Charlie Kimball looks to continue methodical growth in 2014

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Methodical, year-on-year growth has been the story of Charlie Kimball’s first three years in IndyCar.

The Camarillo, Calif. native was admittedly in at the deep end in 2011, in a six-driver rookie class, as second driver at Chip Ganassi Racing’s new second two-car team that was down on data, information and available chassis compared to the sister Target squad.

In 2012, the points standing for Kimball didn’t change, but the results did. A second at Toronto – featuring arguably the pass of that year at Turn 3 – was the highlight among a few other moments.

But in 2013 there was the near-quantum leap. The first win at Mid-Ohio, done by flooring it compared to fuel saving, plus a fantastic pass of Simon Pagenaud. The second place at Pocono. The “Holy (expletive)!” pass of Will Power at Barber; the near-miss win at Fontana.

More than any of that? There was a huge qualifying leap year-on-year for the driver of the No. 83 Novo Nordisk entry. In 2012, Kimball’s qualifying average was 17.3; in 2013, that jumped to 12.8, a full five positions that would ultimately pay dividends and lead to more top-10 finishes.

As a result, Kimball ended a surprise, but deserved ninth in last year’s points standings after finishing 19th each of his first two seasons. He was ahead of illustrious names such as Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, and his former “CGR 2” teammate Graham Rahal – the latter by a full nine positions.

As Kimball and his engineer Brad Goldberg continued to grow, the team dynamic improved too with Kimball’s now-solo “CGR 2” effort more in line with the Target twins. As 2014 begins with the fourth car back in play, now driven by Ryan Briscoe, Kimball hopes the dynamic can carry over.

“Last year the integration was maybe a little smoother because there were only three data points, it was quieter,” Kimball said during IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“I think the single best definition of teamwork I’ve ever seen is the number of crew guys in a tiny Mid-Ohio sports car garage rebuilding a car after I crashed in practice so I could go out for qualifying and qualify fifth,” he added. “It didn’t matter what color shirts they were wearing, they were all in working on the car getting it ready to go.”

For 2014, Kimball, like the rest of the CGR crew, will go through a change in the shift to a Chevrolet engine. It will mark the first time the 29-year-old has gone through an engine change process in his IndyCar career.

“It’s not just unbolt an engine, slide another one in. There’s electronics packages, so many mechanical parts and pieces to make it work,” Kimball explained. “The transition has been pretty painless and very seamless. To be able to jump in the car the first day, do as many miles as we wanted, getting used to it, has been surprising, but also very, very nice.”

Compared to fellow 2011 rookies James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand, the latter of whom is sidelined full-time heading into 2014, Kimball has flown a little under the radar and let his driving now do the talking.

That’s by choice. While Hinchcliffe can grab the sound bites, Kimball can grab the results for the team without ever making a big scene of it.

“I think there are certain drivers with bigger personalities,” Kimball explained. “Part of it is I think my upbringing has never been real outspoken. I’ve always tried to be pretty quiet.

“Growing up my dad always had a saying, and I will inevitably screw this up, but, ‘It’s better to keep your mouth shut and thought a fool than open it and confirm the fact.’

“I think I’ve always tried to live by that and as much as possible let whatever it is I’m doing, be it on the track, young at school, on the tennis court, let my driving do the talking for me.”

His driving – to those with a keen eye of the IndyCar Series over the last two years – has definitely begun to do just that more than his national presence with Novo Nordisk.

He’s had the chance to reflect on what he gained in 2013, and what new driver additions Briscoe and Tony Kanaan can bring to the table this year.

“Tony brings a lot of different skills and a different personality, as does Ryan,” Kimball said. “I think going back from three to four cars will change the organization maybe more than what losing Dario (Franchitti) as a teammate will.

“Having said that, I think I will always miss having Dario as a teammate and competitor because of how much he helped me in the first three years, what his being involved in the team, being able to talk to meant. But gaining him as a mentor, assistant to the team, as a coach, he is invaluable.”

You don’t expect Kimball to be one of the talking points coming into the 2014 season, as there’s been so much other change within the Ganassi organization this winter.

But if he continues that year-on-year growth he’s shown thus far, expect Kimball’s driving to be earning him headlines as the season progresses.

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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