Hinchcliffe was playing author support this morning, now driver. Photo: IndyCar

Busy Thursday underway with pressers, Indy 500 practice

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INDIANAPOLIS – There was not much in the way of activity – media or on-track – that happened Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And then the first few hours of Thursday happened.

It might be easier to go in chronological order for all the events that have happened here this morning:

A QUARTET OF PRESS CONFERENCES

  • Starting the day off at 9 a.m. ET, Honda hosted a “Meet the Authors” roundtable with Chris Workman, author, “The Spectacle – Celebrating the History of the Indianapolis 500” (foreward by Ryan Hunter-Reay), a young Adult-aimed non-fiction covering the first 100 runnings of the Indianapolis 500, Chris Hinchcliffe, author, “Chasing Checkers”, Young Adult-aimed novel about a driver following his dreams of becoming a professional racer, then Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe themselves. Apex Legends’ Workman, who also authored “Josef, The Indy Car Driver” last year, told NBC Sports it’s good to have a cohesion of books. He’s sold roughly 3,000 of the first one last year. James Hinchcliffe joked meanwhile about his brother Chris that he “inherited all the brain cells” in the family. This authors event came after earlier work from Honda this week utilizing Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi for STEAM events on the IMS grounds.
  • Next up was two of three drivers from A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, along with team president Larry Foyt. When asked how much Daly has grown as a driver since his rookie run with Foyt in 2013, as he returns now, Foyt deadpanned “two inches, and six pounds.” But when he turned serious, he explained Daly now knows what he didn’t know as a first-time driver and has progressed in a big way from there. As for Munoz, working with just two teammates instead of three or four as he has in years past with Andretti Autosport has proven a change of dynamic, but he’s adapting well to it. He has “unfinished business” from his time finishing second here twice, as a rookie in 2013 and again last year. Daly said the team has made big strides from its test here last month, then joked at the end of the press conference “what, there were no questions about Fernando?”
  • At 10 a.m. the press conferences kept rolling, this time as Road Racing Drivers Club president Bobby Rahal, Roger Penske and David Donohue graced the dais for the foundation of The Mark Donohue Foundation. This foundation will initially help raise funds for the continuation of the RRDC’s SAFEisFAST initiative. Penske made a surprise charitable donation of $100,000 to the foundation right off the bat, with the younger Donohue able to reflect on memories of his father, on some of his race cars, and thank the RRDC for its SAFEisFAST resource. More information is available at rrdc.org and safeisfast.com.
  • A much longer press conference took place from 10:30 (fuller report to come) as John Andretti spoke in a press conference for an update on his condition after being diagnosed with Stage 4A colon cancer. The cousin of Michael Andretti is working tirelessly to be an advocate for getting colonoscopies, via the #CheckIt4Andretti hashtag. While the event started on a serious note, it quickly turned humorous as Andretti proved he’s lost none of his sense of humor throughout the near 45-minute session, and even witnessed IMS track president J. Douglas Boles call his doctor to set up his own colonoscopy. Boles, who joked to me earlier in the week “he sleeps in June,” turned 50 last year and would be due for one himself.
  • There was also an event on the Pagoda Plaza via Crown Royal, where Crown Royal and IMS erected a brick Wall of Gratitude to display the names of military members past and present. More information is linked here via the IMS website. Boles and Graham Rahal were among the speakers at this event.

PRACTICE UNDERWAY

Gasoline Alley was frenetic in the final hour before the six hours of running started for Thursday’s practice session as most teams and drivers were in the process of preparing for a busy day.

With wind having scuppered most of Wednesday’s running, although 21 drivers took laps, only 14 posted representative speeds. A total of 408 laps were run over six hours.

By contrast, by the time of a yellow flag not even 30 minutes into today’s practice, there were already 311 laps turned. Not even an hour into the day, there were already more laps completed on Thursday than there were on all of Wednesday, with 428 laps done by 12:45 p.m.

Most teams are looking to go with heavy race running in the first few hours of the day before beginning qualifying simulations this afternoon. With rain forecast for parts, if not all, of Friday through Sunday, it makes today’s running all the more imperative for both the race and qualifying.

In the paddock, final preparations continued for the Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet, which will be the No. 44 Tivoli Lodge – Stalk It entry driven by 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier. The team hopes to be out by 3 p.m. today. The crew has already set up its pit assembly in the first pit box entering pit lane.

The No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of Hinchcliffe should be one of the busiest cars today. Having lost most of Tuesday owing to something that occurred late Monday, then having lost nearly all of Wednesday due to the wind, the defending Indianapolis 500 polesitter is playing catch-up.

Jay Howard in the No. 77 Team One Cure Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda was at 226.744 mph early on in a tow for the fastest lap of the month within the first 30 minutes, while Ed Carpenter took the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to the early best no-tow speed of 224.051 mph.

As for that certain Spaniard in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry? Fernando Alonso has in the first 45 minutes of practice dropped a three-wide move on Helio Castroneves and Sage Karam going into Turn 1, and has now improved to a new best speed of the month at 224.641 mph.

More updates will follow throughout the day.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.