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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.

Helmut Marko: Modern-day F1 drivers are overpaid

xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.
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Red Bull Racing team advisor Helmut Marko believes that modern-day Formula 1 drivers are overpaid due to the reduced risk and easier driving conditions they experience.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel are two of the highest-paid drivers on the grid in 2016, earning upwards of $30 million per year from their teams.

However, Marko believes that drivers in F1 are overpaid as there is now a reduced risk of suffering a fatal accident, and that with the cars being easier to drive, their worth has decreased.

“Basically, the drivers of today are definitely overpaid for two reasons,” Marko told Sport Bild in Germany.

“Firstly, there is only a small risk that serious accidents can result in injury or even be fatal.

“Secondly, young top talent like [Max] Verstappen or [Pascal] Wehrlein can take the modern car and straight away easily do 100 laps without tiring.

“Previously you had even a Vettel have to take breaks because he was not used to the high centrifugal forces. This means that the cars are easier to drive. The drivers must do less.”

Wolff: Wehrlein, Ocon deserve Formula 1 roles

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 23:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during Formula One testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 23, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Mercedes AMG Petronas team boss Toto Wolff believes that junior talents Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon have both earned their roles in Formula 1 for the 2016 season “on merit”.

Wehrlein will make his grand prix debut in 2016 with Manor Racing after winning the DTM title for Mercedes last year, becoming the youngest champion in the history of the series.

Ocon has been loaned to Renault Sport F1 Racing for its comeback season, and will work as the team’s reserve driver following his GP3 title success last year.

Wolff feels that both drivers deserve their chance in F1 this year, and also said that Mercedes will look to expand its junior program across the course of the season.

“We’re delighted that Pascal and Esteban will tackle a fresh set of challenges in 2016,” Wolff said. “Our aim is to build their experience in the best possible environment and, following positive discussions with our counterparts at Manor and Renault, it became clear that their respective Formula 1 programmes presented ideal opportunities to achieve that.

“It is very pleasing to see young drivers earning their spot in Formula 1 on merit and to see that talent is being rewarded by the system. Pascal and Esteban have proven themselves to be amongst the top young drivers out there – and both come into 2016 as champions of their respective series.

“But they still have plenty to learn and they will be staying humble, with their feet on the ground. This is an important year for them and we will be following their progress with great interest, while also looking to expand our junior program.

“Mercedes-Benz has a strong tradition of developing young racing talent and our eyes are very much open to other promising prospects for the future.”

Social roundup: When Mika Hakkinen met CJ Wilson, and other cool shots

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 15:  Former F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen is seen during practice for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2011 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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What happens when you put a McLaren P1 owned by baseball star and CJ Wilson Racing team principal, and occasional driver, CJ Wilson, with two-time F1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen, and you turn them loose at The Thermal Club for a track day?

Pure awesomeness.

Of course there’s other cars besides the McLaren and hockey legend, Teemu Selanne, was also on site.

This really isn’t a post so much that needs words, but one that does need proper photos and noise.

The CJWR pairing of Marc Miller and Daniel Burkett, who drive the No. 33 One Capital/Motor Oil Matters Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport dubbed “Darth Cayman” in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, have been coaching and driving at an event this weekend out at The Thermal Club, a luxury race track in California.

See a mix of photos and videos below:

Ecclestone gives Monza until end of February to resolve F1 future

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates on the podium next to Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 6, 2015 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone has given officials at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza until the end of February to resolve the future of the Italian Grand Prix.

Monza has hosted the Italian Grand Prix for all but one year since 1950 when the F1 world championship was formed, establishing itself as one of the series’ most historic and legendary venues.

However, its future has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months following a cut in the amount of tax relief that the race receives by the Italian government.

Ecclestone said back in November that he had “no doubts” the race would remain on the calendar and extend its contract beyond the end of 2016 when it expires.

However, the 85-year-old has now cast fresh doubt on the race in an interview with Reuters, giving the circuit until the end of February to resolve its future.

“It’s Italian. A lot of conversations at the moment and not much action,” Ecclestone said.

“They said to me a few months ago: ‘Everything is sorted out, we know exactly where we are and it’s all agreed and no dramas.’

“And now I heard yesterday it’s become very political… They’ll get on with it. Or not. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nothing we can do about it.

“The only people that can sort this out are the people that are currently involved in Italy. They can take as long as they like, provided it’s by the end of this month.”

The 2016 Italian Grand Prix is set to take place at Monza on September 4.