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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

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.”