IndyCar: Montoya a legitimate title contender heading into final seven races

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Perhaps the overlooked aspect of Juan Pablo Montoya’s win last Sunday at Pocono Raceway, his first upon his open-wheel return to the Verizon IndyCar Series, was how close it brought him into the championship picture.

He now sits fourth overall on 391 points, 55 back of Team Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who are tied with 446. His recent statistical surge has brought him to this point.

Montoya’s win in the double-points Pocono INDYCAR 500 fueled by Sunoco netted him 102 points. Along with 82 for the Indianapolis 500, is the second highest scoring driver in the two double-points races this year with 184, only behind Castroneves, who has accumulated 198.

The crazy thing is, had Montoya’s Saturday qualifying speed at Indianapolis been fast enough to get him into Sunday’s Fast Nine shootout, he could have gained enough points to be leading the double-points points standings. He lost 16 points to Castroneves as a result of his qualifying 10th, while Castroneves made it onto Row 2 and was able to bank points on both Saturday and Sunday.

On ovals in total, the gap is just two points between Castroneves (222) and JPM (220). Montoya’s obviously had more time on ovals than the rest of the IndyCar field combined with his NASCAR experience. Still, just because he’s still turning left doesn’t mean that it’s a totally natural transition from handling the beast of a stock car to a lighter, more aerodynamic, more nimble but lesser horsepower IndyCar.

Montoya has two remaining elements to conquer in his final seven races if he’s going to parlay this comeback into a potential surprise championship.

For one, he’s yet to drive a short oval, and with Iowa and Milwaukee still to go, it’s his last re-learning curve to master. Yet the way the points extrapolate, he can afford to have off weekends on one or either of those weekends because it’s not a double-points weekend (like Indianapolis, Pocono or Fontana) or a doubleheader weekend (Toronto still to go). With just standard points, a bad weekend is somewhat negated.

The other thing he has to improve, perhaps more crucially, is his road and street course qualifying. Montoya has yet to start better than sixth on a road or street course this year.

His starts thus far? 18, 16, 8, 8, 6, 15, 11, 14.

He’s turned those starts into these results: 15, 4, 21, 16, 12, 13, 2, 7. So in five of eight, he’s ended higher than he’s started.

Granted, Montoya now is in a much more comfortable place with Firestone’s red, alternate tires – and those who remember his propensity to lay down balls-to-the-wall fliers in CART qualifying in 1999 and 2000 will no doubt look forward to Montoya doing likewise once he gets a better grip (no pun intended).

That’s left him too much work to do on race days, and although he’s made the most of it – particularly at Houston two weeks ago – he’s not yet back to being ranked among the top five road and street course drivers in the series.

Again, the key is not yet. He has the equipment, he has the momentum, and most importantly, he has the least amount of pressure compared to teammates Castroneves and Power, whose careers have been overshadowed by that one element missing from their resumes: a series championship.

To close the 55-point gap, all Montoya needs is one or two more race wins and for a couple of slip-ups from his teammates. He’s already more than halved the gap since the Indianapolis 500, when Montoya sat 122 points behind then-series leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, and 82 behind Power.

Montoya has wins at Mid-Ohio (1999) and Milwaukee (2000) on his scorecard, and he’s also won at Sonoma in NASCAR (2007). So he’s coming to some tracks where he has had past success.

JPM can steal the title if he makes those couple improvements and closes this points. He may also have the mental edge to where he could leave his teammates asking come Fontana the last weekend of August, “how did we let this happen… again?”

Norris made to wait for F3 title after final lap crash in Austria

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Rising British racer Lando Norris has been made to wait to secure the FIA European Formula 3 title after a crash on the final lap of Sunday’s race at the Red Bull Ring ensured the championship battle will go to the final round of the season.

Norris, 17, became part of Formula 1 team McLaren’s junior program earlier this year, and enjoyed his maiden test in a grand prix racer in Hungary over the summer, putting in an impressive display.

Norris has been racing in the highly-competitive FIA F3 series in Europe this year, a championship that has proved crucial in the careers for drivers such as Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi.

After finishing second earlier on Sunday, Norris needed to simply finish ahead of chief title rival Maximilian Günther in the final race of the weekend to clinch the championship with three races to spare.

Norris started second and retained his position throughout the race, only to come under pressure from Ralf Aron in the closing stages, the two drivers making contact on the last lap.

Norris was sent off the track and into the gravel, forcing him to retire from the race, and with Günther finishing fifth, the points gap was reduced to 72 with three races remaining at Hockenheim in three weeks’ time.

While a title win is still likely for Norris given just 75 are on offer, to have come so close to sealing it early will nevertheless come as a blow to the talented youngster.

Norris is set to be placed in Formula 2 by McLaren in 2018, but is poised to be a name that is spoken about for many years to come in F1.

Marquez fights to Aragon MotoGP win, opens up points lead

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Marc Marquez fought through to his fifth win of the 2017 MotoGP season in Sunday’s Aragon Grand Prix, extending his lead in the riders’ championship to 16 points over Andrea Dovizioso.

A fall in qualifying meant Marquez started only fifth at Motorland Aragon, and failed to make any inroads at the start of the race, running only fourth in the early stages as Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo hit the front.

Marquez was able to slowly rise up the order, passing title rival Dovizioso, Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi and finally Lorenzo, taking the lead of the race on Lap 16.

Marquez ultimately crossed the line less than one second clear of teammate Dani Pedrosa, who continued his good record at Motorland Aragon to complete a one-two finish for Repsol Honda.

Lorenzo held on to take his second podium in Ducati colors in third, finishing ahead of Yamaha pole-sitter Maverick Viñales, who dropped to fifth on the opening lap and never recovered.

Rossi’s remarkable return to racing a little over three weeks since suffering a double leg break ended with a run to fifth at the checkered flag, having spent the early part of the race battling at the front before dropping back.

Aleix Espargaro finished sixth ahead of Dovizioso, who slipped to 16 points behind Marquez in the title race by only finishing seventh for Ducati.

Alvaro Bautista crossed the line eighth ahead of Tech3’s Johann Zarco, while Pol Espargaro completed the top 10.

MotoGP returns in three weeks’ time with the Japanese Grand Prix at Twin Ring Motegi.

Palmer calls breakthrough F1 points ‘a weight off the shoulders’

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Jolyon Palmer has conceded that his march to his first points of the 2017 Formula 1 season last time out in Singapore was “a weight off the shoulders” as he looks to gain momentum for the remaining six races of the season.

Palmer recorded his best finish in F1 under the lights at Marina Bay, crossing the line sixth in the first wet night race in the history of the sport.

The result came at the end of a tough weekend for Palmer that saw Renault confirm it would be dropping the Briton from its F1 line-up for 2018, drafting in Carlos Sainz Jr. from Toro Rosso.

Even without an F1 seat to save, Palmer hopes the result can mark the start of a strong run to finish his time with Renault through the final six races.

“Finally we had a smooth race, which is ironic given what was going on with the safety cars and the tricky weather conditions,” Palmer said.

“We made a good start, and the move on [Valtteri] Bottas was fun; a lot happened in the two hours. It feels
like a weight off the shoulders to get some points.

“I hope to push on now and get some more. I know I can do it.”

Should Palmer wish to remain in F1, his only realistic options lie with Williams and Sauber for 2018, although both teams are understood to be looking elsewhere.

A report from Autosport claims Williams has narrowed its shortlist to partner Lance Stroll next year down to existing driver Felipe Massa, reserve driver Paul di Resta and recent Renault tester Robert Kubica.

Ferrari youngster and runaway Formula 2 points leader Charles Leclerc looks nailed on to take one of Sauber’s seats next year, replacing Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein.

Marcus Ericsson is expected to keep his seat with Sauber for a fourth season, with Leclerc’s fellow Ferrari-backed youngster Antonio Giovinazzi seemingly the only alternative for the Swiss team.

Renault F1 expecting to be ‘best of the rest’ in Malaysian GP

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Renault Formula 1 bosses Cyril Abiteboul and Nick Chester are confident of being the ‘best of the rest’ behind the front-running teams and leading F1’s midfield in Malaysia next weekend.

Renault enjoyed one of its strongest weekends of the season so far last time out in Singapore, with Nico Hulkenberg qualifying fifth and Jolyon Palmer picking up eight points for P6 in the race.

The result saw Renault move up to seventh in the constructors’ championship, and Abiteboul wants to keep the momentum going as part of its bid for a top-five finish come the end of the season.

“A positive we can take from Singapore is that we have moved up a position in the constructors’ championship which means a step closer to our end of season goal of fifth place overall,” Abiteboul said.

“Reliability remains our main focus, maximum effort and flawless execution is required by all in the remaining six races to achieve that target.

“Sepang will be about negotiating the unpredictable climate and getting the best out of the whole package in the heat and humidity. As we continue to develop the chassis side, we will introduce a new engine on Nico’s car at the start of the weekend, his fourth, engine of the season.

“We fully expect to have both cars in the top 10 as we have shown our capability on a number of occasions to be the best team behind the top three.”

Technical chief Chester echoed Abiteboul’s thoughts, believing the strengths of the R.S.17 car will put the team in good stead at Sepang.

“We ought to go quite well in Malaysia with the mixture of low, medium and high-speed corners – we should be the fourth quickest car again. The car has good pace and it looked strong in the wet in Singapore,” Chester said.

“The wet running we had in Singapore is useful information for us, given Malaysia is known to throw up a few surprises with its changeable climate.

“Overall the car is working reasonably well at this stage in the season.”