Andretti Autosport driver Munoz of Colombia stands next to his race car during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 in Indianapolis

IndyCar’s rookie trio bullish for St. Pete debuts

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At least three and potentially a fourth rookie driver will be part of the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year class in the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, and could play spoilers in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

For Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, this will be their first opportunities to race the Dallara DW12-Honda on a road and street circuit in a normal weekend.

Munoz, who will drive the No. 34 Cinsay Inc./AndrettiTV.com Honda for Andretti Autosport, made a last-minute substitute appearance for Ryan Briscoe at Panther Racing in the second Toronto race a year ago. But that marked his first time ever in one of these cars on a road or street circuit, and to jump in and finish the race was all that could have realistically been achieved.

Now, though, he wants to live up to the high standards set by his trio of teammates – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and defending St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe.

“St. Pete is one of the tracks I like a lot. I’ve been really fast in the past (in an Indy Lights car), but I’ve never finished in the past two years I’ve raced there. My main goal is to finish the race, take all the experience, to learn a lot,” said Munoz.

While he failed to finish last year, Hawksworth won in his Indy Lights debut with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He was a late add to Bryan Herta Autosport’s lineup, but impressed in the Barber preseason test. He’ll drive the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda with sponsorship from Charter Media.

“I’m really looking forward to getting the season started this weekend in St. Pete,” said Hawksworth. “It’s a track I’ve been successful at in the lower racing categories and I also lived there during the 2012 season. It’s certainly an event that I enjoy a lot.

“Coming into the race weekend, we have had a couple of solid tests and I think we should be in pretty good shape to start the season. The track is quite short – low grip but still technical. We’ll have to work hard and execute a clean weekend but if we can do this, then we’ll be in with a shout.”

Team owner Bryan Herta added, “The season is finally here and the hard work from the guys in the shop, our partners at Honda, and our driver Jack Hawksworth are ready to be put to the test. With substantial support from Charter, we are looking forward to a strong weekend.”

Schmidt has a rookie of his own in one of his IndyCars – Russian Mikhail Aleshin makes his series debut in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda. Accomplishing what Tristan Vautier did last year – making the Firestone Fast Six on debut – is not an easy ask, but Aleshin already knows what he wants to get out of the weekend.

“Before we even get there, we want to know what changes we are going to make in the car,” Aleshin said. “I’ve been practicing in the simulator at our shop and watching lots of tape. Everyone else will have more experience than me at this track, so I need to do my best to create less opportunity for error.”

He also joked on the irony of being a Russian to make his debut in St. Petersburg.

“It’s very exciting to have our country represented in IndyCar for the first time ever,” Aleshin said. “The name St. Petersburg will also be very recognizable to Russian fans since it’s also the name of one of our most famous cities. It’s funny that they’ll be tuning in to watch me race at a different St. Petersburg in the U.S. It all fits together very well!”

A fourth rookie – Carlos Huertas in the second Dale Coyne Racing entry – has not been officially confirmed by the team. But it’s expected the Colombian rookie will be in the No. 18 Honda this weekend.

McLaren releases audio of first MP4-31 fire-up

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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As the countdown to the beginning of Formula 1 pre-season testing in Barcelona continues, McLaren has followed Ferrari’s lead by releasing an audio snippet of its 2016 car being fired up for the first time.

McLaren enters the new year hoping to bounce back from a miserable 2015 campaign that was marred by struggles with its Honda power unit, limiting drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button to just 27 points across the course of the season.

The crew at Woking has been working tirelessly over the winter to get the new car, the MP4-31, ready for the new season, and everything now appears set for the first pre-season test in Barcelona.

On Sunday, McLaren released a short audio snippet of the car being fired up at its base ahead of its official unveil on February 21.

Pre-season testing begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22, with the eighth and final day of running taking place on March 4.

NHRA: Parachute fails on Gary Densham’s career-best Funny Car run (video)

Densham crash
(Photo courtesy NHRA's official Twitter account)
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Veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Gary Densham has been hurtling down drag strips for more than 30 years.

Saturday, the 69-year-old Densham had the best day of his career — and one of the worst, at the same time.

The Southern California native was making a qualifying run during the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

The good news for Densham: he ran a career-best 4.050 seconds in his Dodge Charger, qualifying 11th in the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations.

The bad news: the parachutes on his Funny Car failed to deploy and Densham ran head-on into a catchfence at the end of Auto Club Raceway’s short runoff area. While Densham’s car was destroyed, he walked away uninjured.

And that’s the best news of all.

Check out the video and then some tweets about the incident and the day, including visits by former IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Tommy Lee of rock group Motley Crue:

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Haas confirms F1 pre-season testing running order

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Haas F1 Team logos during the press conference for their driver announcement on October 30, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images for Haas)
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Haas Formula 1 Team has confirmed its running order for the upcoming pre-season test sessions in Barcelona, Spain.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ new F1 team will grace the grid in 2016 after two years of preparation, with the covers being taken off its car on the morning of the first test on February 22 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Romain Grosjean will be the first driver to head out on-track in a Haas F1 car, completing all of the running on February 22.

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will then get his first taste of the car the following day, with the two drivers then alternating duties for the final two days of the opening test.

Gutierrez will enjoy both of the first two days of running at the second test (March 1-2) before handing back over to Grosjean for days three and four in Barcelona.

“The first thing for the test is to get the car to run and to work well from there. Hopefully, we can get a lot of mileage,” Grosjean said.

“This is a new team, so we need to get everyone to work together, all the engineers, mechanics and the drivers. We need to get as much data and knowledge as we can.

“It’s important to get the reliability sorted as early as possible because we don’t get much testing and we’re going straight to Melbourne.”

Haas F1 Team driver line-up for first Barcelona test (February 22-25)

Monday February 22: Grosjean
Tuesday February 23: Gutiérrez
Wednesday February 24: Grosjean
Thursday February 25: Gutiérrez

Haas F1 Team driver line-up for second Barcelona test (March 1-4)

Tuesday March 1: Gutiérrez
Wednesday March 2: Gutiérrez
Thursday March 3: Grosjean
Friday March 4: Grosjean

Romain Grosjean pleased with initial Haas simulator feedback

KANNAPOLIS, NC - SEPTEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France speaks during a press conference as Haas F1 Team announces Grosjean as their driver for the upcoming 2016 Formula 1 season on September 29, 2015 in Kannapolis, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean felt pleased with his first simulator run in the new Haas Formula 1 car ahead of its on-track debut in Barcelona on February 22.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas will take his F1 operation onto the grid this season after two years of preparation, with Grosjean joining ex-Ferrari reserve Esteban Gutierrez at the team for its maiden campaign.

Ahead of the car’s first on-track run at the beginning of pre-season testing in Spain later this month, Grosjean has completed some laps in it using a simulator, and reported that the initial feedback was positive.

“The impressions were quite good, even if in the beginning it was necessary to resolve a lot of small technical problems such as turbo lag, the energy recovered under braking, etc,” Grosjean told L’Equipe.

“The morning was spent doing this. But once everything was settled we had the opportunity to run extensively in the afternoon.

“I think the car’s baseline appears to be good. We now know the simulator corresponds to the windtunnel, but the differences with what we find in reality are sometimes huge – at Lotus for example, the car changed dramatically between track and simulator.”

Haas will lift the covers off its first F1 car on Monday 22 February ahead of the initial on-track running later that day.