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IndyCar Preseason Roundtable: St. Petersburg

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It’s the season opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series. The off-season saw a gigantic shuffle amongst teams and drivers, generating several questions and storylines about which combinations will perform the best. The MotorSportsTalk team will dive into a handful of them ahead of the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

1) How will Chip Ganassi Racing switching to Honda impact the balance of power among Chevrolet and Honda?

Kyle: Chip Ganassi Racing’s switch to Honda will put the problematic aero kit in the hands of perhaps the strongest and most-funded engineering staff outside of Team Penske. Can Ganassi’s depth boost Honda’s results? It will likely be a challenge early in the season as the team retool their setups to fit the new package. However, the gap between the manufacturers, especially in their results, should lesson as the year goes on, particularly when the series visits the larger ovals of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, places in which Honda appeared to have an edge over Chevrolet. It will be difficult to completely draw even, but Chip Ganassi Racing should give Honda a much needed boost in the win column and score multiple wins for the Japanese brand.

Tony Kanaan at Sebring test. Photo: IndyCar

Tony: After years where the field was largely split in half between the two manufacturers, Honda has a distinct numerical advantage and its best resource acquisition with Ganassi coming back on board. After 10-6 and 14-2 drubbings in the win category the last couple years, I’d love to see Honda close that gap back to even or close at 9-8, and Ganassi has a shot to do it. But with the aero kits frozen for this year it’s hard to see the engineering strength offset the existing deficiencies, although power gains are possible; if Ganassi, Andretti and either or all of Schmidt Peterson, Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Coyne can win, I could see Honda closing the win gap to say 10-7 or 11-6. But another two-win campaign can’t occur, and I don’t think it will.

Luke: Ganassi’s switch to Honda should bring some needed balance to the Verizon IndyCar Series this year, for it has felt like ‘Chevy or bust’ at times since the introduction of the aero kits. Honda now has both the Ganassi and Andretti stables to lean on, and should get stronger as the year ticks on, although the freeze will limit how much ground can be made up. The bigger ovals remain Honda’s best chance of hitting victory lane without a slice of fortune this year, but I don’t see the disparity between the two manufacturers being as great this year.

2) Of the drivers in new places or ones rejoining Verizon IndyCar Series for 2017, which one will fare the best?

Newgarden looks ahead to 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Kyle: There are several different ways to look at this question. Josef Newgarden may finish the best of anyone who switched teams, given that he is with the mighty Team Penske. Sebastien Bourdais, again teamed up with Craig Hampson, may get the “Did the most with the least” award as he rejoins a revamped Dale Coyne Racing that, while down on funding, possesses enormous spirit and cunning. And, JR Hildebrand may be the one most poised for a breakout year as he begins a full-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing.

In all, Newgarden looks set to have the best results of anyone who signed with a new team or is rejoining the series, and following this particular storyline could be one of the most intriguing aspects of the 2017 season.

Tony: The obvious pick here is Josef Newgarden; the pick I’ll go with is JR Hildebrand. Newgarden’s transition to Team Penske has a lot of potential built into it but also a lot of expectations. It’s funny where if Newgarden finishes fourth or better in the points, you expect it because he’s with Penske. But if Hildebrand gets a top-five points finish and wins his first race with Ed Carpenter Racing, he’ll have arguably had a better season – particularly given his lengthy stint outside the cockpit. He’s in a true team leader position, he has the better aero kit/engine package, he has a team that’s emerged as a title contender and he has a new engineer who will bring fresh ideas from the sports car world in Justin Taylor.

Luke: As both Tony and Kyle have noted, Josef Newgarden is the obvious pick to be the best driver in new colors this year. But his arrival at Penske should come with a word of warning. Simon Pagenaud may have crushed the field last year, yet his first season in the No. 22 was a very different story, yielding just two podium finishes.

Nevertheless, I’ll still go with Newgarden. My reckoning is that he’ll be in title contention come Sonoma. But I’d also give honorable mentions to Conor Daly and Sebastien Bourdais, both of whom deserve to really show what they can do this year with Foyt and Dale Coyne Racing respectively. JR Hildebrand should also make his experience of being Ed Carpenter Racing’s go-to test driver pay off this year and pay a trip to victory lane.

3) This race has seen 10 different winners since it debuted in 2003. Only Helio Castroneves (3), Will Power (2) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2) have won more than once. Will this race have it’s 11th different winner?

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 17: Simon Pagenaud of France drives his #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle: It’s hard to believe, but Simon Pagenaud has never won at St. Petersburg. But, he does boast a strong record there, finishing sixth or better in four of his five races. He finished fifth in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015, and battled Juan Pablo Montoya for the win last year before finishing second.

This year, expect Simon Pagenaud to improve one more position and claim the top step on the podium as he begins his championship defense.

Tony: I’m with Kyle here. I see Simon Pagenaud coming out strong to kick off his title defense with a win here, particularly after learning his lesson from Juan Pablo Montoya’s pass of him on a restart. Given the new push-to-pass rules this year, I think Pagenaud will be savvier in how he uses it.

Luke: Nope. Sorry guys, but this race is Will Power’s for the taking. It would have been last year had it not been for his concussion, such was his qualifying pace. I’ll tip him to edge out Simon Pagenaud for victory on Sunday.



More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.