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.

F1 drivers relishing Silverstone, Suzuka races in new-style cars

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Formula 1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are all relishing the challenge of high-speed tracks such as Silverstone and Suzuka after enjoying their first races in the new-style 2017 cars last weekend.

This season has seen the introduction of revised cars under the new technical regulations that are capable of lapping multiple seconds per lap faster than their predecessors, aided by greater downforce and wider tires.

The new cars raced together for the first time last Sunday in Australia, with the pace difference around the tight confines of the Albert Park street course still notable.

All of the drivers have been impressed by what the new cars are capable of, finding them more fun and rewarding to drive, but it is when F1 hits the classic, high-speed tracks on the calendar that they will really come into their own.

When asked what track they were most looking forward to racing on this year, the top three finishers in Australia gave similar answers.

“Probably Silverstone. I think with that amount of grip and downforce,” Vettel said.

“Probably Suzuka as well later on in the year. Also I guess the cars will be even faster from what they are now.

“So, yeah, I think that would be quite nice. I’m looking forward to that.”

Hamilton added: “Yes, Silverstone, I agree” before Mercedes teammate Bottas echoed his peers’ thoughts.

“I think all the quick ones: Spa; Suzuka; Silverstone will be nice,” Bottas said.

“But I think even street circuits will be a bit more challenging I think – not that it wasn’t challenging before, but with these cars it will be nice.”

One of the biggest changes for 2017 has been the extra physicality of the cars, but Hamilton said he felt no major issues following the race in Australia.

“It was more physical but it was no problem for me and doesn’t look like it was for these guys either,” he said.

Vettel added: “It’s not the most physical circuit in the year. I think later on it will be very interesting. Here is very technical. So, first couple of laps, at least for me, were very intense.

“Obviously it’s easy to have an error, get something wrong under braking, go a bit wide etc. Later on I had a bit of a gap and I could control it, and therefore it was a bit easier.”

Chinese Grand Prix kicks off heavy April F1 stretch on NBCSN

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After an interesting kickoff to the 2017 Formula 1 season on NBCSN with the Australian Grand Prix last week, in just over a week the series will be back in action with the second round of the season, the Chinese Grand Prix from the Shanghai International Circuit. It’s the first of three F1 races in April with the Bahrain and Russian Grands Prix occurring later in the month.

Last year saw Nico Rosberg win in Shanghai over Sebastian Vettel and Daniil Kvyat, the last two having had a coming together at the start of the race before Vettel, now of Ferrari, beat his successor at Red Bull, Kvyat. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, only finished seventh after starting 22nd and last, missing qualifying with a mechanical issue.

Vettel enters China on the heels of his victory in Melbourne, but not having won in Shanghai since 2009, when he won for Red Bull for the first time. Mercedes has won the last three Chinese Grands Prix, Rosberg winning last year while Hamilton won in 2014 and 2015. Ferrari last won here in 2013, with Fernando Alonso.

Will Vettel continue with a second straight win to open the season, or will Mercedes reassume its place up top and continue its win streak in Shanghai? Can Red Bull reassert itself and who in the midfield will emerge?

All sessions will be live streamed on NBC Sports or via the NBC Sports App. FP2, qualifying and the race also will air on NBCSN. Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are on the call with Will Buxton reporting from the pits and paddock. As in Melbourne, qualifying and race run during the late hours of the evening on the East Coast, and a bit earlier for those on the West Coast.

Here’s the schedule with where to watch on TV on digital platforms.

  • Practice 1: Thursday, April 6, 10 p.m.-11:30 p.m. ET (digital only)
  • Practice 2: Friday, April 7, 2 a.m.-3:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, April 8, 12 a.m.-1 a.m. ET (digital only)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, April 8, 3 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, April 9, 1 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Bahrain Grand Prix, on April 16.

United Fiber & Data back, again, for Marco Andretti’s car

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The continued relationship between United Fiber & Data and Andretti Autosport rolls into 2017, although not in the way that was probably planned for either party.

UFD, which served as a major associate sponsor in 2013, primary sponsor for James Hinchcliffe’s No. 27 car in 2014 and a co-primary sponsor for Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz last year, has now been confirmed for “select races” taking over as primary sponsor of Andretti’s No. 27 Honda this year, starting with next week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

This decision comes in the wake of hhgregg’s ongoing business situation, where per media reports (one from USA Today here as a recent example) the electronics retailer plans to close a number of stores and was close to filing for bankruptcy.

“We are strategically exiting markets and stores that are not financially profitable for us,” hhgregg CEO Robert Riesbeck said in a statement in early March, via USA Today. “This is a proactive decision to streamline our store footprint in the markets where we have been, and will continue to be, important to our customers, vendor partners and communities.”

The sponsor had been announced as a multi-year, co-primary sponsor in August. A release from the Andretti Autosport team today didn’t confirm hhgregg’s exit from the team, nor did it state how many races UFD plans to be the primary sponsor. However, it would probably be a surprise to see hhgregg return later this year.

In the release, the team stated: “The rebranding comes as a result of the current issues being faced by hhgregg, leading Andretti Autosport to the decision of transitioning the branding on the No. 27 Indy car piloted by Marco Andretti.”

“We’d like to wish Bob (Riesbeck) and the entire hhgregg family luck as they work through the current situation,” said Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “We are blessed to have such loyal and dedicated partners; and while this is an unfortunate situation for hhgregg, we are pleased to have such a strong relationship remaining with United Fiber & Data.”

“We are proud of our longstanding partnership with Andretti Autosport, and we are equally pleased to continue this partnership by serving as a primary sponsor for select IndyCar races this season,” added Bill Hynes, Founder & CEO of United Fiber & Data (UFD). “We look forward to once again bringing the signature colors of the UFD livery to IndyCar tracks across the country.”

Finishing in Australia the ‘first milestone’ for Vandoorne, McLaren

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Stoffel Vandoorne says that getting to the finish of last Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix was the “first milestone” for McLaren after a difficult winter.

McLaren entered the new year looking to build on a quietly impressive 2016 campaign that saw engine partner Honda make big gains, lifting the team to sixth in the constructors’ championship.

Honda tried to cut the gap to pace-setter Mercedes by revising the layout of its power unit, only for a number of issues to arise through pre-season that left Vandoorne and teammate Fernando Alonso frustrated on the sidelines for much of testing.

McLaren arrived in Australia unsure about its chances, but Alonso was able to fight for P10 through the race before retiring late on due to a suspension issue.

Vandoorne did reach the checkered flag, albeit two laps down after having to complete a power cycle on his car mid-race. The Belgian was eventually classified 13th.

“It was a difficult race, but we knew that before coming here. We have to look at the positives, we finished the race, even with some issues we had,” Vandoorne told NBCSN.

“It was very busy behind the steering wheel doing a lot of changes on the toys and really trying to bring the car home. We even had to come in the pit lane and do a full power cycle of the car. At some point I lost the dash as well so didn’t really know what was going on.”

Despite the issues, Vandoorne said McLaren could take plenty of positives from the race, admitting that he did not expect to even finish the first round in Australia.

“I think it’s the first milestone to finish the race already. After Barcelona we didn’t expect this,” Vandoorne said.

“As a total package, we’re definitely not there. We don’t have the pace yet to compete with the cars ahead, that’s for sure. We need a big push.

“Hopefully China shows another step for us.”