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.

WATCH LIVE: ABC Supply 500 at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ run of different types of tracks continues with today’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway, as the final superspeedway race of the year to kick off the final four-race stretch of the 2017 season comes after a July where the series raced once apiece on a short oval, a street course and permanent road course.

You can watch the 200-lap, 500-mile race from Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. live on NBCSN (stream link here); the series is back live on NBCSN for the duration of the season after the last two races were live on CNBC, with an NBCSN same day encore.

Kevin Lee is on the call from Pocono along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, with Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Anders Krohn and Robin Miller in the pits.

IndyCar coverage will run from 2 through 6 p.m. ET.

After qualifying, here’s some of the questions to consider in Pocono:

  • How will the championship picture shake out after today’s race?
  • Might a new or surprise winner enter the mix?
  • Can Honda get back to winning and stop Team Penske and Chevrolet’s three-race win streak?
  • How might temperature, wind and downforce levels change the game?

My colleague Kyle Lavigne is on site in Pocono this weekend and may have some additional thoughts going into today’s race.


Tanak wins Rally Germany, Ogier retakes WRC points lead

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Ott Tänak flew to his second victory of the FIA World Rally Championship season in Germany on Sunday as Sebastien Ogier moved back into the lead of the drivers’ standings with three rounds to go.

Tänak led from Friday through to the final power stage to give M-Sport Ford team victory, marking his first tarmac win alongside co-driver Martin Järveoja.

“It’s a great feeling. The start to the rally went perfectly, after that it was just about controlling our lead,” Tänak said.

“Winning our first tarmac event feels cool. With 25 points here I don’t see any reason why we can’t fight for the championship. We will keep fighting; we need to keep winning if we’re going to win the championship.”

Tänak sits 33 points back from Ogier, whose bid for a fifth straight title was boosted with a run to third in Germany as chief championship rival Thierry Neuville retired with suspension damage on Saturday.

Neuville is now 17 points off the lead, with the WRC now embarking on a six-week break before returning in Spain on October 6.

Rosberg opens up on post-F1 life, tech investment interests

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Anyone who follows Nico Rosberg on social media will know that he has been keeping very busy since retiring just five days after winning his maiden Formula 1 championship at the end of last year.

As well as announcing he is to become a father for a second time, Rosberg has been travelling plenty, notably spending a lot of time in the United States and, in particular, Silicon Valley last month.

Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University, but has opened up more about his interests in technology and plans to invest in an interview with The Times.

“I recently got back from a trip to Silicon Valley. It was on my bucket list and it was really inspirational to see what happens there; I thought the mentality was fascinating,” Rosberg said.

“In our society, we look down on people who fail, whereas over there it’s normal to fail — it’s courageous. If you’re not scared of failing, you can get through to innovation.

“Over here, it’s very money, money, money, but over there people want to reach out to others, make their lives better and look after our planet, too.

“I’ve always been passionate about technology, and investment is of interest to me at this stage. Mobility is what I’m most interested in, because there’s been a huge disruption in that area and it’s going to change the health and future of our planet.

“It’s a fascinating time. I visited Uber and they’re working on their “network in the sky” already. They say that in the space of six years I’m going to be sitting here and my app will tell me which rooftop my drone is going to be on and at what time. That’s just around the corner, it’s pretty insane.

“So I’m starting to get active in that direction. I’m a conservative person, so I need to be careful. I do prefer to go for companies that already have a bit of a track record, but we’ll see.”

The interview cites Rosberg’s net worth as being £23 million ($29.6m), with the German admitting he earned “a lot” during his final year in F1 with Mercedes in 2016.

Nevertheless, Rosberg claimed he is “not a big spender”, instead opting for a number of property investment opportunities, his best being some space in London that has become a convenience store.

One of the big factors in Rosberg’s decision to retire from F1 was becoming a father, and he admitted that it also changed his approach to dealing with financial matters.

“Having [Alaia] really opened my eyes to future planning, because I want her to have all the opportunities I had in my life,” Rosberg said.

Ryan Hunter-Reay cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been cleared to drive in today’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) following his accident in qualifying for the race.

The driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda was re-evaluated Sunday morning by INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows after being transported, then released, from a nearby hospital in Pocono on Saturday.

Here’s INDYCAR’s full statement:

Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was re-evaluated by INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows this morning after sustaining injuries to his left knee and hip Saturday following a crash in ABC Supply 500 qualifying. Hunter-Reay has been cleared to drive.

Hunter-Reay will start from the rear of the field and press on in a great comeback after the accident. Last year he drove from the rear of the field – twice – to ultimately finish third. He won this race in 2015, his most recent Verizon IndyCar Series victory.

He posted a couple tweets last night thanking everyone for the support and the Holmatro Safety Team and Pocono’s staff for quick work to help him after sustaining hip and knee injuries from a heavy 138G impact.