IndyCar: Iowa ups lap count, drops heat races from past

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Some of the extra intrigue – and points – have been taken out of play for his weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Iowa Corn Indy 300 presented by DEKALB, even though the lap count has increased.

Each of the last two years, the races at Iowa Speedway have featured heat races for qualifying. They were experimental but also awarded points. Last year, the qualifying points for finishing order in the final heat race was 9 points for first, decreasing by one to 3 for seventh/eighth, 2 for ninth/10th and 1 for 11th/12th.

It aided Helio Castroneves, who won the final heat race a year ago, but was otherwise inconsequential to the overall championship picture.

This year, the standard two-lap oval qualifying returns. Meanwhile the race itself has been increased to 300 laps – up from 250 – and the most at any IndyCar race since Richmond’s pair of 300-lappers in 2008 and 2009.

Neither of those was a success. The 2008 edition was a crash-infested mess where only 12 of 26 starters finished; in 2009, passing was nigh-on impossible and forced the series to make aero changes for future oval races afterwards. It also marked the series’ last trip to Richmond.

Getting the car comfortable is a challenge, particularly over Iowa’s defining characteristic: the big bump at Turn 2. It’s long been a trouble spot for the series as drivers have washed out at the corner, causing accidents.

“On a bullring like this, there’s a lot of banking and many different lines you can use to get around the place,” said Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Simon Pagenaud. “In addition to the driving style, the car setup can also be more aggressive. Racing at Iowa is somewhere between a road course and an oval.”

“It’s one of the most unique challenges IndyCar drivers face all season,” added Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden, who will run Wichita State University logos on his No. 67 Honda this weekend. “It’s such a fast track for how small it is. There’s high banking around the place, and we run a lot of downforce on the cars.”

Most teams tested at Iowa in June, and this race won’t necessarily be as pivotal as some of the double-points or doubleheader weekends. But it will be a challenge, nonetheless (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.