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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.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.