Indy 500 Insights: Townsend Bell’s broadcast and driving balancing act

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Every year, Townsend Bell puts together a one-off Indianapolis 500 program. The 2014 edition will be Bell’s eighth ‘500 appearance, after making his debut in 2006 and running every year consecutively since 2008. This year, he returns to KV Racing Technology, the team where he posted his career-best ‘500 finish of fourth in 2009, and where he seeks to improve upon it this year. The NBC Sports Group Verizon IndyCar Series analyst is able to provide both a driver’s an analyst’s perspective in the field. For part two of this daily series through this week (see Part 1 here), we look at how Townsend shifts from being in the broadcast booth to getting back behind the wheel.

Although Townsend Bell’s last season racing more than just two or three Verizon IndyCar Series events was in 2008, he’s remained sharp behind the wheel with his annual Indianapolis 500 appearance and a burgeoning sports car career every year since.

But when he isn’t driving, he’s quickly established himself as one of the leading analysts in motorsports, as analyst for NBC Sports Group’s IndyCar Series coverage.

Bell has spent time on pit road and then shifted to the broadcast booth full-time ahead of the 2013 season. As an analyst, Bell has had to change his mindset to monitor the rest of the field.

When asked how working as an analyst has made him a better driver, Bell took time to answer on today’s NBC Sports Group conference call previewing the weekend – more than 50 hours of coverage will be spread across the networks and on NBC Sports Live Extra over the coming days.

“It’s a great question, and I never would have imagined how much analyzing the sport from the view of a TV analyst would improve my own analysis when I’m behind the wheel,” Bell told reporters. “Frankly as a racing driver, and I think Jeff (Burton, NASCAR on NBC analyst) would be similar, you don’t care what (other drivers) are doing. It’s all about you and your team and you don’t really have the time, because so you’re so focused on your own program.

“But working in TV while I’m still racing – it’s forced me to do a good job as an analyst, to do well objectively. I’ve been surprised with so much I’ve learned.”

Bell had some past knowledge working with F1 on NBC Sports analysts David Hobbs and Steve Matchett when he raced a single season of Formula 3000 in 2003, and has since had the opportunity to work with both alongside lead F1 and IndyCar announcer Leigh Diffey on most IndyCar series broadcasts.

“I don’t see any downside. I’m still at the race track,” Bell said. “Working with NBC, and there’s a competitive attitude at NBC, and insistence from Sam (Flood, executive producer), on quality and telling the best stories. We’re always analyzing how we can do a better job. Working with Leigh and David … for me, it’s a pleasure to feed off their intensity and energy.”

In an interview with MotorSportsTalk earlier this week, Bell explained as a driver, he’s coming into this weekend’s Indianapolis 500 in the No. 6 Robert Graham-Royal Purple-Beneteau Chevrolet for KV Racing Technology not much different than the other 32 drivers.

The Indianapolis 500 is the first oval event of the season, so every driver is starting from square one for 2014.

“One thing that’s nice for me is that Indy is completely unique from any other race on the IndyCar schedule,” Bell told me on Monday. “So every other racer, full-time or not, has the same kind of challenge that I face. There’s only a one-track mind, and nothing else really carries over. It’s the first oval of the season, and I’m working off the rust in parallel with the rest of the field.

“It’s been awesome – a really good balance,” he added.

And on Friday this week, Bell will wear both hats – likely while wearing his new driver cap in the process. He’ll complete the final hour of practice for the Indianapolis 500, then head up to the NBCSN broadcast booth for coverage of the rest of Carb Day.

NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage airs beginning at 11 a.m. ET on Friday, with the final hour of practice for the Indianapolis 500. The Indy Lights Freedom 100 is on at noon ET, with the rest of Carb Day and the Pit Stop Competition on at 1.

Bob Varsha and Wally Dallenbach will be in the booth, joined by Bell once he’s done with practice. Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider and Robin Miller will be on pit road; Lee, Anders Krohn and Jake Query will call the Indy Lights race.

Ferrari has burning ambition to win 1st Monaco GP since 2001

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MONACO (AP) Having closed the gap to dominant Mercedes in an incredibly close-fought Formula One season, Ferrari has another burning ambition: Winning the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Italian manufacturer’s barren spell in Monaco dates to Michael Schumacher’s win in 2001, and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel is determined to put that right.

“I would say it is about time that Ferrari wins again here,” said Vettel, who has 44 career wins.

“If you could have the freedom to choose any race on the calendar that you would want to win, it would without doubt be Monaco. Ask up and down the paddock and you would get the same answer.”

Schumacher, who won a record seven world titles and 91 races, also won at Monaco driving for Ferrari in 1997 and ’99.

Vettel’s Monaco win was in 2011, when driving for Red Bull. He was fourth here for Ferrari last year while teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not finish the race. In 2015, the year he joined Ferrari, Vettel was second and Raikkonen was sixth.

Ferrari has stepped up the pace this year and, with increased reliability, is matching Mercedes, which has won the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

After five races, Vettel leads the championship by six points from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton; while Mercedes is eight ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race.

But Ferrari may be a bit quicker than Mercedes this year, and the increased pressure has forced some uncharacteristic errors.

During the second practice on Thursday, Mercedes made a sloppy mistake when misjudging a tire switch onto the quicker ultra-soft compound. That allowed Ferrari to top the charts in P2, with Vettel fastest and Raikkonen third.

“It is important to start from the front of the grid, here more than anywhere else,” Vettel said. “I am not counting out Mercedes. I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday (for qualifying).”

Ferrari’s vastly improved reliability suits Vettel perfectly. The German driver is remarkably consistent if the car allows him to be – like it was when he won four straight titles with Red Bull. But he is also quickly irritated when the car lets him down, as it often did last year.

There have been no Vettel tirades over the race radio. He has placed in the top two in all five races, winning in Australia and Bahrain.

“The single-lap pace is very promising,” Vettel said. “The aim is to get faster.”

Vettel’s confidence has definitely returned, along with some of his old panache.

At the Spanish GP two weeks ago, he was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and could not find a way past. So he tried a move from his karting days; a dummy move from right to left and then swiftly back right again to pass Bottas on the inside.

It is highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that on Sunday, given that the narrow and sinewy Monaco street circuit is arguably the hardest track in F1 to overtake on. Drivers are often brushing the barriers anyway, and this year’s wider cars make that an even more perilous possibility.

“Here you are not entirely the master of your own fate, as many things can happen in a long race,” said Vettel, who has twice been forced to retire during the Monaco GP. “Let’s keep the fingers crossed.”

Esteban Ocon making a name for himself as a rising F1 star

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MONACO (AP) Esteban Ocon is described by one member of his Force India team as a “sponge” because of his capacity to absorb information.

The 20-year-old Frenchman is one of the rising stars of Formula One. Although he has not made the same impact as 19-year-old Max Verstappen – a once-in-a-generation driver – Ocon is making a name for himself with his consistency and some audacious overtaking.

He has scored points in all five races so far, placing a career-best fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago. Prior to that he was seventh in Russia, and overall he sits in eighth place, one spot behind Force India teammate Sergio Perez.

That would be good enough for most drivers early in their careers, but Ocon is in a hurry.

“It is my personal target to get a podium and I want to have it as soon as possible,” Ocon said prior to this weekend’s Monaco GP. “It makes me confident to have a great start like this, progressing all the time, fitting very well into the team. I think we can achieve great things.”

Ocon broke into F1 last year, making his debut for the now defunct Manor team a month before his 20th birthday at the Belgian GP in late August. He has only competed in 14 career races but has managed to make an impression several times.

None more so than at the season-opening Australian GP, where he overtook Fernando Alonso with a passing move down the right that the two-time F1 champion himself would have been proud of. The timing of the attack, where he patiently prodded behind Alonso before swooping around him in a flash, bore the hallmarks of a future great.

“I loved the move against Fernando,” said Ocon, the youngest French driver to score points in F1. “That was pretty solid.”

After getting past Alonso, he then held him off while also repelling an attack from the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. That was only his 10th F1 race, yet he defied two drivers with 400 between them.

Verstappen, the youngest F1 driver to win a race when he clinched the Spanish GP last year, has a similar instinct for overtaking and also possesses the acute concentration and calmness required to properly defend a position under extreme pressure.

That Ocon beat Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title in 2014 – winning it with a round to spare and earning himself a spot on the prestigious Mercedes F1 junior program – hints at untapped potential.

“He’s quick. He proved that in junior categories,” said Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate. “You know Esteban got that (F3 title), so he’s obviously talented.”

Moreover, Ocon is incredibly committed to understanding the intricacies of the Force India car, which runs on Mercedes engines.

“I don’t believe too much in the concept of luck. Behind results there is always hard work,” Ocon said. “I always go to the factory between the races to have intense debriefs with my engineers and do simulator work, for hours and hours.”

His propensity for learning astounds senior team members.

“He’s like a sponge and he just absorbs information as fast as you can give it to him. His want and his desire are unquestionable,” said Andrew Green, the team’s technical director. “He absolutely wants this and he has the talent to do great things, but he is going about it the right way. I have no doubts that he is going to get to where he wants to be in a few years’ time.”

Green further describes Ocon’s intuitive understanding of how far he can push the car.

“I watched him for quite a long time in the simulator last week, pounding around the (Monaco circuit), and his car control was incredible,” Green said. “He’s an amazing talent. Can he get a podium? Well, we need to give him the car to do that. But he has an uncanny ability to finish races.”

Button gets 15-place grid penalty in Monaco after power unit issue

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Jenson Button looks set to start his one-off Formula 1 appearance in 2017 from the back of the grid after being handed a 15-place penalty for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Button stepped away from racing full-time in F1 at the end of last year, only to be drafted back in by McLaren for Monaco following Fernando Alonso’s decision to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Button has impressed throughout practice, ending FP3 12th-fastest despite not having driven the McLaren-Honda MCL32 before Thursday.

However, the 2009 world champion’s weekend has now taken a hit after it was confirmed on Saturday morning that he would serve a 15-place grid drop for changes to his power unit after practice.

“We have changed Jenson’s MGU-H/TC after detecting an issue with his MGU-H after FP2,” Honda said.

“The MGU-H/TC will be Jenson’s fifth, which means he will receive 15 place grid penalty for the race.”

Button’s teammate for the weekend, Stoffel Vandoorne, is also due to take a grid drop of three places as a sanction for his clash with Felipe Massa in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Vettel lays down ominous pace in final Monaco F1 practice

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Sebastian Vettel appears to be the strong favorite for Formula 1 pole position for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix after dominating final practice for Ferrari on Saturday morning.

Vettel set an unofficial lap record through FP2 on Thursday afternoon, but was able to gain even more time through FP3 for Ferrari as he shaved another three-tenths of a second off his best lap.

The four-time F1 champion ended FP3 with a fastest time of 1:12.395, giving him P1 by three-tenths of a second ahead of Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Mercedes vowed to bounce back on Saturday after going in the wrong direction with setup in FP2, but struggled to make any serious impression at the top of the timesheets. Valtteri Bottas was third, while teammate Lewis Hamilton finished eight-tenths of a second off Vettel in fifth place.

Red Bull put itself in the fight for the front two rows of the grid as Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and sixth respectively, while B-team Toro Rosso got both of its cars into the top 10. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished seventh ahead of Daniil Kvyat in P8.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Red Bull, though, with Ricciardo suffering a brake-by-wire failure at the very end of the session, forcing the Australian to abandon his car at Sainte Devote.

Kevin Magnussen took ninth place for Haas ahead of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, with Jenson Button taking 12th in the second MCL32 car. Button will be subject to a 15-place grid drop, though, following an engine change since Thursday.

Force India’s Esteban Ocon became the second driver of the weekend to suffer a crash, shunting his VJM10 car into the barrier at the exit of Swimming Pool after clipping the barrier and breaking the steering arm, leaving the team with plenty of repairs to complete in time for qualifying.

Qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.