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Post-Detroit debut, Gutierrez likely set to continue with Coyne

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DETROIT – Esteban Gutierrez has made his Verizon IndyCar Series weekend debut this morning aboard the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda for the first of what is likely to be a significant number of races at Dale Coyne Racing.

While nothing is confirmed yet, Coyne and Gutierrez are working towards an extension that will see Gutierrez in the car for most, if not all, remaining races as the injury replacement for Sebastien Bourdais until Bourdais’ return.

After the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear this weekend, IndyCar moves to the Texas Motor Speedway oval (Saturday, June 10, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the 1.5-mile oval that could be Gutierrez’s oval debut if he is confirmed for that race.

Coyne unofficially confirmed Gutierrez for Road America during an interview with NBCSN pit reporter Katie Hargitt on the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network during free practice one, as part of a plan to keep the 25-year-old Mexican in further as the year goes on.

“This weekend, he hasn’t tested. Never been in one of these cars. (They’re) his first laps,” Coyne told Hargitt. “This is just a learning weekend. I don’t think until Road America where can actually do a test day that he’ll on his game.”

Asked whether Gutierrez is set to continue the rest of the way, Coyne responded, “That’s the plan.”

Coyne explained to Hargitt why he brought Gutierrez into the team: “We just looked at his resume. He’s won GP3, be third in GP2, which is highly competitive, hard to read F1 resume, because teams are so different. He’s a good friend of Adrian Fernandez, we talked to Adrian about him, said it was pretty easy.”

During his first formal media availability Gutierrez stopped short of confirming himself for further races as well, but strongly hinted he’ll be in a car further races. A special Unifin blue and white firesuit for Coyne with his name on it also highly suggests a busier schedule.

“So far I’m enjoying it a lot, and yeah, I think it’s important to think on Detroit right now,” Gutierrez said. “Hopefully I can do the rest of the season. This is what I want. So yeah, hopefully we can get things organized so that everything goes forward.”

Gutierrez has three would-be Formula E conflicts ahead at Berlin (June 10-11), New York City (July 15-16) and Montreal (July 29-30) with Techeetah. He’s only raced three FE rounds and told NBC Sports that they’re still working out whether he’ll continue in FE for any or all of those three weekends.

Additionally, Gutierrez said he’d be keen to do an IndyCar oval race if the opportunity presents itself. He also took after Fernando Alonso in saying he’s interested in running the Indianapolis 500.

“No, I never have (driven on an oval), and hopefully if I have the chance that I can at least do a test day before that, so that will be important for me to get a feeling,” he said.

“It’s completely new to me, but I’m very keen to learn and to go there and try out. I mean, I’m a racer. I like challenges, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

For Indy, Gutierrez took a long pause when asked whether he’d want to be in Monaco or Indianapolis next year on Memorial Day weekend, which elicited a lot of laughs.

“That’s a really good question,” he paused, before saying, “I would love to try the Indy 500.

“I watched the race, and it’s a real racing race. It’s pure driving, pure racing. It requires so many factors around. I mean, I think what Fernando experienced, I know Fernando very well, so I could see a smile on his face all the time, so I could realize that it’s something I have to try.”

This is not Gutierrez’s first time racing in America as he raced in Formula BMW USA in 2007, a year where he beat Alexander Rossi in the championship. He also beat Rossi in the year he won the 2010 GP3 Series, in a year when Josef Newgarden among other notable names also competed.

He hasn’t had much in the way of other drivers saying hi to him yet but only because he just arrived in the U.S. a couple days ago.

“I’ve spoken to a few of them, not everybody because I came very quickly. We just arrived here two days ago,” he said. “But yes, I mean, it seems that it’s very nice to come back to America from 2007 when I was racing Formula BMW here. I know very well tracks like Road America, which is one of my favorite tracks in the world, and I’m very keen to hopefully have the chance to race there again with an IndyCar in the following races.

“But yeah, regarding the drivers I competed with, it’s going to come natural. I mean, obviously being here, spending more time here, I will be able to speak with them. It’s been a long time, so many years in between, so I’m sure we can share a lot of experiences.”

It’s quite a baptism by bumps for Gutierrez in Detroit, as he called it the bumpiest track he’s ever raced on.

“It’s probably one of the trickiest tracks in the calendar, so it’s been quite enjoyable to get there in the IndyCar for the first time, getting to know the car,” he said.

“It’s a little bit bumpier than the video footage I had from the previous year. I was pleased to get on track and to say, okay, it’s not as bad as I saw on the videos.

“But definitely it’s something new for me. I mean, to have this amount of bumps, you know, the changes of the surface, you have concrete, you have asphalt, you have — everything is changing so the tires are reacting differently, so obviously it’s another factor on top of learning the car is also to learn the differences between the surfaces.

“Obviously my first goal right now is to feel comfortable, to learn. I have a great team behind me supporting me, giving me all the available information for me to get up to speed as quick as possible, right, because we know that coming from a Formula 1 experience, from Formula E, takes a bit of time to get used to a different car, especially coming into a weekend where there is quite few practice and track time.”

Gutierrez only had one session but has hailed the Dallara DW12 chassis and Honda power unit as well, in noting how similar the cars are across the board compared to F1.

“It’s more natural. The cars are pretty much equal between the teams, and that gives you the opportunity to show or let’s say to do more as a driver and to influence more on that side,” he said.

“Also the level of communication with the engineers to fine tune the car, suiting the driver — the driving style. Also — I mean, yeah, in general, yeah, I’m very happy, and the fact that you have no power steering makes it also very different.

“You have so much feedback from the car. The feeling really is much harder, but it’s much better because you get the feedback that you have from the tires, from the car, from the movements, the vibrations, and this helps you a lot to understand the car better. Not many buttons to think about.”

Gutierrez will be back in action for his second practice later this afternoon.

Alonso, Vandoorne’s Azerbaijan GP grid drops grow through Saturday

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Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 grid penalties for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix grew through Saturday as the stewards confirmed both McLaren drivers had taken additional power unit parts ahead of qualifying.

Vandoorne and Alonso entered the Baku race weekend anticipating grid penalties after replacing parts on their Honda power units, which have lacked both reliability and performance throughout the season.

Both drivers were handed 15-place drops on Friday ahead of practice due to initial changes, only to receive further drops in the lead up to qualifying.

Alonso currently sits with a 40-place drop to his name after an overhaul of his power unit, while Vandoorne is to drop 35 places after also taking a gearbox change before qualifying.

McLaren ailed to its worst qualifying display of the season so far in Baku as both Alonso and Vandoorne dropped out in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively.

However, Alonso was not too disheartened by the result, saying it has set McLaren up nicely for the race on Sunday.

“We did a good job today in terms of preparing for the race: we only used one set of tires, put in low fuel and did some checks,” the Spaniard said.

“We know we’re not competitive around here, but the race is going to be long and demanding. We’ve seen many mistakes from almost every driver, and we need to avoid making any of those tomorrow.

“In these kinds of grands prix, we need to try and finish the race, get some data for the team, and keep developing the car.

“We need to make sure we keep away from the walls tomorrow. Let’s also hope we can end up in the points.”

Due to a strange quirk in the regulations, Alonso and Vandoorne will not share the back row of the grid in Baku – and the latter will, in fact, gain a place.

As Renault’s Jolyon Palmer failed to post a time during Q1 and therefore did not qualify for the race, he will start P20.

By virtue of having a greater grid drop than Vandoorne, Alonso will take 19th on the grid, with the Belgian starting just ahead in P18.

Stroll feeling ‘comfortable’, ‘confident’ in car after Baku Q3 run

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Lance Stroll delivered the most impressive qualifying run of his fledgling Formula 1 career so far in Baku on Saturday, charging to eighth place on the grid for Williams.

Stroll, 18, made his F1 debut at the beginning of the year with Williams after stepping up from Formula 3, but endured a baptism of fire as he failed to score any points through his opening six outings.

The Canadian charged to his maiden points finish last time out at his home race in Montreal, finishing ninth overall, and carried that momentum through to qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Stroll reached Q3 for the second time, beating his Chinese Grand Prix display by taking eighth spot, as well as outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time.

“It was a good day, and it has been a good weekend. I am comfortable and confident in the car,” Stroll said.

“I like the circuit and today everything fell into place. I missed a bit in Q3, and I think there was some more that was possible there, as we were four-tenths off compared to my lap in Q2.

“In Q3, because the track temperatures had dropped, it was hard to get the tires ready in one lap and also because of the red flag, we only had time to do one push lap.

“Sometimes around here it is better when you do one push lap, then another prep lap and then another push lap. But it is still a great result and I am just happy for the team.”

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.