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Race Preview: IndyCar Iowa Corn 300

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Following a week off, the Verizon IndyCar Series picks back up with races on back-to-back weekends in July, beginning with the Iowa Corn Indy 300 (July 9, 5:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The visit to the .875-mile oval is the second and final stop at a short oval this year, following April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

If April’s outing at Phoenix is any indication, Chevrolet teams should have the advantage. However, in a season defined by unpredictability, Iowa certainly has the potential for a few surprises.

2017 Iowa Corn Indy 300 Talking Points

Championship Battle

To say that the 2017 championship picture is tight would be an understatement, with 72 points covering the top seven in the standings.

Scott Dixon sports a seemingly healthy 34-point lead over Simon Pagenaud. But, mathematically, it is possible for Pagenaud and his Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves (37 points behind) to leapfrog Dixon, especially if Dixon encounters early trouble (e.g. Juan Pablo Montoya at Iowa in 2015, when he crashed out within the first ten laps).

Further, the tight points gaps mean that even the slightest fluctuation in finishing positions could have drastic implications. For example, Tony Kanaan dominated this race in 2014, leading 247 laps, and appeared destined for victory before a late-race caution. That opened the door for drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden to pit for fresh tires, which helped them rocket through the field when the race restarted. Hunter-Reay and Newgarden finished first and second that year, pushing Kanaan down to third in the final laps.

A third-place finish is strong on paper, but in the case of Kanaan, it saw him leave 15 points on the table. With the championship as tight as it is, such a loss is hardly insignificant.

Assuming 21 cars will start Sunday evening’s race, the maximum point-swing possible is 45 points. And while Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Graham Rahal cannot mathematically leave Iowa with the championship lead, they remain well-positioned to gain ground.

Chevrolet short oval dominance

The balance of power among the manufacturers has been considerably more equal in 2017, with Honda possibly having the edge in the engine department and currently holding an advantage in race wins (6-4). However, Chevrolet continues to be the dominant force on short ovals.

April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix was evidence of this. The five fastest qualifying times came from Chevrolets, with Castroneves taking the pole, and the top four finishers were all from Chevrolet teams, with Pagenaud taking victory.

As a result, one can expect the Penske quartet of Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power to be major players this weekend. However, even though Team Penske is Chevrolet’s most dominant team, one cannot simply give this weekend’s win to someone in the Penske camp.

Ed Carpenter Racing sports a short oval program as stout as anyone’s, and both JR Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter kept the Penskes honest at Phoenix, with Hildebrand finishing third.

What’s more, Ed Carpenter Racing is the defending champion at Iowa, with then ECR driver Newgarden offering a performance unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory, leading 282 laps and nearly lapping the field during the first 109 circuits.

While Chevrolet may have the upperhand, the “David vs. Goliath” battle between Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing offers plenty of intra-manufacturer intrigue.

Andretti Autosport looking to regain Iowa form

In looking at the history of the Verizon IndyCar Series at Iowa Speedway, Andretti Autosport surfaces as the track’s main protagonist, with the organization scoring seven victories, including a string of six in a row between 2010 and 2015.

However, last year’s Iowa Corn Indy 300 was somewhat of a disaster for the Michael Andretti-led outfit. While Alexander Rossi managed to finish a respectable sixth, teammates Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti finished outside the top ten in 12th and 14th, while Ryan Hunter-Reay, a three-time winner at Iowa, suffered an engine failure a little over 100 laps in.

Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered a very tough race at Iowa in 2016 and ultimately dropped out with an engine failure. Photo: IndyCar

What’s more, they inexplicably lacked pace all weekend. Munoz was their best qualifier, and a lowly 15th at that, while Rossi started in 17th, Andretti in 19th, and Hunter-Reay in 20th.

The 2017 season has seen Andretti Autosport improve its pace significantly, however luck has alluded them at several events this year. While Sato (fourth) and Rossi (ninth) sit in the top ten in the championship, Andretti and Hunter-Reay languish down in 13th and 15th.

If luck is on their side, their history at Iowa Speedway suggests this could be the venue for Andretti Autosport to right the ship.

Ninth different winner in the cards?

Eight different winners have graced Victory Lane so far in 2017, yet a number of heavy hitters remain winless. Most obviously, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan top the list, but Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, JR Hildebrand, and Ed Carpenter all represent possible winners as well.

With seven races remaining, it seems likely that the 2017 season will see double digit winners, and it’s very possible the series could cross that threshold this weekend.

Lingering questions

  • Can Josef Newgarden repeat last year’s performance with a new team?
  • Will the Honda teams be as disadvantaged as we think?
  • Dale Coyne Racing brings a pair of rookies to Iowa in Ed Jones and Esteban Gutierrez. Jones has quietly impressed thus far in 2017, and has two Iowa podiums in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, while Gutierrez makes his oval track debut this weekend. What will the Iowa oval have in store for them?

The final word

From last year’s Iowa winner, Josef Newgarden: “I’m really pumped for the race at Iowa. For starters, I won last year, which was huge for me and my career. Secondly, we’re racing again in the No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevy in which I won earlier this season in at Barber. And on top of that, we’re coming off a solid finish at Road America. We’ve been working on our oval program since Texas and have a lot of things we want to try out that we think will give us a really strong car. The whole team is really excited to head to that race and see what we can do.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Saturday, July 8
10:00 a.m.- 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
2:00 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), airs LIVE on NBCSN
6:15 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Sunday, July 9
3:10 p.m. –  3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
4:00 p.m.. – NBCSN on air
4:44 p.m. – Iowa Corn 300 (300 laps/268.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Will Power
3. Scott Dixon
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Mikhail Aleshin
6. Alexander Rossi
7. Tony Kanaan
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. James Hinchcliffe
10. Charlie Kimball

 

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Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”