Pagenaud looks for a title encore. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar 2017 team preview: Team Penske

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MotorSportsTalk looks through the teams competing in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. First up are the defending champions from Team Penske, which had a phenomenal 2016 season with 10 wins, 11 poles and a 1-2-3 in the championship, as Simon Pagenaud romped to his first title.

Drivers (Engineer, Strategist)

1-Simon Pagenaud (Ben Bretzman, Kyle Moyer)
2-Josef Newgarden (Brian Campe, Tim Cindric)
3-Helio Castroneves (Jonathan Diuguid, Roger Penske)
12-Will Power (David Faustino, Jon Bouslog)

Manufacturer/aero kit: Chevrolet

Sponsors: Menards, PPG, HPE (No. 1), Verizon, Hawk Performance, DeVilbiss, Discount Tire (No. 2), Hitachi, Shell, Rev Group (No. 3), Verizon (No. 12)

Power looks for a full season of consistency. Photo: IndyCar
Power looks for a full season of consistency. Photo: IndyCar

What went right in 2016: Almost everything, really. With 10 wins, 11 poles and a 1-2-3 points finish in Team Penske’s 50th season of competition, Penske was first in class by a significant margin.

What went wrong in 2016: By Penske standards, the team was not as competitive at Indianapolis. That will have to change this year. Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished eighth in points last year and would have been lower had it not been for a double points-aided podium finish in the season finale, was inconsistent over the season and Josef Newgarden will look to improve upon that.

Newgarden's Team Penske arrival is a key story line in 2017. Photo: IndyCar
Newgarden’s Team Penske arrival is a key story line in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

What’s changed for 2017: The Newgarden addition in the driver lineup and the crew swap between the Nos. 2 and 12 cars. Montoya continues in a fifth car for the Indianapolis 500, the first time Penske has expanded that far.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: Keep at the same mantra of “effort equals results,” get all four drivers on the board winning-wise, regain the win at Indy and retain their championship belt. It seems hard to believe, but the last time Penske won back-to-back titles was in 2000 and 2001 with Gil de Ferran. Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Will Power (2014) and Simon Pagenaud (2016) have won Penske titles since.

The consistent Castroneves looks for more. Photo: IndyCar
The consistent Castroneves looks for more. Photo: IndyCar

MST PREDICTIONS

Tony DiZinno: Penske won’t again win 10 races in 2017; the field is too deep for that. But I’d still expect them to win the championship with Will Power getting on the board for the second time in his career, and I believe all four of their drivers will win at least once this year, for a total of anywhere between six to eight triumphs. They won’t however, win this year’s Indianapolis 500… and I’ll get to who I think will in a later prediction.

Kyle Lavigne: The only way Team Penske’s 2016 season could have been better is if they won the Indy 500. And if Helio Castroneves doesn’t suffer damage to one of his wheel pods late in the race, it may have happened.

Team Penske’s driver lineup is again stacked from top to bottom. Simon Pagenaud and Will Power are proven champions while Helio Castroneves has won everything except a championship. And new addition Josef Newgarden will be nipping at their heels while Juan Pablo Montoya rejoins the group for the Indy 500. While winning 10 races again is a stretch, it’s hard to imagine a “down” year.

Pagenaud and Power seem most likely to challenge for a championship, though any of their full time competitors could do it. Expect the 2017 champion to again come from the Penske lineup.

Luke Smith: Penske enters 2017 as the team to beat, and I don’t see that changing this year. Weak spots are very hard to find, even more so thanks to the addition of Newgarden. I think he can be in the title mix this year, even if it is his first in the ‘big time’. I’ll stick my neck out and say it’ll be between him, Power and Pagenaud fighting for the title come Sonoma – and Helio will win the 500 for a fourth time.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.