Rookie Mikhail Aleshin a potential surprise driver to watch for SPM

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Although Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin is new to IndyCar, the 26-year-old Russian is not new to racing.

From go-karts, to small formula, to his 2010 World Series by Renault title, Aleshin has been one of only a few drivers from Russia who’s been able to really establish a career, as it’s a country where racing is only beginning to gain a worldwide foothold.

The last three years has seen him in a variety of machinery, from GP2 cars back to Formula 3, and also GT cars in the Blancpain Endurance Series.

As an SMP Racing-supported driver, Aleshin had an intriguing choice to consider in the middle of 2013 when he wondered his next career move.

“Basically in the middle of last year, the middle of the World Series season, we were speaking about my future, what are the solutions,” he said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “That’s how we came to the same idea basically that we need to try to do IndyCar.

“I’ve been racing more or less every open-wheel in Europe. But I think IndyCar is definitely a very important part of the open-wheel racing in the world. I’m really big fan of open-wheel racing, so that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Aleshin will be the first Russian to fly the flag in IndyCar; countryman Vitaly Petrov had that honor in Formula One.

“The other thing is it’s a big challenge for me to be here because I’m the first Russian driver to compete in IndyCar,” he said. “For sure, yeah, it’s a big challenge. Obviously most of the drivers, they came out from Indy Lights, Mazda, any American category. Most of them know most of the tracks, so there will be some difficulties for me because I don’t know any.

“Every time I going to come to the track, every time I going to learn just in the practice and go straight to qualifying.  Sounds like fun!”

Indeed Aleshin will be unlike the previous rookie in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ second car, Tristan Vautier, in that he’ll be thrown in the deep end at each circuit. Vautier had past experience at most circuits from either Indy Lights or Pro Mazda.

Also unlike Vautier, Aleshin has deeper experience in formula cars with similar horsepower and downforce levels, and that should help him.

The rookie is probably most excited about running on ovals; he got his oval baptism at Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier this winter.

“The most probably interesting part for me will be races on ovals because that’s what I haven’t done at all in my life,” he said. “I just did one test day in Homestead for my rookie test. It’s hard to expect something from something what you have never done, but actually it was much better than any of my expectations in the end, the feeling of racing on ovals.”

Aleshin expanded on the SMP Racing program, which supports more than 30 drivers worldwide throughout various GT and open-wheel championships.

It could be confusing – perhaps tongue-tying in fact – to remember Aleshin will drive the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda for SPM.

But while he’s largely unknown to the American audience, he could surprise. It depends on how well he gels with engineer Allen McDonald, who has been retained as engineer of the second car, and with teammate Simon Pagenaud, a renowned development ace who could well contend for this year’s IndyCar title.

Aleshin already feels comfortable with both, and that’s a good sign.

“Allen McDonald, my engineer, he’s a really experienced man,” he said. “He spent many years in Formula One, many years in IndyCar, last like maybe 15 years. I’m really happy to work with him. I think we found, yeah, basically one language I would say.

“Yes, Simon, I need to admit that he actually help me a lot with getting into the stuff fast, especially when I had my test at Homestead on the oval.  He just helped me to develop the car and to understand what I need to feel on the track, because obviously oval racing is completely opposite than what I used to do and I don’t know how the car need to behave.

“Normally I like aggressive car. On ovals, this is not best way. This is just one of the simple things I have learned there.”

Aleshin also has past experience at Sonoma; like Rubens Barrichello a couple years ago, that could be the place to pinpoint where he could deliver a “big” result.

Expectations are modest, and that could perhaps work to Aleshin’s favor. He’ll be up against two younger rookies in Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, who both have an edge on U.S. track experience.

But Aleshin could be a surprise driver this season. Realistically, this entry could achieve a top-15 finish in points with one or two top-fives, and maybe a podium. Anything more would be a bonus.

WATCH LIVE: ABC Supply 500 at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ run of different types of tracks continues with today’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway, as the final superspeedway race of the year to kick off the final four-race stretch of the 2017 season comes after a July where the series raced once apiece on a short oval, a street course and permanent road course.

You can watch the 200-lap, 500-mile race from Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. live on NBCSN (stream link here); the series is back live on NBCSN for the duration of the season after the last two races were live on CNBC, with an NBCSN same day encore.

Kevin Lee is on the call from Pocono along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, with Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Anders Krohn and Robin Miller in the pits.

IndyCar coverage will run from 2 through 6 p.m. ET.

After qualifying, here’s some of the questions to consider in Pocono:

  • How will the championship picture shake out after today’s race?
  • Might a new or surprise winner enter the mix?
  • Can Honda get back to winning and stop Team Penske and Chevrolet’s three-race win streak?
  • How might temperature, wind and downforce levels change the game?

My colleague Kyle Lavigne is on site in Pocono this weekend and may have some additional thoughts going into today’s race.


Tanak wins Rally Germany, Ogier retakes WRC points lead

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Ott Tänak flew to his second victory of the FIA World Rally Championship season in Germany on Sunday as Sebastien Ogier moved back into the lead of the drivers’ standings with three rounds to go.

Tänak led from Friday through to the final power stage to give M-Sport Ford team victory, marking his first tarmac win alongside co-driver Martin Järveoja.

“It’s a great feeling. The start to the rally went perfectly, after that it was just about controlling our lead,” Tänak said.

“Winning our first tarmac event feels cool. With 25 points here I don’t see any reason why we can’t fight for the championship. We will keep fighting; we need to keep winning if we’re going to win the championship.”

Tänak sits 33 points back from Ogier, whose bid for a fifth straight title was boosted with a run to third in Germany as chief championship rival Thierry Neuville retired with suspension damage on Saturday.

Neuville is now 17 points off the lead, with the WRC now embarking on a six-week break before returning in Spain on October 6.

Rosberg opens up on post-F1 life, tech investment interests

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Anyone who follows Nico Rosberg on social media will know that he has been keeping very busy since retiring just five days after winning his maiden Formula 1 championship at the end of last year.

As well as announcing he is to become a father for a second time, Rosberg has been travelling plenty, notably spending a lot of time in the United States and, in particular, Silicon Valley last month.

Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University, but has opened up more about his interests in technology and plans to invest in an interview with The Times.

“I recently got back from a trip to Silicon Valley. It was on my bucket list and it was really inspirational to see what happens there; I thought the mentality was fascinating,” Rosberg said.

“In our society, we look down on people who fail, whereas over there it’s normal to fail — it’s courageous. If you’re not scared of failing, you can get through to innovation.

“Over here, it’s very money, money, money, but over there people want to reach out to others, make their lives better and look after our planet, too.

“I’ve always been passionate about technology, and investment is of interest to me at this stage. Mobility is what I’m most interested in, because there’s been a huge disruption in that area and it’s going to change the health and future of our planet.

“It’s a fascinating time. I visited Uber and they’re working on their “network in the sky” already. They say that in the space of six years I’m going to be sitting here and my app will tell me which rooftop my drone is going to be on and at what time. That’s just around the corner, it’s pretty insane.

“So I’m starting to get active in that direction. I’m a conservative person, so I need to be careful. I do prefer to go for companies that already have a bit of a track record, but we’ll see.”

The interview cites Rosberg’s net worth as being £23 million ($29.6m), with the German admitting he earned “a lot” during his final year in F1 with Mercedes in 2016.

Nevertheless, Rosberg claimed he is “not a big spender”, instead opting for a number of property investment opportunities, his best being some space in London that has become a convenience store.

One of the big factors in Rosberg’s decision to retire from F1 was becoming a father, and he admitted that it also changed his approach to dealing with financial matters.

“Having [Alaia] really opened my eyes to future planning, because I want her to have all the opportunities I had in my life,” Rosberg said.

Ryan Hunter-Reay cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been cleared to drive in today’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) following his accident in qualifying for the race.

The driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda was re-evaluated Sunday morning by INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows after being transported, then released, from a nearby hospital in Pocono on Saturday.

Here’s INDYCAR’s full statement:

Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was re-evaluated by INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows this morning after sustaining injuries to his left knee and hip Saturday following a crash in ABC Supply 500 qualifying. Hunter-Reay has been cleared to drive.

Hunter-Reay will start from the rear of the field and press on in a great comeback after the accident. Last year he drove from the rear of the field – twice – to ultimately finish third. He won this race in 2015, his most recent Verizon IndyCar Series victory.

He posted a couple tweets last night thanking everyone for the support and the Holmatro Safety Team and Pocono’s staff for quick work to help him after sustaining hip and knee injuries from a heavy 138G impact.