Photo: Mike Finnegan/Sonoma Raceway

Ed Carpenter Racing drivers face crucial 2017 season

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On paper, Ed Carpenter Racing could be in for a banner year in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series.

The open test at Phoenix International Raceway served notice that their cars are quick, with JR Hildebrand turning the fastest lap across the two-day test. Throw in up-and-coming Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion who will again contest the road and street events in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and team owner Ed Carpenter, known for his oval prowess, and their driver lineup looks as stout as any among the 2017 entries.

However, it is also a year of vital importance, particularly for the aforementioned Hildebrand and Pigot.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet Dallara is seen on the track during practice for the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

To say that JR Hildebrand has something to prove might be an understatement. Once a promising up-and-comer who won the Indy Lights title in 2009, Hildebrand’s career has been in limbo since he and Panther Racing parted ways after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Though he showed promise and speed in his brief tenure with John Barnes’ old team, his time there was somewhat star-crossed.

He infamously crashed out of the lead on the final lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500. He was dominating the 2012 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway before he brushed the wall and damaged the right-rear suspension. During a caution period at the 2013 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he ran up and over race leader Will Power after briefly looking down to make an adjustment on his steering wheel. And, in what proved to be his final outing as a full-time driver, he crashed on lap 4 of the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

Since then, Hildebrand has only been a part-time competitor, only running entries at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Indy 500. In fact, as he explained at the Phoenix test, he didn’t even dip his feet into sports car racing, as many open wheel drivers do when they’re not driving IndyCars.

“No, I have not (pursued opportunities in sports cars). I’ve been hanging out with these guys (Ed Carpenter Racing) trying to get back to being full-time in IndyCar,” he explained during the Phoenix test.

He later explained that, while he was also busy promoting STEM and other education initiatives, limited opportunities in sports car racing made venturing into that discipline less than ideal. “Since GRAND-AM and IMSA have combined, there’s just kind of fewer of the prototype drives and the GTLM, which is an amazing category…there’s a lot of factory guys there. It’s a little bit of a tricky thing to work your way into, particularly if it’s a part-time thing, I’ve found.”

Perhaps the most important piece of driving he has ever done, though, came in relief of Josef Newgarden after he broke his hand and collarbone at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at tests at Road America, Iowa Speedway, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which he said helped keep the rust off and prove his value to the team.

“Those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different,” he said of time as a relief driver. “And so for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me.”

Expectations are high for Hildebrand on his return. It’s obvious that the 29-year-old still possesses all the talent he displayed in junior categories and in his brief time as an IndyCar driver. And Ed Carpenter Racing does not look like it’s missed a beat with Newgarden’s departure. Hildebrand echoed those expectations and firmly believes he should contend for victories.

“A successful season for us is me picking up my first race win, wherever that ends up being,” he asserted after a recent test at Sonoma Raceway. “That is absolutely a goal of ours to be in the Winner’s Circle. For me there is no doubt that my goal is to come into this season with a number of road and street courses on the schedule and be consistently in contention at those places.”

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While Hildebrand has garnered much of the hype, teammate Spencer Pigot is not to be forgotten. While he stepped up at least part-time last year before it grew into the rest of the season, it was still a challenge. He began with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on a three-race deal before joining Ed Carpenter Racing to run the road and street courses after the Indy 500.

Pigot’s results were unspectacular, but he did improve as the year continued. The 23-year-old scored a pair of top tens at Road America and Mid-Ohio and showed an increase in raw speed in the second half of the season.

However, Pigot’s second season will be pivotal for his IndyCar future. Evidence of this can be found in three other recent Indy Lights champions: Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam, and Gabby Chaves. Each was relegated to part-time drives following their rookie campaigns and only Karam is currently slated to run any IndyCar races this year (he announced an Indy 500 entry with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing earlier in February).

In one way, Pigot already has an advantage over Vautier, Karam, and Chaves in that he will contest a second season, and for the same team as well. Consequently, his second season in the Verizon IndyCar Series provides a chance to firmly establish himself as a top-level driver after spending his rookie year learning the cars and series. Perhaps the most important aspect of his driving he’ll need to improve on is his qualifying pace. Only four times did he qualify better than 20th and he often struggled to get the most out of the softer, red-walled Firestones.

While he didn’t reveal many details after the ECR test outing at Sonoma, Pigot did express confidence that he and the team are going in the right direction.

“It’s been a while since we were (at Sonoma Raceway) and it’s been since September since I drove the car, so I’m excited to be back in an IndyCar and so far so good. We had a really productive morning, and we’ve been sticking to our test plan, which we spent a lot of time going over before we got here in order to maximize our day,” Pigot said after the February 14 test.

The performance of Ed Carpenter Racing has been one of most positive stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series since the team debuted in 2012. And for Hildebrand and Pigot, the organization gives them a chance to cement their IndyCar careers.

Raikkonen grabs Monaco GP pole as Hamilton tanks in Q2

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Kimi Raikkonen will start a Formula 1 race from pole position for the first time in almost nine years on Sunday after topping qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Raikkonen lasted started a grand prix from pole in France in 2008, but managed to edge out Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel at the end of Q3, finishing 0.043 seconds clear in the final stage of Q3.

Raikkonen’s time of 1:12.178 came at the end of a surprising qualifying session that saw two-time Monaco winner and 2017 F1 title contender Lewis Hamilton drop out in Q2, finishing 14th-fastest.

Complaining that he could not get any grip into his tires, Hamilton abandoned his first run in Q2 entirely before pitting.

The Briton was sent out for a second run late on with the chance for three timed laps, the first two of which were compromised. When Hamilton finally found some space to charge, he was greeted by yellow flags for Vandoorne, forcing him to back off, abandon his lap, and be resigned to a lowly P14 finish in qualifying.

Valtteri Bottas was left to lead Mercedes’ charge in Q3, finishing third, just 0.002 seconds behind second-placed Vettel. Red Bull took fourth and fifth on the grid through Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo respectively.

Carlos Sainz Jr. had an impressive run to sixth for Toro Rosso ahead of Sergio Perez, while Haas’ Romain Grosjean made it through to Q3, finishing eighth.

McLaren enjoyed its best qualifying of the season as both Vandoorne and Jenson Button made it through to Q3, but it was not without its troubles. Vandoorne crashed at the end of Q2, forcing a number of drivers to back off on their final lap – including Hamilton – and will drop back three places from P10 due to a penalty overspilling from Spain.

Button charged to ninth on his one-off return to F1, but will fall back to last place for the start on Sunday after receiving a 15-place grid drop due to a power unit issue.

Daniil Kvyat was left 11th for Toro Rosso ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, with Hamilton following in P14. Felipe Massa rounded out the top 15, having failed to post a quick lap time through the whole of Q2.

Esteban Ocon’s qualifying was something of a rollercoaster as he was eliminated in Q1 after Force India completed a rapid repair job on his VJM10 car following his practice smash. A late lap from Grosjean bumped Ocon down to 16th, dumping him out of qualifying at the first hurdle.

Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll’s difficult run of form continued as both dropped out in Q1, finishing 17th and 18th respectively. Palmer’s first run was hindered by a puncture, with the Briton late reporting large amounts of understeer on his car.

Sauber’s practice struggles carried over to qualifying as it propped up the running order in Q1. Pascal Wehrlein finished 19th, while teammate Marcus Ericsson was P20 after clipping the barrier on his final lap, forcing him to park up.

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app at 7am ET.

Spain points a ‘massive’ morale boost for Sauber after tough start

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Sauber Formula 1 techincal chief Jörg Zander feels that Pascal Wehrlein’s run to eighth place in the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago acted as a “massive” morale boost to the team after a tough start to the season.

After years of uncertainty, Sauber’s long-term future was secured last summer when the team was taken over by Longbow Finance, allowing it to go on a recruitment drive and bolster its staffing levels.

The team opted to stick with 2016-spec Ferrari power units for the 2017 season ahead of a new deal with Honda for next year, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals.

Sauber endured a bumpy start to the year when Wehrlein was injured through the off-season and forced to miss the first two races, as well as struggling to battle for points early in the year when the 2017-spec power units would not be so far ahead.

Wehrlein managed to bounce back in Spain two weeks ago after the team perfected a one-stop strategy to finish eighth, giving the team its best result in two years.

“There was obviously a massive boost for the morale and motivation of the team. We actually didn’t expect us to be there in Barcelona,” Zander said.

“The upgrade package which we planned for Barcelona, we moved to this event. So somehow things seem to have been turned upside down. As you know, we didn’t have Pascal for the first two races, so we had to go with [Antonio] Giovinazzi and, of course, that introduced quite a bit of a change to the operational side.

“So we had a very young, new driver into the car, which we needed to get adapted. But obviously from a development point of view, we do understand that the car is behind, compared to our defined competition, which is the midfield, primarily because we started pretty early in the season to develop that car.

“So we have to try and catch-up. But the parameter we fight here, of course, is time and it’s difficult to gain time over the competition. They have a certain time available as we have, so there’s not any difference.”

Despite finding stability, Sauber is still a significantly smaller operation compared to many of the teams in F1, with Zander appreciating the challenge this creates.

“The thing is, of course, about resources, and these resources, we’re just about to configure and to adapt,” Zander said.

“We have made plenty of recruitments but these are all new people so there is a human factor involved, with regards to getting more out of this operation.

“These are the kind of difficulties that we are fighting at the moment.”

Ferrari has burning ambition to win 1st Monaco GP since 2001

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MONACO (AP) Having closed the gap to dominant Mercedes in an incredibly close-fought Formula One season, Ferrari has another burning ambition: Winning the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Italian manufacturer’s barren spell in Monaco dates to Michael Schumacher’s win in 2001, and four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel is determined to put that right.

“I would say it is about time that Ferrari wins again here,” said Vettel, who has 44 career wins.

“If you could have the freedom to choose any race on the calendar that you would want to win, it would without doubt be Monaco. Ask up and down the paddock and you would get the same answer.”

Schumacher, who won a record seven world titles and 91 races, also won at Monaco driving for Ferrari in 1997 and ’99.

Vettel’s Monaco win was in 2011, when driving for Red Bull. He was fourth here for Ferrari last year while teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not finish the race. In 2015, the year he joined Ferrari, Vettel was second and Raikkonen was sixth.

Ferrari has stepped up the pace this year and, with increased reliability, is matching Mercedes, which has won the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

After five races, Vettel leads the championship by six points from Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton; while Mercedes is eight ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race.

But Ferrari may be a bit quicker than Mercedes this year, and the increased pressure has forced some uncharacteristic errors.

During the second practice on Thursday, Mercedes made a sloppy mistake when misjudging a tire switch onto the quicker ultra-soft compound. That allowed Ferrari to top the charts in P2, with Vettel fastest and Raikkonen third.

“It is important to start from the front of the grid, here more than anywhere else,” Vettel said. “I am not counting out Mercedes. I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday (for qualifying).”

Ferrari’s vastly improved reliability suits Vettel perfectly. The German driver is remarkably consistent if the car allows him to be – like it was when he won four straight titles with Red Bull. But he is also quickly irritated when the car lets him down, as it often did last year.

There have been no Vettel tirades over the race radio. He has placed in the top two in all five races, winning in Australia and Bahrain.

“The single-lap pace is very promising,” Vettel said. “The aim is to get faster.”

Vettel’s confidence has definitely returned, along with some of his old panache.

At the Spanish GP two weeks ago, he was being held up by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and could not find a way past. So he tried a move from his karting days; a dummy move from right to left and then swiftly back right again to pass Bottas on the inside.

It is highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that on Sunday, given that the narrow and sinewy Monaco street circuit is arguably the hardest track in F1 to overtake on. Drivers are often brushing the barriers anyway, and this year’s wider cars make that an even more perilous possibility.

“Here you are not entirely the master of your own fate, as many things can happen in a long race,” said Vettel, who has twice been forced to retire during the Monaco GP. “Let’s keep the fingers crossed.”

Esteban Ocon making a name for himself as a rising F1 star

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MONACO (AP) Esteban Ocon is described by one member of his Force India team as a “sponge” because of his capacity to absorb information.

The 20-year-old Frenchman is one of the rising stars of Formula One. Although he has not made the same impact as 19-year-old Max Verstappen – a once-in-a-generation driver – Ocon is making a name for himself with his consistency and some audacious overtaking.

He has scored points in all five races so far, placing a career-best fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago. Prior to that he was seventh in Russia, and overall he sits in eighth place, one spot behind Force India teammate Sergio Perez.

That would be good enough for most drivers early in their careers, but Ocon is in a hurry.

“It is my personal target to get a podium and I want to have it as soon as possible,” Ocon said prior to this weekend’s Monaco GP. “It makes me confident to have a great start like this, progressing all the time, fitting very well into the team. I think we can achieve great things.”

Ocon broke into F1 last year, making his debut for the now defunct Manor team a month before his 20th birthday at the Belgian GP in late August. He has only competed in 14 career races but has managed to make an impression several times.

None more so than at the season-opening Australian GP, where he overtook Fernando Alonso with a passing move down the right that the two-time F1 champion himself would have been proud of. The timing of the attack, where he patiently prodded behind Alonso before swooping around him in a flash, bore the hallmarks of a future great.

“I loved the move against Fernando,” said Ocon, the youngest French driver to score points in F1. “That was pretty solid.”

After getting past Alonso, he then held him off while also repelling an attack from the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. That was only his 10th F1 race, yet he defied two drivers with 400 between them.

Verstappen, the youngest F1 driver to win a race when he clinched the Spanish GP last year, has a similar instinct for overtaking and also possesses the acute concentration and calmness required to properly defend a position under extreme pressure.

That Ocon beat Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title in 2014 – winning it with a round to spare and earning himself a spot on the prestigious Mercedes F1 junior program – hints at untapped potential.

“He’s quick. He proved that in junior categories,” said Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate. “You know Esteban got that (F3 title), so he’s obviously talented.”

Moreover, Ocon is incredibly committed to understanding the intricacies of the Force India car, which runs on Mercedes engines.

“I don’t believe too much in the concept of luck. Behind results there is always hard work,” Ocon said. “I always go to the factory between the races to have intense debriefs with my engineers and do simulator work, for hours and hours.”

His propensity for learning astounds senior team members.

“He’s like a sponge and he just absorbs information as fast as you can give it to him. His want and his desire are unquestionable,” said Andrew Green, the team’s technical director. “He absolutely wants this and he has the talent to do great things, but he is going about it the right way. I have no doubts that he is going to get to where he wants to be in a few years’ time.”

Green further describes Ocon’s intuitive understanding of how far he can push the car.

“I watched him for quite a long time in the simulator last week, pounding around the (Monaco circuit), and his car control was incredible,” Green said. “He’s an amazing talent. Can he get a podium? Well, we need to give him the car to do that. But he has an uncanny ability to finish races.”