Australian GP wide open, both from past stats and preseason tests

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With so much yet to be determined in terms of how the pecking order will stack up for the Australian Grand Prix, perhaps past history could provide a baseline for how certain drivers have done at Albert Park.

Only two drivers competing this weekend, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen, have multiple victories in Melbourne. Button won the 2009, 2010 and 2012 editions; the first with Brawn and the last two with McLaren. Meanwhile Raikkonen won on his Ferrari debut in 2007, and also captured last year’s season opener for Lotus.

McLaren and Ferrari, this preseason, have been good but not great perhaps in terms of outright pace. The Mercedes power unit seems to have an early edge, but no one is sure whether Ferrari has showed its full hand.

A trio of World Champions: Sebastian Vettel (2011), Lewis Hamilton (2008) and Fernando Alonso (2006) have a win apiece in Melbourne. Alonso has four other podiums (two seconds and thirds) and hasn’t finished outside the top-five since 2003. Hamilton has three other podiums (one second, two thirds); meanwhile Vettel has been second and third here the last two years.

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg hasn’t had an easy time of it in Melbourne. A third in a retirement-plagued 2008 race is his only trip to the top three. He hasn’t scored points any of the last three times in Australia, and retired in both 2011 and 2013.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, the sole driver to wave the flag this year, posted a ninth place for Toro Rosso in 2012 and will be hoping for at least that if not more on his debut with the primary team.

From past recent Melbourne form, Lotus has been good, with Raikkonen’s win a year ago and a podium achieved by Vitaly Petrov in 2011. If similar regulations were to carry over you’d wager Romain Grosjean would have a good chance at making the rostrum, but not with the way the team’s preseason has gone in terms of time on track and reliability. Like Rosberg, Pastor Maldonado has failed to finish two of the last three Australian GPs, although he was on course to score points before a late accident in 2012.

Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg has nowhere to go but up in Melbourne. He’s yet to complete a single racing lap in three past Australian Grands Prix! Teammate Sergio Perez had his points-scoring Melbourne debut in 2011 wiped out per a disqualification; he hopes to improve on a best of eighth set in 2012.

Sauber’s Adrian Sutil did well a year ago with seventh, leading some laps on his return. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will look to improve on 13th from his F1 debut. Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne is yet to score in two Melbourne starts.

Williams could surprise, and a result for either Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas would likely be their best here. Melbourne has been a traditional bogey track for Massa, with five DNFs from his first seven Australian GP starts. But the last four have included a third (2010), seventh (2011) and fourth (2013). Bottas was 14th here a year ago.

The veterans at Caterham (Kamui Kobayashi) and Marussia (Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton) are simply looking for points; same story for the three rookies, Kevin Magnussen of McLaren, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson, who all seek a debut finish and perhaps points.

Castroneves obliterates track record for Phoenix pole (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Helio Castroneves has shattered the previous track record at Phoenix International Raceway en route to his second pole of the Verizon IndyCar Series season and Team Penske’s fourth in four races to kick off 2017. In the process, he also won his 49th pole of his INDYCAR career (7 CART/42 IRL/IC), which puts him in a tie for third all-time in series history with Bobby Unser.

The Brazilian, driving the No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet, also set the pole at Phoenix last year but at a two-lap average of 192.324 mph.

Tonight, under the lights with temperatures of 72 degrees Fahrenheit ambient and 83 for track, Castroneves’ average was a staggering 194.905 mph.

“People don’t realize that qualifying is extremely difficult,” he said. “I took it to the limit – I had one eye closed and one eye open. Experience is a big part of this and today was really, really good. The conditions were really difficult today in practice – the gusting winds were horrendous. We worked mostly on the race setup (in practice). My engineer did a phenomenal job and obviously everybody at Team Penske – the REV Group car was really fast. Qualifying is one thing – the race is another – but I’m really confident going into tomorrow.”

Teammate Will Power starts second for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Power was only the second car to run, but put down what looked to be an incredible two-lap average of his own – the first driver over 194 mph – before Castroneves beat him under slightly cooler and less windy conditions later in the session.

Young Americans JR Hildebrand, in his first race back after missing Barber, and Barber winner Josef Newgarden will share Row 2 with Simon Pagenaud fifth in Chevrolet’s first top-five qualifying sweep of the season, a result which was somewhat expected given Chevrolet’s edge in the aero department on a downforce-heavy short oval aero kit package at Phoenix.

It was Tony Kanaan, who was feted along with Castroneves on Thursday night in a separate event at the Heard Museum honoring both drivers’ 20 years in IndyCar, who led Honda’s charge in sixth. Mikhail Aleshin, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti and points leader Sebastien Bourdais completed the top 10.

Of note, Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe was 11th, his worst start thus far this year, and Ed Carpenter’s team was able to get his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet back out after a fuel leak in practice, and a rapid fuel cell change. But his luckless run in his oval races continues and he’ll start 21st and last tomorrow night.

Qualifying results are below.

AVONDALE, Arizona – Qualifying Friday for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.022-mile Phoenix Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine and speed:

1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 194.905
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 194.017
3. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 193.912
4. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 193.676
5. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 193.414
6. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 192.539
7. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 192.327
8. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 192.050
9. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 191.387
10. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 191.349
11. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 191.194
12. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 190.799
13. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 190.768
14. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 190.565
15. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 190.405
16. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 190.029
17. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 189.786
18. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 189.779
19. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 189.301
20. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 188.536
21. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 186.360

Phoenix weekend, Friday notes

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Days are weird when the track activity for the Verizon IndyCar Series doesn’t start until 4 p.m. PT and local time. Qualifying is tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, online via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App at http://indystream.nbcsports.com.

That then makes the notes we gather a little different.

  • Thursday night kicked off the weekend with an honoring and fun night of storytelling from Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, moderated by veteran open-wheel and NBA reporter Gary Gerould. The event, held at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, offered a lot of camaraderie, laughs and memories shared for the pair of Brazilians. We’ll have a full recap of the event on Saturday.
  • Oberto premieres on Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda this weekend as a primary sponsor. In a “convenient coincidence,” Oberto is also on Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ No. 41 Beetle GRC for two-time defending champion Scott Speed in this weekend’s Red Bull Global Rallycross opener in Memphis (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBC). The red-and-white No. 27 car had a primary sponsorship vacancy for most races this year in the wake of hhgregg’s financial issues, with United Fiber & Data only on for selected races.
  • Fernando Alonso’s entry is getting most of the attention among one-off Indianapolis 500 cars, but he’s not the only one. Per Spanish site IndyCarAlDiaJuncos Racing is set to run at least one car on the same May 3 date as Alonso will make his debut, as Ricardo Juncos’ team gets close to making its announcement for its driver or drivers it will have in this year’s race.
  • Alonso’s livery for his No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti is set to be revealed either the Tuesday before his test on May 2 or the morning of his test on May 3, itself. The @McLarenIndy account tweeted a sneak pic of the livery earlier this week.
  • The Jay Howard Team ONE Cure Honda-powered entry for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports doesn’t yet have its engineer set, but the team is getting close to finalizing the crew for that car.
  • Zach Veach’s No. 40 IWiT Championship Chevrolet will be revealed Wednesday night, May 10, at AJ Foyt Racing’s Indianapolis shop.
  • On a Red Bull Global Rallycross note: Andretti, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have both IndyCar and GRC efforts running this weekend, so four of the 10 Supercars. The rest of the GRC field features Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE (three cars), Subaru Rally Team USA (two cars) and Loenbro Motorsports, the former Ganassi team (one car).
  • Be on the lookout for a pair of digital pieces on NBCSports.com later this weekend. NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt caught up with Helio Castroneves for Rapid Fire, while she’ll also fill in for Anders Krohn – who’s on Red Bull GRC duty in Memphis – hosting IndyCar Paddock Pass. Hargitt caught up with Barber winner Josef Newgarden, series returnee JR Hildebrand and Hildebrand’s Barber fill-in Zach Veach in this week’s episode.

Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

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Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.