Alonso, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Andretti, Sato, Harvey. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti Autosport’s six-pack of drivers set to tackle Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The contrast was stark on the dais among all six Andretti Autosport drivers set to compete in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

There were the four full-season Andretti drivers, plus rookie Jack Harvey in black, standard Andretti polos with the appropriate partner logos.

On the far right of the stage, or far left for the onlooking media, was Fernando Alonso – seemingly resplendent sitting in a white polo with his McLaren Honda Andretti colors, this year’s theoretical “white knight in shining armor” in among the other 32 cars in the race.

Seeing Alonso there on the same stage with these other five drivers, though, provided a good glimpse at the divide between Alonso and the rest of the field in visual form.

It was also a reminder that while Alonso is the worldwide star interloper in this year’s race, he enters into a team where the results achieved by the other four veterans should be more noteworthy than they are.

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are the lone American champions of the Indianapolis 500 in the last 11 years, Hunter-Reay having snapped an eight-year drought since Sam Hornish Jr. edged Marco Andretti in 2006. And Rossi’s famous fuel strategy-inspired victory last year has become the latest chapter in this race’s lore.

Andretti himself? That eternal wait for victory number one here began when he came up so short as a rookie. He’s never been that close since.

Meanwhile Takuma Sato provided one of the race’s best moments in recent years as well, perhaps overlooked in the grand scheme of things. In 2012 he dove to Dario Franchitti’s inside into Turn 1, but with Franchitti’s smart and sneaky race craft having coaxed Sato into a mistake, the likable and talented Japanese driver’s “no attack, no chance” mentality bit him as he came up short.

Harvey – again fitting into the “overlooked” department – has a record that none of his other teammates can boast. He’s the only driver who can say he’s won on both the IMS road course and the IMS oval, having done both in the same year in the 2015 Indy Lights season.

The other five drivers have all raced on the IMS road course, and Sato scored his lone Formula 1 podium there in 2004, but none has won in non-‘500 races except for Andretti in 2005, in Indy Lights.

Hunter-Reay is Andretti’s most successful driver in IndyCar, the most successful active American driver in the series. He’s one of only four drivers in the field (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya) who have both an Indianapolis 500 victory and a full-season IndyCar title, which proves how hard it is to do both.

Yet the desire for win number two here at Indy, especially after coming up short last year, burns brightest.

Ryan Hunter-Reay remains in search of win two. Photo: IndyCar

“I think every year I come back here I want it more and more,” Hunter-Reay said. “That probably has something to do with the hard times I had earlier on here. It’s just one of those places that becomes more and more important to you the further you get in your career. You just realize how much it means.

“But I know it means that much to every other driver in the field, too. So everybody’s going to be fighting for it. Like Fernando said, we’re all working together. We have six cars now, so it’s a lot of data to pull from, a lot of opinions and perspectives to put into play. I think we all work very well as a team. We’ll be trying to use that as a strength.”

Rossi’s been asked a lot about winning last year and how it changed his life, so much so he needs to keep thinking of refreshing answers. Again though it’s the desire to go back-to-back that drives him.

“I think just the appreciation for this race and the desire to win it. Like Ryan talked about earlier, every year you come back, it’s greater. I think there was a point brought up in terms of once you’ve done it once, the desire to do it again is much increased,” he said.

“It’s an amazing experience that happens for the year afterwards. I had no idea it was as detailed and involved as it actually is.

“But it gives you that desire to do it again because you don’t really want to give it up. So definitely coming into this with the goal of trying to do it again. We’ll do everything we can to make that happen.”

Rossi is 1-for-1 at Indy, while Andretti’s been trying to break through since 2006. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti’s not come as close to winning as he did in 2006. It seems hard to believe this is already his 12th Indianapolis 500 and he’s only just turned 30 years old. While Andretti’s been solid in practice nearly every event this year, getting his car good in race trim has been a challenge. That remains his goal this month.

“I’m as pleased as I’ve been with the car right now in race trim. No complaints there,” he said. “Now it’s just about keeping it there, you know, which is very tricky at this place. Every day seems to throw you some sort of a curve ball. The better you react I think the better you’ll be in the end.”

Sato at speed. Photo: IndyCar

For Sato, it’s about having the opportunity to be part of a team that is at least double anything he’s ever been in before. Sato’s been in one, two and three-car teams at the Speedway – and come close to winning with all of them – and being part of a “six-pack” of entries is quite a chance.

“It’s been ‘almost’ success,” Sato laughed. “I know how the race gets competitive and tight towards the end of the race, which is pretty different. This year experience you never know. That’s good to know.

“Obviously coming to join the team, it’s a new experience for me again. I never have been around kind of like a group in the past, until really after the qualifying. It’s a whole new experience; trying to get more out of the car and learning how the team operates every single day.”

Alonso preps to go out. Photo: IndyCar

Lastly there’s the rookies, each of whom are here in wildly contrasting situations. Alonso’s story has been covered quite a bit while Harvey’s debut is one of the more intriguing ones. Both have new team principals presents – McLaren’s Zak Brown and Michael Shank in partnership with Andretti – and they have different goals.

One area worth asking Alonso about, beyond the on-track activity, was how he is experiencing the Indianapolis experience.

“I was expecting more activities off the track. Probably I will think differently when I arrive next Sunday!” Alonso said. “But right now, you know, it’s still more or less okay. Yeah, the biggest surprise is to see the fans out of the garage or even on the pit lane. That’s completely new thing for us, for me.

“But apart of that, you know, we are quite busy. Being two weeks, I think everything is spread a little bit, day after day. When we go to the Formula One events, it’s just Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so everything is compressed in four days. Here we have a very tight schedule, as well.”

Harvey’s endured a roller coaster week. Photo: IndyCar

As for Harvey, it’s been a roller coaster week thus far, but the past Indy Lights race winner is rolling with the challenges.

“I think more likely (Michael Shank’s) helping me realize my dream of running at the Indy 500,” he said. “Honestly the whole rookie experience at this point has gone about as far from what I’ve expected it to as possible. Honestly I ended up yesterday pretty good, way better than the timing sheet showed. Hopefully it’s just a platform to have a great month and keep building off that.”

For the team, ensuring the group runs maximize data gathering for the race has been key to success in past years, as explained by Andretti chief operating officer Rob Edwards.

“When you look at the whole event, it’s in two parts. There’s qualifying and with points, that’s important. But come race day it’s three hours in traffic, so the best way to set up to be successful is to learn as much about the cars as possible,” Edwards told NBC Sports.

“The ultimate advantage is controlling specific advantages to do that, and trying different things within those runs. As you say, historically, it’s been part of the Andretti approach. I think we’ll continue to do that. With six cars there’s more opportunity.”

And as for managing six cars, something only a handful of other teams (notably Team Scandia’s seven in 1996 and Dick Simon Racing’s five-plus in the past) have ever done?

Michael Andretti said he hasn’t had as many sleepless nights as one would assume given the whirlwind he’s had the last couple months.

“I sleep really well actually!” Andretti laughed. “We have such a great organization. It’s scary to be honest because between the Fernando thing with McLaren and bringing them in, then with Michael (Shank) and Jack, on paper it should be a nightmare but it’s scarily good. It’s been fun.

“Everyone on face of it acknowledges that it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun work.”

Will that fun work pay off in Andretti Autosport’s fifth Indianapolis 500 win, after others in 2005, 2007, 2014 and 2016? Only time will tell.

Andretti and Rossi at speed. Photo: IndyCar

Entry names:

Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda
Marco Andretti, No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda
Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 DHL Honda
Fernando Alonso, No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti
Jack Harvey, No. 50 Michael Shank Racing w/Andretti Autosport Honda
Alexander Rossi, No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS / Curb Honda

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.”