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IndyCar on NBCSN 2017 season preview with Townsend Bell

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The Verizon IndyCar Series hits the streets of Long Beach this weekend for Round 2 of the season, for the first of 12 races you’ll see on NBCSN this season. NBCSN carries Rounds 2 through 4 from Long Beach, Barber and Phoenix, and resumes from Round 9 in Texas through to the season finale, Round 17, at Sonoma.

IndyCar on NBCSN analyst Townsend Bell checks in again with NBCSports.com for a few predictions and thoughts heading into the year. Coverage from Long Beach begins with free practice two on Friday at 5 p.m. ET, with qualifying coverage Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET and live race coverage on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET, all on NBCSN. Tune-in and streaming details are here.

An archive of previous “Ten with Townsend” Q&A pieces can be found here – and here is a 10-question Q&A leading into Long Beach this weekend. As always, we thank Townsend for his time and insights. He’ll be in the booth with Rick Allen and Paul Tracy this weekend.

MST: Were you surprised by Honda’s improvements at the season opener at St. Petersburg? Would you say it’s more from Honda’s engine development or different spec, Chip Ganassi Racing’s switch or a combo of both?

TB: Honda really looked like they had good momentum in the second half of last season and that obviously continued through the off-season. A little more surprising was that the Penske/Chevy combination had not matched the Honda offseason progress to maintain the advantage. But I wouldn’t count them out for long. After all they did have pole (Power) and second place (Pagenaud) at St. Pete. All in all, I think we’re in for the fiercest battle in years for the championship.

MST: How do you think defending champion Simon Pagenaud will fare this year? Did his mindset change much over the course of his title winning season?

TB: I think he’ll be just as strong as 2016. Maybe even a little better on the ovals where he really came alive last season. It’s a process to accumulate the knowledge on ovals and he has served his time.

MST: Of all the driver changes for 2017, seeing Josef Newgarden to Penske and Sebastien Bourdais to Coyne were the big ones. Did you think Bourdais could win this year and if so, did you think it’d be this early straight out of the box?

TB: Amazing to see what Bourdais and Craig Hampson pulled off at St Pete. Good strategy, yes, but the car looked to be worthy of the win as well. A great setup that showed with very “quiet” hands from Bourdais on the steering wheel over St. Pete’s bumpy surface. Ovals have never been Bourdais’ cup of tea but he will push himself to seize the moment, especially if he’s leading or fighting for the points lead. I would not be surprised to see another win at Long Beach. Especially with that Honda oomph down Shoreline Dr.

MST: How much time does it usually take for a driver to adapt into a new team? Explain the process of how a driver integrates in w/his or her new team, engineers, etc.

TB: It can happen overnight (like Bourdais falling back into the groove with his old engineer/team) or it can never really happen. That ‘gel’ or chemistry is essential to delivering the result. You see that in other partnerships for success – i.e. Power/Faustino, Pagenaud/Bretzman, Dixon/Simmons. I think that’s what makes it tough for young drivers. In general, either A. the team thinks they know who is best engineer for them or B. the driver thinks he knows who is best, but the team doesn’t trust the driver yet

MST: How much better should Andretti Autosport be this season with the engineering changes they made? They already had positive signs at St. Pete.

TB: They had to make some changes and it looks like Michael made the right call. I wouldn’t be surprised to see RHR back up his storming drive at St Pete with a podium at Long Beach.

MST: Who’s a driver or two you could see having a breakout season?

TB: Bourdais would be the easy pick. A re-breakout of sorts.. It would also be great to see another American pop from the Pigot, Daly, Rossi, Hildebrand pool. Just can’t put my finger on who just yet.

MST: Who’s under pressure to perform this season?

TB: Newgarden, Daly, Munoz, Rossi. In that order.

MST: The Long Beach race distance is extended this year from 80 to 85 laps. Do you think that will help improve the race to avoid the similar fuel-saving like last year?

TB: Dixon breezed his way to 28-lap stints last year under full green conditions. So 28 x 3= 84. Little yellow and we’ll see some 2 stop gambles for sure.

MST: Long Beach is a home race for you more or less. What’s the magic of Long Beach as one of the crown jewels on the IndyCar schedule?

TB: Spring kick-off in the land of happiness. We like electric cars, organic coffee, and free-range turkey…but deep down, we can’t ignore the basic instinct of man, fire, and war. Bring on the Beach!

MST: Lastly, what kind of tricks do you and PT have up your sleeve for another season of IndyCar on NBCSN?

TB: First step of the planning is getting PT to actually show up for a conference call. Baby steps for ‘Thrilla,’ who ‘chilla’ a bit too much this offseason.


Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.