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IndyCar 2014 Primer: The Tracks

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Rewind to Labor Day Weekend 2013. Simon Pagenaud had emerged victorious after a wild and wooly Baltimore Grand Prix that also saw Helio Castroneves increase his Verizon IndyCar Series points lead on Scott Dixon, who came out badly after being involved in a restart incident with Will Power.

We were left with questions: Had Castroneves effectively captured the series title that he’d been missing for so long? Could Pagenaud, now with momentum, mount a last-ditch charge in the remaining three races? And how would Dixon possibly be able to regroup from another disaster?

The answers didn’t come until five weeks later – yes, five weeks later – at the revived Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 5-6. Dixon exited the doubleheader with a points lead over Castroneves that he would not relinquish, while Pagenaud was eliminated from contention.

Such a long gap isn’t conducive to building championship buzz, so Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has responded by condensing this year’s 18-race calendar into a five-month span, which begins this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The new calendar retains the same three doubleheader weekends as last year, with two-steps in Detroit, Houston, and Toronto. One new race, the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis at the reconfigured Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, now serves as a kick-off to the Month of May. Gone from the docket, sadly, are a pair of street course gems in Baltimore and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

March 30 – Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (1.8 miles, 14 turns)
Blessed with waterfront scenery, this street circuit provides a picturesque backdrop to begin the IndyCar season. A critical part of the course is the left hand Turn 10/Dan Wheldon Way, which comes after a full-on blitz down the dog-legged Bayshore Drive.

April 13 – Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (1.968 miles, 12 turns)
North America’s most important street race celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and it’s a race that every driver wants to win. The land rush from Shoreline Drive into Turn 1 is always a highlight, and so’s the treacherous right-hand hairpin that sets it all up.

April 27 – Barber Motorsports Park (2.38 miles, 17 turns)
One of IndyCar’s most challenging circuits, this track features a narrow ribbon and multiple elevation changes to test the drivers. Surrounding the course is a beautifully maintained landscape dotted by whimsical sculptures. All you need to do to find the hot spot at Barber is to look for the spider near left hand Turn 5, aptly named ‘Charlotte’s Web.’

May 10 – Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (2.434 miles, 14 turns)
A new chapter in the legendary history of IMS will be written this May as the IndyCars attack the Speedway’s revamped road circuit. The course utilizes parts of Turns 1 and 2 of the hallowed Brickyard oval, but the infield section has seen several modifications leading up to what should be a fascinating watch.

May 25 – Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5 miles, banking of 9 degrees, 12 minutes)
Relatively flat turns and a different profile for each corner ensure that drivers are constantly running on a knife’s edge during the ‘500.’ The long straightaways (5/8-mile) would appear to provide a momentary respite, but considering the amount of passing we’ve seen in the last couple of years with the Dallara DW12, that may no longer be true. In short, this track separates the good from the great and provides one of the greatest mental tests a driver can ever face.

May 31-June 1 – Belle Isle Park, Detroit (2.34-mile, 13 turns)
The battle for the championship truly begins with a punishing doubleheader on Belle Isle, where drivers have to deal with numerous surface changes and park roads that are even more narrow than what you usually find on a typical street course. But the 90-degree Turn 3 provides a great spot for passing opportunities, as it comes at the end of a half-mile straight.

June 7 – Texas Motor Speedway (1.5 miles, banking of 24 degrees)
Seeing the IndyCars battle under the lights on the Texas high banks remains a thrilling sight to see. And with an extra 50 kilometers being added to the distance this year, there will be more excitement to behold. But with lower downforce now the norm on big ovals such as TMS, tire management can be just as important as pure horsepower.

June 28-29 – Reliant Park, Houston, Texas (1.7 miles, 10 turns)
The compact and largely concrete Houston circuit takes drivers on a quick trip through several of the city’s most important sporting landmarks, including the fabled Astrodome. Getting the hairpin at Turn 4 right is critical for drivers to accelerate through Turn 5 (the same corner that proved disastrous last fall) around the ‘Dome and stage a passing attempt going into the lefty at Turn 6.

July 6 – Pocono Raceway (2.5 miles; banking of 14 (Turn 1), 9 (Turn 2), and 6 (Turn 3) degrees)
There’s a reason why this place is called the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ Pocono’s three distinct turns are modeled after some of open-wheel racing’s most important tracks, with Turn 1 mimicking the long-gone Trenton, Turn 2 being similar to Indy, and Turn 3 taking on the feel of Milwaukee.

July 12 – Iowa Speedway (.875 miles; banking of 12-14 degrees in turns, 10 degrees in frontstretch)
Scorching summers and brutal winters have given this bullring plenty of character over the years. The bumps are especially noticeable in Turns 1 and 2, and combined with the 18-second laps, Iowa makes for a long few hours of work in the cockpit.

July 19-20 – Streets of Toronto (1.75 miles, 11 turns)
The mayhem always seems to go up a notch every time the IndyCars take to this street course. There are multiple passing opportunities, but things can get very tight in a hurry and that often leads to chaos. The right-hand Turn 3, which comes after a long run down Lakeshore Boulevard, may very well be the ‘Calamity Corner’ of the series – although Turn 1 at the Princes Gate is also ripe for run-ins.

Aug. 3 – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2.258 miles, 13 turns)
This venerable, natural-terrain circuit oozes a throwback vibe. Like Barber, it’s narrow, has elevation changes, and features a mix of high-speed and rhythm sections. The signature corner is the right-hand Keyhole at Turn 2, but watch for Turn 9, a blind corner that features an up-and-down elevation change. Qualifying up front and maintaining track position are very critical here.

Aug. 17 – Milwaukee Mile (one mile, banking of nine degrees)
The biggest part of success at Milwaukee is being able to navigate the flat, sweeping turns and accelerate out of them for good runs on the straights. The groove is a narrow one, making this matter all the more tricky to accomplish. But this is very much a driver’s track, which is much appreciated by those who wish to see great displays of talent.

Aug. 24 – Sonoma Raceway (2.385 miles, 12 turns)
Elevation changes abound on this highly technical Northern California road course, which can also prove slippery for drivers as the winds often throw sand and dirt in their path. Turn 7 represents a decent passing zone with a good run out of the track’s Carousel corner.

Aug. 30 – Auto Club Speedway (two miles, banking of 14 degrees in turns, 11 degrees on frontstretch)
Multiple grooves are present at this wide and fast Southern California oval, but a bumpy backstretch and treacherous seams in the racing surface can turn a good night into a bad one instantly.

Thanks to Wehrlein addition, F1 has a rookie battle now set for 2016

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 11, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.
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Last year, the rookie storyline in Formula 1 was an intriguing one, because you had three drivers in realistic points-scoring scenarios with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. at Scuderia Toro Rosso and Felipe Nasr at Sauber.

Then you had the lesser fancied rookie pair of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi – and later a welcome five-race cameo from Alexander Rossi – at Manor Marussia.

Point being, there was a lot of “new” to digest in the 2015 campaign and until Manor’s confirmation of Pascal Wehrlein earlier Wednesday there wasn’t going to be much on the new driver front in 2016, with Jolyon Palmer the only first-year driver.

In fact, outside of Renault with a completely altered lineup of Palmer and returnee Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team in its maiden season and with Manor set to complete the field, there have been no changes at all up-and-down the grid for 2016, making for a fairly static setting.

Neither Palmer nor Wehrlein is going to set the world on fire in 2016, but they’ll both be facing intriguing teammate situations and with lower expectations, have the opportunity to overachieve.

The rookie story won’t be a huge one this year, but the fact there’s now two first-year drivers on the grid means there is at least the potential of a story – both between them directly, and between them and their respective teammates.

In Palmer’s case, the 2014 GP2 champion will be fresh off a year of FP1 running and no actual racing, and matched up comparably to Magnussen, who spent the year sidelined after his unceremonious dumping by McLaren.

Magnussen will be keen to get on and assert team leadership within Renault, an opportunity he didn’t have afforded to him at McLaren, and reveal the talent those who’ve followed him through the ranks know is there.

Remember, hard as it seems to believe given McLaren’s downturn in fortunes through its nightmarish 2015, this was a driver who delivered a stunning runner-up finish on debut in Melbourne two years ago ahead of Jenson Button, in what was a McLaren double podium and the team’s most recent podium finish.

The closer Palmer can match Magnussen, and occasionally beat him – he’d have to hope more than Pastor Maldonado did to Romain Grosjean the last two years – the more his own stock will increase.

He’s a year and a half older than Magnussen so he’s at roughly the same career point, save for the single year of F1 race experience Magnussen has, so he stacks up more than favorably.

Wehrlein, perhaps, will enter Manor Racing with a slight edge over whoever his teammate is by the sheer virtue of the fact he’s been named to the team first, and he’s got the Mercedes tie-in as the team embarks with its new Mercedes power units – which ironically, were in the Renault camp last year, then as Lotus.

The 21-year-old German has been in line for a race seat for a couple years given his Mercedes reserve duties and occasional Force India testing; in theory, he’d have been a natural for Force India if one of its two drivers moved on or out for 2016. He’s a past DTM champion and he enters the sport highly rated.

He’s arguably Manor’s best rookie since the late Jules Bianchi three years ago, and the thinking could be that Wehrlein has the potential to overachieve at the back of the grid the same as Bianchi did in what was then a Marussia-Cosworth, in 2013, the final year of the V8 era. Once Marussia got Ferraris the following year, Bianchi’s stock only continued to rise.

Whether Rossi or Stevens gets the nod alongside – from an American standpoint, selfishly, you’d like to see Rossi confirmed and hopes are high in his camp he will – they’re probably going to enter the year on a slight back foot.

Reason being, Stevens was dependable but never otherworldly last season and Rossi, when he had his late season opportunity, left Stevens in arrears more often than not. In short, both seasons were incomplete, although in Rossi’s case, the potential was higher for more if he can continue into 2016.

Neither the Renault nor the Manor figures to be a frontrunner or even lead the midfield this season. Points will be at a premium; it’s going to be the moments where Palmer and/or Wehrlein outperform their teammates, get out of Q1, finish in the 12th to 13th range that will really catch some eyeballs or show their worth to the F1 world at large.

Fortunately though, the fact there is a rookie battle does add at least one intriguing subplot to the season.

Ganassi reveals livery, sponsor for Chilton’s No. 8 car

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Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Max Chilton’s livery and partnership for his No. 8 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing has been revealed.

The team’s full release is below:

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams (CGRT) announced today that international insurance brokerage and risk management services firm Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. will partner with CGRT’s No. 8 Chevrolet driven by former Formula 1 pilot Max Chilton in a full-season effort in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Gallagher, headquartered in Itasca, Illinois, has operations in 31 countries and offers client-service capabilities in more than 150 countries around the world through a network of correspondent brokers and consultants. This season with CGRT will be the company’s first foray into the world of motorsport partnerships.

Earlier this month, Chilton was named driver of the No. 8 entry after making 35 starts in Formula 1 from 2013-2014 for the Marussia Formula 1 Team. Most recently he contested a partial season in the 2015 Indy Lights Championship with one win, six podium and 10 top-five finishes.

“Our organization truly represents a global team effort with 17 drivers from 10 countries, in 13 cars across six series,” said Steve Lauletta, President, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams. “We have teams competing in North America and around the world throughout the racing season on any given weekend, and the most diverse driver lineup anywhere in the sport. We’re excited that Gallagher chose our team to create a new partnership with, and we’re looking forward to bringing another new global brand into the Verizon IndyCar Series.”

“We are pleased to partner with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” added Richard C. Tallo, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “Racing has tremendous global appeal and millions of fans around the world. Numerous parallels exist between race car driving and managing risk. Both in business and on the racetrack, teams have to quickly assess, calculate and manage risk if success is to be achieved.

“For nearly 90 years, Gallagher has built a strong and well-respected global insurance brokerage services and risk management business. Each day Gallagher employees help our clients mitigate and manage their risks so they are free to grow their businesses. With this exciting sport and Ganassi’s racing leadership, Gallagher will have the ability to leverage a range of marketing activities to further expand our brand awareness.”

Pascal Wehrlein to make F1 debut with Manor Racing

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 19:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP arrives in the paddock before final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 19, 2015 in Singapore.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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2015 DTM champion and Mercedes junior driver Pascal Wehrlein will make his Formula 1 debut in 2016 after securing a seat with Manor Racing.

Wehrlein, 21, has previously tested F1 cars with both Mercedes and Force India as well as enjoying success in DTM, Formula 3 and the German Formula Masters series.

After a long winter of speculation about his future, Manor has now confirmed that it will field Wehrlein in one of its seats for the 2016 season as part of its new technical partnership with Mercedes.

“Manor Racing is a great place for me to start my Formula 1 racing career. I’m very pleased to be here,” Wehrlein said.

“It’s a small and totally focused team and I soon hope to know everyone. Though it’s my first F1 season my aim is to help Stephen and the guys achieve their goals.

“It will be a tough challenge but I think we should be able to challenge for points along the way. It’s going to be good fun.

“A word for my racing family at Mercedes-Benz, and particularly for Toto, who have guided my career this far and made this opportunity possible. Thanks for the incredible support to help me achieve my dream; now it’s down to me to grab the moment and perform on track.”

Manor team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick was pleased to confirm the signing of Wehrlein, and believes that the German can make an instant impression in F1.

“Pascal is a sharp driver with a very promising future; Manor Racing is excited to have him aboard,” Fitzpatrick said.

“We’re a small team up for a big challenge this season, so we’ve chosen a driver with the talent and hunger to match our own on-track ambitions.

“Pascal has impressed in testing for Mercedes and Force India, together with commanding performances in DTM, culminating in the championship win last year. Manor Racing is perfectly placed to help Pascal make a big impact in his first season. We’re looking forward to it!”

Wehrlein’s confirmation leaves just one seat remains open on the 2016 F1 grid, with the identity of his Manor teammate still to be decided.

American driver Alexander Rossi, Britain’s Will Stevens and GP2 race winner Rio Haryanto are all known to be in the running for the seat.

Grace Autosport continuing to build program towards May

L to R: Grace Autosports Team Principal Beth Paretta and race driver Katherine Legge launch an all-female Indy 500 team to contest the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 (PRNewsFoto/Grace Autosport)
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One of the newest teams planning to field an entry at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Grace Autosport, continues its preparations in what could be a hectic month of February.

The primarily female initiative, led by Beth Paretta with Katherine Legge as nominated driver, has gained traction in the last month or so with further meetings, STEM events and Legge’s standout drive in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opening race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

While announced last May, time is of the essence for securing both an engine lease and a team partner, to go along with the crew already established.

The target to confirm both the engine and team partner is coming up next month.

“[We’d need to finalize] by the beginning of March to give it proper time,” Paretta told NBC Sports in an interview following the Rolex 24.

Paretta was on site at Daytona for the Rolex 24 for a number of meetings with manufacturers and other key industry stakeholders, to continue to promote the Grace Autosport message, brand and team.

“Yes, there were a few key meetings – some planned, some impromptu – which went very well,” she said.

“The awareness still surprises me. I was wearing a Grace Autosport hat in the paddock and a few people asked me about the team. Many people in the racing community have said they think the concept is cool and have offered help.

“I get offers for help from some guys that have worked on teams I’ve worked with in the past, which is lovely.”

Legge’s drive at Daytona in the DeltaWing DWC13 coupe didn’t hurt matters, either.

The Tim Keene-led team opted not to qualify in the treacherous, rain-soaked conditions. Legge started the car and went from 13th and last in the Prototype class field up to third within the first 20 minutes, and led by the end of the first hour.

In a career that’s had occasional standout drives, this was one of them, and came at a good time.

“Her drive in the DeltaWing was just fantastic. While she was leading overall I was talking with some other racing drivers in pit lane and one said, almost dismissively, ‘Well, that car was really fast,’” Paretta said of Legge.

“Yes, it was, but she has been an integral part of the development of that car and part of the reason why it’s become faster. Any IMSA fan knows that the DeltaWing project has had a lot of challenges so I think to see it running up front was a nice surprise for many fans. People like an underdog so I think it was really exciting to watch her climb through the field and run up front.”

Legge was due to share the car with Andy Meyrick, Sean Rayhall and Andreas Wirth before Meyrick got caught up in a strange accident, where a radio issue meant Meyrick didn’t fully hear there was another PC car stopped on course in the middle of Turn 1.

Although Meyrick braked earlier than normal to avoid it, proved by the data, he still wound up hitting Chris Cumming’s stranded car which took the DeltaWing out of the race. Cumming’s PC car was also severely wounded.

The DeltaWing aside, where Legge and Grace really seek to make strides is in STEM events. Legge and Paretta recently did an event in Indianapolis with the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc., last week.

The STEM portion is a major component of the Grace Autosport effort.

“STEM and education for girls is the foundation of Grace Autosport. It isn’t a throwaway comment connecting racing with a ’cause.’ It is why we are racing,” Paretta said.

“Even though we have yet to turn a wheel, we are working with different groups supporting educational initiatives for girls and young women. We participated in the Society of Women Engineers’ annual conference, which was held in Nashville in October, and this week Katherine and I will be delivering the keynote address to a conference for science teachers in the State of Indiana.

“So STEM education isn’t a pet cause for us, it is the cause for what we are doing. We will be making a few more announcements in the coming months that we will explain how we will connect our message to the community and the classroom.”