Takuma Sato wins pole for IndyCar at St. Petersburg

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After starting on the front row in last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Takuma Sato has gone one spot better this year to win the pole for tomorrow’s Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.

Sato, driving the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda for A.J. Foyt Racing, turned in a lap of 1:01.8686 on the last of his seven laps during the Firestone Fast Six to win the fourth IndyCar pole of his career and his first since last fall’s Houston doubleheader.

However, winning the pole hasn’t meant success for Sato on race day.

When he won his first IndyCar pole in 2009 at Iowa Speedway, he crashed and finished 19th in the race. Following his second IndyCar pole in 2011 at Edmonton, he finished 21st in the race after being hit by Ryan Hunter-Reay while running in second.

And in Houston last October, he won pole for Race 1 only to finish 17th after finding the tire barrier late; he would keep going until Lap 82, when he exited with handling issues.

Needless to say, the ex-Formula One pilot would like something much different tomorrow.

Tony Kanaan will start alongside Sato on the front row for his first race as a member of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The Indianapolis 500 champion’s best time in the FF6 was almost three-tenths of a second off of Sato’s.

But considering that Kanaan didn’t have a great qualifying record last season on road/street courses for KV Racing Technology last year (four Top-10 starts in 13 road races), he’ll certainly take P2.

Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay will start third on the grid for tomorrow’s race, joined in Row 2 by Team Penske’s Will Power, who had won the pole at St. Petersburg in each of the last four years.

Kanaan’s TCGR teammate and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon will line up on the inside of Row 3 in fifth position. Next to him will be another Andretti driver, Marco Andretti.

With a field this stacked, you had to figure that some big names would be having to start from the back tomorrow and that’s proven to be the case.

Among those that missed advancing out of the first round included Penske newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya, who is making his return to open-wheel racing this weekend; four-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais; and Simon Pagenaud, regarded by many as the biggest threat to win the title this year that isn’t with Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti.

Also failing to advance from Round 1 was defending St. Pete champion James Hinchcliffe, who spun in his group session and made contact with the Turn 4 wall. That triggered a red flag, costing him his two fastest laps, and he’ll have to rally from way back.

On the other hand, a pair of rookies made some noise today. While Andretti’s Carlos Munoz and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Jack Hawksworth narrowly missed out on the FF6 thanks to a last-lap run by Dixon in Round 2, they’ll still roll off a solid seventh and eighth respectively on the grid.

Qualification Results – Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Pos./Car-Driver/ Time/Speed

FIRESTONE FAST SIX
1. 14-Takuma Sato, 1:01.8686, 104.738 miles per hour
2. 10-Tony Kanaan, 1:02.1637, 104.241
3. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, 1:02.2167, 104.152
4. 12-Will Power, 1:02.3955, 103.854
5. 9-Scott Dixon, 1:02.4454, 103.771
6. 25-Marco Andretti, 1:02.9595, 102.923
ELIMINATED IN ROUND TWO
7. 34-Carlos Munoz (R), 1:03.3955, 102.214
8. 98-Jack Hawksworth (R), 1:03.5738, 101.929
9. 8-Ryan Briscoe, 1:03.6206, 101.854
10. 3-Helio Castroneves, 1:03.6635, 101.785
11. 17-Sebastian Saavedra, 1:03.8374, 101.508
12. 20-Mike Conway, 1:03.9618, 101.310
ELIMINATED IN ROUND ONE
13. 11-Sebastien Bourdais, 1:15.8337, 85.450 (Group 1)
14. 77-Simon Pagenaud, 1:12.3741, 89.535 (Group 2)
15. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (R), 1:15.9111, 85.363 (Group 1)
16. 19-Justin Wilson, 1:12.5890, 89.270 (Group 2)
17. 18-Carlos Huertas (R), 1:16.8105, 84.363 (Group 1)
18. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya, 1:12.6994, 89.134 (Group 2)
19. 27-James Hinchcliffe, 2.34.4862, 41.945 (Group 1)
20. 83-Charlie Kimball, 1:13.0048, 88.761 (Group 2)
21. 15-Graham Rahal, No Time, No Speed (Group 1)
22. 67-Josef Newgarden, 1:13.1170, 88.625 (Group 2)

Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”

Sam Posey previews 2017 with ‘The Winds of Change’ (VIDEO)

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As the 2017 kicks off from Australia, our resident poet laureate Sam Posey has penned his latest essay on what’s to come ahead of the new year.

Here’s a look ahead to the new season, with Posey’s “The Winds of Change” looking at the vast transformation in the sport that occurred over the winter, from the change in ownership, to the change in cars, to the change in the lineups… and to the change in the pecking order.

An archive of Posey’s 2016 essays are linked here.