IndyCar

Toronto jumble sets stage for five-race IndyCar thriller

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In two moments Sunday afternoon on the streets of Toronto, the complexion of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship changed, and produced the next chapter for what’s to come over the final five races of the season.

An accordion effect between Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and Will Power saw Dixon and Power sustain the heaviest collision on the run down to Turn 3 on the opening lap. While Rahal emerged unscathed, Dixon and Power collided, with Power poking his nose to the outside of Dixon on the run into Turn 3. He’d be out of the race as a result.

First lap drama changed the equation in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“I went down the outside, and someone went down the inside of me,” Power told NBCSN’s Robin Miller. “It surprised me. I should have known better than to take any sort of risk on the first lap. Just not worth it.

“It really makes it tough in the championship. All the guys I’m fighting are at the front. I just feel bad for my guys. Didn’t even complete the first lap.”

Dixon’s race went belly-up, as well. He needed to pit for a flat left rear tire, then after the race restarted, received a drive-through penalty for performing more than required work in a closed pit (7.1.3.3.3.5).

It put Dixon off the boil on strategy and despite rebounding from 20th to run as high as fourth, he was left to finish in 10th. After six top-five finishes in the first seven races – his only miss that infamous 32nd in the Indianapolis 500 after his aerial accident – he’s now finished outside the top-five in four of the last five races, albeit still in the top-10 in all of them. It’s just that suddenly sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th are off, slightly, by comparison to wins and podiums wracked up by Team Penske.

“It was a rough day in the NTT Data car. I had a good start in Turn 1, and it looked like (Graham) Rahal decided to shift lanes and I had to avoid him. Then (Will) Power and I got together and ended up cutting down our tire and doing some damage to the suspension on the car. Then we had to fix the car and INDYCAR gave us a drive-through penalty, which was kind of odd. And then that kind of hosed our best efforts for the day and we ended up 10th,” Dixon said.

Pagenaud and Castroneves’ race was ruined by Kanaan caution. Photo: IndyCar

With two of the best drivers in the current generation sidelined for the day, the next key moment came when Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, nosed in at Turn 1 at Lap 23 and brought out a full-course caution.

This cost three more championship contenders, in Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, a potential podium lockout. The three fastest drivers and cars of the weekend were, like Dixon and Pagenaud in this race last year, caught out by the yellow timing by being at the front of the field. None was satisfied and Pagenaud (fifth), Castroneves (eighth) and Rahal (ninth) were all unlucky to finish lower than they probably deserved.

“We played it right but we got unlucky. But the three best cars didn’t win the race,” Rahal surmised to NBCSN. “It’s a shame. Sometimes luck plays a role in this things. You could see in the first stint, Helio, Simon and myself were taking off. Congrats to Newgarden, but we should have gained a lot of points on Dixon, Newgarden and more. The way the officials decide to close the pits these days, luck plays a factor in these things.”

All the while the one championship contender who benefited the most was Josef Newgarden – who courtesy of Team Penske president and his race strategist Tim Cindric managed to pit just before the yellow – promptly leapfrogged the field by pitting right before the yellow came out.

Newgarden admittedly got lucky but did have to bring it home from there, which he did on a banner day of closing down the gap in the championship. Newgarden was 56 back of Dixon seven days ago in the cornfields of Iowa. He’s now just 23 back of him after winning in the land of “Timbits” and poutine in Toronto on Sunday.

On the same day, Newgarden gained 21 (Pagenaud), 28 (Castroneves), 31 (Rahal) and 44 (Power) points over four other title contenders.

At 23 points back, Newgarden pinpointed the one race where he lost the most points – the double points Indianapolis 500 – as a place where his championship has been affected the most.

“The big thing for us is we can’t get into many more incidents like we have the first half of the year. I think month of May is really what killed us in the points championship,” he said. “We had a bad GP with a pit lane speed limiter issue, and a bad Indy 500 wrecking out with 20 to go, getting caught up in something. We’ve had some races that we’ve had to pick up from a deficit, and I think if those weren’t there, we’d probably be leading the championship.

“But other guys can say the same thing. They’ll say, We had races like this, too. It kind of yo-yos back and forth for everybody. Everyone is going to have good races and bad races. We have to prioritize having solid finishes from here to the end. I think if we’re the most consistent, we absolutely can win the championship. It’s going to be the guy who does that the best.”

Newgarden and the Penske team. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden’s words there about consistency provide an interesting setup to the final five races of the year, and how the championship in this year where it seems anyone can win it, consistency over this stretch will come into play.

The five races left feature one short oval (Gateway), one big oval (Pocono), and three permanent road courses (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, Sonoma). Even so, there’s been no rhyme or reason to who’s won at the earlier portion of those tracks this year.

Road courses? We’ve had Newgarden (Penske Chevrolet, Barber), Power (Penske Chevrolet, Indy GP) and Dixon (Ganassi Honda, Road America) win the three permanent road course races. One could argue Power should have won Barber and Newgarden – or any Penske member – should have won at Road America, but they didn’t after getting usurped. Alas, Team Penske has 10 top-fives out of a possible 13 top-fives in those three races, so it’s hard to bet against any of their quartet in those races.

The short oval also should feature Penske dominance – it’s been Pagenaud (Phoenix) and Castroneves (Iowa) who’ve won there this year. But, again, there’s a question mark. Gateway will be repaved before its August 26 race with a test to come next month, so while the field did test there in May, it’ll be a completely new track to everyone, and that in theory levels the playing field. Dixon is good on tracks that are new or added, and he, Castroneves and a couple others do have some past Gateway race experience from many years ago.

Pocono though? That could be – probably should be – a Honda track. Yet Power won there last year and Pagenaud crashed out. Takuma Sato, who remains on the fringe of title contention but having fallen back in the last month with four tough results, of course has the year’s biggest 500-mile win on his resume and could well spoil the Penske and Ganassi party there for Andretti Autosport.

With five races to go, it’s going to be between those seven drivers for the title, with four in more realistic contention down the stretch. Dixon (423) has to hold off the first three of the Penske quartet of Castroneves (420), Pagenaud (404) and Newgarden (400), all close. Power and Rahal (359) and Sato (351) are also close-ish, still within a 72-point margin, but right on the border of falling out.

It’s a barnburner of a finish since no one has more than two wins yet this year, but as ever, the combination of wins and consistency will deliver this year’s IndyCar title.

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

Photo: IndyCar
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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.”