Honda Grand Prix Of St. Petersburg - Day 3

IndyCar: 2014 sees mix of old guard, future generation set for battle

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As the days begin to count down for IndyCar before its season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30, most of the field is set and most will have gotten in anywhere from two to three offseason tests – some more so, depending on available budget.

What sets up is a fascinating battle between three distinct generations: the older guard, closer to the end of their careers than the beginnings, the veterans who all have substantial experience and are in the middle of their careers, and the younger generation, who have shown glimpses of brilliance but not contended for wins and championships on a weekly basis. Yet.

THE VETERAN TRIO: TONY KANAAN, HELIO CASTRONEVES, JUAN PABLO MONTOYA

The two Brazilians have been inextricably linked since they moved to America in the mid-1990s, coming up through Indy Lights and then into CART in 1998. Then in 1999, a then-unheralded Colombian named JPM stormed ashore and swept to the CART title as a rookie.

In 2014, their goals are different. “TK,” who at present would take over the series’ unofficial elder statesman role at 39, has a long-awaited chance with one of the best seats in IndyCar, taking over the No. 10 Target car from Dario Franchitti. He’s got a great chance to win his second championship, 10 years after his first.

For Penske’s pair of Castroneves and Montoya, both 38, the stories are different. Helio seeks that elusive first championship in what, like Kanaan, will be his 17th season of racing, and his now proving-to-be-elusive fourth Indianapolis 500. For Montoya? It’ll be about getting reacclimated to open-wheel after an eight-year layoff, and showcasing the sublime driving ability he showed from his two CART years in 1999 and 2000.

THE MID-CAREER VETERANS: TAKUMA SATO, JUSTIN WILSON, SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, SCOTT DIXON, RYAN HUNTER-REAY, RYAN BRISCOE, WILL POWER, ED CARPENTER, MIKE CONWAY

This group all ranges from age 30 (Conway) up to 36 (Sato), and you figure they have anywhere from maybe four to up to 10 years still to go. And all still have something to prove after their careers in top-level American open-wheel have stretched back as far as 2001 (Dixon’s rookie year in CART).

Dixon, 33, and the defending series champion, is undoubtedly at the peak of his powers … but so too is Power, also 33, who came on like wildfire at the tail end of the 2013 season. A proper Dixon vs. Power title battle would be the treat IndyCar fans have waited to see for years.

But don’t discount the Ryans. Hunter-Reay, 33, is keen to rebound from a 2013 mired with bad luck and recapture the title-winning form of 2012; Briscoe, 32, could stealthily slide under the radar, pick up a win or two and play himself into title contention in Ganassi’s fourth car.

Wilson, 35, remains criminally underrated, and will have to perform miracles once again to threaten the establishment with Dale Coyne Racing. But he should work well with new engineer Michael Cannon. Bourdais, also 35 and now at KV, is a championship dark horse. If he wins a race early in the year, he could play spoiler.

For Sato, it’s about establishing further consistency and building on the success of his first year at A.J. Foyt Racing, that included the popular Long Beach win and Houston Race 1 pole. Carpenter, 31 today, has established a team now that can contend for wins at every race, with his oval expertise in those six races and Conway’s road and street course prowess in the other 12.

THE NEW WAVE: SIMON PAGENAUD, CHARLIE KIMBALL, JAMES HINCHCLIFFE, MARCO ANDRETTI, MIKHAIL ALESHIN, GRAHAM RAHAL, SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA, JOSEF NEWGARDEN, CARLOS MUNOZ

The youngsters, all under 30. At 29, Pagenaud is just entering the peak of his powers and at 22, Munoz is the youngest current driver in the field. Between this group of 9 drivers, there are only 9 career victories (Pagenaud 2, Kimball 1, Hinchcliffe 3, Andretti 2, Rahal 1). But it feels like that number could grow substantially this year.

Pagenaud’s technical ability is renowned and after two years of consistent growth with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, nothing less than a championship challenge will suffice. For Aleshin, 26, proving better than Tristan Vautier over the course of the season should be his goal.

Andretti’s trio of Marco, 26, “Hinch,” 27, and Munoz set that team up best for long-term potential growth as a collective unit, while the Ganassi and Penske teams have opted more for veteran, sage experience (Kimball is the only one of their seven combined drivers under 30, and he’s 29). This is a big year for Marco in particular, who made a big step forward in 2013 with fifth in points, but needs to be winning races – plural – something he’s not done in his career dating to 2006.

Same story for Rahal, 25, who should finally have the necessary ingredients to put it all together and recapture the heights he achieved at times in 2008 and 2009. He has the engineering depth, the primary sponsor of the National Guard, and for now at least doesn’t have the distraction or burden of a second car. He’s the sole focus for RLL’s 2014 full-season effort.

Newgarden and Saavedra, both 23, will likely find the road toughest in 2014, primarily because of extenuating circumstances more than their own ability levels. Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team will need to dig deep and emerge stronger from offseason personnel shakeups, but in year three, he should make a leap close to the one Hinchcliffe and Kimball did a year ago.

As for Saavedra, the KV equipment at his disposal should provide an increase over where he was with Dragon Racing last year, but the field is so deep and tight that it will take some phenomenal efforts to emerge even in the top-10 on a regular basis.

THE WILD CARDS: THE TBAS

Dale Coyne’s second car and Bryan Herta Autosport’s sole entry are yet to be confirmed. At least initially, the drivers of these two will probably find the road toughest because of the lack of testing time by comparison to the field this winter.

But as the field sets out in St. Petersburg later this month, the generation battle on display will be as interesting to watch as the battle between the teams. Last year, it was Hinchcliffe taking one from Castroneves. We’ll see who breaks through in only a few more weeks.

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.

Steiner: Haas is ‘a lot better prepared’ after this day one

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-17 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Last year’s first day of testing at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona for Haas F1 Team was both exciting and tense all at once.

As it was the first official day of running for the team, questions abounded over whether the new team would bank laps and if so, how would they get on. They did though with Romain Grosjean completing his first 13 laps in the morning session.

Luckily, having had a full year to acclimatize to Formula 1 and get in the rhythm of how this all works, Haas was able to have a smoother first day of testing in 2017, even despite an incident for Kevin Magnussen in his first day aboard the team’s Ferrari powered-VF-17 chassis.

“The plan was to do more, but that’s how the first day goes sometimes,” said Haas team principal Guenther Steiner. “We had a few issues, but that’s normal. They are to be expected when you have a new car and we sorted them out. We are here to learn and that is what we did.

“Our learning process is a lot better than last year because our people have worked together for a year now and we know more about the car. We are a lot better prepared.”

Magnussen ran through Pirelli’s hard, medium and soft compound tires on the day. An incident at Turn 10 damaged the front wing assembly but didn’t stop him from completing 50 laps.

“We had a few issues, but the good thing is that they were small issues,” Magnussen said. “Even though they stopped us from some running, it wasn’t something that is at all worrying for the coming days. It’s kind of the typical baby problems you have with the cars when they’re completely new. Except for that, the first feeling of the car is nice. It’s good to finally get that feeling of the car after looking at it, and all the anticipation for the faster cars. It’s a good feeling. Today’s been a day I’ve enjoyed a lot.”

The Dane continues tomorrow before Grosjean runs the last two days of testing.