Hinchcliffe and Pigot. Photo: IndyCar

First day of Indy 500 practice sees 32 of 33 drivers turn some laps

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INDIANAPOLIS – Monday’s first day of 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil practice was still busy, but down significantly in lap count this year compared to last year.

Admittedly, conditions were warmer today and with teams on different stages of programs, it was always going to be unfair to expect the first day to be as busy as it was last year.

Last year, there were 498 laps turned among 10 drivers in the Rookie Orientation Program/refresher program, followed by 1,474 laps in the full first practice among all 33 drivers later in the day, and a total of 1,972 laps.

This year that number dwindled a bit, to 195 laps among 13 drivers in the ROP/refresher and 1,306 among 32 drivers in the first full practice, for a total of 1,501 laps, 471 fewer than last year.

The two busiest drivers in the first official practice were Americans Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand, two members who are inextricably linked from the 2011 rookie class, with 75 and 74 laps completed apiece.

Meanwhile at the bottom of the charts, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey and Gabby Chaves – Veach and Chaves are close friends, regular IndyCar two-seater drivers and recent Indy Lights race winners and graduates – turned in only 23, 14 and 6 laps on the day.

Harvey completed the first phase of his ROP before his incident at Turn 2 took him out of action for the rest of the day. Veach also completed his first phase near the end of the day, as he only ran three laps in the ROP portion and 23 this afternoon as the team was putting together its third chassis.

Photo: IndyCar

For Marco Andretti, who also led last year’s first day of practice, the goal today was to get the car as dialed in from a race setup standpoint as possible.

Andretti has had a number of extra race teammates at Indianapolis over the years. Extra drivers in recent years, prior to this year, include NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell (2016), Simona de Silvestro and the late Justin Wilson (2015), NASCAR champion Kurt Busch (2014), then-Indy Lights driver Carlos Munoz (2013) and fellow Indy Lights graduates Sebastian Saavedra and Ana Beatriz (2012) since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis.

This year, Andretti is assisting with Fernando Alonso’s high-profile addition under the McLaren Honda Andretti banner, and Harvey joined up as well in the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport car.

“I don’t know if I get them up to speed, but honestly, the way that they do is I just focus on my program and try to pioneer the way if we’re able to do that setup-wise, and then every day they get out on the track, they can put a more and more comfortable setup on. That’s my goal,” Marco Andretti said.

“That means I’m doing a good job, too. Probably just setup wise, I think just trying to get the most comfortable car possible.”

Sage Karam’s No. 24 Chevrolet. Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

Other notes from the field today:

  • Ed Carpenter was the top Chevrolet behind Andretti and Scott Dixon’s pair of Hondas, third place at 224.969 mph.
  • Per Trackside Online, the top-10 no-tow speeds were all Hondas, led by Tony Kanaan at 223.554 mph. Bell led the no-tow speeds this day last year, at 223.940 mph. Seven of the top-10 no-tow speeds last year were Hondas.
  • Alexander Rossi was 13th in his first day of practice as defending Indianapolis 500 champion, albeit only fourth of the six Andretti Autosport Hondas (Andretti was first, Ryan Hunter-Reay fifth, Takuma Sato 10th).
  • Mikhail Aleshin was ninth and James Hinchcliffe 25th on a slightly odd day for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports; Jay Howard was 23rd in the team’s third car, after making 64 laps.
  • Graham Rahal sustained an engine issue in his No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, with Honda officials still diagnosing the extent of the issue. “Obviously, to lose an engine is frustrating but I know the Honda guys are pushing these things as hard as they can. I would have liked to be a little better but we are struggling a little bit in traffic but its early days and we can’t panic. She’s in one piece, we going to change the engine and fire it up tomorrow,” Rahal said.
  • Team Penske appears to have not shown its full hand. Will Power was seventh with Juan Pablo Montoya 12th, Simon Pagenaud 16th, Josef Newgarden 24th and Helio Castroneves 26th. Castroneves premiered his new white and gold Shell Fuel Rewards livery, to considerably less fanfare than other special Indianapolis liveries in recent years.
  • Having their first official days in an IndyCar for 2017: Oriol Servia (11th), Sage Karam (14th), Sebastian Saavedra (21st), Pippa Mann (27th) and Jack Harvey (31st). Other one-off entries Alonso, Jay Howard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Zach Veach and Gabby Chaves have tested or raced at least once thus far in 2017, and Buddy Lazier’s team seems set to hit the track mid-week as he was here, the car was here, but was being assembled.
  • Our NBCSports.com blogger for the month, Sage Karam, seemed very pleased with his first day back. The No. 24 DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet was locked into a conservative setup but even so, Karam was fourth among the 14 Chevrolets in 14th place today, at a best speed of 223.398 mph. Said the 22-year-old who is still the youngest driver in the field in his fourth Indy 500, “I just wanted to get in the car. I was really nervous this morning and had a lot of emotions going through me. Once you go through one practice run, all the emotions go away and it feels good to go flat (on the throttle) around here again.” Team owner Dennis Reinbold added, “It was a good solid day. We had a good balance in the car where Sage liked it. We got in some situations with traffic and the car responded. We didn’t get as many laps as we would have liked, but we made gains. We were a little conservative today, and we plan to be more aggressive tomorrow. We got through a lot on our checklist today.”
  • Juncos Racing made its debut in rather fine form, with Sebastian Saavedra ending 21st after 39 laps and Spencer Pigot ending 29th after 36 laps, giving the team 75 solid laps of running in its first day in IndyCar. More is here from the team release. There were another 23 done in the ROP program earlier, for a total of 98 laps.
  • Juncos’ busy first day was put in contrast as the McLaren Honda Andretti entry ran a combined 55 laps, the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti entry ran a combined 29 laps, and the Harding Racing entry ran just 6.

Additional Monday posts from Indianapolis are below:

Tuesday practice runs from noon to 6 p.m. ET.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.

Mercedes F1 engine chief warns against underestimating Honda

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Mercedes Formula 1 engine chief Andy Cowell has warned against underestimating the threat of Honda despite its ongoing power unit struggles, tipping the Japanese manufacturer to bounce back in the near future.

Honda returned to F1 as a manufacturer in 2015, supplying V6 turbo power units to the McLaren team, but has struggled for either performance or reliability through that period.

The struggles have led McLaren – currently sat bottom of the constructors’ championship – to consider cutting ties for 2018 given how far adrift compared to the other three engine suppliers Honda has been.

Mercedes has been the benchmark for engine performance since the change in regulation for 2014, but Cowell feels that Honda could make up ground quickly, with the removal of the token system for 2017 helping performance to converge through the field.

“I think collectively we’ve helped with convergence in Formula 1 in the opening season, performance development through the year,” Cowell said.

“But then the opportunity to do a big change with Honda coming in, we all agreed that Honda could have that same opportunity to change everything in the first year and then the request came from manufacturers in addition to Honda saying ‘please can we take this crazy token table away because it’s bad for the sport?’

“It’s bad if somebody can’t train to get better and so we agreed, yeah, take the table away because it’s better for the sport because it means that you can innovate, you can introduce whatever you like.

“I think none of us should underestimate the technical prowess of Honda and of McLaren and I think my money is on that combination coming good and coming good pretty quickly. No pressure…”

Williams happy to ‘hold off’ on 2018 F1 driver decision

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Williams is happy to “hold off” on making a decision on its Formula 1 driver line-up for 2018 as it focuses on improving its on-track displays after a tough start to the season.

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, a mix of experience and youth, but has failed to keep up with midfield front-runner Force India through the first half of the year.

Force India sits fourth in the constructors’ championship with more than double the points of Williams, who leads a tight-knit group down to Renault in eighth place, 15 points adrift.

While Stroll looks set to continue with Williams and Massa has hinted he may look to continue through to 2018 despite initially planning to retire at the end of last season, deputy team boss Claire Williams has confirmed that no decision about next year’s line-up will come any time soon.

“There’s a lot of talk already isn’t there, about drivers across the paddock. For us, we’ve decided we’re going to hold off a bit on our driver decision,” Williams said.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands on the race track at the moment and to be distracted by those kinds of conversations isn’t something that we want to be happening at the moment.

“[Force India’s] got a nice points haul on us at the moment we need to focus on, rather than anything else.”

Nico Rosberg visits Stanford University, considering study options

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2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University after visiting the college earlier this week as part of his tour around California.

Rosberg sensationally announced his retirement from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title last November, wanting to spend more time with his young family.

The German has been enjoying his retirement, recently embarking on a tour of Silicon Valley and California that saw him hold meetings with electric car giant Tesla, among other companies.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Sunday, Rosberg spoke warmly about a visit to Stanford, revealing that he is considering some study options in the near future at the historic institution.

Rosberg was previously offered a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College London when he was younger, only to turn it down in order to embark on a racing career. He also reportedly holds the highest ever score on Williams’ engineering aptitude test.

Should Nico sign up to a course at Stanford, we imagine he’d take things one class at a time…