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.

Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”