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.

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.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.