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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.

Relive championship battle tonight at 7 pm ET on NBCSN — IndyCar Chronicles: Simon Pagenaud

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If you want to relive the excitement of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle between Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, make sure to tune in tonight at 7 p.m. ET to IndyCar Chronicles on NBCSN.

“IndyCar Chronicles: Simon Pagenaud” is the final episode of this year’s show and features interviews with the two Team Penske teammates as they break down before, during and after the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Pagenaud dominated the season, winning five of the series’ 16 races, and put a bow on his first-ever IndyCar championship by winning the season finale at the picturesque road course north of San Francisco.

Power, who was seeking his second IndyCar championship (in three seasons), missed the first race of the season due to a health issue, but still bounced back to win four races in the season and was Pagenaud’s primary challenger heading to Sonoma.

Unfortunately for Power, a mechanical issue that his car suffered in the race paved the way for Pagenaud to win both the event and the championship.

Check out the video above for a two-minute preview of tonight’s show.

Previous editions of IndyCar Chronicles can also be viewed on YouTube.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Simon Pagenaud had The Force with him in winning IndyCar championship

The Force was definitely with Simon Pagenaud when he won the Verizon IndyCar Series championship on Sept. 18.
(Getty Images)
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So, Simon Pagenaud DID have an extra advantage when he won his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship on Sept. 18.

Pagenaud had The Force with him – no, we’re not talking about NHRA legend John Force – but rather The Force from Star Wars.

Our friends at IndyCar.com revealed in a story Wednesday that Pagenaud was part of a Verizon-sponsored advertisement for the popular “The Star Wars Show” on YouTube.

Show hosts Andi Gutierrez and Peter Townley tried to draw a connection between IndyCar racing and the popular Star Wars movie franchise.

“Star Wars is all about things going fast, spaceships (and) pod racers,” Townley said.

Added Gutierrez, “Right, it’s a natural connection.”

They interviewed Pagenaud at Sonoma Raceway, where the French driver would go on to win the championship later that weekend.

“I love this racetrack because it’s very difficult to get right,” Pagenaud said. “It’s quite slippery. You might experience up to 4Gs. Unleash the beast inside of you – and use The Force.”

See, we told you Pagenaud had an extra advantage.

It’s not surprising that Sonoma Raceway caught the attention of the show, given that George Lucas’ famed Skywalker Ranch is only about 20 miles from the racetrack.

Speaking of which, in one of the strangest Star Wars trivia contests we’ve ever heard of, both Townley and Gutierrez were peppered with questions about the film series while they “toured” the 2.385-mile racetrack at speeds of around 110 mph.

In addition to giving the answers, there was quite a bit of screaming from the hosts during the ride, with IndyCar driver Gabby Chaves and Indy Lights pilot Zach Veach serving as chauffeurs in the two-seat INDYCAR Experience car.

Who knows, maybe the next Star Wars film may include Indy cars in it instead of pod racers or TIE fighters. And instead of a lightsaber, maybe they could use the buttons on an IndyCar steering wheel to shoot all the menaces of The Empire.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

New York, Montreal switch dates on revised Formula E calendar

Formula E New York Press Conference Event.
New York, New York, USA.
Tuesday 20 September 2016.
Photo:  / FE
ref: Digital Image _L5R5688
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The planned Formula E races in New York City and Montreal have swapped dates on a revised calendar for the all-electric series’ third season issued by the FIA on Wednesday.

On the first calendar issued by Formula E over the London ePrix weekend in July, Montreal was slated for July 15-16 with New York set on July 29-30.

The New York race was officially launched last week, but no date was set amid ongoing discussions regarding its best placement.

Following a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council this week, a revised calendar for season three has been revealed with New York moving to the July 15-16 weekend.

Montreal now becomes the season finale on July 29-30, with both races remaining double headers and subject to the track being homologated.

The calendar also sees the removal of the two ‘TBA’ rounds, understood to be Singapore and London, leaving a 12-race calendar set for season three.

The new campaign starts in Hong Kong on October 9.

2016/17 Formula E calendar

1. Hong Kong – October 9
2. Marrakesh – November 12
3. Buenos Aires – February 18
4. Mexico City – April 1
5. Monaco – May 13
6. Paris – May 20
7. Berlin – June 10
8. Brussels – July 1
9. New York – July 15
10. New York – July 16
11. Montreal – July 29
12. Montreal – July 30

FIA confirms new wet start procedure for Formula 1 in 2017

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 29:  The safety car drives ahead of the field including Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and  Red Bull Racing, Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari  during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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The FIA has confirmed a new wet start procedure for Formula 1 from the 2017 season, as approved by the World Motor Sport Council at its meeting this week.

Following criticism of races starting behind the safety car in heavy rain that denied fans the chance to see a proper standing start, the FIA will tweak the sporting regulations accordingly.

“A new procedure regarding wet weather starts was accepted,” a statement from the FIA reads.

“From 2017, if a safety car is deemed to be required for the beginning of a race due to wet weather, a normal standing start will occur once the track is deemed safe to race.

“The process will see the safety car return to the pit lane and the cars assemble on the grid for the start.”

The change will be in force from next year’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 26, as confirmed on the provisional calendar also announced by the FIA on Wednesday.

Other changes approved by the WMSC at its meeting include a relaxing of the ban on helmet designs, an end to stockpiling of power unit components and a standard issue of tires for the early part of the season.

“Drivers must continue to present their helmets in substantially the same livery at every event of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship for easy recognition of the driver in the car,” the FIA statement reads.

“However a driver will now be allowed one event (such as a home race) for a special livery (at the driver’s choice). Drivers will also be allowed to change their helmet liveries if changing teams during the season.

“During any single event, if a driver introduces more than one of a power unit element that is subject to penalty, only the last element fitted may be used at subsequent events without further penalty. This is to prevent the stockpiling of spare power unit elements.

“For the first five events of the 2017 Championship season only, the normal team selection procedure for tires will not be used as the deadline occurs before pre-season testing.

“For these events the supplier will allocate two sets of the hardest compound specification, four sets of the medium compound specification and seven sets of the softest compound specification to each driver.”

You can read the full statement from the FIA here.