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Newgarden’s IndyCar rise fulfilled with Team Penske shot

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It’s not very often you meet a driver coming up through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder system and immediately think, “this kid just gets it.”

Yet a chance meeting with Josef Newgarden in Gasoline Alley prior to the 2011 Indianapolis 500 provided me that first glimpse of a driver I knew one day would be destined for greatness in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and ultimately driving with one of the biggest and best teams in the series.

That day has arrived – officially – on Wednesday with official confirmation that Newgarden would join Team Penske in the 2017 season, as fourth driver alongside the two newest series champions, Will Power (2014) and Simon Pagenaud (2016) and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who is set for his 18th full-time season with the team.

For reference of the age range, Newgarden was 7 years old back in 1998 when Castroneves made his CART debut, and 9 when Castroneves joined Team Penske prior to 2000. And now, they’re teammates.

Newgarden also replaces Juan Pablo Montoya, 41, who’s arguably one of the greatest drivers of his generation. But there have been plenty of moments throughout the last couple years where these two have raced against each other and it speaks volumes of how good Newgarden is that Montoya acknowledges it and respects his ability level.

For being only 25, 26 in December, Newgarden has already traveled quite a road to get here.

After winning the Team USA Scholarship and then struggling a bit in a stacked GP3 field in 2010, Newgarden came back to America in 2011 as the American kid with the quirky spelling of his first name.

He was in the rarified air of winning an Indy Lights title in his first crack, then being rewarded with a three-year contract with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing from 2012 through 2014.

That stability allowed him the opportunity to grow and make mistakes along the way, an opportunity not afforded to enough young drivers in the years since – Newgarden is the last of the Indy Lights champions who’s stuck beyond one mostly full guaranteed season since 2012.

And he’s gotten better each year. In 2012, Newgarden finished 23rd of 24 full-time drivers in points, but that was entirely misleading because he had some standout qualifying efforts, and was unafraid to mix it up with Dario Franchitti from a front row start in his third ever race. This was an “this kid isn’t messing around” moment.

Qualifying was more challenging in 2013 but moments were there; Sao Paulo was a near victory that slipped away in the final laps, and there were a couple other solid drives. His first podium at Baltimore was as much a sense of relief as anything, having qualified P5 and ended second after attacking the curbs.

His first win should have come in 2014. Long Beach and Mid-Ohio were particularly cruel heartbreaks. Inconsistency in the first half of the year gave way to a much more well-rounded driver by the end of the year, and for the first time, his future and ability to move up became a talking point.

In 2015, two wins finally came and then this year, Newgarden stunned with his resiliency and bounceback after a terrifying looking Texas accident to be back in a car only slightly more than a week later at Road America, then delivering the mother of all beatdowns at Iowa to win after leading 282 of 300 laps.

The question in summer was always going to be whether Newgarden’s rise would be rewarded with a step up the grid, after becoming an even more solid, reliable performer working largely with Ed Carpenter the last two years. It’s not that Montoya didn’t merit another year at Penske, but with Newgarden available at year’s end, he was back to being on the radar at a closer point than he had been back in 2011-2012, when Team Penske president Tim Cindric first put his eye on him.

“He’s someone we can build on for the future,” Cindric told reporters Wednesday in a media teleconference. “He brings the average age of our drivers down a little bit. He’s shown he can be successful at this level.

“We met with him when he was Indy Lights champion, with Rick Gorne, with Roger… so we’ve kept our eye on him for a long time. It’s no different than when we signed Simon. Do you make a place for him, or race against him? It’s better to have him on our side versus others.”

Newgarden, who appears poised to join Power and Pagenaud in moving to North Carolina, did his best to repress all the media discussion about his future and outwardly talk only about this season, and wanting to do the best for Carpenter. It’s only been in the last week or so that Newgarden has begun to properly open the Penske file.

“It was a short period (not knowing)… I was in limbo and briefly didn’t have a job. You hope it works out,” Newgarden said during the teleconference. “I didn’t have much time during the season. We all wanted to focus on winning the championship.

“When I did start to think about it after Sonoma… I knew I wanted to try something different. You try to go in a different direction. This time, I did.

“I don’t think I talked to Roger on the phone until 24 hours ago. It was the first time I’d ever had a conversation with Roger. It was great. This team has been so easy to get immersed with, within such a short amount of time. Tim and Roger. It was a very easy decision, and a quick process.”

Newgarden will also have a reliable set of three teammates in Pagenaud, Power and Castroneves. It’s not that his teammates with SFHR/CFH Racing were bad, but they largely were inexperienced by comparison.

“It will be a different challenge for me. Brings more engineers. Changes the discussion and the whole dynamic,” he explained. “It will be a shift for me. I don’t want to discount my previous owner in Ed, and JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot, Luca Filippi… because there’s been a lot of camaraderie in the past. What’s really gonna change is that there’s more available here. I think you can see at such a high level… and you push each other a lot more. I hope it pushes me to a new level.”

In the immediate wake of the season finale at Sonoma a couple weeks ago, Newgarden said the lack of consistency – four finishes of 21st or worse balanced out his four podiums this year – was what cost him a greater shot at the title. Even so, he finished a career-best fourth in points – some 19 spots higher than he did as a rookie – and only trailed the three drivers that will be his teammates next year.

“We weren’t consistent enough to match Pagenaud and Will,” he told NBC Sports. “The performance was fairly good. But that’s not the biggest thing. There was a lot of misfortune. If you up the consistency, there’s no reason we can’t challenge for a championship.”

He’ll get that chance next year in his new environment, and he’ll be put to work straightaway with his first test in the No. 2 Chevrolet on Monday at Road America, with his new teammates. A further test at Gateway will follow later next week. Commercial partners aren’t yet finalized and neither is his crew, although Cindric said he’d like to retain continuity with the No. 2 crew led by engineer Brian Campe.

But for now, it’s about soaking up the moment of realizing this next chapter of his dream in America has come true.

Stroll: Baku F1 podium ‘proves I can be here’

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Lance Stroll is pleased to have answered his critics with his recent Formula 1 displays, believing his podium finish in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proves he deserves his place on the grid.

Stroll, 18, stepped up to F1 from Formula 3 with Williams for 2017, aided by financial support from his billionaire father, Lawrence.

Stroll had a rough start to life in F1, failing to finish any of his first three races or score points until the seventh race of the year in Canada.

This kick-started a three-race run in the points for Stroll, the highlight being a charge to third place in Baku after rising through the order in a frenetic race.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Stroll said the timing of his points finish in Canada was of little consideration to him, having always had confidence in his own ability.

“If it comes earlier or later, you almost cannot influence it. But I knew that I was capable of doing results so I wasn’t panicking,” Stroll said.

“I knew that it was all a matter of time. But to really do it in Canada, that was great. A great day, the home race.

“It is much more about other things [than confidence]: me improving the way I drive or me working with the team. We have changed a lot on the car since Baku and that helped me a lot in my performance.”

The result saw Stroll become the second-youngest podium finisher in F1 history, only trailing Max Verstappen and sitting ahead of the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.

“It proves that I can be here!” Stroll said. “I did it with a Williams, not a Mercedes!”

Wehrlein not concerned that Sauber performances are overlooked

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Sauber Formula 1 driver Pascal Wehrlein has no concerns that his performances for the backmarker team are being overlooked as he bids to secure a seat further up the grid in the near future.

Wehrlein is part of Mercedes’ junior program, and was an option for the championship-winning marque for 2017 following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement.

Mercedes eventually signed Valtteri Bottas from Williams, placing Wehrlein at Sauber after his 2016 team, Manor, folded during the off-season.

Wehrlein has led Sauber’s charge through 2017, taking eighth place at the Spanish Grand Prix despite racing in a car lacking upgrades and with a year-old engine.

While a career haul of just six points may seem paltry, Wehrlein is comforted by the fact he has lacked the car with which to fare much better.

“My target is to one day be in a team where I can win races, get on the podium regularly and fight for championships,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“Right now I don’t have these tools to make it happen. The weekends where we score points are very, very special for us because we don’t have the car to finish in the top ten often, only if the stars are in the right place!

“And then we have to take the opportunity and bag the points. I am very happy that when the chance was there I was able to grab it. I want to be there when it counts.

“I think it gets noticed that I have scored points in cars that under normal circumstances don’t score points. I don’t worry about that.”

Bottas has flourished since joining Mercedes, taking two race wins and becoming an unexpected contender in the title race alongside teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

When asked if he was worried about Bottas’ success, Wehrlein said: “No, because I cannot influence such a decision.

“Worrying about things that you cannot influence is wasting your time and wasting your strength and efforts.

“Yes, Valtteri is doing a good job and he deserves it.”

Dixon hopes Rosenqvist gets IndyCar drive in the future

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Scott Dixon would like to see Felix Rosenqvist get a full-time Verizon IndyCar Series drive in the future after enjoying a successful second test with Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course earlier this week.

Rosenqvist, 25, raced briefly in Indy Lights – among a number of other series – at the start of 2016 before shifting his focus to DTM and Formula E, sitting third in latter’s standings heading into the final round of the season.

After a successful maiden test with Chip Ganassi Racing last summer, Rosenqvist was invited back to Mid-Ohio to conduct some running with four-time champion Dixon and offer the current IndyCar points leader some feedback.

The Swede put in another impressive display, much to Dixon’s delight, who would like to see Rosenqvist join the IndyCar grid in the future.

“Right now, I think he’s got a lot of options, whether it’s Formula E or racing in Japan or throughout Europe,” Dixon told the official Verizon IndyCar Series website.

“Hopefully he can make it to the IndyCar Series at some point.”

Rosenqvist’s current program sees him balance drives in both Formula E and the Japanese Super Formula series, as well as a variety of other ad-hoc appearances in events ranging from the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the Scandinavian Porsche Carrera Cup.

Dipping to Mid-Ohio between the Formula E rounds in New York and Montreal, Rosenqvist was happy with how the test went and the contribution he was able to make.

“I think we had a really good test last year where it was probably more easy to evaluate my performance because there were more cars on track and so on, and it went really well,” Rosenqvist said.

“This year they entrusted me to do the test with Scott to get the free test day that the team gets. I think it was probably more for the preparation of the Mid-Ohio race.

“What I wanted to do was to prepare physically to drive, which I think I was, and just give good data, good feedback and constant lap times. I think it worked really good.”

Renault still chasing top-five F1 constructors’ championship finish

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul remains confident that the team can secure a top-five finish in this years’ constructors’ championship despite sitting eighth with half of the season complete.

Renault returned to F1 with a works team in 2016, but struggled to make much of an impression on-track as it recovered from the financial difficulties that blighted the Lotus team it took over.

While progress has been clear through 2017, the team already more than tripling its points total, it has still struggled to make much of an impact on F1’s midfield.

Nico Hulkenberg has led Renault’s charge, scoring all 26 of it points so far this season, taking an impressive sixth-place finish at Silverstone last weekend.

Renault boldly stated in pre-season that it was targeting a top-five finish in the constructors’ championship, and while it may still be three places shy heading towards the summer break, Abiteboul’s goal remains unchanged.

“We have shown at Silverstone that we are continuing to improve. Chassis developments, in particular the new floor, proved to be positive exemplified from Nico’s eight points and both cars showing strong qualifying pace,” Abiteboul said.

“It’s critical to back up this improvement with both cars finishing in the top ten in Hungary – we want to finish the first half of the season on a positive note.

“To achieve this, we need to put behind our reliability problems. We know our situation and the areas which require more attention.

“Our targets remain unchanged: we want to be sixth by the end of play on 30th July and fifth by the end of the season. A double-points finish is well within our reach.”

Renault currently sits seven points behind sixth-placed Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship, and 15 shy of Williams in P5.