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IndyCar 2014 Primer: Some key story lines

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There is no shortage of story lines to follow in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series. Here are just a few…

-DIXON VS. POWER

It’s perhaps the best rivalry in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Scott Dixon and Will Power, few would argue, are two of IndyCar’s best drivers at the moment. One’s from New Zealand, the other from Australia. One drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the other Team Penske.

They’ve sparred numerous times, most recently in the back-to-back races of Sonoma and Baltimore in 2013. But they haven’t yet fought head-to-head for a series championship.

Dixon’s two when Power was in the series (2008 and 2013) came when Power was in his first year under INDYCAR sanction and driving with KV Racing, and when Power was essentially eliminated last year and wasn’t able to contend as he had from 2010 through 2012.

It had been a Power-Dario Franchitti showdown those years, with Dixon’s luck taking him out of the equation. Now, with Franchitti retired, the stage is set for these two to have a potentially epic bout for the crown.

Of course, that’s unless any of their respective teammates, three of the four Andretti Autosport, or potentially another wild card, have anything to say about that…

-BIG THREE HAVE HALF THE FIELD, BUT WON’T HAVE ALL THE WINS

With 11 of the 22 full-season entries, Chip Ganassi Racing (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball), Team Penske (Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves) and Andretti Autosport (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz) on paper could lock out the top 10 in the final points standings. But it’s not going to be that simple, with several other top-flight operations looking to overachieve.

Any of Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing), Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing), Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Racing) or Mike Conway (Ed Carpenter Racing) pose a true threat to the establishment on the road and street courses. Swap Ed Carpenter in for Conway on the ovals and there’s another win threat.

That’s without even projecting some of the emerging young guns – a Josef Newgarden, Sebastian Saavedra, Mikhail Aleshin or Jack Hawksworth – making strides as well.

Simply put, there is no shortage of depth in team or driver talent throughout the grid. There were 10 winners in 19 races in 2013; there could well be 10 or 11 in 2014, even with a reduction to 18 races.

-WHO’S THE “NAME” DRIVER?

With Franchitti retired, IndyCar is unfortunately down to just a handful of “big names” that are truly well known on a national stage. Penske’s Castroneves and Montoya and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Kanaan certainly qualify. But they all have at least 15 years in the North American racing sphere to fall back on.  Andretti and Rahal have the right last names, but not the overall results as yet.

One of the elements new entitlement partner Verizon may seek to work on this year is developing a true new generation of mainstream stars that can be as recognizable beyond the entrenched set of hardcore IndyCar fans. Power and Hinchcliffe are getting there, and Dixon and Hunter-Reay should be better known than they are now.

GENERATIONAL GAP

I touched on this earlier this offseason, but seeing which of the old guard versus the mid-level veterans versus young guns will take flight this year is going to be fascinating to watch. Key in this segment is how well JPM will do after an eight-year absence since his last season of Formula One, and after 14 years since his last season in North American open-wheel racing.

HANDLING THE RULES CHANGES

Whether it’s a shift from single to twin-turbo if you’re a Honda team, or whether you’re the field adapting to any of restart, pit lane opening/closings or qualifying adjustments, there are still plenty of new things teams will need to get a handle on even if the equipment basically stays the same for 2014.

-NO REST FOR THE WEARY

It’s been discussed in brief, but with the condensed schedule from the end of March through the end of August, with only one three-week gap in-between races (from Texas to Houston June 7 to June 28-29), how will the crews and drivers hold up through the relentless stretch of races? The ones who can maintain their composure and top level of performance are likeliest to succeed.

Perhaps the toughest stretch this year is from that Houston weekend June 28-29, followed in immediate succession by a 500-mile race at Pocono, 250 laps on the Iowa bullring, and another double-header in Toronto to make for six races in four weekends.

The relief comes with only a single off weekend before Mid-Ohio August 3, another off weekend, and three straight weeks in Milwaukee, Sonoma and Fontana to end the season.

Williams’ updates take Bottas to P2 on Russian GP grid

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Valtteri Bottas’ hopes of ending his difficult start to the 2016 Formula 1 season were given a boost after he qualified third for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday in Sochi.

Bottas scored just seven points in the opening three races of the year, but said earlier this week that he was confident that an upturn in fortunes was not far away.

Williams brought a number of new parts to Sochi for the race in a bid to get back in front of Red Bull in the pecking order, and they appear to have the desired effect in qualifying on Saturday.

Bottas qualified third with teammate Felipe Massa finishing fifth, but both will gain a place on the grid by virtue of Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

“Very good qualifying, really pleased how it all went,” Bottas said.

“This weekend has been very positive. We have some new bits on the car and the car has been feeling better. It’s also a good track for us.

“I’m glad we could maximise the qualifying today. Pleased with that, but it’s tomorrow what counts.

“So far my Sundays haven’t been so great, but I’m sure tomorrow we have a chance to have a good one.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Vettel: No frustration over Ferrari’s lack of reliability

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability problems at the start of the 2016 Formula 1 season, saying “it’s part of racing”.

Ferrari entered 2016 hopeful of mounting a serious challenge to the all-conquering Mercedes team, only for issues on its cars in Australia and Bahrain to limit it to a one-car finish.

Vettel’s plight continued on Friday in Russia when an issue forced him to stop out on track during practice, ultimately resulting in a gearbox change and a grid penalty.

Vettel qualified second at the Sochi Autodrom on Saturday behind pole-sitter Nico Rosberg, but will drop back to seventh for the start of the race.

“Of course I would have liked the gap in the end to have been a bit smaller but we saw in Q2 Nico in particular was very strong getting the lap in,” Vettel said.

“I think for us it was the maximum. We benefitted from what happened to Lewis [Hamilton]. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but it allowed us to go P2 which helps tomorrow with the penalty.

“We’re a bit closer starting on the clean side of the track. I think we can have a good race from there. It should be quite exciting. The car feels good. I think all weekend has been quite strong. We lost some time, but I think we made it up this morning so it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Vettel said that he does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability issues, saying that there is still a long way to go in the season.

“Not frustrated at all. Obviously it’s not nice if these things happen because they don’t make your life easier,” Vettel said.

“But equally it’s part of racing. These things can happen. They didn’t happen on purpose, they weren’t planned. We’re been pushing very hard to try and catch up which I think especially in race pace we’ve proven already this year.

“Obviously we didn’t have a properly clean race yet this year. Maybe we’ll have tomorrow, you never know, it’s a long race and a long way especially around here. There’s a lot of things that can happen.

“I think we have to wait and see. It’s still April, tomorrow is May, and there’s a long, long way to go. It’s a long championship. It’s important to do your best to get the maximum points every single time and the rest you’ll find out anyway.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton set to start 10th in Russia as luckless run continues

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Lewis Hamilton’s run of bad luck continued in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday as an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in the final session.

Hamilton has slipped 36 points behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg after the first three races of the 2016 season, with an issue on his power unit forcing him to start last in China two weeks ago.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi hopeful of cutting the gap to Rosberg, and looked set to run the German close for pole position on Saturday afternoon.

After lapping almost half a second slower than Rosberg in Q2, Hamilton was sent back out by Mercedes later in the session despite not being at risk of losing his place in Q3.

It soon unfolded that Hamilton was in fact heading out to test his power unit, and he soon reported a loss of power similar to the one that prevented him from taking part in qualifying for the Chinese GP.

As a result, Mercedes had to bring Hamilton into the pits and end his day after Q2, leaving him 10th in the final qualifying classification.

While Rosberg was able to ease to his second pole position of the season, Hamilton was left deflated, telling reporters: “I went out at the end of Q2 to get a feel and I lost the same power as I lost in China.

“There’s nothing I can do. I never give up.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Rosberg not expecting easy Russian GP despite Vettel, Hamilton woes

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 championship leader Nico Rosberg remains wary of the threat posed by the opposition in tomorrow’s Russian Grand Prix despite seeing chief rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both drop back on the grid.

Defending champion Hamilton was forced to sit out of Q3 in Sochi after an issue similar to the one he suffered in China arose on his power unit.

As a result, Hamilton will start tomorrow’s race from P10 at best, leaving him with a huge task if he is to cut into Rosberg’s 36-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship.

Vettel took advantage of this to qualify second for Ferrari, but he drops back to seventh on the grid after taking a new gearbox earlier in the weekend.

Rosberg eased to his second pole position of the season by seven-tenths of a second despite only completing one fast run in qualifying, but he is refusing to get ahead of himself.

“I was just focused on myself out there, really going for it and feeling great about it,” Rosberg said.

“It’s really going really well today. From Q2 onwards it felt awesome. The others have been unfortunate today, definitely, extremely unfortunate.

“That makes my race a little bit easier tomorrow, but an F1 race is never easy. Even from where Sebastian is and where Kimi [Raikkonen] is and with Valtteri [Bottas] behind and everything, the opposition is still there.

“So I still need to keep focused and try and get the job done as good as possible.”

Rosberg was able to get out of his car long before the end of qualifying safe in the knowledge he had pole thanks to the advantage Mercedes has enjoyed at the Sochi Autodrom.

“To be honest I was quite confident that the lap was good enough out there because in Q2 Ferrari was quite far away and I knew that Lewis was not able to participate in the last part of qualifying,” Rosberg said.

“So I was very sure it was going to be enough. You never know, there’s still the remaining uncertainty so I was glad eventually when Sebastian crossed the line that it was good enough.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.