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Verizon IndyCar Series 2016 Year in Review

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After the half-term report at the, obviously, mid-year point of 2016, it’s only appropriate to do a full-year report of the mostly goods that happened in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

We rattled through all driver reviews in the immediate days afterwards, and now at the end of the year, here’s a full recap of what we witnessed this season.

PAGENAUD’S BREAKOUT CAMPAIGN

Anyone who’d followed Simon Pagenaud in his Atlantic, early Champ Car or sports car career knew he had race-winning and title-contending potential, and his first three full-time seasons in IndyCar bore that out once he made his comeback in 2012. One difficult season at Team Penske shifted the narrative slightly but the motivation and confidence was still there that 2016 would be – had to be – much better.

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Simon Pagenaud of France driver of the #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the IndyCar Series championship with his crew and team onwer roger Penske after his victory at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 18, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Pagenaud and the championship-winning team. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Even so, the run of form that kicked off the year – five first or second-place finishes in the first five races – was beyond anyone’s wildest guess, not least because it’s that hard to pull off in the super deep, super competitive IndyCar field.

Pagenaud stamped his authority as the title favorite by May and never really looked like losing it. He fended off teammate Will Power’s summer comeback with an aggressive, title-defining move on one of the toughest and most physically challenging weekends of his career at Mid-Ohio, then put an exclamation point on his season with his most dominant campaign at Sonoma. He was – and is – a thoroughly deserved champion.

POWER’S ROLLER COASTER RIDE

. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Power at Texas. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

From missing the season opener at St. Petersburg to then making up more than 100 points to teammate Pagenaud, Will Power’s 2016 season was one of the most abnormal in his career.

Once he regained his full strength and physical form, his on-track form came back along with it. The more serene, having already won a title Power was a more complete driver than he was earlier in his career. Savvy victories replaced out-and-out dominant ones and he’d come up second this year by determination and fightback, not heartache. His title-winning season of 2014 was good but this was arguably even more impressive. By the 2017 season opener, he’ll be a dad after wife Liz gives birth to their first child.

ROSSI AND THE 100TH INDY 500 STAR TURNS

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Alexander Rossi, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Napa Dallara Honda celebrates in victory circle after winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Rossi takes a moment to sink it all in. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Few laps as slow as Alexander Rossi’s at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 will ever match the drama and magnitude of the moment. That surreal lap, making it home on fumes following the expert coaching of Bryan Herta on the radio, witnessed one of the more unlikely Indianapolis 500 triumphs in history. With time, the magnitude of what Rossi and the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda team achieved has properly sunk in.

HINCH’S COMEBACK, THEN DANCING TURN

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Hinch on Carb Day. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s weird to say that if James Hinchcliffe hadn’t had his life-threatening accident in 2015 during practice for the Indianapolis 500, he wouldn’t be on “Dancing with the Stars,” where he and Sharna Burgess starred. But that’s probably a reason why he was. Alas, Hinchcliffe’s return to driving, his emotional pole for the race and his entering the millions of homes this fall was one of the stories of the year. Setting aside the “big picture” storylines, those in the paddock witnessed a driver who was thoroughly better on all circuits in his second year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and desperately unlucky to not win a race and end 13th in points.

NEWGARDEN’S IRONMAN EFFORTS

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12: Connor Daly, driver of the #18 Jonathan Byrd's Hospitality Honda, slides after contact with Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
Newgarden came back from this to race a week and a half later. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)

Suffer the scariest accident of the season, then be back in a car 12 days later. Just another two weeks in the life of Josef Newgarden, whose comeback after his accident in Texas to then race at Road America, then wipe the floors of the field at Iowa in early July was unreal. Newgarden’s star potential has long been obvious and he’s gotten better year-on-year on-track as well, thus culminating with a thoroughly deserved promotion to Team Penske in 2017. He finished a career-best fourth in points this season.

PEACE IN THE PADDOCK, AND ON THE SCHEDULE

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Jay Frye. Photo: INDYCAR

The unsung hero of the 2016 season was Jay Frye, promoted to INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, who helped make the paddock a happier and less negative place throughout the season. When the only real complaint was that there was too much in-season testing, you know things are a lot better than in years past.

From the peaceful transition to a new Race Control with the same three stewards, to somehow managing to turn the cancellation of Boston into a multi-year agreement at Watkins Glen, to getting the 2017 schedule out earlier than ever (in August, with date and venue continuity!), to outlining plans for a common aero kit spec in 2018 after the manufacturer aero kits end, to dogged pursuit of a third OEM to join Honda and Chevrolet, Frye was at the forefront of positive business and internal moves for INDYCAR this year. And this doesn’t even mention some of the additional commercial interest in the series, which was great to see.

“We want their opinion… we buy in from the paddock. There’s a lot of smart people there,” Frye told a handful of reporters at Sonoma, the season finale. “Why not go to them to help us graft our future and our plan? We have this multi-year plan in place. Part of it has been announced. There are still some more things to come. I think people understand there’s this direction. They’ve been part of the process to come up with it!”

OTHER SEASON NOTES

Dixon signed off as champ, and Target signed off as sponsor, at Sonoma. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • Between Hinchcliffe on “Dancing with the Stars,” plus separate “Celebrity Family Feud” and “American Ninja Warrior” appearances, IndyCar drivers got a good amount of national TV notoriety this year.
  • Road America, Watkins Glen and Phoenix made welcome returns to the schedule.
  • Chevrolet and Honda were closer this year than the 14-2 win differential would illustrate, but Chevrolet has remained ahead in the aero kit war. Honda’s superspeedway strength was offset by its deficiency on the short ovals. Chevrolet captured its fifth straight Manufacturer’s Championship.
  • Veterans Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan continued to defy their age and remain at the top of their game.
  • It speaks volumes of what we expect from Scott Dixon when sixth in points with two wins is considered a disappointing year.
  • Seeing Target leave Chip Ganassi Racing at year’s end is tough, but thanks for the memories. But seeing commitments from Menards, DHL and hhgregg among others is positive from a commercial standpoint.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya won at St. Petersburg but endured a tough rest of the year, ultimately now leaving full-time.
  • Graham Rahal was unlucky to have ended down a spot from 2015 but followed that year up strongly this year, with his Texas win an incredible effort in the spite of personal tragedy (grandmother died, which he found out the next day). More often than not, he and the RLL team again carried the flag for Honda this season.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay endured a difficult year but still produced a number of star drives, particularly at Pocono.
  • The younger Americans born in the 1990s such as Newgarden, Rossi, Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot and RC Enerson all stood out at various points this season.
  • Sebastien Bourdais remains underrated and did a lot with a little in his last season at KVSH Racing, per usual. Additionally, seeing what he and Dixon did in the Ford GT at Le Mans this year was great.
  • Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin provided more “wow” moments than usual “wow” moment generator Takuma Sato, who along with Marco Andretti endured forgettable campaigns.
  • The loss of Bryan Clauson stung the paddock, but Daly, then-teammate Pippa Mann and the rest of the paddock paid admirable tribute at Pocono. Additionally well-done on that weekend was the one year-on tribute to Justin Wilson, with most of the paddock wearing the Wilson USWAG tribute socks.
  • Brad Keselowski tested an IndyCar at Road America. It was the only bit of NASCAR-to-IndyCar crossover this year.
  • There were changes of the guard at Firestone (Dale Harrigle to Cara Adams) and for INDYCAR’s brake partner (Brembo to PFC) for 2017.
  • The infamous domed skids were a big talking point going into the Indianapolis 500, and then almost never heard from again.

STATS OF NOTE

  • Eight winners in 16 races, seven other podium finishers.
  • First to second in points gap: 127 points (659-532). Second to 14th: 128 points (532-404).
  • Wins by Team Penske: 10 of 16. Poles by Team Penske: 11 of 16. Laps Led by Team Penske: 1028 of 2070. Firestone Fast Six appearances by Team Penske: 28 of 60.
  • Pagenaud started 1st through 3rd in 11 of 16 races, and made nine of 10 Firestone Fast Six appearances.
  • Laps Led by Manufacturers: Chevrolet 1467, Honda 603. Laps Led by Manufacturers, 14 non-500 mile races: Chevrolet 1318, Honda 352. Laps Led by Manufacturers, 2 500-mile races: Honda 251, Chevrolet 149.
  • Rookie of the Year breakdown: Overall, Rossi 430, Daly 313. In 14 single-points races: Daly 275, Rossi 246. In 2 double-points races: Rossi 184, Daly 38.

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

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Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”

Ferrari outplays Mercedes as Vettel takes Australian GP victory

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Sebastian Vettel kick-started Ferrari’s 2017 Formula 1 season in style as a strategic stunner allowed him to jump Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and storm to victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as favorites for victory following a hugely impressive pre-season, only for Hamilton to dominate practice and take pole, suggesting Mercedes’ recent pace advantage still remained.

Hamilton led the early part of the race, but was unable to shake off Vettel, with the German staying close enough to give Ferrari the chance to get ahead through a brilliant strategy call.

The decision to chase the ‘overcut’, combined with Hamilton hitting traffic, saw Vettel snatch the lead through the tire changes and then dominate proceedings accordingly.

It was a display reminiscent of Vettel’s Red Bull heyday, and marked his first win in Australia since 2011. It was Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen’s success in 2007. In both instances, the winner in Australia went on to win the world championship.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole and retain the lead at the first corner, with Vettel staying in close company through the early part of the race, immediately creating a strategy headache for the defending champion team. Hamilton managed to eke out a lead over Vettel, raising the gap to two seconds in the opening stint, but it was still nowhere near enough to give Mercedes any kind of comfort.

Vettel ramped up the pressure as the first round of pit stops neared, cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than one second. Hamilton reacted by diving into the pits, preventing Vettel from getting close, with his switch to the soft tire ensuring he didn’t need to make another stop. Ferrari didn’t bring Vettel in immediately, instead keeping the German out. With Valtteri Bottas 11 seconds behind in P2, Ferrari had the chance to roll the dice and keep Vettel out.

The race moved in the Scuderia’s favor when Hamilton came onto the back of Max Verstappen, who was running fourth, and found himself struggling to pass. Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio that it was “race critical” and he had to pass, yet with his tires already struggling, the three-time champion was haemorrhaging time to Vettel.

Ferrari brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 23, releasing him into clean air after coming across a number of backmarkers. A swift turnaround from the Italian marque’s pit crew allowed Vettel to emerge from the pits ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, handing him the net lead. Hamilton vented his frustration over the radio as he kept struggling behind Verstappen, with Vettel immediately breaking free. By the time Verstappen finally stopped at the end of Lap 25, Vettel was already six seconds clear of Hamilton.

Mercedes told Hamilton that it was considering a switch to ‘plan B’ on strategy, with the Briton still struggling to match Vettel’s pace at the front. To make matters worse, Bottas was beginning to close up behind, moving to within three seconds of his esteemed teammate in the race for second.

As Vettel extended his lead at the front, former teammate Daniel Ricciardo saw his weekend come to an unceremonious end as he retired a little over half distance. Having barely made the start following an electrical issue pre-race, the Australian’s home event became a glorified test session, but an engine problem meant it came to a premature end.

Hamilton looked to steady the ship in his No. 44 Mercedes, cutting the gap to Vettel to less than nine seconds, but it proved fruitless. Vettel was able to remain cool and keep up an impressive pace to the very end, crossing the line with an 9.9 second buffer to record victory in Australia for the second time.

Hamilton managed to keep ahead of Bottas in second, leaving the Finn to take a solid podium finish on his Mercedes debut. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fourth in the second Ferrari, finishing over 20 seconds adrift of his teammate, while Max Verstappen’s decision to change strategy mid-race failed to give him anything more than fifth.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ferrari’s pit wall perfected Vettel’s strategy, something it has failed to do in recent years. Bottas had a very strong Mercedes debut, finishing third. Felipe Massa came home sixth on his comeback race. Sergio Perez did well to take seventh for Force India, with teammate Esteban Ocon taking his first F1 point in P10. Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both ended in the points, P8 and P9 respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on debut to finish 12th for Sauber.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Mercedes looked unable to answer Ferrari’s pace, with Hamilton seeming uncomfortable in the Mercedes W08. Raikkonen and Verstappen both had quiet races, ending up P4 and P5. Renault missed out on points with Nico Hulkenberg finishing 11th, while Jolyon Palmer retired early after a miserable weekend. McLaren’s pre-season struggles continued as engine issues forced Fernando Alonso to retire and left Stoffel Vandoorne P13, two laps down. Romain Grosjean retired on Lap 15 with an engine issue, with smoke pouring out of the back of his car; the Frenchman had been running P7, marking a big opportunity missed for Haas. Ricciardo had a horrible home race with his engine failure.

NOTABLE: Vettel’s win over Hamilton could act as a nice foreshadowing for the title battle to come. We’re yet to see Vettel and Hamilton go head to head in a straight title battle, but this could be the year. Vettel now has four wins for Ferrari, but this could be the most significant: the last time both he (2011) and Ferrari (2007) won in Australia, they went on to win the title.

QUOTABLE: ” I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.” – Fernando Alonso to NBCSN after his retirement.

RESULTS

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.