IndyCar title quest continues for Helio Castroneves

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Helio Castroneves is once again in familiar territory, once again seeking a result that’s so far been unfamiliar to him.

The story doesn’t need to be explained anymore, at least at length: Castroneves, the man who’s won the Indianapolis 500 three times, beaten the IRS in court, and enjoys a proper degree of mainstream recognition (if more so because America loves televised ballroom dancing), is still searching for that series championship.

He’s had his chances. Several, in fact. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s getting another one on Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway (9 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra).

Despite being down 51 points going into the season-ending MAV TV 500, Castroneves can still swipe the title away from Team Penske teammate Will Power as this race, along with the other 500-mile races in IndyCar, features double points.

Like last year, though – when he entered ACS down 25 points to eventual champion Scott Dixon after a disastrous Houston doubleheader – Castroneves is not in control of his own destiny.

The last three races have made sure of that. A pre-race throttle issue relegated Castroneves to a 19th-place finish at Mid-Ohio and forced him to give up the points lead to Power.

That was followed by an 11th-place showing at Milwaukee. And then, last weekend at Sonoma, he finished 18th after being caught in a multi-car incident just two turns into the race.

If not for Power’s own mid-race spin, Castroneves’ bid for the championship may have withered like grapes on the vine in California’s wine country.

“I have to say that it’s been unusual,” he said on Wednesday. “The Mid‑Ohio race, obviously outside our control; the Milwaukee race, we’re still trying to understand why we didn’t have the performance the same as Will and Juan Pablo [Montoya]; and last weekend…Right at the start of the race, having [Sebastien] Bourdais throwing a strike right at the beginning.

“So that frustrates you, but you can’t just let those bits bite you. We’ve just got to move on, and we still have one more race, which is double points and 500 miles, so anything can happen. We’re looking for the best result.”

The best result has been what their boss, Roger Penske, has been searching for since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. brought him his last IndyCar Series championship.

Andretti Autosport (2007, 2012) and Chip Ganassi Racing (2008-2011, 2013) have since reigned at the top of North America’s premier open-wheel series.

But it would appear that on Saturday night,“The Captain” will finally claim the Astor Cup (yes, Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports can also win the title, but only if he wins the MAV TV 500 and gets a lot of help).

The question is who’s going to give it to him: Castroneves or Power?

Castroneves obviously wants that honor. But, ever the good soldier, he understands the bigger picture.

From his perspective, Team Penske had three big goals this year: Winning the Indy 500 (natch), winning at Detroit (the race that Penske helped revive a few years ago), and winning the championship.

Castroneves was narrowly denied at Indy by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Then Power and Castroneves swept the two Detroit races. And now, it would seem that one of them is on the cusp of a title.

Two out of three certainly wouldn’t be bad in this case.

“We were able to accomplish Detroit; unfortunately, [we were] very close at the Indy 500, and the championship, we’re super close to making that happen, as well,” Castroneves said.

“…We’re so proud to be part of the organization, whether it’s myself or Will or Juan Pablo. We want to make sure we give this to Roger because he deserves it more than anybody.”

As for himself, Castroneves seems content to let the chips fall where they may. He’s long known that worrying about what he can’t control is folly.

Execution is what it’ll be about for him Saturday night, as he tries to finally end his career-long quest for a championship.

Malaysia planning ‘long break’ from hosting F1 after 2017

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Malaysia is planning to take a “long break” from hosting Formula 1 after deciding to end its grand prix contract early over spiralling costs, according to Sepang International Circuit chief Razlan Razali.

After previously expressing concern over the future of the race, officials at Sepang announced earlier this month that the 2017 grand prix would be the last in Malaysia, ending its contract one year early by mutual agreement with F1’s new owner, Liberty Media.

Speaking to AFP, Razali said that the increasingly unbalanced economic forecast for hosting the race made the decision to drop it a simple one, and that a return will not be considered for some time.

“Since 2014 the numbers don’t add up anymore, so it was quite an easy decision to not host Formula 1 anymore,. It was not difficult at all to be honest,” Razali said.

“Right now we are firm in our decision to take a long break. We are looking at a seven to 10-year break.”

Razali also expressed his distaste at ex-F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone’s recent admission that he overcharged tracks to host grands prix, believing it made Malaysia “look like idiots”.

“For [Ecclestone] to come out with that statement, we can’t help but feel suckered by him in some ways and quite disappointed,” Razali said.

“We thought we have a relationship. But I guess the reality is there are no loyalties in this business, it is all about dollars and cents.

“So with that statement, yes, it upsets us in a way.”

Vettel takes Russian GP pole, heads up Ferrari front-row lock-out

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Sebastian Vettel will start Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Russia from pole position after edging out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the final stage of qualifying.

Vettel turned in a fastest lap time of 1:33.194 in Q3 to wrestle pole away from provisional leader Raikkonen, who ran wide at the final corner on his last timed effort.

The mistake appeared to open the door for Mercedes to continue its pole position streak, only for Valtteri Bottas to fail to improve, finishing third.

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton also had a session to forget, ailing to fourth on the grid, finishing over half a second behind Vettel.

The result marked Ferrari’s first front-row lock-out in F1 since the 2008 French Grand Prix, when Raikkonen took pole ahead of then-teammate Felipe Massa.

Red Bull finished as the ‘best of the rest’ once again in qualifying, with Daniel Ricciardo ending up fifth ahead of teammate Max Verstappen in seventh. Felipe Massa split the pair for Williams, with Nico Hulkenberg, Segio Perez and Esteban Ocon rounding out positions eight to 10.

Carlos Sainz Jr. had hoped to compensate for his three-place grid penalty carried over from Bahrain by reaching the top 10, only to miss out by two-tenths of a second, qualifying 11th.

Lance Stroll followed in P12 for Williams ahead of home favorite Daniil Kvyat, who struggled to impress in front of his home fans en route to P13 ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.

Fernando Alonso’s woes with McLaren continued as he lagged to P15 in Q2, finishing 3.3 seconds off Bottas’ fastest time. The Spaniard called it “unbelievable” over the radio as the issues with his Honda power unit once again left him off the pace and crest-fallen.

After changing chassis overnight and engine following FP3, Jolyon Palmer’s miserable weekend continued when he crashed out at the end of Q1, leaving him 16th on the grid.

The incident sparked yellow flags and prevented a number of drivers from improving their time, with McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne ailing to 17th. Sauber drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson finished 18th and 19th respectively, the former also spinning on his final Q1 lap, while Romain Grosjean propped up the timesheets for Haas in P20.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Sirotkin set for F1 practice return in Spain as Russia run is cut short

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Sergey Sirotkin is set to get his next chance in a Formula 1 race weekend during practice for the Spanish Grand Prix after completing just two laps on Friday in Russia.

Sirotkin was given the chance to impress in front of his home fans in Russia on Friday with Renault, deputizing for Nico Hulkenberg as part of his test driver deal with the French manufacturer.

Sirotkin’s hopes of impressing the watching F1 paddock were dashed when a gearbox issue caused his car to lose power on his second installation lap, forcing the Russian to park up at the side of the track early on.

“It was a short run for me in FP1, but that’s motorsport and it’s better to have an issue with the car in practice than in qualifying or the race,” Sirotkin said.

“There’s not much I can say about today other than I was happy with the car at the Bahrain test and I was fully prepared to deliver everything required today.

“I’m next out in Spain so that’s where my focus now lies.”

“We got some good mileage on our new aero package today despite a tricky morning for Sergey which saw his session cut short after a hydraulic problem which then damaged the gearbox,” Renault technical chief Nick Chester added.

“It’s disappointing as we know he would have done a good job.”

Besides his Renault duties, Sirotkin has no full race program in 2017, having opted against a third straight year in GP2 (now Formula 2).

Honda in talks with ‘various’ F1 teams over 2018 engine supply

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Honda is in talks with various Formula 1 teams over a possible engine supply for 2018 as it looks to reach beyond its current partnership with McLaren.

Honda returned to F1 as an engine supplier in 2015, striking an exclusive deal with McLaren that saw the famed partnership of the late 1980s and early ’90s be rekindled.

The championship-winning form enjoyed back then has been hard to come by, with reliability and performance issues with the Honda power unit leaving McLaren at the back of the field, currently without a single point to its name in 2017.

McLaren previously blocked Honda from working with other teams, but is now receptive to the idea, with the Japanese manufacturer talking to possible customers for 2018.

“From the start of this Formula 1 activity, we committed to support this Formula 1 society, so from that point of view it is duty and we have to support multiples teams,” Honda F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa said.

“Also we are thinking it will give us some benefit to have multiple teams as we will have more data and more chance to make the car running, so we don’t deny to have a second or third team.

“We are talking to various teams but at this moment, unfortunately, we have nothing to say here.”

Honda has most closely been linked to Sauber for 2018, with the Swiss backmarker outfit currently using year-old Ferrari power units.

Current Formula 1 Power Unit Supplies

Ferrari – Ferrari, Haas, Sauber (2016-spec)
Mercedes – Mercedes, Force India, Williams
Renault – Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Renault
Honda – McLaren