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Analysis: Reduction in teams means increase in partnerships to make 33 for Indy 500

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Racing partnerships make the world go ‘round.

A team doesn’t race without a tire and engine partner, and it doesn’t get to that stage without a primary and a wealth of associate sponsors helping to bankroll the projects.

Yet while partnerships for a team are nothing new, team-to-team partnerships appear to be on the rise this year to help the Verizon IndyCar Series make 33 cars at the Indianapolis 500.

Over the last three years, as the series has shifted from the previous Dallara chassis to the new Dallara DW12, the net car count in terms of total entries and total teams has gone down, which has meant more partnerships from existing teams have arisen to hit the number.

The 2011 Indianapolis 500, for instance, included these teams that have since gone away from full-time competition:

  • Panther Racing (JR Hildebrand, Buddy Rice)
  • Newman/Haas Racing (Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe)
  • Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Davey Hamilton, Justin Wilson, Paul Tracy, Ana Beatriz)
  • Conquest Racing (Pippa Mann, Sebastian Saavedra)
  • HVM Racing (Simona de Silvestro)
  • AFS Racing (Raphael Matos)
  • Dragon Racing (Scott Speed, Ho-Pin Tung, Patrick Carpentier)

Just there, that’s seven teams, and a total of 14 cars that have gone away from the Indianapolis 500 field. Those 14 coupled with the 25 or 26 full-time cars made for a ‘500 field of more than 40 attempting to qualify for the 33-car field.

The evolution after 2011 saw Newman/Haas shutter its operation altogether, Conquest fail to strike an engine lease deal when the new chassis and engine came together, and Dragon, HVM and DRR all get stuck with Lotus for the start of 2012.

Conquest and AFS partnered with Andretti Autosport for partial efforts for both Beatriz and Saavedra, respectively, in 2012. AFS is now with KV Racing for Saavedra’s car this year. But neither Eric Bachelart (Conquest) nor Gary Peterson (AFS) has existed as their own entity since.

HVM was the lone Lotus holdover after the month of May as DRR, Dragon and Bryan Herta Autosport were all able to get out of their contracts. But come the end of the year, HVM as its own entity ended and the Leaders’ Circle points, and Keith Wiggins’ minority ownership stake ventured to, you guessed it, Andretti Autosport for the team’s fourth full-time car for 2013 (EJ Viso then, Carlos Munoz now).

DRR temporarily closed after last year’s Indy 500 – the second team on this list Servia has been a part of where he ran its most recent list – but is now back this year, albeit in partnership mode. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Dragon and Panther withdrew in the offseason, with Dragon’s Leaders’ Circle entry going to Roger Penske’s third car (the Juan Pablo Montoya No. 2 Chevrolet is officially referred to as Penske Motorsports, not Team Penske, by INDYCAR); meanwhile Panther’s equipment is at KV, which also has the AFS partnership, this month of May.

What we have in this year’s 33 are these notable partnerships:

  • No. 2 Penske Motorsports (Team Penske’s car for Juan Pablo Montoya, but with the ex-Dragon Racing chassis, Leaders’ Circle position)
  • No. 11 KVSH Racing (KV mainly, with SH full season partnership, after part-time collaboration between the two in previous years)
  • No. 17 KV/AFS Racing (KV, and Gary Peterson’s AFS Racing group)
  • No. 22 DRR Kingdom Racing (Dreyer & Reinbold, with Davey Hamilton’s Kingdom Racing group, in a technical partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing to provide Sage Karam his debut)
  • No. 33 KV Racing Technology (partnership with Always Evolving Racing, and one that may feature support from TRG-AMR North America)
  • No. 34 Andretti-HVM (partnership with HVM’s Keith Wiggins)
  • No. 68 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (Wink Hartman is team co-owner, and this particular chassis is the Steve Weirich-owned Rotondo Weirich entry for Alex Tagliani)
  • No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports (Hamilton is a minority partner in the group led by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, which also fields the No. 5 and No. 7 cars)
  • No. 98 BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian (name speaks for itself re: the number of partners)

And we haven’t even gotten to sponsors yet.

But here’s two drivers as examples: rookie Karam’s No. 22 car is likely to be the Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Records/Brantley Gilbert DRR Kingdom Racing with Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Bell’s KVRT entry could be the No. 6 Robert Graham/Royal Purple/Beneteau USA Chevrolet.

With nary a bump attempt in the last two years, and one unlikely at the moment in 2014, we’re left with a worrying prospect longer term about the number of teams within the series: a distinct lack of new blood.

Two years ago, the saga of Michael Shank, of GRAND-AM, trying to pursue a Honda or Chevrolet engine lease was well documented, including by this writer. Shank, who was on a high from winning that year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, did not want a Lotus citing its lack of competitiveness.

It was a new owner to the series, who was not an ex-driver (the series’ newest team owners are Ed Carpenter in 2012, Bryan Herta in 2010 and Sarah Fisher in 2008, along with Buddy Lazier’s family for Indy-only entries beginning last year), who had a chassis and an interest.

But the way the engine rules were written, manufacturers needed to supply up to 40 percent of the field, and Lotus was unable to hit that target. Chevrolet and Honda both went above and beyond to extend their month of May capacity, though it was still to the dismay of Shank and some drivers who sought opportunities to qualify.

Fast-forward two years. Shank’s team never started an IndyCar race, the aforementioned partnerships have come together out of the former small teams and the bigger teams, if anything, have grown.

The Penske (3 cars), Andretti (5 cars) and Ganassi (4 cars, plus the fifth DRR-affiliated entry) will make up 13 of the 33 entries, more than a third of the field. Add in KVRT’s 4 and suddenly that’s more than half spread between four teams – or 17 of the 33.

The reduction in full-season car count, as well, from 26 to 25 to 22 at the last three season-openers, has also meant that the 10 or so Indy-only entries isn’t enough to cover the bases for 33, or provide enough extras for bumping.

Bottom line is we’re at an interesting stage in IndyCar as it relates to the presence of teams, entries and, on another note, crews.

The crews that were available for full-time efforts, plus the Indy one-offs, have also gone down.

Part of the reason for the grind for 33 this year is to find enough crews for the entries. It’s being done, but there are plenty of individuals from the world of sports car racing being brought in to assist.

We’ll see how the series goes forward from here, but we have enough of a trend to see that something will probably need to change to help keep the car count at or above 33 for the month of May. As ever, cost of entry and cost of operation for the ROI and deliverables to partners remain a constant target for teams.

IMSA: Mazda’s first pole highlights Continental Tire GP qualifying

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There’s a pair of two-hour races for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix on Sunday, Round 4 of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season for the Prototype, Prototype Challenge and GT Le Mans classes and Round 3 for GT Daytona.

The P/GTLM race will run first, with the PC/GTD race second. Air times are below, as are the qualifying reports.

P

Mazda Motorsports has done it.

The SpeedSource crew that has worked tirelessly to make the program not just reliable but now competitive has parlayed their practice pace at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca into the pole position for Sunday’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix.

Tristan Nunez led a Mazda Prototype 1-2, in the Mazda MZ-2.0T gasoline powered entry, in the No. 55 car with Tom Long in second in the No. 70 car. Nunez will share his car with Jonathan Bomarito and Long with Joel Miller.

Nunez clocked a 1:18.143 to Long’s 1:18.379 lap.

Nunez’s last pole came Sept. 7, 2013, also at Mazda Raceway, but then in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series in the GX class, in a SpeedSource Mazda 6 diesel.

It’s the first pole for a Mazda-powered prototype since Oct. 4, 2013 at Virginia International Raceway, in the American Le Mans Series, with Dyson Racing and a Lola LMP1 chassis.

A pair of Corvette DPs were third and fourth, the No. 31 Action Express Racing entry qualified by Dane Cameron just ahead of Ricky Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing entry. Neither were within striking distance though, at 0.929 and 0.976 of a second back respectively.

The Mazda front row lockout came after a Mazda 1-2 ST sweep by Freedom Autosport as well, when Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer beat Andrew Carbonell and Liam Dwyer in a pair of MX-5s in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race.

“This is a good start! The car was unbelievable. Huge effort by the guys at SpeedSource. We have a fantastic car. This is one of those moments we’ve all been waiting for here at Mazda, especially at Mazda Raceway. I was pushing my heart out and I wanted that pole,” Nunez told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in the immediate aftermath.

GTLM

Ferrari vs. Ford. That just feels good to write.

And for the first time in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, that’s what the pole battle was in the GT Le Mans class.

Major credit must go to Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team – along with Risi Competitizone the only privateer efforts in class – which topped the factory Ford program in the hands of Chip Ganassi Racing, with Multimatic, for the class pole.

Daniel Serra in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE took that new car’s first pole on U.S. soil, as well as the first for Los Angeles-based Scuderia Corsa within GTLM, courtesy of a last-lap flier at 1:22.867 at the 2.238-mile road course.

Serra’s time beat the pair of Ford GTs, the No. 67 car of Ryan Briscoe and No. 66 car of Dirk Mueller, respectively, which clocked their best grid positions this year in second and third at 1:22.946 and 1:23.115.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, qualified by Tommy Milner, lines up fourth with Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari in fifth, qualified by Toni Vilander. The best BMW was seventh with the best Porsche in eighth.

Serra will co-drive with Alessandro Pier Guidi, who finished second in the World Challenge race last September in Monterey. Briscoe and Mueller share their cars with Richard Westbrook and Sacramento native Joey Hand, respectively.

Milner and Oliver Gavin – or the No. 3 Corvette C7.R – look to deliver Corvette Racing its 100th win as a team on Sunday, and seek to rebound after the hard-luck, late-race dump the No. 4 car took at Long Beach.

PC

Prototype Challenge had a barnburner of a qualifying session as several drivers exchanged the top spot; ultimately Robert Alon took his first pole in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 over James French in the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports car and Alex Popow in the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry.

Alon was due to start first in Long Beach on points, as the session didn’t meet its minimum green flag time. But after causing a yellow flag, that meant he would have his fastest time get deleted.

The Mazda Prototype Lites graduate atoned nicely and was super emotional afterwards in an interview with IMSA Radio. He’ll share the car with Tom Kimber-Smith on Sunday; French co-drives with Kyle Marcelli and Popow with Renger van der Zande.

GTD

The quirks and intricacies of the FIA Driver Ratings system meant four drivers you could reasonably classify as pros, even if their results actually classify them as “ams,” made it into the top six on the grid in the in theory pro-am GT Daytona class.

Again, all credit to the teams who’ve figured out how to master their lineups good to the regs, though.

Alex Riberas was best of the bunch in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, taking his first class pole on track debut with a best time of 1:25.775. He’ll share his car with Mario Farnbacher; Riberas, the ex-Porsche Junior driver, takes over from Ian James as Farnbacher’s full-season co-driver this weekend.

Christina Nielsen and Patrick Lindsey – two proper Silvers in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, respectively – clocked in second and third.

Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan look for their second win in a row this year after winning Sebring while Lindsey and Spencer Pumpelly seek a race repeat after winning here last year.

Cedric Sbirrazzuoli in the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, then a pair of unrelated Davises – Brandon in the No. 007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3 and Andrew in the No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS – completed the top six. Each of these three is a talented pro in their own right.

You could argue Bret Curtis in seventh in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 is the first true am on the grid, and credit to him for getting the white and black aFe Power car that high up. Dodge was the only manufacturer in class that failed to qualify within the top 10 of the 17-car grid.

TUNE-IN INFO

Tomorrow’s split race times and channels are linked below.

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Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

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

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

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

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

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