As IndyCar hits 2017's halfway point, we take stock of the weird. Photo: Getty Images

DiZinno: IndyCar hits 2017 midseason with glorious lack of rhythm

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The Verizon IndyCar Series technically reached its halfway point of the 2017 season halfway through last Saturday night’s Rainguard Water Sealers 600. At the half-distance point of the ninth race in a 17-race season, that marked half the races down and half to go.

By the end of the ninth race of the year though, the repair bills and the question marks about this season continued to add up. The only constant in this most goofy of IndyCar seasons is that there is no constant, and no rhythm, at all.

DIXON LEADS POINTS, BUT NO WINS, AND A LOT OF BIZARRE MOMENTS

Dixon and family after Indy pole. Photo: IndyCar

Nothing has felt normal about Scott Dixon’s 2017 campaign, and it all goes back to when he premiered at the preseason test in Phoenix wearing a blank, white firesuit and was driving a blank, No. 9 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing after being in a red Target car each of the past 15 years.

At the halfway point in the year, Dixon has had four podiums, three primary sponsors (GE LED, NTT Data, Camping World), two liveries, one pole, one alleged robbery at gunpoint at a Taco Bell, one hellacious airborne accident that left him limping, one crash where he got taken out through no fault of his own and exactly zero wins… and he leads the points. All this in a year where Ganassi’s switch to Honda was supposed to slow their roll as a championship contender and when Dixon’s lone knock throughout his career is that he’s a slow starter renowned as much for his heroic second-half comebacks.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 10: Takuma Sato, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, and Scott Dixon, driver of the #9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, collide during the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Nothing’s gone right for Dixon from a results standpoint this year and that’s what makes it crazy to think he’s in the points lead. The usually unflappable “Iceman” was more pissed off by Takuma Sato taking him out in Texas than by either traumatic event in Indianapolis.

If Dixon’s 2017 season doesn’t encapsulate IndyCar’s “year of the weird” in a nutshell, nothing will.

PENSKE’S PERPLEXING BARBER SHOP QUARTET

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Simon Pagenaud, driver of the #1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet, Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, and Will Power, driver of the #12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, stand on the grid during qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Ordinarily by now we’d have a sense Team Penske would have an authoritative, de facto number one by this point in the year. Naturally, because 2017 is such a weird year, we don’t.

Will Power is the only member with two wins but they’ve come in dominant fashion at the Indianapolis road course – which you’d expect – and on Texas’ 1.5-mile oval – which you wouldn’t. Power’s relaxed, calmer state of mind has been fascinating to witness this year because in the past he’s been wound up. Now his responsibility as a dad and husband to wife Liz has seemingly taken precedence, which is good. He had a miserable start to the year with a mechanical gremlin at St. Pete, contact with Charlie Kimball at the start of Long Beach, a puncture that cost him the Barber win, and also got taken out at the Indianapolis 500. Still, he seems poised to contend down the stretch now fifth in points.

Defending champion Simon Pagenaud also typifies the “year of the weird.” He had no business coming second at St. Pete or fifth at Long Beach after nightmare qualifying sessions, yet he did. He dominated Phoenix, an oval, for his first oval win. He was nowhere at the Indianapolis 500… yet drove so smart at Texas to get third. He’s second in points, but you wouldn’t know it by how under-the-radar he’s been, even though he’s raced well this year.

Newcomer Josef Newgarden? He’s made his impact, too, with a lack of rhythm. Often Penske’s fastest in-race driver, Newgarden inherited the Barber win, has raced better on the street courses where he’s struggled in the past (finishes of eighth, third, fourth and second represent his best street course season to date), and made two mistakes on ovals that have left his crew with wrecked cars. All the while, he’s been trying to integrate into the Penske team, has moved to Charlotte, and still keep up his level of humor. He’s balancing a lot.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 10: Helio Castroneves, driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet, crashes during the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

And until Texas, it was fourth driver Helio Castroneves, who hadn’t won yet, who led the team from a points standpoint. Yet his lack of rhythm also exists. A consistent first five races saw him end between fourth and ninth in each, but poles at both West Coast races in Long Beach and Phoenix didn’t provide an end to his winless drought. He drove underneath a flying Dixon at Indy, and drove a wrecked, down on power car to within a fraction of his fourth Indy 500 win. It was one of the drives of his 20-year career, but one which came up short. Then losing the pole on a penalty in Detroit produced what seemed to be an angry Helio there – mistakes followed, as did a pair of poor results. A heavy crash at Texas has likely left him shaken up, as well. Fourth in points now, he needs to find the mental strength to overcome a series of frustrating results.

This doesn’t even mention Juan Pablo Montoya, who appeared to get in the heads of some of his teammates with an under-the-radar yet solid month of May in the team’s fifth car. Despite a fueling issue, Montoya recovered to sixth in the race. He proved his point, that he remains perhaps IndyCar’s best driver without a full-time seat.

SATO’S RE-EMERGENCE VERSUS ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT’S MISSED CHANCES

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, celebrates after winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Takuma Sato that has emerged in 2017 is a welcome variance from the Sato that often permeated his previous seven seasons in IndyCar. Fast, but not fragile, Sato’s “no attack, no chance” style only appeared when it needed to – and paid dividends. In a car that afforded him a proper opportunity to showcase his talent at Andretti Autosport, Sato played the game perfectly at Indy all month, made the moves on Max Chilton, Helio Castroneves and Ed Jones when he needed to, and held off Castroneves for a popular victory in the 101st Indianapolis 500. His follow-up weekend at Detroit was huge too, and kept him in title contention.

And then… Texas. Sato’s aggressive streak got the better of him there and took both himself and Dixon out in the process. It’s those kind of moves that will lose the congenial Sato a championship; then again, at third place and only 14 points back, he’s not out of it either. This is the Sato dichotomy in a nutshell; he’s so fast, so good and so tenacious most of the time, but it’s those mistakes that pop up at the worst possible moments that prove his undoing. We can only hope “Good Taku” defeats “Bad Taku” through the second half of the year.

Sato, to his credit, has been the main results generator for Andretti’s team. Keeping with the “weird” theme of the year, we meet his three teammates and their seasons:

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Alexander Rossi, driver of the #98 Andretti Autosport/Curb Honda, prepares to 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)
  • Alexander Rossi (above) has driven so well this year but doesn’t have a proper result to show for it. Between a puncture at St. Petersburg, engine failure at Long Beach, fueling issue at Indy and being trapped in a “Ganassi sandwich” at Texas, Rossi has probably lost close to 100 points between those four races. He’s ninth in points on 254, but could be so much higher with a bit of luck. It feels that if he can get first big result, the rest will come.
  • Similarly, Ryan Hunter-Reay has had a cartoon anvil chasing him around. With four DNFs and seven finishes of 11th or worse in nine starts, Hunter-Reay’s borne nearly the entire brunt of bad luck. If anyone has an answer for what he’s done to piss off the racing gods of late, I’m sure he’d love to know…
  • Marco Andretti, meanwhile, has had a better season in every aspect but results. A regular practice pace setter this year, Andretti’s either just missed it in qualifying or been caught out at the wrong place at the wrong time. Like his teammates, his standing (13th while RHR is 14th) is not representative of his improved form this year.
  • We’ll get to one of their Indy-only teammates in a minute…

DALE COYNE RACING’S ROLLER COASTER OF FORTUNES

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Sebastien Bourdais of France, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In a normal year, Dale Coyne Racing wouldn’t be one of the stories of the year. But again, 2017 is not a normal year.

The investment Coyne made on the engineering front in adding Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson to reunite with Sebastien Bourdais has been well-documented. The dream reunion came good with a storybook last-to-first win at St. Petersburg, in Bourdais’ adopted hometown.

The roller coaster that followed has also been one to note. Bourdais dodged debris flying at him at Long Beach en route to second, there. He still led the points after a solid eighth place at Barber.

But then Phoenix hit. Once Bourdais got taken out in the first lap melee triggered by his longtime sparring partner Mikhail Aleshin, it left the Coyne crew having to rebuild the car in the first of several six-figure impacts that would come.

Bourdais looked a pole contender at Indianapolis and two 231-mph laps in qualifying proved that point; then it all went wrong following an overcorrect and even worse crash at Turn 2. The track fell silent, as did the jaws of most on pit road. The horrific looking accident fortunately for Bourdais could have been worse – he’s already on the road to recovery after pelvic fractures and a hip injury – but it left Coyne with yet another lost race car.

Flash forward to race day. Replacement James Davison wasn’t the most popular pick but more than made up for it with a dynamic drive to the lead from last… and then he crashed out. Then, having been overlooked all month, rookie Ed Jones continued his stealthily solid start to 2017 with third place in a damaged car. He lost the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors and outrage justifiably followed.

With Esteban Gutierrez and most recently Tristan Vautier in the No. 18 car, there’s been more Coyne stories that have come. And then, sadly, both Vautier and Jones got taken out in the Texas melee. The repair bills keep adding up for IndyCar’s favorite small budget team out of Plainfield, Ill., who don’t deserve the luck they’ve had for their pace and efforts this year.

RAHAL’S MIDSUMMER REVIVAL

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 26: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Steak n’ Shake Honda stands on the grid during Carb day for the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 26, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Not even a month ago Graham Rahal was 17th in points leaving Phoenix, with a wrecked race car in the Turn 1 mess, and 100 points back of Simon Pagenaud. After Texas, Rahal might be the hottest driver in the series.

Rahal has scythed up to sixth in points with his Detroit doubleheader sweep and a fourth in Texas, and he’d be even higher had a puncture not set him back at the Indianapolis 500. The first Detroit win came after Rahal was admittedly shaken up seeing wife Courtney Force’s awful accident in NHRA competition at Epping, N.H.. Coupled with an outstanding 20th-to-sixth run at the Indianapolis road course, Rahal and the RLL Racing team have finally hit their stride for the year after a brutal opening four-race stretch.

The consistency is good to see for Rahal now, as last year, he seemed to alternate good and bad results per weekend. More consistent top-fives and a further win or two will solidify his championship challenge.

THAT FAMOUS ONE-OFF SPANIARD AT INDY

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, in action during the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Clearly we mean Oriol Servia, right?

Servia, who’s Catalan, went along like the rest of us with the ultimate one-off entry that was the story of mid-April into May, in Fernando Alonso’s bow at the Indianapolis 500 with McLaren, Honda and Andretti. We’ve written so many words about him and his odyssey already and it only seems like it will continue as the summer passes into the fall.

What we know is he enjoyed the experience, soaked up the atmosphere, did the commitments he needed to do, endeared himself to the fans, and, almost poetically, retired with 20 laps to go courtesy of a Honda blown engine.

What we don’t know is his next move; and neither does he. Does a full-time IndyCar shift really interest him beyond the “Why not?” message he said during the NBCSN Texas broadcast? Can he find an F1 seat where he can win? Or will he be destined to make another bad move at the wrong time, as has affected him most of his F1 career? We can only wait and see…

HONDA’S REVIVAL VS. CHEVY

Both on the strength of numbers (13 cars with five full-time teams to eight cars and three) and results, it’s been Honda’s best year in several up against Chevrolet. But even as Honda has racked up the accolades and the wins – thus far a 5-4 edge over Chevrolet – in pursuit of its first manufacturer’s championship since Chevrolet’s return, its reliability has been a talking point. So many failures have occurred which has seen HPD pushing the envelope. We knew this was an issue in F1 with its separate power unit there, but it hadn’t been an issue in IndyCar, until this year.

Still though, Honda’s achieved quite a lot, and done so in important races and markets. The Indianapolis win with Sato was huge both politically and corporately for Honda of Japan and America; its Detroit double sweep came in General Motors’ backyard.

THERE’S SO MANY OTHER STORIES TO TELL, TOO…

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Tony Kanaan, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, speaks with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, during qualifying 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)

As this is getting to be north of 2,000 words (again, the year is so weird it requires so many), we’ll go through bullet points of some other notes:

  • James Hinchcliffe’s emotional win at Long Beach completed his comeback story told ad nauseum over the last two years. Somehow though it seems so long ago; Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has since struggled from a results standpoint. His “that’s adorable” retort to Chip Ganassi, though, was priceless and an early contender for “quote of the year”…
  • SPM teammate Mikhail Aleshin has not endeared himself to the paddock with the number of incidents he’s been involved with. Between Tony Kanaan, JR Hildebrand, Ryan Hunter-Reay, the handful of cars at Phoenix and then getting caught up in the Texas pileup, Aleshin’s No. 7 Honda has been in the eye of the storm way too often. After making huge strides in 2016, it’s fair to say the “Mad Russian” has regressed in 2017 in a disappointing campaign thus far.
  • Kanaan had had a weird year to date so far, as well. He has had multiple incidents with Aleshin; he had a first-lap incident on the IMS road course; and it was only at the ‘500 where he banked a top-five. His best finish, second at Texas, came after he was being accused of triggering the massive pile-up. He took responsibility, and now heads to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for his debut run – this is weird because he only got the appointment following Bourdais’ injuries.
  • Both Ed Jones and Max Chilton have been the surprise drivers of the season in good ways. Jones has banked a number of top-10s and only had his first incident at Texas. Chilton has taken a significant step forward in his second year. His month of May was stellar and he’s racing a lot better towards the front of the field. Jones’ third at Indy technically counts as a podium; I’d not be surprised to see either on a proper podium or perhaps win their first race later this year.
  • Ed Carpenter Racing is another team that could use “weird” as its word de jour to describe 2017. Spencer Pigot has raced excellent in his starts but been undone by fiery brakes (St. Petersburg), a fiery motor (Detroit), an overcorrection on corner exit (Barber) or a bad pit stop (Indianapolis road course). He’s also raced with a famous Instagram dog as his primary sponsor… because again, 2017 is weird. JR Hildebrand and his majestic hair and scruff has looked the business on ovals but not yet on road or street courses, meshing with fellow brainiac and IndyCar engineering convert Justin Taylor, formerly of Audi’s LMP1 program. Ed Carpenter’s results haven’t matched his pace on his ovals, while Zach Veach impressed in a one-off fill-in role at Barber.
  • AJ Foyt Racing has, as expected, taken time to come to grips with the new Chevrolet aero kit and engine. But Carlos Munoz’s 10th place at Indianapolis and Conor Daly’s seventh in Texas have been nice signs of life. The team is getting there, but isn’t fully there yet in such a deep field.
  • If it weren’t for bad luck, Charlie Kimball wouldn’t have any. First-lap dust-ups at St. Petersburg and Long Beach have then ceded to back-to-back engine issues at both Indianapolis races, then an oil leak at Texas after his first career pole. Even if you assign blame to the likable Californian for one of the two first-lap contacts, it’s still not fair how much poor luck he’s dealt with otherwise, as he’s a distant 18th in points.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have gone ninth-fifth to start, which is as surprising as it is amazing for the debut team and a driver who’s been revitalized in a new team built around him.
  • Good to see Juncos Racing debut at Indianapolis; it’d be great to see them, Harding and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing all full-time in 2018. Michael Shank Racing, too, improved as their first month went on with Andretti Autosport and Jack Harvey did enough to deserve a second chance, even if his results don’t show it.
  • Jay Howard had done a perfect job of flying under the radar in SPM’s third car at Indianapolis all month, until he crashed out and came into Dixon’s path exiting Turn 1. The crash was bad; the attempt to blame Hunter-Reay was perhaps worse.
  • Oh, and by the way, renderings of the new 2018 Dallara common aero kit are out. We can’t wait for the car’s official first test, set for July 25-26 at Indianapolis, before its first road course test the Tuesday after Mid-Ohio on August 1.

If the first half of 2017 was weird, how should we expect the second half to play out?

The next round of stories will be written starting next weekend at Road America (Sunday, June 25, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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.”