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Villeneuve’s Indy 500 return trumpets the past, not the future IndyCar needs

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For four years, Jacques Villeneuve was one of the world’s best open-wheel drivers.

From 1994 through 1997, the talented and sometimes tempestuous Canadian dazzled on both a North American and international stage.

He was a star in CART for two years, and in 1995 was the young upstart threatening the iconic names of Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi and Rahal.

A year later he was off to Frank Williams’ Formula One team, in 1996. He almost won his first Grand Prix in Melbourne, and he took the title chase down to the last race in Suzuka. He won the championship a year later after surviving a lunge from Michael Schumacher at Dry Sac corner in Jerez, Spain.

From there, Villeneuve’s F1 career was never able to reach the same heights. He worked with Craig Pollock, and was his first driver in the new British American Racing team. But results between 1998 and 2006 with Williams, BAR-Honda, Renault, Sauber-Petronas and BMW Sauber were few and far between.

Eventually he made a few NASCAR starts, where he occasionally upset the establishment. He made a record, to show off his musical stylings.

He’s talked. He’s talked some more. And he’s talked again, most recently expressing doubts about F1’s newest era.

He’s returning to a full-time rally seat in the new FIA World Rallycross Championship, which has 12 rounds from May to November. But one of the rounds is May 24-25 at Lydden Hill in England, which happens to fall on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500.

Assuming he takes the green flag at the ‘500 in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ third car, he’ll set a new record for the longest gap between starts, with 19 years in-between that 505-mile race win and May 25, 2014.

Villeneuve is 42 now – 43 at the time of the ‘500 – and he’ll join a field that will include former ‘500 winners Buddy Lazier, 46, Tony Kanaan, 39, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, both 38. Scott Dixon, 33, is the youngest former ‘500 winner in the field.

All of the above preamble can lead to one of two overriding opinions:

  • It’s great for the sport, and great for Villeneuve, that he’s choosing to come back to the ‘500 after such a long absence. He’s a marquee name, former winner, and still attracts both discussion and sponsors.
  • It’s a joke, a PR stunt, reeks of desperation and denies a spot for a young talent to have a shot.

While social media tends to skew toward either extreme, Villeneuve’s presence really lies in the middle, albeit skewing slightly more to the latter than the former to me.

The good, first: Villeneuve is a big name, no question. The prestige associated with his past accolades is still something commercial partners can hang their hat on.

He seems to think IndyCar, as an organization, has made strides from where it was when he last left (albeit, it’s been through CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League monikers and separate series since 2008’s unification). And he wants in.

“It looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn’t racing. So that got me going again,” he said during today’s teleconference.

He has “villainous” tendencies, because of his handful of NASCAR starts occasionally featured controversial endings. He sometimes used his Team Penske Dodge as a battering ram at the Montreal circuit named after his father, Gilles.

But there are the questions as to either: A: Does he know what he’s getting himself into and B: What is really in this for Jacques?

He’s set himself up for a challenge. He hasn’t driven an open-wheel car since 2006, but he should be able to reacclimate quickly. At least he hopes he will.

“The power levels are the things you get used to the fastest,” he explained. “Possibly downforce and also driving a car that once again will be quite stiff compared to the cars I’ve been driving lately and very reactive. You can’t manhandle as much. When you get sideways at Indy, the chances of you catching it are quite slim compared to most other cars. You can catch it, but it’s not something you want to push.”

As far as expectations go, the word used today multiple times was “opportunity,” that stemmed from the discussions that have taken place quickly over the past few weeks.

But opportunity to do what? Just to start? To throw himself in the middle of the field and hope he can beat the full-timers to be a serious top-five or top-10 contender?

And then here’s a part I found interesting: the mention of kids. Ironically, Villeneuve’s hoping his appearance in this year’s 500 will be proof he’s still got it to his kids, while he’ll be in a seat that some in the IndyCar world hoped would have gone to – you guessed it – a kid.

“I don’t want to be for my kids just the guy that used to race that they can see in books,” he said. “I want them to see and live what I’ve already lived, to see it through my doing it actively. It’s actually a positive effect to have kids.”

Yet it’s IndyCar’s kids – a Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Conor Daly, Stefan Wilson or whoever else – who now have to work even harder to find the funding opportunities to achieve the same opportunity as a guy who starred as a kid in the 1990s.

Go figure.

Without a commercial partner announcement to go with today’s official confirmation, and yes, Schmidt Peterson co-owner Sam Schmidt is confident one will be announced in “not too long of an order,” it all doesn’t particularly add up yet.

You can trumpet the past winner argument all you want, and you can say it puts another car on the grid, and you can say it’s going to be cool to see how someone who raced in another era of open-wheel racing takes to the modern incarnation. All fair points, and yes, they will be interesting to watch.

But when you’re embracing your history books rather than the young students who are reading them, you miss the chance to write some new, fresh chapters with new, fresh characters.

Sim racers join Formula E teams ahead of Las Vegas eSports event

2016/2017 FIA Formula E Championship.
Marrakesh ePrix, Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan, Marrakesh, Morocco.
Saturday 12 November 2016.

Photo: Sam Bloxham/LAT/Formula E
ref: Digital Image _SLA8272
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Ten sim racers have joined up with teams on the Formula E grid ahead of the Las Vegas eSports event at the beginning of January.

Formula E announced last summer that it would be holding a non-championship event in Las Vegas that would pit its drivers against racers from the virtual realm.

With $1 million in prize money on offer, the race is poised to be one of the most lucrative eSports events.

Ahead of the event in Las Vegas, each of the 10 of the sim racers that have qualified have been paired up with a Formula E team.

“I’d like to officially welcome the sim racers who qualified through the Road to Vegas Challenge to participate in the inaugural Visa Vegas eRace,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“I’ve been following the progress of the sim racers throughout the qualification process, and I can’t wait to see them on the same track as the rest of the Formula E grid.

“Accessibility and fan engagement are two of the key cornerstones of Formula E, and what better way to promote this than getting the sim racers to compete in the same colours as their Formula E counterparts – it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.”

The sim racers in the event are:

  • Gregor Huttu (FIN) – Panasonic Jaguar Racing
  • Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola (FIN) – Andretti
  • Olli Pahkala (FIN) – Mahindra
  • Enzo Bonito (ITA) – Techeetah
  • David Greco (ITA) – Renault e.dams
  • Graham Carroll (GBR) – DS Virgin Racing
  • Aleksi Elomaa (FIN) – Venturi
  • Bono Huis (NED) – Faraday Future Dragon Racing
  • Petar Brljak (CRO) – NextEV NIO
  • Patrick Holzmann (DEU) – ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport

The Vegas eRace will take place on January 7.

Hunter-Reay, Rahal complete Acura NSX GT3 lineup at Rolex 24

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Photos: Acura
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Verizon IndyCar Series stars Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal will complete the eight-driver lineup for the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the pair of Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3s.

These two drivers join the previously announced six-pack of Andy Lally, Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Tom Dyer. The first four are the full-season drivers while Wilkins and Dyer are the third drivers for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup slate of races. Daytona, as a 24-hour race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule, makes up the longest round where four drivers are expected for most entries.

Exact lineups are yet to be determined. Both Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda) run Hondas in IndyCar, and switch from their previous teams in IMSA. Hunter-Reay was third driver in the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP last year, Rahal the fourth driver in one of the BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLMs.

Both Hunter-Reay and Rahal will test the car at Daytona next week.

“We’re thrilled to have Graham and Ryan join the Michael Shank Racing effort at Daytona,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for Acura in North America. “The debut of the NSX GT3 at the prestigious Rolex 24 will mark the return of the Acura brand to IMSA sports car competition. The addition of Graham and Ryan to an already excellent driver lineup, coupled with the experience provided by Michael Shank and his team, will make the NSX GT3 a serious contender for the GTD class victory at Daytona.”

Jenson Button receives honorary degree from University of Bath (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button became ‘Dr. Jenson Button’ earlier this week when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bath in England.

Button, 36, made what looks set to be his final Formula 1 appearance at the end of last month in Abu Dhabi, drawing the curtain on a 16-year stint at the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Briton won the F1 drivers’ championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2011, as well as winning 15 grands prix.

Button added to his list of achievements by picking up an honorary degree in engineering from the University of Bath earlier this week.

“I didn’t go to university and work hard in my early years, but I would say that a lot of my achievements in motorsport are down to my engineering understanding of a racing car,” Button said when addressing the audience at the ceremony.

Button does have a contract to race for McLaren in 2018 should both he and the driver be keen, but looks unlikely to return.

Button does remain keen to race occasionally through 2017, expressing an interest in racing in Super GT and rallycross.

Williams expecting Stroll to make mistakes through debut F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 24:  Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock  during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds says he expects 18-year-old Lance Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie season in 2017.

Williams announced last month that Stroll would be stepping up from Formula 3 to a full-time F1 seat for 2017, replacing the retiring Felipe Massa.

Stroll has an impressive track record through his junior racing career, becoming the youngest ever FIA F3 champion in 2016.

However, his on-track actions have caught attention for the wrong reasons at times, with the Canadian receiving a race ban in June 2015 for causing an accident.

Speaking to Reuters, Symonds said that Williams is braced for Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie campaign as he gets to grips with life in F1.

“Of course he’ll make mistakes and we’ll be repairing cars. These things happen as part of the process,” Symonds said.

“If you look at his Formula 3 career, in 2015 he was having quite a few accidents in that. The Monza one is just staggering.”

However, Symonds has no doubt in Stroll’s talent, believing the youngster to have proven himself during his two-year stint in F3.

“He hasn’t won that championship with anything other than a lot of skill and maturity,” Symonds said.

“For a guy that young, he’s driven really well in pretty well every condition. He’s raced well, he’s led at the front. He’s come through the field a bit, he’s driven well in the wet.

“He is the real deal.”

Besides his F3 commitments, Stroll has also completed an extensive F1 testing program through 2016 that saw him conduct running in a 2014-spec Williams in order to prepare him for his race debut in Australia next March.