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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.

Rosberg leads as Ricciardo debuts new Aeroscreen in Russia FP1

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Like in preseason testing, Mercedes AMG Petronas topped the timesheets in first practice for the Russian Grand Prix but the story of the session was elsewhere as one of the new cockpit enhanced devices made its debut at the start of practice.

Nico Rosberg was fastest in the W07 at 1:38.127 on Pirelli’s supersoft compound, while Daniel Ricciardo introduced Red Bull Racing’s new Aeroscreen to the world for an installation lap.

The device was installed on Thursday and Ricciardo rolled out with it to start practice. Following an installation lap it was back to removing the device and running in standard configuration. The Aeroscreen is one of two cockpit enhancement devices to have made its debut this year, Kimi Raikkonen having rolled out the “Halo” concept at Barcelona for preseason testing.

Alas in practice, several drivers spun on the low-grip Sochi Autodrom circuit – Lewis Hamilton at Turn 2, Jenson Button at Turn 15 and Sebastian Vettel at the same corner shortly thereafter, and local hero Danill Kvyat later in the session at Turn 17. Jolyon Palmer also had a spin at Turn 17 just after the checkered flag.

Further down the grid Manor Racing had a difficult start to the session with a floor change on Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis and an unspecified technical issue for teammate Rio Haryanto. Both made it out for some laps later in the session.

Rosberg topped Hamilton by 0.722 of a second with Vettel third, Raikkonen fourth and Felipe Massa fifth. Ricciardo was sixth in his usual car configuration.

Two drivers stepped in for race drivers this session, with Russian Sergey Sirotkin ending a respectable 13th in his debut with the team in FP1.

That being said, his number choice of 46 inspired Kevin Magnussen, who was sidelined for the session, to throw a bit of shade on Sirotkin after getting the Romain Grosjean treatment in sitting out.

Alfonso Celis Jr. also ran for Sahara Force India in place of Nico Hulkenberg and propped up the timesheets, 5.305 seconds off Rosberg and a full 3.1 seconds and change behind teammate Sergio Perez in ninth.

Times are below. You can see FP2 live on NBCSN from 7 a.m. ET, and also via live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra.

Ricciardo debuts Aeroscreen in FP1 in Russia (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo has rolled out with the team’s new Aeroscreen, the windshield cockpit device making its formal debut during FP1 for the Russian Grand Prix.

The Australian started the session with the device, ran an installation lap and then brought it in the pits. Once under normal chassis conditions, he ended sixth.

The device is one of a couple being tested in preparation for possible 2017 enhanced cockpit protection, which go along with the regulations, to see the driver cockpit area continue to be improved for safety purposes.

Quick photos of Ricciardo’s rollout are below, along with a couple videos released by Red Bull of the Aeroscreen being tested:

More to follow later today.

Hawksworth’s team’s labor hasn’t yet borne fruit of better results

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What do Jack Hawksworth and Allen Iverson have in common?

Practice, man.

“The Answer’s” famous – or perhaps infamous – “We talkin’ ‘bout practice, man” riff a number of years ago remains the go-to line whenever practice comes up in conversation.

It’s practice where the seeds of success are sown for a team when it comes to game day.

And for Hawksworth and the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda team, it’s been practice where the team has starred in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.

But thus far, following practice, it’s been a case where the rest of the weekend has gone downhill for a variety of small but niggling reasons.

“If it was based off practice one I’d be leading the points!” Hawksworth told NBC Sports Thursday, and the thing is, he’s not joking.

In the three road or street course races this season, Hawksworth has ended second (St. Petersburg), third (Long Beach) and second (Barber) in first practice.

He’s followed it up with fellow top-10 runs in second practice of eighth, ninth and second again, respectively.

But come qualifying, it’s gone awry.

Starts of ninth, 20th and 14th have followed and in the races, it’s gone even worse with results lower than his grid spot: 11th, 21st and 19th. Toss out the Phoenix oval, because that was a nightmare weekend for him.

If ever there was a case where stats are misleading, it’s here, because Hawksworth and the team are clearly better than what they’ve been able to produce results-wise this year, and also far more gelled as a unit now compared to where they were 12 months ago as a new collective group.

“Our team is full of good people; we really believe in the 41 garage,” he said. “We did a lot of hard work over the winter. We haven’t seen the fruits of it yet.

“It looks like we’re a long way away, but we’re incredibly close. It’s a few small details, little tweaks and we’ll be at the front. It’s imminent. We’ve not shown it yet but we know it’s coming.”

The big change occurred this weekend was seeing Daniele Cucchiaroni promoted to lead race engineer on the No. 41 car, replacing the departed Dan Hobbs.

Hawksworth and Cucchiaroni worked together at Bryan Herta Autosport in 2014 and he joined the Foyt team last year with Takuma Sato’s effort. Hawksworth called him one of the brightest minds in the paddock.

He said it’s not the operating window of the Honda aero kit that the team has missed, but it has just missed getting the setup right for the qualifying and the race, where mere thousandths of a second make a difference.

“The cars are sensitive to track temperature… the conditions… it’s easy to get outside the window, but our problem hasn’t been balance or anything,” he said.

“You’re completely right in that we’ve had very quick cars at times. We haven’t understood the (Firestone) reds yet. Really, it’s just executing the qualifying and the race, with having a quick car and right car. It sounds crazy, but it’s worked out that way.

“There’s many reasons for that. We’re narrowing them down for the next couple races. It’s just small but vital things that have tripped us up. It’s been frustrating. Different at each race as well.”

Hawksworth also said he was doing everything possible to get out of the way at Barber when leaders Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud were trying to overtake him in the final stages.

“What happened there was a funny deal. To be honest, with the day we were having, the last thing I want to do is get in the way of leaders,” he said.

“I really don’t care who wins if it’s not me. But for courtesy, you don’t want to wreck the leaders.

“So I ducked out of Turn 5 to go to the left, that was the only place I could go. I saw Graham and Simon were side-by-side. If I’d have gone to the outside or stayed in the middle I’d have caused a crash. The only place to go was the inside. Rahal tried to get a tow off of me but he misjudged it and clipped my rear pods. That’s just racing.”

Hawksworth’s race was compromised to begin with when Mikhail Aleshin on the start clipped him, after Carlos Munoz clipped Aleshin. All three had to restart at the back of the field.

“The problem is mate, when you qualify (poorly), you’re in the middle of the pack. So we were on the bad side of the 26 and the 7, then you go to the back and toss around all day… much the story of our season.

“I spoke to Brian (Barnhart, Race Director) about it. The rule is, if you don’t reclaim your position by start of the pace lap, you automatically start at the back. With me being at the back, but going onto the grass to avoid running into the side of Aleshin, they deemed that the pace lap. It was a rules thing.”

Hawksworth said he’d like to see the gray areas of the rulebook examined for future use to try to remove warnings and unclear calls as best as possible.

“I’d beat on the drum of making it as black and white as possible. If you cross a line, you cross a line. We need to simplify the rules as much as we can to where things are a straightforward decision. There still seems to be a bit of the gray area.

“Still, it’s up to the series. It’d be easier for them too (to go black and white).”

Heading into May, Hawksworth sits 20th in points (50 points) while Takuma Sato is 40 points ahead, but in ninth.

Hawksworth’s season to date:

	FP1	FP2	FP3	QUAL	WU	RACE
STP	2	8	2	9	21	11
PHX	22	21	-	17	-	19
LB	3	9	11	20	17	21
BAR	2	2	11	14	8	19

Hakkinen sure Rosberg is ready to become F1 world champion

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win with his team during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2016 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Two-time Formula 1 world champion Mika Hakkinen believes that current series leader Nico Rosberg is now ready to follow in his footsteps and win his first title in 2016.

Rosberg has finished second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the past two seasons, taking the championship to the final round in 2014.

Having won the last six grands prix, Rosberg is in the form of his career and is the early leader in the 2016 championship, enjoying a 36-point advantage over Hamilton after three races.

Rosberg has cooled talk of the championship with 18 races still to go in the season, but Hakkinen now believes the German is ready to win his first world title.

“I remember how he walked around as a four or five-year-old with a small helmet in his hand,” Hakkinen told Spox.

“When I see him now, I’m very proud of him. He has developed fantastically. He has became a man and a father with the responsibility of a family.

“What many people underestimate [is that] the path to being world class is incredibly long, arduous and painful. The emphasis is on pain. Since it does not matter if your own father himself was world champion or not.

“Although he has his friends and family on the side, at the end you are still alone, with an immense burden, especially mentally, to cope.

“The physique and talent were always there. Now he has the goal clearly in mind and says with conviction: ‘Yes, I want to become world champion!’ He has risen to the challenge.

“Therefore my answer is yes, he is ready for the world title.”