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.

Schmidt confirms Mikhail Aleshin’s return for 2017

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 SMP Schmidt Peterson Honda, sits in his pitbox during a rain delay prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
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For the first time since expanding to a two-car team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will continue with the same two drivers on a year-to-year basis.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt confirmed to IndyCar.com that the “mad Russian,” Mikhail Aleshin, will be back for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season alongside James Hinchcliffe.

“Now that we’ve got those two done, it’s a matter of firming up with all of the key individuals on the team and hopefully continue on and win races,” Schmidt told IndyCar.com.

“This deal is all about chemistry and continuity and it’s been a building process for us. Starting in 2011 with one car and then having two cars from 2012 on, we’ve never had the same guy in the second car for a second season.

“Really, Mikhail coming back for a second season, even though there was a year gap, I think you can really see the chemistry and the morale and the continuity building toward the last half of the season, when we were clearly the fastest Honda at most tracks if not all and right up to the front with the top five to eight guys, which is where we want to be.”

Schmidt took over the former FAZZT Race Team, which then featured Alex Tagliani as the driver, prior to 2011. Schmidt had a technical partnership with the Bryan Herta Autosport team that won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with the late Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon later replaced Tagliani in Schmidt’s No. 77 Honda for Kentucky and ultimately his final start in Las Vegas.

New signing Simon Pagenaud asserted himself as team leader from 2012 through 2014, with Tristan Vautier (2013) and Aleshin (2014) coming on board as second full-time driver. Hinchcliffe then took over as SPM lead driver in 2015 when Pagenaud left for Team Penske, before his injuries sustained at the Indianapolis 500 forced a change of driver for the balance of the season.

Owing to a mix of sponsorship and political issues, Aleshin was unable to continue into 2015 with James Jakes filling the spot. But Aleshin came back for a one-off in a third SPM car at the 2015 Sonoma season finale, which blossomed back into the full-time seat once more last year.

With these two Honda seats now secure, it remains to be seen whether SPM will run a third car beyond the month of May, which it has done the last four seasons (driven by Oriol Servia in 2016, Conor Daly in 2015, Jacques Villeneuve in 2014 and Katherine Legge in 2013).

NBC Sports understands a third IndyCar for SPM could run a handful of races next season (three to five a possible range), but would likely be dictated by crew and engine availability.

SPM has traditionally run a four-car program in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series, although that program dipped to two full-time cars only starting at Road America this year. SPM looks to reassert itself as the dominant force in that series, in the midst of a three-year title losing drought after more or less controlling the title most years between 2004 and 2013.

These seats are still yet to be finalized/revealed:

  • Andretti Autosport (car four)
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (car four)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (cars one and two)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (car one, and road/street races in car two)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (car two)
  • KVSH Racing (car one)

Antonio Felix da Costa joins grid for Macau Grand Prix

FIA Formula E Hong Kong e-Prix.
Qualifying Session.
Antonio Felix da Costa (PRT), Amlin Andretti, Spark-Andretti, ATEC-02.
Hong Kong Harbour, Hong Kong, Asia.
Sunday 9 October 2016.
Photo: Adam Warner / FE / LAT
ref: Digital Image _14P5958
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Antonio Felix da Costa has become the latest driver to sign up for the prestigious Macau Grand Prix, linking back up with Carlin for next month’s Formula 3 event.

Da Costa has contested the Macau race three times before, winning on his most recent appearance in 2012 with the Carlin team against a field that included current Formula 1 drivers Carlos Sainz Jr., Pascal Wehrlein and Felipe Nasr.

Since winning at Macau, da Costa has raced in Formula Renault 3.5, DTM and Formula E, the latter becoming his priority for the 2017 season with Andretti.

Da Costa will return to his roots on the November 20 weekend, joining Carlin’s line-up for the race that comes one week after the next Formula E round in Marrakech, Morocco.

“Yes it’s Macau and it’s happening. I will be back to Macau F3 GP with Carlin!” da Costa wrote on his Facebook page.

“Macau is a special place, it’s just pure driving. There is no special aim as such as going back for me, I’m doing it for the love of the sport, so when I got the call from Trevor [Carlin] I couldn’t say no.

“There will also be a few Macau winners going back as well as a lot of talented young guys so it will be a fun weekend. Thanks to BMW Motorsport for supporting my Macau comeback.”

Da Costa will be joined in the field by fellow Formula E racer Felix Rosenqvist, who is chasing an unprecedented third straight Macau victory.

Americans Askew and Kirkwood have strong runs at Formula Ford Festival

Photographs courtesy of Jack Mitchell/JAM Motorsport Photography.
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While Formula One was in the U.S. for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, several American open-wheel racers had a strong go of it at the Formula Ford Festival in Brands Hatch, England.

See the release below for more info on who:

Team USA Scholarship drivers Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood continued to impress during a thrilling Formula Ford Festival Final on Sunday. Fellow American Chase Owen also posted a strong drive in the 20-lap finale, finishing sixth in another Cliff Dempsey Racing Ray.

The distinctive pair of red-white-and-blue Rays of Askew and Kirkwood lined up fourth and 16th on the grid after finishing second and eighth, respectively, in the morning’s Semi Final race. The Final began in cold but dry conditions and the opening stages delivered some scintillating action as polesitter and former British Formula Ford champion Scott Malvern held onto a tenuous lead over 2016 BRSCC Avon Tires British FF1600 champion Niall Murray and a vast, snarling pack of hungry young drivers all seeking to claim Festival glory.

Askew made another excellent start to move into third place at the first corner, only to fall to fourth when a defensive Malvern bottled up the pack under braking for Clearways and Luke Williams took the opportunity to drive around the outside of two of his rivals, including Askew, to run third. Askew lost another position on the following lap when an attempt to pass Williams at Graham Hill Bend was strongly rebuffed and the hard-charging American lost momentum on the exit and was promptly passed by two cars on the Cooper Straight, including Malvern’s teammate Chris Middlehurst.


Undeterred, Askew quickly fought back, regaining fourth on the next lap as Murray brilliantly squeezed past Malvern for the lead under braking for Paddock Hill Bend … after the pair had run with interlocked wheels for virtually the entire length of the Brabham Straight! Murray quickly pulled away to snag a well-deserved victory.

Askew aggressively regained third position on Lap 9 and initially reduced the small gap to Malvern, pulling clear of Middlehurst until Malvern’s obstructive tactics slowed them both appreciably and allowed the pack to close in again. The battled continued to be hot and heavy until Lap 14, when Askew abruptly slowed and headed for the pits with a punctured tire after being forced over the curb on the exit of Druid’s hairpin.

“Fantastic weekend up until about halfway through the Final,” said Askew with a broad smile. “I had a puncture and had to pull off the track unfortunately, but the car was unbelievable. Cliff Dempsey nailed the tire pressures and the setup. It was unreal. I had more grip than anyone around me. I was super-fast and had speed for at least second. I was passing for third when the  puncture happened.”

Kirkwood, meanwhile, was embroiled in a typically fraught battle in the midst of the 30-car field. He lost a place in the early stages before finding his feet and making a series of strong passes, especially under braking for Clearways, before finally crossing the finish line in seventh.

“Overall the race was good,” said Kirkwood. “I just had to pick people off left and right. After a couple of laps it almost seemed like you had to get the car in front of you comfortable with you in their mirrors and then make a move on them when they left the door open.”

The pair will return to action for the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone on November 5/6.

Malaysia considers dropping F1 race: ‘The product is no longer exciting’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and the rest of the field at the start during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The future of the Malaysian Grand Prix has been thrown into doubt following comments from government officials and the CEO of the Sepang International Circuit, saying F1 “is no longer exciting”.

Malaysia joined the F1 calendar back in 1999 and traditionally held the second round of the season from 2001.

The race shifted to a fall date for 2016 so that the track could complete an extensive redevelopment program, meaning it was held two weeks after the grand prix in neighboring Singapore.

Sepang signed a new three-year deal to host F1 in March 2015, but doubts have been raised about hosting the race beyond 2018.

Circuit CEO Datuk Ahmad Razlan Ahmad Razali told the New Straits Times that amid declining ticket sales and a falling global TV audience, Malaysia was considering dropping the race.

“Maybe it will do Malaysia good to take a break,” he said.

“I think the product is no longer exciting. It’s being dominated by one team.”

Malaysian government official Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister of youth and sports, sent out a series of tweets supporting Razlan’s comments.

Jamaluddin also revealed that officials considered making the grand prix at Sepang a night race, but found the costs to be too high.

The 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix is scheduled for September 17.