PREVIEW: INDYCAR Grand Prix from IMS road course

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The INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t necessarily an afterthought but it’s very much the casual, laid-back appetizing atmosphere to kick off May’s proceedings by contrast to the rich, delicate full main course that is the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And as the final dress rehearsal for the Verizon IndyCar Series before the ‘500, it presents one last shot at big points before the massive amount of points – and glory – on offer on the oval.

Here’s some of the nuggets heading into the weekend:

2017 INDYCAR Grand Prix – Talking Points

Pagenaud’s proper, yet quiet, title defense

If it’s possible to have a quiet, yet stealthy title defense, Simon Pagenaud is doing that and then some in 2017.

What was a freakishly fast start in 2016 was punctuated by Pagenaud’s romp to victory at the artist formerly known as the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It capped off his dream run of three wins and two runner-up finishes – and the last time he won three races in a row prior to that, he won an American Le Mans Series championship in 2010.

Now, in 2017, Pagenaud still has four top-five finishes out of the gate, and a career-helping win at Phoenix last time out to prove he can win on an oval as well. He’s also leading the standings by 18 points over Scott Dixon, who also has four top-five finishes in as many races.

Pagenaud has jokingly referred to himself as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard in the past from Will Ferrell’s infamous/famous NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights, but it’s actually the title character of Ricky Bobby whose Pagenaud’s record at the Grand Prix most resembles: If you ain’t first, you’re last.

In the three prior Grands Prix, Pagenaud won in 2014 (led 6 laps), finished 25th and last in 2015 with a gearbox issue, and won last year after leading 57 of 82 laps.

So will it be boom-or-bust again for the driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet this year? Only time will tell.

Dixon looking for a rare first at this race

Rare can you go to a race and not find Scott Dixon having had success, but the Grand Prix is that for the four-time series champion. Finishes of 15th, 10th and seventh are forgettable for Dixon – of course getting hit by Helio Castroneves at the first turn a couple years ago here did him no favors – but this and Gateway, where he’s only competed once (15th in 2003) are the only two tracks on the calendar where the 40-time race winner and driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing does not have a single top-five finish.

Teammate Tony Kanaan is also 0-for-3 in scoring top-fives this race, while another teammate Charlie Kimball is the only driver in the field who’s a perfect 3-for-3 in top-fives at the Grand Prix, having finished fifth each year.

Occasionally unpredictable Firestone Fast Six qualifiers

From the moment Sebastian Saavedra took the 2014 inaugural race’s pole on a wet track for KV/AFS Racing with Jack Hawksworth alongside for Bryan Herta Autosport, it was apparent this race would enter into INDYCAR lore as INDYCAR’s “bizarro world.” And that’s no knock on either driver, but few would have bet on it. Three years later, KV is no longer a team, BHA has partnered with Andretti Autosport, and neither driver is in the series full-time (although Saavedra was announced for a comeback this week at the Indianapolis 500 with Juncos Racing).

Here’s been the Fast Six qualifiers in the three previous Grands Prix:

  • 2014: Saavedra, Hawksworth, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud, Will Power, Dixon
  • 2015: Power, Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan
  • 2016: Pagenaud, Charlie Kimball, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Hawksworth

Some of those names are not shall we say, Fast Six regulars. Last year’s Fast Six was made even more complex by the fact both Rahal and Newgarden were penalized following post-qualifying technical inspection and sent to the rear of the field.

Noteworthy though is that both polesitters have won this race the last two years.

The Juan and only extra entrant

One of the cool parts about this race in its three-year history has been the extra entries added to the full field rundown. But none has been as well-prepared or already well-rounded as Juan Pablo Montoya, who makes his first IndyCar start of the year in the No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet in Team Penske’s first race as a five-car team.

With no disrespect to the other extra one-off entries – Franck Montagny, Martin Plowman, JR Hildebrand, Matthew Brabham and Alex Tagliani – Montoya’s is the first extra car that could be considered a realistic spoiler this weekend.

Four of the previous five drivers were making their return to IndyCar after lengthy stints outside the cockpit. Brabham was making his debut with the KV technically affiliated PIRTEK Team Murray, and actually acquitted himself well in his first weekend in the championship.

Montoya, though, remains recently race sharp, is integrated to his team and has already had two solid tests this year to prepare for the race. Both at Barber Motorsports Park and Gateway Motorsports Park, Montoya’s had a chance to jell with the new fifth car entry. A win may be too much to ask; but a points-stealing podium run is more than possible. Key for him is how he goes on Firestone’s alternate red tires this weekend, as that’s a sticking point for part-season drivers – even ones with Montoya’s staggering level of experience and skill set.

Other pre-race notes

  • There’s been seven podium finishers here in three years. Besides Pagenaud and Power, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Hunter-Reay have also made trips to the podium.
  • Sebastien Bourdais finished fourth here in 2014 and 2015 but got caught up in a first-lap accident here last year, the same problem as applied to him last time out at Phoenix. The Dale Coyne Racing crew has been working overtime repairing the car from Phoenix.
  • Alexander Rossi had one of his most impressive drives of his rookie season here last year. Race pace at Barber was enough to lift from 18th to fifth and if he qualifies better, his first non-Indy 500 win or podium is achievable.
  • Josef Newgarden’s worst finish in four races this season is ninth. His best Grand Prix finish in three races is 17th. Something will have to give there this weekend.
  • Conor Daly’s leading this race last year was a race highlight, following his overtake of Helio Castroneves on a restart. He finished sixth. Daly is one of two drivers (Max Chilton) without a top-10 finish yet this season.
  • Spencer Pigot returns after one race out of the cockpit at Phoenix, and the Pigot/JR Hildebrand road and street course pairing is back together at Ed Carpenter Racing for the first time since Long Beach.

The final word

From Montoya: “I’m so excited to get back on track with the Verizon IndyCar Series. I’ve run a few tests but will run my first race since last season at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. Indianapolis is one of those special places in motorsports. The buzz surrounding the whole city for the month can be felt. I guess I should feel a little behind, but I don’t. The guys on the Fitzgerald Glider Kits team have been in tune and mixed in with the other teams all season, so we have all the data and those tests went really well. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):
Friday, May 12
9:15-10 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
12:25-1:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:15-1:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
4:20 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, May 13
11-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:30 p.m. – ABC on air
3:43 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines”
3:50 p.m. – INDYCAR Grand Prix (85 laps/207.3 miles), ABC (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Helio Castroneves
3. James Hinchcliffe
4. Graham Rahal
5. Charlie Kimball
6. Conor Daly
7. Scott Dixon
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Ryan Hunter-Reay
10. Alexander Rossi

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Charlie Kimball
3. Graham Rahal*
4. James Hinchcliffe
5. Josef Newgarden*
6. Jack Hawksworth

*Assessed post-qualifying penalty; sent to rear of grid

MRTI Preview: Mid-Ohio

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires faces possibly its busiest weekend of the year this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Yet another double header awaits the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires tackles it’s lone triple header of the year.

What’s more, the season is rapidly winding down for all three series. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda only have three race weekends remaining (Mid-Ohio, Gateway Motorsports Park, and Watkins Glen International), while USF2000 has only two (Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen), meaning time is running out for anyone who wants to challenge the championship leaders.

In Indy Lights, the title picture centers around one driver, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 are up for grabs between two pairs of young hard chargers. All told, the final weekends of the year have the makings for intense battles to claim not only the championships in each respective series, but also the Mazda scholarships that enable the drivers to move up.

Below are quick previews for all three series.

INDY LIGHTS

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Kyle Kaiser, 279, 2. Matheus Leist, 228, 3. Colton Herta, 214, 4. Zachary Claman De Melo, 207, 5. Aaron Telitz, 203

    Kyle Kaiser dominated the most recent Indy Lights outing in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Kyle Kaiser swept the weekend at Toronto, dominating Race 1 on Saturday and surviving a crash-filled Race 2 on Sunday. His weekend sweep gives him three victories for the year, and combined with struggles from the likes of Matheus Leist and Colton Herta to give him a sizeable championship lead of 51 points.
  • Zachary Claman de Melo and Aaron Telitz are quietly riding waves of momentum. Claman de Melo’s last four finishes are 1-6-2-3, while Telitz has gone 5-9-5-2 in the same stretch.
  • Though Kaiser has a sizeable championship lead, 39 points separate second from seventh (Leist, Herta, Claman de Melo, Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Nico Jamin).
  • Santi Urrutia swept both Indy Lights races at Mid-Ohio last year.
  • Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry for Andretti Autosport gets a different look this weekend, with rock band Journey featured on the car.

 

PRO MAZDA

The Pro Mazda championship has been a see-saw battle between Franzoni and Martin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Top 5 in points: 1. Victor Franzoni, 174, 2. Anthony Martin, 167, 3. TJ Fischer, 115, 4. Nikita Lastochkin, 110, 5. Carlos Cunha, 103
  • Through six races, only Franzoni and Martin have won races (three apiece); with Fischer 59 points out of the lead in third, it appears Franzoni and Martin will decide the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
  • Mid-Ohio represents the lone triple-header of the year for Pro Mazda, with races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
  • Last year, in a triple-header for USF2000, Anthony Martin swept the weekend, winning all three races.
  • Nico Jamin swept the Pro Mazda weekend at Mid-Ohio last year, winning both races in what was then a double-header.

USF2000

  • Top 5 in points: 1. Oliver Askew, 283, 2. Rinus Veekay, 265, 3. Parker Thompson, 206, 4. Kaylen Frederick, 185, 5. Calvin Ming, 151

    Oliver Askew has struggled lately, allowing Rinus Veekay to close the championship gap. Parker Thompson now sits third. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Askew’s points lead has been trimmed to 18, with finishes of 17th (Road America Race 1, due to suspension problems) and 12th (Toronto Race 2, due to a crash) blighting an otherwise impressive season.
  • To contrast some of Askew’s recent struggles, Veekay has finishes of 1-1-2-3-2 in his last five races, allowing him to dramatically close the gap to Askew.
  • Parker Thompson’s weekend sweep at Toronto vaulted him to third in the championship. At 77 points back of the lead, it will be difficult to mount a title push, but his presence can be a spoiler for Askew and Veekay.
  • Of note: each of USF2000’s Mid-Ohio visits the last two years have seen weekend sweeps. As previously mentioned, Anthony Martin accomplished the feat in 2016, with Nico Jamin doing so in 2015. Conversely, the 2014 outing saw different winners in each race. RC Enerson, Jake Eidson, and Florian Latorre all won in a triple-header weekend that year.

Racing begins on Friday with USF2000 and Pro Mazda running their first races of the weekend. Indy Lights holds its first race of the weekend on Saturday.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

Foyt, Coyne optimistic about Mid-Ohio after testing

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Along with Felix Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, two other teams visited the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for testing ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Sunday July 30, 3:00 p.m., CNBC). A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing sent their drivers and teams to Mid-Ohio in hopes of getting a leg up on things and building optimism ahead of this weekend.

For Foyt’s team in particular, the optimism is needed. Combined, drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have only three top tens (two for Munoz, one for Daly) across a total of 24 starts, making them desperate for strong results to come their way.

Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz are hopeful that they can turn their seasons around at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity for Foyt’s duo to right the ship. Munoz has finishes of fourth, ninth, and third in three starts at the Lexington, Ohio road course, while Daly led late in last year’s race and finished an impressive sixth.

And a productive test last week has both feeling hopeful. “We needed this test to try big steps and different options and I think we gained a lot from where we started to where we finished,” said Munoz, whose best 2017 finish of seventh came at Barber Motorsports Park in April.

Munoz added that, while they are still playing catch up a little, the team gained valuable information that should help them this weekend. “The car was much more competitive from where we started so we closed the gap but we need a little bit more to compete with the top guys. But the information that we gathered will help us to show up stronger than we did at the test so I’m looking forward to going back,” he asserted.

Daly echoed Munoz’s sentiments and added that his near-win last year makes him upbeat ahead of the weekend. “It was a really productive (test) for us. Every day with this car and aero package we are learning more. I feel like I came quite close to winning the race last year so I’m hoping to have another strong result this year,” Daly expressed.

Technical Director Will Phillips added that the knowledge they gained should help them at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway at the end of the season, particularly in terms of maximizing the grip from the tires.

“We certainly believe that the area we made an improvement in will help us at all the road courses to come – we have been slow to extract performance from the tires at times and it was in this area that some changes we made had a very positive response,” Phillips described. “We will keep our feet on the ground but are optimistic that we can carry the gains through for the remainder of the year, not just for Mid-Ohio.”

On the other side, Dale Coyne Racing has been a giant-killer in 2017, winning at St. Petersburg with Sebastien Bourdais and finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 with Ed Jones. James Davison, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Gutierrez have also impressed in fill-in roles for the injured Bourdais.

Dale Coyne Racing has shown a lot of speed in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

And while the team has also incurred more than it’s fair share of crash damage, they have consistently showcased speed at nearly every event, and the team’s drivers are confident Mid-Ohio will yield more of the same.

“We had a really good test last week at Mid-Ohio. It was very positive and we worked on a lot of things,” said Ed Jones, who has four starts at Mid-Ohio from his days in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with a best finish of sixth. “The car seemed pretty fast compared to others that were there. As we saw at Road America, it’s beneficial to be able to test somewhere before we race there. It can give you an advantage early on and hopefully we can produce another good result because of it.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez, making his sixth start for the team this weekend, is more modest of his expectations, but did reveal that a top ten finish could be realistic.

“In terms of objectives for the weekend, I want to keep on learning and it would be nice to reach the top ten. We know that it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in IndyCar but we’ve made some progress and hopefully we can make our way into the top ten pretty soon,” Gutierrez detailed.

Of the drivers mentioned here, Jones ranks the highest in the championship standings, currently sitting 12th. Munoz sits 15th, Daly 19th, and Gutierrez 25th in his fill-in role.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Lando Norris also gets confirmed for Hungary test with McLaren

Photo: Lando Norris PR
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McLaren Honda young driver Lando Norris has joined the list of those confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test as well.

He’ll run on the second day, Wednesday, of the two-day test with Stoffel Vandoorne running on day one, Tuesday.

The teenaged Brit races for Carlin in the FIA F3 European Championship this season and is one of the most talented prospects in the pipeline, following his karting career and early years in formula cars. This will mark his test debut in an F1 car.

He was announced as part of McLaren’s development program in February.

Norris was confirmed a little more than a week ago for next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in a United Autosports Ligier JS P217 LMP2 car but this gives him his first go in a proper F1 rocketship.

 

Pirelli review says Raikkonen tire not faulty at Silverstone

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Formula One tiremaker Pirelli has concluded that Kimi Raikkonen’s tire damage late in the British Grand Prix was likely caused by external contact.

Raikkonen was set for second place in the July 16 race but his tire problem allowed Valtteri Bottas to complete a Mercedes one-two with Lewis Hamilton. The Finnish driver even looked set to lose his podium spot to his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, but in a bizarre twist he ended up third after Vettel’s own tire shredded.

The sight of two Ferraris capitulating within moments of each other led Pirelli to conduct extensive post-race tests on both cars. Raikkonen’s problem, Pirelli said in a statement Wednesday, did not come from the tire itself.

“The possible initial cause of this damage is consistent with contact against an external body, leading to a partial separation of the belt from the carcass in the two affected areas,” Pirelli said. “On no occasion was there any sign of fatigue, detachment or laceration -or even the beginning of such problems – that affected the structure of the tire. In conclusion, Pirelli can confirm that no issues have emerged connected with the tire itself.”

Last week, Pirelli said that Vettel’s shredded tire at Silverstone was caused by a slow puncture.

Vettel appeared to be heading for third place at Silverstone until his front left tire suddenly blew apart two laps from the finish. The four-time F1 champion managed to steer his Ferrari back to the pits for a tire change, and secured seventh place to cling onto his championship lead. Raikkonen’s pit stop to change his tire came just before Vettel’s.

Hamilton won to cut Vettel’s championship lead to one point. Raikkonen, who has three podium finishes this season, is fifth overall.

The championship continues at the Hungarian GP this weekend before a month-long summer break.