Bell and Will Power. Photo: INDYCAR

Indy 500 Insights: Townsend Bell’s take on latest IMS practice week format

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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 three of this daily series through this week (see parts two, one here), we get Townsend’s take on Indianapolis’ latest new practice and qualifying week format.

Change is constant. Change has been rapid over the course of the last 20 or so years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and certainly since 1996, when American open-wheel racing was fractured into a state that it’s been attempting to crawl out of ever since.

With past IMS elements such as “traditional qualifying,” or single-weekend qualifying, or “25/8,” or other tried-and-discarded formats utilized in the past, IMS has shook it up once again for 2014.

This year, there’s the new Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the week of practice before turning up the boost from 130 kPa to 140 kPa for Fast Friday (increases horsepower), and a new extra day of practice added Monday back to race boost to allow for more race running

For Townsend Bell, in his usual one-off appearance in the Indianapolis 500, the latest schedule adjustment is a welcome change of pace.

“The format is such that it’s difficult right now for the big teams to develop a technical advantage,” he explained in an interview with MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “There are lots of little things that can be done. But you see the ‘science projects’ pay off a bit more in qualifying.”

It’s not easy to find even a single mph – to go from 224 to 225 mph laps in race trim or from 229 to 230 in qualifying, for instance – but this format has allowed that to do so.

Still, the field is ridiculously tight. The 2014 field is both the closest in time (only 2.5399 seconds separate 1-33) and fastest (229.382 mph field average, beating the 2002 field of 228.648).

And for the race, after the week of practice, Bell noted the year-on-year improvement from Firestone in terms of grip level and more consistency over the course of a run.

“Firestone has made a dramatic improvement in the tire, without a loss of grip,” he said. “So we should see more green flag racing, by virtue of the balance not going away as much over the course of a stint.

“I’m hoping for hot conditions – as hot as we can get – so that some of the cars don’t have as great a balance,” he added, noting his car seems to run better in warmer conditions. “But if last year’s any indication, by halfway, it was still a pack of 20-24 cars in a freight train.”

Bell, driver of the No. 6 Robert Graham-Royal Purple-Beneteau USA Chevrolet for KV Racing Technology, ran his first 230-plus mph lap in practice at Indianapolis this year with the extra boost. His best 230-plus lap of 230.830 ranked him 14th in the field of 33.

Over the course of the week, in race boost, Bell had a best lap of 225.484 mph and an average, spread over his fastest lap from the six practice days, of 222.499. Both times were in the middle of the pack.

But Bell’s pleased with his car’s handling in traffic, and was the busiest driver in the 33-car field on Monday, that ultimate last real day of practice. He ran 148 laps, one of only six who ran more than 100.

We’ll see how his work during the new format translates to the traditional Friday Carb Day practice, and then ultimately for race day, Sunday, for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Ricciardo: Rosberg has given someone an amazing Christmas present

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Daniel Ricciardo says that Nico Rosberg has given someone “an amazing Christmas present” by announcing his shock retirement from Formula 1 and opening up a seat at Mercedes for the 2017 season.

Ahead of Friday’s FIA prize giving in Vienna, Rosberg announced his retirement from F1 with immediate effect less than a week after winning his first World Championship.

The news sent shockwaves through F1, as well as sparking speculation as to who will replace him at Mercedes, the team that has won every championship in the past three seasons.

Following the FIA gala where he received his trophy for finishing third in the drivers’ championship, Ricciardo spoke about the news in a video posted to his Instagram account.

“We had the FIA gala last night, the end of year awards. It was good, it was really beautiful, but I think the big news was Nico announcing his retirement,” Ricciardo said.

“That was pretty unexpected I guess. He’s given someone an amazing Christmas present, whoever gets that seat, I hope they appreciate what they’re getting.

“But good on him for having the nuts to say that’s enough, he achieved what he wanted. Fair play.”

👋🏼🇦🇹

A video posted by Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) on

Ecclestone shocked by Rosberg exit, thinks Alonso could move to Mercedes

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 16:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone talk in the Paddock during previews ahead of the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 16, 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)
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Bernie Ecclestone was shocked to learn of Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire with immediate effect, announced on Friday.

Rosberg clinched his first drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, ending Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton’s reign as World Champion.

Ahead of the FIA prize giving in Vienna on Friday, Rosberg announced that he would not be defending his title in 2017, retiring from racing with immediate effect.

The racing world has been shellshocked by the news, with F1 CEO Ecclestone revealing that he had no idea that the sport would be without its champion for next season.

“It was just as big a shock to me as you,” Ecclestone told Reuters.

“I had dinner with Toto [Wolff, Mercedes team boss] last night and he obviously couldn’t say anything to me.

“[Rosberg] needs more time to spend his money, that’s all.”

Following Rosberg’s announcement, speculation has been rife regarding a possible replacement at Mercedes for 2017, with names such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein being linked with the seat.

Ecclestone was open to the idea of Alonso leaving McLaren with one year to spare on his contract, suggesting that the recent management changes could allow the Spaniard to walk away.

“It’s possible I suppose, let’s see,” Ecclestone said.

“They’ve got new management now at McLaren. Maybe he’s fed up being there and they’re fed up having him.”

When asked if Vettel might be an option for Mercedes, Ecclestone said: “I think not. I don’t think Seb would want to be with Lewis.”

2017 will be the first year since 1994 that the defending World Champion has not raced in F1, with Alain Prost retiring at the end of his championship year in 1993.

Strategist shuffle set to take place in Andretti’s 2017 lineup

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi of the United States, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda Dallara, poses with team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta during a photoshoot after winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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With the four-car lineup confirmed for Andretti Autosport’s Verizon IndyCar Series program following Takuma Sato’s official announcement, attention turns to the personnel fielding those cars.

With the signings of Eric Bretzman and Jeremy Milless to bolster the overall engineering side of the team, and with Milless replacing the departed Tom German as Alexander Rossi’s race engineer, there’s also a strategist shuffle that appears set to take part.

Although team principal Michael Andretti stopped short of formally confirming he’ll step off the box for son Marco in his No. 27 hhgregg Honda next year, he said barring any unexpected changes that’s what’s going to happen.

Since Andretti Autosport has multiple race programs in other series – the team has won the last two Red Bull Global Rallycross titles with Volkswagen, then has a two-car FIA Formula E and at least three, possibly four-car Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires effort – Andretti said he needs to be available to miss IndyCar weekends occasionally if there’s conflicts.

“It hasn’t been 100 percent confirmed, but it looks like it’s going that way,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“It’s been a real challenge being a strategist and team owner; not only being a team owner in other series, but it never gave me the flexibility to miss an IndyCar race. There were a couple times where I couldn’t get to other events. It’s important for the overall team.”

As a case in point even though this isn’t directly IndyCar-related, the FIA Formula E new season opener was in Hong Kong the weekend of October 8-9, while the Red Bull GRC season finale was in Los Angeles the same weekend.

Andretti opted to be in LA there to watch Scott Speed edge Tanner Foust for his second straight Red Bull GRC program, while JF Thormann was Andretti’s lead team representative in Hong Kong at FE. Andretti expects to attend the next FE round in Buenos Aires, which isn’t until February 18, 2017.

With FE’s season shifting into the spring and summer of 2017, there are several IndyCar/FE conflicts. Red Bull GRC is yet to release its 2017 calendar.

Anyway, with Andretti set to step off the strategist box, he all but indicated Bryan Herta will move over to Marco Andretti’s car, and that Rob Edwards (director of race operations and engineering) would move to Rossi’s No. 98 car. Edwards was on the No. 26 car for Carlos Munoz this year, and his departure there, if it’s confirmed, would leave a vacancy on the No. 26 box for Takuma Sato.

“I love having Bryan on board,” Michael Andretti said. “Having him there, if it works out that way, is that he and Marco are very close. It’d be really positive. I know Bryan would be up for the challenge in trying to improve that side.

“If that happens… then where we’re leaning is that it could be Rob on Rossi. That’d be good. Rossi would seem to be happy.”

Andretti said one of the challenges in being a strategist is that it’s one of the most important positions on a race weekend, and being split between strategist and team owner roles causes something of a loss of focus.

The rise of Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing the last two years can be attributed to multiple things, including the fact Rahal’s dad Bobby Rahal stepped off the box in 2015 and let Ricardo Nault take over in that role.

“What would I miss about it? Not a lot, quite honestly!” Andretti admitted.

“It wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But I think, because of my experience, you can feel and see a race. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of guys out there that do that. We’re grooming guys to be in that place.”

Andretti did hail the immediate input Milless and Bretzman are having on the overall program. The team’s best road course performance of the year came at the Sonoma season finale in September, and it appears strides are following from there.

“It’s been great. I’m so excited and bullish on next year,” Andretti said. “In our first test with them, we’ve seen big results. There’s a lot more to come. I truly feel we’ll be a lot more competitive.

“We think we’re onto some things. We were onto some things going into Sonoma… and that wasn’t by mistake. We had found some things. We had the sense of where we needed to go. Getting these two in there, backed up where we were going, so that was a positive. I feel good about it.”

Takuma Sato formally confirmed with Andretti Autosport

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 27: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara Honda sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix Of Houston at NRG Park on June 27, 2014 in Houston, Texas (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Takuma Sato will join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and complete the team’s four-car full-season lineup.

The 39-year-old Japanese driver will begin his eighth season in IndyCar next year, in arguably his deepest opportunity yet driving the team’s No. 26 Honda.

“I am extremely excited that we were able to work out a deal with Michael and Andretti Autosport,” Sato said in a release. “With Honda an integral part of Andretti Autosport, it seemed like a great fit. The team has proven year after year that they are ultracompetitive on all types of circuits.

“Particularly the speed that team has shown in recent years at the Indy 500 were just incredible. I am also very impressed on how aggressively they have addressed their needs for 2017, and am really looking forward to working with my new environment and can’t wait to get started.”

Sato spent his first two seasons with the KVSH Racing team (then called KV Racing Technology), a year at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the last four at A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Sato delivered Foyt its first win in more than a decade when he won at Long Beach, 2013, and also has scored five poles in his career. While he’s yet to finish better than 13th in points, Sato has long been one of the more enjoyable drivers to watch in the series for his aggressive, “no attack, no chance” style.

Sato joins the returning trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi within the team.

Team principal Michael Andretti said Sato’s results over his IndyCar career to date really haven’t done his talent, ability or development work justice.

“We’re excited to have Takuma; we think he’ll surprise and turn some heads,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I think he’ll be in a situation that should help him a lot.

“With three good teammates, I think he is personally excited. This will be his best chance to get results since being in IndyCar.

“To me I really believe he’s one of the fastest guys in the paddock. When it comes to qualifying… it’ll help us in that area. It’ll be good in that feedback. I’m real happy with having him on board. He’s such a great kid, he won’t upset the chemistry. It’s a positive all the way around.”

Andretti also noted how key it was to have all four full-time entries confirmed this early in the offseason. The Rossi car with Andretti-Herta Autosport was only finalized in late February last year.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done since I’ve owned the team,” Andretti admitted. “Where we have all four cars this early, it helps us in terms of putting it together. It’s not a last-minute thing. That makes it a better effort.”

Garrett Mothershead, who worked with the departed Carlos Munoz at Andretti last year, will be Sato’s race engineer. Munoz now replaces Sato at Foyt next season.

Andretti said he expects to see commercial partnerships for Rossi and Sato’s cars announced in mid-January.