Indy 500: Experience is a virtue for former champ Jacques Villeneuve

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After running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for the first time since his 1995 Indy 500 triumph, Jacques Villeneuve needed a moment to get himself together.

But eventually, the experience from all those years ago kicked in.

“The first 20 laps was a big shock to the system because I hadn’t been in an open-wheel car since 2006,” he said of the experience last month. “If I had jumped from F1 directly to Indy, it would’ve been a non-issue. But the first 20 laps – your body, your brain, your eyes – they’re just not used to those speeds anymore and it’s a big shock.

“You just need to do a few laps, get out of the car, take a breather and then when you get back in, it’s business as usual. The muscle memory is there. It’s like riding a bicycle. You start doing a few set-up changes and you settle in.”

19 years later, Villeneuve – who also became a Formula One World Champion in 1997 – is returning to the ‘500’ this year in a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

A lot has changed in 19 years, and Villeneuve doesn’t seem to like some of those changes such as the shift to a “fixed” chassis formula with the Dallara DW12. He says he understands why IndyCar did it, but in his mind, it doesn’t attain the obvious goal of cost-containment for its competitors.

“If you open it up, people will start making cars again,” he said. “It’s never been a bad thing. If you look at every series through history that went to one manufacturer, one engine, one tire, they never made things cheaper.

“It’s supposed to do that but it doesn’t, and it just stops the evolution. When you’re a world series or a top-notch series, it needs to be open to be respected.”

He also believes the level of respect that drivers gave each other on the race track has decreased as well.

“Some younger drivers didn’t even grow up seeing real racing as being dangerous,” he mused. “A lot of drivers, when they break their little finger, they’re surprised. I’m like, ‘Be happy!’

“Sometimes you see things happen that you’d never see in the past, because the drivers back then knew you needed to respect the danger, and they don’t.”

Villeneuve is hoping not to be around those particular drivers if and when they have a problem Sunday. He also hopes to use the first half of Sunday’s race as a chance to gauge his car’s capabilities in the draft.

That could prove to be the biggest challenge of all for the 43-year-old Canadian.

“Once you back out a little bit, it’s similar to throwing a parachute,” he said. “If the guy behind you has managed to stay close to you without backing out of it, you’re done. When one car gets you, the car behind him will get you and so on, and you can never get your rhythm back and that’s what’s tough.

“Early in the race, it shouldn’t be an issue and you can run wide. But as soon as the marbles get on the track, then you really have to be careful in how you let guys pass you if they’re getting a run on you.”

You certainly can’t be passive in a situation like that. But that should be the last problem we’ll expect out of Villeneuve now that he’s re-acquainted himself with the Brickyard oval.

“It feels as if 19 years ago is yesterday and that is weird. 19 years is a long time and suddenly, the speeds felt normal,” he said. “…You get to the point where it doesn’t feel fast anymore and that’s where the danger lies.

“You become too complacent and you get caught out. The good thing is I’ve been here before, I hit the wall here before, so I know not to get caught with that.”

F1 drivers relishing Silverstone, Suzuka races in new-style cars

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Formula 1 drivers Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are all relishing the challenge of high-speed tracks such as Silverstone and Suzuka after enjoying their first races in the new-style 2017 cars last weekend.

This season has seen the introduction of revised cars under the new technical regulations that are capable of lapping multiple seconds per lap faster than their predecessors, aided by greater downforce and wider tires.

The new cars raced together for the first time last Sunday in Australia, with the pace difference around the tight confines of the Albert Park street course still notable.

All of the drivers have been impressed by what the new cars are capable of, finding them more fun and rewarding to drive, but it is when F1 hits the classic, high-speed tracks on the calendar that they will really come into their own.

When asked what track they were most looking forward to racing on this year, the top three finishers in Australia gave similar answers.

“Probably Silverstone. I think with that amount of grip and downforce,” Vettel said.

“Probably Suzuka as well later on in the year. Also I guess the cars will be even faster from what they are now.

“So, yeah, I think that would be quite nice. I’m looking forward to that.”

Hamilton added: “Yes, Silverstone, I agree” before Mercedes teammate Bottas echoed his peers’ thoughts.

“I think all the quick ones: Spa; Suzuka; Silverstone will be nice,” Bottas said.

“But I think even street circuits will be a bit more challenging I think – not that it wasn’t challenging before, but with these cars it will be nice.”

One of the biggest changes for 2017 has been the extra physicality of the cars, but Hamilton said he felt no major issues following the race in Australia.

“It was more physical but it was no problem for me and doesn’t look like it was for these guys either,” he said.

Vettel added: “It’s not the most physical circuit in the year. I think later on it will be very interesting. Here is very technical. So, first couple of laps, at least for me, were very intense.

“Obviously it’s easy to have an error, get something wrong under braking, go a bit wide etc. Later on I had a bit of a gap and I could control it, and therefore it was a bit easier.”

Chinese Grand Prix kicks off heavy April F1 stretch on NBCSN

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After an interesting kickoff to the 2017 Formula 1 season on NBCSN with the Australian Grand Prix last week, in just over a week the series will be back in action with the second round of the season, the Chinese Grand Prix from the Shanghai International Circuit. It’s the first of three F1 races in April with the Bahrain and Russian Grands Prix occurring later in the month.

Last year saw Nico Rosberg win in Shanghai over Sebastian Vettel and Daniil Kvyat, the last two having had a coming together at the start of the race before Vettel, now of Ferrari, beat his successor at Red Bull, Kvyat. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, only finished seventh after starting 22nd and last, missing qualifying with a mechanical issue.

Vettel enters China on the heels of his victory in Melbourne, but not having won in Shanghai since 2009, when he won for Red Bull for the first time. Mercedes has won the last three Chinese Grands Prix, Rosberg winning last year while Hamilton won in 2014 and 2015. Ferrari last won here in 2013, with Fernando Alonso.

Will Vettel continue with a second straight win to open the season, or will Mercedes reassume its place up top and continue its win streak in Shanghai? Can Red Bull reassert itself and who in the midfield will emerge?

All sessions will be live streamed on NBC Sports or via the NBC Sports App. FP2, qualifying and the race also will air on NBCSN. Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are on the call with Will Buxton reporting from the pits and paddock. As in Melbourne, qualifying and race run during the late hours of the evening on the East Coast, and a bit earlier for those on the West Coast.

Here’s the schedule with where to watch on TV on digital platforms.

  • Practice 1: Thursday, April 6, 10 p.m.-11:30 p.m. ET (digital only)
  • Practice 2: Friday, April 7, 2 a.m.-3:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, April 8, 12 a.m.-1 a.m. ET (digital only)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, April 8, 3 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, April 9, 1 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Bahrain Grand Prix, on April 16.

United Fiber & Data back, again, for Marco Andretti’s car

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The continued relationship between United Fiber & Data and Andretti Autosport rolls into 2017, although not in the way that was probably planned for either party.

UFD, which served as a major associate sponsor in 2013, primary sponsor for James Hinchcliffe’s No. 27 car in 2014 and a co-primary sponsor for Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz last year, has now been confirmed for “select races” taking over as primary sponsor of Andretti’s No. 27 Honda this year, starting with next week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

This decision comes in the wake of hhgregg’s ongoing business situation, where per media reports (one from USA Today here as a recent example) the electronics retailer plans to close a number of stores and was close to filing for bankruptcy.

“We are strategically exiting markets and stores that are not financially profitable for us,” hhgregg CEO Robert Riesbeck said in a statement in early March, via USA Today. “This is a proactive decision to streamline our store footprint in the markets where we have been, and will continue to be, important to our customers, vendor partners and communities.”

The sponsor had been announced as a multi-year, co-primary sponsor in August. A release from the Andretti Autosport team today didn’t confirm hhgregg’s exit from the team, nor did it state how many races UFD plans to be the primary sponsor. However, it would probably be a surprise to see hhgregg return later this year.

In the release, the team stated: “The rebranding comes as a result of the current issues being faced by hhgregg, leading Andretti Autosport to the decision of transitioning the branding on the No. 27 Indy car piloted by Marco Andretti.”

“We’d like to wish Bob (Riesbeck) and the entire hhgregg family luck as they work through the current situation,” said Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “We are blessed to have such loyal and dedicated partners; and while this is an unfortunate situation for hhgregg, we are pleased to have such a strong relationship remaining with United Fiber & Data.”

“We are proud of our longstanding partnership with Andretti Autosport, and we are equally pleased to continue this partnership by serving as a primary sponsor for select IndyCar races this season,” added Bill Hynes, Founder & CEO of United Fiber & Data (UFD). “We look forward to once again bringing the signature colors of the UFD livery to IndyCar tracks across the country.”

Finishing in Australia the ‘first milestone’ for Vandoorne, McLaren

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Stoffel Vandoorne says that getting to the finish of last Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix was the “first milestone” for McLaren after a difficult winter.

McLaren entered the new year looking to build on a quietly impressive 2016 campaign that saw engine partner Honda make big gains, lifting the team to sixth in the constructors’ championship.

Honda tried to cut the gap to pace-setter Mercedes by revising the layout of its power unit, only for a number of issues to arise through pre-season that left Vandoorne and teammate Fernando Alonso frustrated on the sidelines for much of testing.

McLaren arrived in Australia unsure about its chances, but Alonso was able to fight for P10 through the race before retiring late on due to a suspension issue.

Vandoorne did reach the checkered flag, albeit two laps down after having to complete a power cycle on his car mid-race. The Belgian was eventually classified 13th.

“It was a difficult race, but we knew that before coming here. We have to look at the positives, we finished the race, even with some issues we had,” Vandoorne told NBCSN.

“It was very busy behind the steering wheel doing a lot of changes on the toys and really trying to bring the car home. We even had to come in the pit lane and do a full power cycle of the car. At some point I lost the dash as well so didn’t really know what was going on.”

Despite the issues, Vandoorne said McLaren could take plenty of positives from the race, admitting that he did not expect to even finish the first round in Australia.

“I think it’s the first milestone to finish the race already. After Barcelona we didn’t expect this,” Vandoorne said.

“As a total package, we’re definitely not there. We don’t have the pace yet to compete with the cars ahead, that’s for sure. We need a big push.

“Hopefully China shows another step for us.”