IndyCar: Helio, Pagenaud see points deficits grow with 2 races left

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Down a mere five points to teammate Will Power in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship going into today’s ABC Supply Wisconsin 250, Helio Castroneves surely wanted to thrive.

Instead, on the tough old Milwaukee Mile, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion could only survive.

Starting eighth on the grid, Castroneves rose as high as the Top 5 but handling problems on his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet eventually had him fade to an 11th place finish.

And with Power coming through with a big win, Castroneves took a 34-point hit and fell 39 points behind his intra-team rival with two races to go.

“The Hitachi car was consistent, but unfortunately Turns 3 and 4 was where we had most of our problems,” the Brazilian told NBCSN. “If I finished without crashing today – it was a good day. Every time the car pushed, I couldn’t turn, and I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on, boy!’

“Turns 3 and 4 were very difficult for me. [Turns] 1 and 2 actually wasn’t bad but unfortunately, you have two more corners.”

Despite the setback, Castroneves recognized that with double points on offer for the season finale on Aug. 30 at Auto Club Speedway, his hopes of finally capturing a series championship were not extinguished.

It also bears noting that Castroneves is a past winner at Sonoma Raceway, where the IndyCars will set up shop next weekend for the penultimate race of the year – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Next Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

“Remember, it’s 100 points [for the finale] and we’re 39 behind,” he said. “Still a lot of racing to go. Yes, [today] hurts a little bit. But we can come back.”

Also taking a hit today were the other title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud.

Hunter-Reay just about conceded the championship when an apparent suspension failure on his No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda at Lap 168 knocked him out. He’s now fourth in the standings at 108 points back.

Pagenaud had better luck, jumping from 16th starting position to seventh at the checkered flag. However, Power’s victory did him no favors championship-wise; the Frenchman was down 65 points going in, but is leaving Milwaukee at 92 points back in third place.

But Pagenaud was still pleased with the afternoon, saying that a different approach taken with the set-up of his No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda paid off.

“I think we had a really good car, but it was just a matter of being up front, to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who was also saving fuel during his final stint of the race. “It took good pit stops – the guys were awesome in the pits – and we climbed our way forward.

“I’m really happy with this. I think we’ve done our hardest. I’m very confident with Sonoma and Fontana.”

Altogether, the top six drivers in the standings remain mathematically alive in the championship. That group also includes today’s runner-up, Juan Pablo Montoya (fifth, -114), and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (sixth, -130).

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.