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Hunter-Reay: IndyCar’s 2018 car ‘heading in right direction’

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With the Verizon IndyCar Series a little under two weeks away from its first scheduled test of its new 2018 universal aero kit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ryan Hunter-Reay is pleased with the car’s near final renderings and potential “shield” addition.

The 36-year-old American, the 2012 series and 2014 Indianapolis 500 champion, has been a proponent of enhanced cockpit safety for some time and looks forward to seeing how the series gets on with its initial tests over the next couple months.

“I’ve only seen the preliminary mockups, but I think it’s heading in the right direction,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports on Wednesday.

“That’s something we need to put at the forefront. I love the new car challenge, getting behind the wheel and figuring it all out.”

Hunter-Reay has a long-term contract to drive Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 car – currently a Honda – through the 2020 season and will be one of the drivers who will likely lead the development of the new kit later this fall once testing ramps up.

As INDYCAR considers the potential of adding a shield design to the existing Dallara DW12 tub, with potential testing to begin later this fall according to Motorsport.com, Hunter-Reay described the challenges that come with that.

“The problem of a canopy is retrofitting one to an existing car, which is more difficult than building a car around it,” he explained.

“And then you have the cooling issue. At Iowa, we’re racing on a 92-degree day, and if the canopy would be up too high, there’s no air to the cockpit, so there’s cooling things they have to get around.

“But we have the best people in sport. I’m glad it’s progressing. I’ll say that I’m looking forward to ending the aero kit era.”

The 2018 car is an exciting new prospect for Hunter-Reay to think about since any championship hopes for 2017 are dashed – again – after a consistent spate of bad luck. Mechanical failures and incidents not of his own making have dropped one of the best overall drivers in the series to an unrepresentative 14th place in points.

Hunter-Reay is winless since Pocono in August 2015, a stretch of 28 races, and heads to Toronto this weekend looking to build off a third place finish this past weekend at Iowa.

Hunter-Reay noted how difficult street races are to call from the strategy box. Ray Gosselin, his race engineer, also doubles as RHR’s strategist.

“With street course strategies, I do not envy that,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “It’s unreal how tight the competition it is. And sometimes on a street course, from the car, you have no idea where you are in the big picture.

“In the long term, big picture side of it, I think we may need to address it as a sport. It can be so complicated as a sport. This guy’s leading, this guy’s second, there’s good battles for position, and then the yellow comes out and field gets completely flopped.

“I have friends who have watched IndyCar racing for years – and there’s times I have to explain it to them. It’s a complicated side of the sport, and sometimes it’s hard to follow on that side.”

Beyond his racing commitments, Hunter-Reay will co-host The RALLY Toronto on Thursday night with James Hinchcliffe, a party with proceeds benefitting RHR’s charity, Racing for Cancer. Hunter-Reay said this event is similar to The Yellow Party, a Racing for Cancer charity event held frequently in the past.

The two have partnered together on various philanthropic events before, Hinchcliffe often taking a week out of his winter to support Hunter-Reay’s Racing for Cancer event in December. About the only thing Hunter-Reay dreads is attempting to pronounce the foundation Hinchcliffe supports, the Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia Foundation of Canada (WMFC).

Hunter-Reay, and the rest of the 21-car field, compete in Toronto for the Honda Indy Toronto this weekend. Qualifying coverage airs Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with live race coverage from 3 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC.

What to watch for: United States GP (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2pm ET)

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Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of his fourth Formula 1 world championship heading into Sunday’s United States Grand Prix (live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET).

The Mercedes driver charged to his 11th pole position of the 2017 season with a stunning Q3 lap at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, edging out Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by two-tenths of a second in the final classification.

A recent swing of momentum has seen Hamilton march into a 59-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship, with an additional 16-point swing on Sunday at COTA being enough to deliver him a fourth crown.

However, with Vettel starting P2 and Ferrari’s race pace seeming competitive compared to Mercedes’, it will take a big turn of events for Hamilton to be crowned on Sunday. You can see the full permutations for both title races here.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race in Austin.

2017 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton seeks history as greatest Briton

Lewis Hamilton may need some divine intervention to skew Sebastian Vettel’s race if he is to become F1 world champion for a fourth time today, but the Briton will know that a record-breaking sixth USGP win would make clinching the crown a mere formality in Mexico.

Hamilton runs 59 points clear of Vettel in Austin and needs a 16-point swing to win the title with three races to spare, making it a big ask. But if Ferrari’s recent run of (un)reliability is anything to go by, it may not be such a far-flung though.

Hamilton is the overwhelming favorite heading into today’s race given his incredible track record at the Circuit of The Americas. The track was his king-maker in 2015 – will it be so again today?

Should it prove to be so, Hamilton would move clear as the greatest British driver in F1 history, breaking his tie with Jackie Stewart for three world titles.

Hamilton would also become just the fifth driver in history to win four F1 titles, following Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and current rival Vettel.

Ferrari’s race pace still a mystery

Ferrari’s bid for both champions may be all but over, but we have seen glimpses of impressive pace through the last two races that could breathe some life into the final few rounds of the season.

Ferrari appeared to have an edge on Mercedes in the race in Malaysia, and also looked strong in practice in Japan before Vettel’s issue on the grid, robbing us of a fight at the front with Hamilton.

Another issue for Vettel in practice in Austin on Friday meant we did not see fully what Ferrari can do over long runs, but all of the noises coming out of the Italian team are good.

A Vettel-Hamilton battle would be something to savor, as they have been far too rare this season. And you can be sure Vettel won’t back down in this title fight quietly.

How will Verstappen fare from the back?

There have been grid penalties galore once again in Austin, with only the top five set to start the race where they qualified on Saturday.

Max Verstappen is the only front-runner to drop to the rear, with a 15-place drop for a power unit change leaving him to produce the kind of fightback he is becoming rather adept at in F1 (see China this year).

Armed with an upgraded Renault power unit and a super-soft tire for the start that will see him go deep into the race before pitting, don’t be surprised to see Verstappen mixing it up the order come the checkered flag as he looks to continue his impressive run of form.

Hartley hopeful of impressing on debut

Brendon Hartley’s maiden F1 weekend has been a solid one thus far, with the New Zealander finishing just one-tenth of a second shy of a place in Q2 on Saturday.

Engine changes mean he will start 19th at COTA, ahead only of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, and it will be interesting to see how the Toro Rosso driver fares in his first single-seater race since 2012.

Hartley has also not raced in an event this short for some time, such is the nature of sports car racing, but he has experience at this circuit from his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche.

Points may be a big ask, but getting to the checkered flag in one piece and staying in touch with the other midfielders would be a job well done for Hartley on debut.

Also keep an eye out for how Carlos Sainz Jr. does in his first F1 race for Renault, lining up an excellent seventh on the grid for the French marque.

Haas’ hopes of home points rest on Grosjean

Haas has fully embraced its home race weekend thus far, with the ‘Haas Hill’ fan area going down very well as it makes the most of flying the flag for the United States in F1.

However, the team’s hopes of a points finish in its second home grand prix look to rest with Romain Grosjean after teammate Kevin Magnussen had a qualifying to forget, finishing last and then receiving a penalty.

Grosjean will start the race from 12th and could make his way into the top 10 with a good start, but with Verstappen fighting back and the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne also appearing to be in quicker cars, the Frenchman may have a job on his hands to stay there.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Esteban Ocon Force India
7. Carlos Sainz Jr. Renault
8. Fernando Alonso McLaren
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Romain Grosjean Haas
13. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
14. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
15. Lance Stroll Williams*
16. Max Verstappen Red Bull*
17. Kevin Magnussen Haas*
18. Nico Hulkenberg Renault*
19. Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso*
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren*

* after grid penalties applied