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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.

2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden dies at 35

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2006 MotoGP champion and American World Superbike Championship rider Nicky Hayden has died at the age of 35 from injuries sustained in a road accident last week.

Hayden was struck by a car while out cycling in the Rimini region of Italy, leaving him in a critical condition after suffering trauma to his chest and head, the latter resulting in serious brain damage.

On Monday, the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena confirmed through a medical bulletin that Hayden had died as a result of his injuries.

“It is with great sadness that Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team has to announce that Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries suffered during an incident while riding his bicycle last Wednesday,” Hayden’s WSBK team said in a subsequent statement.

“Nicky passed away at 19:09 CEST this evening at Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy. His fiancée Jackie, mother Rose and brother Tommy were at his side.”

“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancée Jackie I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way,” Tommy Hayden said.

“Although this is obviously a sad time, we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle.

“He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming World Champion. We are all so proud of that.

“Apart from these ‘public’ memories, we will also have many great and happy memories of Nicky at home in Kentucky, in the heart of the family. We will all miss him terribly.

“It is also important for us to thank all the hospital staff for their incredible support – they have been very kind. With the further support of the authorities in the coming days we hope to have Nicky home soon.”

Known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, Hayden made his way up the American motorcycle racing ladder around the turn of the millennium, culminating with victory in the AMA Superbike championship in 2002.

Hayden moved into MotoGP, the world’s premier class of motorcycle racing, for 2003 with Honda, and finished his rookie season fifth in the championship.

Hayden scored his first win in 2005 before taking the championship one year later, picking up two victories on the way as he edged out Valentino Rossi in a final-race showdown.

Remaining with Honda until the end of 2008, Hayden then moved to Ducati where he spent five seasons, recording a best championship finish of seventh in 2010.

Hayden rekindled his partnership with Honda in 2014, racing with the satellite Aspar team for two seasons before then enjoying two one-off run-outs in 2016, a year in which he was focused on commitments in the World Superbike Championship.

Hayden took his first WSBK victory in Malaysia last year, finishing fifth in the final standings, and was 10 races into the 2017 campaign prior to the cycling accident.

Dixon, Franchitti OK after robbing at gunpoint at Indy Taco Bell

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INDIANAPOLIS – According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department police report, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint at an Indianapolis Taco Bell on Sunday night.

A team spokesperson confirmed the incident to NBC Sports and that both drivers – Dixon, the leading active driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – were OK, but would decline comment.

Dixon, who won the pole for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and Franchitti were at a Taco Bell, located at 3502 W. 16th St., around 10 p.m. on Sunday night.

According to FOX 59 in Indianapolis, which reported the story via reporter Russ McQuaid and online, here, Dixon and Franchitti were in the drive-through lane there – being robbed before the suspects allegedly fled, and were arrested as of Monday morning.

“The victims stated 2 (black males) robbed them at gunpoint and fled north on Berwick (Avenue) on foot,” the police report stated.

Dixon, who along with wife Emma and their two daughters, Poppy and Tilly were present in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press conference earlier Sunday afternoon, live in Indianapolis.

Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, spoke to Indianapolis TV stations WTHR (Indianapolis NBC affiliate) and WISH-TV on Monday morning from IMS. Video of that is linked below via the Indianapolis Star’s Brody Miller.

Kanaan led off the interview saying, “I was supposed to be with them. I’m from Brazil, so I’m a little bit more accustomed to this stuff (laughter). I’m glad they’re OK, and now I can make fun of them.”

Scott Dixon didn’t post anything on Twitter about his pole run on Sunday until earlier this morning. This report would seem to indicate that he had bigger things on his mind.

Chip Ganassi, meanwhile added in a joke about Taco Bell sponsorship.

Button: Monaco return feels ‘slightly surreal’

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Jenson Button hasn’t yet sat or tested the McLaren Honda he’ll be racing this weekend. But when you’re a past Formula 1 World Champion and Monaco Grand Prix winner (Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBC), as Button is, you should be able to adapt pretty quickly.

Button, who won both titles during the 2009 season, will make his first and thus far only planned start of 2017 this weekend as stand-in for Fernando Alonso, who’s hogged the headlines and embraced the challenge of his maiden run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

With Monaco offering a good chance to score points for McLaren – it’s not power-dependent – Button is keeping expectations low up front as he prepares for his comeback.

“It feels slightly surreal to be back in the cockpit for the Monaco Grand Prix. When the call came from Eric there was no hesitation – it’s a totally unique situation and a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to stepping back behind the wheel for one of the most crazy, unpredictable and exciting races of the year,” he said in the team’s advance release.

“Monaco is truly unique as a track, and requires a lot of work to fine-tune the car and optimize the set-up for the narrow layout. It’s always a challenge – a huge challenge, for any driver – but a really exciting challenge, and has always been up there in my favorite races of the year.”

Button said he’s focused and prepared for the drive, for what will be his 306th career Grand Prix start – one which would draw him level with Michael Schumacher for second on Formula 1’s all-time start list. Button’s old teammate, Rubens Barrichello, holds that mark with 322 starts in 326 Grand Prix weekends.

“Although I haven’t turned a wheel on track yet in the MCL32, I feel well prepared,” he said.

“I know the track well, of course, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in the McLaren simulator already. I’m still fit, and I’ve been training probably more than ever, because I’ve had the time to focus on my triathlon preparation and competitions.

“I’m looking forward to working with the team again, and, as I’ll be on the other side of the garage this time around, I’ll do my best to look after the car for Fernando!”

McLaren Honda racing director Eric Boullier, who has been in Indianapolis with Alonso this week, said Button is up to the task.

“In the famous Monaco paddock, we welcome the return of Jenson, who we are all looking forward to working with again, and who is already doing a sterling job deputizing for Fernando, having already completed stints in our simulator in preparation,” he said.

Button’s story has, of course, generated some discussion. Mark Webber didn’t rate it a particularly big deal while Romain Grosjean said he does not expect Button to struggle.

Coverage for the Monaco Grand Prix begins on Thursday with free practice one coverage online at 4 a.m. ET, then free practice two live on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET.

After Indy qualifying, Dixon unofficially moves into points lead

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INDIANAPOLIS – Points are not officially awarded for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil until after the race is completed next Sunday.

But as the Verizon IndyCar Series awards qualifying points for all 33 positions, the standings are different now today than they were 24-plus hours ago.

Pole position for Scott Dixon netted him 42 points in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon was second in points with 181, 10 behind Simon Pagenaud in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet at 191, heading into Indianapolis 500 practice, qualifying and the race.

But with Pagenaud having a frustrating qualifying – he only will start 23rd, scoring only 11 qualifying points – he now falls 21 points behind Dixon as Dixon netted 31 points. The unofficial margin is 21 points as Dixon now goes to 223, with Pagenaud also crossing the 200-point threshold at 202.

The respective good qualifying efforts from Andretti Autosport and tough ones for Team Penske have shifted their points totals.

Given how many points are available for the Indianapolis 500, via both qualifying and the race, it’s important to track how this progresses.

Here is how the points look now, after qualifying (unofficial as INDYCAR will add in the qualifying points next week).

It’s ranked by position, driver, total points, qualifying points and points/position entering qualifying:

FULL-TIME ENTRIES/DRIVERS

1. 9-Scott Dixon, 223 (42, 181/2nd, +1)
2. 1-Simon Pagenaud, 202 (11, 191/1st, -1)
3. 12-Will Power, 171 (26, 145/5th, +2)
4. 2-Josef Newgarden, 164 (12, 152/3rd, -1)
5. 3-Helio Castroneves, 164 (15, 149/4th, -1)
6. 5-James Hinchcliffe, 154 (17, 137/6th, No Change)
7. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, 141 (24, 117/8th, +1)
8. 98-Alexander Rossi, 137 (38, 99/9th, +1)
9. 18-Sebastien Bourdais, 136 (Did Not Qualify, -2)
10. 26-Takuma Sato, 133 (36, 97/10th, No Change)
11. 10-Tony Kanaan, 127 (30, 97/11th, No Change)
12. 21-JR Hildebrand, 119 (32, 87th/14th, +2)
13. 19-Ed Jones, 115 (23, 92/12th, -1)
14. 15-Graham Rahal, 107 (20, 87/13th, -1)
15. 8-Max Chilton, 103 (19, 84/15th, No Change)
16. 7-Mikhail Aleshin, 100 (21, 79/17th, +1)
17. 27-Marco Andretti, 99 (28, 71/18th, +1)
18. 14-Carlos Munoz, 93 (10, 83/16th, -2)
19. 83-Charlie Kimball, 88 (18, 70/19th, No Change)
20. 4-Conor Daly, 78 (8, 70/20th, No Change)
21. 11-Spencer Pigot, 71 (66 ECR, 5 Juncos)
22. 20-Ed Carpenter, 66 (40, 26/22nd, No Change)

PART-TIME ENTRIES/DRIVERS

23. 22-Juan Pablo Montoya, 36
24. 29-Fernando Alonso, 34
25. 16-Oriol Servia, 22
26. 77-Jay Howard, 14
27. 40-Zach Veach, 13 (11 ECR, 2 Foyt)
28. 24-Sage Karam, 13
29. 88-Gabby Chaves, 9
30. 50-Jack Harvey, 7
31. 63-Pippa Mann, 6
32. 44-Buddy Lazier, 4
33. 17-Sebastian Saavedra, 3
34. 18-James Davison, 1