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Belgian Grand Prix restarts F1’s season this week on NBCSN

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The summer break is over at long last for Formula 1, with this week’s Belgian Grand Prix set to kick off a stretch of nine races over the next 14 weeks, and features three back-to-back runs.

The first of those races is the Belgian Grand Prix at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorhamps this weekend, with coverage on NBCSN, CNBC and the NBC Sports App.

NBCSN will feature live race (Sunday) and free practice two (Friday) coverage, with live qualifying coverage coming on CNBC (Saturday). The NBC Sports App will be the exclusive place to watch live for free practice one (Friday) and free practice three (Saturday), and streams all live sessions.

After three weeks off and the field’s rested, Spa presents an interesting test and a bit of varied history for the field.

Sebastian Vettel’s win at Hungary extended his points lead over Lewis Hamilton to 14 points, while Valtteri Bottas is a further 19 points back in third.

The Spa track should favor the Mercedes more than the Ferrari as more of a power circuit. Mercedes has won the last two races here with Nico Rosberg a year ago having kickstarted his championship season with a win here, and with Hamilton winning here in 2015.

Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull, 2014), Vettel (Red Bull, 2013) and Jenson Button (McLaren, 2012) make it five different Belgian Grand Prix winners in the last five years – none of which are Ferrari.

Ferrari’s most recent win here was in 2009 with Kimi Raikkonen, which also remains Raikkonen’s most recent Ferrari win – he hasn’t won a Grand Prix overall since the 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne with Lotus.

Raikkonen leads active drivers with four Belgian wins (2004, 2005, 2007, 2009) while Hamilton and Vettel have two apiece, Ricciardo has the 2014 win and Felipe Massa has a 2008 win here (albeit in controversial circumstances).

Beyond the top three teams, this track could play well for the Sahara Force India team, which has occasionally overachieved at this circuit. Giancarlo Fisichella scored a pole and second place finish for the team here in 2009 and there have been other fourth place finishes scored over the years. A big opportunity could present itself for the consistent points scoring pair of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon. Williams, another Mercedes-powered team, will also look to have some success.

Here’s the schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Friday, August 25, 4 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, August 25, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, August 26, 5 a.m.-6 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, August 26, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (CNBC)
  • Qualifying (Replay): Saturday, August 26, 12:30 p.m.-2 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, August 27, 7 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, August 27, 8 a.m.-10 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, August 27, 10 a.m.-10:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, August 27, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Monday, August 28, 3 p.m.-5 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Formula 2: Sunday, August 27, 6 a.m.-7 a.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Italian Grand Prix, on September 3, for the second race in this back-to-back run.

Will closed pits and bad caution timing shift IndyCar’s title tilt?

When cautions fly in IndyCar make things interesting. Photo: IndyCar
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – One of the things that is outside a strategist’s control is when the yellows fall in a Verizon IndyCar Series road or street course race, such as today’s Honda Indy 200 (3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

Depending on when they do, particularly around a pit stop cycle, it can either make or break your race – and potentially your season.

The question is, do you pit right when a pit window opens, which avoids the potential of getting caught out? Or do you opt to stretch your luck, pit later, and potentially catch a caution at the wrong time?

Toronto’s race two weeks ago, the Honda Indy Toronto, was the latest example over recent years where closing the pits for a yellow flag drastically shook up the order.

The previously dominant trio of polesitter Simon Pagenaud, front-row starter Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves, who’d vaulted to the lead after a perfect start, were caught out when Tony Kanaan nosed into the tire barriers in Turn 1 and they hadn’t visited the pit lane yet.

It was Josef Newgarden who was the beneficiary of that, the Team Penske driver having followed his strategist Tim Cindric’s call to pit just prior to the yellow flag, as Cindric had done for Will Power last year in the same race. Newgarden promptly won his second race this year from there.

Off-sequence strategies and cautions have adjusted how Mid-Ohio has fallen the last couple years. What looked like a fight between Newgarden and his predecessor in the No. 2 Team Penske car, Juan Pablo Montoya, in 2015 went away as Sage Karam spun and Rahal promptly leapfrogged to the win. Karam’s spin was not without its controversy, though.

Newgarden, Rossi and Hinchcliffe moved to the fore in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

As the Verizon IndyCar Series heads into the final five races of the season with the top four within 23 points and the top seven within 72 – these the seven likely realistic title contenders of Scott Dixon, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Newgarden, Will Power, Rahal and Takuma Sato – how the yellows fall in the three remaining road course races will be fascinating to watch.

Newgarden explained the conundrum drivers find themselves in depending on cautions, but they’re not in nearly as tight a spot as strategists.

“I mean, it depends on where you qualify, right? I think that changes your strategy. Maybe that helps you or hurts you,” Newgarden explained. “I think in Toronto, it was probably a blessing qualifying seventh because, you know, our strategy was to come in early. We just happened to catch a yellow at the right point. I still think we had good potential without it. But that always just makes your day a lot easier.

“So I don’t know. I don’t think there’s really a good recipe for it. You either get lucky on the right days or you don’t. You qualify first up here, it is always good to qualify on the pole. Maybe you just catch a bad yellow. Qualifying 10th was right thing that day. But I have no idea how you guard against it.”

Rahal was particularly frustrated by the caution timing in Toronto. Team owner and father Bobby spoke out against IndyCar’s current rules about how the pits close when a full course caution flies.

“You’re right, we’ve been on both ends of it,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We benefited at Mid-Ohio (in 2015) by ducking in and then gratuitously a yellow showed up. We were fourth or fifth, sixth, and then ended up first.

“But Toronto was frustrating for sure. Really the top three cars in the field frankly, were handsomely ahead of the fourth place car. It was the wrong place, the wrong time and very frustrating. Fate plays such a role, or bad luck, or however you want to describe it.”

Carpenter with Spencer Pigot. Photo: IndyCar

Ed Carpenter can speak to both the driver and owner perspectives. The man atop Ed Carpenter Racing is a driver on the ovals, but on the box for the road and street course races.

“I think it’s the best possible situation for what we have now,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “A lot of times the variety gets taken out of play for the other teams if the pits were closed. Sometimes guys benefit in spite of their own personal preferences!”

Mike Hull, Scott Dixon’s longtime race strategist, has been on both sides of the divide as well.

“I think we worry about it at every road track,” Hull said. “We keep knocking on the door for INDYCAR to maybe adapt a system where they don’t trap the leader on the race track; they did that for a while with the previous Race Director and he did a good job of that. INDYCAR has proven it can be done; it’s something they need to look at. It’s a conversation we’ve had; I think it needs to go past the conversation stage.”

So will this be something INDYCAR examines, or is it just a case of teams just missing the window to pit when they can? Rahal and Newgarden outlined what they would like to see for the way forward.

Bobby and Graham Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m in the process of trying to come up with some ideas, and Jay (Frye) and Brian (Barnhart) are all ears on that,” Rahal said. “One thing is, I’ve never been a fan of is the closed pits. Certainly when I drove, we never had closed pits.

“Number one, it makes for a more dangerous situation when people run in when everyone comes in. I wonder in this case if the Kanaan situation had been a local yellow, and it should have been to my mind, the leaders could get in and get out. I get it when stuff is scattered all over the place and maybe you need it then. I didn’t think the TK incident merited a full-course yellow. But, it doesn’t matter what I thought!

“By not closing the pits, that solves that situation. In the end, that’s the guys who weren’t competitive initially, who are struggling on tires, they’re the ones who benefit. That moved them to the front.

“I want to propose the idea – that in all cases, they don’t close the pits anymore (when a full course caution comes out). It creates a lot of issues and risks you don’t need. We’ll see. It’s a real matter of more using the local yellow. And if someone violates that by speeding through a yellow area, say they’re black flagged or something like that. We saw that at Detroit lost the pole, with Castroneves, and that was in qualifying. I think the local yellows should be used much more often than they are. The pits shouldn’t be closed in any situation.”

And from the driver’s standpoint?

“It’s definitely been an interesting topic,” Newgarden said. “I think definitely in the past, I’ve always preferred having the yellows because it gives you an opportunity if you’re not strong one weekend. I think definitely when I suffered more inconsistently from track to track with performance, it was nice to be able to rely on potential yellows to help you.

“Now it feels like this year we’re more consistently just fast everywhere, so you don’t really want them. I think there’s a different opinion whether you’re at the front or back of the grid.

“It would be cool if we could go back to open pit scenario somehow. The rules are what they are right now.

“How you safeguard against them, I don’t think you can. You’re either lucky or you’re not.”

IndyCar’s top seven in points roll off in top seven at Mid-Ohio

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Providing nothing completely random happens in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (3 p.m. ET, CNBC) from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the top seven in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ championship will be dicing among themselves for the win from the top seven spots on the grid.

In points, the order is Scott Dixon on 423, then Helio Castroneves on 420, Simon Pagenaud on 404, Josef Newgarden on 400, Will Power and Graham Rahal both on 359, then Takuma Sato on 351.

With five races remaining and the last race of the season at Sonoma a double points race, there’s still a maximum 320 points on offer the rest of the way – so at 72 points separating the top seven, that’s a realistic situation where they could all be in the title frame these final five races.

Fittingly, they start in the top seven for Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio, but not in points order.

Power rolls off from his 49th career pole, while Newgarden has his first front row start not just of the season, but also with Team Penske.

Sato and Rahal turn in career-best Mid-Ohio starts from third and fourth, while Castroneves is fifth and Dixon sixth. Pagenaud was the only one of the top seven in points to miss the Firestone Fast Six, but from seventh, will start from the same position Newgarden has won twice this year at Barber and Toronto.

Quotes from six of the top seven drivers about their respective title situations are below, after they made the Firestone Fast Six:

Dixon: “I think you try to get as many points as you can during the season. We haven’t done a very good job of that with many tracks. I think we wish we had little more of a points cushion. Not really thinking about points right now. We’re in a good spot. The only time that leading the championship really counts is at the end of the year. We’ll see how we get through these next four races and see how Sonoma plays out.”

Newgarden: “I think I’m not thinking about what the gap is to Dixon. I think I’m more thinking about how can we have a consistent day. Ultimately that’s going to be the most important thing, is having a clean day with no incidences. Not necessarily points, but making sure we have a top five, hopefully a podium. If you’re really lucky, then you get a win. That’s all you have to work on. Generally the points take care of themselves as the year goes on.”

Sato: “Obviously we love to win as much as everyone does. Third place means a lot of opportunity. It’s not necessarily to win the race. But I think certainly aiming for the winning. But I think if we can get a podium finish tomorrow, that would be super result for the team. We do the best we can. We have to.”

Rahal: “We’ve got to go win this thing. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to try the best that we can. Hopefully the two of us can get through clean and go racing, all of us can, and we’ll go from there. For us, the only way we’re going to catch them, obviously the last race is double points, but the only way we’re going to catch Dix and these two over here, same for Will, we got to win races. I mean, that’s what it comes down to, so… Hopefully we’ll go out there tomorrow and have a strong one.”

Power: “Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, as a team, yes. But individually, a lot of competition in the team. Very good problem to have.”

Castroneves: “We’re battling for the championship ourselves. You can use a little bit your teammates in case something’s not going well. You can still take advantage of that and collect a bit more points.

“But that’s the name of the game. As Will mentioned, it’s a very good problem for our team to have. We’re going to obviously try to finish 1-2-3-4 in the championship.”

PREVIEW: Honda Indy 200

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ final race before a two-week break – the closest thing to a summer break the series having had on-track activity either every week or every other week since Round 2 of the season at Long Beach on April 9 – occurs this weekend with the Honda Indy 200 from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC with encore 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Indeed the challenge of the weekend at the tricky, often temperature sensitive permanent road course is nailing qualifying and ensuring you’re not caught by an ill-timed caution flag.

Here’s what to look for ahead of this weekend’s race.

2017 Honda Indy 200 – Talking Points

Dixon’s proverbial happy hunting ground

Scott Dixon has the points lead, just, as he heads to a track that has always suited his style. With five Mid-Ohio wins (2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014), Dixon is the modern master of Mid-Ohio, but needs his second win of the season in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda to hold off the surge of Team Penske drivers this weekend. He’s up by three heading into Mid-Ohio over Helio Castroneves (423-420).

The surging six behind him

Three of the six trail Dixon by just 23 points or fewer, while fifth through seventh could make a move into title contention before the final run of four races in five weekends with a strong Mid-Ohio.

In the first group, Castroneves (420), defending Mid-Ohio winner Simon Pagenaud (404) and Toronto winner Josef Newgarden (400) have a degree of momentum all on their side. Castroneves has been on top of his game all year and seems to be driving for his future in IndyCar, depending on whether he gets moved to Penske’s new Acura sports car program. Pagenaud looked the most on form he has been all season at Toronto, and this race last year defined Pagenaud’s title push. Newgarden hasn’t been phased by his transition to Penske and is one of only three drivers with two wins this year. Any of them could overtake Dixon this weekend.

Further back, Will Power (359), Graham Rahal (359) and Takuma Sato (351) aren’t out of title contention but could be after the weekend. Power, surprisingly, has never won at Mid-Ohio while Rahal’s 2015 win was a popular one. Sato needs to stem the tide of bad results with 16th place or worse finishes in each of the last three races. He actually was on pace for a top-five here last year before getting nerfed by Sebastien Bourdais.

Rahal’s home race

No race is more important outside of Indianapolis to Graham Rahal and the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda entry for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing than this one at Mid-Ohio. Like James Hinchcliffe last race in Toronto, for Rahal, coming home to the track closest to Columbus is both a privilege and a duty to fulfill the desires of the home fans.

Tires and temperatures

Mid-Ohio’s surface is renowned for getting better and grippier as the day gets longer. Similar to Road America, expect Firestone’s red alternate tires to be the ticket for drivers and teams this weekend. And like for Honda, it’s pretty much a home race for Firestone, with the track not far from the Bridgestone Americas Technical Center in Akron.

Firestone Racing engineers are happy to be back at Mid-Ohio, a track just 70 miles away from our Bridgestone Americas Technical Center in Akron,” said Cara Adams, Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “For this year’s Honda Indy 200, the Firestone Firehawk primary tires have the same construction and compound as this year’s Indy Grand Prix tire. This is the same compound that was run at Mid-Ohio last year. The red sidewall alternates also are the same tires that were used on the Indy road course, but the compound has a slight increase in grip and heat resistance over last year’s Mid-Ohio compound.”

On road courses and Honda-sponsored races…

Here’s the scorecard this year in terms of who’s won where on the previous three permanent road courses and two Honda-sponsored races:

  • Permanent road courses: Barber (Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet), Indy GP (Will Power, Chevrolet), Road America (Scott Dixon, Honda)
  • Honda-sponsored races: Barber (Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet), Toronto (Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet)

So the field of 13 Hondas will be looking to win once in a race it sponsors at another of the manufacturer’s home races. A plant in Maryville, Ohio isn’t too far from the track and this is always an event that sees a lot of Honda workers come to the race.

Newgarden and the rest of Team Penske, meanwhile, will look to rebound from that Road America near-miss the quartet had and keep Penske and Chevrolet’s streak intact of winning in Honda-sponsored races, which besides the two this year also includes Simon Pagenaud (Barber), Power (Toronto) and Pagenaud (Mid-Ohio) winning all three for Chevrolet in 2016. Rahal, at 2015 in Mid-Ohio, is the last Honda driver to win a race sponsored by Honda.

Other notes

  • Strategy has jumbled the finishing order the last few years. In 2016, Carlos Munoz, Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot and Takuma Sato used off-sequence moves to come from 15th or lower to the top-10. Similarly in 2015, Scott Dixon was the only top-five starter to finish in the top-10; the other nine started anywhere from seventh to 24th and last. And in 2014, Dixon won from 22nd and last on the grid, with three others starting 17th or worse also making it in the top-10. The caution-free 2013 race, won by Charlie Kimball, featured eight of the top-10 finishers having started in the top-10.
  • As of Wednesday, Mikhail Aleshin was listed to drive the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda this weekend, but the team hadn’t confirmed it yet.

The final word

From Tony Kanaan, driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Honda, who hasn’t won this year but describes how fun Mid-Ohio is: “I love racing at Mid-Ohio with the massive, loyal fan base we’ve created there over the years. It’s just always so fun to come to this track and put on a good show for the fans, who have so much passion for what we do on the road course. I believe I have around 15 starts at Mid-Ohio, so I definitely have some history out there and would love to add a win this year. We had a rough race in Toronto, so I think it was a good thing for us to take the weekend and regroup before heading into Mid-Ohio this weekend. Obviously, Scott (Dixon) has proven how strong he is at Mid-Ohio, so we’ll just try to get as much data as we can from him and hopefully snag a much-needed podium-finish for the No. 10 NTT Data Honda.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 28
10 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 – 3 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:05 – 3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com(Live)

Saturday, July 29
9:55 – 10:40 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:05 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (Live)

Sunday, July 30
11:15 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
3:47 p.m. – The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (90 laps/203.22 miles), CNBC (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud (pole)
2. Will Power
3. Carlos Munoz
4. Graham Rahal
5. James Hinchcliffe
6. Conor Daly
7. Spencer Pigot
8. Charlie Kimball
9. Takuma Sato
10. Josef Newgarden

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Charlie Kimball
6. Graham Rahal

WATCH LIVE: Honda Indy Toronto at 3 p.m. ET on CNBC

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The Verizon IndyCar Series runs its fifth and final street course race of the season, Round 12 overall, with today’s Honda Indy Toronto from Exhibition Place.

You can see the 85-lap race from Toronto live from 3 p.m. ET on CNBC, with pre-race coverage for the first half hour before race start just after 3:30 p.m. ET (stream link here). An encore presentation of the race comes at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing action from New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

Kevin Lee is on the call from Toronto along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, with Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Anders Krohn and Robin Miller in the pits.

The pre-race show will be fun with Tracy sitting down with Helio Castroneves to discuss their respective careers, Castroneves on the heels of winning Iowa and one win away (30) from tying Tracy, Dario Franchitti and Will Power on 31 career wins. A teaser of that is below.

IndyCar comes after Formula 1 raced this morning from Silverstone and the British Grand Prix on CNBC and as noted, NASCAR runs from Loudon on NBCSN. Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires coverage from Toronto airs Monday night, July 17, at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Coverage will run from 3 through 6 p.m. ET.

After qualifying, here’s some of the questions to consider in Toronto:

  • How might rain throw a wrinkle into the proceedings?
  • After his first pole position, can Simon Pagenaud parlay that P1 into his first road or street course win of the year and get his title defense back on track?
  • What’s in store for the Honda runners, particularly Graham Rahal, who starts second, points leader Scott Dixon in fifth and hometown hero James Hinchcliffe in sixth?

STARTING LINEUP