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Through 100 starts, Kimball, Novo Nordisk have grown together

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When Charlie Kimball made his debut in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011, he was part of a strong rookie class that also featured James Hinchcliffe, JR Hildebrand, Ana Beatriz, Sebastian Saavedra and James Jakes.

Six years later, heading into this weekend’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Kimball is the first of that six-pack of first-timers to hit the century mark in career starts; he’ll do so this weekend.

It wouldn’t have been possible for Kimball to last this long – and grow the way he has over six years – if not for the combined relationship with his team, Chip Ganassi Racing, and his primary sponsor Novo Nordisk, which has become not just a sponsor but a partner for Kimball.

And over all 100 starts, Kimball has had Novo Nordisk directly or one of its highlighted brands – Tresiba has been on his No. 83 Chevrolet this year – on board the car, marking a first in North American open-wheel history where a driver has had the same sponsor with the same team for all 100 starts.

His fellow American Josef Newgarden is used as the recent poster child of what can be achieved if the combination of driver and team can stay and grow together, and no doubt Newgarden has morphed into a championship contender.

Yet Kimball’s sixth season has probably been his best on the whole. Yes, he finished ninth in 2013 and won his first and thus far only race, but he was less consistent and had more peaks and valleys. This year, his qualifying is on course to be the best of his career, and with finishes between fifth and 12th in all but two of the 15 races so far, he currently sits ninth in points.

More than just a driver, Kimball has grown into a brand ambassador with Novo Nordisk, and as Kimball explained, he’s grown more comfortable with time understanding his place within the greater Novo ecosystem. The narrative has shifted over six years from the Type 1 diabetic being a diabetic race driver, to Charlie Kimball, the IndyCar veteran and race winner, who happens to have diabetes.

“I don’t know if the diabetes community, as the loyal fans, with their global perspectives, really understands how much they do for me,” Kimball told NBC Sports. “It’s a significant piece. It’s pretty special.”

Initially, the Novo Nordisk commitment to Kimball was just a year-to-year deal but grew into a multi-year extension as the comfort level on both fronts grew.

Kimball in Baltimore, 2011. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Kimball in Baltimore, 2011. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“The first year was hard. It was year-on-year,” Kimball said. “Once there was more stability, when Novo and Chip Ganassi Racing were comfortable with running more than two cars, there became that stability, and I could take Chip’s advice to learn as much as I could early on to heart.

“Getting close to 100 starts, would I like to have won more races? Yes, of course – I know I have the ability to go out and win races.

“The future for the No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet team, especially these days with limited testing, is that it takes longer before drivers start winning consistently. There are anomalies… Josef and James, for instance… and James’ comeback story was the most incredible story this year.

“But there’s something to be said about age and maturity. Being 31, hitting the start mark, there’s a lot I still want to achieve. And you have the tools to go out and get it.”

Kimball recalled last year at Mid-Ohio when he’d finished 21st and was downcast, yet turned upbeat thanks to a young fan’s curiosity.

“Last year Will (Power) comes off, ruins my race at Mid-Ohio. A couple people run into me. We end up two laps down in 21st. And I got out of the car, and was despondent is probably the only appropriate word for how I felt,” Kimball said.

“I was miserable. The day started with so much promise and ended with so much disappointment.

“Then an IndyCar fan, I think named Zac, comes up to me and says, ‘Too bad about Will running into me. But how’s your blood sugar?’ It inevitably put a smile on my face. Zac didn’t care I had bad luck. I’d had a bad race. And he was more interested in how I managed my diabetes and expressed what he wanted to do in life.

“That’s not something I had earlier in my career. Until the relationship with the diabetes community started, that was not something I could enjoy.

Kimball at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“Racing is inherently very selfish, but it remains a team sport. You can’t do what you do without a team. There’s only driver, one winner, one milk drinker at the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway.

“And yet for me, good day or bad day, hero or zero – or this week, a villain – the balance the diabetes community gives me I feel throughout the year, race season or not, has strengthened me as a driver because that of balance and support.”

Kimball’s offseason when he isn’t driving is spent doing appearances – upwards of a couple dozen over the course of the year. That makes it a busy schedule year-round, not just during the race season.

“At the moment I’m doing, for Novo Nordisk, between 25 and 40 events per year… and that’s not at race weekends. That’s separate standalone events. They see a lot of value in that,” Kimball said.

“It really gives them a first-hand anecdote, and for me to talk directly to patients and compatriots within the community to share my story.

“Sure, there are times when you don’t want to fly at 5 am to go talk and give a speech, especially in October and November when I do so many events, and I’m catching up from the season. You want to sleep or go to the gym; that’s an ideal offseason day.

“But I also understand how important it is for me to go those events, share my story and help that next generation. There’s experiences I’ve had from these moments that I never expected, considering I wear a helmet on the job.”

Does Kimball feel an inspiration? That’s a tougher question for him to answer, and probably something he doesn’t feel as comfortable with.

“Most of the time, I’m very uncomfortable with that feeling,” he admits. “Usually it happens when say a mother of someone with diabetes, their kid has it, and discovers me as a fellow Type 1 and member of the community, and what it means.

“They say how much of a better job they manage because of how I do it, and how they can live their dream because of what I do. And that is not a feeling I’m particularly comfortable with. I’m lucky to do what I love and do race cars.”

Kimball at Houston in 2013s. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Kimball at Houston in 2013s. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Kimball’s had the stability with Novo Nordisk and Ganassi for this time period but he also understands it could all go away one day in the blink of an eye – through no fault of anyone’s but perhaps with regulatory changes arising.

“It’s all solid as long as I keep providing value in the relationship with me,” Kimball said. “And it may not always be that way – the FDA could change marketing rules and through no choice of Novo or mine, it could all go away. I’m thankful for the confidence to go out, and to have the job the next week.

“You see it in the long-term success of Chip Ganassi Racing. Target’s long tenured relationship had meant that they as a team have year-on-year stability. The mechanics aren’t looking for places to go. The engineers aren’t taking the first opportunity that comes along. The biggest thing with the relationship is to tell Novo Nordisk, ‘Look the team isn’t gonna fold up shop and disappear in middle of night.’”

But as Kimball prepares for his 100th start, and knowing Target will depart after Sunday’s race, the Novo Nordisk relationship becomes the longest active relationship within the IndyCar portion of Ganassi – and it’s not something Kimball takes lightly.

“To me, it’s really special. There’s such a big partner, and such a big piece of getting to this point,” Kimball said. “That’s the insulin I’ve had since October 16, 2007, the day I was diagnosed. They were a great partner to me long before they knew who I was, what I did, and what I dreamed of doing. I think that’s really indicative of who they are as a company.

“They talk about being a diabetes care company… and they really do care. It’s impressive that in six year, I’ve done 100 starts, only missing the one at Mid-Ohio with the broken hand (2012, Giorgio Pantano filled in). To have done them all with Chip Ganassi Racing and Novo Nordisk as the lead partner, is pretty neat.

“The chance to work with both Chip Ganassi as a race team and Novo Nordisk, to bring that together has been really fulfilling. I’ve found I enjoyed the business side more than I expected to as a driver.”

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.