F1 cars with both Mercedes and Force India as well as enjoying success in DTM, Formula 3 and the German Formula Masters series.

After a long winter of speculation about his future, Manor has now confirmed that it will field Wehrlein in one of its seats for the 2016 season as part of its new technical partnership with Mercedes.

“Manor Racing is a great place for me to start my Formula 1 racing career. I’m very pleased to be here,” Wehrlein said.

“It’s a small and totally focused team and I soon hope to know everyone. Though it’s my first F1 season my aim is to help Stephen and the guys achieve their goals.

“It will be a tough challenge but I think we should be able to challenge for points along the way. It’s going to be good fun.

“A word for my racing family at Mercedes-Benz, and particularly for Toto, who have guided my career this far and made this opportunity possible. Thanks for the incredible support to help me achieve my dream; now it’s down to me to grab the moment and perform on track.”

Manor team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick was pleased to confirm the signing of Wehrlein, and believes that the German can make an instant impression in F1.

“Pascal is a sharp driver with a very promising future; Manor Racing is excited to have him aboard,” Fitzpatrick said.

“We’re a small team up for a big challenge this season, so we’ve chosen a driver with the talent and hunger to match our own on-track ambitions.

“Pascal has impressed in testing for Mercedes and Force India, together with commanding performances in DTM, culminating in the championship win last year. Manor Racing is perfectly placed to help Pascal make a big impact in his first season. We’re looking forward to it!”

Wehrlein’s confirmation leaves just one seat remains open on the 2016 F1 grid, with the identity of his Manor teammate still to be decided.

American driver Alexander Rossi, Britain’s Will Stevens and GP2 race winner Rio Haryanto are all known to be in the running for the seat.

Grace Autosport continuing to build program towards May

L to R: Grace Autosports Team Principal Beth Paretta and race driver Katherine Legge launch an all-female Indy 500 team to contest the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 (PRNewsFoto/Grace Autosport)
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One of the newest teams planning to field an entry at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Grace Autosport, continues its preparations in what could be a hectic month of February.

The primarily female initiative, led by Beth Paretta with Katherine Legge as nominated driver, has gained traction in the last month or so with further meetings, STEM events and Legge’s standout drive in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opening race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

While announced last May, time is of the essence for securing both an engine lease and a team partner, to go along with the crew already established.

The target to confirm both the engine and team partner is coming up next month.

“[We’d need to finalize] by the beginning of March to give it proper time,” Paretta told NBC Sports in an interview following the Rolex 24.

Paretta was on site at Daytona for the Rolex 24 for a number of meetings with manufacturers and other key industry stakeholders, to continue to promote the Grace Autosport message, brand and team.

“Yes, there were a few key meetings – some planned, some impromptu – which went very well,” she said.

“The awareness still surprises me. I was wearing a Grace Autosport hat in the paddock and a few people asked me about the team. Many people in the racing community have said they think the concept is cool and have offered help.

“I get offers for help from some guys that have worked on teams I’ve worked with in the past, which is lovely.”

Legge’s drive at Daytona in the DeltaWing DWC13 coupe didn’t hurt matters, either.

The Tim Keene-led team opted not to qualify in the treacherous, rain-soaked conditions. Legge started the car and went from 13th and last in the Prototype class field up to third within the first 20 minutes, and led by the end of the first hour.

In a career that’s had occasional standout drives, this was one of them, and came at a good time.

“Her drive in the DeltaWing was just fantastic. While she was leading overall I was talking with some other racing drivers in pit lane and one said, almost dismissively, ‘Well, that car was really fast,’” Paretta said of Legge.

“Yes, it was, but she has been an integral part of the development of that car and part of the reason why it’s become faster. Any IMSA fan knows that the DeltaWing project has had a lot of challenges so I think to see it running up front was a nice surprise for many fans. People like an underdog so I think it was really exciting to watch her climb through the field and run up front.”

Legge was due to share the car with Andy Meyrick, Sean Rayhall and Andreas Wirth before Meyrick got caught up in a strange accident, where a radio issue meant Meyrick didn’t fully hear there was another PC car stopped on course in the middle of Turn 1.

Although Meyrick braked earlier than normal to avoid it, proved by the data, he still wound up hitting Chris Cumming’s stranded car which took the DeltaWing out of the race. Cumming’s PC car was also severely wounded.

The DeltaWing aside, where Legge and Grace really seek to make strides is in STEM events. Legge and Paretta recently did an event in Indianapolis with the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc., last week.

The STEM portion is a major component of the Grace Autosport effort.

“STEM and education for girls is the foundation of Grace Autosport. It isn’t a throwaway comment connecting racing with a ’cause.’ It is why we are racing,” Paretta said.

“Even though we have yet to turn a wheel, we are working with different groups supporting educational initiatives for girls and young women. We participated in the Society of Women Engineers’ annual conference, which was held in Nashville in October, and this week Katherine and I will be delivering the keynote address to a conference for science teachers in the State of Indiana.

“So STEM education isn’t a pet cause for us, it is the cause for what we are doing. We will be making a few more announcements in the coming months that we will explain how we will connect our message to the community and the classroom.”