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IndyCar teams turn attention to preparing for Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt started plotting Indianapolis 500 strategy even before Saturday’s race ended.

He certainly wasn’t alone.

With Will Power dominating practice, qualifying and the IndyCar Grand Prix for his first win of the season, just about everyone else in Gasoline Alley began looking ahead to Monday’s opening practice for the Indianapolis 500.

“Since we had such a crappy grand prix, I think (our focus) shifted 30 minutes ago,” Schmidt said shortly after the race ended. “Maybe even as much as an hour ago. We know we have good cars for the 500 and hopefully we can be as good as we were last year. Right now is when we start working on the cars for the 500.”

There’s no time to waste for anyone.

In less than 48 hours, speedway workers must convert the track from the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course into the traditional 2.5-mile oval.

Crew members will scramble to change the cars to perform on four distinct corners and at speeds nearing or topping 230 mph.

Strategists will plan when to run in qualifying trim, when to run in race trim and how weather could affect next week’s two qualification rounds and the May 28 race.

Drivers will have to contend with much more traffic, with 33 cars expected to fill the traditional 11-row, three-car starting grid.

And numbers crunchers will get ready for the data influx that comes only once a year.

It’s all part of the biggest month in racing.

“It’s definitely a different deal,” said Power, who is still looking for his first 500 win. “You (have to) get in a groove – you have plenty of time to get in that grove. You just run so many miles around this place that you know it too well, but you can’t get too comfortable.”

The Australian drives for powerhouse Team Penske, which has won the 500 a record 16 times, three of the four road races in Indy and two of the last three series titles.

But since Brazil’s Helio Castroneves became the first foreign-born three-time winner in 2009, Penske’s team has won one 500 – in 2015, when Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya captured his second win. Another win would put Castroneves in the four-win club, which only has three members: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

The always-energetic Castroneves, now 41, couldn’t contain his excitement. Just 15 minutes after a fifth-place finish in the grand prix, he was already talking about his next mission – scaling Indy’s catch-fence one more time.

“They (the crew) will take about 12 hours to convert the car from road course to oval – they’re already going to start making some changes,” he said. “We’re going to take a little bit of time to focus, start setting the strategy for the week and hope for the best.”

Another major change for the IndyCar regulars: dealing with the number of one-off racers that will be on the track Monday, including the highly anticipated arrival of two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

After finishing 12th in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, the Indy rookie flew to the United States, where he will stay through race day.

Montoya made his season debut Saturday and will run in the 500.

Last season, Alexander Rossi proved that anyone – even an underdog rookie – can win the race. If he’s going to become the first American to win back-to-back 500s since 1970-71, he knows it’s time to get ready.

“The thing about the 500 is you don’t really have a plan, to be honest. It’s such a long race and it’s one of the few ones we don’t really necessarily go into with a set strategy, we just kind of play it by ear,” he said Saturday. “I guess (Sunday) is when it really begins.”

More AP racing: http://racing.ap.org

F1 2017 driver review: Romain Grosjean

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Romain Grosjean

Team: Haas
Car No.: 8
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P6 (Austria)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 28
Championship Position: 13th

After leading Haas’ charge through its debut Formula 1 season in 2016, Romain Grosjean once again stepped up as team leader for the American team through its sophomore campaign despite scoring one point fewer.

Haas did not expect any major step in performance heading into 2017, having dealt with building all-new cars for two different sets of regulations, but the team was able to match its season one points total by the halfway mark this time around.

The big boost was the addition of a second points scoring driver – Kevin Magnussen – to partner Grosjean. Grosjean looked increasingly comfortable at Haas even if the car often presented problems, particularly under braking.

Radio rants were frequent, with Grosjean unable to drive around the issues as Magnussen did. But he was nevertheless able to finish the year as Haas’ top scorer, with his highlight moment being a perfect run to sixth in Austria.

Greater consistency was evident from both Grosjean and Haas through 2017, yet there were still swings in form that need to be ironed out in the future. The team was unable to capitalize on Renault and Toro Rosso’s late season difficulties that could have seen it jump to sixth in the constructors’ championship.

Grosjean once again proved himself to be a very competent and talented racer through 2017, but needs a little more panache – perhaps down to the car more than anything – if he is to put himself in the frame for a top-line drive in the future.

Haas continues to offer a good platform, though, and its third season should be its best yet thanks to the stability in the regulations. It will be a real chance for Grosjean to show what he can do.

Season High: A perfect run to sixth in Austria, leading the midfield cars.

Season Low: Crashing early with Ocon in Brazil, hurting Haas’ constructors’ hopes.