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Smith: First Vegas eRace throws up pitfalls, huge potential, of sim racing as an eSport

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Formula E has a knack for thinking outside of the box and venturing where other series wouldn’t dare to.

So when the all-electric series announced last July at the London ePrix that it would be hosting a virtual non-championship round in Las Vegas, it really came as little surprise.

This is a championship that has one of the fastest-growing and youngest audiences in motorsport. In an era where video games are not only consumed directly en masse, but have also become a spectator sport, the move seemed to be a masterstroke.

And the massive potential of the concept was certainly evident in Las Vegas on Saturday night. But so were the unavoidable pitfalls of sim racing that make eSports so hard to match up with the real-world thing.

The race weekend was intended to go by like any other ePrix. The drivers were afforded a first taste of the track on the Friday before further practices on Saturday, followed by qualifying and the race later in the day. The only difference to the regular FE schedule was the presence of a qualifying race, necessary to reduce the grid from 30 to 20 drivers.

Joining the 20 regular Formula E drivers were 10 of the world’s finest sim racers, who had qualified for the event through the Road to Vegas scheme. Don’t go thinking these were kids mucking about on their PlayStation while sitting on their sofa. Their success on platforms such as iRacing and rFactor 2 – the latter being used for the eRace – has made them household names in the sim racing world, and have even led to a handful of real-life race car run-outs.

The ability of the sim racers was such that few expected the Formula E regulars to stand a chance. One Formula E driver told me before Christmas that they would be “fighting for 11th”, fully expecting the gamers to sweep the board.

And indeed, nine of the top 10 qualifiers in Vegas were from the virtual sphere. The only man to break their dominance was Felix Rosenqvist, who proved that not only is he superhuman behind the wheel of any real racing car, but that he can also cut his teeth as a sim driver.

Rosenqvist put up a good fight through qualifying and the race, but it was five-time Formula Sim Racing world champion Bono Huis who dominated. Huis topped every single practice and qualifying session before shooting off into the distance at the start of the race. Despite coming under pressure from Rosenqvist throughout, the Dutchman entered the pits with five laps to go with a comfortable buffer. Victory and the $200,000 top prize seemed to be his.

But then things turned around.

Finnish racer Olli Pahkala had been running on the fringes of the top five for much of the race before coming in to make an early pit stop. He’d benefitted from an almighty crash involving three sim racers in the battle for third, but somehow, he’d emerged nine seconds clear of Huis at the front. In a race without cautions or safety cars, it didn’t really matter when you pitted – but somehow he’d made the undercut work to great effect.

Pahkala rounded out the final few laps with ease to pick up the first Vegas eRace victory, but didn’t seem too overawed by his success. Huis, on the other hand, was fuming, appearing to refuse to initially take to the podium when called for.

It then transpired that something was up. Pahkala had received one of the FanBoost votes, intended to work in the same way as its real-life Formula E counterpart. But instead of having extra power for a short burst, Pahkala had it for six laps. His times were three seconds per lap faster than what Huis was recording.

As one sim racing reporter and commentator, Justin, put it: “You don’t just go two seconds per lap faster than Bono Huis. I’m sorry but that’s impossible. These are the best of the best, the gaps between them are in hundredths, not two full seconds every lap.”

A post-race stewards investigation – just like a real Formula E race weekend – deemed that Pahkala had gained an unfair advantage, resulting in a 12-second time penalty that dropped the Finn to third in the final classification. Huis was declared the winner with Rosenqvist now second.

While the affair was resolved, it was deeply embarrassing for all of those who looked to make the inaugural eRace such a success. It was like Balance of Performance on steroids. Pahkala did nothing wrong at all, and there was no foul play involved; it just proved that software is no replacement for the real world thing. The fact that Lucas di Grassi and Jerome d’Ambrosio were also denied the chance to race because of issue with their pods is another drawback of such an event.

The chatter on Twitter and in the online chat accompanying the video was of particular interest when gauging how the event was received. There was a definite fervor surrounding it, such was its enormity in sim racing and eSports circles. But you also felt certain level of cynicism; a cynicism that appeared justified in the wake of the FanBoost faux pas and the on-track clashes.

It is admirable what Formula E is aiming to do. The YouTube generation is part of a late-millennial era, a time where teenagers don’t spend their time playing games as much, but instead like to watch others doing battle and having fun online.

While games such as Call of Duty and FIFA remain the biggest hits for YouTube stars, there has been a rapid growth over the past couple of years for motorsport gamers. The likes of Tiametmarduk, Aarava and xMattyG may not be household names in wider motorsport yet, but they could well be in years to come. If you’ve watched any racing video game footage on YouTube, you’ve likely seen one of their videos.

Their popularity is such that they were often the main discussion point in the Twitch chat, not the race itself. Sure, the comments were tongue-in-cheek, but it shows what Formula E is going up against. It is trying to bridge the gap between real-life racing and virtual entertainment. It’s a big, big ask, particularly in something as sensory as motorsport. Fans thrive on the smells and the sounds of a motorsport event; it’s impossible to recreate that in the virtual world.

And despite the pitfalls, for a first go, it was a good effort from Formula E. The presentation was slick, with regular Formula E commentators Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on hand for the call. Nicholls was seamless as ever throughout, and was able to offer an insight that other commentators would have struggled to provide, given he started out on the sim racing scene himself.

Should Formula E push on with plans for an eRacing series, it has the potential to be very lucrative indeed, such is the interest in eSports. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but Formula E has never been about pleasing the traditional motorsport fan. It’s different and fresh.

And that will help to foster a new kind of racing fan, something that the motorsport YouTuber clan is already starting to do.

Instead of going from watching motorsport to racing video games, why not flip that around?

The motorsport YouTubers are helping to create new fans: kids who love their videos and then decide to check out the real-life thing. It may seem like backward thinking to the motorsport purist, but in an ever-changing, millennial-driven world, it could be the right course to take.

The inaugural Vegas eRace wasn’t as smooth as the organizers would have wanted it to be, sure. At times, it was difficult to watch and consume; even a little shambolic, given the ending. I went to bed at 2:30am a little disgruntled given the confusion over the result.

But there are still plenty of positives to be taken from this first event. Formula E has taken the first step towards something that could be huge in years to come; it must take great pride in that.

Ken Block tackles Pikes Peak in ‘Climbkhana’ (VIDEO)

Photo: Hoonigan Racing Division
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Ken Block’s latest adventure with his 1965 Ford Mustang ‘Hoonicorn’ RTR didn’t involve a traditional type of course. It did, however, include the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

The release and details about “Climbkhana” presented by Toyo Tires for the film co-directed by veteran creative man, photographer and Porsche enthusiast Jeff Zwart is below.

Climbkhana presented by Toyo Tires, is the next generation of Ken Block’s wildly successful and award winning Gymkhana series of viral videos. The all-new concept is a hybrid of the driving showcased in the previous films, blended with a rally-road style attack on unique roads around the world. To kick off this new series, Ken Block chose what is arguably one of the most famous roads out there: The Pikes Peak Highway outside Colorado Springs, CO.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the most well known hill climb in the world, Billed as America’s second oldest, continually running race (the Indianapolis 500 is first), it’s also one of the first places Block ever raced in his career.

“When I was young, I caught the The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb on TV once or twice,” said Block. “Even as a kid I remember dreaming about racing there some day because it looked so epic. Eventually I did, back in 2005, but it was in a Group N rally car which didn’t have much power up in that high and thin air! It was an underwhelming experience because of the horsepower issue, but I loved the road and mountain – and I had always wanted to go back and do it right. So, to drive it like I get to drive in my Gymkhana videos – and do it in the Hoonicorn with 1,400 horsepower – well, that truly is a dream come true!”

For Block, filming Climbkhana at Pikes Peak was a unique opportunity. While the road closes once a year for the Hill Climb, no one has ever been given the access to turn the landmark location into a playground. For production duties, Block once again brought his long-time friend and business partner at Hoonigan, Brian Scotto, to direct, but they also added a new face to the Hoonigan Media Machine formula: Eight-time Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Champion and Radical Media Director Jeff Zwart.

“I have raced at Pikes Peak for 16 years and through the years I thought I had seen everything, but to witness Ken’s skills on basically my home mountain and get to direct him at the same time, it was truly something amazing,” explains Jeff Zwart, Climbkhana’s co-director. “Nothing but respect for him and his whole team, both on the racing side and production side!”

To tackle the extreme elevation gains experienced along the way up Pikes Peak, Block knew that he needed more horsepower for his 1965 Ford Mustang Hoonicorn RTR. So, Hoonicorn V2 was born. A 1,400 horsepower, twin-turbo, methanol-fueled machine that lights up its sticky Toyo Proxes R888R tires in every corner and properly updates the infamous build made famous in Gymkhana SEVEN, Wild in the Streets Los Angeles. Unfortunately, extreme engine builds and altitudes can prove challenging. Block and his crew experienced multiple production setbacks, having to go to the mountain on three separate occasions over 12 months due to both weather and development issues to be able to finish the film.

“This car is insane,” said Block. “I feel it genuinely wants to kill me! Before we added the twin turbos, it was the most fun car I’ve ever driven. Now it’s still quite fun to drive, but it melts tires ridiculously quick. To have this thing be such a beast and then take it to this very dangerous mountain, well, I thought I’d maybe finally taken on a project that might be too much for me to handle. This is the most powerful AWD-type car in the world to be driven this way, so I’m genuinely glad I didn’t die making this video!”

Toyo Proxes R888R tires deliver the enhanced grip and stability Block needs when maneuvering the 1,400-horsepower Hoonicorn V2 around the famous curves of Pikes Peak. Learn more about the Proxes R888R DOT competition tire and find a dealer at toyotires.com/tires/competition-tires.

The film was produced by Hoonigan Media Machine and premiered last night at The Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. It is presented by Toyo Tires, Ford and Pennzoil. To watch it now, click the link below.

Even without racing, IndyCar has a busy 2017-’18 offseason ahead

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So, there’s been a full week now complete since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended at Sonoma Raceway. The offseason is now underway.

Almost all the first round of pieces have been written or filmed in the wake of Josef Newgarden’s popular first championship, achieved in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Meanwhile official news has been sparse, but figures to intensify in the coming weeks as teams need to fill seats.

And with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit now set for its final test in INDYCAR’s hands on Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway’s short course – the closest thing IndyCar has to a street course simulation – testing the new car will be a major topic over the months ahead.

Here’s what’s on tap for IndyCar’s offseason ahead:

TESTING, TESTING, 1…2…3…

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

As noted above, tomorrow marks the final day INDYCAR will run the testing program of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit at Sebring’s short course, before the new kits and cars are delivered to manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet for the next couple months of testing.

Team Penske (Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda, Oriol Servia) have operated the cars but with INDYCAR itself dictating the testing program through the first three tests done in July and August on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (super speedway), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (road course) and Iowa Speedway (short oval).

From here, Chevrolet and Honda have six tests each with the car through mid-November, before team testing begins in January, 2018. Teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet) will be those running the cars as part of the manufacturer testing program.

Part of the reason Spencer Pigot was confirmed by ECR as early as he was for 2018 was so that he could be part of this degree of manufacturer testing, and that’s good news for him in his development process. Pigot has already excelled driving one new car when it was introduced – the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in its first season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – and will now have his first full offseason to do IndyCar testing of its new car. Pigot has also helped to develop sports cars for Mazda in its prototype program the last couple years. Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, will have a key role to play for Chevrolet’s testing in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday at Sebring.

Ganassi has only formally confirmed Scott Dixon as part of its 2018 lineup so any new driver would be testing later, once confirmed. Ganassi managing director Mike Hull outlined the testing process over the coming months below.

2018 SCHEDULE RELEASE IMMINENT

The good news for Verizon IndyCar Series fans is that most of the 2018 IndyCar calendar is known already, via dates released either from tracks themselves or other series set to compete at said tracks.

The lone hold-up for the full release, which was expected out this week but NBC Sports now understands will be held a bit further, is whether Mexico will be added as an 18th race along with the 17 races set to return next year.

Given that country’s situation with its massive 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19 and its associated aftershocks, it’s not a shock that the country has slightly bigger issues to press on with at the moment.

And the good news we’ve discovered in our talks with INDYCAR officials is that we’re heading into a schedule release without a large number of lingering questions. The schedule stability and date equity assembled over the last couple years has been a welcome contrast to the fluidity in years previous.

Along with the 2018 schedule, movement on IndyCar’s future TV direction and entitlement sponsorship are likely to be big items behind-the-scenes at the INDYCAR offices. The current TV contract with NBCSN and ABC ends after 2018, as does Verizon’s tenure as title sponsor.

OFFICIAL CONFIRMATIONS AT/OF CERTAIN TEAMS

Most of the Verizon IndyCar Series field is set for 2018 (silly season update one, post-Mid-Ohio and two, during Sonoma). There are 13 driver/team combinations made official thus far:

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Tony Kanaan, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, speaks with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, during qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Beyond that, there are a wealth of “all but official” scenarios including:

  • James Hinchcliffe all but set to stay with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Tony Kanaan set to move to Foyt
  • Ed Jones planning to re-up with Coyne
  • Max Chilton, Carlin announcing a likely step-up
  • Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing locking down its program
  • Brendon Hartley moving from sports cars into Ganassi
  • Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirming his team choice

What that means on Sept. 25 is that realistically there’s only three or four rides for 2018 yet to be determined if all those “all but official” scenarios become official in the coming weeks. Those would be the second seats at SPM and Foyt, the likely second seat at Carlin and the road/street course seat at Carpenter.

Like Harding and Carlin, Juncos Racing is also poised to run at least some IndyCar races, but whether it’s a full-season remains to be seen. And like Carlin and Juncos, there’s a wealth of Indy Lights drivers keen to make their way into IndyCar.

As it is, the fact most of the IndyCar grid is known or almost set before October 1 – even if many programs haven’t been officially announced – is both rare and awesome to see at the same time. Teams need as much time to test their drivers with the new kits in the offseason, and so there’s been a mad rush to get next year locked down ASAP.

It seems hard to believe, but the days of “TBA” appearing on an IndyCar entry list days before St. Petersburg may be at an end.

HELIO’S OFFICIALLY UNOFFICIAL SWAN SONG

What a couple weeks it’s been for Helio Castroneves. Despite yet another top-five finish in the championship, Castroneves’ Sonoma race felt like a goodbye to full-time competition in IndyCar, especially as he thanked members of the media in the race’s aftermath.

Still, reports emerged heading into the weekend a fourth car full-time with Team Penske was still on the table. And partners Hitachi and Pennzoil also tweeted about Castroneves and his excellent season, which Castroneves re-tweeted.

Castroneves has tested Team Penske’s new Acura ARX-05 sports car last week (video below) and his departure from full-time driving in IndyCar seems all but inevitable at this point.

Despite Castroneves’ best efforts, it appears as though he’s had his swan song. He’ll be an asset to the Penske Acura program provided he winds up there, but IndyCar would feel his loss on the full-time grid. He’s been someone to appreciate for 20 years, the last 18 at Team Penske.

This is VERY interesting!! Oia isso!!

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OTHER INDYCAR DRIVERS IN SPORTS CARS

With Motul Petit Le Mans set for October 7, at least three IndyCar drivers – Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay – will be in action at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Road Atlanta. Dixon and Bourdais will be third drivers in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs while Hunter-Reay will be third driver in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, with the Taylor brothers.

Petit Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona always offer up a bevy of IndyCar drivers making guest appearances in sports car land. The latter event, with Team Penske premiering the aforementioned Acura ARX-05 there, figures to have a wealth of IndyCar interest – and quite likely IndyCar drivers – split among its two cars.

WHAT OFFSEASON FUN, ANTICS ARE IN STORE?

Last year, IndyCar had James Hinchcliffe on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” to carry it through the offseason.

Some of the other items IndyCar has released in recent years included Damien Power’s offbeat “Exclusive: Behind the Scenes” interview series with drivers in 2015 and “The Offseason” digital shorts as modeled after NBC’s “The Office.”

There’s usually some degree of entertainment, fun and games that emerges from the IndyCar offices over the offseason and what the creative minds there come up with will be interesting to see.

Or, there’s always more Visor Cam, which was utilized in-race this year starting at the Indianapolis 500 through to the Sonoma finale. Thanks to IMS Productions, this was one of racing’s coolest innovations in years. Considering how much testing is scheduled, some more Visor Cam would easily satisfy the appetite of the IndyCar fan base heading into the five or six-month period without IndyCar racing.

MRTI’S OFFSEASON PLANS

We’ll have more on this separately, but the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires also has a bit to look forward to this offseason. The two key items are the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, the traditional event that takes place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course October 20-22, and the delivery and debut for teams with the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series. Some teams have taken delivery of those now in anticipation of running next month.

Driver movement will also be afoot there as the next generation of IndyCar drivers seek to position themselves for 2019 and beyond.

IndyCar world comes to Nazareth for Marco Andretti’s wedding

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Fresh off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, a large percentage of the field made its return to Nazareth to celebrate Marco Andretti and Marta Krupa’s wedding.

Andretti, who turned 30 in March, wed his longtime girlfriend on Saturday in his and his Andretti family’s hometown.

The Andrettis are one of racing’s elite families and judging by a number of driver posts on Instagram, it looked like they put on an incredible night.

“We did the damn thing!” Andretti posted on Instagram, one of several driver posts on Instagram.

We did the damn thing !!! #MK2MA

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@freaks4live killed it for us last night. #MK2MA

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Other drivers included Andretti’s close friends James Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi along with Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, among others.

A number of social posts are below.

Congrats @marcoandretti @marta_krupa ! We love you guys #WeddingSeason #MK2MA

A post shared by Conor Daly (@conordaly22) on

Great night with these guys. Congratulations to Marta and Marco #mk2ma

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This picture pretty much sums up our night!!! Pinky out @tkanaan 🥂🕺🏻#mk2ma

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🇺🇸 Great night with great friends. 🇧🇷 Noite agradável com ótimos amigos.

A post shared by Tony Kanaan (@tkanaan) on

NEWGARDEN SPENDS WEEKEND AS A WEDDING OFFICIANT

Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, meanwhile, had a wedding of his own to attend to this weekend – one he was a part of in an entirely different manner.

Newgarden’s longtime friends Nicholas Jordon Love and Katie Donnar got married this weekend in Indianapolis and Newgarden, who had arrived in the city a couple days earlier as part of his championship media tour, was the wedding officiant/celebrant.

A couple photos of that are below.

"Some souls just understand each other upon meeting." n.r. hart

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Fitting that both Andretti and Newgarden would be involved with weddings only a week after both celebrated milestone starts in their IndyCar careers – Andretti’s 200th, and Newgarden’s 100th.

Final Malaysian Grand Prix comes up this week on NBCSN

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Formula 1 has six races remaining this year and four of them in the month of October, with two sets of back-to-back races coming up.

First on that list is F1’s final trip to the Sepang International Circuit at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, for the 19th and last scheduled Malaysian Grand Prix.

The circuit announced earlier this year due to rising costs that it would end its contract one year early.

So if you’re a night owl or early riser, you can watch all the Malaysian Grand Prix sessions live via NBCSN and/or the NBC Sports App. On NBCSN, free practice two is on Friday, Sept. 29, at 3 a.m. ET, qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 5 a.m. ET and pre-race coverage Sunday, Oct. 1 at 2 a.m. leading into lights out at 3 a.m. ET. Free practices one and three are on the NBC Sports App.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas team has, surprisingly, won only once in Malaysia in its history when Lewis Hamilton won in 2014. That’s also Hamilton’s only win here. But this was the site of his first podium for Mercedes, third in 2013 behind the Red Bull pairing of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Vettel having prevailed that day in the infamous “Multi 21” team orders controversy.

A devastating engine failure for Hamilton this race last year was the death knell in his title hopes for the season, and opened the door for Daniel Ricciardo to take a surprise win for Red Bull Racing.

Vettel, who is now on the back foot in this year’s championship fight after he, teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen all collided on the run to the first turn in Singapore, is the active wins leader at Malaysia with four triumphs (2015 with Ferrari; 2010, 2011, 2013 with Red Bull).

Hamilton leads Vettel by 28 points with six races remaining as a result of Hamilton’s win and Vettel’s DNF in Singapore.

Raikkonen is twice a winner in Malaysia, having taken his maiden Grand Prix win here in 2003 with McLaren Mercedes and adding a second triumph with Ferrari in 2008.

Fernando Alonso, who became F1’s youngest polesitter at the time in that 2003 race, is the other active winner in the field, having won three times for three different teams (2005 with Renault, 2007 with McLaren and 2012 with Ferrari).

Ricciardo’s win here last year was a Red Bull 1-2 over Verstappen – the team’s most recent 1-2 finish.

Here’s the schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Thursday, Sept. 28, 11 p.m.-12:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, Sept. 29, 3 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 2 (Replay): Friday, Sept. 29, 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, Sept. 30, 2 a.m.-3 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, Sept. 30, 5 a.m.-6:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 2 a.m.-3 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 3 a.m.-5 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 5 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, Oct. 1, 9 p.m.-11 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Monday, Oct. 2, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Japanese Grand Prix, on October 8.