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?”

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Friday edition (VIDEO)

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While the drivers may be the stars of Formula 1, their on-track escapades would not be possible without the titanic effort from those behind the scenes at their respective teams, making it key for us to hear from the people who make racing possible from time to time.

Following on from the special Friday edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ in Bahrain, Will Buxton is back with all of the interviews from the team bosses in today’s FIA press conference in Russia.

In part one, we hear from Otmar Szafnauer, COO at Force India, who gives his verdict on the team’s showing in 2017 so far and new driver Esteban Ocon’s start to the season. We also catch up with Renault technical boss Nick Chester and Pirelli’s new F1 chief, Mario Isola.

In part two, Ferrari’s engine boss Luigi Fabroni offers his thoughts on the Italian marque’s strong start to the 2017 season following Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Bahrain. At the other end of the success spectrum, McLaren’s Matt Morris and Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa discuss the ongoing rebuilding project at woking.

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.