IndyCar’s “nearly” man, Justin Wilson, set to overachieve once more

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Justin Wilson remains IndyCar’s “nearly” man heading into 2014. “Nearly” everyone acknowledges he is a true top-five talent, and top-two or three guy in terms of character.

Yet he’s “nearly” the best driver. He’s “nearly” in victory lane. He’s “nearly” with the best team.

So goes the story again for 2014. Despite Team Penske adding a car for Juan Pablo Montoya, and Chip Ganassi Racing needing to fill two new spots but going with Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe, once again Wilson has “nearly” missed out on a top drive as his contract option was picked up for one more year by Dale Coyne Racing.

Once Champ Car was folded into IndyCar in 2008, Wilson’s never had the true top-flight ride his talent deserves. He’s overachieved with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Coyne, and Dreyer & Reinbold, but in 2013 wasn’t able to crack victory lane.

As 2014 beckons, he’s “nearly” with the same group of people. Engineer Bill Pappas departs, with fellow veteran Michael Cannon entering his stead.

But on the bright side, the lanky Englishman says the Coyne team has made “nearly” all the improvements over the winter to be considered a top-flight organization on merit, rather than by Wilson and crew overachieving.

“We’re generally just working away on things, trying to get used to the new personnel,” Wilson said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We’ve had a lot of changes at Dale Coyne Racing. I’m now working with Michael Cannon, my new race engineer. He’s got a lot of experience, and that’s great.”

Also great has been Wilson’s frequency of seat time in the new year, beyond his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America/Sonny’s BBQ Honda for DCR. That’s important considering where he was in October.

Wilson suffered a fractured pelvis and pulmonary contusion at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which was his second major injury in three years. He also sustained a compression fracture to his T-5 vertebra to his back in 2011 at Mid-Ohio.

But through it, Wilson recovered quickly, and was back in a car by January. He’s alternated between the IndyCar and Michael Shank Racing’s Ford EcoBoost Riley, for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s opening rounds at Daytona and Sebring.

As Wilson’s gained track time, he feels optimistic that the team can improve on its sixth place in the championship in 2013.

“We didn’t expect that at the start of the year. Obviously now this year we want to build on it,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that have got to happen.  We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes.  Trying to get the most out of the car in qualifying, trying to get the car to work over a full stint in the race, that’s just part of it.

Wilson scored four podium finishes, with a best of second at Sonoma. He’s planning a return to victory lane in 2014, to build on his two prior wins (Watkins Glen 2009, Texas 2012) with Coyne.

“It’s easy to go down a path and get trapped and lost. That’s our focus,” he said. “Hopefully we can build on that and win races. That was the one thing last year, we came close to winning a couple races. There were a few races that something happened and I thought, We should have won that one. We didn’t. Want to change that around this year and at least win one, if not multiple.”

Considering Wilson, Cannon and the Coyne team have nearly 60-plus years of combined open-wheel experience between them, they should punch above their weight once more.

They don’t want another year of “nearly” missing out on wins and a potential top-five championship finish.

F1 Preview: 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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The third trip to the Baku City Circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix comes slightly earlier in 2018 for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Contested in June each of its first two years, the event was moved to April for 2018.

Although the circuit was initially criticized for its close quarters, its mix of tight corners and high-speed sections has produced quite a lot of action.

Last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix was particularly eventful. Sebastian Vettel intentionally hit Lewis Hamilton under a Safety Car after he thought Hamilton brake-checked him, and Vettel was given a 10-second stop and go penalty. Later, the headrest of Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas W08 came loose, forcing him to make a late pit stop.

The Sahara Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon saw their budding rivalry come to blows, as they made contact while battling inside the Top 5.

Valtteri Bottas finished second after early-race contact with Kimi Raikkonen, and Bottas pipped Lance Stroll for second at the finish line. Stroll, for his part, scored his first career podium.

And, Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from an unscheduled pit stop early in the race – Red Bull Racing had to clear debris out of the brake scoops due to overheating – to take a stunning victory that featured a remarkable three-wide pass on Stroll, Felipe Massa, and Nico Hulkenberg. Highlights of last year’s race can be seen here.

Will this year’s race produce as many thrills? Talking points ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix are below.

Hamilton Seeks First Baku Podium, and First Win of 2018

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The first two trips to Baku have not been kind to four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. His 2016 outing was fairly unremarkable by his standards, as he finished fifth after qualifying tenth.

The 2017 event might have been a victory for him if not for the aforementioned problems with Vettel and a loose headrest. Alas, he again finished fifth.

It’s hard to believe that Hamilton does not have a victory through the first three races of 2018. Combine that with his desire to erase the bad memories of Baku from 2016 and 2017, and the Briton will be extra motivated to stand on the top step of the podium.

Red Bull Looks to Keep Momentum

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Red Bull Racing is riding high after the Chinese Grand Prix, when Daniel Ricciardo took a shock win due to tire strategy following a Safety Car.

And the Baku circuit is one that Ricciardo likes, and not just because of last year’s victory, but also because it presents a lot of chances for overtaking.

“Baku is different to other street circuits – because there are places where you can pass,” Ricciardo asserted in a preview on Formula1.com. “Actually, lots of places where you can pass. As opposed to Monaco and Singapore where there’s not many places to overtake really.”

He added that the track’s combination of high-speeds and tight corners put a premium on getting your braking points exactly right, otherwise the track will bite you.

“The trickiest thing in Baku is braking. There’s so many braking points where you have to commit and you have to brake as late as you can – but there’s no room for error,” he detailed. “Once you’ve committed to that braking point, if you’ve locked a wheel, you’re in the wall. I’d say the hardest part about Baku is finding the limit with braking, and just having that confidence.”

Teammate Max Verstappen, meanwhile, looks to rebound after again catching the ire of many rivals and onlookers for his contact with Sebastian Vettel in China. Further, Verstappen looks to avenge last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, in which he dropped out following a power unit failure.

“Last year was a very unfortunate weekend for me. It was a shame because the car felt really good but I encountered a lot of problems which ultimately meant I missed out on a potential podium, perhaps even a win. I’m hoping this year I can make up for that lost opportunity,” said Verstappen in the aforementioned preview piece.

Ferrari Looks to Reclaim Dominance After China Hiccup

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

After winning the opening rounds at Australia and Bahrain with Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Ferrari had their first hiccup of 2018 in China, when a Safety Car butchered their tire strategy and left them vulnerable when others, chiefly Ricciardo and Verstappen, pitted for new tires.

Vettel was relegated to eighth after spinning following contact with Verstappen, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished third, his second podium in three races to start 2018.

Baku was one of the races from 2017 in which Vettel drew criticism for his on-track antics – see the aforementioned collision with Hamilton – and he’ll hope to get back on the podium to avenge both his struggles from China and from last year’s Baku outing.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, will look to get back to his winning ways for the first time since 2013.

Misc.

  • McLaren F1 Team sits a much-improved fourth in the constructor’s championship on the strength of two double-points finishes, with Fernando Alonso leading the way. Alonso has finishes of fifth, seventh, and seventh after three races, while Stoffel Vandoorne has points finishes of ninth and eighth to his name so far.
  • Sahara Force India still only has one points finish in 2018 – Esteban Ocon’s tenth in Bahrain. It’s hard to believe how far this team has fallen, even if the midfield is jammed with ultra competitive teams. That they have been off the pace to start 2018 is genuinely surprising.
  • Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team have been the strongest of the midfield teams so far, along with McLaren, and they should contend once again for points this weekend.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix rolls off at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday.

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