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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

After ‘rough start’ to 2017, Raikkonen responds with Russia podium

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Kimi Raikkonen was pleased to put a “rough start” to the 2017 Formula 1 season behind him by charging to third place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Raikkonen entered the Sochi weekend with half the points of Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel, having seen the German driver claim two wins and one second-place finish in the opening three rounds of the year.

Raikkonen had failed to hit the podium in F1 since the Austrian Grand Prix in July, but nearly scored his first F1 pole for nine years on Saturday after running Vettel close in qualifying.

Despite slipping behind eventual race winner Valtteri Bottas at the start, Raikkonen was able to keep Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton back early on before enduring a rather lonely race en route to third place.

“I think I have had a bit of a rough start to the season, far from ideal. This weekend for sure has been a step forward,” Raikkonen said on the podium after the race.

“We’ve been more happy with how things have been running, but we still only finished third. We lost out off the start and then not an awful lot happened after that.

“We keep trying and keep improving, I’m sure we’ll get there. It’s all about all the small details have to be exactly there, then you will get the first place, because the four of us are very close most of the time.

“It’s a small difference that makes a big difference in the end.”

Despite clinching a double podium with Vettel and Raikkonen in P2 and P3 respectively, Ferrari lost the lead of the constructors’ championship in Russia as Bottas’ victory pushed Mercedes one point clear.

Vettel heaps praise on ‘man of the race’ Bottas after Russia F1 win

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Sebastian Vettel was quick to heap praise upon Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas following the Finn’s maiden Formula 1 victory in Russia on Sunday.

Vettel entered the race in Sochi chasing his third win of the season from pole position, only for Bottas to blast past him on the run to Turn 2 on the opening lap.

Bottas was able to pull clear through the first stint before Vettel reeled the Mercedes driver in during the closing stages, with the Ferrari looking faster on the super-soft tire.

Vettel eventually fell 0.6 seconds shy of Bottas at the flag, but was full of praise for the first-time winner despite missing out on victory himself.

“I obviously tried everything to catch Valtteri, I thought there might be some kind of opportunity on the back straight,” Vettel explained.

“I was sure [Felipe Massa, who was being lapped] would lift around Turn 3, it’s flat out, and let me by so I wouldn’t lose much time. But then I think just wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and ended up losing a bit more than I was hoping for.

“In the end it doesn’t matter. I think this is the man of the race today, big congrats to Valtteri, his first grand prix win. It’s his day.

“I think we tried everything, but obviously we lost the race at the start, which was a bit of a shame. I had a good start. I think our start was probably a match to Valtteri, maybe he gained a bit of momentum at the beginning, but then he had a massive tow.

“I defended the inside, but by the time we approached braking he was already in front and able to shut the door on me, so well done. That’s where he won the race, and then he did a superb first stint, I couldn’t stay with him.

“He was very, very quick all race, no mistakes. As I said, man of the race.”

Despite finishing second, Vettel managed to extend his championship lead to 13 points in Russia after closest-rival Lewis Hamilton ailed to fourth place in the second Mercedes.

Bottas: First F1 win feels ‘amazing’, worth the 81-race wait

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Valtteri Bottas made no secret of his delight after scoring his first Formula 1 race win in Russia on Sunday, beating Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen to victory at the Sochi Autodrom.

In just his fourth race for Mercedes, Bottas charged from third place on the grid to seize the lead at the start en route to his maiden grand prix victory, coming on his 81st start.

Bottas made his F1 debut back in 2013 with Williams, and had not won a race since a British Formula 3 round at Donington Park in 2011 before today’s breakthrough.

“Amazing. It took quite a while, more than 80 races for me, but definitely worth the wait and worth the learning curve,” Bottas said after the race.

“This strange opportunity came to me in the winter to join this team, and they made it possible today, so really want to thank the team. Without them it wouldn’t be possible. It feels amazing.”

The result marked Mercedes’ second win of the season and sees the German marque re-claim the lead of the constructors’ championship, moving one point clear of Ferrari.

“We’ve had a tricky beginning of the year. The fight with Ferrari, again today, was very close,” Bottas said.

“We managed to be on top, but we have to keep pushing. We have to keep finishing with both cars all the time one and two.

“Just very, very happy now.”

Bottas takes maiden F1 victory in Russia despite late Vettel charge

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Valtteri Bottas became Formula 1’s newest winner after dominating Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Mercedes, leading home Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen at the Sochi Autodrom on Sunday.

In what was something of a slow-burner in Sochi, Bottas managed to seize the lead from pole-sitter Vettel at the start before perfecting the restart after a safety car period to create a healthy buffer that acted as the foundation for his first F1 victory.

Despite a late charge from Vettel – chasing his third win of the season – in the closing stages, Bottas was able to hang on and become the fifth Finnish driver to claim a grand prix victory, coming in just his fourth race for Mercedes.

Ferrari’s advantage in qualifying was quickly overturned at the start when Bottas managed to get a slipstream on both Vettel and Raikkonen, allowing him to pass ahead of Turn 2. Vettel settled down in second ahead of Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton, but the race was quickly neutralized following a clash between Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer that sparked a safety car period.

Bottas managed to perfect the restart once the incident had been cleared to quickly gap Vettel, opening up a three-second lead in the laps that followed. Hamilton was doing his best to keep in touch with Raikkonen in third, only for Mercedes to confirm that his car was overheating, forcing him to ease off his pace.

The battle for fifth also took a twist in the early stages of the race when Daniel Ricciardo suffered a brake failure, forcing him to retire from the race. Max Verstappen was able to move ahead of Felipe Massa off the line, giving Red Bull something to be upbeat about, but hopes of the podium remained slim.

Bottas’ lead stood at around five seconds after 20 laps, but his lead soon began to fall. A mixture of both traffic and tire blistering allowed Vettel to gain time hand-over-fist as the first round of pit stops neared, moving to within three seconds of the Finnish driver.

Bottas was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in for a new set of super-soft tires at the end of Lap 27. Mercedes serviced Bottas quickly, but Ferrari did not react immediately, instead choosing to keep Vettel out in the hope that the ‘overcut’ would play into his hands again as it did in Australia.

Ferrari eventually pulled the trigger on Lap 34, bringing Vettel in to make the switch to super-soft tires after seeing Raikkonen lay down an impressive pace after changing compound a few laps earlier. With Bottas struggling to match the pace of the Ferraris on the super-softs, the Finn’s stranglehold on the race looked weaker than before despite being back in the lead.

Vettel made up yet more time with 13 laps to go when Bottas ran wide at Turn 13, appearing to struggle with his front-left tire and lock up. The mistake allowed Vettel to close to within two seconds, setting the stage for a fight to the flag.

Vettel managed to find some clear air between traffic and move around a second behind Bottas with four laps to go. Bottas kept getting a good exit from the final corner, ensuring Vettel did not get DRS at first, making it difficult for the Ferrari driver to pull a pass.

A good lap saw Vettel finally dip under the one second margin and get the DRS boost with two laps to go. With Bottas also coming across traffic, the pair were separated by just a few car lengths heading onto the final lap.

Bottas was offered a late bonus when he came across Felipe Massa, running a lap down, and was able to use DRS himself. Massa also made life difficult for Vettel behind, allowing Bottas to move clear once again.

It proved to be the final act in an exciting finish, with Bottas coming through to secure his maiden grand prix victory and give Mercedes its second win of the year. Vettel was left to settle for P2, but extended his lead in the drivers’ championship in the process to 13 points.

Kimi Raikkonen endured a rather lonely finish to the race, crossing the line third to pick up his first podium finish of the year. He finished over 15 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton, whose difficult weekend came to a quiet end in P4, over 20 seconds down on the race winner.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge alone in fifth place following Ricciardo’s early retirement, while Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon continued Force India’s record of getting both cars into the points at every race, the pair finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

Nico Hulkenberg was able to follow his first points for Renault in Bahrain with a second charge into the top 10, finishing eighth. Felipe Massa had looked set to finish sixth, only for a slow puncture to force him into a late second stop, leaving him P9 at the flag. Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the points for Toro Rosso in 10th.

Lance Stroll recorded his first race finish in F1, crossing the line 11th in the second Williams, while home favorite Daniil Kvyat was left to settle for 12th. Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne finished 13th and 14th respectively for Haas and McLaren, both having been hit with penalties for exceeding track limits on the opening lap. Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein finished 15th and 16th respectively for Sauber, closing out the classified running order.

Fernando Alonso’s struggles with McLaren-Honda hit a new low just before the race started when he suffered a power unit failure on the formation lap, forcing him to abandon his car at pit entry. It went down as his first ‘Did Not Start’ since the 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which curiously will be his next destination for his IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport on Wednesday.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.