There's Alonso, and then there's everyone else. Photo: IndyCar

Alonso mania, plenty of questions dominating Indy practice week

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INDIANAPOLIS – Great as the story of Fernando Alonso racing at this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is – and it is – it is not the only story of note this year.

The contrast between the amount of Alonso coverage and the amount of coverage for the other 32 drivers and cars competing here is stark, and that contrast has been arguably the most interesting part of the week.

As of Friday morning, each of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ established “big three” teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – had held a press conference and with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing all having two drivers in, and then cameos from Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Jay Howard (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Gabby Chaves (Harding Racing), most of the field has been in for interviews.

The line that the drivers are thinking but not saying publicly unless it is in a joking manner is that Alonso is the only driver racing this year. Both Conor Daly (Foyt) and Graham Rahal (RLL) have made that crack in their press conferences. Others in and around the field have expressed private concerns or frustration about Alonso’s presence dominating the story lines – for better or worse.

The story of Alonso racing at Indy now shifts from the shockwaves of announcing he’s doing it to the reality of him being on track, and that’s been what’s interesting to monitor as the week has progressed.

Alonso has not been tentative, that’s for sure. The driver of the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry has made two rather eye-popping three-wide passes – first on past winners Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske earlier this week, and then on Castroneves and Karam later. He’s also been unafraid to stick it down the inside at both Turns 1 and 3, and this morning, had a hairy moment exiting Turn 4.

After Thursday’s practice, Alonso said his comfort level in traffic is getting there, as he’s felt confident enough in the team around him to give proper feedback for changes.

“I was (running) behind a car just a couple of seconds in front, but we (tried some laps) without any car in front. We tested a couple of different trims and different setup options,” Alonso said Thursday. “The car felt quite OK from the very beginning of the morning, but then I think we did improve it during the day, so I’m quite happy.

“We worked still a lot on the race situation, keeping other guys out there and running in traffic. I think we found a good balance for traffic. I think tomorrow (Friday) we will concentrate a little bit more alone on qualifying, but the priority is the race.”

Beyond the two-time Formula 1 World Champion, the story lines do not revolve around any one dominant driver or team.

Thus far Marco Andretti, Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Jay Howard have been the four end-of-day practice leaders, and Sebastien Bourdais was fastest this morning before rain has hit the IMS track, and it remains to be seen whether more “Fast Friday” running will occur.

As Alonso goes, it seems so do questions about Honda reliability. Five engine issues for the manufacturer have brought reliability into the framework, but it also balances out the fact the Hondas have undoubted speed this year, and more capable bullets in the gun. Of its 18 entries, you could say at least a dozen of them have a realistic chance at great finishes, whereas with Chevrolet, about eight of its 15 entries seem poised to threaten the leaders.

Questions to ponder from here include these:

  • How can Honda balance reliability with its power? Will they have to risk turning the power levels down in order to keep the reliability there?
  • When might Team Penske show its full hand? The five drivers today were all on the dais and have locked in a laser focus for the race, and all are so dedicated to the singular goal of delivering Roger Penske a 17th Indianapolis 500 champion.
  • How can Ganassi continue to extract the maximum for its Honda kit in its first superspeedway race with it? Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are past winners and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton seem poised to overachieve.
  • Of the six Andrettis, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato look great, Alonso has looked good, and Alexander Rossi has been quietly lurking. Marco Andretti started strong but has seemed to regress. Rookie Jack Harvey has endured a rough week. Where do the Andretti six-pack of drivers shake out?
  • Is Carpenter poised to emerge ahead in the Chevrolet camp?
  • Does RLL have a surprise up its sleeve with Rahal and Oriol Servia, Servia in particular as he is working with last year’s race-winning engineer in Tom German? It’s the same story for SPM, where James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin have had interesting weeks and Howard has probably been the week’s biggest surprise.
  • How much will it rain the next few days, and how will it affect qualifying?

These stories, and more, will be set to play out over the next 48 to 72 hours.

F1 Preview: 2017 United States Grand Prix

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The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas may only have hosted the United States Grand Prix since 2012, yet it has quickly made itself a big part of Formula 1’s recent championship stories.

Results at COTA have played a crucial part in all but one of the F1 championship races – the exception being 2013 when the drivers’ title had long been settled – with the track also being the site of Lewis Hamilton’s third title win two years ago.

Hamilton arrives in the Lone Star State on the verge of taking a fourth world title, and could reclaim the crown this Sunday should results fall his way.

For a driver with such an affinity for the United States as Hamilton, clinching the title in Austin would be very significant.

This race is also a significant one for F1’s owner, Liberty Media, as its first on home soil since completing its $8 billion takeover of the sport back in January.

The United States has long been a target growth market for F1 after a patchy history. Significant progress has been made in the last five years, but seeing how Liberty plays the US GP will be of interest to those with an eye on F1’s future.

Here are the key talking points ahead of this weekend’s United States Grand Prix.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Talking Points

Will COTA be king-maker again for Hamilton?

There is a similar sense of inevitability heading to COTA this weekend as in 2015. It is not a case of if Lewis Hamilton will win the drivers’ championship, but when.

Ferrari’s remarkable capitulation in the last six weeks has seen Sebastian Vettel go from championship leader to heavy outsider, trailing Hamilton by 59 points with just 100 left to play for this season.

A 16-point swing will see Hamilton clinch a fourth title at COTA – full permutations here – meaning that next weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix is perhaps the more likely site for his coronation.

That said, on Ferrari’s recent form, losing another 16 points would hardly come as a surprise.

Silver linings for Ferrari despite recent losses

The failures that have seen Ferrari throw away a shot at both championships in 2017 will surely lead to heads rolling come the end of the season, having been the Italian marque’s best chance of silverware since 2008.

For now though, the team must do all it can to put the brakes on its collapse and bounce back at COTA, with its race pace form in Malaysia suggesting it may not be as far off Mercedes as once feared this weekend.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen have both said there is no track for Ferrari to fear in the closing races this season, meaning that while the titles may already be out of reach, a fighting end to the season would at least save some face.

Alas, with Mercedes very likely to wrap up the constructors’ championship this weekend, for Ferrari to have gone from pre-season favorite with the fastest car to losing the title with three races to spare is a serious failure that will take some recovering from.

Red Bull’s flying finish to continue in Austin?

Red Bull’s late-season form is traditionally pretty good, but the team has been particularly strong in recent races as it looks to build momentum before a renewed title bid in 2014.

Max Verstappen’s dominant victory in Malaysia proved the team can win races on merit and take the fight to both Mercedes and Ferrari, while Daniel Ricciardo has also been on the podium in the last two races.

For a team that was marooned in P3 for much of the season, the updates for the RB13 car have put Red Bull into the thick of the fight at the front – sadly, there is not title race for it to influence.

Nevertheless, Verstappen and Ricciardo will be pushing hard to keep the team’s good late-season form going at COTA. Four years after the team’s last win in the USA, can Red Bull hit the top step again?

Hartley gears up for shock F1 debut

2017 has been full of odd storylines in F1, but Brendon Hartley’s shock debut with Toro Rosso this weekend has to be right up there.

Seven years after being dropped from Red Bull’s junior program, Hartley will line up in the colors of the energy drink giant’s B-team in F1 after Pierre Gasly was forced to stick to his clashing Super Formula commitments in Japan.

Toro Rosso will race with a totally different line-up to two weeks ago at Suzuka, with previously-benched Daniil Kvyat also returning in place of Carlos Sainz Jr., who moves up to Renault.

Heroics cannot be expected of Hartley, who has raced with great success in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche since 2014, but it will be fascinating to see how he gets on back in single-seaters.

The Land of Liberty

Liberty Media’s takeover of F1 back in January was a significant moment for the sport’s future, with a great focus being placed on the United States given the company’s American roots and the importance of the market.

F1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey has made his ambition to make each race a Superbowl-esque event clear for some time, with plans to improve the spectacle around races still in the works.

The US GP has traditionally done very well with its off-track spectacles, with last year’s Taylor Swift concert playing a huge role in breathing new life into the race after a washout in 2015. This year, Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder will both be performing at COTA’s amphitheater.

Another big name confirmed to be attending is Usain Bolt, who will act as the official starter for the race, while iconic boxing announcer Michael Buffer will be on-hand for the pre-race driver introductions, a new step for F1.

This weekend will also see the F1 paddock turn pink in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness month and Susan G. Komen, with more information available by clicking here.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Circuit of The Americas
Corners: 20
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:39.347 (2012)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:34.999
2016 Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:39.877
DRS Zones: T2o to T1, T11 to T12

2017 United States Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times