Ahead of this weekend’s United States Grand Prix – live on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra from 1pm ET – our very own Will Buxton takes you for a tour of the paddock at the Circuit of the Americas, shedding light on one of the most exclusive places in Formula One.
INDIANAPOLIS – The story of the Indianapolis 500 largely revolves around Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, who have won 10 of the last 16 ‘500s dating to the year 2000.
That year, 2000, was the year Ganassi returned to the Brickyard, the first team to break ranks with CART at the time.
The driver who won in 2000 for Ganassi – Juan Pablo Montoya – is also the driver who won in 2015 – then with Penske. He’s the only driver to have won the race for both teams. He set the longest gap in-between wins in the process.
And it’s with this as a preamble that we now say this about the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing:
It ain’t gonna be a straight Penske and Ganassi show.
And for the betterment of the race and the Verizon IndyCar Series, that is the best possible story line heading into the event.
Consider just some of the possibilities at play:
- Either of the first two starters, James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden, would be a popular first-time winner. Hinchcliffe completes his would-be movie script or Newgarden fulfills his undoubted promise as America’s next great hope.
- Other past one-time winners – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan – enter the two-timer club. Or Montoya wins his third, to go three in four attempts.
- Helio Castroneves finally fulfills his destiny as the fourth member of Indy’s four-timer club.
- Legacy names Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal get their overdue first ‘500 win, Andretti 47 years after Mario in 1969 or Rahal, 30 years after Bobby in 1986 (he has a thing for winning things, 30 years after his dad).
- Points leader Simon Pagenaud carries his ridiculous, bonkers, start to 2016 into his first ‘500 win after a strangely anonymous time on the oval.
- NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, 2011’s almost man JR Hildebrand, popular Catalan Oriol Servia or wild but talented kid Sage Karam wins one for the one-offers.
- Perhaps one of the five talented rookies steals the race. At the very least, there’s an intriguing subplot of who wins that.
- Honda bounces back from its disastrous 2015 race and lives up to the hype and promise it’s shown thus far.
- The “infamous” domed skids accomplish their goal of making cars harder to drive.
- And more than any of those particular driver angles comes another two words: track temperature. Track temperature calls the shots, because if it’s hot and sunny it’s gonna be slick out and the Firestone tires will go off. Versus if it’s cooler, cloudy and overcast, it’ll change the game entirely.
If you think about who could win it, there’s not one clear-cut name.
Even the Penske guys aren’t particularly pleased with how things have shaken out thus far.
Says Power, who will start sixth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet: “Yeah I guess it’s been a slow year you could say for me. I am flying under the radar a little bit.
“But I’ve felt pretty good. If you stack on too much drag, you’ll be slow. The tough thing is picking the right amount and not being too slow.”
Adds Pagenaud, who rolls off eighth in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet: “It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest. We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. Not easy to get speed out of the car.”
Meanwhile Charlie Kimball finished third last year but has, along with the rest of the Ganassi team, not fully seemed to hit their stride either. But there’s sneaky good potential here based on how he, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan were in the last two practice sessions.
“The competition is deeper than it’s been,” explains Kimball, who starts 16th in the No. 42 Tresiba Chevrolet. “When faced with that challenge, it’s an opportunity to succeed and stand out. With a field as deep as this year, the opportunity is there to overachieve.”
What are the some of the others drivers saying heading into the race? Unpredictability may be the norm.
“I honestly don’t know (about passing),” says Newgarden, who will start second in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet.
“Monday we could pass fine. I don’t think you’ll see a worse race. It depends on track temperatures. If it’s cool out, I think it’ll be a lot of passing.”
“It’s a lot about your timing,” adds Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda, who starts 12th. “It’s particularly hard now because the competition level is so high. Imagine, it’s still very difficult to overtake. Both are very close to each other.
“And it depends on what amount of downforce you have. It’s more setup-related. Honda had a difficult year last year, but it’s more positive now.”
Need an engineering minded perspective? Talk to Oriol Servia, who’s Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin’s teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and starts 10th in the No. 77 Lucas Oil Special Honda. The Catalan makes his 199thh career start on Sunday and explained why the cars have been so much more difficult to drive this year.
“With the domed skid it doesn’t feel good!” he admits. “The cars are quite a bit higher. These cars are better, closer to the ground. Up, it doesn’t work well at all. It feels like it’s sliding all the time. I think we figured it out a bit better than others. All of a sudden when you see the speed, in race day, we’ll show well.
“Comfortable is the wrong word! No one is. But around other guys, others have more trouble compared to us. I think we’ll be good. But it’s all about Sunday getting it right for the temperature and wind conditions. From Monday to next Sunday, it won’t work the same.”
A guy who will need to pass early and often is Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan with Theodore Racing. He’ll start 26th and if he makes hay early, could well be in prime contention for the win. He’s incredibly happy with his car in race trim.
“I’d like some long runs. I think my car is really good at end of run,” Rahal explained. “When others struggle is when mine is pretty good.
“I’m trying to not be overconfident. But the other day on long runs, I had no problem passing. And I had no one get by me. I feel good about that. An extended run to start would be pretty good. We take care of our tires. This is how I am on road courses too. I’m thinking about lap 20. You see at Barber I don’t have ultimate pace on first 2 laps. But when they come back 12 seconds, that’s where I’m strong.
“The biggest key is not to lose the draft. It should stay in a big group is my gut. But with groups of cars, if you’re the front guy in a group, it might be tough to catch up. You’ll try to stay right with however you’re with.”
Passing might be tough but judging by the frenetic pace in practice, particularly on Monday and Friday, it’s certainly possible.
Have Penske and Ganassi shown their full hand? It’s feasible they haven’t. But, as several competitors have told me throughout the month, why would you be dumb enough to have not shown your hand at least once?
Kimball’s summation probably works best – it’s not just the competition that has a hand in picking the winner – it’s the track, too.
“Tony and Scott have said this, and I believe it, that she (this track) has a hand in picking the winner,” he said.
“I’d love to be able to write the script and have the final page be me drinking milk, but there’s a lot of blanks in that script I can’t fill in until Sunday night.”
Gerhard Berger believes that Nico Rosberg must remain firm in negotiations with Mercedes over a new contract despite wanting to remain with the team.
Rosberg’s current deal with Mercedes expires at the end of this season, having last signed an extension back in 2014.
Speculation has been rife about the current Formula 1 championship leader’s future in recent weeks, with reports in the Italian press linking him with a possible move to Ferrari.
Over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, it was revealed that Rosberg has brought in ex-F1 driver and team owner Gerhard Berger to help with negotiations.
In an interview with the official F1 website, Berger spoke about his role with Rosberg, revealing that he only came on board earlier this month.
“It was pretty simple: I have known Nico since he was a little boy, as I raced against his dad Keke for years,” Berger explained.
“Last week both contacted me to see if I could do them a favor and negotiate Nico’s new contract, as he wants to fully concentrate on the championship. I said, ‘Of course!’ It’s kind of a friendly turn.”
Berger confirmed that both parties are keen to extend the deal, but said that Rosberg needs to remain firm to ensure he is happy with the agreement.
“I think everybody understands the other’s position: Mercedes wants to keep Nico and Nico wants to stay with Mercedes,” Berger said.
“But, of course, there has to be a firm view in the details – a rigid setting of the scene.
“To be honest it would really surprise me if we also started to negotiate with another team.
“But you never know. Clearly Mercedes is the first address for us.”
Berger admitted that an offer from Ferrari could be attractive to Rosberg, but does not expect him to accept a slower car than the one he is currently in.
“It is probably true from an emotional point of view that Nico would be flattered,” Berger said.
“But what is paramount in all negotiations and considerations is who can provide the best car on the grid – and that definitely is Mercedes.”
Word in the Monaco paddock was that Mercedes had only offered Rosberg a one-year extension that would take him to the end of 2017, while the German driver was keen to get a longer deal signed up.
Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda said earlier this week that he wanted Rosberg to sign a new contract in the next three weeks so that the team could fully focus on its bid for both championships.
INDIANAPOLIS – The Andretti Autosport of 2016 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a welcome throwback to the Andretti Autosport of 2012, 2013 and 2014, rather than the imposters of 2015 that were languishing midpack without any chance of winning.
And the best part for the team is that any of its five drivers has a realistic shot at winning.
Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third in search of his second Indianapolis 500 in the No. 28 DHL Honda, while any of his other four teammates would become a first-time winner.
In fourth is NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, having had arguably his best month to date in the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda.
Carlos Munoz, the sneaky good Colombian who has always done well at Indianapolis, starts fifth in the No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda.
Then Alexander Rossi has had a damn impressive first month of May in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/CURB Records Honda and will start 11th, best of five rookies in the field.
And last but certainly not least, Marco Andretti is hoping this will finally be his year in the No. 27 Snapple Honda from 14th on the grid.
The four race veterans here have all been good – Hunter-Reay may be the only winner in the group but each of the other three has been regular top-five contenders over the years.
Bell’s ascendance and quick acclimation to the team, with engineer Craig Hampson as an asset and with a great crew, has been a welcome story line to monitor this month.
“I’m so used to doing the interviews and saying ‘Hell, I’ll try to pick off where I can and work into top five.’ But now we’re starting here,” Bell told NBC Sports.
“We’ve started up front before (fourth in 2011). It’s nice to have clean air and good visibility. I’ll have a chance to lead this thing early on. It’ll be fun to put it all together on race day.”
Although Bell’s deal for the Indianapolis 500 came together fairly late, he’s gelled quickly.
“Yeah (a month like this) was I what hoping for, but I’m not sure I expected it,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised when we achieved it knowing how strong their winning pedigree is in the sport. I’m as happy for team and Honda as myself. I know how they hard to work with.
“And working with Craig has been terrific. He is one of the winningest race engineers in our sport. He’s totally passionate about extracting the maximum performance we can. I’ll miss him on Monday!”
Munoz is that driver that you don’t realize can win it but you probably would be stupid to overlook.
The 24-year-old finished a famous second on debut in 2013 and followed it up with fourth in 2014. Poised for another top-five last year, he fell back late owing to a late splash and dash for fuel.
Why does he think he’s so good here? Munoz instead said it’s the people that prepare his car.
“I get that question a lot,” he admitted. “I think with the team, the car, our team of Andretti has been so good and strong here at Indy.
“You can see it with whatever driver in fifth car here, goes quick. I’m not taking my own credit. They have something special here in ovals. Here, Pocono, I feel really comfortable.
“We’ve had four different drivers in the fifth car, the last four years. And I’ve learned from all of them. It could be the way they race, or the way they time their passing. Something you have to learn from all the drivers.”
It was easy to forget given what happened at Pocono last fall but Hunter-Reay did win the series’ most recent 500-mile race there, last August.
Marco Andretti himself has but one goal on Sunday: end that damn winless streak for the family driving here, that’s lingered since Mario’s first and only win in 1969 (see Bell and Mario Andretti flipping pizzas, here).
“I’ve had a lot of great shots here. I’m pretty confident with the race car,” he said.
“We’ve had hell of a week. There’s a lot gone wrong. But I’m still smiling with that quiet confidence.
“I’d much rather start 33rd with a good car, than start on pole without one.”
An Andretti Autosport win on Sunday would follow the form from a magical month of May that has seen the team win – or score big – quite a bit.
Tanner Foust swept the two Red Bull Global Rallycross races in Phoenix for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross.
The Amlin Andretti Formula E squad bagged a double points finish in the most recent FIA Formula E Championship race with Robin Frijns and Simona de Silvestro, its first of the season.
And on Friday, Dean Stoneman entered the IMS record books with a win by just 0.0024 of a second over Ed Jones in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100. It marked the closest finish in track history. For good measure, Stoneman’s teammates Dalton Kellett and Shelby Blackstock were a season-best third and fourth.
An Andretti Autosport win on Sunday would be its fifth in the Indianapolis 500, with the other three Jacques Villeneuve (1995), Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Hunter-Reay (2014). Villeneuve’s was as Forsythe/Green Racing, which later morphed into Andretti Green Racing, which later became Andretti Autosport.
The stage is set for a classic Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday after overnight rain drenched the street circuit ahead of the 78-lap race.
Daniel Ricciardo claimed a shock pole position for Red Bull in qualifying on Saturday, edging out the Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
However, with rain set to affect proceedings, all strategy and plans will go out of the window. Many legends have been made in the rain at Monaco – will another come to the fore today?
You can watch the Monaco Grand Prix live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown starting on NBCSN and Live Extra at 7am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.
Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call in Monaco, with pit reporter Will Buxton on hand for updates and interviews throughout the race.
Here’s what to watch for in today’s race, which kicks off at 8am ET in Monaco.
Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.
Join us from 7am ET on NBCSN and Live Extra for F1 Countdown, then make the switch over to NBC at 7:30am ET.
After the race, we’ll be heading back over to NBCSN at 10am ET for all of the post-race analysis and interviews.