Sebastian Saavedra

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Saavedra returns to SPM, again, for upcoming races

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Following the mutual parting of ways between Mikhail Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Sebastian Saavedra will once again be back in the team’s No. 7 Honda for the next two oval races at Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park.

The Colombian impressed in a surprise one-off appearance in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Toronto, as Aleshin was sat down for one race. Saavedra ran as high as seventh and finished 11th after improving from 20th on the grid.

“I am very excited to be back with the SPM organization,” Saavedra said in a release. “It’s another late call to jump in, but I take it with pride after a promising start of our relationship in Toronto. Looking forward to a challenging event as the Tricky Triangle can be, and support (James) Hinchcliffe in his pursuit of championship points. I’m thankful to my sponsors and my continued relationship with AFS Inc.”

“Delighted to have Sebastian back with the SPM team following what was a very encouraging performance at the Toronto event,” added Piers Phillips, General Manager of SPM. “He is experienced and competent, and I have no doubt he will contribute to the overall performance of the team. We’re heading to Pocono full of confidence as a team and we’re looking forward to hopefully seeing Sebastian and James at the front of the pack.”

The likable 27-year-old driver has enjoyed longtime support from Gary Peterson of AFS Racing throughout a stop-start IndyCar career since 2010, with more than 60 career starts and just a handful of top-10 finishes.

It remains to be seen what Saavedra and Peterson put together for 2018; at Mid-Ohio, Peterson indicated he was working towards an IMSA Prototype program next year.

As for the final two road course races this year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, SPM has not yet announced that plan.

Robert Wickens, who filled in for Aleshin temporarily on the Friday of Road America weekend, made his case on Tuesday to “stir the pot” a bit in a social media post.

The Canadian doesn’t have any DTM conflicts either weekend and would be a popular selection if he does get the call.

Peterson, AFS working towards IMSA Prototype program

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – A potential new privateer entrant into the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype class ranks might come in the form of Gary Peterson and his AFS Racing outfit.

Peterson, the longtime supporter of Sebastian Saavedra in the Verizon IndyCar Series, has been exploring the potential of moving his team into IMSA for 2018 and may have a solution in the form of one of the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) chassis.

NBC Sports understands Peterson has had discussions with one of the existing Prototype teams racing this season, and if that team’s manufacturer will make another chassis available, there is a decent chance the car could materialize for the 2018 season.

“We’ve had discussions with teams in that paddock, and we’re looking at seeing if we can put together a DPi effort for next year,” Peterson told NBC Sports.

He plans to attend IMSA’s next race next weekend at Road America for further evaluation as the series releases more of its “state of the series” plan, including its 2018 series schedule.

If the program materializes, and given the number of likely available drivers depending on the Penske and Acura and Joest and Mazda team plans, there are plenty of possibilities who could drive alongside Saavedra, who’d naturally be on board.

Peterson hailed Saavedra’s performance in a one-off fill-in role for Mikhail Aleshin at Toronto with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The Colombian driver improved methodically during the weekend en route to an 11th place finish.

“We were pleased,” Peterson said. “Sebastian’s job was to keep it clean and bring it home in one piece all weekend, and he did that. We’re not in the points so we accomplished what we set out to do.”

Peterson and Saavedra have been on site this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, notably in the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pits, making the rounds as they prep their 2018 program and a potential full-time return in at least one series after a couple years of sporadic appearances only. They also hope to attend at least one more of the remaining IndyCar races on site later this year.

Saavedra raises stock with fighting run to P11 in one-off with SPM

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Likable Colombian Sebastian Saavedra made what felt like an eighth different comeback to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend – he’s had more comebacks than Cher and he’s only 27 years old.

And for the second time in as many opportunities this year, with a second different team, manufacturer, aero kit and type of course, Saavedra did exactly what he needed to raise his stock for a more permanent return to the series.

Saavedra was announced under cloudy circumstances for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda entry this weekend, as the team wouldn’t elaborate at first on Mikhail Aleshin’s absence.

But reports emerged over the weekend that this appears likely to be just a one-race sit down for the Russian, not a permanent replacement. Aleshin was on site at the weekend and still posting photos to social media with the team, which one doesn’t do if they’re to be let go.

Alas, for Saavedra, he faced a challenging situation regardless of Aleshin’s circumstances. He hadn’t driven on a street course in two years and the Toronto he last drove, in 2015, was a different circuit compared to the one he did this weekend. With the pit lane side swap and additional circuit changes, including new paving and other elements, it was always going to be a tough mountain to climb despite Saavedra’s parts of seven years and 60-plus starts in IndyCar.

Plus, compared to Indianapolis where there is a week of practice before qualifying – 30 hours – Saavedra would only have a pair of 45-minute practice sessions on Friday and then a further 45-minute one Saturday morning before qualifying.

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Understandably, Saavedra was a bit off pace to start the weekend but he did nothing but improve from there. He was 2.8 seconds off P1 in first practice, and 2.1 down on teammate James Hinchcliffe, but those gaps dropped from there to 1.8 and 0.6 (second practice), 0.8 and 0.4 (third practice) and 1.0 and 0.6 (qualifying) respectively. His fastest race lap was only two tenths off Hinchcliffe, good for 15th.

In the race, from 20th on the grid, Saavedra was always likely to go off sequence and was among those who caught a break by the timing of the Lap 23 yellow. He’d pitted before the yellow and then leapfrogged into the top-10 following that caution when those who hadn’t pitted made their first visit to the pits.

Saavedra could have dropped back from there but didn’t, instead scrapping and fighting to hang onto a top-10 spot, which was always going to be an excellent result given the circumstances this weekend. He ran as high as seventh, matching his car number for the weekend.

Although he fell behind Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon in the final stages, 11th was still a very solid result for him to cap off the weekend.

“I feel like that is a very successful weekend in the books,” he reflected after the race. “I’m very appreciative of the whole Schmidt Peterson Motorsports organization for taking me in and just making me feel like I’m home.

“I felt the same throughout the race and had a pretty solid car. We kept clean for the first stint, just tried to stay away from trouble, and when I started pushing, the car was there for me. Great strategy from the SPM guys and getting me out of those reds [Firestone alternate tires] and getting me some free time for me to do my thing.

“It played off perfectly with those yellows, and we managed to get in with the guys up front which changed the speed of the race for us. We had the car to do it. We’re proud of the pit stops, proud of the strategy and of course having a good car makes my life as a driver a lot easier.”

Saavedra adds SPM to a list of teams he’s driven for since 2010 that also includes Bryan Herta Autosport, Conquest Racing, Andretti Autosport, Dragon Racing, KV Racing Technology, Chip Ganassi Racing and Juncos Racing. Most have come in partnership with his longtime supporter Gary Peterson of Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc. (AFS), and the AFS signage was present on the red and black No. 7 car this weekend.

Peterson told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Dave Furst during the weekend that “sometimes I feel like a pimp” in trying to make opportunities happen for both himself and Saavedra.

But given how well Saavedra’s done in tough jump-in circumstances this year – at Juncos in the team’s IndyCar debut at the Indianapolis 500 when he drove well from 31st to 15th and now with SPM in this abnormal one-off drive, coming from 20th to 11th – he’s provided two glimpses at his potential as he looks to return on a more regular basis.

Saavedra gets surprise call-up to SPM for Toronto, in Aleshin’s seat

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Toronto veteran Sebastian Saavedra has been called up to replace Mikhail Aleshin in the No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda this weekend, a surprise driver change ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

In a statement, the team said Aleshin would be on site for support but would not provide any further comment at this time. The No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda will also feature AFS Racing branding and support, owing to Saavedra’s longtime supporter Gary Peterson.

“We welcome the opportunity to compete with Ric and Sam at a venue where Seb and I have had great success in the past,” Peterson said in the statement.

Aleshin was delayed getting to the last road course race at Road America last month owing to immigration issues, and Robert Wickens filled in for him in the Friday practice sessions. But Aleshin’s return occurred as of Saturday morning for that race, and for Iowa Speedway last weekend.

Saavedra, meanwhile, has one prior start this year with Juncos Racing in partnership with AFS at the Indianapolis 500. He’s also worked with the No. 7 car’s engineer, Blair Perschbacher, previously in his IndyCar career.

At Toronto, Saavedra has six past IndyCar starts from 2011 through 2015, with Conquest Racing, Dragon Racing, KV/AFS Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing. His best finish is 15th in Toronto race two, 2013.

Saavedra also has three starts there in Indy Lights competition. He won from pole for AFS/Andretti Autosport in 2009 and finished second with the same team in 2012.

SPM joins Bryan Herta Autosport, Conquest, Andretti, Dragon, KV, Ganassi and Juncos as teams Saavedra, who’s still only 27, has driven with in his career.

Interestingly, Wickens was available as there’s no DTM race this weekend and the Guelph, Ontario native was home – posting training video from a lake in Muskoka on Wednesday on his Instagram page.

Keen-eyed observers will have noticed Aleshin’s car having switched from the full SMP Racing red, white and blue livery in the past, to a red and black Lucas Oil and ARROW livery this year for Aleshin’s car.

Harding Racing shines among new teams at Indy 500

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A trio of new teams (Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and Michael Shank Racing, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport) debuted at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Expectations for such outfits are usually humble and rarely do outsiders, or even insiders, predict such efforts to run up front.

And yet, at the checkered flag, one of those teams emerged in ninth place, a top-10 finish in its IndyCar debut.

Harding Racing’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in the hands of Gabby Chaves, had never run a race before, let alone an IndyCar race, and let alone an Indianapolis 500. However, they survived the carnage and chaos that defined the day to finish in the top-10, dramatically exceeding expectations.

Chaves was competing in his third “500,” two years after winning rookie-of-the-year honors with a 16th place for Bryan Herta Autosport. He labeled this race as mission: accomplished.

“I think we did our job. We took the race one lap at a time. We let the track and the conditions come to us and we dialed in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet car every stop,” Chaves said. “We had a heck of a stint there. I think we were one of the only cars being able to make moves out there and got into a solid top ten for our first go as a team.”

Fellow debutante Juncos Racing, too, excelled in their own right. While their runs to 15th (Sebastian Saavedra) and 18th (Spencer Pigot) were unspectacular, the reality is that both cars made it to the finish, with Saavedra finishing on the lead lap, a noteworthy performance for a team making its first IndyCar start.

Sebastian Saavedra brought home a lead lap finish for Indy 500 debutantes Juncos Racing. Photo: IndyCar

Saavedra, like Chaves, said the team accomplished everything it wanted to. “We accomplished the mission we started less than two months ago,” he asserted. “To finish this first Indy 500 with both cars intact is a victory of its own. I’m very proud of the whole organization for putting in such a professional effort. It was rough out there. We were not as competitive as we wanted, but hey, that’s something that is expected your first time out.”

Teammate Spencer Pigot endured a more difficult race in his No. 11 Chevrolet, which the team scrambled to repair ahead of qualifying after a practice crash. As Pigot described, something was still off with the car (he was nearly lapped at the end of the opening stint) and he and the team were fighting it the entire day.

“I think there’s still something I’m missing or something’s gone away with the car since the (practice) crash. It never really felt right and it was just very difficult to drive, but we fought through a tough day. We didn’t give up. The guys kept working hard and I can’t thank them enough for the recovery and for putting this all together,” Pigot detailed.

Michael Shank Racing, the third team making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut, endured the most challenging race of the three new teams. For them, it was a race that concluded a difficult month riddled with problems, which began with a foreboding and bizarre steering failure that resulted in wall contact during opening day practice for driver Jack Harvey.

Harvey and Michael Shank’s No. 50 Honda team were enjoying a solid race until Conor Daly’s lap 65 crash in Turn 3. Harvey hit debris from the accident and spun into the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. It ended a difficult month for a driver and team who truly made a herculean effort to field an entry.

Jack Harvey and Michael Shank Racing endured a month filled with challenges. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s a super disappointing day because we worked so hard to get here so to have the day end like this is heartbreaking,” Harvey lamented afterward. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”

Still, Harvey was enthusiastic to simply have a chance to compete. “This was still the best experience I’ve ever had,” he asserted. “The Indianapolis 500 represents so much in the state of Indiana and to the racing world, but it just didn’t go the right way for us today.”

Of those three, Harding Racing is the only one scheduled to run more IndyCar races this year. They will return for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10 and the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway on August 20.

Juncos Racing will continue with its efforts in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, where it has drivers currently atop the championships in both Indy Lights (Kyle Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Victor Franzoni).

Michael Shank Racing will continue its Acura NSX GT3 program in the GTD class of WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, resuming next weekend at Detroit.

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