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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.



Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.