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Force India duel to spice up the crowd at Mexican Grand Prix

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MEXICO CITY (AP) There have been death threats. Crashes on the track. Bitter arguments between teammates and strict warnings from team leaders to tone it down.

The fiercest rivalry in Formula One this season hasn’t always been at the front in the battle for the season championship. The duel between teammates Sergio “Checo” Perez and Esteban Ocon in the cockpits of the pink Force India cars is the one that has come closest to a brawl.

All of which could make for a rough Mexican Grand Prix for Ocon. Perez is the favorite son of the Mexican fans, and Ocon could face some tough driving through jeers from the massive grandstands at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Rivalries are as much a part of racing as the checkered flag. Over the past three seasons, Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were constantly in the headlines as they fought for championships and their childhood friendship was sacrificed.

Anticipating a rowdy Mexico City reception, the Force India drivers insist they came to the race on good terms. Perez even gave Ocon a pat on the back after last week’s U.S. Grand Prix, a rare public display of unity.

“Look, we are all good together,” Ocon said ahead of Sunday’s race. “There are no problems between us. For sure we had issues in the past but we spoke. There is a lot of respect between us … I’ve actually had a very warm welcome.”

Then he revealed how the death threats have been coming in for months and as recently as Wednesday.

“I don’t know if you take that seriously or not,” Ocon said.

Seriously enough that in a city plastered with giant billboards urging “Vamos Checo!,” Ocon has been supplied with bodyguards this week, French news agency AFP reported.

“That will show him that you have to think twice before messing with a Mexican,” said Carlos Rojas, a 21-year-old student who wore a Perez hat and jacket to the track Friday. “I know that maybe someone will try to scream something at Ocon, but I’m not going to do it. We are here to root for Checo.”

Ocon joined Force India this season in a move that matched the 21-year-old Frenchman, considered among the rising stars of F1, with a savvy and solid veteran in Perez.

Their rivalry has been running since the opening race in Australia. Perez and Ocon have finished within one place of each other 10 times, with Perez usually getting the upper hand. Ocon has been so steady as a young driver that he set an F1 record by completing his first 26 races dating to his 2016 debut.

Sometimes they ran into each other.

In Baku, Azerbaijan, they collided while fighting for position after a safety car restart. Before the hit, they were running fourth and fifth. Perez dropped out and Ocon finished sixth, spoiling what could have been a double-podium finish.

“The way he raced today wasn’t right,” Perez complained. Ocon insisted Perez hit him first and later said the team found both drivers at fault. That’s when the social media chatter got mean, warning Ocon to be ready for some abuse when he got to Mexico.

Their cars touched again on the first lap in Hungary. Then came the blowup in Belgium .

Before the race, Ocon had declared, “I’m not here to be behind him all the time.” And 29 laps in, he was trying to pass when Perez squeezed him into a wall at more than 180 mph. Perez got a tire puncture. Ocon’s front wing was damaged and he limped home in ninth place.

Perez “risked our lives,” Ocon raged after the race. Then he posted “he tried to kill me” on social media.

That was enough for Force India bosses, and the drivers were put in a closed-door meeting to settle their differences and calm down. The team also issued new racing orders: they had to hold their position when next to each other on the track. It would stifle their racing instincts but would prevent collisions. The last few races have been incident free.

Force India ranks a solid fourth in the team standings, making them the top team outside of the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Perez said he hopes drivers will be allowed to race each other Sunday. The Mexican fans will want to see some action.

“We should be able to race here,” Perez said.

Perez urged Mexican fans not to be too hard on Ocon. It’s a delicate week for both drivers. Perez is not yet under contract for 2018 and Ocon had meetings all week with the team’s major Mexican sponsors. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has been a major backer of Perez’ racing career.

“We obviously had a bad relationship since Baku and especially we hit a very low point in Belgium. I think that respect is there now,” Perez said. “I see no reason why fans should be bad to him. They really like the sport and at the end of the day, it’s just a sport and that’s how it should be.”

Race fan Christian Alexis Antonio, 24, said the crowd should honor Perez’ request.

“A lot of Mexicans are used to defending their countryman when someone is in trouble, but I don’t think a death threat is the way to do it,” he said. “We are the hosts and we should treat everyone with respect.”

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Fast Facts

Image courtesy Barber Motorsport Park
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Here’s what you need to know about this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama:

Race weekend: Friday, April 20 – Sunday, April 22

Track: Barber Motorsports Park, a 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course (clockwise) in Birmingham, Alabama

Race distance: 90 laps / 207 miles

Entry List:  Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (PDF)

Push-to-pass parameters: 200 seconds of total time with a maximum time of 20 seconds per activation.

Firestone tire allotment: Seven sets primary, four sets alternate

Twitter: @BarberMotorPark @IndyCar, #HIGPA, #IndyCar

Event website: www.barberracingevents.com

INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com

2017 race winner: Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet)

2017 Verizon P1 Award winner: Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet),1:06.9614, 123.653 mph

Qualifying lap record: Sebastien Bourdais, 1:06.6001, 124.324 mph, April 23, 2016 (Round 2 of knockout qualifying)

NBCSN qualifying telecast: Saturday, April 21 (4 p.m. ET, live)

NBCSN race telecast: Sunday, April 22 (3 p.m. ET, live)

Leigh Diffey will be the play-by-play announcer for NBCSN’s telecast of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are the pit reporters.

Radio broadcasts: The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network is led by chief announcer Mark Jaynes, with analyst Anders Krohn. Turn reporters are Jake Query and Nick Yeoman, with Rob Howden and Michael Young reporting from the pits.

All Verizon IndyCar Series races are broadcast live on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app. Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying is broadcast on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app and Verizon IndyCar Series practices are broadcast on  IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Video Streaming: All practice sessions will be available on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and on the INDYCAR YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/indycar)

At-track schedule (all times EASTERN):

Friday, April 20

12:15 p.m.-1 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

3:50-4:50 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4:55-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 21

11:50 a.m.-12:35 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, April 22

3 p.m. – Driver introductions

3 p.m. – NBCSN on air

3:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command

3:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Race Notes:

* Alexander Rossi firmly established himself as a championship contender, claiming his first win of the season at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15. The 26-year-old Californian leads reigning series champion and defending Barber race winner Josef Newgarden by 22 points heading into this weekend’s race.

* The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will be the ninth Verizon IndyCar Series event conducted at Barber Motorsports Park. Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race in 2010.

* Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won at Barber Motorsports Park. Power won the race in 2011 and 2012, Hunter-Reay in 2013 and 2014, Newgarden in 2015 and 2017 and Pagenaud in 2016.

* Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won the pole position at Barber Motorsports Park. Pagenaud won the pole in 2016. Power claimed the pole position in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 and Hunter-Reay won the pole in 2013.

* Three drivers have won the race from the pole – Will Power in 2011, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016.

* Scott Dixon has finished on the podium in seven of his eight previous starts at Barber Motorsports Park – including five runner-up finishes – but he has yet to finish on the top step of the podium at the picturesque road circuit.

* Eight drivers have competed in every Indy car race at Barber Motorsports Park – Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Castroneves is not entered this year.

* Team Penske has five wins at Barber Motorsports Park (2010, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017). Andretti Autosport and Ed Carpenter Racing are the only other teams to win at the track. Andretti Autosport won in 2013 and 2014 with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ed Carpenter Racing won with Josef Newgarden in 2015.

* Six Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders – Rene Binder, Zachary Claman De Melo, Jordan King, Matheus “Matt” Leist, Zach Veach and Robert Wickens – are entered this weekend. It is the most rookies entered for a Barber race since six rookies started in 2011.

*  Eighteen of the 24 drivers entered in the event have competed in Indy car races at Barber Motorsports Park. Ten entered drivers have led laps: Will Power 208, Ryan Hunter-Reay 93, Simon Pagenaud 87, Josef Newgarden 60, Scott Dixon 44, Graham Rahal 24, Charlie Kimball 14, Sebastien Bourdais 2, James Hinchcliffe 2 and Marco Andretti 1.

* Tony Kanaan seeks to start his 286th consecutive race this weekend, which would extend his Indy car record streak that began in June 2001 at Portland. Kanaan will attempt to make his 347th Indy car start, which ranks third on the all-time list.

* Scott Dixon has made 227 consecutive starts heading into the weekend, which is the second-longest streak in Indy car racing. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has made 203 consecutive starts, which is the fourth-longest streak in Indy car racing.

* Scott Dixon, the longest-tenured driver for Chip Ganassi Racing, is fourth on the all-time Indy car victory list with 41 wins. 2018 St. Petersburg race winner Sebastien Bourdais is sixth on the all-time list with 37 wins and Will Power ranks ninth on the all-time list with 32 wins.