Ryan Hunter-Reay

IndyCar: An important weekend for title chase, ovals at Milwaukee IndyFest

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Traditionally a staple on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar in June, the Milwaukee weekend now shifts to August in 2014, which is crucial on several fronts.

From an event standpoint, Milwaukee is the fifth of six oval races this season. While the Indianapolis 500 is and will always be both IndyCar’s biggest and marquee race from an attendance and interest standpoint, the other oval races this year at Texas, Pocono and Iowa have come under fire for perceived lack of attendance.

“It’s hard to compare a Milwaukee or Pocono to St. Petersburg or Long Beach; they’re different environments,” says Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “They have done a really good job at Milwaukee. Sometimes the perception of attendance is one event – street courses feel busier than what they are compared to a Pocono or Iowa, good example, or Texas as well.

“The actual attendance you see at Texas or Iowa isn’t all that different… but like St. Pete, Detroit, there’s more going on at the race. It feels more crowded at Detroit because of confined space. It looks more different than what they are. For ovals it’s a different type of excitement; and there is always going to be more passing.”

It’s an important event for IndyCar to look big – Andretti Sports Marketing has more or less “thrown the kitchen sink” at this event for the last three years, although there’s still something of a mystery as to how well it gets through to the locals.

The upside is that this year’s race comes following the Wisconsin State Fair. A record number of patrons passed through the gates there, and a fair number should have been exposed to IndyFest signage and appearances. Drivers have been in the state for appearances and promotions on-and-off since March. Radio ads and billboards have made the rounds; a good Sunday forecast should encourage a good walk-up number.

But the look will be important, because although Milwaukee is overflowing with history and praise from most in the IndyCar paddock, it needs to work business-wise to ensure its long-term survival. For that, I say, if you’re near the area and claim to be an IndyCar oval fan, you need to put your money where your mouth is, show up, and pack the joint. Here’s a rundown of the events occurring this weekend.

From the series standpoint, the championship now enters its final stretch of three races, in three weekends, on three completely different types of circuits.

The ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is on the legendary, historic one-mile Milwaukee Mile oval. Then it shifts to the flowing road course of Sonoma next week, and the two-mile, bumpy Auto Club Speedway in Fontana the following week.

This is more or less the week Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud, 63 and 64 points behind points leader Will Power (and his Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, who lost the lead at Mid-Ohio) need to make headway and get to within roughly the 30-40 point ballpark of the top two.

There’s 200 available points, plus bonus points, for the final three races with Fontana a double-points race. Hunter-Reay, who’s won the last two Milwaukee races and three in total, has his first ever shot at a race three-peat this weekend.

In his 2012 title-winning season, Hunter-Reay kicked off a string of three wins during the season at Milwaukee, which began his championship charge. Wins at Iowa and Toronto added to it.

None of the other three other than “RHR” have won here. Castroneves, in particular, has had a snakebit history at this track. Past Milwaukee winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon have a mathematical, if less realistic shot at the title but could well play themselves into it with another big week themselves. Neither “JPM” nor “Dixie” has anything to lose.

Then there are the spoilers. Any of 13 drivers have the chance to become IndyCar’s 11th different winner this season, which would tie a record set in the 2000 and 2001 CART seasons.

From that baker’s dozen, Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe are the two I’m watching closely this weekend. Kanaan’s been fast, leading and unlucky on ovals; Hinchcliffe has traditionally run well at Milwaukee.

Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden would also be popular winners – Andretti for the name and the fact it’s his father, Michael’s, organization promoting the event, and Newgarden after his Mid-Ohio near miss.

But whoever wins Sunday will have mastered the combination of pace, patience, balance, setup and traffic.

And so long as there’s a good number of folks in the stands here to see it – so it looks like the historic and major event it can be, and to enhance the NBCSN TV coverage – that’ll be a good day at the office for both INDYCAR and Andretti Sports Marketing.

Niki Lauda confident Valtteri Bottas can be F1 world champion with Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas
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Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda believes that Valtteri Bottas can become Formula 1 world champion following his move to Mercedes ahead of the 2017 season.

Bottas was formally announced as a Mercedes driver on Monday, replacing Nico Rosberg following the German’s shock decision to retire following his world title win at the end of last year.

Speaking to RTL, Lauda expressed his belief that Bottas can be just as fast as Rosberg has been and is also capable of winning a world championship.

“We took Bottas because it was the best option. He is a driver who can be just as fast as Nico and I think he can win the world championship,” Lauda said.

“It was not easy to solve the problem of Rosberg, because we were looking for a driver who could do well in our team.

“So far we have always had the best two drivers who were both capable of fighting for the championship. The Nico-Lewis pairing is a good example, because they were two top drivers and fought head-to-head.”

Lauda is sure that Bottas can hit the ground running at Mercedes, proving to be a safe option with four seasons of F1 experience already under his belt.

“In the last three years we have won everything there was to win and that’s why we involved Bottas, who brings experience and speed to the team,” Lauda said.

“We can start the season very quietly and safely with these two drivers.”

Lauda also believes that Bottas will not become involved in any intra-team tension with new teammate Lewis Hamilton, the Briton having enjoyed a particularly fiery rivalry with Rosberg during their time together at Mercedes.

“Bottas is Finnish, he is calm, doesn’t talk much, but works hard,” Lauda said.

“I am sure that he will fit perfectly in the team and will not have any problems with Hamilton.”

After a down season in 2016, Ryan Hunter-Reay is looking up in 2017

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The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was one Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely rather forget.

If you were an IndyCar driver, you’d want to forget it too, as Hunter-Reay endured his worst season in the last eight:

* He failed to win even one race since 2009, his last season outside Andretti Autosport.

* He managed just three podium finishes (same as 2015, but he also had two wins that season).

* After finishing seventh, sixth and sixth in the previous three seasons, Hunter-Reay finished 12th in the IndyCar standings in 2016, his worst showing since finishing 15th in 2009.

* He had an average starting position of 11.8 and an average finish of 10.9.

All in all, 2016 was very much a hit-and-miss season, with more emphasis on the miss rather than the hit.

“2016 I think was just a season of missed opportunities, especially when I look at the big one that got away, which was the Indy 500,” Hunter-Reay said during Wednesday’s annual IndyCar preseason Media Day. “I knew after halfway through that race that I had a car to win it, it was just a matter of getting to that sprint, to that fight at the end.”

Unfortunately, RHR finished 24th in that event, two laps behind winner Alexander Rossi, following contact in the pits.

“And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances,” Hunter-Reay said, although he finished third at Pocono as opposed to how he did at Indy. “Those were two wins I feel like got away.”

It’s something he can’t help but lament because had things turned out differently, Hunter-Reay likely would not have finished as low in the standings as he did.

“It being my first ever season not winning a race with a full-time program – those two hurt when I think about them,” he said.

Another thing that hurt and was a miss was his performance in street courses. While he started the season strong with a third-place finish at St. Petersburg, that was the lone street course highlight of 2016.

At Long Beach, he finished 18th. He bounced back with finishes of seventh and third in the two Belle Isle races, but wound up 12th at Toronto.

“It was a season of struggles on the street courses for Andretti Autosport as a whole,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “We have been going back to look at that and we’re going to bring some changes in this year.

“We’ve obviously had some personnel changes at Andretti Autosport, and we’ve also had a directional change on the way we’re going to approach street circuits.

“We had a couple good street course races. You know, we finished on the podium at two last year, but it’s not enough. That’s something that we need to get on top of.”

Like his fellow IndyCar peers, Hunter-Reay is over 2016 and it’s on to 2017, with a hunger that can only be fed with greater success.

“Absolutely,” said the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. “I’m always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car.

“That’s how I’ve always been my whole career, just because I’ve always had to get in and prove myself to keep my ride. I have a lot of stability now with DHL (renewed at the end of last season). Obviously this is a great, great partner. It’s great for the series. I have four years left on my deal right now, and that stability within IndyCar, so big thanks to DHL and Andretti Autosport on that.”

While IndyCar will have a decidedly different race car in 2018, Hunter-Reay does not anticipate 2017 being similar to his 2016 campaign.

“I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a lame duck year for us,” he said. “This is something that we can progress on. We know the areas we need to improve in, and we’ve been focusing on that this off-season. I think we can improve there.

“There’s no reason why we can’t, and there’s no excuse not to, so that’s something that we’re very focused on, and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win four or five races this season, hopefully more. But it’s something where we’re going to have to go out and prove it.”

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Liberty Media offers $400m in F1 shares to teams

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16- Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the field at the start during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Liberty Media has announced that $400 million worth of shares in Formula 1 will be set aside for teams to purchase following its acquisition of the sport.

Liberty announced in September that it had agreed to purchase F1 in an $8 billion deal, with final approval being given by the series’ governing body, the FIA, earlier this week. The takeover is set to be completed by the end of January.

Liberty issued a statement on Thursday confirming that it has allocated $400 million worth of shares to be bought by the teams racing in F1, with the idea being part of its mission statement after its initial offer was accepted.

“Liberty Media Corporation announced today that it intends to issue cash convertible senior notes in a private offering,” the statement reads.

“The notes will be convertible into cash in an amount determined by reference to the trading price of shares of Series C Liberty Media common stock (“LMCK”).

“Liberty expects to use the net proceeds of the offering to fund an increase to the cash consideration payable to the selling shareholders (the “Selling Shareholders”) of Formula 1 (“F1″) by $400 million and retain in treasury the approximately 19 million shares that would otherwise have been issuable to the Selling Shareholders based on the per share purchase price of $21.26. These LMCK shares will be reserved by Liberty for issuance to the F1 teams at a per share purchase price of $21.26.”

“We think it’s important to offer the teams the chance to invest in F1 and further align our interests,” Liberty president and CEO Greg Maffei said.

“We look forward to working with the teams to increase the appeal of this iconic sport and enhance the F1 business.”

F1 chairman Chase Carey added: “Several of the teams have expressed interest in investing and we have already begun productive discussions to make the sport more competitive and even more exciting.”

After winning Indy 500, Alexander Rossi has even greater goal for 2017

100th Indianapolis 500 Winner Alexander Rossi Visits The Empire State Building
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Yesterday, the Indy 500. Tomorrow, the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

That’s essentially Alexander Rossi’s mindset for 2017.

After being the surprise winner of the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, as well as earning both Indy 500 and IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, Rossi is ready to make the next step — a very big step indeed.

Sure, he’d love to repeat as 500 winner, but the series championship is his No. 1 priority – and he’s ready to go for the jugular right from the opening race of the 2017 season in March in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When asked during Wednesday’s IndyCar Media Day just how important a strong start will be this season, the Andretti Herta Autosport (with Curb-Agajanian) driver quickly replied, “Very important.”

“Racing is momentum and confidence, and all of the adjectives that relate to those things,” Rossi continued. “If you are on the back foot from day one, you’re always playing catch-up.”

Rossi quickly points to Will Power as a perfect example of why a strong start is important. Power missed the 2016 season-opening race in St. Pete due to reported lingering effects of an inner ear infection following a crash the day before in practice, which was inadvertently misdiagnosed as a concussion.

Power did not earn any points after missing the race, which he feared would keep him behind the eight-ball the remainder of the season. But Power went on a strong run and was able to finish second.

Still, if Power had raced at St. Pete, he may have eventually overtaken teammate Simon Pagenaud for the championship.

“We saw it a little bit with Will last year,” Rossi said. “He obviously is more than capable of winning championships but was always playing catch-up from St. Pete.

“It’s very important to come out of the box strong. Do you have to win, no, but I mean, you need to be fighting for the win at least and show that you’re competitive.”

Now that he’s won the biggest race in the world, Rossi knows he can’t live on his laurels or what happened last year. While winning the 500 was life-changing, his performance in the other 15 races of the 2016 season was more mediocre than good.

He had just one other top-five finish (fifth in the season finale at Sonoma), a sixth-place finish at Iowa and a pair of 10th-place finishes (Indy Grand Prix, Belle Isle 1).

Then there was the bad part of the season: seven finishes of 14th or lower, one DNF (Pocono) and ended the season with an average starting position of 14.3 and an average finish of 11.8.

“So ’16 was a lot of things,” Rossi said. “Most of it was a learning experience, from not only learning a new team, new car, new tracks, but a completely new organization in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and it was a very positive experience for most of that.

“With that being said, the year aside from the month of May was pretty difficult, and we weren’t very happy with how it went in any way as a four-car effort.

“Going into 2017 we have a lot higher expectations, and we’ve made a big push this off-season to rectify a lot of the things that didn’t go well. Obviously I’m looking forward to going back to Indianapolis in May, but by the same token, I’m just as excited about all the other races because I feel like we have a pretty big point to prove, and road and street courses, which were supposed to be my strong suit coming into IndyCar, they were not, and ovals were.”

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