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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.

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.