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PREVIEW: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In a matter of hours, all the words being written in the buildup to the curtain-raiser for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will stop and the actual season will be underway.

This leaves time for a few more words about the race itself, then, heading in.

2017 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Talking Points

Penske vs. everyone else

Team Penske looks for its fourth straight and ninth overall victory at St. Petersburg. Helio Castroneves (2012) and Will Power (2014) won with the base Dallara DW12 chassis while Juan Pablo Montoya has been the first and thus far only winner in the manufacturer aero kit era at St. Petersburg with back-to-back wins in 2015 and 2016.

With Montoya absent, St. Petersburg is guaranteed a new winner this year. Could it be Simon Pagenaud after he got snookered by JPM on a restart here last year? Might it be Josef Newgarden in his Penske debut? Power in his St. Petersburg return? Or Castroneves to break a near three-year winless drought for a potential fourth St. Petersburg win of his own? The odds remain firmly in this team’s court.

The road to pole still goes through Will Power

Will Power wins the pole (or Verizon P1 Award) at St. Petersburg. A lot.

Power has six poles at St. Petersburg in the last seven years, losing it only in 2014 when Takuma Sato beat him in the rain.

Problem is, those poles have not translated to victories. He won in 2010 but in the years he’s been on the pole since, his finishes are second in 2011, then seventh in 2012, 16th in 2013 and second in 2015, before failing to start last year owing to his misdiagnosed concussion. He did win in 2014, though.

Continuing components vs. new components

It says something about the whole of the IndyCar field that the one team that hasn’t had continuity in its driver lineup in recent year, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, is the only team without at least one new component this year.

But otherwise, here’s what’s new:

  • Team Penske (new driver, Newgarden, and a strategist swap)
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (new aero kit/manufacturer, Honda)
  • Andretti Autosport (new engineers, new driver, Sato)
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (new engineer)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (new full-season driver, JR Hildebrand)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (new aero kit/manufacturer, Chevrolet, two new drivers, Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz, and new engineers)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (new engineers, two new full-season drivers, Sebastien Bourdais, Ed Jones)

Certainly there’s elements of the above six teams that remain intact, but there’s a lot of shuffling this year up-and-down the grid. How well will the new pieces fit into their new puzzles starting this weekend?

Honda’s numbers versus Honda’s stats

From a purely numerical standpoint, Honda has to improve its results this season as it has 13 full-season cars to Chevrolet’s eight cars.

But Honda’s weekend performance in the aero kit era at St. Petersburg has left a lot to be desired.

In 2015, only Sato for A.J. Foyt Enterprises made it into the Firestone Fast Six for Honda, while Team Penske got all four cars in and Sebastien Bourdais was the sixth for the now defunct KVSH Racing. In the race, five of those six drivers finished in the top-six with only Tony Kanaan breaking through from outside the top six, ending third. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the top Honda in seventh. Chevrolet held a seven-three edge in top-10 results.

Last year, it was a similar story. Once again all four Penske cars made the Fast Six, Scott Dixon made it for Ganassi, and Hunter-Reay was Honda’s lone interloper. With a sterling drive to third in the race, Hunter-Reay flattered the otherwise slightly in arrears package, and Mikhail Aleshin, Sato and Munoz also made the top-10 in the race, albeit more down to strategy and surviving.

So with Penske’s four Chevrolets looking for their third straight year of getting all four in the Fast Six, it would leave two spots open for the rest of the field if they pull that off. The remaining Chevrolet drivers are all 29 years of age or younger and none has more than three full-time seasons experience; if the quartet of JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot, Munoz and Daly can somehow outdo the Hondas this go-around, with no disrespect to them it is not a promising sign given the available talent at Honda’s disposal. Honda needs at least two cars in the Fast Six to stand much of a chance, with three a bonus for Sunday’s race.

Strategy specials

Last year, Daly led 15 laps for Dale Coyne Racing on a strategy gamble and was unlucky to finish 13th after fading late. Who might come from nowhere to spring a surprise this year?

Might Bryan Herta get Marco Andretti some clean air and confidence if Andretti has another lackluster weekend, or will Andretti recapture the good form he’s occasionally shown at St. Petersburg in his career?

Could fellow Americans Spencer Pigot and Alexander Rossi, two of last year’s rookies, be better served in their second ‘go-rounds? Is Max Chilton a candidate to surprise as he’ll be paired with Ganassi engineering ace Julian Robertson as his strategist?

The track and series changes

Although the cars stay the same this year, there’s two big changes going into St. Petersburg, with a track repave being done to a significant percentage of the track, as well as a change to the push-to-pass system. Here’s the note on push-to-pass:

• Drivers may engage their “push to pass” for total of 150 seconds during the race, with a maximum duration of 15 seconds for any one activation. The push-to-pass is not available on the initial start or any restart unless it occurs in the final two laps or three minutes of a timed race. The feature increases the power of the engine by approximately 60 horsepower for 2017.

The change to new brake supplier Performance Friction (PFC) is also one to watch, with expected high brake temperatures a possible story line to follow throughout the weekend.

Red tires also will be available to run in Friday’s second practice session, marking the first time since the introduction of the softer, alternate compounds they can run before qualifying. Teams are allotted seven sets of primaries and four alternates for the weekend.

The final word

From Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has been on the podium a few times at St. Petersburg but never taken the No. 28 DHL Honda to victory lane:

“There’s no better place to kickoff the Verizon IndyCar Series season than the streets of St. Pete. Not only is it one of my favorite street courses, it is essentially my home race, and the perfect place to start the year. We’ve finished runner up in St. Pete on a couple of occasions, so we’re looking for that breakthrough win.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

Friday, March 10

11:15-12 Practice 1
3-3:45 Practice 2

Saturday, March 11

10:50-11:35 Practice 3
2:55-4:10 Qualifying

Sunday, March 12

9-9:30 Warmup
12:23, 12:30 Drivers Start Your Engines/Est. Green Flag (ABC, 12)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Juan Pablo Montoya
2. Simon Pagenaud (pole*)
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Mikhail Aleshin
6. Takuma Sato
7. Scott Dixon
8. Carlos Munoz
9. Tony Kanaan
10. Charlie Kimball

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power*
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Scott Dixon
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay

*Power won pole but DNS; replaced by Oriol Servia. Everyone moved up one spot

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.