Photo: IndyCar

PREVIEW: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Leave a comment

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

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

Leave a comment

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.