IndyCar Roundtable: Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Ahead of Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, our MotorSportsTalk writers look back at the Verizon IndyCar Series season thus far and look ahead to race morning and the biggest race day of the season.

My colleagues Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1), Kyle Lavigne (@KyleMLavigne) and Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski) will all be assisting on Indy 500 race coverage on NBCSports.com.

What have you made of the season so far? 

Tony

It’s been strange to be honest because there hasn’t been a real rhythm that’s emerged. With five winners from five different races and Simon Pagenaud somehow flying under the radar as the defending champion and points leader going into Indianapolis 500 qualifying – before being usurped by Scott Dixon – it’s not felt as though a firm form book has been established. Add in the qualifying crash at Indianapolis that’s taken this year’s best dark horse, Sebastien Bourdais, out of action for the foreseeable future and an air of unpredictability about the Indianapolis 500 beyond the Fernando Alonso talking point, and I’m as perplexed as I ever have been in 20-plus years of fandom and 10-plus years of covering.

Luke

It’s been a very mixed-up season so far. Team Penske seems to be the outright team to beat on pace alone, as evidenced by its run of victories in the past three races, yet Honda has been resurgent. Sebastien Bourdais’ victory in St. Petersburg really set the tone for the year to come. It’s a real shame he’s now out injured as he could have been a surprise contender in the title race.

I think the real stand-out theme for me has been the close-knit nature of the front-running teams. Penske’s out front, sure, but Chip Ganassi Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Andretti Autosport, Ed Carpenter Racing – heck, even Dale Coyne Racing – all look like operations capable of winning races right now. It’s a fascinating prospect as we head into the thick of the season.

Kyle

The unpredictability of the Verizon IndyCar Series has not changed in the 2017 season. Through five races, the series has five different winners from three different teams. While Team Penske has won three races in a row, the season opened with wins from the smaller operations of Dale Coyne Racing (with Sebastien Bourdais) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (James Hinchcliffe). The powerhouses of Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing are currently winless, and that’s unlikely to continue. So, the number of different winners could easily hit double digits.

What’s more: Honda has clearly closed the performance to Chevrolet and road and street courses, and appears to have retained its speed advantaged on the big ovals. And then, of course, we have Fernando Alonso deciding to run the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IndyCar has long been recognized as one of the most unpredictable motorsports series on the planet, and that trend has gone even further in that direction in 2017.

Jerry

It’s been an interesting season thus far. One of the biggest surprises has been the performance of Josef Newgarden. Any time a new, young driver joins a major team, there’s typically a time of transition and learning. But Newgarden has fit into Team Penske in outstanding fashion. That’s why he’s third in the standings. On a more overall perspective, Team Penske has been so dominant, with all four of its drivers in the top-5, and three of them already capturing wins, including Newgarden. If Team Penske wins the Indy 500, they threaten to start making this a runaway season overall for its four drivers. On the flip side, knowing the driver potential at play, it’s disappointing the slow start that Carlos Munoz (16th) and Conor Daly (19th) have struggled in their first season with A.J. Foyt’s team – but they are learning a new package with Chevrolet. Munoz typically does well in the Indy 500, so with a strong finish Sunday, it would boost his season overall.

What is your favorite part of the Indy 500?

Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Tony

Without question, race morning. After the incessant amount of buildup and long hours in the two weeks that precede the race, you’re so ready for race day. And the buildup from the moment you get to the track at o’dark thirty, through all the pomp and circumstance that is quintessentially Indiana, to the drop of the green flag provides a rush of exhilaration you can’t get at any other race event in North America. Having covered the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that’s the only thing comparable. The race itself feels a three-hour breeze… and then you’re back to the hours of post-race work to comprehend what you’ve just digested.

Luke

I adore the show that surrounds the Indianapolis 500. F1 types may not like the idea of the ‘500 being called “the greatest spectacle in racing”, but it totally is. The spectacle is stunning. From the hype surrounding the drivers in the lead up to green to the traditional ceremonies after the race, it all makes the ‘500 what it is.

If Liberty Media wants to make F1 more entertaining, it should really look to the excitement that the ‘500 creates. F1 has said it wants 21 Super Bowls per year – why not have 21 Indy 500s a year? Why not create that same hubbub that the ‘500 does on a regular basis, all over the world?

And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle

Most recently, it has been the race itself. Since 2012 and the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis, each Indy 500 has been a slip streaming war that has featured well over 30 lead changes in each race (the all-time record was set at 68 in 2013, and the 2016 race featured 54 itself).

And it’s featured some of the most epic battles in the history of the race. Takuma Sato crashed while trying to take the lead from Dario Franchitti on the final lap in 2012. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves swapped the lead no fewer than four times in the final laps in 2014, with Hunter-Reay coming out on top. And in 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya outdueled Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Charlie Kimball in the final 15 laps.

Quite simply, the race has been a thrill ride, and this year should be more of the same.

Jerry

Obviously, the last lap. But there are so many other elements I enjoy. There’s the people watching, especially pre-race on the grid when you see so many luminaries of the sports and entertainment worlds. There’s “Back Home Again In Indiana,” which always gives me goose bumps (and I so much miss Jim Nabors’ rendition). There’s also the start of the race, the first roll into Turn 1, and just an overall day that thoroughly envelopes your senses, from sights to sounds, smells to feels, etc. Oh yes, and then there’s arguably the greatest victory lane celebration in any form of motorsports. Love the milk, love the horseshoe of flowers and then the kissing of the bricks, which is a perfect way to end the day.

Who is your pick to win the Indy 500?

Tony

From the “full-time IndyCar beat reporter” standpoint, I’ll get this out of the way first: I’m firmly in the “I want Fernando Alonso to do well, but not win,” camp. An ideal scenario for me would be where he comes close enough to win – say fourth to eighth – and gets the competitive juices flowing that he’ll want to come back.

As for the win, there’s any of about 10 or 12 drivers I could pick. But the man who’s under-appreciated as the driver that is among the greatest of his generation is Scott Dixon, who starts from the pole. Dixon’s due a ‘500 win and if his Honda engine holds together, he could run into the wind.

Tony Kanaan was my preseason pick so I feel bad reneging on that but he’s not looked as strong thus far. If it’s not a member of the Ganassi team, and it’s worth noting both Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are top dark horses, a win from either Ed Carpenter Racing driver (Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand) would be cool to witness.

Luke

Yes, I’m being that guy. Fernando Alonso. Because the narrative surrounding the ‘Alonso 500’ means it would be rather fitting.

Alonso may lack the experience of racing on ovals, and the opening stages are going to be a bit of a shock to him. But if he can keep things clean and make sure he’s there at the end, then I’d want him in my corner.

And if like 2016 this race comes down to a fuel save for victory, Alonso might just be thankful for all of the struggles his Honda F1 power unit has put him through this year…

I’ll say we get an Alonso-Dixon-RHR podium on Sunday.

Kyle

Picking winner is a toss-up. There are about 12-15 drivers for whom a victory would be no surprise, and that list includes multiple one-off entries. Complicating matters even more: the Hondas have been faster, but with multiple engine failures so far, appear more fragile.

My pick will come out of the Chevrolet camp, and it will involve a story of redemption. JR Hildebrand avenges his 2011 disappointment by drinking the milk in Victory Lane this year.

Jerry

I admit it, I’ve caught Alonsomania. But then, is it really that much of a surprise to want to pick him when we’re talking about a former two-time Formula 1 World Champion? The biggest question is how will Alonso operate in traffic, particularly in the closing laps, when normally sane drivers oftentimes do some insane-like moves in a last desperate bid to win the biggest race in the world.

If Alonso does not win, my second pick to win is James Hinchcliffe for sentimental reasons. He came back a long way from his near-tragic crash in 2015 by winning the pole for last year’s race, but he left some unfinished business. I want to see him win the 500 not only for him but also for team owner Sam Schmidt and the entire organization. But if it comes down to a drag race to the checkered flag between Alonso and Hinchcliffe, I want the mayor of Hinchtown to rule supreme.

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”