IndyCar: 2014 midterm progress report

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Technically, the Verizon IndyCar Series won’t reach the halfway point of the season until after the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend on Saturday. That will mark 9 of 18 races complete, and signal just two months left in the season.

But, with this having been a two-week break, the longest the series will have at any point this year, we take a look back at the stunners, spoilers and stragglers thus far in 2014:

BEST DRIVER: HELIO CASTRONEVES

So why am I picking the 39-year-old Brazilian over his Team Penske teammate and series points leader, Will Power, or the guy he lost out to for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay? Castroneves has shown the resilience and determination I didn’t think was possible after his near-title miss in 2013. His Detroit weekend was one of his out-and-out fastest weekends in years; he was revitalized at Indianapolis, just missing the 500 win to Hunter-Reay, and was frustrated with thirds at both St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. If he holds it together in the second half, he may well finally put together that elusive first series championship. Power and  Hunter-Reay, for as much as they’ve been the two drivers with the highest ceilings this year, have been in the headlines for controversy or mistakes as much as their highlights. And being the best driver on IndyCar’s biggest day does not necessarily mean he/she has been the best driver over the course of the season.

BEST ROOKIE: JACK HAWKSWORTH

It all comes down to circumstances, and Hawksworth is excelling most in his. A rookie on in the single-car No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda entry should not have three top-five starts and 32 laps led this year, but indeed he does. I was surprised when Bryan Herta brought him in instead of offseason favorite Luca Filippi, but Hawksworth has been nothing short of impressive this year. This is not to sell the other rookies short, but all of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing) have excellent teammates at their disposal to learn from; Hawksworth does not.

NEED A REBOUND IN SECOND HALF: SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, GRAHAM RAHAL

I don’t want to call either of the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Champ Car teammates “disappointing,” but thus far these two have been below my expectations. Bourdais has made way too many mistakes, especially for someone of his experience level, and incurred the wrath of several penalties. For whatever reason, despite having all the resources at his disposal at RLL, Rahal has struggled in qualifying and has had to rely on great starts and restarts to make up positions this year.

HARD-LUCK AWARD: JOSEF NEWGARDEN

I gave Josef my “most improved” driver award last year and his qualifying has been significantly better in 2014, especially impressive considering a change in engineers preseason and working as a single-car entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But man he can’t buy a break. Speared by RHR in Long Beach, Martin Plowman at the Indy 500 and Power at Detroit Race 2, plus a rare unforced error in Detroit Race 1, have left Newgarden’s results not at the level of his qualifying performances.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE: INDY 500

Hard not to give it to the race where Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged a thrilling six-lap bout for the win after the red flag, and the field kept it clean and green for the first 149 laps. It had just the right amount of passing, pacing and fuel strategy for my liking, with an excellent finish to boot.

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF

  • Power vs. the world: Points leader Will Power has made himself no friends with some of his on-track moves this season, but, as he said post-Texas, he’s still been earning a lot of penalties. How he handles himself and the pressure in the hunt for his first title will be fascinating over the coming weeks.
  • Pagenaud, RHR, Castroneves in with a shot? Figure these three – RHR, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – have the best shot to overtake Power for the championship. The top four are within 91 points heading into the final 10-race stretch. Pagenaud’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda team needs just slightly better qualifying efforts (no top-three starts this year… RHR has four), but otherwise is a title contender.
  • Can Ganassi pull second-half comeback encore? The pre-Pocono test at Sebring last year has entered the annals in recent IndyCar history for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But at 156 points back in eighth place, Scott Dixon has a higher mountain to climb if he wants to repeat his 2013 series championship. Teammates Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball seek the glory of wins, and not also-ran performances.
  • The double points lottery: Pocono and Fontana offer double points on their own, and with doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto, those four weekends of the remaining eight on the calendar have a greater determination towards the championship than the four other, standard points weekends of Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Sonoma. A driver like a Marco Andretti or Tony Kanaan, for instance, could bag the Pocono win and if the leaders hit problems, suddenly vault himself back into title contention as well.
  • Fatigue: There’s 10 races in the next 10 weekends… there’s six races in the next four. How drivers and crews hold up over what’s going to be a physically demanding and at times, exhausting schedule, will determine much of the championship chase.

See the rest of the season on NBCSN, and both of this weekend’s races from Houston at 3 p.m. ET each of Saturday and Sunday on NBCSN and Live Extra.

IMSA news roundup: Watkins Glen

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The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship resumes action this weekend with the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, its sixth event of 2017 and Round 3 of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

Leading into the race, a handful of recent news stories have added intrigue to the already noteworthy event, and a couple could play prominent roles as the weekend progresses.

Ed Brown to Retire from Prototype Driving With an Eye on GT3

Ed Brown, co-founder of Tequila Patrón ESM and President and CEO of Patrón Spirits International, will step out of the No. 22 Nissan Onroak DPi after the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, citing ongoing business commitments.

“I have been racing for 14 years. I have had a ball, but given the tremendous growth of Patrón, it’s more important than ever that I more fully commit my attention to the global business opportunity,” Brown said of his decision. “The plan was always to retire from prototype racing at some point, and now seemed like the right time.”

Brown’s racing career began to take off in 2007. Scott Sharp, then a driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series with sponsorship from Patrón Tequila, surprised Brown that year with a Tequila Patrón ESM branded car and a trip to a four day racing school. Only two weeks afterward, Brown was in Cleveland competing in his first race.

He contested the Patrón GT3 Challenge by Yokohama in 2009 before advancing to the American Le Mans Series GT class the following year, piloting a Ferrari Italia F433. In 2014, Brown celebrated his first overall win, with co-driver Johannes van Overbeek, with the team now fielding an HPD ARX-03b in the Prototype class in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

The 2016 season perhaps brought Brown the most success he’s had as a driver, with overall wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Scott Sharp, team co-owner and driver of the No. 2 entry with Ryan Dalziel, expressed much gratitude toward Brown for his influence on the team. “It has been an amazing experience over the last 13 years,” said Sharp. “I watched a guy, who had never driven anything, push himself, become immersed in the sport, develop into a top driver, and help score some big wins! Ed has equally been instrumental off the track proving key direction and foresight for us as a team and myself as a friend.”

Pipo Derani, who helped Tequila Patrón ESM score the aforementioned Daytona and Sebring triumphs, will return to the team following Watkins Glen to partner van Overbeek for the remainder of the season.

However, it should be noted that, while Brown is stepping out of Prototype competition, his driving career is far from finished, as he’ll be testing several GT3 manufacturers going forward with an eye toward fielding a GT3 car in 2018. Further, Brown’s retirement from prototype racing will not impact the team’s plans in IMSA, in which it is committed to run through 2018.

“No doubt, I’ll be there to cheer on Tequila Patrón ESM at the races,” Brown finished. “Johannes and Pipo will make a great combination, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they will accomplish in the remaining races.”

The Glen Sees Patriotic Liveries Spread Through the Field

Because the six-hour endurance race takes place near the Fourth of July, the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen will see no shortage of patriotic liveries, and a handful posted images of their liveries ahead of the event.

A sampling of the special liveries can be seen below, with Michael Shank Racing and 3GT Racing spotlighted. A spotter guide for the weekend can be seen here.

 

Motul Named Official Motor Oil of Watkins Glen International

Earlier this year, Watkins Glen entered into a new partnership with Motul and named the producer of high-performance motor oils and industrial lubricants as the official motor oil of the 2.454-mile road course.

The multi-year agreement will feature on-site presence from Motul as well as signage and ticket allotments.

“The quality of Motul products has been relied upon by those in the motorsports world for over 160 years,” said Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup. “We are thrilled to align ourselves with such a recognizable and trusted brand and look forward to working closely with them as part of our family.”

Guillaume Pailleret, President of Motul North America, echoed Printup’s enthusiasm. “We are honored to see Motul associated with The Glen, terrain of so many legendary battles on a race track. We are also very excited about that partnership with Watkins Glen for it proves our commitment to the US East Coast where our brand is making a strong push this year, both with Automotive and Powersport lubricants.”

Qualifying for the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday July 1, with the race beginning Sunday July 2 at 10:00 a.m.

 

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Button calls for F1 to ‘move on’, hand Vettel no further punishment

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Recent Formula 1 driver Jenson Button believes the sport should “move on” from Sebastian Vettel’s clash with Lewis Hamilton in Baku and hand the Ferrari driver no further punishment for his sideway swipe.

Vettel drove towards Hamilton under the safety car in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, resulting in a 10-second stop/go penalty during the race for dangerous driving, the harshest available penalty bar exclusion.

The FIA confirmed on Wednesday that it would be re-examining the incident to see if any further action is warranted, with Hamilton telling NBCSN after the race in Baku that it would set a dangerous precedent if more was not done to punish Vettel.

Taking to Twitter on Thursday, Button – who spent 17 seasons racing full-time in F1 and most recently made a one-off return in Monaco with McLaren – offered his view of the situation, saying that the sport’s bosses should move on and not give Vettel any further punishment.

Recap: Green Bay Packers QB Brett Hundley takes in Kohler Grand Prix

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When professional athletes decide to experience sports outside of the one where they make their living, it never ceases to entertain. Case and point: Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley.

The 24-year-old Hundley spent the weekend at Road America, taking in the Kohler Grand Prix. His time at the facility began on Thursday, where he first paid a visit to Team Penske driver Will Power, who gave him a quick tutorial.

Will Power shows Brett Hundley a steering for a Verizon IndyCar Series machine. Photo: IndyCar

The next part of Hundley’s day saw him take a two-seater ride with none other than Mario Andretti. And, unsurprisingly, it left a big impression.

Mari Andretti takes Brett Hundley around Road America in the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater. Photo: IndyCar

“The first lap, I’m screaming, and it’s the warm-up lap! And then the second lap: I’m just bright-eyed, going through corners. I give so much respect, that’s an awesome sport, man!” Hundley said in a media debrief afterward.

However, the day was not finished. Later on, Hundley showed off his arm strength and throwing accuracy by attempting to throw a football through the passenger side window of a moving Chevrolet Corvette. And while it took a few attempts, he eventually hit his mark.

Hundley stayed through Sunday and dawned a photographer’s bib in order to take in more of the action.

In fact, he even inadvertently photobombed second-place finisher Josef Newgarden during his post-race interview.

A video chronicling Hundley’s visit can be viewed here and additional photos from his weekend can be found on his Instagram page.

 

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Merhi confirmed for WEC return with Manor at the Nürburgring

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CEFC Manor TRS Racing has confirmed that Roberto Merhi will return to the FIA World Endurance Championship for next month’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne.

Merhi previously raced for Manor in both Formula 1 and the WEC, making his most recent appearance with the British marque at last November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Merhi’s last racing outing came in the Formula 2 double-header in Spain and has flirted with a move into Formula E, but was confirmed on Wednesday to be making his racing return at the Nürburgring on July 16.

Merhi will deputize for Vergne in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson while the Frenchman is in New York for the city’s inaugural Formula E event.