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Offseason over, it’s back to work for Hinchcliffe, SPM this week

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This week, normality will resume for James Hinchcliffe in his day job as driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“Dancing with the Stars” is over, as is a Race of Champions appearance. His annual drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Mazda Motorsports provided a good refresher to a completely different kind of race car to kick off a new year.

It’ll be a busy few days, as Hinchcliffe and teammate Mikhail Aleshin will have their first test together of the new year starting tomorrow at Sonoma Raceway. That’s before IndyCar’s official preseason test – Prix View at Phoenix Raceway – takes place this Friday and Saturday at the 1-mile oval.

For Hinchcliffe, this will be the first time back in his IndyCar since a single-day test in October at Gateway Motorsports Park. Inevitably there’s less fanfare for the now-30-year-old Canadian’s return to the cockpit this year since it’s not coming on the heels of his injury recovery last year, but that’s not a bad thing.

“We did a day in October at Gateway but that was the last time I was in the car. We’re going to be out in Sonoma the second week of February, just before the Phoenix test,” Hinchcliffe said.

“Obviously, there’s a lot we can pull off of last year’s performances with the team and engine and rules staying static. There’s not a whole lot to learn, it’s just a polishing up areas we can do better and try to find that little bit extra on performance and consistency.”

Hinchcliffe admitted his end to the 2016 season was brutal and probably cost him the potential of roughly a top-five to certainly a top-seven finish in the championship, with lost points at Texas, Watkins Glen and Sonoma otherwise damning a very good season.

SPM will have the same two drivers in its lineup in consecutive years, for the first time since expanding to a two-car lineup, with Aleshin’s admittedly late deal now sealed up. Hinchcliffe is also bullish on the continuity within his crew this year, not expecting many changes.

“Continuity is something that always leads to success in motorsports. The 5 car is completely unchanged, last time I checked unless there’s been some mechanics left since last Tuesday. That’s a huge thing, being able to build that relationship and keep working together. Hopefully, that bodes well for us,” he said.

With the aero kits locked in this year, although there are still some parts opened up for development, Hinchcliffe and the No. 5 crew will look to build on their progress and consistency of last year for even better results and a return to victory lane.

“The outlook for us is quite positive. We didn’t end up points-wise where we wanted to be in the championship for a couple different reasons, but the pace was there,” he said. “We had some really good, consistent races where we didn’t have that good of a car and yet the team showed that we could bring home a good result on days where things were kind of working against us. That’s what you really need to put together a championship effort. So we’re going to work on those areas we need to work on, and hopefully the pace we had last year, we’ll have this year.

“(2015) was a big struggle, the aero kit was holding us back big-time and really Rahal was the only team that got a good handle on it in qualifying trim. Occasionally, Takuma (Sato) would throw in a good performance for Foyt and maybe (Ryan) Hunter-Reay got in there once kind of thing, but qualifying was a big struggle for all of us.

“Going into ’16, that was certainly the focus with the new kit. It really brought us back into the mix and into the fight, and on street courses, I think we had one of the best Honda qualifying averages and on superspeedways we were good. Now if we can just polish up some of the road course qualifying and set up our race cars quite good, we’ll pretty much have it covered.”

Hinchcliffe’s Rolex 24 drive was halted by gearbox issues overnight in the debut of the Mazda RT24-P, but he was happy to be back in a more relaxed racing environment. He’s also smart enough to understand how important the Rolex 24 is for sports car manufacturers.

“It’s funny, whether it’s IndyCar guys or guys from other series, we look at this as this fun, cool opportunity to come race, but we also have to be very understanding and respectful that this is their Indy 500. There are guys that are running this championship the full season,” he explained.

“You can’t be blasé about it. You have to take it just as seriously as one of your own races. It’s crazy how much effort goes into this. I really see that sort of month of May fever around all the IMSA teams when you pull up to Daytona for the month of January, so to speak, because you start at the Roar in the beginning, then thrash on the cars for two weeks and then you come back and do a 24-hour race. Keeping the focus and all that is actually quite easy once you get going.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“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.”

Rosberg, Button soak up their first weekends out of F1 (PHOTOS)

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Since 2008, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won seven World Championships. The two drivers that won titles in that period not named Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – Nico Rosberg (2016) and Jenson Button (2009) – were both enjoying their first weekends not on a Formula 1 grid as full-time drivers for the first time in more than a decade this weekend as the 2017 season commenced at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Rosberg made a visit to preseason testing in Barcelona a few weeks ago for his first appearance as spectator since winning the World Championship. But he watched from home this weekend with his family and posted a few thoughts during both qualifying and the race:

We’re now quite familiar with Rosberg’s home TV set and coffee table. This is the first time Rosberg has been out of an F1 race since 2005, the year he won the first GP2 championship.

Button meanwhile paid a visit to California for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana… once he got off his couch. He checked in with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Fontana.

Do you guys know if there's anything good to watch on tele this weekend? @storm_and_rogue_pomskies

A post shared by Jenson Button (@jensonbutton_22) on

Given McLaren Honda’s struggles, Button is probably smart to have got out when he did. He’d been on the grid since 2000, save for a couple races out in 2005 when BAR-Honda was barred from competing after being disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix.

Meanwhile for Rosberg, he watched as Mercedes was unable to win the season opener for the first time since 2013.

DJR Team Penske wins three of four Supercars races at Melbourne

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DJR Team Penske has won its first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship races over the weekend during the Australian Grand Prix, with Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard taking the first three wins in the four-race, non-championship race weekend.

While Penske’s teams have long succeeded in North America and have had some international success, notably a Formula 1 win at the 1976 Austrian Grand Prix with John Watson, success has thus far eluded them since arriving in Supercars two years ago as majority shareholders of Dick Johnson Racing.

McLaughlin had the honor of beating Coulthard to the first win in race one of the weekend, before Coulthard doubled up with wins in races two and three. The first two races were one-two finishes, though, and McLaughlin said he’d received a text from Roger Penske in the wake of the victory.

“I got a text from Roger straight away and they’re all pretty happy,” McLaughlin told

“They’re thanking me but I should be thanking them for giving me the opportunity.”

The first race was marred by this incident between Nick Percat and Lee Holdsworth, Percat having lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and crashing into Holdsworth, who was an innocent bystander.

But once the race resumed, McLaughlin held off Coulthard for the victory.

Coulthard led from start-to-finish in race two after his second straight pole position. He did the same in race three, albeit not in a Penske 1-2 as Jamie Whincup came second for Red Bull Holden Racing Team Commodore. McLaughlin was third.

A left-front puncture stopped Coulthard making it three in a row in the fourth race, and with steering damage, McLaughlin was resigned to 17th. Chaz Mostert took the win his Supercheap Ford, ending his own winless spell that dated to August of 2015.

Also of note from the weekend, ex-IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro in her Team Harvey Norman Nissan Altima finished 13th in race one, her best finish yet in her first full season in the series.

The Supercars series is back in action at Symmons Plains Raceway on April 7-9.  Coulthard sits second in the series championship, 51 points back of Whincup’s teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.