Photo: Scuderia Corsa

Bell leads IndyCar contingent in Le Mans qualifying

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Although he hasn’t been in a Verizon IndyCar Series race this year, NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell was best of those actively involved in the 2017 IndyCar season in qualifying for Saturday’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Bell qualified third in the GTE-Am class in the No. 62 WeatherTech-backed Ferrari 488 GTE for Scuderia Corsa, which he shares with Bill Sweedler and Cooper MacNeil. Bell and Sweedler are seeking to defend their class victory here last year, which they accomplished co-driving with Jeff Segal in the previous generation Ferrari F458 Italia.

As there are eight 488s in the 16-car GTE-Am class, this Scuderia Corsa Ferrari has been the best of them both at the Le Mans Test Day and in qualifying. Bell’s best time of 3:53.312 was about a half second off class polesitter Fernando Rees, in the No. 50 Larbre Competition Corvette C7.R, at 3:52.886. Bell has completed 32 laps this week.

“Qualifying went well,” Bell said. “We made our first change to the car to make it go quicker and that is exactly what it did tonight. It improved the balance and that made a small improvement, but around this long track that makes a big difference. Bill and Cooper did some strong laps and are comfortable in the car, which is what is important. To be starting third and the fastest Ferrari says a lot about our effort here this week.”

Beyond Bell, there’s three active drivers competing in IndyCar this season who are racing at Le Mans this week, two in the GTE-Pro class and one in LMP2.

Scott Dixon is best of that group as he’ll start fifth in GTE-Pro in the No. 69 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GT which he shares with Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. This trio finished third here last year, with Dixon setting the fastest race lap in class on his Le Mans debut.

Briscoe, an IndyCar veteran from 2005 through 2015, set the car’s best qualifying time of 3:51.232. The class pole time is Darren Turner in the No. 97 Aston Martin Vantage V8 at 3:50.837.

“We definitely had a go at qualifying tonight,” Briscoe said. “It was the first time we ran with new tires and low fuel and we’ve always found this car comes alive when we drop the fuel out of it, so it felt great. The balance was nice. We got one of those good laps at Le Mans where you get a tow and don’t get held up with any traffic and piece it together. I was really pleased, but obviously there’s a lot of competition. It was quick at the time but we’re fifth now so I think it’s going to be a tough race and hopefully we’ll have the pace to stay at the front during the race.”

Dixon’s best time this week in 29 total laps is a 3:52.807, set in the second of three qualifying sessions. Westbrook’s is a 3:52.496. Dixon also got to catch up with Ford World Rallycross driver Ken Block at Le Mans.

The No. 68 Ford, the defending class winner here, will launch its defense from 12th on the 13-car grid. IndyCar 20th year man but Le Mans rookie Tony Kanaan shares that car with Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, Kanaan deputizing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais.

Kanaan’s best lap this week is a 3:53.512. The Brazilian completed 15 laps in the first four-hour free practice session and nine more laps since, so he has a total of 24 before warmup on Saturday morning.

Mikhail Aleshin also saddles up for his third consecutive Le Mans, this time in SMP Racing’s new Dallara P217 Gibson in LMP2 with Sergey Sirotkin and Victor Shaitar.

Aleshin’s best time of 3:27.782 has put the No. 27 car 10th on the LMP2 class grid, and 16th overall, first non-Oreca 07 (or the rebadged Alpine A470 variant) on the grid. In the all-Russian lineup, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports IndyCar driver has driven only 24 laps this week.

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY ROOKIE QUARTET DEBUTS

There’s also four recent Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates making their debuts at Le Mans, in Andre Negrao, Felix Rosenqvist, Will Owen and Jose Gutierrez, who’ve competed in either Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires or Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in recent years.

Those cars will line up 14th, 20th, 21st and 22nd overall, eighth, 14th, 15th and 16th in the LMP2 class. Negrao is in the No. 35 Signatech Alpine A470 Gibson with Nelson Panciatici and Pierre Ragues, Gutierrez is in the DragonSpeed-run No. 22 Oreca 07 he shares with Ryo Hirakawa and Memo Rojas, Owen in the best of seven Ligier JS P217 chassis, the No. 32 United Autosports entry he shares with Filipe Albuquerque and Hugo de Sadeleer, and Rosenqvist in the DragonSpeed-10 Star No. 21 Oreca 07 with Henrik Hedman and Ben Hanley, an all-rookie lineup.

Negrao’s best time this week is 3:29.248 in 31 laps, Rosenqvist’s is 3:29.777 in just 19 laps, Gutierrez’s is 3:32.406 in 37 laps, and Owen’s is 3:37.469 in 32 laps.

It is worth noting the Oreca has a distinct pace edge in LMP2 over the other three chassis. Aleshin’s Dallara lap of 3:27.782 is the best non-Oreca lap this week, but still 2.43 seconds off Alex Lynn’s pole time of 3:25.352 in the No. 26 G-Drive Racing (TDS) Oreca 07.

Of course there are plenty of others with past IndyCar or Mazda Road to Indy experience in the field but these mentioned above are the most recent and/or are still active within these championships.

This year’s Le Mans race starts Saturday at 3 p.m. local time, 9 a.m. ET, with coverage on the FOX networks and flag-to-flag radio coverage via Radio Le Mans.

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.