Detroit2014Wkd

Detroit Grand Prix delivers another dynamic event weekend

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Say what you will about Long Beach being North America’s marquee street race – for my money, it’s still a personal favorite and the gold standard for street race operations – but Detroit’s getting pretty close to usurping that “gold standard” title after just three years since coming back on the schedule in 2012.

For the second consecutive year (I wasn’t on site in 2012, so I can’t properly comment on that year), everything about the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend on Belle Isle Park, run to near perfection by Roger Penske’s organization and with Bud Denker leading the on-site staff’s efforts, ran like clockwork.

The track flows in such a way that once you’re inside, everything runs in close proximity. The paddock is just behind pit lane and covers all four series that were in action – the Verizon IndyCar Series, TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, Pirelli World Challenge and SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks. Victory Lane and the media center are just next to the paddocks, which reduces a lot of unnecessary time spent going back-and-forth to get where you need to go.

The fan zone here is laid out in grand, open style, with a mix of vendors, booths, food options, family friendly activities and a giant concert stage – put onto great effect with Lifehouse and Shaggy performing on the two weekend days. Rising singing star Anna de Ferran, daughter of former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Gil, also performed during the weekend.

Where this race really nails it is on the corporate side. Penske’s organization focuses heavily on the corporate suite side of things and works effortlessly to ensure the suites get sold out. The Shinola-backed suites were on the outside of the front straight this year, and combined with other corporate chalets, these offered a great vantage point for those clients on site.

The track is transparent with its grandstand numbers. On Friday, Trackside Online reported the numbers, from the track posting, as a total of 15,229 grandstand seats among the five grandstands. It’s not a huge number, but it’s also not the event’s primary focus.

The volunteers go out of their way to be friendly and helpful, almost to a fault. Occasionally you’ll be at an event where volunteers do whatever they can to make your life miserable; not so in Detroit.

As for the weekend on-track? Yes, the course is bumpy but that’s one of its defining characteristics. Denker confirmed at Thursday’s media lunch that a full-scale repave will occur before 2014 to eliminate some of the rough concrete bits.

It will smooth things out, although Cadillac Pirelli World Challenge driver Johnny O’Connell, who won both races this weekend joked during Sunday’s press conference, “With Detroit being a little bit on the bumpy side, I think that works to our advantage. It was funny, I was talking to Roger Penske and I said, please don’t make this track too nice. A couple of bumps are good for me!”

Chevrolet, too, has committed to the event for another two years, through 2016. Denker confirmed to RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett that next year’s weekend again features a Verizon IndyCar Series doubleheader and the Pirelli World Challenge, while also hoping to confirm the return of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

This was the last of two weekends this year – Long Beach as well – where all three series competed alongside each other on the same card.

For IndyCar, this weekend was once again a showcase of varying strategies, which adds an extra layer of spice and intrigue because you never know which strategist or team will nail it.

You also had the emergence of rivalries in greater doses. The “#IndyRivals” campaign premiered on Sunday and it was rather appropriate that it did, considering Will Power appears to be on a quest to be the new Darth Vader of the paddock.

Perhaps, as I suggested on Twitter right before the end of Sunday’s race, Team Penske should revert his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet back to the all-black colors it premiered in when Power was a then-unheralded part-time third driver for the team in 2009.

The Power-Simon Pagenaud battle has enough momentum to where it can be promoted as “the new rivalry.” Power’s had brief encounters with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon before, after having one with Dario Franchitti for a few years. But now him and Pagenaud are the best at-odds thing to promote.

It’s a good thing for the sport, and Pagenaud’s the likeable underdog as the Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports lacks the resources of a Penske, or a Ganassi, or an Andretti Autosport, but still brings the fight and the bark on every weekend.

Penske and GM ruled the weekend, but those on site will once again attest this was another first-class event through and through. Kudos to all who made it happen.

Graham Rahal able to ‘tame the beast’ of Texas ghosts with win

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda speaks at a media conference after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – Graham Rahal swears he didn’t give the final 177 laps of the Firestone 600 a single thought between June 12 and Aug. 27.

“I haven’t thought about it at all until this week,” said Rahal, who was now thinking about nothing else after winning said race by .008 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, a Texas Motor Speedway record.

Rahal and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series have been busy since June, competing in –  and actually finishing – five races since the Firestone 600 was postponed 77 days for rain after reaching Lap 71.

After visiting Road America, Iowa Speedway, Toronto, his home track of Mid-Ohio and Pocono, the 1.5-mile track in North Texas finally, surreally, came back around.

“It’s a very strange thing actually,” Rahal said, still wearing the 10-gallon Cowboy hat awarded to race winners by track president Eddie Gossage. “We came down here this morning, and I don’t know, it was just a weird day to kind of get into the groove of it. It was like, we landed so early, we had so much time to kill, then such a short practice, and then we just go racing.”

Due to what transpired over the those five races – not finishing better than fourth after a Road America podium and only leading two laps – Rahal was having very specific thoughts about Saturday night’s race.

“This week I knew, again, because of the year that we’ve had, it was an opportunity,” Rahal said. “I felt like in June we had a great race car, we just didn’t get to see it through and tonight obviously from the front, we went forward, and it was a great night.”

After restarting 12th in a car Rahal described after a brief practice session as a “f—ing rocket,” the No. 15 carved its way through the pack. By the final 25 laps it one of five cars on the lead lap, led by Hinchcliffe.

“I just thought if I could get there, we’d have a good chance, and then we went fighting at the end there,” Rahal said. “I had a lot of front tire degradation. I was having to take the early laps a bit slower to try to save that outside front. You could see Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon even a little bit quicker than me but 15 laps or so into the stint I closed back up because my car, I think, was better on the tires in the long run.”

Then, unlike Hinchcliffe, Rahal’s team decided to pit late for tires under caution. That decision set up an eight-lap sprint that will likely be considered the most thrilling of the season. With three and four-wide racing, it looked like the memorable Indy Racing League races at Texas of a decade ago.

On a night where TMS honored law enforcement, Rahal’s path through the field was oversaw by spotter Steve Turner, a retired police officer from Speedway, Indiana.

“Steve does a great job. But tonight I had to keep my eyes particularly peeled at all times to my mirrors, Rahal said. “I always trust the spotter but I want to make sure in a lot of cases that we gave ourselves a little extra room.”

In the closing laps, Rahal’s thoughts didn’t drift to those old “pack” races. They went to a more recent Texas visit in 2012. That year, Rahal led 27 laps at the climax of the race with Justin Wilson chasing him. With three laps left, Rahal bounced off the wall out of Turn 4, allowing Wilson to pass him and win.

It would be the last IndyCar win for Wilson, who died a year ago last week from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway.

“You know what I was motivated by a little bit is I kept thinking about Justin there, because a couple years ago we had a great battle here,” Rahal said. “Quite honestly I was picturing him shooting those things off there the last couple of laps, just trying to get it done for ourselves here.”

That failure in 2012 came in the middle of seven winless seasons for the son of Bobby Rahal. Graham Rahal ended that last season with a win in another tense, hotly contested “pack race” at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s just nice to kind of tame the beast a little bit,” said Rahal, who has made nine starts at Texas, but only finished in the top 10 three times. “This place is a tough place to win … So it feels nice. To not go through this year winless is the biggest pressure I feel off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to get that over because not that it would have been a dry spell like last time, but I don’t want to have to hear the questions again, so it was nice to just get that.”

Even when Rahal got the win, he was afraid he has celebrated too soon. As his car neared the finish line, he raised his right hand in a celebratory fist before quickly dropping it down right as Hinchcliffe was pulling even with him.

“I was like, ‘make sure his roll hoop says two.’ Looked over and I could see it said two, and I knew I had it,” Rahal said. “Those LED panels that IndyCar started using are awesome.”

The win also gave Honda just its second win of 2016, a year after it earned five. After two months of not thinking about a race, Rahal won’t want to stop talking about it.

“It’s special for us to get a win for Honda for sure, and be able to call corporate on Monday and have a good talk,” Rahal said.

Hamilton gets extra five-place grid drop ahead of Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain drives the 4 Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton has been hit with an extra five-place grid drop ahead of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix after Mercedes broke a seal on his gearbox overnight.

Hamilton was due to start the race from 21st place on the grid after being hit with a number of penalties for taking three new power units over the weekend.

Hamilton had a 55-place grid drop to serve that would see him start ahead only of Fernando Alonso, who had 60 places worth of penalties.

Hamilton told NBCSN on Saturday that he would rather not start from the pit lane, but the FIA stewards issued a document saying he would have to after Mercedes broke parc ferme conditions.

However, Mercedes now claims that the FIA stewards have issued an incorrect penalty, and that Hamilton will start from the grid after all, with his penalty being a five-place grid drop that takes his total up to 60.

“The stewards issued the incorrect penalty and have now issued a five-place grid penalty, taking us to 60 places in total,” a Mercedes spokesperson said.

“The gearbox seal was broken so that Lewis can take a fresh gearbox at the next event. He will start from the grid, not the pit lane.”

As Alonso failed to set a time in Q1 and technically didn’t qualify, Hamilton will still start ahead of the Spaniard.

What to watch for: Belgian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will know that today’s Belgian Grand Prix is probably the best chance he’ll get to fight back into contention for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

After seeing his points advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton disappear through July and turn into a 19-point deficit, the German could move back into the lead on Sunday at Spa.

Hamilton will start the race from the last row of the grid after being hit with a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, as forced by issues earlier in the season.

Rosberg, meanwhile, had a relatively untroubled run to pole on Saturday, seeing off the challenges from Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

With the Mercedes drivers starting at either end of the grid, the race and title fight are finely-poised, which should make for a thrilling contest.

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Can Nico handle the pressure?

Rosberg’s title bid in 2016 has largely been built on the run of four race wins at the start of the year, all of which came after calm and well-executed displays. His form since then has been a little more erratic, allowing Hamilton back into the title fight.

Without his biggest rival for company at the front of the grid, Rosberg knows that victory should be his for the taking. Strategy will be key at Spa, and with Rosberg starting on softs as opposed to the quicker super-soft tires, he may struggle early on.

Nevertheless, this really should be Rosberg’s race to lose. And if he leaves Spa more than 19 points behind Hamilton, it would surely be a crushing psychological defeat.

Max Mania set to reach new heights

Spa is expecting its biggest attendance since 2002 on Sunday, bucking the trend of falling crowd figures that most European circuits are experiencing. Much of it is down to the success of Max Verstappen, who hails from the nearby Netherlands and lives in Belgium.

Tens of thousands of fans have made the trip across the border to cheer on Verstappen, turning the grandstands a shade of orange. Their support was rewarded with a charge to second place on the grid in qualifying, making Verstappen F1’s youngest ever front-row starter.

Starting on super-softs, Verstappen should have a pace advantage early on at Spa. Rosberg said that Red Bull’s long-run pace was concerning on Friday – could Verstappen charge to a second F1 victory?

Damage limitation the aim for Hamilton

While the penalty system may have looked somewhat farcical, Lewis Hamilton won’t care much. He now has three new power units that should see him to the end of the season barring any unexpected problems.

Hamilton has fought his way from the back of the grid before, most notably in Germany and Hungary in 2014. This time around though, it may prove more difficult. Mercedes is no longer way off in the distance compared to other teams – as such, it won’t be easy pickings.

Throw in a safety car period or two, and Hamilton could get into contention at the front of the pack. Otherwise, he needs to stay out of trouble and limit the damage of this weekend’s penalty.

All eyes on tires, both strategy and pressures

Tires are always a talking point at Spa, but this year they are proving to be particularly troublesome. Teams have been required to raise their tire pressures to prevent blow-outs, something that Felipe Massa called a “joke” earlier in the week.

That, combined with the variety of strategies on offer, could shake up the pecking order today. A three-stop race is most likely barring any safety car periods, and with temperatures higher than expected (sun at Spa? What is this sorcery?), it’s going to be a tough day for the pit wall. Lots to be lost and gained.

Opportunity knocks for lower midfield

The summer breaks appears to have done wonders for many of the teams in F1’s lower-midfield. Haas, Renault, Sauber and Manor all impressed in qualifying with their pace, and will be hopeful of repeating that kind of display in the race on Sunday.

For Haas, being on the right tire at the right time has been its biggest strength so far this season, making Spa a race where opportunities should be plenty. For Manor, today will see Esteban Ocon make his F1 debut – can he and/or Pascal Wehrlein add to its points haul this year?

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Jenson Button McLaren
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Kevin Magnussen Renault
13. Jolyon Palmer Renault
14. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
15. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Esteban Ocon Manor
18. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
19. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
22. Fernando Alonso McLaren

WATCH LIVE: Belgian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return from the summer break today with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Nico Rosberg may have seen his points lead in the drivers’ championship turn into a 19-point deficit through July, but the German now has a perfect chance to strike back against Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

With Hamilton receiving a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, the championship leader is resigned to the back row of the grid.

Rosberg capitalized on his teammate’s struggles to capture pole at Spa on Saturday, edging out Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

The pressure will now be on Rosberg to seal the deal and take his first win since the middle of June, while Hamilton will be focusing on damage limitation when fighting back from the rear of the grid.

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Hockenheim providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.