IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix at The Glen

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ second-to-last race of the 2017 season takes place this weekend at the picturesque Watkins Glen International (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), with what will be a busy weekend of on-track action as the series wraps a run of three races in as many weekends, on three different types of circuits.

The return to permanent road course action comes after a run on the repaved 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park last Saturday night, and after a 500-miler at Pocono Raceway the previous Sunday.

Some story lines going into the weekend are as follows:

2017 INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen – Talking Points:

Newgarden vs. Pagenaud takes center stage

In their first on-track competition since Josef Newgarden’s power move on Simon Pagenaud for the win last Saturday night at Gateway, how the Team Penske teammates get on with it will be a huge thing to witness this weekend. One wonders what it would be like to have been a fly on the wall in the post-race team debrief.

As the series heads to two permanent road courses, it’s worth looking how these two – along with teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves – have fared on them this year. Newgarden (Barber and Mid-Ohio) and Power (Indianapolis) have won three of the four road course races this year, with Scott Dixon having toppled the Penske quartet five races ago at Road America despite the Penske drivers locking out the top four positions on the grid. That was the last win for a driver outside Penske.

Pagenaud won at Barber, Indianapolis and Mid-Ohio last year but struggled at Watkins Glen, where he qualified and finished seventh. He’s been third at Barber and fourth on the other three road courses this year, and must find a way to get ahead of his teammates if he’s to claw back a now 43-point gap with just two races left.

Not quite Dixon’s last stand… but it’s close

It’s not that Dixon can’t overcome a 31-point deficit to Newgarden; he overcame a 47-point gap in miraculous fashion two years ago at Sonoma to surpass both Juan Pablo Montoya and Graham Rahal for the title in an unexpected manner. But if he loses more than 10 or so points to Newgarden this weekend – that’d mean he’d finish second or worse if Newgarden was to win – it makes the degree of difficulty harder for Dixon at Sonoma.

Fortunately Watkins Glen is his happy hunting ground. He has four prior wins here, with three different manufacturers (Toyota in 2005, Honda in 2006 and 2007, Chevrolet in 2016). And last year, he dominated every session from the word go. Key here is whether Dixon will be able to maximize the Honda package at his disposal this week, working whatever magic he can to topple the Penske Chevrolets.

The team seems optimistic after a good test and after Dixon did a near perfect job of damage limitation in Gateway, ending second when fifth might have been the best finish had all four Penskes been perfect.

“We certainly weren’t expecting P2. We got some help from some others,” Dixon’s engineer Chris Simmons told NBC Sports at Gateway. “We did what Chip always asks of us. Get the obvious things right and make no mistakes. And of course, Scott drove brilliantly and the guys did great pit stops.”

A win isn’t required but if he can close the gap by about 10 points or so to Newgarden, he’s well within striking distance at Sonoma with double points there – meaning 20 points will cover first and second (100 to 80, before bonus points).

The Andretti domino has fall, officially

The silly season saga that has dominated paddock discussion is Andretti Autosport’s engine decision for 2018. Rumors of a switch to Chevrolet persisted; at Mid-Ohio, Honda Perfomance Development Art St. Cyr told us that Honda “expects to continue with its current lineup” of teams, and now the team confirmed its Honda return.

Along the same lines, the follow-up question is what happens to Honda affiliated drivers Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi. For Sato, a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing reunion is likely – Bobby Rahal told us in July he had “warm feelings” for the current Indy 500 champion – so it seems a question of “when” rather than “if.” As for Rossi, he told us after Gateway he was thankful to Andretti and refuted a report that said he’d already re-signed with the team, instead gauging his options. He also “liked” a tweet that said “not necessarily” that he would return to the team. He’ll undoubtedly get his future sorted.

Bourdais back in his natural environment

After a top-10 finish at Gateway on his return, expect some bigger things from Sebastien Bourdais and the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda for Dale Coyne Racing this weekend. Bourdais qualified third and finished fifth last year, the result coming despite a spin at the start, one aerial trip through the Bus Stop chicane, and making it home top-five on a weekend where his future plans got tipped off.

Bourdais’ only Firestone Fast Six appearance this year came at the similarly smooth surface of the Indianapolis road course before an engine failure in the race. He finished eighth at Barber and rookie teammate Ed Jones was seventh at Road America, proving good things are possible for the Coyne squad here this weekend.

A mini-Indy Lights 2015 title rivals reunion

Harvey, Jones and Pigot – from St. Pete race two in 2015 to all in IndyCar now. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Three young drivers to watch this weekend are three of the four who battled for the 2015 Indy Lights title. That year’s champion Spencer Pigot returns to the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet after a two-race absence; Jones, as mentioned above, will look to return to the top-10 in his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda for the first time since Road America; Jack Harvey, the Englishman, makes his IndyCar road course debut in the No. 7 Autonation SiriusXM Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. All that’s missing here from that grid is RC Enerson, who dazzled at Watkins Glen last year by qualifying 11th and finishing ninth on a great fuel save run for Coyne that wowed most of the paddock.

Pigot’s race pace and race craft has been impressive this year but he’s in need of a good qualifying run; he’s still never made it out of the first round yet. Jones, with Bourdais back alongside him, will look to recapture his early season form. Expectations are modest for Harvey but if he can get close to advancing out of Q1 and figure into the top-10 or top-12 in the race, he’ll have done a respectable job. Each of these three will look to showcase themselves in the final two races.

Other angles to watch

  • Can Will Power and Helio Castroneves, now close to being out of the title fight, throw one final spanner in the works of their Team Penske teammates before Sonoma?
  • How do Chip Ganassi Racing’s other three drivers respond after back-to-back tough races?
  • Graham Rahal and RLL Racing haven’t had the best of form on road courses this year and struggled here in 2016. Will they have made strides to threaten the leaders?
  • Will James Hinchcliffe and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team atone from late-race heartbreak last year when they ran out of fuel in the final laps when running second? Same for Takuma Sato, now with Andretti Autosport, who spun from a potential podium?
  • Can A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ young duo of Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz carry momentum from the team’s best all-around weekend in Gateway?
  • How do all the different types of rubber impact grip levels throughout the weekend? Beyond Firestone, Cooper (MRTI), BFGoodrich (MX-5) and Toyo (Stadium SUPER Trucks) are also represented on the track.

The final word

From Dixon, the Watkins Glen dominant driver over the last few times here: “We’ve had some success at Watkins Glen over the years and it’s been one of the better tracks for the No. 9 team historically. The goal is to do what we did last year, both starting and finishing strong. We’re in striking distance with two races to go in the championship, including the double-points race in the Sonoma finale, so we need to be fast out of the gates this Friday.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 1
10:15 – 11 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, (Live)
3:05 – 3:50 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)
3:55 – 4:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice,

Saturday, Sept. 2
10:30 – 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), (Live); TV: NBCSN (Taped, 7 p.m.)

Sunday, Sept. 3
9 –  9:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, (Live)
1:07 p.m. – Driver introductions
1:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
1:47 p.m. – INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (60 laps/202.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Scott Dixon (pole)
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Conor Daly
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Simon Pagenaud
8. Alexander Rossi
9. RC Enerson
10. Max Chilton

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six: 

1. Scott Dixon
2. Will Power
3. Sebastien Bourdais
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Max Chilton

Mexican GP to go ahead as planned, facilities unharmed by earthquake

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Next month’s Mexican Grand Prix is set to go ahead as planned after facilities at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez were unharmed by the earthquake that struck Mexico City earlier this week.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the lives of over 200 people as well as toppling dozens of buildings in the capital.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to host the third-to-last round of the 2017 Formula 1 season on October 29, and will go ahead as planned after facilities were unharmed by the earthquake.

“It’s been inspected twice already from the track surface and also the buildings, and it’s OK,” marketing chief Rodrigo Sanchez told Reuters.

“We’ll continue doing the assessments as we go but so far there’s really no concern. We’ll have a race.

“We’re trying to put out there all the information relevant to how people can help. Right now the concern is really getting everything back to moving from the city perspective and supporting any way we can.

“If things stay the same, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing.

“The track is fine so we just need to re-focus and get this show done.”

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has donated $170,000 to support those affected by the earthquake, while the Carlos Slim Foundation is set to match every donation made five-fold.

IndyCar delivers its second-best season on NBCSN in 2017

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In the ninth year of its 10-year contract with the Verizon IndyCar Series (formerly as Versus and now as NBCSN), NBCSN produced its second-best season on record this year.

With a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 507,000 viewers per race, the 2017 season of races on NBCSN was just 1 percent off the best mark of 510,000 viewers per race in 2015.

This season’s viewership on NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app exceeded the 2016 TAD of 492,000 viewers by 3 percent (excludes Texas and Pocono races in 2016, which were rescheduled due to weather), and was just 1 percent shy of NBCSN’s record TAD in 2015 (510,000).

TAD measures consumption across multiple platforms, combining the average minute audience (AMA) for television and digital. The 2016 release details are linked here.

Seven of the 12 races aired on NBCSN had a TAD of more than 500,000 with the most coming at Pocono with 624,000. In terms of household ratings, Indianapolis was the top local market with Richmond-Petersburg, Greenville, West Palm Beach and Greensboro coming in the top five.

The full 2017 release details are linked here.

Veach, Andretti, Group One Thousand One able to build for future

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Rare are the words “American,” “young driver,” “multi-year” and “IndyCar” assembled within a sentence in modern day Verizon IndyCar Series racing.

But for young American driver Zach Veach, he’s got a multi-year IndyCar contract at his disposal thanks to Group One Thousand One at Andretti Autosport, and with it, an opportunity to build, grow and develop over that three-year time period through 2020.

It’s hard to believe Veach, the Stockdale, Ohio native, is only 22 considering his history in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires between 2010 and 2016, competing every year save for one (2015) due to injury and a lack of budget.

But throughout that period he gradually improved year-by-year, first in USF2000, then in Pro Mazda and finally in Indy Lights. Over his three years and with two different cars in Indy Lights, Veach grew into a race winner and bulked up from his already slender frame.

Veach is also the first driver in MRTI history to have been with the same team in all three levels, and graduate into IndyCar. He detoured to Belardi Auto Racing in 2016 but otherwise, was part of Andretti Autosport’s lineup from 2010 to 2014, and will now come back “home” for 2018 in IndyCar.

Veach and Michael Andretti before Star Mazda debut, Sonoma, 2011. Photo: IndyCar

“I think he was 14 or 15 when we met the first time… and he looked like he was 10. Now he’s 22, and looks like he’s 15!” Michael Andretti laughed.

“But he’s always impressed me. OK, he’d come out of the box not bad. But the next race, he got better, and you could see it. It wasn’t by mistake. You’d see how he’d work, take the information, study it for hours, and then come back so much more prepared the next day.

“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s as many drivers I’ve known outside the car who’ve worked that hard to make themselves better, and he did that all the way up the ladder system. There’s a lot of confidence in big cars, and now he’ll have more tools and will use them to his advantage. So he might start here, qualify top-18, then it’ll start to go up, up, then qualify top-10 by the end of the year and I believe the next year he’ll be more of a contender. That’s how I envision it.”

Setting reasonable and realistic expectations will be key for Veach, who should look at drivers like Josef Newgarden or Charlie Kimball for inspiration.

Newgarden’s first year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was littered with rookie errors, not a single top-10 finish, and ending 23rd in the championship. But knowing he had two more years to build off of, Newgarden was a podium finisher each of the next two years and had leapt 10 spots in the standings. By his fourth year and his second contract in 2015, he was a race winner.

Kimball was the same way with Chip Ganassi Racing. Barely in the top-20 in points his first year with only a couple top-10s, he ascended to podiums in year two as well, and scored his first race win in year three – when he also cracked the top-10 in points.

Given Veach’s years of preparing for this moment, he’s happy to have gotten to IndyCar now, rather than rushing it years earlier.

“I was one of those kids who thought he would be in IndyCar at 18. That’s so dumb! Looking back, I’m so glad that’s not how it happened,” Veach told NBC Sports.

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re young. I know I’m saying that at age 22, but at 15 or 16, all you care about is getting to IndyCar.

“Luckily, life forced me to be patient in some things. I would much rather have this deal at age 23 than at 18, because now I feel I can deliver what these people have put on my shoulders.”

Veach, Towriss and Andretti. Photo: IndyCar

The key person to have come through with the deal is Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. Veach, his pastor and Towriss all connected in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500, with Veach’s program for that race announced at Long Beach with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Towriss explained first off that Group One Thousand One is a separate insurance company from Guggenheim Life, which was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet in Indianapolis.

“Group One Thousand One is a group of insurance companies based in Indianapolis, and again, we’re growing our business, and we’re excited to be associated with Andretti and with Zach in this newest venture of ours,” Towriss explained.

“His story is one of perseverance and continuing to work hard. It resonates with us very well; helping people help themselves, and so we will help him continue on that journey. During May, we noted the way he was able to persevere, and work with his engineers when things weren’t able to work.”

Veach at Indy 500 this year. Photo: IndyCar

Veach is one of the smallest drivers in the series, at 5 and a half feet and hovering around 130 pounds. But outside the cockpit he’s developed a love of mountain climbing, and has been able to scale several cliffs over the last couple years.

His upper body strength is something he’s focused on building and he has come a long way from his early years in the MRTI. Manhandling an IndyCar is difficult, particularly as they don’t have power steering, but it’s something Veach has been working on.

“I think the first couple of tests will be hard, but they’ll be hard for everyone after the three-month offseason,” he said. “But we’re already 10 pounds heavier than we were at the Indy 500 and I’m proud to say there’s not a lot of fat!

“We’ve been busting our butts at St. Vincent’s to get stronger. Our numbers to now from where we started are night and day. We’ll keep working hard and as we get closer to the season, we’ll shift to more cardiovascular work. I’m at 128, 130 pounds now and I’d like to be at 135 when the season starts. I think it’s well within reach.”

Veach described the challenge of advancing up the ladder despite not winning a single Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for winning any of the three rungs on the ladder.

Veach (12) with longtime friend Gabby Chaves (7) in 2013 Freedom 100. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not something I’m proud of. But one thing I am very proud of is that I’ve been very honest,” he said. “I had some success in USF2000, it was hit and miss in Pro Mazda, and in Indy Lights, I really came into my own. I proved to people that I could run up front and win races.

“What got me there was having that work ethic, trying to learn as much as I could from teammates who were quick and put that to use. Working with drivers like Felix Rosenqvist really helped. He showed me just how deep a car can go into the braking zone, with all that Formula 3 experience!

“He’s such a good driver and I hope to see him over here. He’s one of my closest friends and I don’t know anyone who deserves an IndyCar ride more than he does.

“It was a completely different set of skills and I think that’s why we didn’t hit our stride until the last part of the year. We won Road America, but winning at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca showed me where I wanted to be all year.

“It wasn’t until then that the team and I felt comfortable with what we were doing. There was added pressure when I became the team leader but that’s when things started turning around because the setups went in the exact direction I wanted them to go. That’s when things really started to click.”

Veach with USF2000 veteran Ayla Agren and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at Sonoma. Photo: IndyCar

The final element of Veach’s perseverance was his continued presence at the races. He found a home as a regular analyst and occasional pit road reporter for the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network in 2015, and made regular appearances there in 2016 and 2017 as well. He also drove a two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience in the same time frame.

“I think it was extremely important just from the standpoint of showing people I wasn’t going to go away,” Veach said.

“I think I got a little criticism from others involved sometimes just saying, ‘Well, why are you there if you’re not doing anything and not driving?’ You have to stay relevant, and that’s just what we were trying to do. Luckily enough, IndyCar Radio gave me a great opportunity. It’s the first kind of real job I ever had with them.

“I owe them many thanks, and of course the Indy Racing Experience with the two-seater. Even though it’s a two-seater I still got to run at places I’ve never raced at before. So I’m going to a few new tracks next year. It’s not the same thing but at least I know which way to go. I think that’s going to help us be a little quicker.

“It’s just never giving up on the dream. It’s learning every day. It’s never taking no for an answer.”

Boullier: Honda F1 deal ‘a proper disaster’ for McLaren’s credibility

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McLaren’s three-year stint with Formula 1 engine partner Honda has been a “proper disaster” for the team’s credibility, according to racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last Friday in Singapore it would be parting company with Honda at the end of the season, switching to Renault power units for 2018.

The confirmation put an end to months of uncertainty surrounding the future of the McLaren-Honda partnership, which has seen the British team struggle towards the back of the field since 2015.

McLaren faces a big task to recover the lost financial support from Honda while also trying to attract new sponsors, but Boullier is confident the decision to change engine partner will help its cause.

“When you look at the last three years, it’s been a proper disaster for us in terms of credibility and getting new sponsors,” Boullier told the official F1 website.

“And then you have to take the long-term view: in the next five years I am absolutely sure that we will go back to where McLaren belongs.

“And with this bouncing back we get our credibility back and it will rebuild our sponsor portfolio. It might take two to three years.

“We are ninth in the championship – with a top engine I think we would be fourth right now and just on the FOM money we could cover the engine side, so it will not be a big risk on the monetary side.

“Thanks to the shareholders who have been brave enough to take a sporting choice and not hurt McLaren. They could have said: ‘Let’s wait until Honda wakes up’.”