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.

Hamilton: Abu Dhabi ‘the last race with good-looking cars’ in F1

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Lewis Hamilton believes that this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be remembered as the last race with good-looking Formula 1 cars ahead of the introduction of the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection for next year.

Officials from the FIA and F1 Strategy Group confirmed earlier this year that the Halo would be fitted to all cars from the 2018 season in a bid to improve safety standards, with the deaths of Justin Wilson and Jules Bianchi putting head protection high on the agenda for the series’ chiefs.

Hamilton has long made his opposition to the Halo clear, believing it will ruin the look of F1 cars, and echoed his thoughts ahead of the final Halo-less race in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

“It’s the last year of looking good I think in the cars. It’s the last race where the cars will look good,” Hamilton said.

“I think next year, it’s all downhill from there in terms of how they look.

“But safety will go up at least, and maybe it could be successful in some way.”

Hamilton’s F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel was less bothered about the change, believing the field will adjust and move on.

“The cars will look different next year. Everything I’ve seen so far looks different, but on the other hand it is something we all get used to,” Vettel said.

“But no doubt the cars look better now, but we’ll get used to it, and we’ll work on the aesthetics so it can be better. It is less of a big deal.”

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo shared Vettel’s view, saying: “I don’t think it’s gonna be as dramatic as most people make it out to be.”