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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.

BRDC: Reports Silverstone will definitely drop British GP ‘speculative and wrong’

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 10:  The grid at the start of the race during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 10, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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The British Racing Drivers Club has issued a statement dismissing suggestions that Silverstone will definitely drop its Formula 1 race following the 2019 season.

Doubt was cast over the future of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone following a leaked letter from BRDC chairman John Grant, in which he admitted to concerns about the cost of hosting the race.

Grant admitted that BRDC officials were considering triggering a clause in Silverstone’s F1 contract that would allow it to end its commitment after 2019 due to “ruinous” costs.

In a statement issued on Friday, the BRDC stressed that no final decision had been made and that suggestions a final decision to drop the race had already been made were incorrect.

“The British Racing Drivers Club wishes to make clear that recent press reports suggesting that talks have been unsuccessful and that the British Grand Prix will definitely be dropped after 2019 are speculative and wrong,” the statement reads.

“Our objective is to preserve the British Grand Prix at Silverstone for many years to come but, of course, we can only do this if it makes economic sense,” Grant added.

“As I have said before, we will be considering over the next six months if we should give notice of our intention to exercise the break clause in our grand prix contract at the end of 2019. No decision has been made, or will be made, until mid-July.

“In the meantime, we will be using this period to explore all interested parties, hopefully in private, various ways in which we might work out a more sustainable proposition.”

Jacques Villeneuve: Indy 500 ‘the biggest, most important race in the world’

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Jacques Villeneuve of Canada driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara Honda during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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1995 CART champion Jacques Villeneuve has called the Indianapolis 500 “the biggest, most important race in the world”, believing that its long-running traditions are key to its enduring appeal.

Villeneuve won the Indy 500 in 1995 en route to the CART title, having finished second at the Brickyard the previous year.

Villeneuve moved into Formula 1 following his CART title victory, becoming world champion with Williams in 1997 before ultimately leaving the series mid-way through the 2006 season.

Villeneuve appeared in his third ‘500 in 2014, finishing 14th for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (pictured above).

Speaking at Autosport International last week, Villeneuve spoke warmly of his experiences at the ‘500, saying it dwarfed any other race in motorsport.

“[You’re] running at an average speed of 230 mph in traffic, in a place where you’re still allowed to risk your life basically because it’s marginally safer than 20 years ago, and half a million people in the grandstands,” Villeneuve said.

“Back then it was an event that lasted three weeks. You would build on it so the energy was incredible. It felt like a big gladiatorial ring from the Roman Empire. It was very special.

“It is the biggest, most important race in the world. Obviously an F1 championship is bigger, but as a one single event, it’s the biggest one.”

Villeneuve said that he did not appreciate the enormity of the event until he finally raced at the ‘500, having followed F1 more closely as a child by virtue of his father, Gilles, who raced for Ferrari.

“The Indy 500, I didn’t grow up with it. I grew up with Formula 1, so I didn’t really know what it represented,” Villeneuve said

“I didn’t think about it until I raced in Atlantics and I thought ‘oh wow, there’s half a million people here, that’s cool’.

“I still didn’t really understand why there was one toilet where they didn’t put the door because one year there was a driver who didn’t close his door and they decided to keep it like that for the next 40 years.

“There’s lots of stuff in America that’s very important, the history of why things have happened. Why do you drink milk when you’ve won the Indy 500? It’s because – I don’t know which driver – in the past was thirsty and asked for a jug of milk. They gave it to him and it became tradition.

“All these little things keep it alive. To get a race where people come almost daily for three weeks, that takes a lot of passion. But when you’re in it, OK it’s just a race and there’s lots of people, great, but it’s a stepping stone to F1.

“When you’re out of it, you realize first of all I survived it, and then you’ve won it. And then you realize that it’s still present and alive.

“And then you realize that that win was 22 years ago, and then you understand the meaning of what you accomplished.”

Niki Lauda confident Valtteri Bottas can be F1 world champion with Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas
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Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda believes that Valtteri Bottas can become Formula 1 world champion following his move to Mercedes ahead of the 2017 season.

Bottas was formally announced as a Mercedes driver on Monday, replacing Nico Rosberg following the German’s shock decision to retire following his world title win at the end of last year.

Speaking to RTL, Lauda expressed his belief that Bottas can be just as fast as Rosberg has been and is also capable of winning a world championship.

“We took Bottas because it was the best option. He is a driver who can be just as fast as Nico and I think he can win the world championship,” Lauda said.

“It was not easy to solve the problem of Rosberg, because we were looking for a driver who could do well in our team.

“So far we have always had the best two drivers who were both capable of fighting for the championship. The Nico-Lewis pairing is a good example, because they were two top drivers and fought head-to-head.”

Lauda is sure that Bottas can hit the ground running at Mercedes, proving to be a safe option with four seasons of F1 experience already under his belt.

“In the last three years we have won everything there was to win and that’s why we involved Bottas, who brings experience and speed to the team,” Lauda said.

“We can start the season very quietly and safely with these two drivers.”

Lauda also believes that Bottas will not become involved in any intra-team tension with new teammate Lewis Hamilton, the Briton having enjoyed a particularly fiery rivalry with Rosberg during their time together at Mercedes.

“Bottas is Finnish, he is calm, doesn’t talk much, but works hard,” Lauda said.

“I am sure that he will fit perfectly in the team and will not have any problems with Hamilton.”

After a down season in 2016, Ryan Hunter-Reay is looking up in 2017

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The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was one Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely rather forget.

If you were an IndyCar driver, you’d want to forget it too, as Hunter-Reay endured his worst season in the last eight:

* He failed to win even one race since 2009, his last season outside Andretti Autosport.

* He managed just three podium finishes (same as 2015, but he also had two wins that season).

* After finishing seventh, sixth and sixth in the previous three seasons, Hunter-Reay finished 12th in the IndyCar standings in 2016, his worst showing since finishing 15th in 2009.

* He had an average starting position of 11.8 and an average finish of 10.9.

All in all, 2016 was very much a hit-and-miss season, with more emphasis on the miss rather than the hit.

“2016 I think was just a season of missed opportunities, especially when I look at the big one that got away, which was the Indy 500,” Hunter-Reay said during Wednesday’s annual IndyCar preseason Media Day. “I knew after halfway through that race that I had a car to win it, it was just a matter of getting to that sprint, to that fight at the end.”

Unfortunately, RHR finished 24th in that event, two laps behind winner Alexander Rossi, following contact in the pits.

“And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances,” Hunter-Reay said, although he finished third at Pocono as opposed to how he did at Indy. “Those were two wins I feel like got away.”

It’s something he can’t help but lament because had things turned out differently, Hunter-Reay likely would not have finished as low in the standings as he did.

“It being my first ever season not winning a race with a full-time program – those two hurt when I think about them,” he said.

Another thing that hurt and was a miss was his performance in street courses. While he started the season strong with a third-place finish at St. Petersburg, that was the lone street course highlight of 2016.

At Long Beach, he finished 18th. He bounced back with finishes of seventh and third in the two Belle Isle races, but wound up 12th at Toronto.

“It was a season of struggles on the street courses for Andretti Autosport as a whole,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “We have been going back to look at that and we’re going to bring some changes in this year.

“We’ve obviously had some personnel changes at Andretti Autosport, and we’ve also had a directional change on the way we’re going to approach street circuits.

“We had a couple good street course races. You know, we finished on the podium at two last year, but it’s not enough. That’s something that we need to get on top of.”

Like his fellow IndyCar peers, Hunter-Reay is over 2016 and it’s on to 2017, with a hunger that can only be fed with greater success.

“Absolutely,” said the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. “I’m always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car.

“That’s how I’ve always been my whole career, just because I’ve always had to get in and prove myself to keep my ride. I have a lot of stability now with DHL (renewed at the end of last season). Obviously this is a great, great partner. It’s great for the series. I have four years left on my deal right now, and that stability within IndyCar, so big thanks to DHL and Andretti Autosport on that.”

While IndyCar will have a decidedly different race car in 2018, Hunter-Reay does not anticipate 2017 being similar to his 2016 campaign.

“I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a lame duck year for us,” he said. “This is something that we can progress on. We know the areas we need to improve in, and we’ve been focusing on that this off-season. I think we can improve there.

“There’s no reason why we can’t, and there’s no excuse not to, so that’s something that we’re very focused on, and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win four or five races this season, hopefully more. But it’s something where we’re going to have to go out and prove it.”

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