DiZinno: Phoenix thoughts, musings, observations

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A couple days have passed since the Verizon IndyCar Series’ latest trip to the Desert, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix from Phoenix International Raceway. Here’s a few thoughts that follow:

  • Simon Pagenaud is three-quarters of the way to entering that perfect all-around, complete echelon of driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series that so few drivers officially master. With his first short oval victory in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, Pagenaud now has wins at permanent road courses, street courses and short ovals, leaving only superspeedways as his last type of track to conquer. Pagenaud’s ability to fuel save helped get him the track position he needed in a race where passing was always going to be difficult and an ill-timed caution that caught out the rest of the lead lap cars all but paved the way for the victory. It was an authoritative victory that will stand out in his career much the same as Will Power’s determined wins on the Fontana and Milwaukee ovals do for him. Only Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay among full-time active drivers have both a series championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory on their resume; it’s a club Power and Pagenaud will seek to enter this month.
  • Perhaps more important than JR Hildebrand’s comeback was how excellent of an effort it was by his race engineer, Justin Taylor, to have the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet riding on rails in his first ever oval race as an engineer, finishing third. The ex-Audi LMP1 engineer helped ensure the Ed Carpenter Racing entry rolled off the truck as good as it was in the Phoenix test in February, and they never missed a beat all weekend. The fact Hildebrand could pass, too, also spoke volumes of the race setup and selected downforce levels. Said Hildebrand, “Justin’s been awesome, man. To come into this whole thing and not know the car, we’re at a whole bunch of tracks that he’s not seen. Certainly the oval aspect of it, it’s a lot to get used to. It feels great for me and for I think on behalf of him and the team and some of the new guys that we’ve got to just be able to pull it out here. We knew we had speed here. It’s different to execute in the race in a way that you can stick it on the podium. I think it’s definitely the start of good things to come for us. Hopefully we can get on a little bit of a roll heading into the thick of the season.”
  • These two stories were about the only positive ones on a rough night. With Phoenix’s race position now after Long Beach and Barber this year, this was also the last chance for IndyCar to showcase itself heading into the month of May. There’s something to be said for the last pre-May race before Indianapolis leaving a good mark on the overall season and a follow-the-leader procession with limited passing was not the best showcase. This stands out more because there are so few genuinely forgettable or bad IndyCar races anymore, particularly since the Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced, to where the ones that are rough stick out like a sore thumb.
  • The first-lap accident occurred almost out of desperation. Knowing passing was going to be difficult with the same power/downforce levels as in 2016, despite two tests at the track since, the initial start and restarts were always going to be the best – and perhaps only – good passing opportunities at the track. While the race got away without a major incident last year, Aleshin’s spin and the subsequent aftermath left a major impact on this year’s race before it ever really got going.
  • Mikhail Aleshin is batting 4-for-4 this year, but in a bad way. The “Mad Russian” sustained his fourth incident in as many races, and this time the consequences were direr – and financially unhealthy – for the four other competitors caught up in the Turn 1, Lap 1 accident. Aleshin is talented but his aggression has now affected a full seven drivers just this year – Hildebrand, who was in his first race back from a broken hand, along with Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now the four drivers caught up Saturday in Max Chilton, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais. Charlie Kimball got a lot of grief for his two first lap incidents to kick off 2017, but Aleshin must calm down as the year progresses – for both his own sake and the rest of the field’s.
  • “Bad luck Conor” persists. For a while, Conor Daly was rolling. Using his favorite line on social media, he was flying through the field like a “herd of turtles.” Sadly, after getting up as high as second while running longer on the fuel stint, his gearbox then decided to become one on a pit stop. The result cost him 70-plus laps and resigned him to 14th. After the race he told NBC Sports, “The car was fantastic and so good on the long run. We’re making a lot of progress but it doesn’t show. It’s just about information – we’re taking a lot of steps and we’re learning.”
  • Andretti Autosport’s weird results run. Andretti Autosport has the quirkiest start to 2017. Four finishes in the top-11 in St. Petersburg followed by four DNFs in Long Beach, then three top-13 results in Barber followed by four more DNFs in Phoenix. That’s a run of form that is just simply bizarre to have endured, and figures to shift as the calendar flips to May.
  • Two points tiers are starting to emerge after four races. Just 41 points (159 to 118) separate points leader Pagenaud from sixth-placed Castroneves. Then after a 27-point gap, there’s just 34 points (91 to 57) that cover seventh-placed Will Power to 20th-placed Daly. Power has gone from a three-way tie for 17th to seventh in just two races and seems poised to keep moving up the ladder, while some decently big names – notably Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Rahal, Andretti and Alexander Rossi – are in that second tier looking to make moves in May.
  • Other notes… Helio Castroneves has to feel like opportunities to win keep slipping away. It doesn’t seem real how many lost chances have occurred for him. The usually ebullient Brazilian was despondent by his standards after finishing in fourth place on Saturday…. Nice to see both Ed Carpenter and Charlie Kimball have clean, trouble-free runs to seventh and eighth. Carpenter’s No. 20 team bounced back from a fuel leak on Friday for his first finish in the top-10 since Iowa in 2015, while Kimball had his first top-10 since ending ninth at Sonoma in last year’s season finale.

Today sees a full-day, important Gateway test as the last running before teams set up for the month of May at Indianapolis.

The artist formerly known as the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, now the INDYCAR Grand Prix, on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is next up for the series on Saturday, May 13.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.

Bottas remains confident he can close gap in F1 title race

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MONACO (AP) Valtteri Bottas has put his recent bad luck behind him and remains confident he can close the gap in the Formula One title race at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Finnish driver’s fledgling Mercedes career has been a topsy-turvy one since he joined from Williams as a replacement for F1 champion Nico Rosberg.

He drove brilliantly to win his first career race at the Russian Grand Prix after securing his first ever pole position in Sochi last month. But two weeks ago he was undone by engine problems in practice for the Spanish GP and then failed to finish because of a turbo issue late in the race.

“It’s one to forget for sure. It’s been a bit up and down for me this year,” Bottas said Wednesday at the Monaco GP. “Bad result, good result.”

His other results so far are two third places and one sixth place, putting him 41 points behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and 35 behind three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate.

“The gap to Sebastian, to Lewis, is bigger than I was hoping for this year. But things can change quickly,” Bottas said. “What gives me confidence is that there is still 75 percent of the season left. I feel my best races are ahead this year. I feel I’ve done a good job in some races, but I feel there is more to come to be at a consistently good level.”

Although Bottas has impressed with this speed, he has yet to show the hallmarks of a genuine title contender.

His magnanimous approach goes somewhat against that.

Bottas showed his team ethic by allowing Hamilton past him in Bahrain so that the British driver could chase after Vettel.

He did so again in Barcelona, holding up Vettel for a crucial few laps. That allowed Hamilton to gain some precious seconds on Vettel’s chasing Ferrari. Hamilton won a thrilling race, Vettel was second and Bottas got nothing – except praise for his efforts.

It is a difficult situation for Bottas, who is on a one-year contract and has the added pressure of the demanding Hamilton as a teammate. With 55 race wins to his name, Hamilton is clearly the No. 1 driver, even though the team has not officially said so.

Over the past three years, Hamilton was on an equal footing with Rosberg as they fought each other for the title. This led to tensions and fall outs.

The 27-year-old Bottas is not relishing the prospect of finding himself in a similar position. But it might become inevitable if he does manage to close the gap on Hamilton and turn the title race into a genuine three-way battle.

“I can’t even imagine how it can be after a few years with a teammate battling for the title always. There is respect both ways (with Hamilton), which is good,” Bottas said. “(We are) just enjoying working together and hopefully that will help us in this close fight with Ferrari. It is a team sport anyway, so we need to push forward together.”

It’s hardly the talk of a driver desperate to win the title.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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From the streets of Monte Carlo, Monaco, comes the crown jewel of the Formula 1 season (all times for the weekend via NBC or NBCSN here) this weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix.

And here with the pre-race updates from the paddock are NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales, along with the race crew from the F1 on NBC team who are on site in Monaco.

This is an interesting weekend for Monaco, given the Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battle for race wins and the championship so far in 2017. There’s also the question of whether someone can spring a surprise in Monaco, as has been done on several occasions over the years.

Here’s the show, below:

Brown wants to see F1 back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown would like to see Formula 1 return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the future, saying it would “make sense” for the sport.

The United States Grand Prix was held on the old IMS road course between 2000 and 2007 before dropping off the calendar, with a low point being hit in 2005 when just six cars started the race over tire safety concerns.

IMS re-designed its road course in order to host MotoGP and, from 2014, an IndyCar road course race as a prelude to the Indianapolis 500.

F1 is known to be looking to expand its footprint in the United States following Liberty Media’s takeover of the series, with additional races to the current USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being sought after.

Southern California has also been a talking point; Long Beach’s future has been discussed in the press more so than has Indianapolis, as a consulting firm has been brought in to examine what would be the best case scenario for the city.

Brown has spent a significant amount time this last month in Indianapolis as part of two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 entry, and feels the sport would be wise to push for a return to the Brickyard in the near future.

“I am of the opinion that Formula 1 at IMS works. I think they’ve changed the configuration of the track a little bit,” Brown said during a teleconference on Wednesday.

“I think it makes sense for Formula 1 to be at the world’s greatest racetrack. I think the city of Indianapolis is well catered to take care of Formula 1, just like it did in the past, and the Super Bowl.

“I think the drivers like it. I think Indianapolis is easy to get to geographically. I realize it may not have the glamour of some of the other markets that are being spoken about, but it’s here, it’s ready to go.

“I think economically, given that Liberty is taking a different view on some of their future partnerships, I think there is an opportunity there. Personally I’d like to see it happen.”

J. Douglas Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President, told a group of reporters on site that no talks had been held with Liberty as of yet, and while the circuit would be open to negotiations, it would have to be financially viable.

“I have not had any talks directly with the folks with Liberty or with Formula 1. We’d certainly entertain a conversation,” Boles said.

“We’d have to figure out the economics. That’s why it wasn’t here after 2007; in order for it to come back here, the economics would have to make sense.

“At some level that conversation, Mark Miles [CEO of Hulman & Co., INDYCAR/IMS parent company] and Zak have a really good relationship, I think we’d ultimately lead it through Mark.

“When we redid the road course between 2013 and 2014, one of the things that was important to us was to make sure our road course remained FIA Grade 1, so if that there ever was a point in time where we had the opportunity to host an F1 race, we wouldn’t have to go through a complete renovation of our road course again.

“There’s two tracks in the U.S. that are that. COTA’s one, and we’re the other. So theoretically they could run here.”