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PREVIEW: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. – And so it ends, once again. The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has ticked off races at a rapid pace and the 85-lap finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), will wrap the campaign for the third straight year.

Scott Dixon’s run to a surprise title in 2015 packed all the drama, while mechanical woes for Will Power ended his hopes and secured the crown for Simon Pagenaud here last year.

These three, plus points leader Josef Newgarden and IndyCar’s perpetual nearly man Helio Castroneves have the most realistic shots at this year’s championship.

Without further adieu, here’s the talking points heading into Sonoma:

2017 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma – Talking Points

Four… maybe five-way title fight?

With the top four drivers covered by 34 points, it’s most likely going to be Newgarden, Dixon, Castroneves or Pagenaud that pulls off the title. Power, at 68 points back, still has a shot but would need to win and would need a lot of help to leapfrog the four drivers in front of him. Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal are all but certain to be eliminated once the green flag flies.

You can read more on the “fab four” here and their title prospects here.

It’s almost guaranteed a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing driver will win at Sonoma as these two teams have won the last 10 Sonoma races since 2007, split six Penske (Power three, Castroneves, Pagenaud and Ryan Briscoe one) and four Ganassi (Dixon three and Dario Franchitti one).

Pagenaud won from pole last year, the first polesitter to win the race since Power in 2011. Qualifying position is critical as Dixon, who started ninth in 2015, is the only driver to qualify outside the top-five and win this race since it came back on the schedule in 2005.

Top spoilers?

Andretti Autosport’s pace at Sonoma was particularly impressive last year as they hit on a setup that had eluded them all season. Ryan Hunter-Reay hasn’t won at Sonoma but has finished between second and sixth in each of the last four Sonoma races since getting speared there in 2012. Alexander Rossi was fifth last year, his second-best result of his rookie year, and enters fresh off his win at Watkins Glen. Both Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato have been occasional top-10 finishers at Sonoma as well, Andretti’s 2006 win here having been the last non-Penske/Ganassi Sonoma winner.

Others of note: Graham Rahal was second here last year and Charlie Kimball third in 2015, and both are coming off solid runs at Watkins Glen two weeks ago. Chevrolet, though, has won all six races at Sonoma since engine competition was re-introduced in 2012.

Other non-title points battles

Beyond the championship, there’s a handful of other positions in the standings up for grabs:

  • The battle for fifth: If they can’t scale the mountain that lies ahead in the battle for the title, any of Will Power (492), Alexander Rossi (476), Graham Rahal (466) and Takuma Sato (421) could move into fifth with a win or a great result. The latter three are vying to be the second-best Honda this year behind Dixon.
  • The final spots in the top-10. Tony Kanaan sits ninth (375) ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay (373), James Hinchcliffe and Max Chilton (360 each). With only 15 points covering the four of them, the top two finishing drivers among them are the likely ones to end in the final two top-10 positions.

This could be (or is) the end for so many

Whether it’s drivers in their final races with their current teams, or perhaps in the series altogether, or the manufacturer aero kits, there’s a number of entities drawing to a close at Sonoma. Such is the reality of the end-of-term race for a season that it always feels like the last day of school until the field reconvenes at St. Petersburg in the spring with renewed optimism and hopes.

The “part-time young guns look to star” crowd

Any of Indy Lights veterans Spencer Pigot, Jack Harvey or debuting Zachary Claman De Melo will look to emerge from the part-time driver crowd and join fellow Indy Lights veteran Ed Jones in the full-time IndyCar field for 2018 with one star drive in the Sonoma finale. Pigot already has, courtesy of his Thursday confirmation. If any or all of these three can bank a solid top-10 finish, it’d be a great result to hang their hat on going into the offseason.

The final word

From Dixon, who will single-handedly look to topple the quartet of Team Penske drivers and win a fifth title: “It’s a better position than what we were in 2015, but that guarantees you pretty much nothing. It’s good to be in the hunt and have a tight gap right there, but we’re still going to have to do our best to beat four of the closest competitors right there.

“I think it’s a very worthy IndyCar circuit. I think it’s a fantastic spot for a Verizon IndyCar Series championship finale, especially for spectators, too, because it’s one of those circuits that from most vantage points you have a very good advantage of being able to see the whole circuit.

“Yeah, for me it’s probably one of the toughest circuits to get right, to be honest, and it requires a lot of different thinking, I think, on the approach to setup at what we would typically do at a lot of other tracks.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Thursday, Sept. 14
10 a.m. – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series open testing, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (timing only)
2 – 6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series open testing, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (timing only)

Friday, Sept. 15
10 a.m. – 10:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com
2:15 – 3 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, NBCSN (live)
3:05 – 3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice

Saturday, Sept. 16
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)
3:30 – 4:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, Sept. 17
11:30 a.m. – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com
3:10 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:30 p.m. – NBCSN on air
3:43 p.m. – Start engines command
3:50 p.m. – GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (85 laps/202.7 miles), NBCSN (live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud (pole)
2. Graham Rahal
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Alexander Rossi
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Helio Castroneves
8. Marco Andretti
9. Charlie Kimball
10. Sebastien Bourdais

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Will Power
5. Graham Rahal
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay

NASCAR America: Scott Speed’s quest for Red Bull GRC three-peat

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Red Bull Global Rallycross points leader Scott Speed is going for his third consecutive championship next month (Saturday, October 14, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC from Los Angeles) for the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team.

Prior to that, he joined Thursday’s edition of NBCSN’s NASCAR America, checking in with his former Red Bull Racing teammate Brian Vickers, show host Carolyn Manno and analyst Steve Letarte.

Speed talked teammate dynamics – he and Tanner Foust have been the class of the Red Bull GRC field for several years – and what it takes to succeed in the diverse championship that features racing on both pavement and dirt.

“Tanner comes from more of a more rally background and I come from more of an open-wheel, road course background,” Speed explained. “You have to meet in the middle and often times that creates success. Our personalties are polar opposites and that’s a good thing.”

One other thing Speed addressed was Austin Cindric’s couple notable incidents in the last month or so. Going for his maiden NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win, Cindric hit Kaz Grala at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park to move for the lead and ultimately the win.

Cindric then made his GRC Supercars debut at the most recent weekend in Seattle and the two collided after a miscommunication in a preliminary race, prior to the Joker section of the course.

“He’s a young kid with not a lot of experience. He’s made a couple big mistakes. He came in like a wrecking ball,” Speed laughed.

“I was more mad because the car couldn’t restart at first. But it did, and we got going.”

Public clashes over future of Detroit Grand Prix

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DETROIT (AP) State officials are deciding whether to continue hosting the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, a state park and island that opponents say is negatively impacted by the annual event.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to allow the race to continue after its current five-year contract expires after the 2018 race.

The department held a public meeting Wednesday at the Belle Isle Nature Center to gather feedback. Dozens of residents attended.

Opponents voiced concerns about the race’s environmental impact. Several conservation groups have requested a third-party environmental impact study on how the race affects island habitat.

But supporters say the race shines a spotlight on Detroit and stimulates the economy.

The Grand Prix has occurred on Belle Isle periodically since 1992 and annually since 2012.

FIA confirms Halo crash test details, International F3 plans and more

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Following the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris, France, a number of updates concerning the championships under the governing body’s umbrella for 2018 had been confirmed.

The stand-out news was the confirmation of a Formula E race in Zurich for June 2018, marking motorsport’s return to Switzerland after being outlawed back in 1955.

A number of tweaks have also been made to the FIA Super Licence points allocation from next year, placing a greater onus on drivers to race in Formula 2 before stepping up to Formula 1.

Here’s a run-down of all the other news from the WMSC’s meeting in Paris.

FORMULA 1

Following the F1 Strategy Group’s approval of ‘Halo’ cockpit protection being introduced to F1 from 2018, the WMSC gave its approval to the required updates in the technical regulations to allow its implementation.

The various technical details can be found in the regulations by clicking here (under Article 17), but the key point is that teams will now be able to finalize their chassis designs for 2018 now they know the crash test details.

The WMSC also confirmed that Sentronics will be the exclusive supplier of fuel flow meters in F1 for 2018 and 2019.

There is also a clampdown on oil burn in F1 for 2018 following the controversy with Mercedes and Ferrari in 2017, as well as continued plans to ban the ‘shark fin’ from next year’s regulations.

One point we already knew but is nevertheless of interest is the reduction in power unit elements permitted to each driver per season. As of 2018, each driver will be limited to just three internal combustion engines, three MGU-Hs, three turbochargers, two control electronics and two MGU-Ks per season, down from four for each element in 2017.

No updates were made to the F1 calendar for 2018, but Bahrain and China are tipped to switch places, the latter becoming the third round of the season.

INTERNATIONAL FORMULA 3

The WMSC confirmed plans to form an International Formula 3 series in 2019 in a bid to complete the pyramid from Formula 4 to F1.

Both the FIA European F3 and GP3 Series co-exist as the third rung on the single-seater ladder at the moment, with the international championship tipped to replace the latter.

The WMSC called for expressions of interest for chassis and engine suppliers for an international series, as well as a promoter.

Loose regulations have also been formed that are similar to GP3’s current rules, with a 24-car grid desired over a nine-to-10 round season featuring single-make chassis, engines and tires.

The FIA is also pushing to create more regional F3 series in the future to bridge the gap between F4 and International F3.

FIA WORLD ENDURANCE CHAMPIONSHIP

Following confirmation of Silverstone’s return to the 2018/19 ‘super season’ calendar last week, the WMSC ratified the schedule for the next WEC campaign that will last 13 months.

The technical regulation amendments for 2018 were also approved as part of the WEC’s bid to attract more manufacturers to the LMP1 class following Porsche’s shock exit.

“The FIA Endurance Commission was also encouraged to pursue a number of exciting and innovative proposals that it is currently working on, with the aim of enticing new manufacturers to the Championship,” part of the WMSC’s release reads.

FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP

The FIA confirmed its calendar for the 2018 WRC season, with the addition of a rally in Turkey being announced in place of Poland.

1. Rally Monte Carlo – January 28
2. Rally Sweden – February 18
3. Rally Mexico – March 11
4. Tour de Corse – April 8
5. Rally Argentina – April 29
6. Rally de Portugal – May 20
7. Rally Italia – June 10
8. Rally Finland – July 29
9. Rally Germany – August 19
10. Rally Turkey – September 16
11. Rally Great Britain – October 7
12. Rally Spain – October 28
13. Rally Australia – November 18

To see the full release from the WMSC, click here.

FIA tweaks Super Licence points allocation for 2018

FIA Formula 2
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The FIA has tweaked its points allocation for the Super Licence required to race in Formula 1 for 2018, placing a greater onus on Formula 2 as being the final step on the single-seater ladder.

In a bid to tighten up on the route drivers took to reach F1, the FIA introduced a new points system for the Super Licence from 2016.

Drivers require a score of 40 points in a three-year period to be granted an FIA Super Licence, with different scores being awarded for success across a variety of categories.

Previously, drivers scored the full 40 points required for a top-two finish in GP2 (now F2) or winning the title in IndyCar, FIA Formula 3, Formula E or the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class.

As of 2018, 40 points will only be awarded for a top-three finish in F2 or winning the IndyCar drivers’ title, with the other series facing points reductions.

One of the most devalued championships is Formula V8 3.5, formerly seen as being equivalent to GP2, with a title win previously worth 35 points now worth just 20.

Here are the points breakdowns for the most valuable championships, running from P1 in the final standings to P10.

FIA Super Licence Points Allocations

Formula 2: 40-40-40-30-20-10-8-6-4-3
IndyCar: 40-30-20-10-8-6-4-3-2-1
FIA F3: 30-25-20-10-8-6-4-3-2-1
Formula E: 30-25-20-10-8-6-4-3-2-1
WEC LMP1: 30-24-20-16-12-10-8-6-4-2
GP3: 25-20-15-10-7-5-3-2-1-0
Formula V8 3.5: 20-15-10-8-6-4-3-2-1-0
Super Formula: 20-15-10-8-6-4-3-2-1-0

You can see the full breakdown by clicking here.