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PREVIEW: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – After a three-week break since the season opener, the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to sunny, Southern California for Round 2 of the 2017 season, one of the series’ flagship events in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The break in the schedule hasn’t been devoid of news, with a flurry of testing and other promotional efforts occurring before the schedule really kicks into high gear. Starting this week, there will be three races in four weeks – all on NBCSN (Long Beach times linked here) – in the buildup to the month of May at Indianapolis.

Passing is difficult and cautions are few here, which always places a premium on qualifying. In fact last year, the race ran caution-free. We’ve also had five different winners here in the last five years, with Will Power, Takuma Sato, Mike Conway, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud winning here since 2012. Dixon and Pagenaud have promptly gone on to win the championship later in the same year.

With that as a backdrop, here’s the talking points heading into Long Beach:

2017 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – Talking Points

A longer race, so no fuel saving in theory

Last year’s race was a two-stopper for everyone at 80 laps. This year, the race has been expanded five laps back to 85, which opens it back up to a three-stop potential with one short run.

The 2012 race showcased how good a strategic battle could be here at the 85-lap distance. Will Power led but had to defend from Simon Pagenaud, who was on newer tires and closed dramatically in the final laps to try to overtake him. Power held on for the victory over Pagenaud, in what was both his and James Hinchcliffe’s (finished third) first career podium finish in IndyCar.

Honda’s strength in numbers

So all the preseason words written about how another Chevrolet whitewash would occur were promptly blown away at St. Petersburg. Honda had its upgraded engine, the same spec it ran from the Indianapolis 500 onwards, in at St. Pete for the first time and coupled with the engineering expertise added to most of its five teams on the grid, suddenly Honda was a proper force, and looked the dominant manufacturer for the first time on a street circuit since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits in 2015.

It said something that four Honda cars made it into the Firestone Fast Six compared to two Chevrolets. Honda never got more than three cars into the Fast Six in any one race in 2016, and in 2015, only had five total Fast Six appearances the whole season. So that spoke to Hondas executing both on pace and grip level on the Firestone red alternate tires, and with Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports all getting at least one driver into the Fast Six, the parity was spread. Had he not had his incident, Sebastien Bourdais’ practice pace suggested a Fast Six run of his own was possible for Dale Coyne Racing.

Qualifying will again be key here this weekend and if the Hondas maintain their dominance in qualifying as they did at the street course in St. Petersburg, it could be a long afternoon for the Chevrolet camp.

Bourdais’ magic start and chance to recapture more old glory

It used to be Sebastien Bourdais would turn up at Long Beach and it was game over for the rest of the competition. Bourdais won three straight on the streets of Long Beach from 2005 through 2007, those wins helping to set sail for his eventual championship seasons.

Winning from last to first at St. Petersburg in his return to Dale Coyne Racing, getting the band back together was a great story… but it was also lucky. There’s a reason you have to go back several years to find the last driver to do so, in Dixon at Mid-Ohio in 2014. The stars aligned perfectly there but Bourdais will need any sort of qualifying performance if he’s to have something close to an encore here.

He was one of few drivers able to make passes here last year, though. Then driving the No. 11 KVSH Racing Chevrolet, Bourdais advanced from 14th on the grid to ninth in the race. That stood out when the top eight on the grid also finished in the top eight in the race, albeit not necessarily in the same order as they qualified. But if Bourdais can get into the Fast Six, a second straight podium in the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda is more than possible.

Pagenaud vs. Dixon, the encore

Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon haven’t really been perceived as top rivals but the last two series champions are coming into Long Beach with respective chips on their shoulders after both St. Petersburg and this race last year.

How so, you ask? Consider 12 months ago, Pagenaud’s questionable – but as it was deemed by INDYCAR, not illegal – re-entry from the pit exit drew sharp criticisms from the normally mild mannered Dixon, who’d felt he lost a sure win as he thought Pagenaud committed a violation. Meanwhile this win took Pagenaud off the winless list at Team Penske and helped to springboard his title run.

Flash forward to St. Petersburg. Pagenaud, like Bourdais, benefited from the yellow flag timing to vault forward from a poor starting position of 14th. Dixon was among those who didn’t pit beforehand, got shuffled to the back, and then managed to scythe his way back to a podium. But again, Dixon was aggrieved at a result lost.

It’s not being billed as a rivalry the way Pagenaud and Will Power’s was after contact here in 2014, before they were teammates, but if Pagenaud and Dixon wind up close to each other on Sunday, don’t think Dixon won’t be chomping at the bit to get around the defending champion and not be stuck staring at his rear wing.

A sneaky win or podium sleeper? It might be Sato…

There’s not many tracks where you think of Takuma Sato and win potential but Long Beach is one of them. Consider he should have been on the podium in 2012 before being nerfed off track by Ryan Hunter-Reay, then winning his first and thus far only race a year later, and scoring a solid top-five here last year, hounding Juan Pablo Montoya towards the finish. Despite an incident in practice at St. Petersburg, Sato rebounded nicely in the race. On paper, this could be a good weekend for the driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

An important weekend for the young guns

After mixed season-opening weekends in St. Petersburg, these questions occur for the younger set of drivers in the field (five years or fewer experience):

  • Is this the weekend for Josef Newgarden to score his first podium or better with Team Penske?
  • Can JR Hildebrand get ahead of Spencer Pigot, or will Pigot put together a second better weekend at Ed Carpenter Racing to kick off his sophomore season?
  • Will Alexander Rossi be able to make his first Firestone Fast Six after a weekend where he started eighth and missed a potential top-five at St. Petersburg, owing to the yellow timing and a slow puncture?
  • At a track where he’s won in Indy Lights and starred in a last-minute call-up two years ago, will Conor Daly be able to start higher up the grid, or will Carlos Munoz stay fractionally ahead in the battle of A.J. Foyt’s two young guns?
  • Was Max Chilton’s seventh place in qualifying at St. Petersburg or a mirage or a sign of greater things to come?
  • Can rookie Ed Jones back up his 10th place at St. Petersburg or will he fall further down the order?

The final word

From the defending race and series champion, Pagenaud: “Long Beach is a special event for me. I really like the whole California vibe. There’s just a different feeling in the air there. The St. Pete race allowed us to make a lot of points right away in our championship quest and it is what the Menards Chevrolet team does so well. We’ve done some testing during the break which has gone well. The whole team is very hungry. Long Beach has been kind to me and especially last year when we got my first Team Penske win. We’re ready for the street fight.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, April 7
10-10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2-2:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, NBCSN (Live)

Saturday, April 8
10:45-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:30 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series qualifications); NBCSN (taped at 4:30 p.m.)

Sunday, April 9
9-9:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1 p.m. – NBCSN on air
1:23 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command
1:30 p.m. – Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (85 laps/167.28 miles), streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live); NBCSN

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Scott Dixon
3. Helio Castroneves (pole)
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Takuma Sato
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Will Power
8. James Hinchcliffe
9. Sebastien Bourdais
10. Josef Newgarden

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Scott Dixon
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. Will Power

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.