IndyCar title chase may shape up as a battle of mental chess match

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Some years, luck determines the Verizon IndyCar Series championship outcome. Some years, it’s runs of success over a certain period.

This year, it might be who can keep their head in check best after overcoming adversity.

For all of the series top drivers and presumptive title contenders – Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – managing both their own expectations and their view of their competitors could determine who emerges ahead once this season is over.

The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans weekend kicked off a stretch of 13 races over three months, and begun the crucial “summer stretch” between now and the last doubleheader weekend, the Honda Indy Two in Toronto July 18-20, that will go a long way towards determining this year’s championship.

From Detroit to Toronto, the series will race nine times in eight weekends. There’s a two-week gap in-between Texas next Saturday night and the Houston doubleheader June 27-29, which is many weeks off as the series will have the rest of the season after Houston (the Sundays of July 27 and August 10 represent the remaining off weekends).

This stretch includes all three doubleheader weekends (Detroit, Houston, Toronto) plus Pocono, which is a double points, 500-mile race. Only Texas next weekend and Iowa the second weekend of July will be one qualifying, one race weekends with the standard points structure.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen how drivers are starting to handle themselves as we head into this mental stretch of races.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis to kick off the month of May saw Pagenaud and the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team at the forefront, quickest car on the weekend and smartest too, in terms of nailing their fuel strategy to make it home over Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.

Then RHR and Castroneves engaged in an epic scrap for the win at the Indianapolis 500… neither giving an inch and RHR ultimately making two brilliant passes for the win. He was elated; Castroneves did well to hide his frustration publicly, but you know he was gutted to finish second by that little a gap, and lose out on his fourth ‘500 win.

This weekend saw Power take on the role of the villain, the masked avenger who made contact with Pagenaud on Saturday (no penalty, just as he also did not receive one in Long Beach) but did make contact with Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal on Sunday (which did trigger a penalty).

Meanwhile Castroneves came out revitalized with arguably his best weekend in the series in years. He’s won races with the DW12 before, yes, but not with as much “he’s still got it” pace and gusto as he delivered both races this weekend, particularly Sunday. It was a seriously impressive mental bounce back after losing out in Indy.

Power’s mind has long been hard to decipher. He’s consistently been IndyCar’s out-and-out fastest driver since he joined Team Penske, but he’s never been fully able to keep it all together over the course of the season, and hasn’t yet captured an elusive championship. This year, he’s not making any friends, and he’s not focusing on points – only on driving the best he can every race. It remains to be seen whether that mindset will ultimately pay dividends.

Hunter-Reay is arguably IndyCar’s most versatile driver, as he excels on any of road courses, short ovals and big ovals. If he has even the tiniest of weak points, it’s on street courses, where he’s been plagued either by mechanical issues or slight mistakes the last year and a half. After Indy, RHR had a weekend nearly as bad as AJ Allmendinger’s last year in Detroit, and now must find a way to recover in Texas.

Pagenaud and Dixon are similar in that they both have a seriously steely resolve and exterior, and haven’t let issues get to them this year, at least publicly. Dixon’s Sunday drive from 22nd and last to fourth was one of those classic “don’t forget how good the Iceman/defending champion is” type-performances. Pagenaud, too, came back on Sunday following a rough Friday and Saturday.

What about Castroneves? He might have the best mindset going forward. At 39, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He nails the game outside of the cockpit; he’s still IndyCar’s most recognizable star on a national level and he’s won everything he’s ever needed to in IndyCar. Except, of course, that elusive first championship.

The Brazilian is basically IndyCar’s walking, talking version of Pharrell’s “Happy!” but there’s still a burning desire to be the best when he straps his helmet on. He’s driving so much calmer, cooler and consistently than he was three years ago.

If Power and/or Hunter-Reay self-destruct around him, Dixon can’t make up the 140-plus point deficit (he’s 142 back now, and we’ll know likely by Pocono whether he still has a shot) and Pagenaud isn’t consistent enough to match the “big teams,” Castroneves may well samba into this year’s title.

Marco Andretti’s the remaining driver in the top five still with a shot at the title, but he’s at the point where he has to win – particularly at Pocono, given double points there – before you can really begin to factor him into title contention. Given his results consistency level though, you can’t rule him out of it, either.

How drivers and teams manage this summer stretch, both on-track and in their heads, will be fascinating to watch.

Report: No Mexico, 16 races expected on 2016 IndyCar schedule

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IndyCar chairman Mark Miles doesn’t expect the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season to begin in Mexico in February next year, according to a report by USA Today.

Though Miles said the Mexico race was “unlikely,” he believes the final schedule will 16 races at 15 venues over the course of seven months.

Miles said the series is waiting for a “highly, highly likely” event to be approved by a board around Oct. 13, going on to say it wasn’t Pocono Raceway.

“If we had to, we probably could put this out, in theory, sooner, but we want to go through the formality and respect the process of a formal approval from one of the promoters,” Miles said.

Miles said the Mexico City race has been put on hold due to concerns for proper promotion for the event, which would be the series’ first outside the United States since racing in Brazil in 2013.

“The process they needed to go through to get everything lined up has not really left a lot of time to be confident that everything can be done to properly promote the first race,” Miles told USA Today. “So I think the conversation is very much about ‘17. We just kind of ran out of time for ‘16.”

This is what is know about the 2016 IndyCar schedule so far.

Either the track, IndyCar, or an IndyCar support series (Pirelli World Challenge) have announced these dates for 2016:

March 13: St. Petersburg, Fla.
April 17: Long Beach, Calif.
April 24: Birmingham, Ala.
May 14: Indianapolis, In. (Indy GP)
May 29: Indianapolis, In. (100th Indy 500)
June 4-5: Detroit, Mich.
June 11: Fort Worth, Texas
June 26: Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 31: Lexington, Ohio
Sept. 4: Boston, Mass.
Sept. 18: Sonoma, Calif.

These dates are not formal but are highly likely for 2016, per media reports:

April 2: Phoenix, AZ
July 17: Toronto, Ontario

These tracks have been rumored, but are yet to announce the status of IndyCar races for 2016:

Iowa Speedway
Pocono Raceway
The Milwaukee Mile
Gateway International Raceway

Williams hopes to improve on 2014 performance in Russian GP

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At this weekend’s Russian GP, Williams Martini Racing is looking for more of the same from Valtteri Bottas and a little improvement from Felipe Massa.

Last year, Bottas started and finished third while Lewis Hamilton ran away with the win, finishing 13 seconds over Nico Rosberg and 17 over Bottas in the inaugural race at the Sochi Autodrom.

Meanwhile, Massa started 18th after a fuel flow issue knocked him out of the first round of qualifying and managed an 11th-place finish.

Bottas and Massa enter the Sochi race fifth and sixth in the driver standings.

“We had a good result last year in Russia so we’re expecting another strong weekend and a good collection of points,” said Bottas in a release. “We all know the track now and it has a really good flow, with the long straights a good fit for our car.”

Bottas has finished in the top five in each of the last three races, two of which were won by Hamilton.

“Pace-wise we were close to Mercedes in Japan and I think we can be close again in Sochi, just like we were in 2014,” Bottas said, who also noted after Japan the team is set to turn its focus to its 2016 car.

Massa, who has two podium finishes this year, will try to bounce back from a DNF at Marina Bay and a 17th-place finish in Japan.

“I hope to make amends for qualifying last year and I’m confident we can have a competitive race,” Massa said in a team release.

“Russia is a very nice track with a few long straights which makes it interesting for overtaking,” Massa said of the 18-turn track. “The circuit has almost everything, starting with a straight and then moving into high-speed corners and then very slow corners in the middle sector. This makes setting up the car really important and the importance of downforce evident.”

The Russian Grand Prix can been seen on NBCSN on Sunday at 7 am ET.