Hildebrand's big opportunity presents itself. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar 2017 team preview: Ed Carpenter Racing

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MotorSportsTalk looks through the teams competing in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. In five years, Ed Carpenter has built Ed Carpenter Racing from a single-car team in the middle or back of the field to a consistent race-winning outfit and serious championship contender, although enters a pivotal 2017 season with a couple key changes.

Drivers (Engineer, Strategist)

20-Ed Carpenter/Spencer Pigot (Matt Barnes, Tim Broyles)
21-JR Hildebrand (Justin Taylor, Brent “Woody” Harvey)

Manufacturer/aero kit: Chevrolet

Sponsors: Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka (Nos. 20, 21)

Pigot enters a pivotal sophomore season. Photo: IndyCar
Pigot enters a pivotal sophomore season. Photo: IndyCar

What went right in 2016: Carpenter’s team has fully ascended into proper title discussion thanks to some of Ed’s moves as a team owner, realized by teammate Josef Newgarden in his fifth year. A dominant Iowa win, a number of other podiums and a fierce return and recovery from his Texas accident highlighted a year when Newgarden was best of the non-Team Penske drivers.

What went wrong in 2016: Carpenter’s own oval races behind the wheel were a nightmare for a second straight season. Spencer Pigot had to learn on the fly following a pre-Detroit switch, figuring out the Chevrolet package by comparison to the Honda, and struggled in his qualifying appearances on the road and street courses.

What’s changed for 2017: The promotion of JR Hildebrand to full-time driver in the No. 21 isn’t perceived as a change so much, because of Hildebrand’s innate familiarity with the team over the last three years. Still, ensuring he lives up to his undoubted potential and past experience will be key. He’ll work with new engineer Justin Taylor, who adapts to IndyCar from Audi LMP1 machinery.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: With a Chevrolet package and a reduced number of Chevrolet entrants, a top-five points finish remains achievable for Hildebrand, who must score his first win at some stage this year. Pigot doesn’t need to win but could do with his first career top-five or podium, and will look to improve his Saturdays. Carpenter? He somehow must recapture his form of old on ovals, when he was worth the price of admission behind the wheel. Savvier and older, Carpenter has become a valued owner who’s made his team a perennial contender.

Carpenter's oval luck needs to change. Photo: IndyCar
Carpenter’s oval luck needs to change. Photo: IndyCar

MST PREDICTIONS

Tony DiZinno: JR Hildebrand is my pick to become IndyCar’s next first-time race winner. From a confidence standpoint, I hope he does it sooner rather than later. The place I think he could well do it is Long Beach. He has two top-five finishes there in the past, he won in Indy Lights there in 2009, and more importantly, Carpenter’s team has had a solid street course setup and won there themselves on strategy with Mike Conway in 2014. A Hildebrand win at Indianapolis would be an incredible story line but I can’t quite bring myself to make that pick. If he can finish in the top-six in points, he’ll have followed up his deserved promotion with a justifiable result. For Pigot, I hope he can score at least one podium and showcase his talent at this level he did in the Mazda Road to Indy and for Carpenter, man, I hope he’s lost that horrible luck on ovals.

Kyle Lavigne: Ed Carpenter Racing may not be as “sexy” of a team as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, or Andretti Autosport, but they’ve become every bit the power house those teams are. JR Hildebrand gets promoted to a full-time drive again after spending three years in a part-time. He’ll need to leave behind the driving errors he made in his time with Panther Racing, but this driver and team are a potent combination that could ruffle a lot of feathers at the front of the field. It’s tough to say if Hildebrand makes a championship push, but he could be the break out star of the 2017 season.

Teammate Spencer Pigot needs to build a 2016 season that was consistent, albeit unspectacular. Most notably, he’ll need to improve his qualifying pace and regularly advance out of round one to prove he has the raw speed to become a top-level IndyCar driver (and he does have it in him, as evidenced by his drives in Mazda’s IMSA program). Consistently challenging for top ten finishes in the races would also bolster his career and mark him as a genuine star of the future.

Ed Carpenter needs to shake the dark cloud that has followed him at the oval races since 2015. He remains every bit of fast as anyone on an oval, but need Lady Luck on his side to score results at the front of the field.

Luke Smith: For a team that has lost arguably IndyCar’s best young talent in the form of Josef Newgarden, there an awful lot of positivity surrounding Ed Carpenter Racing heading into the 2017 season. JR Hildebrand’s promotion into a full-time seat was a sensible one, given how closely he has worked with the team in recent years, and the return of Spencer Pigot is a show of great faith after his select appearances last year. The apple cart has not been rocked at all, which is good.

Hildebrand certainly has what it takes to compete at the front of the pack and win races, but there will be a period of adjustment as he gets used to racing full-time in IndyCar once again. Victory should certainly be the target this year; failing that, anything less than a set of podiums would surely go down as a disappointment. For Pigot, a solid campaign with some top fives is what he needs.

As for team owner Ed Carpenter? Well, he needs to keep it out of the wall. He’s been unlucky at points, but of his five oval starts last year, he retired from four of them. Carpenter remains rapid and his qualifying form was good last year, making his lack of results frustrating.

MRTI Preview: Mid-Ohio

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires faces possibly its busiest weekend of the year this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Yet another double header awaits the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires tackles it’s lone triple header of the year.

What’s more, the season is rapidly winding down for all three series. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda only have three race weekends remaining (Mid-Ohio, Gateway Motorsports Park, and Watkins Glen International), while USF2000 has only two (Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen), meaning time is running out for anyone who wants to challenge the championship leaders.

In Indy Lights, the title picture centers around one driver, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 are up for grabs between two pairs of young hard chargers. All told, the final weekends of the year have the makings for intense battles to claim not only the championships in each respective series, but also the Mazda scholarships that enable the drivers to move up.

Below are quick previews for all three series.

INDY LIGHTS

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Kyle Kaiser, 279, 2. Matheus Leist, 228, 3. Colton Herta, 214, 4. Zachary Claman De Melo, 207, 5. Aaron Telitz, 203

    Kyle Kaiser dominated the most recent Indy Lights outing in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Kyle Kaiser swept the weekend at Toronto, dominating Race 1 on Saturday and surviving a crash-filled Race 2 on Sunday. His weekend sweep gives him three victories for the year, and combined with struggles from the likes of Matheus Leist and Colton Herta to give him a sizeable championship lead of 51 points.
  • Zachary Claman de Melo and Aaron Telitz are quietly riding waves of momentum. Claman de Melo’s last four finishes are 1-6-2-3, while Telitz has gone 5-9-5-2 in the same stretch.
  • Though Kaiser has a sizeable championship lead, 39 points separate second from seventh (Leist, Herta, Claman de Melo, Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Nico Jamin).
  • Santi Urrutia swept both Indy Lights races at Mid-Ohio last year.
  • Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry for Andretti Autosport gets a different look this weekend, with rock band Journey featured on the car.

 

PRO MAZDA

The Pro Mazda championship has been a see-saw battle between Franzoni and Martin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Top 5 in points: 1. Victor Franzoni, 174, 2. Anthony Martin, 167, 3. TJ Fischer, 115, 4. Nikita Lastochkin, 110, 5. Carlos Cunha, 103
  • Through six races, only Franzoni and Martin have won races (three apiece); with Fischer 59 points out of the lead in third, it appears Franzoni and Martin will decide the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
  • Mid-Ohio represents the lone triple-header of the year for Pro Mazda, with races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • Last year, in a triple-header for USF2000, Anthony Martin swept the weekend, winning all three races.
  • Nico Jamin swept the Pro Mazda weekend at Mid-Ohio last year, winning both races in what was then a double-header.

USF2000

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Oliver Askew, 283, 2. Rinus Veekay, 265, 3. Parker Thompson, 206, 4. Kaylen Frederick, 185, 5. Calvin Ming, 151

    Oliver Askew has struggled lately, allowing Rinus Veekay to close the championship gap. Parker Thompson now sits third. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Askew’s points lead has been trimmed to 18, with finishes of 17th (Road America Race 1, due to suspension problems) and 12th (Toronto Race 2, due to a crash) blighting an otherwise impressive season.
  • To contrast some of Askew’s recent struggles, Veekay has finishes of 1-1-2-3-2 in his last five races, allowing him to dramatically close the gap to Askew.
  • Parker Thompson’s weekend sweep at Toronto vaulted him to third in the championship. At 77 points back of the lead, it will be difficult to mount a title push, but his presence can be a spoiler for Askew and Veekay.
  • Of note: each of USF2000’s Mid-Ohio visits the last two years have seen weekend sweeps. As previously mentioned, Anthony Martin accomplished the feat in 2016, with Nico Jamin doing so in 2015. Conversely, the 2014 outing saw different winners in each race. RC Enerson, Jake Eidson, and Florian Latorre all won in a triple-header weekend that year.

Racing begins on Friday with USF2000 and Pro Mazda running their first races of the weekend. Indy Lights holds its first race of the weekend on Saturday.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Foyt, Coyne optimistic about Mid-Ohio after testing

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Along with Felix Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, two other teams visited the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for testing ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Sunday July 30, 3:00 p.m., CNBC). A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing sent their drivers and teams to Mid-Ohio in hopes of getting a leg up on things and building optimism ahead of this weekend.

For Foyt’s team in particular, the optimism is needed. Combined, drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have only three top tens (two for Munoz, one for Daly) across a total of 24 starts, making them desperate for strong results to come their way.

Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz are hopeful that they can turn their seasons around at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity for Foyt’s duo to right the ship. Munoz has finishes of fourth, ninth, and third in three starts at the Lexington, Ohio road course, while Daly led late in last year’s race and finished an impressive sixth.

And a productive test last week has both feeling hopeful. “We needed this test to try big steps and different options and I think we gained a lot from where we started to where we finished,” said Munoz, whose best 2017 finish of seventh came at Barber Motorsports Park in April.

Munoz added that, while they are still playing catch up a little, the team gained valuable information that should help them this weekend. “The car was much more competitive from where we started so we closed the gap but we need a little bit more to compete with the top guys. But the information that we gathered will help us to show up stronger than we did at the test so I’m looking forward to going back,” he asserted.

Daly echoed Munoz’s sentiments and added that his near-win last year makes him upbeat ahead of the weekend. “It was a really productive (test) for us. Every day with this car and aero package we are learning more. I feel like I came quite close to winning the race last year so I’m hoping to have another strong result this year,” Daly expressed.

Technical Director Will Phillips added that the knowledge they gained should help them at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway at the end of the season, particularly in terms of maximizing the grip from the tires.

“We certainly believe that the area we made an improvement in will help us at all the road courses to come – we have been slow to extract performance from the tires at times and it was in this area that some changes we made had a very positive response,” Phillips described. “We will keep our feet on the ground but are optimistic that we can carry the gains through for the remainder of the year, not just for Mid-Ohio.”

On the other side, Dale Coyne Racing has been a giant-killer in 2017, winning at St. Petersburg with Sebastien Bourdais and finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 with Ed Jones. James Davison, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Gutierrez have also impressed in fill-in roles for the injured Bourdais.

Dale Coyne Racing has shown a lot of speed in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

And while the team has also incurred more than it’s fair share of crash damage, they have consistently showcased speed at nearly every event, and the team’s drivers are confident Mid-Ohio will yield more of the same.

“We had a really good test last week at Mid-Ohio. It was very positive and we worked on a lot of things,” said Ed Jones, who has four starts at Mid-Ohio from his days in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with a best finish of sixth. “The car seemed pretty fast compared to others that were there. As we saw at Road America, it’s beneficial to be able to test somewhere before we race there. It can give you an advantage early on and hopefully we can produce another good result because of it.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez, making his sixth start for the team this weekend, is more modest of his expectations, but did reveal that a top ten finish could be realistic.

“In terms of objectives for the weekend, I want to keep on learning and it would be nice to reach the top ten. We know that it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in IndyCar but we’ve made some progress and hopefully we can make our way into the top ten pretty soon,” Gutierrez detailed.

Of the drivers mentioned here, Jones ranks the highest in the championship standings, currently sitting 12th. Munoz sits 15th, Daly 19th, and Gutierrez 25th in his fill-in role.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Lando Norris also gets confirmed for Hungary test with McLaren

Photo: Lando Norris PR
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McLaren Honda young driver Lando Norris has joined the list of those confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test as well.

He’ll run on the second day, Wednesday, of the two-day test with Stoffel Vandoorne running on day one, Tuesday.

The teenaged Brit races for Carlin in the FIA F3 European Championship this season and is one of the most talented prospects in the pipeline, following his karting career and early years in formula cars. This will mark his test debut in an F1 car.

He was announced as part of McLaren’s development program in February.

Norris was confirmed a little more than a week ago for next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in a United Autosports Ligier JS P217 LMP2 car but this gives him his first go in a proper F1 rocketship.

 

Pirelli review says Raikkonen tire not faulty at Silverstone

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Formula One tiremaker Pirelli has concluded that Kimi Raikkonen’s tire damage late in the British Grand Prix was likely caused by external contact.

Raikkonen was set for second place in the July 16 race but his tire problem allowed Valtteri Bottas to complete a Mercedes one-two with Lewis Hamilton. The Finnish driver even looked set to lose his podium spot to his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, but in a bizarre twist he ended up third after Vettel’s own tire shredded.

The sight of two Ferraris capitulating within moments of each other led Pirelli to conduct extensive post-race tests on both cars. Raikkonen’s problem, Pirelli said in a statement Wednesday, did not come from the tire itself.

“The possible initial cause of this damage is consistent with contact against an external body, leading to a partial separation of the belt from the carcass in the two affected areas,” Pirelli said. “On no occasion was there any sign of fatigue, detachment or laceration -or even the beginning of such problems – that affected the structure of the tire. In conclusion, Pirelli can confirm that no issues have emerged connected with the tire itself.”

Last week, Pirelli said that Vettel’s shredded tire at Silverstone was caused by a slow puncture.

Vettel appeared to be heading for third place at Silverstone until his front left tire suddenly blew apart two laps from the finish. The four-time F1 champion managed to steer his Ferrari back to the pits for a tire change, and secured seventh place to cling onto his championship lead. Raikkonen’s pit stop to change his tire came just before Vettel’s.

Hamilton won to cut Vettel’s championship lead to one point. Raikkonen, who has three podium finishes this season, is fifth overall.

The championship continues at the Hungarian GP this weekend before a month-long summer break.