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Sato leads early at Barber test; Rossi visor cam debuts (VIDEO)

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Two Andretti Autosport nuggets of note have emerged from the opening three hours of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ open test at Barber Motorsports Park (race occurs April 23 on NBCSN).

Takuma Sato, who banked a top-five finish in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last weekend, was on top as Hondas were in five of the top six positions in the first three hours of testing.

The second three-hour run occurs from 2 to 5 p.m. Teams have four sets of Firestone tires for the day with the exception of rookie Ed Jones, who has one extra set available.

Meanwhile, to get a sense of just how much of a roller coaster the Birmingham, Ala. road course is, INDYCAR has released another of its stunningly cool “Visor Cam” videos, this time with Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport.

The other news nugget of note is Juan Pablo Montoya making his first IndyCar test run this season, in Team Penske’s No. 22 Chevrolet, as preparation for his two races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. Montoya, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, will run a fifth Team Penske entry at the IndyCar Grand Prix and 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Times from this morning are below.

Bourdais’ whirlwind week will end with shot for Florida triple crown

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SEBRING, Fla. – Sebastien Bourdais has had one heck of a week, and one heck of a three-month period to kick off 2017.

The French driver who now lives in St. Petersburg has a chance at two separate triple crown sweeps in the same weekend with this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in the No. 66 Ford GT for the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team.

From a sports car standpoint, Bourdais partners with Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller for a shot at completing the sweep of holding the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring titles simultaneously.

And from a Florida standpoint, Bourdais has the opportunity to have won Daytona, the Verizon IndyCar Series opener at St. Petersburg and Sebring within a 49-day, seven-week period – in two entirely different types of machinery.

Not bad for a guy who is still perhaps criminally underrated, will admit to you he doesn’t care much for statistics, doesn’t care what you think of him, and just wants to win.

“You know me, I don’t race for stats,” Bourdais told NBC Sports on Thursday. “But obviously you look back and anecdotically, it’s fun. All these big events mean a bit more than the others. I only get to do the big ones (for Ford) so it makes it easier! It’s a great honor to be racing the works car and have the chance to contend for wins.”

Bourdais’ week since his surprise but welcome victory at St. Petersburg in the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda for Dale Coyne Racing has brought with it a mix of local media attention in his adopted hometown and the additional IndyCar media work.

He also said it’s validated his switch to Dale Coyne Racing, even if the haters/doubters still questioned the wisdom of his moving there as KVSH Racing’s future was uncertain before it ended.

“It was pretty special for sure. You wonder if there’s a sympathy factor for not winning there before,” Bourdais laughed.

“Then there’s the flow of interviews and interest… it was pretty big. Some people were like, ‘Bourdais going to Coyne, is he crazy?’ And then some people are intrigued. And some were like, ‘He knows what he’s doing with the people there. Man, that could be good!’

“So it was all these mixed expectations of crazy, and maybe potential, or maybe overestimating the potential. We have to remember it’s still a small team. There’s mixed expectations to our win, but everyone had the same feel. It was cool to see the little one win in front of the big guys.”

Bourdais acknowledged the luck that played into his victory. But he had good weekend practice pace – he ended fifth on Friday, and that was an impressive position that could well have made him a Firestone Fast Six participant had he not had his accident on Saturday. Bourdais said his result was more that justified because of the sustained pace and great work from his pit crew, which also included his old crew chief at Newman/Haas and Coyne team veteran, Todd Phillips.

“It wasn’t completely a straight-up win, as we had to have things our way, but the pace was there all weekend,” he said. “Once we got there we had to make the pass on Simon and everything. That’s when you gauge how many people like you.

“When you win, they’re always there to congratulate you.”

DiZinno: Bourdais, Coyne find strategic promised land in St. Pete

Bourdais and Coyne embrace. Photo: IndyCar
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – On February 23, 2003, a then-unheralded 23-year-old Frenchman named Sebastien Bourdais arrived on North American shores for his first top-level race in the U.S. Dale Coyne, meanwhile, was back full-time with two cars after two years where he’d only run part-time to help make up the numbers for the 19-car Champ Car World Series entry list.

Bourdais and Coyne have traveled a long way separately in the 14 years since, but found their greatest triumph together thus far in Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season opener for 2017 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Admittedly, a lucky break provided the window for Bourdais to leap frog from 10th at the time of the second caution on Lap 26 to second on Lap 27, when the top seven cars were forced to pit under yellow after not stopping earlier.

But, that’s a Coyne speciality. The likable team owner whose Plainfield, Ill.-based team has been a staple in the IndyCar paddock for more than 30 years has made countless strategic gambles, more of which bare fruit than others, that have been as ubiquitous to the team’s legacy as its running joke of having its second car listed as a TBA in the days leading up to St. Petersburg.

Bourdais capitalized on an ailing Simon Pagenaud, who had some rear wheel guard damage, to make the eventual pass for the win on Lap 37. Bourdais led 69 laps from there, losing the lead only on pit stops. And realistically, he wouldn’t have stayed up front if he wasn’t able to keep up the pace or if the Coyne crew lost spots in the pits – neither of which happened.

Bourdais on top. Photo: IndyCar

Even if the circumstances of today’s win could be called lucky, the overall story of the two units syncing up together for the win is a good one.

That 2003 race for Bourdais was one he nearly won on debut, but a mistake on his end cost him that chance. He’d never finished better than sixth here since.

“I caught myself thinking about 2003, when obviously we started the opposite. We dominated the weekend, were on pole, cleared the field, then all hell broke loose,” Bourdais said. “I found myself tapping the wall in turn eight, threw it away.

“It was kind of redemption day here. To come out on top with obviously a lot of friends and family on-site, the whole community supporting the effort, it was just a great feeling. I couldn’t really be any happier for Honda and Dale for giving me the opportunity to put the band back together and make it happen.

“Everybody works really, really hard. We’re a small group. There is nobody at the shop that doesn’t travel. But it works. It’s a great little group. We’re sure not going to stop there. We’re just going to keep on trying.”

In Bourdais’ case, his win was the 36th of his career and moves him into sixth place on the all-time list, surpassing Bobby Unser, and it’s his fifth since returning to IndyCar in 2011, then with Coyne. He won once with KVSH Racing in 2014 and 2016 and twice in 2015, so this marks his first win with Coyne’s team.

Bourdais and Craig Hampson. Photo: IndyCar

Bourdais, who enjoyed his greatest and most consistent success with Newman/Haas Racing and engineer Craig Hampson in the Champ Car days, said he savors this win more now because the opportunities to achieve them are rare.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment as much as I can, because for sure in those years with Newman/Haas, there’s one thing I didn’t do very much, partly because I was chasing F1 and a lot of other things, but at the end of the day I didn’t savor those moments as much as I probably should have,” he said.

“I try to do a better job with that because, first of all, they don’t come around that many times a year. Second, it’s when it’s over that you realize it was that special. Try and suck up the moment, yeah, just really savor those because they’re very special.”

For Coyne, the win is a change of pace at St. Petersburg from the team’s results in recent years, thanks in large part to actually having the program settled months earlier for the first time in a while.

Justin Wilson scored three straight top-10s from 2012 to 2014 at St. Petersburg and scored the team’s best finish at the track in 2009, in his team debut, when he finished third.

But as recently as two years ago, Coyne only barely made St. Petersburg with the lesser rated Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone as drivers, Dracone having not even had an aero kit at the series’ preseason spring training test at Barber Motorsports Park.

This year was different. Coyne was already exploring his 2017 driver lineup in the summer during July and into August, announced Bourdais in October and then added rookie Ed Jones as the Dubai-based Brit stepped up after winning the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

Coyne said when he’d confirmed Bourdais that he hoped his race team could be the equivalent of a certain baseball team in Chicago; the Cubs shed their “lovable losers” label with their World Series win in the fall, and Coyne looks to do likewise in IndyCar this year.

“He was looking for a home as soon as he won the championship. We talked to him at earlier, I think starting at Mid-Ohio last year. We were able to get that done,” Coyne said of Jones.

“At the same time we got Sebastien’s done. It was nice to get them both done. We have the engineering, the chief mechanic, the team manager, have all your people in place, so that you can hit the ground.

“It’s a long off-season. We didn’t want to waste any time. We were able to have all of it done right at the beginning of the off-season. I think that’s paid off. It’s nice continuity for the team. Just makes everything that we do that much more efficient.”

Bourdais added, “That’s the thing. It was not starting from zero. It was not scrap everything and start over again. Obviously there was a lot of very valid and useful things that had been put in place by Darren and Cannon. We added to that. We didn’t throw anything away.”

Coyne’s team in the pits. Photo: IndyCar

Coyne explained a bit of the magic that goes into his strategy plays. The decision to do what he did today was aided – in a roundabout way – by Bourdais having extra tires available from crashing out in qualifying yesterday.

Asked what Coyne thought of Bourdais’ mistake yesterday, Bourdais laughed and replied, “What an idiot.”

Coyne, whose previous driver Conor Daly called him a “wizard” last year said, “The strategy evolves as the race goes on. Going to be a big yellow in the beginning, a lot of cars are going to pit, leave him out, or he climbs through the field because everybody pits, or is he fast enough to pass six or seven cars? All of those things play in the thing.

“We had a yellow early, stayed out. Gained two positions on that. The first-lap carnage helped us a little bit. He had a hard time getting around Marco. It’s going to be a long day if we try to do sneak-up-to-the-lead strategy.

“Pitting early, the early strategy of the day, pit early, when you’re in the back, you have to do something to leapfrog the field. It hurts us because your last laps are faster. We pitted a lap or two before Simon at the end, and he closed half the gap on us, because he was able to keep going in clean traffic. We had enough of a gap that it was okay.

“You think about the strategy things all day long. You watch the fuel mileage. You tell him different numbers, see what he can hit, work the calculations from there.”

For Bourdais, the win is particularly special because it comes in St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown. He, wife Claire and their children really moved there in 2005 and have made it home.

He and Patrick Long also both co-ran the Kart 4 Kids Pro/Am in Palmetto, Fla. earlier this week, both drivers announcing they’d auction off their helmets. Although both were auctioned before the race, two people now have incredibly special souvenirs.

“First time we really moved here was early ’05. We spent two years, two and a half years there, then we went back to Europe, and came back in March of 2012, never really looked back,” Bourdais said.

“The house we got here, we built it, in Shore Acres. With the kids being in school a couple of blocks down the road, you get to make a lot of friends. We have some really good friends. We just lead a very normal life with normal, fun people.

“It’s just awesome to be able to share that with them. They were all excited. Obviously my parents were there, as well. It’s always very, very special to have these kind of moments in front of the ones you love.”

This is a moment Bourdais and the Coyne team will cherish. And the only TBA to be answered from here is whether the team will add more wins this season, perhaps in a more conventional manner.

“The Watkins Glen win (with Wilson) in 2009 was special because it was our first win. The other ones were nice. This is above both. We brought him back from Europe a few years ago. He stayed here ever since,” Coyne said.

“We were hoping we could win a race or two this year. We’re halfway there. Maybe we can do better than that. We’ll see.”

INDYCAR confirms four primary manufacturer extensions

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – INDYCAR’s four primary manufacturers – engine/aero kit partners Chevrolet and Honda, tire partner Firestone and chassis partner Dallara – have all announced multiyear extensions during a press conference on Friday at this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

While none of those manufacturers would be pressed on the exact year of their extensions, multiyear is believed to mean at least through 2020 with the potential it is longer than that.

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, Dallara was announced for an extension through 2020. This meant that even if Dallara was not to be selected as the manufacturer of INDYCAR’s new 2018 universal aero kit, the base Dallara DW12 chassis would be pressed into service for three further years beyond 2017.

In the same month, INDYCAR also announced a multiyear extension with Firestone, whose prior contract ran through 2018.

Honda’s last announced contract extension was at the IndyCar media day in February 2016, which was for two years (2016-2017) with a three-year option (2018-2020). Although Honda did not confirm that portion today, the confirmation of an extension here implies a sync up with at least 2020 per that option length, and with the Dallara date confirmation in January.

Chevrolet does not comment on the length or exact dates of its extensions except to say multiyear. But their confirmation today is good news to ensure the series maintains engine competition for the forthcoming years.

Both Honda’s Art St. Cyr and Chevrolet’s Mark Kent stated for the record they would welcome a third manufacturer, although from a signing, building and developing an engine standpoint, it’s highly unlikely one would arrive before 2019.

St. Cyr, Kent, Dallara’s Stefano De Ponti, Firestone’s Lisa Boggs and INDYCAR’s Jay Frye were all present at today’s announcement in St. Petersburg.

A further analysis of the extension with quotes will follow in due course.

Fernando Alonso hits out at Honda: ‘No reliability, no power’

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Fernando Alonso has hit out at McLaren’s Formula 1 power unit supplier Honda, saying its engine has “no reliability” and “no power” following a difficult testing program in Barcelona.

Alonso joined McLaren in 2015 when the team rekindled its partnership with Honda, enduring a difficult first season as the Japanese manufacturer struggled to match the offerings of rivals Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.

After an improved 2016 that saw McLaren finish sixth in the constructors’ championship, hopes were high heading into 2017, particularly given a change in the technical regulations for all F1 teams.

However, McLaren has once again found itself hamstrung by issues through pre-season testing, leaving Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne to deal with stoppages and a lack of power on-track.

“We are not matching our expectations and we are not as fast as we wanted to be in this winter testing,” Alonso told reporters in Barcelona on Wednesday.

“We are not completing our program, we are not doing the laps that we plan every morning. We are missing some information with the lack of laps, there are always some items they go through to the next day. The next day we cannot complete the program, go to the next day, and now there are only two days left. One for each driver.

“So definitely a little bit behind schedule in terms of reliability, in terms of performance, but this is winter testing and this is what this is all about.”

When asked about the issues with the Honda-powered McLaren MCL32, Alonso stressed that the car itself felt strong, only to be let down by its power unit.

“The chassis, everything feels good, everything feels under control. The car is responding well to changes and everything is working fine,” Alonso said.

“I’m happy with the balance, I’m happy with how I attack the corner. I’m enjoying driving this car, so I don’t think that we are too far back in terms of chassis side.

“We have only one problem: that is the power unit. There is no reliability and there is no power. I think we are 30 km/h down on every straight.

“When you are 30 km/h down on every straight, it is difficult also to have a feeling on the car. Everything feels good, but when you arrive to normal speed you don’t know what is going to happen.”