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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.

F1 Preview: 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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The third trip to the Baku City Circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix comes slightly earlier in 2018 for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Contested in June each of its first two years, the event was moved to April for 2018.

Although the circuit was initially criticized for its close quarters, its mix of tight corners and high-speed sections has produced quite a lot of action.

Last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix was particularly eventful. Sebastian Vettel intentionally hit Lewis Hamilton under a Safety Car after he thought Hamilton brake-checked him, and Vettel was given a 10-second stop and go penalty. Later, the headrest of Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas W08 came loose, forcing him to make a late pit stop.

The Sahara Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon saw their budding rivalry come to blows, as they made contact while battling inside the Top 5.

Valtteri Bottas finished second after early-race contact with Kimi Raikkonen, and Bottas pipped Lance Stroll for second at the finish line. Stroll, for his part, scored his first career podium.

And, Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from an unscheduled pit stop early in the race – Red Bull Racing had to clear debris out of the brake scoops due to overheating – to take a stunning victory that featured a remarkable three-wide pass on Stroll, Felipe Massa, and Nico Hulkenberg. Highlights of last year’s race can be seen here.

Will this year’s race produce as many thrills? Talking points ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix are below.

Hamilton Seeks First Baku Podium, and First Win of 2018

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The first two trips to Baku have not been kind to four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. His 2016 outing was fairly unremarkable by his standards, as he finished fifth after qualifying tenth.

The 2017 event might have been a victory for him if not for the aforementioned problems with Vettel and a loose headrest. Alas, he again finished fifth.

It’s hard to believe that Hamilton does not have a victory through the first three races of 2018. Combine that with his desire to erase the bad memories of Baku from 2016 and 2017, and the Briton will be extra motivated to stand on the top step of the podium.

Red Bull Looks to Keep Momentum

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer leads Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Red Bull Racing is riding high after the Chinese Grand Prix, when Daniel Ricciardo took a shock win due to tire strategy following a Safety Car.

And the Baku circuit is one that Ricciardo likes, and not just because of last year’s victory, but also because it presents a lot of chances for overtaking.

“Baku is different to other street circuits – because there are places where you can pass,” Ricciardo asserted in a preview on Formula1.com. “Actually, lots of places where you can pass. As opposed to Monaco and Singapore where there’s not many places to overtake really.”

He added that the track’s combination of high-speeds and tight corners put a premium on getting your braking points exactly right, otherwise the track will bite you.

“The trickiest thing in Baku is braking. There’s so many braking points where you have to commit and you have to brake as late as you can – but there’s no room for error,” he detailed. “Once you’ve committed to that braking point, if you’ve locked a wheel, you’re in the wall. I’d say the hardest part about Baku is finding the limit with braking, and just having that confidence.”

Teammate Max Verstappen, meanwhile, looks to rebound after again catching the ire of many rivals and onlookers for his contact with Sebastian Vettel in China. Further, Verstappen looks to avenge last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, in which he dropped out following a power unit failure.

“Last year was a very unfortunate weekend for me. It was a shame because the car felt really good but I encountered a lot of problems which ultimately meant I missed out on a potential podium, perhaps even a win. I’m hoping this year I can make up for that lost opportunity,” said Verstappen in the aforementioned preview piece.

Ferrari Looks to Reclaim Dominance After China Hiccup

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 15: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

After winning the opening rounds at Australia and Bahrain with Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Ferrari had their first hiccup of 2018 in China, when a Safety Car butchered their tire strategy and left them vulnerable when others, chiefly Ricciardo and Verstappen, pitted for new tires.

Vettel was relegated to eighth after spinning following contact with Verstappen, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished third, his second podium in three races to start 2018.

Baku was one of the races from 2017 in which Vettel drew criticism for his on-track antics – see the aforementioned collision with Hamilton – and he’ll hope to get back on the podium to avenge both his struggles from China and from last year’s Baku outing.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, will look to get back to his winning ways for the first time since 2013.

Misc.

  • McLaren F1 Team sits a much-improved fourth in the constructor’s championship on the strength of two double-points finishes, with Fernando Alonso leading the way. Alonso has finishes of fifth, seventh, and seventh after three races, while Stoffel Vandoorne has points finishes of ninth and eighth to his name so far.
  • Sahara Force India still only has one points finish in 2018 – Esteban Ocon’s tenth in Bahrain. It’s hard to believe how far this team has fallen, even if the midfield is jammed with ultra competitive teams. That they have been off the pace to start 2018 is genuinely surprising.
  • Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team have been the strongest of the midfield teams so far, along with McLaren, and they should contend once again for points this weekend.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix rolls off at 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday.

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