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Pigot: ‘The important thing is people see the potential’

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like many drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Spencer Pigot doesn’t have his 2018 plans sorted, and probably won’t for at least several more weeks.

Pigot matched his car number, 20, in terms of career starts his most recent outing in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course slightly more than a month ago.

Heading into this Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the two-time Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires champion has a point to prove results-wise as he looks to solidify his status in the series beyond being a perennial part-timer, sharing the car with his team boss.

“It’s not been the ideal situation, but the series schedule is somewhat compact that I’m racing fairly often,” Pigot told NBC Sports. “This has been biggest downtime, between Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen. Doing the long distance races with Mazda has kept me fresh as well. You just try to take advantage of all the sessions to get back into the swing of things.”

The Rising Star Racing-supported driver would like to continue with Ed Carpenter Racing and is working towards that retention. Carpenter’s team had a significant change this year with both Josef Newgarden and engineer Jeremy Milless moving on; JR Hildebrand and Justin Taylor came in on the No. 21 side, respectively. Pigot was retained for 2017.

“The next year is always in back of my mind, to try to continue in IndyCar. Finding a full-time ride and being there every weekend is the goal,” he said.

“I’m very happy with where I am. I want to stay with Ed Carpenter Racing. After Sonoma will be the time for talks.”

Pigot’s second season has been more cohesive than his first (all with Carpenter with the exception of the Indianapolis 500 for Juncos Racing), and he’s one of a handful of drivers on the grid where results have not showcased his performance in race weekends.

Just this year alone, Pigot has executed more than 50 on-track passes for position, but has been caught out by a myriad of unfortunate circumstances throughout the year. While running fifth in St. Petersburg, a brake rotor ignited; a misfire of the engine following a pit stop in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped him from sixth; and he had worked his way up to eighth at Road America when he had to make two lengthy pit stops for repairs to the front suspension. In Toronto, Pigot gained seven positions in the first 15 green flag laps but was relegated to the rear of the field following unscheduled pit stop after another competitor cut one of his tires.

“I think it’s a tough situation to be in. Our top-10s could have been top-fives. Or 11th or 12th places could have been top-10s,” said Pigot, who’s banked three top-10s this year but in those races at St. Pete, Indy, Road America and Toronto, he finished 20th, ninth, 12th and 18th.

“The important thing is people see the potential and some of the races that we’ve had have been pretty impressive. The amount of cars we passed or pace we ran was good. Even if the end result hasn’t shown it, we’ve shown we can be competitive. We’ve shown if we’re behind a car, we can get by.”

The Floridan is a bit perplexing in these two points: he’s shown that aforementioned excellent race craft and bravery on the PFC brakes, as witnessed by his overtaking numbers. But the fact he’s needed to do so has come from poor qualifying positions, still yet to make his first appearance out of Q1 in a road or street course qualifying session.

Pigot worked to explain this dichotomy when talking about his comfort level on the brakes, and how he feels he has improved in qualifying anyway (and the stats back that up – he has improved his qualifying position in all but one of his starts this year at tracks he raced at last year, although his best start is 13th) having had an extra session on Friday to run on Firestone’s red alternate tires, which was a new introduction this year.

“I would say they’re not quite as grabby, initially, as you don’t feel the braking power quite to the same extent as last year, but the consistency is there,” Pigot explained. “With the PFCs, through the second half of the braking zone, you can go in and trust the downforce. And you can go in quicker than you might want to.

“With the Friday red tire run, it’s a help. Qualifying will always be a bit different but now you know what to expect. The reds last year changed the balance of the car once you got to qualifying. With that kind of drastic difference now you can get some feeling with that, and get moving into qualifying.”

Pigot has worked decently well with Hildebrand this year although neither’s really had a genuine standout start-to-finish amazing weekend on a road or street course this year.

Either of the cool young Americans, who are facing uncertain futures in IndyCar, will look to pull a result out over these last two weekends. Pigot probably amplified his cool status when he sent out a tweet asking if he was the only person who hadn’t seen HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and got a widespread response including more than 300 “likes.”

“Probably my most popular tweet ever,” Pigot deadpanned.

But in all seriousness…

“We’ve had a lot of weekends that could have been a lot better. The results don’t show how well we’ve worked together and developed the car,” Pigot said.

“It’s been nice to have the continuity throughout the whole season. Having the same group of guys, seeing how they operate, helps us develop our race car.

“Last year I did a few races with Rahal and a handful with Ed, and the times I was doing those races, Graham (Rahal) and Josef (Newgarden) had largely developed the car for themselves.

“Now it’s a bit different. We’ve had more time to test and zero in on what I like this year. That’s showing in the pace we’ve shown in specific events, and hopefully the results to come.”

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.