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PREVIEW: Honda Indy Toronto

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The lone event outside the U.S. for the Verizon IndyCar Series takes place this weekend with the annual Honda Indy Toronto, the fifth and final street race of the 2017 season (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

A tight championship and the tight confines of the Exhibition Place street course are the headlines ahead of Round 12 of the season.

Here’s some of the talking points heading into the weekend.

2017 Honda Indy Toronto – Talking Points

Honda goes for street course season sweep

This isn’t something that was forecast at the start of the season but now is something that can occur this weekend: Honda looks for a five-for-five sweep of the street course races this season.

With Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing, St. Petersburg), James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Long Beach) and Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Detroit doubleheader) having won the first four, Honda’s 13 drivers from its five teams will look to complete the sweep this weekend in the second of three Honda-sponsored races this year.

Fittingly in the races where a manufacturer has sponsored the race, it’s been the other manufacturer that’s actually won. Josef Newgarden (Chevrolet) won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama while Rahal (Honda) swept the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear.

Points battle intensifies

Helio Castroneves’ win in Iowa last week means the championship gap between he and leader Scott Dixon is just eight points (403-395).

Simon Pagenaud (372), Will Power (350) and Josef Newgarden (347) have a bit of work to do heading into the weekend but all can afford to be confident. Power (2016) and Newgarden (2015) are the two most recent winners in Toronto, and both Pagenaud and Dixon looked on course for the win last year before being caught out by an ill-timed caution flag, that played to Power (won) and Castroneves’ (finished second) benefit.

Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato are tied for sixth on 337 points but need a big weekend in Toronto to avoid falling too much further out of play, at more than a full race distance behind.

A tenth different winner?

Castroneves was also the ninth winner in 11 races this year, meaning IndyCar is only one away from double digits this year (10) and two away from tying the all-time mark of 11 set in 2000 and 2001 in CART.

With Castroneves breaking through, each of the top seven drivers in points has won, plus Hinchcliffe (12th) and Bourdais (22nd).

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are the only other drivers with top-fives on street courses this year without a win, but both looked potential winners at Long Beach before mechanical issues intervened. Either would make a nice round 10th winner of the season, and Hunter-Reay (2012) is a past Toronto winner.

Additionally in eighth, 10th and 11th in points, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton or Ed Jones could break through this weekend. Toronto isn’t just a pace race but often comes down to strategy, and it wouldn’t surprise to see the Ganassi and/or Dale Coyne teams throw a strategic spanner in the works. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot was a winner here in Indy Lights, and has had good street course races without a major result of note yet this year.

Toronto another strategy special

Toronto has not been a particularly straightforward weekend over the last few years, with Scott Dixon’s doubleheader domination in 2013 about the only races that went to plan. Rain pushed the 2014 doubleheader into a shortened pair of same-day races won by Bourdais and Mike Conway, with Newgarden winning a rain-affected race in 2015 and Power capitalizing on a caution – caused by Newgarden – to leapfrog to the win last year.

As such, timing pit stops to perfection before potential cautions emerge is key. In the last four years since that first doubleheader, Toronto has had 4, 3 (2013), 2, 7 (2014), 2 (2015) and 5 (2016) cautions, so it’s usually one of the busier races for the yellow flag to fly.

The Mayor turns 101 on home soil

After his 100th race start last weekend in Iowa, James Hinchcliffe heads to his home race in Toronto this weekend after ending 10th on the bullring last weekend. Toronto’s never been particularly kind to Hinchcliffe but he finally scored a home race podium here last year.

Given street courses have been where he and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team have excelled most this year – the Long Beach win was huge, he recovered to a podium at Detroit and he was on course to win at St. Petersburg before being caught by a yellow – this is an important weekend for him as he enters 12th in points.

The final word

From points leader Dixon, who will look to keep Honda’s street course win streak alive and win here for the first time since 2013: “Toronto is one of the longest-running street courses around and it’s always a challenging layout to master. It’s similar to Detroit, in that you have a number of surface changes and areas that you really need the car balanced in order to manage the rough downtown roads and streets. We know what it takes to win there and hope to get a quick start and be a contender at race’s end when it counts.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 14
10:40 – 11:25 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 – 3 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:05 – 3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice

Saturday, July 15
10 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live); NBCSN (Same-day delay, 6:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday, July 16
11:30 – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:02 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
3:47 p.m. – Honda Indy Toronto (85 laps/151.81 miles), CNBC/SportsNet 360 (Live)

 

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Will Power
2. Helio Castroneves
3. James Hinchcliffe
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Takuma Sato
6. Mikhail Aleshin
7. Sebastien Bourdais
8. Scott Dixon (pole)
9. Simon Pagenaud
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Will Power
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. James Hinchcliffe

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.