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IndyCar shaping up as more competitive in 2014 than 2013, through 10 races

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Sinking my teeth into the statistics is always one of my favorite parts of a post-weekend debrief in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the analysis after this weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader is no different.

Here’s some of the cool nuggets and/or trends that have emerged following the weekend’s action around the M.D Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at NRG Park.

The stats reveal one thing: After a ridiculously competitive 2013, 2014 has only carried that over.

  • 16 podium finishers: The three rookies that bagged their first podiums in Houston, Carlos Huertas, Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth, upped the number of podium finishers to 16 this year. Through 10 races in 2013, there were 14 podium finishers; that number grew to 20 by the end of the year. The seven full-timers who haven’t yet: Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais, Sebastian Saavedra, Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden. The potential exists at least five of those seven could get one in the final eight races, and beat the 20 mark to hit 21 or more.
  • Number of different winners tracking on par: Through 10 races last year, we had seven different winners. Through 10 this year… we have seven different winners once more. Those who have won in both years: Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, Simon Pagenaud, and Helio Castroneves. New additions for 2014 are Ed Carpenter and Carlos Huertas, replacing Hinchcliffe and Sato. Last year there were 10 different winners in total; the record in a single season is 11.
  • Top-10 finishing droughts: Eight drivers: Scott Dixon, Power, Saavedra, Sato, Conway, Newgarden, Graham Rahal and Luca Filippi didn’t finish in the top 10 in either Houston race. Saavedra hasn’t bagged a top-10 since Round 2 at Long Beach; it’s been since Round 3 for Newgarden at Barber, and Round 4 for Sato at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
  • RHR, Andretti and Power’s qualifying outage: Both Power and Hunter-Reay need to recapture their qualifying magic. In the first five races, both drivers had four top-five starts apiece. Since, Power’s Texas pole is the only combined top-five start between them. The grid spots the last 5 races: Power: 16, 8, 1, 18, 18; RHR’s: 21, 21, 12, 8, 21. Continuing the theme of “bad five-race qualifying stretch,” take a look at Marco Andretti’s last five grid spots: 18, 18, 17, 16, 16.
  • Hinch’s odd stat continues: Hat tip to The Set-Up Sheet’s Steve Wittich who discovered this first, but Hinchcliffe has yet to finish better than he’s started this year, and that dubious stat continued through Houston despite finishes of fifth and 14th. The driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda has eight top-10 starts in 10 races this year, including five P2 grid spots. Helio Castroneves leads the field with nine top-10 starts in 10 races.
  • Huertas/Kimball no top-10 starts: Huertas and Charlie Kimball are the only two full-time drivers without a top-10 start thus far in 10 races. Huertas has started 12th on two occasions; Kimball’s best is 13th, set in Houston race one.
  • Pagenaud mirrors one streak as two more continue: Pagenaud joins Dixon as the only two drivers to set fastest race lap in back-to-back races. Meanwhile, through 10 races, no polesitter has won a race this year, and no driver has won back-to-back races.
  • First big margin of victory: Pagenaud’s 7.2622-second margin of victory over teammate Aleshin is the first this season in IndyCar north of 1.9 seconds.
  • Two wins, two liveries: Pagenaud’s also won driving two different liveries in the same year, with blue, white and orange on his No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda at the GP of Indy, while now he’s won in orange Oculus colors this weekend. The last driver to do that was Helio Castroneves in 2012 (Shell No. 3 red/yellow St. Petersburg, Penske Truck Rental yellow Edmonton).
  • More cautions: Houston’s two races produced six (race one) and five (race 2) cautions. The six in race one is a season-high thus far; 24 laps for race one is also the most. Unsurprisingly, as a result, these two races produced the lowest winner average speeds this year (70.389 mph race one, 78.981 race 2).
  • Barber, Houston 1 end in common: Barber and Houston share the unfortunate commonality of being two rain/time shortened races, and also the only two races that have ended under yellow.

Hulkenberg gets one-place grid penalty for tire mix-up

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany drives the 7 Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg has been given a one-place grid penalty for Sunday’s German Grand Prix after a tire mix-up during qualifying at Hockenheim.

Hulkenberg qualified seventh for Force India, but used a set of super-soft tires in Q1 that should have been returned to Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli ahead of the session.

“The team returned electronically the wrong set of tires and used these during Q1,” a short statement from the FIA stewards in Germany read, confirming Hulkenberg’s one-place grid drop.

With the penalty, Hulkenberg will now start eighth in Germany behind Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, who finished narrowly behind.

“I’m feeling pretty happy to qualify in seventh for my home race – it’s best of the rest behind the top three teams and a good effort by the whole team,” Hulkenberg said after qualifying.

“Our objective is always to maximize our potential and it feels like we achieved that today. Most of my laps in the session came together nicely and my final effort in Q3 was spot on.

“We can expect a tough fight for good points tomorrow, but we are in a good starting position and we’ve looked strong here in all the sessions. The long run pace is competitive, too, so we’ve got every chance of getting a great result this weekend.

“There is talk of some rain tomorrow and to be honest I would not mind a shower during the race, but let’s wait and see what happens.”

Teammate Sergio Perez qualified ninth on Saturday, reaching Q3 for the first time at Hockenheim.

“It was a fun and very intense fight with Nico and the two Williams cars throughout qualifying, and in the end it was really close between the four of us,” Perez said.

“It was crucial to get through Q1 on one set of tires because some other teams had to use two sets and this gave us a small advantage in Q2, which helped us make the top ten.

“On my last lap of Q3 I struggled a bit through some of the right-hand corners; I think I may have picked something up on my front wing – maybe some debris – and that cost me some time, but it’s something I will analyze with the team.

“In the end, it was so close and just a few hundredths of a second made the difference. Tomorrow is going to be interesting.

“We are starting on the super-softs on which we qualified and we will need to work well as a team to make the strategy work and score some important points.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton: Nothing particularly wrong with Hockenheim qualifying display

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 30: 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 Germany at Hockenheimring on July 30, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes there was “nothing particularly wrong” with his display during qualifying for the German Grand Prix despite losing out on pole to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at Hockenheim.

Hamilton entered qualifying chasing his seventh pole position of the season, but fell 0.107 seconds shy of Rosberg despite his teammate running with heavier fuel in Q3 after being forced to abort an earlier run.

Hamilton was faster than Rosberg through the first sector on his final effort, but a slow second half of the lap meant he was unable to beat his teammate.

“There was nothing particularly wrong today. My final lap just didn’t work out,” Hamilton said after qualifying.

“It was pretty close out there and sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t. The car was feeling great. The team did a great job to get it where I needed it to be and it was definitely on for pole.

“I was two tenths up coming out of T2 – but from T8 onwards it started to deteriorate and I couldn’t maintain the gap. I’ve missed out on pole, so I didn’t do what I was supposed to do – but it’s in the past now, so you just let it go and look forwards.

“It doesn’t mean the race isn’t there to win tomorrow. I’ll try to get a good start and see how it goes from there. I don’t know what the strategy will be – we’ll look through that tonight. But this is a track where you can overtake, so I don’t have to go for it at the first corner. It can be somewhere else.

“The pace is clearly there, so it’s still been a good day and I’m generally pretty happy. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to do something from where I am.

“I’m just focused on trying to move forward and if I can drive like I have done in the past few races then anything can happen.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Sirotkin recovers from penalty to win Hockenheim GP2 thriller

Sergey Sirotkin (RUS, ART Grand Prix) crosses the line to take the victory.
2016 GP2 Series Round 7
Hockenheim, Germany
Saturday 30 July 2016

Photo: /GP2 Series Media Service
ref: Digital Image _V2I4334
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Sergey Sirotkin recovered from a penalty for pitting under the Virtual Safety Car to claim his second GP2 Series victory in a row in a thrilling feature race on Saturday at Hockenheim.

Starting from pole, Sirotkin made a clean getaway to ease into an early lead as championship leader Pierre Gasly bogged down from second on the grid, causing him to drop outside of the top 10.

Sirotkin led from Raffaele Marciello early on before the Italian driver made a brave pass for the lead down the inside of Turn 8 on lap four.

The Virtual Safety Car was called after contact between Artem Markelov and Jordan King three laps later, prompting ART to react immediately. The team called Sirotkin in to make his mandatory pit stop, ensuring that he would not lose much time while the field was circulating slowly.

However, Sirotkin failed to enter the pit lane before the VSC was called, resulting in a stewards investigation as drivers are not permitted to stop under the VSC in GP2.

After a lengthy discussion, the GP2 stewards opted to scratch Sirotkin’s first stop, meaning he still had to make his mandatory visit to the pit lane.

Sirotkin pitted from the lead with 11 laps remaining, emerging in fourth place before scything his way up to second place behind Marciello once again.

Further VSC periods were kind to Sirotkin, allowing him to put his fresher soft tires to good use and catch Marciello before passing with five laps remaining.

Sirotkin did not look back, charging to his second win of the season and capping off one of the all-time great fightbacks in GP2.

Luca Ghiotto finished second for Trident after passing Marciello on the final lap, with Gasly completing the podium after also getting past the ailing Italian on the final corner. Marciello was left to settle for fourth, his GP2 win drought now set to reach two years in Belgium.

Arthur Pic finished fifth for Rapax ahead of Oliver Rowland and Gustav Malja, while Alex Lynn secured reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race by finishing eighth despite a time penalty.

Sunday’s GP2 sprint race from Hockenheim is live on the NBC Sports app and at f1stream.nbcsports.com from 4:25am ET.

Dixon fast once again as times keep falling in Mid-Ohio third practice

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Scott Dixon being fast at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is not new.

But Scott Dixon dropping a lap of 1:03.7244 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is new.

Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and leader of first practice, lowered the mark to that aforementioned time in this morning’s 45-minute third practice session for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200.

And mind you, this time is done on Firestone’s primary black sidewall tires on a track that grips up and gets faster as a session goes on.

Dixon’s official track record is 1:04.5814, set last year in qualifying. But if it’s dry (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN), and the Firestone red alternates come out to play, there’s not just a chance that track record will be beat – it could be obliterated.

In the non-Dixon class, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan all also made it into the 1:03 bracket. Max Chilton was an impressive sixth.

Top Honda in this practice was Graham Rahal, as he was on Friday. Except that position is seventh.

The one red flag flew when Spencer Pigot ran in deep at Turn 4 and beached his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, but the Ed Carpenter Racing driver resumed and returned to the pits with no damage.

Times are below.

MidOFP3