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IndyCar: Franck Montagny enjoying return with Andretti

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Andretti Autosport’s fifth Verizon IndyCar – the No. 26 Suretone Honda – is getting a ton of press for the Indianapolis 500, with Kurt Busch in the seat and set for the double run between Indy and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend.

But the car is getting something of a test run this weekend in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, with Franck Montagny back in North American open-wheel racing for the first time in five years.

Montagny hasn’t raced since a one-off appearance in the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans in OAK Racing’s P1 Oak Pescarolo Judd (with ex-open-wheeler Bertrand Baguette and Dominik Kraihamer), and his last start in North America came in a one-off in Level 5 Motorsports’ HPD P2 car at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May of that year. Prior to that, he’d been a factory Peugeot LMP1 driver before the program ended at the end of 2011.

Now he returns to an IndyCar for his first start since the 2009 race at Sonoma, in what was also a fifth Andretti Autosport entry. He also finished second in the Champ Car series finale at Long Beach 2008, driving for Gerry Forsythe.

“The thing is I haven’t driven in two years. I’ve been off working television in France, following the Formula One circus,” he told MotorSportsTalk. “It’s been since 2008 and 2009 over here… but when Andretti had the opportunity to put together the fifth car, they called me, and here I am. Easy as that.”

Montagny was seriously impressed with the depth of the field, and despite wanting to be fastest said it spoke better of the series that as a one-off entry, he isn’t able to come in and be immediately on the pace.

“Compared to anything else in the world, nowhere else there’d be seven tenths between the first guy and the last guy. Nowhere else,” he said. “I’m seven tenths off and it feels not too bad, then I look at the times and I’m almost last! But in F1 I’d be second!

“It’s very tough because one tiny mistake screws it up. The car is what is what is, but the level of the championship speaks for itself.”

The Frenchman ended Thursday 22nd on the charts, but as mentioned, only 0.7783 of a second off pace setter Scott Dixon.

Montagny is one of 11 drivers with past IMS road course experience, although since it’s been since 2006 when he raced with Super Aguri’s Formula One team. Unlike others who have called the track changes an upgrade for the better, Montagny said there isn’t that much different.

“It’s a bit different, but not really that much,” he said. “The sections on the infield are different but close to the same. Still can have quite a lot of fun on it.”

The Andretti Autosport Montagny is working with now is also much different than in 2009. Then, the team’s quartet of drivers was Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh. While Andretti remains, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz represent a collective upgrade – although with Andretti’s strength of depth in engineering.

The No. 26 car, for example, has Hinchcliffe’s old engineer – Craig Hampson – this race and the Indianapolis 500, and should feature most of the crew that helped take Munoz to second in last year’s ‘500.

“Sharing the information, from the inside you can see how the team is very strong, and outside, they’re all champions,” he said.

There could be other opportunities for Montagny down the road within the team, but for the moment, he’s focused on just this race. Montagny also didn’t seem thrilled with the worldwide direction of sports car racing, and said he’s not keen on getting back into that anytime soon.

The weekend is a reunion for Montagny, Honda, and Andretti, who also worked together besides 2009 with the team’s Acura LMP2 sports car program in 2008. Montagny and James Rossiter won overall in Detroit that year.

Cooper Tire extends as FIA World RX official tire supplier

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Andreas Bakkerud of Norway leads Timmy Hansen of Sweden out of a corner drives during the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill Circuit on May 25, 2014 in Canterbury, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Cooper Tire has been confirmed Tuesday as the official tire supplier for the FIA World Rallycross Championship for three more years, starting in 2017.

The move was announced today by the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

It continues Cooper Tire Europe’s run as the official tire supplier that’s occurred for several years.

Hinchcliffe embraces ambassadorial role to help grow IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5  Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Those of us who remember the early James Hinchcliffe videos circa 2006 to 2008 – the brat video at Road America, the novelty size check, the spot-on Kimi Raikkonen imitation among others – knew then that the Canadian was never shy of being goofy to help promote not only himself, but his racing series that he competed in at the time. At that point, it was the Champ Car Atlantic series, where he spent three years before moving into Indy Lights for two years in 2009. These were the early days for the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” the head of his own fictional city.

Now though, into his sixth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is busier than ever with other external commitments, but he’s never stopped being an ambassador for the sport.

If anything, he’s continued to grow in that department.

This year alone has been no exception. Hinchcliffe won the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, which made for a remarkable story in its own right, and also meant he’d be going through the ringer of the in-between week media tour to help promote the race.

Then there was Hinchcliffe’s role as one of five IndyCar drivers on an appearance of Celebrity Family Feud, along with Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, the surprisingly funny Will Power (those of us in the paddock know his humor, but probably not the national audience at large) and Hinchcliffe’s roommate and good friend Conor Daly.

Today, of course, Hinchcliffe has been named to the cast of the new season of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s a move that sure, can grow his profile, but by default is also tasked with growing IndyCar’s, knowing how dedicated its smallish but hardcore group of fans are.

“For me personally, it’s a great opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and do something you probably don’t have the opportunity to do again,” he said during a conference call today. “After everything last year, it’s definitely given me a different approach to life and maybe given me a little bit more confidence to try things like this.

“But certainly getting one of our drivers out into some primetime, mainstream media and especially during the off-season, kind of keep IndyCar’s name out there a little bit. Again, we’re all assuming this is me making it past week one, so it’s already a bit of a bold statement. But for sure, it’s definitely got two sides to it.”

Couple all this with his outside business commitments – Hinchcliffe has been a race analyst for Champ Car races in the past, now hosts his own “Mayor on Air” podcast, has his own beer brewed by Flat 12 Bierworks (Hinchtown Hammerdown) is a co-founder of Speed Group, a driver development, management and social media/PR company and he’s a spokesperson for Honda Canada via a personal deal – and sometimes you wonder how the 29-year-old Canadian does it all.

One, he has a good group of people around him.

And two, he takes it seriously in terms of knowing what he needs to do to help promote the sport he’s been so blessed and fortunate to be a part of.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “From a young age, I was counseled that this is the world, this is the motorsports world that we live in, and I’ve always just prepared myself for that, and so I’ve not shied away from extra commitments.

“I’m a very driven person on track and off, whether it’s my racing or promoting the sport or outside business ventures I’m involved in. I like staying busy. I like staying active in that sense. This is a big part of our sport and is a huge help.

“This kind of thing, sure, it benefits me personally but it also benefits the sport, and I’ve always said from day one that anything that I can do outside of a race car to help grow the sport of IndyCar racing is something you can sign me up for because I’ve got such a passion for this sport.”

Hinchcliffe is in his sixth IndyCar season, but only fifth full-time after his injuries sustained last May at Indianapolis sidelined him for the rest of the year.

But like Castroneves – Hinchcliffe’s now “DWTS” compatriot and predecessor – his goal is to keep driving first and then tackle the rest of the to-do items later.

And looking at Castroneves provides him a window to do just that. The Brazilian is 41, but is in his 17th straight season with Team Penske, 19th overall since debuting as a rookie in CART driving for Tony Bettenhausen in 1998. Yet he’s still at the top of his game and in the top-five in points; Hinchcliffe is not too far behind him in eighth.

“I plan on being around it for a long time as a driver, for a long time after that, as well, and I just love the fact that we’ve got the opportunity to do this kind of stuff,” Hinchcliffe said.

“You just try and help spread the word and show people that IndyCar racing is an incredible form of sport.”

On a lighter note, Hinchcliffe’s training and dancing schedule will mean that he’ll spend quite a bit of time away from his home in Indianapolis. Daly, his good friend, is also his roommate.

Hinchcliffe joked that that part of the preparation is underway.

“I have a tremendous concern. I’ve already set up a network of people that will be coming to check on him and the house in my absence,” he deadpanned, in classic “Hinch” form.

Sabres’ favorite to sing Canadian, American anthems for IndyCar race at Watkins Glen

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Don’t be surprised if some fans attending Saturday’s Indy Lights race or Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix at the Glen, both at Watkins Glen International, wear jerseys or jackets of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres’ beloved national anthem singer, Doug Allen, will sing both the Canadian and American Anthems prior to the start of both of this weekend’s races.

Known as “Anthem Guy,” Allen has gotten Sabres fans fired up before home games for over 20 years by singing “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Allen is also known for his charitable side, serving as Facilities Coordinator for the Buffalo City Mission and Worship director at his church, Fellowship Wesleyan Church in West Seneca, New York.

Sunday’s race is the second-to-last event on the 16-race IndyCar schedule. It replaces the originally scheduled race for this weekend, the inaugural event in Boston, which was subsequently cancelled.

Here’s an example of Allen and his stirring rendition of the anthems:

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Kevin Magnussen set to race Italian GP pending final check

during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.
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Following a series of checks both on-site in hospital at Verviers and further checks back home in Denmark, Kevin Magnnussen appears set to compete in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, barring any hiccups from a final check on Thursday from the FIA.

Renault Sport F1 Team released the following update on Tuesday:

During the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday 28 August Renault Sport Formula One Team driver Kevin Magnussen exited the track at high speed. After initial checks at the circuit’s medical centre, Kevin was referred to a local hospital in Verviers for further routine examinations.

Kevin had heavily bruised his left ankle but the tests showed no fracture or serious injury and he was released from hospital the same day and returned home to Denmark. He has since undergone further checks in Denmark that indicate he is able to race at the Italian Grand Prix in six days.

The FIA will confirm Kevin is fit to compete following a final assessment on Thursday in Monza.

Kevin commented, ‘I’m feeling much better, which is very good news. I’ve had several checks that show I am fit to race in Monza and I am sure I will be in the car this weekend. We were running in the top ten in Belgium and I’m very motivated to repeat this again in Italy.’

No further comment will be given.