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Open-wheel’s most glorious month, May, begins for 2017

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This past weekend featured two major sports car events – the FIA World Endurance Championship had its 24 Hours of Le Mans dress rehearsal at Spa-Francorchamps and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship ran solo at Circuit of The Americas for its first standard-length race of the year – but the month of May is dominated largely by open-wheel racing, and both Formula 1 and Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee events of the season.

Here’s what to look forward to in F1 and IndyCar, as well as the rest of the month ahead:

FORMULA 1

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 10: Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 on track during the final day of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Spanish Grand Prix, Sunday, May 14, 8 a.m. ET, NBCSN

The Spanish Grand Prix this weekend is always the start of F1’s “regular season,” as you were. With the initial four flyaway races done, Spain marks the start of F1’s traditional European stretch that runs through September, and as such represents the race where most teams will have brought the first round of major upgrades.

That makes testing times – eight days were done at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this preseason – perhaps not indicative of what is to come this weekend. Qualifying, as ever, will be imperative and the start just as much to ensure the best possible result at a track not traditionally known for scintillating races and the most number of overtakes.

Alas, there’s a lot of excitement to look forward to. Can Lewis Hamilton rebound after a tough weekend in Russia? Is Ferrari poised to kick the traditional European run off in form? Will Valtteri Bottas follow his dynamic first win in Russia with an encore? Can Red Bull break out of its current solo state beyond the leaders and ahead of the midfield? It all starts this weekend in Barcelona.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO – MAY 29: Top three finishers, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing and Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India on the podium during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 29, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Monaco Grand Prix, Sunday, May 28, 8 a.m. ET, NBC

The crown jewel of the Formula 1 season is also a big one for us at NBC with the crew off to Monaco and the streets of Monte Carlo for the most glamorous Grand Prix of the season, and a race that isn’t necessarily form-following compared to the rest of the year.

Case in point – the race should have been Daniel Ricciardo’s to win last year after his maiden Grand Prix pole, but the Red Bull team’s pit stop mistake in not having his tires set left him a justifiably disgruntled second place, and opened the door for Hamilton. Sergio Perez captured third for Sahara Force India.

Surprise winners rarely happen these days in F1 but they have happened at Monaco in the past, a place where qualifying is key and occasionally rain throws a spanner in the works. There’s also the cool one-off return of 2009 winner and World Champion Jenson Button for McLaren, albeit with points as the only target if the reliability is there.

ALSO: Formula 2 at Spain (May 13/14) and Monaco (May 26/27); GP3 at Spain (May 13/14)

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES

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IndyCar Grand Prix, Saturday, May 13, 3:30 p.m. ET

The final Verizon IndyCar Series race before the Indianapolis 500 is now in its fourth year and is the antidote to the ‘500 in every way, shape and form. Seeing IndyCars on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course still takes some getting used to but has quickly established itself as a laid-back event that’s good for families and a nicer warmup act to track activity than just oval practice.

Simon Pagenaud has won twice before (2014 and 2016) with Will Power (2015) the other winner thus far.

ALSO: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 at IMS road course (May 12/13)

Indianapolis 500 qualifying, Saturday, May 20, 11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. ET, Sunday, May 21, 2:45-5:45 p.m. ET

After a week of practice, qualifying commences for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was more dramatic last year as teams made last-ditch efforts to make it into the Fast Nine for Sunday. Sunday’s runs are more of a formality to set positions. Although with points again awarded for qualifying, there is incentive to gain as many as possible.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, drives on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Indianapolis 500 Carb Day, Friday, May 26, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN

Carb Day is the second most popular day of the month at IMS, with crowds second only to race day as the festival of activity features a bevy of items. The final one-hour practice (11 a.m. ET) is the ultimate dress rehearsal – outright speeds aren’t as important as making sure you have clean ins-and-outs into pit lane and keeping your car in one piece.

It’s followed by the Freedom 100 (12:30 p.m. ET), the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season, which frequently features finishes that are super tight. The 2013, 2014 and 2016 races all have been decided by less than 0.05 of a second.

Lastly comes the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Competition (1:30 p.m.E T), a chance for the crews to be in the spotlight in the closest thing to an IndyCar all-star race.

This all leads into the now annual episode of the NASCAR America Motorsports Special (3:30 p.m. ET), where crews from the NBC Sports Group team look ahead to Indianapolis, Monaco and Charlotte on racing’s biggest weekend.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Napa Dallara Honda celebrates in victory circle after winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Sunday, May 28, 11 a.m. ET

“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has the 101st running after all, following all the buildup to last year’s 100th running, and will no doubt have countless story lines to chronicle.

Fernando Alonso’s arrival has captured countless headlines, domestic and international, and how the two-time World Champion gets on with it in his oval and IndyCar debuts will be fascinating to witness.

Alexander Rossi goes for an encore victory, albeit in a more conventional style than his Bryan Herta-strategized/aided “clutch-and-coast” call last year.

Each of the earlier winners this season looks for their first Indianapolis 500 win. None of Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud has captured IndyCar’s biggest race, and a win for any of them would cement their legacies as IndyCar legends beyond what they’ve already achieved (Bourdais and Pagenaud having won titles).

And then there’s the past winners of the race looking to regain their throne, and dethrone Rossi. In Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon, there’s five past additional winners looking for either their second (Dixon, RHR, Kanaan), third (Montoya) or fourth (Castroneves) ‘500 victory.

Those are but a sampling of story lines as others within the 33-car field will look to assert themselves in the biggest race of the year.

OTHER RACES OF NOTE

Just because open-wheel headlines the month of May does not mean it is the only racing this month. Also still to come:

  • Red Bull Global Rallycross, Louisville (Sunday, May 21, 1 p.m. ET, NBC)
  • FIA Formula E Championship, Monaco (Saturday, May 13) and Paris (Saturday, May 20)
  • MotoGP, Bugatti/Le Mans (Sunday, May 21)
  • NHRA, Topeka (Sunday, May 21)
  • Pirelli World Challenge, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Sat./Sun. May 20-21), Lime Rock Park (Fri./Sat. May 26-27)
  • European Le Mans Series, Monza (Sunday, May 14)

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.