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NHRA surprise: John Force swaps crew chiefs, teams with Robert Hight

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If there’s one thing that’s certain about 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, it’s that he never ceases to surprise fans and those in the sport.

Just two races into the 24-race 2017 season, Force unveiled his most recent surprise Thursday morning: he’s swapping teams with teammate, son-in-law and John Force Racing president Robert Hight.

Yep, that’s right, lock, stock and barrel – plus crew chiefs and team members – one week before next weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

While Force will continue driving the Peak Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car and Hight will remain behind the wheel of the Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro SS, everything else will change.

Crew chief Jimmy Prock, co-crew chief Chris Cunningham and the rest of the Peak team will now be Hight’s supporting cast.

Meanwhile, crew chief Mike Neff and co-crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch and the rest of the Auto Club team will essentially become Force’s backup band.

As for the other two JFR teams, Courtney Force and her Funny Car team and Brittany Force and her Top Fuel team will remain intact.

Schaffer was Force’s crew chief last season and now they’re reunited, just like Prock is reunited with Hight, a pairing that produced 27 wins, including the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship.

Prock also has 14 wins during his previous tenure as Force’s crew chief.

This is also Neff’s second go-round as Force’s crew chief, which includes seven wins and the 2010 championship together.

Force is currently fifth in the Funny Car standings, 128 points behind series leader Matt Hagan. Hight, meanwhile, is ninth in the standings, 152 points behind Hagan.

Since Force began JFR more than 30 years ago, it has compiled 247 Funny Car wins, including 147 by Force himself and Hight 37. Force has 16 championships, while Hight has one championship.

“My race cars are moving ahead,” Force said in a media release. “They’re running big numbers; we’re still trying to find that consistency.

“I came into the shop in Brownsburg and met with the teams and all the guys in the machine shop, the fab shop and the paint shop. I looked at the pictures on the wall, looked at Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight in winner’s circle photos, I looked at pictures of me and Jimmy Prock, I looked at pictures of me and Neff, I looked at pictures of me and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCullough – and all of a sudden, it just felt right.

“I went home, slept on it, woke up the next morning, and it felt right. The cars are all doing good, but to put Robert Hight back with Jimmy Prock, who he won the championship with, and to put me back with Mike Neff, who I won the championship with – and Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch, who I won four races last year with – it just made sense.

“Austin Coil (Force’s former longtime crew chief; they won 14 championships together) always told me change is good, even when things are going right. This will build us stronger in the long run.”

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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.