IndyCar: Scott Dixon leads Ganassi front row sweep in Iowa qualifying

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As we mentioned earlier this week, Andretti Autosport has won five of the seven Verizon IndyCar Series races at Iowa Speedway. But the only other IndyCar team that’s won at Iowa will lead the field to green tomorrow night in the Iowa Corn Indy 300 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

Chip Ganassi Racing, which won back-to-back Iowa races in 2008 (Dan Wheldon) and 2009 (Dario Franchitti), swept the front row in tonight’s qualifying session on the 7/8-mile oval.

Defending series champion Scott Dixon’s two-lap average of 186.256 miles per hour was enough to knock off Target teammate Tony Kanaan’s average of 185.891 mph.

Dixon was able to take advantage of some advice from Kanaan and mutual teammate Ryan Briscoe, who both took their own qualifying runs before him.

“Both TK and Ryan went before us out there, and they thought the track had a bit of understeer,” Dixon said to NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast. “So we were able to make some wing changes on the car – obviously, to get it to turn a little bit better. And it worked out perfectly for us.

“But you never really know sometimes how your car’s gonna be compared to theirs, and putting more front wing in – sitting in a qualifying line, it’s not always something you want to hear because it just makes the car looser. But it was definitely the right call.”

As for Kanaan, he hopes to rebound from a bitter disappointment one week ago at Pocono. The Brazilian led a race-high 78 laps, but was unable to make late fuel strategy work for him.

“We haven’t delivered yet, so tomorrow will be the opportunity to redeem what happened last week,” said Kanaan, who continues to search for his first win as a member of the Ganassi camp.

Current series championship co-leader Helio Castroneves will start on the inside of Row 2 thanks to his average of 185.789 mph.

His second lap of 186.809 mph was fast enough to set a single-lap qualifying record for Iowa, but his first lap of 184.575 mph was what kept him from the pole.

Briscoe posted an average of 185.339 mph and will start to Castroneves’ outside on Row 2. Andretti Autosport rookie Carlos Munoz (185.027) and KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais (184.968) make up Row 3, while Charlie Kimball (Ganassi; 184.743) and Marco Andretti (Andretti; 184.726) will be in Row 4.

Will Power, who shares the championship lead with Penske teammate Castroneves, was first to take a qualifying run and he settled for ninth on the grid (184.683). He’ll be in Row 5 along with Ed Carpenter (184.589).

Other notables include: Simon Pagenaud in 11th, Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay in 13th, defending Iowa champion James Hinchcliffe in 14th, and last week’s winner at Pocono, Juan Pablo Montoya, in 19th.

Rookie driver Jack Hawksworth, returning to action after not racing at Pocono due to a myocardial contusion sustained in a practice crash, qualified 20th.

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES AT IOWA – IOWA CORN INDY 300
Qualifying Results

1. Scott Dixon, Ganassi-Chevy, 186.256 mph
2. Tony Kanaan, Ganassi-Chevy, 185.891
3. Helio Castroneves, Penske-Chevy, 185.685
4. Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi-Chevy, 185.339
5. Carlos Munoz, Andretti-Honda, 185.027
6. Sebastien Bourdais, KVSH-Chevy, 184.968
7. Charlie Kimball, Ganassi-Chevy, 184.743
8. Marco Andretti, Andretti-Honda, 184.726
9. Will Power, Penske-Chevy, 184.683
10. Ed Carpenter, ECR-Chevy, 184.589
11. Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt-Honda, 184.380
12. Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt-Honda, 184.316
13. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti-Honda, 183.747
14. James Hinchcliffe, Andreti-Honda, 183.348
15. Graham Rahal, Rahal-Honda, 183.201
16. Takuma Sato, Foyt-Honda, 183.089
17. Sebastian Saavedra, KV/AFS-Chevy, 183.083
18. Justin Wilson, Coyne-Honda, 182.455
19. Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske-Chevy, 182.317
20. Jack Hawksworth, Herta-Honda, 181.243
21. Josef Newgarden, SFHR-Honda, 180.987
22. Carlos Huertas, Coyne-Honda, 177.849

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”