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IndyCar Prix View recap, notes, musings, observations

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The first and only official open test for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ full field is in the books for 2017 at Phoenix International Raceway.

After two days, here’s some notes and other takeaways from the weekend:

  • Drivers atop the timesheets in the four sessions: Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand, Ryan Hunter-Reay, with Hildebrand fastest overall. Four Americans, two Hondas. Two Chevrolets leading in the heat of the day, and two Hondas leading in cooler temperatures at night. While Helio Castroneves was able to carry over his test pace to the race weekend last year, remember conditions will be entirely different in April for the series return, and there will also be NASCAR rubber down from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in March. The fact Hildebrand crashed and neither Andretti nor Hunter-Reay was overly enthused about where they stood fully, yet, says more than their P1 time at some point this weekend.
  • Wrecks hurt, but drivers carry on with aplomb. It was surprising to see Alexander Rossi, who hadn’t had his first accident in IndyCar, have one to kick off Saturday’s running. It was also surprising to see one for Graham Rahal, whose only incident last year came following contact with Charlie Kimball in Watkins Glen. Takuma Sato had a rough encore of his practice accident here last year, while Hildebrand’s otherwise near flawless test came to an abrupt end shy of the checkered with a wreck off Turn 4. Rossi’s Andretti-Herta Autosport crew worked wonders to get him back out and Rossi, expressing his gratitude, could be seen thanking them profusely after they built up the repaired No. 98 Honda to get back out. Rahal and Hildebrand were disappointed for their crews. Sato, classily, stuck around for interviews with the usual contingent of Japanese media. All good responses from these drivers given their unfortunate setbacks during the day.
  • We haven’t seen Team Penske play its full hand yet. Oddly, although Penske went 0-2 on short ovals last year with Scott Dixon and Newgarden winning in Phoenix and Iowa, you have to figure that stat will not repeat itself this year. Newgarden is clearly fine on the short ovals and has spoke highly of his confidence on them. Defending champion Simon Pagenaud will be even better on ovals than he was last year. Will Power is in good spirits and better health while Castroneves is always a threat on these circuits.
  • The Honda teams are still expecting to struggle in race trim. Honda teams weren’t particularly confident coming into the weekend and didn’t appear to be much happier coming out of it. Mikhail Aleshin perhaps summed it up when I asked whether he thought with the new construction on Firestone’s right side tires for this track (it’s now super speedway construction because of the high loads), whether passing might be easier this year. “The Mad Russian’s” succinct response? “No. Just being honest.” And that’s coming from a guy renowned for his bravery… While Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport both have solid engineering strength this year, it’s hard to project more than maybe three or four of their combined eight cars cracking the top-10 in race week.
  • There are still no weak spots in the field. As rookie Ed Jones seemed to get acclimated decently well at Dale Coyne Racing – better than I would have expected for his first major short oval running in an IndyCar – it’s now confirmed this year’s field of 21 is as deep as ever. “When you look at the field, every single driver on that board can win a race in the right situation,” Power said on Friday. “Yeah, and the continuity is really good. There was a few years there where almost the whole field would change every year.” There isn’t really a “this driver is missing” feel either. Sure, it’d be great to have Oriol Servia’s effervescent veteran presence and young guns Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam, RC Enerson or Matty Brabham also in cars this week, and same with Spencer Pigot stuck here watching but not driving for two days. Thing is, it’d be great to have them in addition to the 21 drivers who tested here this week, not necessarily in place of any of the talents that are here.
  • Hinchcliffe preparing to get back going.
    Hinchcliffe preparing to get back going. Photo: IndyCar

    Watching IndyCar at night is still mesmerizing… Perhaps the coolest moment of this test for me was standing in James Hinchcliffe’s pit during the final session Saturday night as Hinchcliffe waited to go back out for a final run. Hinchcliffe, his girlfriend Becky, their friend Tim and I all watched from ground level as others were out making their usual 190-mph laps. Hinchcliffe, who on “Dancing with the Stars” dazzled a national audience and joked this week he became “everybody’s grandmother’s favorite,” was taken aback at just how surreal 190-mph looks when you’re outside the cockpit. It’s cool to see when one of the guys who’s out there doing the ridiculousness behind the wheel appreciates how freaking fast it looks outside the seat. In a weird way, it almost looks faster watching than doing; as a driver, you know you’re so in the zone, but as a spectator, you’re in awe almost. It was fascinating to witness.

  • … but this year’s Phoenix test felt like two long days. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but the buzz and positivity that came from last year’s test here seemed to shift to levels of either apathy or monotony this year. One of the most common refrains I heard this weekend was, “We still have that much more to go today?” Perhaps it’s the downforce levels making passing difficult if not outright impossible; perhaps it’s the fact there’s not really a controversial or major series drama coming into the year (which should be hailed as a good thing, actually); perhaps it’s the fact that with 12 hours of running available and only six sets of tires, you have to be limited on your runs. But the crowd in the grandstands for the free day on Saturday seemed down from last year, although still dedicated for the autograph session. It might behoove INDYCAR for 2018 to see if it’s possible to have a one-day Phoenix test paired with a one-day Sonoma test in the spring, for a two-in-one West Coast series test swing that would allow for teams to gather more data for both types of circuits and could be easier from a logistics standpoint. Ed Carpenter Racing, which tests at Sonoma next week after switching from earlier this week, might well serve as a test case for this theory working.
  • A plea for fun, eye-popping liveries. If you have a red, white and blue livery, you’re going to be likely one of six different cars in the field. Factor in some other heavy white or heavy blue liveries and it’s not much better elsewhere in the field. Good color is noticeably absent throughout most of the 21 cars, and from a photographic perspective, it won’t allow the allure of a sleek IndyCar to really showcase itself this year. Fortunately, once the Menards livery returns to Pagenaud’s car and RLL debuts another AERO Advanced Paint Technology livery or two, we might get some color back from a fairly drab set of liveries.

We’ll have more from this weekend’s test, in terms of interviews, features and analysis, in the days to come.

IndyCar’s season starts at St. Petersburg on March 12 and returns to NBCSN with Round 2 at Long Beach on April 9.

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 Supercars.com.

“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.