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2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season preview

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Ahead of a year where the aero kits are frozen, the schedule is stable, Dale Coyne’s had both drivers signed for months and the lineup is stacked from drivers 1-21, you might wonder if this really is the Verizon IndyCar Series.

For once, the lack of drama entering a year from an overall series and sanctioning body leaves IndyCar in a generally good state of health, with positive vibes in the paddock and the question marks more about how the new components within teams than about the long-term future of the series itself.

It’s not that there aren’t some disconcerting elements, but rather than the more foreboding worrying signs of past years, it’s now smaller niggles to iron out as INDYCAR works towards solidifying and defining its clearest long-term path in years.

Here are some of the story lines to watch in 2017. The season starts in St. Petersburg March 12 and resumes on NBCSN with Round 2 from Long Beach on April 9.

Team Penske vs. the world

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Simon Pagenaud of France driver of the #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the IndyCar Series championship with his crew and team onwer roger Penske after his victory at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 18, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 18: Simon Pagenaud of France driver of the #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the IndyCar Series championship with his crew and team onwer roger Penske after his victory at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 18, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Following Chip Ganassi Racing Teams’ switch back to Honda, Team Penske is left as the preeminent Chevrolet team on the grid and still the likely championship favorites with any of its four drivers. It’s not that fellow Chevrolet teams Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises can’t contend for a title, and as we saw with Carpenter’s team last year, it was possible for most of the year. But those two teams have a bit more new to get integrated to mount a challenge from the start.

Penske’s fearsome foursome includes Simon Pagenaud, now with the champion’s No. 1 adorning his car, fresh off his best season yet in IndyCar and a title he never really lost grip of after May. Yet defending has proven a difficult task – no one has done so since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012 – and whether it’s been Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon or Will Power in the last few years, for whatever reason there has been a very slight drop-off in their next year after becoming champion. In order, Hunter-Reay (seventh in 2013), Dixon (third in 2014, sixth last year) and Power (third in 2015) have fallen from the top-two.

Power can’t start 2017 much worse than he did last year, following his absence from the St. Petersburg race and a 130-plus point deficit to Pagenaud by the INDYCAR Grand Prix in Indianapolis. The fact he even got as close as he did to Pagenaud the rest of the way spoke volumes of his resolve. He’s a new father this offseason but that shouldn’t set him back.

For Helio Castroneves, the story remained the same yet again – consistent but just short again. He’ll turn 42 in May but continues to star in spite of that number. One wonders though how many more shots he’ll get at that elusive first championship, plus that fourth Indianapolis 500…

And so it comes to Josef Newgarden as fourth driver, the significantly younger but still rather experienced replacement for Juan Pablo Montoya, that presents Penske’s biggest wild card of 2017. The team, engineer, crew and home city (he’s moved to Charlotte) are all new to him. Newgarden’s never had this amount of depth in teammates and engineering before, and must be careful he doesn’t go down the wrong setup path. Unlike Pagenaud, who was in an entirely new fourth entry when joined two years ago, Newgarden has a proven group around him. You don’t want to put too much pressure on the 26-year-old, but with Montoya having finished fourth in points after eight years out of open-wheel in his first year with Penske and Pagenaud an underwhelming 11th in 2015, Newgarden must come closer to JPM range – especially as he was fourth last year with Carpenter, and the lesser resources there.

Team Penske, organizationally, has shaken up its strategists and crew with president Tim Cindric shifting from Power’s car to Newgarden’s to call strategy, with Jon “Myron” Bouslog going the other way. Still, having achieved 10 wins and 11 poles last year, the Penske mantra of “effort equals results” persists, and it’d be hard to bet against them delivering at least another six to eight more wins in 2017.

Ganassi’s much-anticipated return, again, to Honda

No Target, no Chevrolet. The Honda return and more questions await Ganassi. Photo: IndyCar
No Target, no Chevrolet. The Honda return and more questions await Ganassi. Photo: IndyCar

When Chip Ganassi Racing Teams needs championships, it seems to switch to Honda. The first run of Ganassi success in IndyCar came with the inspired gamble to “the package” of Reynard/Honda/Firestone in 1996. Four titles later, and Ganassi was off to Toyota. Just one title followed in the intervening six years, and an admittedly lucky one at that as Scott Dixon emerged head of a five-driver shootout in 2003.

As the field shifted entirely back to Hondas in 2006, Ganassi reassumed its top of the perch, and with another four-pack of titles from 2008 to 2011, had gone four-for-six in the spec-engine era.

As engine competition resumed in 2012, Ganassi was Honda’s anchor team, before Ganassi himself called out Honda starting at St. Petersburg 2013, which sent shockwaves through the paddock. Dixon had won another Honda-powered title by year’s end but the deal was done for Ganassi to go the other way for 2014.

So over the last 20 years, Ganassi has batted 9 of 12 winning titles with Honda, and gone 2-8 in years when it doesn’t.

And so, here we are again. Ganassi/Honda version 4.0 has to hope, at least for 2017, the manufacturer has made enough gains in the offseason from a power perspective to offset its aero gap to Pratt & Miller and Chevrolet. The talking has been good – all of Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Max Chilton have seemed bullish on the gains – and the ever-insightful Mike Hull, the team’s managing director, seems optimistic.

Ganassi faces a fascinating 2017 season where you know Dixon will be a contender once more, and you figure Kanaan should be too. But in Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton’s cases, the challenge for them will be proving their form of recent years was not entirely down to the package at their disposal. It’s worth noting Andretti Autosport’s form has been less consistent since their own Chevrolet-to-Honda switch in 2014, and you wonder if the same fate will befall one of the series’ biggest teams.

Andretti’s hopeful of a big rebound

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Other than May, Andretti Autosport endured a nightmare 2016 season, but with some of the engineering acquisitions (Eric Bretzman as technical director, Jeremy Milless for Alexander Rossi) made by the team they should be better in 2017. Have to be better, even.

The good news is, all four of their drivers have an extra double shot of motivation in their coffee this year.

Ryan Hunter-Reay went winless in 2016. That just doesn’t happen and figures to not happen again this year.

Rossi won a rather important 500-mile race at Indianapolis in May, but otherwise spent the year adapting. His desire and determination, along with his increased work helping to promote both the ‘500 and the series, have gone a long way in a lot of folks’ minds since his late and perhaps mixed arrival here late last year. Paired with Milless as engineer, this is a driver/engineer pairing to watch.

Marco Andretti’s last turnaround after a nightmare season, from 2012 to 2013, produced his best season yet in IndyCar. If he can’t deliver an encore of that turnaround this year, it will be harder yet to quiet the persistent doubters.

And Takuma Sato has, outside of a few races with KV, RLL and Foyt, never really had a top-flight chance with one of the best teams in the series. If Andretti can sort its street course package or get close, Sato’s sheer bravery can make up the difference.

Who from the “non-big three” breaks through?

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda leads Tony Kanaan driver of the #10 NTT Data Chevrolet and Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda going into the final lap during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
FORT WORTH, TX – AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda leads Tony Kanaan driver of the #10 NTT Data Chevrolet and Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda going into the final lap during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

The nice thing is any of the remaining five teams could well do so. Could it be Ed Carpenter Racing, which nearly won the title last year with Newgarden? Will Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing group continue with their team’s good setup work and better strategy calls over the last two years?

Sebastien Bourdais figures to perform his usual giant-killing act, now with Dale Coyne Racing, at least once if not more. Bourdais is careful to set expectations too high but should be strong more often than not.

Schmidt Peterson’s pair of James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin showed flashes fairly regularly last year, but not enough to contend for wins on a consistent basis.

And then there are the other young guns who haven’t contended for a title…

The young gun emergence

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 05: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet, prepares to practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 5, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Newgarden at Team Penske is the biggest of the young guns who look to topple the over-30 crowd this year, because the last under-30 champion in IndyCar was Dixon in 2008, then 28. He’s 26 and about to begin his sixth season. Rossi, at age 25, is also good for the long haul. But they’re not the only ones.

Newgarden’s replacement, JR Hildebrand, figures to make some waves at Ed Carpenter Racing. It’s also good to see Spencer Pigot get a second chance in the team’s second car, although he has a smaller margin for error after struggling a bit last year.

Like at ECR, Foyt figures to be aided by the Chevrolet component. Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz both have a point to prove in new rides, and as the youngest pairing on the grid by a significant margin, they have to ensure youthful exuberance doesn’t get the better of them.

Ed Jones seems set for a Tristan Vautier-like year as the only full-time rookie confirmed. Last year’s Indy Lights champion will be judged by how well he matches up to Sebastien Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing first, with other bright spots coming if he can make the occasional imprint on the top half of the field.

You are in ’17, but going on ‘18

Expect discussion outside the race weekends to fixate largely on the new single-spec body kit coming to IndyCar in 2018, replacing the manufacturer aero kits after an expensive three-year era at the end of this year.

Initial renderings were revealed at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit in January, with the next renderings coming up for a potential reveal either just before or after the season opener in St. Petersburg. Testing would begin in the summer or fall after a full reveal.

The 2018 IndyCar schedule should be out even sooner than this year’s was, since all races for 2017 are also locked into 2018. There may be a couple date swaps compared to this year but it should look pretty similar. If it isn’t out by say, May or June, it would be a surprise.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.