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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

Photo: IndyCar

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)

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.”