Bourdais and Coyne embrace. Photo: IndyCar

DiZinno: Bourdais, Coyne find strategic promised land in St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – On February 23, 2003, a then-unheralded 23-year-old Frenchman named Sebastien Bourdais arrived on North American shores for his first top-level race in the U.S. Dale Coyne, meanwhile, was back full-time with two cars after two years where he’d only run part-time to help make up the numbers for the 19-car Champ Car World Series entry list.

Bourdais and Coyne have traveled a long way separately in the 14 years since, but found their greatest triumph together thus far in Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season opener for 2017 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Admittedly, a lucky break provided the window for Bourdais to leap frog from 10th at the time of the second caution on Lap 26 to second on Lap 27, when the top seven cars were forced to pit under yellow after not stopping earlier.

But, that’s a Coyne speciality. The likable team owner whose Plainfield, Ill.-based team has been a staple in the IndyCar paddock for more than 30 years has made countless strategic gambles, more of which bare fruit than others, that have been as ubiquitous to the team’s legacy as its running joke of having its second car listed as a TBA in the days leading up to St. Petersburg.

Bourdais capitalized on an ailing Simon Pagenaud, who had some rear wheel guard damage, to make the eventual pass for the win on Lap 37. Bourdais led 69 laps from there, losing the lead only on pit stops. And realistically, he wouldn’t have stayed up front if he wasn’t able to keep up the pace or if the Coyne crew lost spots in the pits – neither of which happened.

Bourdais on top. Photo: IndyCar

Even if the circumstances of today’s win could be called lucky, the overall story of the two units syncing up together for the win is a good one.

That 2003 race for Bourdais was one he nearly won on debut, but a mistake on his end cost him that chance. He’d never finished better than sixth here since.

“I caught myself thinking about 2003, when obviously we started the opposite. We dominated the weekend, were on pole, cleared the field, then all hell broke loose,” Bourdais said. “I found myself tapping the wall in turn eight, threw it away.

“It was kind of redemption day here. To come out on top with obviously a lot of friends and family on-site, the whole community supporting the effort, it was just a great feeling. I couldn’t really be any happier for Honda and Dale for giving me the opportunity to put the band back together and make it happen.

“Everybody works really, really hard. We’re a small group. There is nobody at the shop that doesn’t travel. But it works. It’s a great little group. We’re sure not going to stop there. We’re just going to keep on trying.”

In Bourdais’ case, his win was the 36th of his career and moves him into sixth place on the all-time list, surpassing Bobby Unser, and it’s his fifth since returning to IndyCar in 2011, then with Coyne. He won once with KVSH Racing in 2014 and 2016 and twice in 2015, so this marks his first win with Coyne’s team.

Bourdais and Craig Hampson. Photo: IndyCar

Bourdais, who enjoyed his greatest and most consistent success with Newman/Haas Racing and engineer Craig Hampson in the Champ Car days, said he savors this win more now because the opportunities to achieve them are rare.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment as much as I can, because for sure in those years with Newman/Haas, there’s one thing I didn’t do very much, partly because I was chasing F1 and a lot of other things, but at the end of the day I didn’t savor those moments as much as I probably should have,” he said.

“I try to do a better job with that because, first of all, they don’t come around that many times a year. Second, it’s when it’s over that you realize it was that special. Try and suck up the moment, yeah, just really savor those because they’re very special.”

For Coyne, the win is a change of pace at St. Petersburg from the team’s results in recent years, thanks in large part to actually having the program settled months earlier for the first time in a while.

Justin Wilson scored three straight top-10s from 2012 to 2014 at St. Petersburg and scored the team’s best finish at the track in 2009, in his team debut, when he finished third.

But as recently as two years ago, Coyne only barely made St. Petersburg with the lesser rated Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone as drivers, Dracone having not even had an aero kit at the series’ preseason spring training test at Barber Motorsports Park.

This year was different. Coyne was already exploring his 2017 driver lineup in the summer during July and into August, announced Bourdais in October and then added rookie Ed Jones as the Dubai-based Brit stepped up after winning the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

Coyne said when he’d confirmed Bourdais that he hoped his race team could be the equivalent of a certain baseball team in Chicago; the Cubs shed their “lovable losers” label with their World Series win in the fall, and Coyne looks to do likewise in IndyCar this year.

“He was looking for a home as soon as he won the championship. We talked to him at earlier, I think starting at Mid-Ohio last year. We were able to get that done,” Coyne said of Jones.

“At the same time we got Sebastien’s done. It was nice to get them both done. We have the engineering, the chief mechanic, the team manager, have all your people in place, so that you can hit the ground.

“It’s a long off-season. We didn’t want to waste any time. We were able to have all of it done right at the beginning of the off-season. I think that’s paid off. It’s nice continuity for the team. Just makes everything that we do that much more efficient.”

Bourdais added, “That’s the thing. It was not starting from zero. It was not scrap everything and start over again. Obviously there was a lot of very valid and useful things that had been put in place by Darren and Cannon. We added to that. We didn’t throw anything away.”

Coyne’s team in the pits. Photo: IndyCar

Coyne explained a bit of the magic that goes into his strategy plays. The decision to do what he did today was aided – in a roundabout way – by Bourdais having extra tires available from crashing out in qualifying yesterday.

Asked what Coyne thought of Bourdais’ mistake yesterday, Bourdais laughed and replied, “What an idiot.”

Coyne, whose previous driver Conor Daly called him a “wizard” last year said, “The strategy evolves as the race goes on. Going to be a big yellow in the beginning, a lot of cars are going to pit, leave him out, or he climbs through the field because everybody pits, or is he fast enough to pass six or seven cars? All of those things play in the thing.

“We had a yellow early, stayed out. Gained two positions on that. The first-lap carnage helped us a little bit. He had a hard time getting around Marco. It’s going to be a long day if we try to do sneak-up-to-the-lead strategy.

“Pitting early, the early strategy of the day, pit early, when you’re in the back, you have to do something to leapfrog the field. It hurts us because your last laps are faster. We pitted a lap or two before Simon at the end, and he closed half the gap on us, because he was able to keep going in clean traffic. We had enough of a gap that it was okay.

“You think about the strategy things all day long. You watch the fuel mileage. You tell him different numbers, see what he can hit, work the calculations from there.”

For Bourdais, the win is particularly special because it comes in St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown. He, wife Claire and their children really moved there in 2005 and have made it home.

He and Patrick Long also both co-ran the Kart 4 Kids Pro/Am in Palmetto, Fla. earlier this week, both drivers announcing they’d auction off their helmets. Although both were auctioned before the race, two people now have incredibly special souvenirs.

“First time we really moved here was early ’05. We spent two years, two and a half years there, then we went back to Europe, and came back in March of 2012, never really looked back,” Bourdais said.

“The house we got here, we built it, in Shore Acres. With the kids being in school a couple of blocks down the road, you get to make a lot of friends. We have some really good friends. We just lead a very normal life with normal, fun people.

“It’s just awesome to be able to share that with them. They were all excited. Obviously my parents were there, as well. It’s always very, very special to have these kind of moments in front of the ones you love.”

This is a moment Bourdais and the Coyne team will cherish. And the only TBA to be answered from here is whether the team will add more wins this season, perhaps in a more conventional manner.

“The Watkins Glen win (with Wilson) in 2009 was special because it was our first win. The other ones were nice. This is above both. We brought him back from Europe a few years ago. He stayed here ever since,” Coyne said.

“We were hoping we could win a race or two this year. We’re halfway there. Maybe we can do better than that. We’ll see.”

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.