IndyCar: Hawksworth on the doorstep of breakthrough with BHA

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As we head to the final month of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season, there’s a handful of drivers who seek to turn in that last jaw-dropping performance that will be remembered heading into the offseason.

One such driver is Englishman Jack Hawksworth, who put in a star turn in a cameo TUDOR United SportsCar Championship role this past weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Filling in for Alex Tagliani in the No. 08 RSR Racing Oreca FLM09 Prototype Challenge car, Hawksworth ran down and passed the team’s sister car, driven by Bruno Junqueira, for a win in his sports car debut.

But he’ll be back to his day job this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, as driver of the No. 98 Castrol Edge BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda. Entering the weekend, Hawksworth sits a perhaps unrepresentative 17th in points – 30 out of 13th.

It’s been an up-and-down rookie season for the 23-year-old from Bradford, who was a last-minute nomination to the Bryan Herta/Steve Newey-led entry – ironically, where he also replaced Tagliani for the full-season effort.

Hawksworth made a dynamic first impression with three Firestone Fast Six appearances in his first four tries, and a total of four top-10 grid efforts in the first six races.

Yet in the last eight, Hawksworth hasn’t bettered 15th on the grid, and he’s also had to bounce back following his Pocono practice accident where he incurred a myocardial contusion and missed that race.

His results didn’t match the pace in the first six races – a seventh at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis came after leading a race-high 31 laps, and it was one of only two top-15 finishes.

As the qualifying has dropped off, his race results have improved – Hawksworth hasn’t finished worse than 15th since in the last eight, while posting three top-six results and his first podium with third in Race 2 at Houston.

“I think I’ve just been understanding the races more,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk ahead of the Toronto weekend. “I wouldn’t say there’s been one thing where I improved this or that since the start of the year. At this point, it’s more knowing the races, the sport, the strategy a little better.”

That’s in part why his Houston podium was validation both in his own confidence, and the decision Herta and Newey made to enlist their single car to a rookie.

“We’d been quick on a number of occasions, and we should have got it done earlier and didn’t through whatever reason,” Hawksworth explained. “We struggled on pace in Houston, and while race one was good, race two we weren’t that quick. We had some great strategy to get in the mix, then we found the pace to get it done.

“It wasn’t a weight off my shoulder per se, but it was a relief in some sense to get a result.”

The result was particularly impressive as Hawksworth had held off Juan Pablo Montoya and an eager Charlie Kimball for the position.

Hawksworth has punched above his weight as a rookie on a single-car team – which in some respects, mirrors what team owner Herta did some 20 years ago, when he drove a partial schedule for A.J. Foyt before getting injured in Toronto.

“He’s been so good to work with, and yeah, Bryan’s been through a similar thing as he came up through the ranks,” Hawksworth explained. “I think we work well together. It means a lot to come in knowing the quality of the personnel is so high, from the engineering through the rest of the crew. It helps the learning process.”

Had Hawksworth not advanced into IndyCar after a difficult Indy Lights season, where he won three street course races but struggled on ovals and only finished fourth in points, he may have given up the dream to race altogether.

“It really was that close,” he admitted. “It didn’t look like there was that much out there. I’d honestly thought I was done.”

And this is where Hawksworth exhibits a confidence that borders on bravado, but speaks to an inner will to win rather than a simple “happy to be here” attitude.

“But I came in here and even though it was late, yeah, I expected to be quick; I always have been in whatever I’ve done,” he said. “Without being arrogant, I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t been fast. I want to be quickest every time out in any formula. Sometimes you’re disappointed or want more.

“I’m racing to win; I have no interest in being here if I don’t have a chance. If it wasn’t right, I wasn’t gonna do it.”

He has the chops and he’s had the determination to want to succeed. Given the level of parity in IndyCar this season, and fresh off the momentum of a win at Indianapolis this past weekend, it would not be a major surprise to see Hawksworth bag his first IndyCar win before the year’s out.

Hamilton fastest, Mercedes gaps field in opening USGP practice

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton made an impressive start to the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas by topping the first Formula 1 practice session on Friday morning at the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton arrived in Austin trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by 33 points at the top of the drivers’ championship, having not won a race since the end of July.

The Briton is a three-time victor at COTA, as well as claiming the last F1 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in 2007, making the United States a happy hunting ground for the defending champion.

Hamilton and Rosberg came out of the blocks early in FP1, immediately pulling clear of the field with laps on the super-soft tire.

Hamilton enjoyed an early edge over his teammate, only for Rosberg to go fastest upon switching to the soft compound Pirellis and going for a lighter fuel run.

Rosberg’s spell at the top of the timesheets did not last long, though, as Hamilton bounced back with a lap of 1:37.428 that was good enough to give him P1 come the end of the session.

Rosberg finished three-tenths of a second further back, but it was the gap to third that was most indicative of Mercedes’ strength at COTA: 1.5 seconds separated Rosberg in P2 and Max Verstappen in P3.

Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth for Ferrari, trailing Red Bull’s Verstappen by just 0.028 seconds, while Nico Hulkenberg led Force India’s charge in fifth.

Valtteri Bottas was sixth-fastest for Williams ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull, with Sebastian Vettel following in P8 for Ferrari. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.

It proved to be an eventful session for Vettel, who narrowly missed hitting Jolyon Palmer early in the session before almost losing a wing mirror, only to grab it with his left hand so he could return it to the pits.

Renault’s Palmer was one of two drivers to have an off-track moment, spinning out at Turn 18. Toro Rosso’s Kvyat made a similar error later in the session, finding the limits of adhesion through the long right-hander.

Haas’ first outing on American soil ended under a cloud as both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez stopped at the end of the pit lane with a couple of minutes remaining. They were ultimately classified P14 and P15.

Second practice in Austin is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET on Friday.

Kvyat stresses ‘respect’, ‘loyalty’ to Red Bull as 2017 talks continue

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 08: Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso sits in his car in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 8, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Daniil Kvyat has stressed his “respect” and “loyalty” towards Red Bull’s Formula 1 programs as talks regarding his plans for the 2017 season continue.

Kvyat was demoted from Red Bull’s senior team to its junior outfit, Toro Rosso, following the Russian Grand Prix in May.

The Russian driver struggled to get to grips with life further down the grid, scoring just two points in the run to the summer break, but bucked the trend by qualifying seventh in Singapore before finishing ninth.

Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost has long expressed a desire to keep Kvyat with the team for 2017, but Red Bull chiefs Helmut Marko and Dietrich Mateschitz will make the final call and may elect to promote GP2 driver Pierre Gasly into a seat.

Kvyat has been linked with moves elsewhere on the F1 grid, but said on Thursday in Austin ahead of the United States Grand Prix that his focus lay with remaining in the Red Bull setup.

“My aim is to be in F1 next year, but it’s too early to comment. We will have discussions behind closed doors,” Kvyat said.

“I have a lot of respect for and loyalty to Red Bull. Sooner or later I would like to have more details.

“Red Bull has managed me through my junior career and it is still number one on my list. I am looking for a drive where I can show what I can do.

“Toro Rosso is a fantastic team, we are one family and I feel very comfortable here.”

WATCH LIVE: USGP FP1 at 11 a.m., FP2 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks into the paddock with his dog, Coco, during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Free practice kicks off today for the United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas in Austin, and you can see both sessions LIVE on NBCSN and streamed via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App (for participating providers).

First practice runs from 11 a.m. ET to 12:30 p.m. ET, leading into the premiere of Off the Grid: Austria at 12:30 p.m.

Then second practice runs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET.

Austin is on CT, so local times are 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m., respectively.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are in the commentary booth with Will Buxton patrolling the pits and paddock for today’s coverage.

Again, that’s 11 a.m. ET and 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN for LIVE coverage of free practice from Austin.

Full times and details for the weekend are linked here.

Hulkenberg: Renault move ‘the right step in my career’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg believes that his move to Renault for the 2017 Formula 1 season is the “right step” for his career after deciding to leave Force India.

Hulkenberg had been set to remain with Force India next season, but Renault announced last week that it had signed the German driver for 2017 after agreeing a deal to release him from his contract.

Speaking in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the United States Grand Prix, 2015 Le Mans winner Hulkenberg said he is looking forward to taking on a new challenge.

“I believe that it’s the right step in my career at this point,” Hulkenberg said.

“I feel I have come a long way with Force India – it’s my fifth year with them. We’ve had some good success together. But I felt that it’s time for a new challenge.

“Since I’m in F1 I’ve always wanted to race for a manufacturer team and this is a really good opportunity. The timing was pretty good too. So I think it was a good decision I think from my side.”

Renault has struggled during its first season back in F1 as a constructor after six years away, scoring just eight points to sit third-from-bottom of the teams’ standings.

However, Hulkenberg is confident that, given time, Renault’s might as a manufacturer can help him score his first podium finish in F1 and his first victory.

“I think them being a manufacturer, they are under some expectations to eventually be successful and be at the front and compete for wins and that’s obviously what I’m looking for,” Hulkenberg said.

“We know at the moment there is still a long journey ahead of them, to climb back to the top because it’s been a difficult year and where they’ve come from.

“When they bought Lotus last year was not the easiest situation.so it will take time to rebuild the team and to get back to the top but obviously what I see there is a good future, definitely a big challenge, a massive challenge.

“But I’m very much up for that – and why not build a new success story with them?”