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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

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”