Alonso’s first test day Indy both real and spectacular (VIDEO)

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For parts of three years, there has been a part of Fernando Alonso frequently absent from his physical being: his smile.

But that was back in full on Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on an important and productive afternoon in his first day in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the sixth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Following Marco Andretti’s shakedown this morning, Alonso completed 110 laps at the 2.5-mile oval, just 27 fewer than he’s completed in four Grands Prix (50 in Australia, 33 in China and 54 in Bahrain, before failing to start in Russia) this season as power unit woes have saddled the otherwise promising reunion of McLaren and Honda.

The 275 miles completed brought the smile and more back to Alonso on his first day in an IndyCar, because the program outlined took on multiple components.

He first had to complete the Rookie Orientation Program, which had been moved up for him to today to get that complete as a rookie test day allotted per the INDYCAR Rulebook (no different than what Kurt Busch did in 2013, prior to being confirmed for the 2014 race, INDYCAR Race Director Brian Barnhart confirmed on the joint IMS/NBCSN live web stream).

Those saw the methodical speed improvements as he first ran from the 205 to 210 mph range for 10 laps, then 15 laps apiece in the 210 to 215 bracket and 15 more in the 215-plus bracket. He ultimately ended with a best speed of 222.548 mph after 110 laps.

But additionally, the day provided an opportunity for Alonso to get comfortable with the car, the track, the downforce settings, the power unit and the Andretti team from a working setting.

It left Alonso high on life at various points throughout the day.

“It was fun! It was a good way to start to build the speed. It was a little bit difficult at the beginning to meet the minimum,” Alonso told Robin Miller during the joint IMS/NBCSN live stream after his first run in the car. “Now we can put some laps and feel a bit of a the car. Right now the car is driving myself;  I’m not driving the car.

“It was so far a good experience. Now it starts the real deal.”

As track conditions changed, on what was already a cool day with ambient temperatures only hovering in the mid-50-degree range and track temperatures not much warmer, Alonso got a chance to see how the wind affected his running.

Alonso then delivered the early line of the day in his second post-run interview with Miller.

“At the beginning I have to be honest, the right foot has its own brain; it was not connected with my brain!” Alonso laughed. “The right foot has its own life. Right now I’m more in control with my own body.”

After 88 laps it looked like Alonso would be done for the day. Weather appeared to be coming from the West and the team took the car back to Gasoline Alley to make setup changes.

But instead the team shifted from its initial plan. Barnhart explained per the INDYCAR Rulebook that five sets of Firestone tires would be available today for Alonso to run with. Two further sets would be allotted for what when then be termed a refresher program on Monday, May 15, in the two hours that kick off the first day of official practice for the Indianapolis 500. By tapping into a sixth set as the team ultimately did, that limits the number of tires he can run that Monday.

The team, which features team principal Michael Andretti as Alonso’s strategist, technical director Eric Bretzman as his engineer and 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion and two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran as a driver coach, instead coached Alonso through more running where he could simulate yellow flag conditions, different engine maps and pit entries and exits.

Alonso had one close call near the end of the day when entering Turn 3, his two front tires struck two birds. While trying to avoid one, he hit two more.

“I saw one bird approaching Turn 3 in the penultimate run. I just lifted and avoided the bird,” Alonso said in the post-practice press conference. “Hopefully, I avoid that on the race day. I saved one but not the other two. Those two, I didn’t notice.”

But birds aside, the day was a chance for Alonso to acclimate and live out the reality of this dream for the first time – in what already has been an odyssey and in what will continue to be one over the coming 25 days until race day on May 28.

“It felt new to me! It felt strange, going anti-clockwise at those speeds,” Alonso said. “We went through the rookie orientation program at those speeds. It really helps the way you build your speed and get up to speed. Later in the day we were able to do some runs for myself to get familiar with the setup changes. Some of the procedures, even. We had some drops of rain on the visor. We were on the pace car simulation. We did a lot of procedures.

“It’s been a very helpful day in getting to learn all the techniques on driving. I’m happy with this first step.”

Alonso said his prior simulator work with Honda, completed after his trip to Birmingham, Ala. at Barber Motorsports Park and before he flew to Sochi, Russia for last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, provided a more than accurate depiction of what to expect. The only thing that threw him, he said, was how narrow the track is – and that’s without fans.

“I think what I felt in the car was more or less what I expected,” he said. “Thanks to the simulator test in the last couple weeks. It’s quite realistic.

“Now the track, it’s narrower than what I thought. (On) television, you see three cars aside on the straight. Now you’re in a car on the main straight.”

Alonso said once he saw Marco Andretti able to go flat from the off, the racer in him wanted to do the same.

“Marco was flat in Turn 1, so I wanted to do flat in Turn 1,” Alonso said. “I arrived at Turn 1 and I was convinced I was doing flat out… but the foot was not flat out. The brain was not connected with my foot at that moment. But the second lap was very good feeling.

“To be able to feel the respect of the place, the respect of the car, the respect of the speed, is something for any racing driver is pure adrenaline. It was a good day.”

And a day, it turned out, to remember.

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.