Luck, qualifying gains could fuel a Marco Andretti title challenge

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Like Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti is nearly a decade into his top-level open-wheel career, yet has not entered the prime of it.

To chronicle Andretti’s, now 27, career arc, it goes a little something like this:

A breakout rookie campaign at 19 in 2006 features the near-win on debut at the Indianapolis 500 and his first actual win at Sonoma. In 2007, it was a pair of flips (Indy and Mid-Ohio), occasional highlights but frequent frustration. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, same story, but he axed the flips.

The 2011 season was a comeback, with an authoritative drive to his second career win in Iowa. But in 2012 it was a trying, forgettable campaign featuring only three top-10 finishes from 15 starts, and a career-low 16th in points.

In 2013, the comeback, part two. A career-high fifth in points, best of Andretti Autosport’s four cars, with results consistency and a renewed focus after an offseason soul search that saw him transform his game following work with a driver coach.

So which Marco Andretti shows up in 2014? It stands a good chance of being the close-to-finished article.

Save for the last two years, Andretti finished seventh or eighth in points five of his first six seasons. He knows how bad the low can be, after the disaster of 2012. And while there were highs in 2013, the misses – the losses at Milwaukee and Pocono – stick out like a sore thumb.

Andretti made huge gains in 2013, and is primed to make even more in 2014.

“I think ’13 was a good start to the direction I wanted to go,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We confirmed a lot of my work is in the right direction anyway. We just need to keep plugging away with that, and we have.

“I think I made gains since. I’m more confident going into ’14 than I was ’13. I was pleased with my consistency. But some of my best results of last year were on the street courses, which is where I was struggling.

“But I think this year the goal has to be to capitalize where we’re dominant, because I think that’s what really took us out of the championship the second half of the year last year.

“I think the races we know we can win we just have to win.  If we’re able to do that, string a few together, I think we can be champions.”

These are perhaps bold words from a driver who, as mentioned above, has only two career wins. But here’s why they’re not as far-fetched as you think.

Andretti is coming into 2014 with the team consistency needed to make an impression. He’s into his second year with engineer Blair Perschbacher, while teammate James Hinchcliffe has a new engineer in Nathan O’Rourke, and rookie Carlos Munoz is just new to a full-season ride.

Andretti has the confidence from his near-breakout 2013 to know he can in fact mix it in a deep field that has so many talented drivers.

And Andretti has now shown a marked improvement at the street circuits, the ones that were his downfall in years previous. As street circuits make up a type-of-circuit high eight of 18 races this year, it’s imperative to capture as many points as possible from those weekends.

He knows the next step in that street circuit development is improving his qualifying. He made only one Firestone Fast Six – qualifying fourth at Mid-Ohio – in 2013.

“I’m still not where I want to be on the road and street courses,” he admitted. “I think what’s really been hurting me, what I’ve really been working on is qualifying, making Sundays easier on myself.

“There were a lot of races last year we had to come from the middle through the back of the pack. Nowadays it’s how we’re measured, is qualifying.”

He makes an interesting and key point about how with the spec-Dallara DW12 chassis, it’s harder to take advantage of a bad qualifying day, and that makes Andretti’s results from poor grid spots in the past all the more impressive.

“Back in the day, dad used to not even focus on qualifying, hardly even care about it,” he explained. “Everybody in the field knew he was coming halfway through the race.

“But it’s a lot harder to achieve that nowadays with the competition, the spec cars.  Everything is so close. I need to start further forward.

“My race craft is there, stuff like that.  It’s been more difficult coming from the back.  I want to be in the Fast Sixes all year.”

It’s not that Andretti was the only one left out of frequent Fast Six appearances – Hinchcliffe and their other 2013 teammate, E.J. Viso only made it to the Fast Six two times apiece.

But Ryan Hunter-Reay, established team leader at Andretti and the 2012 series champion, made it six of a possible nine attempts. That tied for second-best in the series, trailing only Will Power’s seven.

For Marco Andretti in 2014, he’s got the name, the renewed confidence and the determination to want to be the best.

If he gets the qualifying down and adds one or more victories, look out as it may finally be his time.

NHRA: Chad Head to substitute for Alexis DeJoria in Charlotte

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Alexis DeJoria will miss this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, with her Kalitta Motorsports team confirming DeJoria will need to tend to a family matter.

Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports Director of Safety, will step into the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry this weekend. No timetable was given for DeJoria’s return; after Charlotte this weekend, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues for its third consecutive race weekend next week in Atlanta.

This isn’t the first race DeJoria has had to miss recently, as she also was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the 2016 NHRA season finale in Pomona.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Following his victory in Bahrain two weeks ago, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel arrived in Russia on Thursday targeting a third win of the year to extend his lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

Not since 2004 has a Ferrari driver made such a good start to a season, putting Vettel in contention for a fifth world title this year – although with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hot on his tail, it will have to be a hard-earned success.

The fourth round of the year sees F1 head to the Olympic city of Sochi, which hosted the winter games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom played host to its first grand prix the same year, and is now a key part of Russia’s post-Olympic legacy.

Bringing you all of the latest news and interviews ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, Will Buxton brings you Paddock Pass.

 

Times: F1, IndyCar, Red Bull GRC all on NBC, NBCSN this weekend

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This is NBC Sports Group’s first tripleheader weekend of the 2017 motorsports season, with all of Formula 1, the Verizon IndyCar Series and Red Bull Global Rallycross in action across NBC, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. The full release with more information is linked here, via the NBC Sports Group Press Box website.

The IndyCar race is first up, as it airs Saturday night from Phoenix International Raceway, with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Formula 1 then heads to Russia for the Russian Grand Prix, with coverage beginning Sunday morning on NBCSN at 7 a.m. ET with F1 Countdown.

Red Bull GRC’s kickoff to its 2017 season at Memphis airs at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

The full breakdown of this weekend’s motorsports coverage is below. Streaming is also available for all shows on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App, with links available via NBCSports.com/live.

Following is this week’s motorsports coverage schedule on NBCSN:

Date Program Network Time (ET)
Thurs., April 27 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East – Bristol NBCSN 11 p.m.
Fri., April 28 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 1 Streaming* 4 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 2 NBCSN 8 a.m.
Mecum Auctions – Monterey (Encore) NBCSN 12 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying Streaming* 11 p.m.
Sat., April 29 F1 Russian Grand Prix – Practice 3 Streaming* 5 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying CNBC 8 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 6 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix – Qualifying (Encore) NBCSN 7:30 p.m.
IndyCar Phoenix Grand Prix NBCSN 9 p.m.
IndyCar Post-Race NBCSN 11:30 p.m.
Sun., April 30 F1 Countdown NBCSN 7 a.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix NBCSN 7:30 a.m.
F1 Extra NBCSN 10 a.m.
Red Bull Global RallyCross – Memphis NBC 1 p.m.
F1 Russian Grand Prix (Encore) NBCSN 4:30 p.m.

INFOGRAPHICS

F1 (Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, Will Buxton)

INDYCAR (Rick Allen, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy, Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Robin Miller)

RED BULL GRC (Toby Moody, Anders Krohn, Will Christien)

Vettel tips Mercedes to strike back at Ferrari in Russia

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have had the upper hand so far in Formula One.

They don’t expect to have it against Lewis Hamilton this weekend at the Russian Grand Prix.

The long straights in Sochi suit Mercedes, which has won all three races to date around Olympic Park.

With two wins from three races, Vettel is seven points ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but expects that lead to come under pressure from the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“On paper, it’s a very, very strong circuit for them,” Vettel said. “A lot of straights, a power-sensitive circuit, so we’ll see, but there’s also a lot of corners where I believe last year already the (Ferrari) car was very good.”

Vettel’s wins in Australia and last time out in Bahrain have already disrupted the Mercedes dominance of the previous three seasons. Turning those promising signs into a serious title challenge over the remaining 17 races is a different proposition.

“We had a great start, yes. We’re very happy about it, yes. But have we, you know, achieved anything yet? No,” said Vettel, a four-time champion with his previous team Red Bull. “Head down and full steam for this race.”

Hamilton said he was hoping for a “counterattack” in Russia, but warned that Mercedes’ history of dominance in Sochi doesn’t mean an easy win is on the cards.

“If we win, it’s going to be earned, and we’re here to earn it,” he said. “We’re just going to have to drive the socks off the car.”

Hamilton and Vettel have beaten their respective teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen in all three races this season. As the title race takes shape, Bottas and Raikkonen face being forced to sacrifice their own opportunities to help a more successful teammate’s title chances.

When Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought for last year’s title with other teams far behind, letting them fight it out on the track carried less of a risk. In 2017, Ferrari and Mercedes know that if one of their drivers fights his teammate, it could allow the other team to steal valuable points.

Raikkonen, a former champion who hasn’t won a race since 2013, said he’d help Vettel’s title hopes “if it comes to that at the end of the year,” but doesn’t see himself as No. 2. Vettel said it was too early in the season to talk team orders.

At Mercedes, there’s a stark contrast between Bottas and Rosberg, who had a fierce rivalry with Hamilton for years before winning the 2016 title and promptly retiring.

“Our job is to get maximum points (for the team). If I’m ordered to move over, I will,” Bottas said. “But I’m working to make sure I’m not in that position.”

No fan of team orders, Hamilton said Mercedes will order one of its drivers to let the other pass only in “special circumstances,” but added: “Our approach is, the team needs to win.”

Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton, who was on fresher tires, pass in Bahrain so that the British driver could attack Vettel.

“Whilst it was very tough for him, he was a great gentleman about it,” Hamilton said, adding he’d have done the same for Bottas if ordered to.

The Finn admitted he’s still learning how to get the most out of the car after joining Mercedes in January at short notice when Rosberg announced his retirement.

“It’s all about fine details in the fight between us and Ferrari and obviously it’s also very close between teammates as well, so every little bit helps,” Bottas said. “These 100 days, I’ve never in my life learned so much.”

The only team capable of challenging Mercedes and Ferrari so far is Red Bull, which showed its potential with third in China for Max Verstappen.

However, reliability has stopped Red Bull gathering much momentum, with brake failure for Verstappen at the last race in Bahrain, and a fuel pressure issue for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia.

Ricciardo said he’s hoping for “a bit of a bullet” when promised upgrades arrive at the next race in Spain. That could make the championship a “three-way fight” with Ferrari and Mercedes, he added.