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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.

NASCAR, not Indy 500, on Jenson Button’s radar after Fontana visit

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Jenson Button would like to enter a NASCAR event in the future after enjoying a visit to March’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, but has no interest in following former McLaren Formula 1 teammate Fernando Alonso into the Indianapolis 500.

2009 world champion Button will make a one-off return to F1 this weekend while Alonso races in the Indy 500, with the Briton believing he had made his final Grand Prix start in Abu Dhabi last year.

Button has not raced in any discipline since the season finale at Yas Marina, instead preferring to focus on his triathlon training after qualifying for the upcoming world championships.

When asked if he would consider following Alonso’s lead and entering the ‘500 in the future, Button revealed he would prefer to try out NASCAR.

“Indy’s not really been something that I’ve ever thought about. Personally, I was surprised that Fernando was interested in doing it, but we all like different things,” Button said.

“I would like to race in NASCAR, I think that would be fun. I went along to one of the races this year, Jimmie Johnson invited me, and I had a great time.

“I loved seeing the show as it is, and it’s very different to other motorsports. Equally, it’s a challenge, it’s a massive challenge. Who knows?”

Button was a guest of Johnson at Auto Club Speedway back in March over the Australian Grand Prix weekend, with the Briton noting at the time that there was much F1 could learn from NASCAR.

Button added that he would also like to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans one day, but only in a competitive seat such as the one Nico Hulkenberg had with Porsche when he won the race in 2015.

“We’re racing drivers, we’re not just F1 drivers, and we like trying different sports,” Button said.

“For me, I would like to do Le Mans one day. I think it would be a great experience, a great team atmosphere. Obviously it has to be the right opportunity like Nico had.

“And then there’s other motorsports that I love like rallycross as well. So there are many things. But Indy hasn’t been up there for me for many different reasons.”

Hamilton and Vettel’s friendly rivalry faces test in Monaco

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MONACO (AP) The chummy rivalry between Formula One champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel could be tested at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, an unforgiving circuit where drivers are often pushed to the limit.

After five races, four-time F1 champion Vettel is six points clear of three-time champion Hamilton. They have two wins each and are relishing what is, surprisingly, their first championship tussle.

When Vettel was dominating for Red Bull, winning his titles from 2010-13, Hamilton lagged behind with McLaren. As Hamilton started dominating for Mercedes the following year, Vettel struggled with Red Bull. After switching to Ferrari in 2015, the German driver failed to significantly challenge Hamilton or his former Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg.

Although they share a total of 99 F1 wins, this is the first year Hamilton and Vettel have really gone head-to-head on track.

“You have to respect if other people do a good job,” Vettel said. “We’re very different. But I think we have a very strong connection.”

Hamilton has been equally praiseworthy.

“To have that close battle with him, with a four-time champ, is awesome,” the British driver said. “This is what the sport needs to be every single race.”

Fans are thrilled, and it is equally a relief for Hamilton to be challenging a driver he respects so much and, additionally, one from another team.

For the past three years, Hamilton was embroiled in a tense fight with Rosberg and their thorny relationship caused frictions within Mercedes.

An air of relief has swept through Mercedes since Rosberg retired after winning last year’s title. Not because he was unpopular, but because the team no longer has to deal with an ongoing saga that the media feasted on.

“This season I have re-discovered why I love the sport,” said Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes motorsport. “We are in a massive fight with Ferrari.”

In other words, the fight has been taken outside of Mercedes itself and the rivalry with Vettel is more healthy.

However, an incident in Spain two weeks ago, where Hamilton won ahead of Vettel, suggested cracks could start appearing in the smooth facade of their relationship.

Vettel came perilously close to nudging Hamilton off the track as they fought for space heading into a turn. Hamilton had seemed somewhat irked by Vettel’s aggression – although it was exactly the kind of in-your-face driving Hamilton revels in.

With the F1 title shaping into a two-way race, neither can afford a slip.

That will heighten the pressure on both in glitzy Monaco, where F1 lovers mingle with millionaires, and which Wolff describes as “the crown jewel” of F1.

The smallest braking mistake on a tight and sinewy 3.4-kilometer (2.1-mile) circuit through the winding streets of Monte Carlo, past its famed casino and around its glittering, yacht-laden harbor, can send a distracted driver into the barriers.

“There is no such thing as a low risk lap in Monaco, it doesn’t exist if you want to be fast,” said Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who crashed in last year’s race.

With overtaking notoriously difficult, pole position holds increased value. That makes qualifying crucial, where drivers juggle speed with not pushing the car too hard.

“It is a mentally exhausting weekend,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said. “One mistake will cost you.”

But one advantage for drivers this year is that the Pirelli tires are far more durable, increasing time on track and limiting pit stops.

Still, that advantage is offset by another factor: the size of the cars.

F1 rule changes this year led to cars being made faster and wider. On a narrow track, this poses “a massive challenge” when pushing the car close to the limit, Hamilton said.

“It’ll be a real test of your awareness of where the car is,” the Englishman said. “You need to be sharp and clear.”

Ganassi team confident amid high expectations for Indy 500

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Chip Ganassi Racing was uncharacteristically quiet during last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Tony Kanaan was the only member of the team to lead laps, heading the field for 19 circuits. Charlie Kimball took advantage of a strategy similar to winner Alexander Rossi’s to finish fifth, while Scott Dixon was never in contention much of the day and finished eighth. Max Chilton, in his first “500,” soldiered home in 15th.

For the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the team has a much different outcome in mind. Once again partnered with Honda, which had the superior speedway package last year, Chip Ganassi’s outfit appears to be in a much stronger position heading into this year’s race.

Most notably, Scott Dixon captured the pole, with Tony Kanaan joining him in the Fast Nine shootout before qualifying seventh. And while Chilton and Kimball start 15th and 16th, they could easily be dark horses heading into race day.

Team owner Chip Ganassi was bursting with enthusiasm when asked about returning Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a May 19 press conference.

“I mean, I’m excited. I mean I think — you know, when you come back here to Indianapolis, it’s the real thing. It’s what we’re all about. It’s why we got in this sport in the first place, is because of the Indianapolis 500. We want to win this race, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he asserted.

Mike Hull, managing director of the Verizon IndyCar Series side of Chip Ganassi’s operation, detailed the team’s success, and potential for more success, is down to people and communication, and that on the driving front, he thinks they have all their bases covered.

“In order for race drivers to win races, they have to support their teammates and their teammates have to give very unselfishly to each other when you race at a major event like this one,” Hull explained. “And it’s really, really neat to see these four drivers interact with each other knowing full well that one of the other ones could win. That’s very special, and that’s what we have at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Dixon, the polesitter and holder of one of the fastest speeds Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen since 1996, is not only Ganassi’s longest tenured driver but the team’s best bet for success on race day, in tandem with engineer Chris Simmons. Dixon alluded to missed opportunities (such as in 2015, when an overheating problem dropped him from the lead late in the race, and in 2011, when fuel strategy put paid to his chances) as added motivation to secure his second “500” triumph.

Scott Dixon might be the favorite going into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Photo: Indycar

“I think we came up short in a couple where we could have maybe stolen a couple wins there which would have definitely helped that list. But yeah, you know, it’s all focused right now on this event and preparing as well as we can,” he said.

“I think the first couple of days were definitely trying in a lot of ways but I think we found some good headway, but it’s the goal. We finished second here a couple of times and it’s almost the worst place to finish when you come so close, especially under caution.”

One might assume that as a former winner, Dixon may hold a mental edge on most of the field. But, he later revealed that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Every year is very different. The target constantly moves. The situations change. How the race plays out changes,” he said. “I think because you’ve had the sense and the feeling of that victory, you want it that much more again. So I think it maybe even adds to it.”

Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won this race in 2013, echoed those sentiments. “To me every year it’s like the first year,” he added. “I mean, I don’t get to think that I won this thing until Monday. If everything goes wrong, I might, you know, just say ‘All right, at least I won one.’ That’s the way I really think. But up until then I still get as nervous as I was the first time. I still want to win as bad as if I hadn’t won.”

Tony Kanaan is looking for his second Indy 500 triumph. Photo: IndyCar

So far, Kanaan has endured a difficult 2017 campaign. With only two finishes inside the top ten, he languishes back in 11th in the championship. Still, he recognizes that this year presents as strong a chance as he’s ever had at Indianapolis, and the strength of Ganassi’s organization creates a heightened sense of pressure to perform.

“I got extremely lucky when after I won the “500” I got hired by Chip and Mike’s organization. I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. So they cut my work in half by doing that,” he added. “They give me great cars, great people, and it’s just an awesome place to be. So for me, you know, I think I have one of my best shots this year.”

Outside of Dixon and Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are often the overlooked men of Chip Ganassi’s four-car armada. However, each has shown the potential for success.

Kimball, a former IndyCar race winner, has very quietly established himself at the Indy 500 with consecutive finishes inside the top five (third in 2015 and fifth in 2016) to go along with two other finishes inside the top ten (eighth in 2012, ninth in 2013). Like Kanaan, Kimball has endured a difficult 2017 season, one in which he didn’t even make it through the opening lap in any race until Round 3 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Charlie Kimball has quietly put together a strong record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Kimball explained that his success is down to a simple love of the race track, and that the surrounding team may be the most vital component to ending the day in victory lane.

“I love racing around here. And on Race Day the fact that it’s a 500-mile event: it’s challenging mentally, physically, not just for us as drivers but especially for the teams, the guys on the stand, the engineers, the strategists, the guys, the crew that go over the wall. I mean, that focus that they need for those six, seven-plus stops is critical to the job we do on the racetrack,” he said.

And for Max Chilton, who has raced at such world-renowned events as the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competing at the Indy 500 left an indelible impression on him.

“I’ve done some big races, Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix a number of times, but this one stands out last year,” he said. “(It was) the 100th running of the biggest race we’ve ever had here. To me that was still very incredible.”

An Indianapolis 500 victory would the first career IndyCar win for Chilton. Photo: IndyCar

While a victory for him would be an upset of sorts, Chilton knows he has everything he needs to do so. “I’m going to work as hard as I can. I feel like we got the car in a good place (in practice) and I can’t wait to be here on the 28th of May and be zooming around,” said the Briton, who was fastest during Monday practice.

The team has moved a number of pieces around – Kanaan and Kimball swapped engineers with Eric Cowdin coming back to Kanaan and Todd Malloy going over to Kimball – and other crew members have also been rotated. But as Hull explained, that comes from the strength of depth within the organization based on Woodland Drive in Indianapolis.

“We’re lucky, we have quality people in all positions, so we can do that,” Hull said. “But what it does is it provides fresh thinking even though the thinking is in the same room. And it’s all about the interaction of people. That’s what teamwork is all about and teams of people are all about. They have to pinch each other every day to remember what the priority actually is, and our priority is to win. We try to match the people up that we think can do that.”

An Indy 500 victory in 2017 would be the fifth for Chip Ganassi Racing, the previous four coming at the hands of Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Scott Dixon (2008), and Dario Franchitti (2010, 2012).

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Button well-prepared, jovial ahead of Formula 1 comeback

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Jenson Button says he feels well-prepared to make his one-off return to Formula 1 in this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix despite not yet driving the 2017-spec McLaren car.

Button stepped back from his McLaren seat at the end of 2016 and looked to have made his last F1 appearance, having agreed to remain with the team as an ambassador and reserve driver if requied.

The 2009 F1 world champion was called into action by McLaren following Fernando Alonso’s shock decision to enter the 101st Indianapolis 500, skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in order to do so.

Button made his first appearance in the F1 paddock since last November’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Wednesday, facing questions in the FIA’s pre-race press conference which he answered with a mix of good humor and, at times, sarcasm.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding Button’s return has been his level of preparation, with the Briton turning down the offer to test the MCL32 car last month following the Bahrain Grand Prix – meaning his first taste of F1’s new-style 2017 cars will come on Thursday in Monaco practice.

Button isn’t worried, though, believing the additional running in Bahrain wouldn’t have benefitted him a great deal given the drastically different nature of the circuit.

“Preparation has been good, apart from I haven’t driven the car with these new regulations,” Button acknowledged.

“So it’s not perfect, but the option was to do half a day in Bahrain which I thought was absolutely useless for me to do, completely different type of circuit.

“I said to the team I think it’s best if I do a few days in the simulator. Obviously as drivers we love the simulator, so I was raring to go… I spent a lot of time in the simulator just getting a feel for it.

“It’s been interesting. Most of the stuff’s the same, but there are a few things that are obviously different. Different in regulations and it changes from year to year, technology and what have you.

“A few things to learn, but it’s still a racing car. Just got to get used to [the car] being a bit wider.”

Button’s return comes at a time when McLaren is at a low point – quite literally – as it sits at the bottom of the constructors’ championship with a score of zero following the first five races of the season.

Much of the team’s struggles have stemmed from its Honda power unit, which has lacked both reliability and performance so far this season, leaving Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne ailing in races.

Monaco is set to present McLaren its best chance yet of points, with the tight and twisting nature of the street course making any frailties on the engine side seem less severe.

Yet for Button, there is no pressure to get McLaren off the mark in 2017 and overhaul Sauber, who recently moved off the foot of the teams’ table following Pascal Wehrlein’s run to eighth in Spain.

“Definitely not,” Button said when asked if he felt under any pressure for his comeback. “I’m very relaxed. Very excited, actually. It’s interesting coming back for one grand prix. It being Monaco, it’s very special.

“I’ve won here before, I’ve lived here for 17 years. I’ve had some really good experiences here. It’s exciting. But I don’t feel any pressure, not at all. I will get in the car and do the best job I can, that’s what I’m here to do.

“And everything I do in life is the same. You want to be competitive, you want to be getting the best out of yourself and the best out of the equipment and the team you are working with. So that hasn’t changed.

“The car seemed to be working well in Barcelona in qualifying. Fernando did a good job, but I think it still proves the car itself is working well. I drove in the simulator and I drove the upgrade, which I was misquoted on, by the way. I drove that upgrade and it was a definite improvement.

“There are more improvements here as well. If it’s all straightforward this weekend then we should be reasonably competitive.”