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DiZinno: Barber thoughts, musings, observations

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Having not been at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, the usual post-weekend column is a shorter one by my usual loquacious standards, and comprises some thoughts, musings and observations from both the open-wheel and sports car races held there:

INDYCAR

  • Josef Newgarden’s win in his third start for Team Penske was aided by Will Power’s bad luck and puncture, but it’s still a warning shot to the rest of the field because of how early it comes. Power, in a part-time role, didn’t win his first race for Penske until his fifth start, at Edmonton in 2009. Helio Castroneves scored his first win for Penske at Detroit in his seventh, at Detroit in 2000. Simon Pagenaud took the longest, in his 19th start at Long Beach last year. With the first win out of the way, more should follow, and quickly for the driver that’s highly touted and now just seven points out of the points lead after three races.
  • Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud are maximizing their results as best they can without winning. Neither driver has gotten the headlines they’ve deserved but they’re finishing smart from a championship perspective. And for good measure, they head to Phoenix next week having gone 1-2 there last year… although we expect a Dixon encore to be harder as the Honda aero kit is not expected to be as strong as Chevrolet’s on the short ovals.
  • By contrast, Will Power can’t buy a break. Here’s Power’s last 12 finishing positions in order, dating to Detroit race two, last year: 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 8, 20, 20, 19, 13, 14. In a series where finishing in the same positions or close is so hard given the competitive nature of the field, quite how Power has alternated a sublime stretch of first or seconds and then been hit by this recent run of five straight sub-13th place finishes is a damn statistical anomaly.
  • Dale Coyne Racing is human. The four top-10s in four combined starts for Dale Coyne Racing between Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones to start 2017 was impressive as hell, and also unsustainable. Coyne came down to Earth slightly with Bourdais rallying to a hard fought eighth place despite a weekend off pace by his desired standards, while Jones’ race was compromised on the first lap out of his control. Phoenix will be a tough test for these guys next week, and a pair of top-12 finishes would be excellent results there.
  • Fernando Alonso was everywhere. As could be expected, the Spaniard dominated the media landscape, broadcast booths and cameras on cellphones Sunday at Barber. With “Alonsobama” in the books, the balance between covering the excitement over his arrival – which is real, justified and awesome – and not overlooking the other full-timers and one-off entries will be something to monitor over the next month.
  • Barber’s crowd uptick: From the track: 3-day attendance of 82,745, ticket revenue increase more than 10 percent over ’16. That’s good news.
  • Other quick thoughts… Good on Alexander Rossi pulling a fifth place rabbit out of his hat after starting 18th, while it was tough going for James Hinchcliffe to lose a possible podium with an off-course excursion and drop to sixth. The fact both drivers could be disappointed with those results speaks volumes of how strong their teams are…. Mikhail Aleshin maintained his aggression with yet another hard battle today on the last lap, this time with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Some in the paddock rate the “Mad Russian” as overly worthy of that nickname and while Charlie Kimball got all the flack after Long Beach, it’s worth noting how many incidents Aleshin always seems to find himself in. Not that that’s a bad thing for a series in need of a “bad guy…” speaking of Kimball, good to see him survive the first lap without incident but it was hard to figure their off-sequence strategy late. They were always going to need another stop for fuel… tough end for Spencer Pigot to lose a potential top-10, while Zach Veach ticked the right boxes on debut… starting to worry Max Chilton has adopted a Harry Potter-esque “invisibility cloak” through three races.
Alonso was everywhere Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With three straight wins in USF2000, it’s fair to call Oliver Askew’s run of form an “Ask-kicking” on the rest of the field. The new Tatuus USF-17 chassis was meant to level the playing field and Cape Motorsports hasn’t had it all its own way; Team Pelfrey, Exclusive Autosport, Pabst Racing, Newman Wachs Racing and even DEForce Racing are showing signs of podium potential. But Askew has been next level good so far, both in terms of his raw pace in qualifying and racecraft and defending from the front. You can tell the coaching and integration working with JJRD, Inc. is paying dividends for one of open-wheel’s best prospects in years.
  • Even despite Askew’s dominance, the top-five have been consistent in USF2000. Askew, Team Pelfrey’s standout 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, third-year driver Parker Thompson and Dutch rookie Rinus Van Kalmthout all have four top-five finishes in as many races. Only Robert Megennis (St. Pete winner), Luke Gabin and Toby Sowery (Benik debutante this weekend) have cracked the top-five beyond those four.
  • Seeing Andretti Autosport’s improvement in Indy Lights is excellent. For a team lost with the Dallara IL-15 Mazda two years ago and only able to occasionally punch above its weight last year with Dean Stoneman, what Andretti has done out of the gate has been very solid, thanks to its engineering strength. Colton Herta looks the real deal with a dominant win Sunday while Nico Jamin flaunted his unquestioned pace and racecraft on Saturday. The Frenchman has now won three races in just over a month, having also swept the first two LMP3 class races in IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda at Sebring in March (more on that series in a minute). Sophomore Dalton Kellett has been closer to the front and rookie Ryan Norman is showing signs of growth.
  • Another driver with a better start to 2017 is Carlin’s Neil Alberico. The Californian added a solid third and fourth weekend in Barber to his first career podium at St. Petersburg. Between working with engineer Geoff Fickling and driver coach Jack Harvey, it looks like Alberico’s nightmare rookie season is behind him.
  • Other quick thoughts… Kyle Kaiser raced smart this weekend with a pair of seconds, but he needs to find that last fraction more speed to get back to winning… Belardi Auto Racing came down to Earth a bit. Four top-fives in St. Petersburg ceded to just one for Aaron Telitz on Sunday, with fifth, and even that one felt a bit lucky. Santiago Urrutia can’t seem to catch a break on the first laps. Shelby Blackstock, to his credit, banked solid seventh and eighth places and has started nicely with four top-10 finishes in as many races… similarly Juncos rookie Nico Dapero has four quiet top-10s and no major mistakes…. DEForce did well to bank its first double top-10 in USF2000 race two as Kory Enders and Moises de la Vara were seventh and ninth in race two…. Pelfrey’s third driver, Ayla Agren, banked a pair of eighths in Barber but she still is fractionally behind her two younger and less experienced teammates…. Sowery, Darren Keane and Flinn Lazier impressed in their debut weekends, while Bayley Mickler had a tough go of it. Bruna Tomaselli also acquitted herself well in her step up to the new Tatuus USF-17.

SPORTS CARS

The Global MX-5 Cup field assembled, under INDYCAR sanction, for first time. Photo: MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher swept the pair of Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races. The veteran out of Thornville, Ohio executed well in both races and seized his opportunity for the McCumbee McAleer Racing team, in its No. 29 MX-5. Gallagher has won a season opener before, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
  • It was a new weekend for MX-5 in a way, as the series made its debut under INDYCAR sanctioning and Andersen Promotions umbrellas. More than 30 cars competed during the weekend and despite a few heavy accidents, the series did put on its traditional form of close, wheel-to-wheel, bumper-to-bumper racing. There were a couple inevitable first-weekend hiccups and it took a bit of adjusting to hear IndyCar Radio venture into calling the oft-complex world of sports car racing, but they figure to come up to speed more on MX-5 as the year progresses.
  • Like Gallagher, another Mazda Road to Indy alum in Jake Eidson swept the weekend in IMSA’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama series. The talented driver and Haywood Scholarship recipient out of Littleton, Col. was racing with a special cause on his No. 24 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, Racing for Children’s, which raises money for The Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, along with other Children’s initiatives.
  • IMSA’s Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda races saw lanky star Kenton Koch win for P1 Motorsports in his series return in race one, while Andres Gutierrez took a win for Performance Tech Motorsports in race two within the LMP3 class. Kyle Masson continued his incredible start to 2017 with two more wins for Performance Tech in the MPC class, the former P Lites cars, which Koch drove to the series championship in 2015.
  • The busiest man on the ground this weekend might have been my colleague and friend Ryan Myrehn, who wound up shifting from not planning to attend to the race to getting a call-up for two sets of announcing calls. When Zach Veach got his IndyCar call, it left the aforementioned Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network needing to find its own fill-in and they found one in Michigan U.P. veteran-turned-Indianapolis resident Myrehn, who had done a one-off at Road America last year (coincidentally, a weekend when I called Veach’s Indy Lights win). Myrehn wasted no time in getting acclimated calling IndyCar and Indy Lights sessions for IndyCar Radio all weekend, then shifting back to his natural habitat of sports car racing with last-minute calls in the booth of the IMSA.TV web stream for the PC and GT3 Sunday races. Myrehn’s developed rapidly as a writer and podcast co-host for Sportscar365.com and he seized his opportunity on the ground this weekend from a radio standpoint.

IndyCar is back in action in just five days at Phoenix, while the Mazda Road to Indy is off until the IMS road course weekend in mid-May. MX-5’s next race is also at the IMS road course, but in mid-June with SVRA. For IMSA, Porsche runs next at COTA in early May and PC runs next at Watkins Glen in July.

Lauda: Halo decision has ‘destroyed’ push to bring fans to F1

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Niki Lauda believes the decision to introduce the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection to Formula 1 for 2018 has “destroyed” efforts to make the sport more appealing to fans.

The FIA announced on Wednesday that all cars would be fitted with the Halo from next season as part of its push to improve safety standards and prevent head injuries.

The Halo was extensively tested through 2016, but has not featured since last year’s finale in Abu Dhabi, with the ‘Shield’ concept being trialled – albeit unsuccessfully – at Silverstone.

There was a large amount of outcry online from fans following the Halo announcement, and three-time F1 world champion Lauda has also condemned the decision.

“We tested the Halo, the Red Bull ‘Aeroscreen’ and Ferrari’s Shield as cockpit protection. None has convinced me 100 per cent,” Lauda told Auto Motor und Sport in Germany.

“You have to make the right decision in such a situation. The Halo is the wrong one.

“The FIA has made Formula 1 as safe as it gets. Also the danger of flying wheels is largely eliminated, because the wheels are always more firmly attached.

“The risk to the drivers has become minimal.”

Lauda stressed that introducing Halo would only serve to turn fans away from F1, despite the sport’s best efforts in recent years to try and draw them back in.

“We are just trying hard to get new fans for the sport with fast cars and getting closer to the spectators,” Lauda said.

“Now this is destroyed by an overreaction.”

Hamilton plans to see out Mercedes F1 contract to end of 2018

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Lewis Hamilton is planning to see out his Mercedes Formula 1 contract until at least the end of the 2018 season despite reports suggesting that he may consider quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Hamilton clinched his fifth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone last weekend, drawing to within one point of F1 drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the process.

Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is up at the end of next season, but speculation had emerged suggesting that a move to Ferrari could be of interest for the Briton as he nears the end of his career, or that he could even opt to retire from racing.

Hamilton said in a press conference after the race that he “can’t really say what’s going to happen six months from now”, as per Reuters, but he was quick to clarify that he expected to see out his contract with Mercedes.

“I just think in life you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hamilton said.

“Right now I love driving and then in six months I might… it’s very unlikely because I think I’m always going to like driving, I’m always going to like doing crazy stuff.

“I’m still enjoying it and I still have a contract with the team for at least a year so I plan to see that out at the moment.

“Even in getting another championship, it will never be: ‘OK, now it’s time to hang up the gloves’. I’ll always want to win more.

“Even when I do stop, something inside me will say I still want to get more.”

Q&A: Andy Meyrick on McLaren GT4, Ligier LMP3 European balance

Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing
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As the international sports car season rolls on, occasionally we’ll check in with drivers who have raced largely in North America but have since set up shop with European programs (Sean Rayhall and Will Owen, who race with United Autosports, are two good examples).

Today we’ll check in with Andy Meyrick, who was with the DeltaWing outfit from 2013 through 2016.

The Englishman is balancing a dual role this year with a McLaren 570S GT4 with the new Bullitt Racing team, established in Spain, run by veteran team manager David Price and co-driving with Stephen Pattrick in the GT4 Series Northern Cup, and also with a Ligier JS P3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup with Motorsport 98 and co-driver Eric De Doncker, a Belgian sports car veteran who is that team’s owner.

Meyrick helmet. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Thus far there’s been four races in the McLaren with five to go – three more in the Northern Cup and two in the south – and more races to come in the Ligier after late start for races in Monza and Le Mans, the latter as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race week. Meyrick heads to the Red Bull Ring this weekend for the next round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup season.

For a driver who hasn’t too regularly been in pro-am lineups, Meyrick is now balancing two pro-am roles simultaneously and loving going back and forth between prototypes and GT cars in two of the emerging categories on a worldwide stage.

MST: It’s certainly been a change for you this year with a hectic schedule and two programs. How has it all come together?

Andy Meyrick: “To be honest, it’s been fantastic. There’s no restriction on testing in either series, so with multiple programs, we’re out all the time, especially in the McLaren.

“For me, it’s a completely new arena really. I’ve very done little pro-am racing to be honest. I’d been with Aston, Bentley and DeltaWing with pro-pro lineups. It was a new experience to do the pro-am stuff. I was a bit unsure of how to approach it in the first place. I’d done a bit with Gulf in a McLaren.

“But I love it as both programs are growing. When I sat down with the team that I’d do the GT4 program with them, they hinted GT4 is gonna explode, it’ll be the next GT3… and I wasn’t too sure it’d be the case. But I’m gobsmacked at the level GT4 is at, with how often you can go racing, how good the championship is and how well it’s run. It’s good to be in this market.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: With a guy like Stephen in the McLaren, how have you helped and aided his development?

AM: “It’s been pretty amazing. Stephen, before the season, I’d known him since he was a guest in 2011 when I was with Aston Martin. He’d done track days but hadn’t really never done anything else. At the Red Bull Ring, he led outright and a double podium for us, so he’s shown flashes of really fantastic speed, not just for gentlemen but for anybody!

“Sometimes you have to stop and tell yourself, look this is only your third or fourth race weekend! We can go racing, but we also have to accept he has a lack of experience, the speed he’s shown so far, the ability to absorb the information! He’s been thrown deep into the program but he’s shown he’s enjoying and learning it all.”

Bobby Rahal with Dave Price at 2016 Petit Le Mans. Photo courtesy of IMSA

MST: You and ‘Pricey’ have a great relationship. Has it been a natural with him running the McLaren program?

AM: “This one here we entered with a turnkey car, but the team was brand new at the end of 2016. ‘Pricey’ was a huge motivation to want to be there, because I’ve been a big fan of him and with the two of us, it just clicks. He doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking – I just know what he wants. We have such a good relationship. He was a big thing for me to want to be involved with it. But it’s great to build something from scratch.

“The team are based near Ascari in south of Spain, so at least once or twice a month we’re there testing. It’s an easy flight from Manchester. It’s easy to forget we’re only a handful of weekends into the team between Misano, Brands Hatch, Red Bull Ring and Slovakiaring. There’s a fair way to go but we’re accomplishing our goals for the team and the races thus far have been phenomenal.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: Of course you also have the LMP3 program as well, also a new outfit…

AM: “Yeah and this one was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I’d known Eric from his driving a Group C car I’d driven a few years back. We talked about LMP3 and I said yeah let’s do something for 2018 after testing this year… and Eric wanted to do it now! We tested April 18-19, he bought the car April 21 and our first race was 12-13 of May! So it put us at Monza and we rolled it straight out of the truck from Ligier and finished fifth! Save for a drive through we would have been on the podium the first race. Eric’s very experienced and it’s been a pleasure.

“We went to Le Mans and we’d started the second race from the back owing to a probelm, but went from 49th to 9th in the second race at Le Mans. We’ve shown tremendous pace given how little we’ve done with the car. We have the Red Bull Ring this weekend, and it’s coming back to where I got two podiums in the GT4 a few weeks ago.

“The DeltaWing’s a prototype but not in the traditional sense, so before that the last prototype I’d been in was the old Lola Aston and the AMR-ONE, both in 2011. I’ll admit a few years ago when I read about LMP3, you’re sort of rolling your eyes at another class, series, that can cloud the market. But to be honest it’s brilliant and fantastic. It’s cost-effective for what it is but cheap for prototype and endurance racing. You get such good service out of it.”

The No. 98 Motorsport 98 Ligier JS P3 of Meyrick and De Doncker at Le Mans. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: When you do have such disparate cars as an LMP3 Ligier and a GT4 McLaren, how do you jostle between the two of them?

AM: “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, jumping from car to car, as you don’t see too many doing it anymore. I think it’s a big skill. The GT3 Bentley and DeltaWing couldn’t get any further apart! You’re going from a GT3 with ABS, TC and some weight compared to a very light prototype. But you make the adaptations quite quick, otherwise you spend the first laps of every weekend trying to get up to speed with the groove of each car.

“If you’re a driver, part of marketing yourself is being in as many cars as possible to get the most track time. I’ve always looked up at a guy like Stephane Sarrazin for example, who goes from rally to LMP1 car, and you’re constantly learning. If you’re in different environments and packages, you’re open to different engineers and approaches.”

Meyrick and Pattrick’s No. 33 Bullitt Racing McLaren 570S GT4. Photo courtesy Andy Meyrick Racing

MST: How close were you to any U.S. programs this year and should we hope to see you back Stateside racing soon?

AM: “I was very close to two programs in the U.S., one in IMSA and one in PWC, but unfortunately neither came together. That said, I enjoy racing in the States so much more than Europe.

“I pinch myself every time I go to a race in America when you think, ‘Mate, I get paid to do this, fly across the Atlantic and driver a race car.’ I love the environment of the States, the circuits, as it’s not just a circuit, but the variety. You go from the streets of Long Beach to the flowing Road America which is just stunning.

“I want to be back over there and perhaps attend one race tail end of this year. Those two championships are both looking amazing as usual.

“Otherwise it was cool to see my mate Jack Harvey racing in the Indy 500 this year. As he was teammates with Fernando Alonso that was so cool! It was ace to see, as he’s had a rough couple years and he’s a huge talent, and one of the nicest guys around the paddock. He’s done a fantastic job and committed to his craft.

“Ideally we’re both back racing in the U.S. sooner rather than later.”

Wehrlein: Sauber F1 set for big C36 upgrade in Hungary

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Sauber is set to bring a sizeable update for its C36 Formula 1 car to the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, according to driver Pascal Wehrlein.

Sauber has been battling at the back of the grid throughout 2017 after years of financial difficulties, limiting the development of its new car.

The team is racing with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit, putting it on the back foot compared to its rivals, but it currently sits P9 in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Wehrlein confirmed that Sauber would be bringing a sizeable update package to Budapest, and was positive about the boost it may offer.

“For Budapest we are set for a big upgrade. Almost all the car, or all the aero side, will be new, so that should give us a good performance boost,” Wehrlein said.

“If what the data shows really can materialize we could be on a good go.”

Wehrlein has endured a rocky season so far, missing the opening two races through injury before leading Sauber to eighth place in Spain, as well as taking another point in Baku.

“It is no secret that my start to the season was very difficult. The injury matter was pretty tough,” Wehrein said.

“Going to Australia and not driving was hard and having to skip China was another notch on the ‘horror scale’.

“The start to 2017 in Bahrain was not bad. It felt like I had never been away, never been injured. The first qualifying took me to Q2 and I nearly finished in the points with P11, with the Sauber car!

“Since then it is going smoothly and pretty much in the right direction. Twice I scored points, with the clear highlight of Barcelona, which was exceptional for us finishing in P7, even if with the penalty it was finally P8.

“But imagine: P7 with the Sauber! Yes there have been difficult races since then, but we knew that this would happen.”