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Franchitti: Ganassi to Honda ‘creates interest in manufacturer battle’

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Dario Franchitti’s most successful years in his illustrious IndyCar career came with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda.

The Scotsman never drove for any other engine manufacturer full-time in his run from 1998 to 2013, after Mercedes-Benz initially brought him to the United States in 1997, when he debuted with Hogan Racing.

Ganassi’s switch back to Honda power and aero kits this year after a three-year shift to Chevrolet is one of the key story lines going into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and Franchitti seems bullish on the prospects.

“I think it’s good for the series to have the two top teams with different manufacturers,” Franchitti told my NBC Sports colleague Luke Smith at this weekend’s Autosport International show.

“I think it creates more interest in that battle. From that point of view I think it’s good. Obviously Penske were quite dominant last year. We need to redress that balance this year.”

Team Penske asserted itself a bit further ahead of Ganassi this past season when both teams had the Chevrolet engines and aero kits. Penske won 10 races among three of its four drivers to Ganassi’s two, achieved only by Scott Dixon.

Other gaps saw Penske saw 12 other podium finishes beyond the wins, for a total of 22, while Ganassi scored only six total podiums.

In qualifying, Penske made 28 combined appearances of a possible 60 in the Firestone Fast Six on road and street courses; Ganassi made 13. Last year Penske won 11 of 16 pole positions; in 2015, that number was 13 of 16.

The balance was more even in 2015, when Dixon edged Juan Pablo Montoya for the title on a three-two win tiebreaker. Penske and Ganassi each won three races. Penske had 12 other podiums and Ganassi seven. The qualifying advantage maintained itself with Penske ahead 26-8 in Firestone Fast Six appearances.

With the manufacturer aero kits frozen for 2017 and Honda’s behind in the road and street course and short oval configurations, wizardry and engineering from the Ganassi staff will be needed to account for the performance deficits from an aero side, while Honda should be able to make strides from a power perspective.

It’s expected the Honda kit will remain ahead on the superspeedways, which gives Ganassi’s crew a better shout at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono, places they struggled this past year.

The team’s initial test with all four cars at Sebring’s short course held earlier this month was a very productive one, according to Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the program,” Franchitti explained. “In the team everyone is working. I mean you see it all the time, everyone works hard all the time, but you see a real confidence in the workshop.

“We tested at Sebring. I was talking to Mike Hull last night (Friday) and he said that everyone was feeling really good about things. Everyone is working on all aspects of our program and working really hard to improve it.”

Ganassi’s title success, bar Dixon’s 2015 triumph, have come exclusively with Honda. Last year marked the 20-year anniversary of the team’s first title with Jimmy Vasser, which set sail for the team’s first of two four-in-a-row title runs in a CART era of open chassis, manufacturer and tire competition from 1996 through 1999 with Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Montoya.

A further run of four followed once Franchitti rejoined IndyCar in 2009 after one year in NASCAR. Dixon scored his second of four titles (2008) to kick off that run in what became the all-spec Dallara-Honda period in IndyCar, and Franchitti followed with three storming runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The 2011 title was Franchitti’s fourth and last of his career, with his final win coming a year later in dramatic fashion at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. The series introduced the new Dallara DW12 chassis and the new engine formula of 2.2L V6 turbocharged engines.

It’s been funny to see Franchitti as the lone individual wearing a Chevrolet shirt at Honda hospitality the last few years so with Ganassi back at Honda, the humorous moments are resigned just to the conversations now.

“Every race I won was with a Honda, so I still have a lot of friends there. It was always a bit awkward when I went for lunch at Honda with a Chevy shirt on! But the Chevy guys with Ilmor as well, they were great guys to work with.”

What to watch for: United States GP (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2pm ET)

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Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of his fourth Formula 1 world championship heading into Sunday’s United States Grand Prix (live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET).

The Mercedes driver charged to his 11th pole position of the 2017 season with a stunning Q3 lap at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, edging out Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by two-tenths of a second in the final classification.

A recent swing of momentum has seen Hamilton march into a 59-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship, with an additional 16-point swing on Sunday at COTA being enough to deliver him a fourth crown.

However, with Vettel starting P2 and Ferrari’s race pace seeming competitive compared to Mercedes’, it will take a big turn of events for Hamilton to be crowned on Sunday. You can see the full permutations for both title races here.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race in Austin.

2017 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton seeks history as greatest Briton

Lewis Hamilton may need some divine intervention to skew Sebastian Vettel’s race if he is to become F1 world champion for a fourth time today, but the Briton will know that a record-breaking sixth USGP win would make clinching the crown a mere formality in Mexico.

Hamilton runs 59 points clear of Vettel in Austin and needs a 16-point swing to win the title with three races to spare, making it a big ask. But if Ferrari’s recent run of (un)reliability is anything to go by, it may not be such a far-flung though.

Hamilton is the overwhelming favorite heading into today’s race given his incredible track record at the Circuit of The Americas. The track was his king-maker in 2015 – will it be so again today?

Should it prove to be so, Hamilton would move clear as the greatest British driver in F1 history, breaking his tie with Jackie Stewart for three world titles.

Hamilton would also become just the fifth driver in history to win four F1 titles, following Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and current rival Vettel.

Ferrari’s race pace still a mystery

Ferrari’s bid for both champions may be all but over, but we have seen glimpses of impressive pace through the last two races that could breathe some life into the final few rounds of the season.

Ferrari appeared to have an edge on Mercedes in the race in Malaysia, and also looked strong in practice in Japan before Vettel’s issue on the grid, robbing us of a fight at the front with Hamilton.

Another issue for Vettel in practice in Austin on Friday meant we did not see fully what Ferrari can do over long runs, but all of the noises coming out of the Italian team are good.

A Vettel-Hamilton battle would be something to savor, as they have been far too rare this season. And you can be sure Vettel won’t back down in this title fight quietly.

How will Verstappen fare from the back?

There have been grid penalties galore once again in Austin, with only the top five set to start the race where they qualified on Saturday.

Max Verstappen is the only front-runner to drop to the rear, with a 15-place drop for a power unit change leaving him to produce the kind of fightback he is becoming rather adept at in F1 (see China this year).

Armed with an upgraded Renault power unit and a super-soft tire for the start that will see him go deep into the race before pitting, don’t be surprised to see Verstappen mixing it up the order come the checkered flag as he looks to continue his impressive run of form.

Hartley hopeful of impressing on debut

Brendon Hartley’s maiden F1 weekend has been a solid one thus far, with the New Zealander finishing just one-tenth of a second shy of a place in Q2 on Saturday.

Engine changes mean he will start 19th at COTA, ahead only of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, and it will be interesting to see how the Toro Rosso driver fares in his first single-seater race since 2012.

Hartley has also not raced in an event this short for some time, such is the nature of sports car racing, but he has experience at this circuit from his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche.

Points may be a big ask, but getting to the checkered flag in one piece and staying in touch with the other midfielders would be a job well done for Hartley on debut.

Also keep an eye out for how Carlos Sainz Jr. does in his first F1 race for Renault, lining up an excellent seventh on the grid for the French marque.

Haas’ hopes of home points rest on Grosjean

Haas has fully embraced its home race weekend thus far, with the ‘Haas Hill’ fan area going down very well as it makes the most of flying the flag for the United States in F1.

However, the team’s hopes of a points finish in its second home grand prix look to rest with Romain Grosjean after teammate Kevin Magnussen had a qualifying to forget, finishing last and then receiving a penalty.

Grosjean will start the race from 12th and could make his way into the top 10 with a good start, but with Verstappen fighting back and the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne also appearing to be in quicker cars, the Frenchman may have a job on his hands to stay there.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Esteban Ocon Force India
7. Carlos Sainz Jr. Renault
8. Fernando Alonso McLaren
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Romain Grosjean Haas
13. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
14. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
15. Lance Stroll Williams*
16. Max Verstappen Red Bull*
17. Kevin Magnussen Haas*
18. Nico Hulkenberg Renault*
19. Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso*
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren*

* after grid penalties applied