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Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

First IndyCar test on IMS oval moved up to Friday

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For the first time in 2017, the sounds of the Verizon IndyCar Series cars will be live from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. And it will occur a day earlier than planned.

A test originally scheduled for Saturday on the 2.5-mile oval will now occur Friday owing to impending poor weather on Saturday. This test, which is both a Honda and team test, will come only three days after the full field of competitors ran at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham.

Those scheduled to test on Friday includes this group of competitors:

  • Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball of Chip Ganassi Racing
  • James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
  • Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power of Team Penske

Fans can watch the test for free from the Turn 2 mounds.

“The sweet sound of engines this Friday on the IMS oval will be yet another sign that the Month of May is right around the corner,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said in a release. “The weather forecast looks warm for Friday, so we encourage fans to come to the track to enjoy seeing and hearing the cars.”

This bit of news takes IMS back on track after a couple noteworthy items of late off-track:

The “Behind the Bricks” series has premiered, featuring last year’s champion Alexander Rossi. Here’s a link to that:

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in 2016 was nominated for the Sports Event of the Year award to be presented at the 10th annual Sports Business Awards, the leading recognition for the North American sports industry.

Sports industry leaders will gather Wednesday evening, May 24 at the New York Marriott Marquis at Times Square for the ceremony, presented by Street and Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal. This year’s event features 87 nominees across 17 categories.

“The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was an incredible success that created lifelong memories for our fans and generated significant momentum for the Verizon IndyCar Series,” Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles said. “We’re grateful to the SportsBusiness Journal for its recognition of the hard work that went into years of planning and execution for this once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Indianapolis 500 champions have quenched their thirst in Victory Lane with a bottle of milk since 1936, and a growing number of celebrities and corporate and civic leaders are sharing that same winning feeling through the #101Bottles program leading into the 101st Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is delivering one commemorative bottle of milk per day to prominent individuals for 101 days leading up to Race Day for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 28.

Reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi started the program Feb. 16 by presenting a milk bottle to Cummins, Inc. CEO Tom Linebarger at the Cummins Distribution Headquarters in downtown Indianapolis after the ticket for this year’s race was unveiled at the facility.

“This is a great way to bring the Indy 500 countdown closer to both racing fans across the nation and our community in Central Indiana,” said Allison Melangton, senior vice president, events, Hulman Motorsports. “Everyone wants to take part in celebrating the Indy 500 and one of its most iconic traditions, and these bottles have become more of a hot commodity each and every day as we get closer to May.”

Rossi also presented a bottle to the hosts of the NFL Network program “Good Morning Football” in New York during an appearance on the show March 7, sharing a toast of milk live on the air. Milk bottles also have been presented to these prominent individuals:

  • Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, during a recent visit to the IMS Hall of Fame Museum
  • Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, during the annual flag-raising ceremony at Gate 1 of IMS
  • Kentucky Derby Museum President Patrick Armstrong, during a Town Hall at the museum featuring three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and IMS President Doug Boles
  • Indiana Black Expo Inc. President Tanya Bell, to mark 89 days from Race Day
  • Susie Wheldon, wife of late two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race weekend
  • Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Ken Griffey Jr., during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race weekend
  • Former NFL player and Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Grand Marshal Mark Schlereth
  • Indiana State Treasurer Kelly Mitchell, at the Statehouse and delivered by driver Stefan Wilson

Montoya returns to natural IndyCar habitat, back at Barber test

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For the first time in more than 20 years, Juan Pablo Montoya isn’t racing full-time. One of the greatest drivers of his generation is in a transition phase between a full-time seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series and a potential seat with Team Penske’s likely-if-not-officially-confirmed future sports car program.

But Montoya is still staying plenty race-sharp in a year where he’ll compete in a variety of machinery. He won the Race of Champions in January, tested the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at Sebring in February and was back in his natural habitat of a Team Penske Chevrolet IndyCar on Tuesday, in preparation for his month of May outing in the team’s fifth car for both IndyCar races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Times don’t mean much for a test day but Montoya was immediately on pace in fourth yesterday at Barber Motorsports Park, working with Team Penske veteran Ron Ruzewski and engineer Raul Prados on the box for his No. 22 Chevrolet, per Trackside Online and IndyCar.com.

This was Montoya’s first day in an IndyCar since he finished third at the 2016 season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in September.

“I feel like I drove the car yesterday,” Montoya said, via an IndyCar release. “It’s kind of fun. I’ve been out of the car since September, but I feel fine. I have a new crew, new guys, new engineer. It’s working really well.”

The shift for Montoya this year comes after his first two seasons in F3000 in 1997 and 1998, the latter of which he won a championship and propelled him into CART in 1999 when he won that year’s title on a tiebreaker over Dario Franchitti. After another year with a few wins in 2000, notably his romp on debut at the Indianapolis 500, he was off to Formula 1 where he raced for five and a half years from 2001 through 2006. His abrupt F1 ending produced the start of his NASCAR career, which stretched from the end of 2006 through 2013 before coming back to IndyCar, where he had been full-time the last three years and probably should have won the 2015 title had he not lost that one on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon.

Home life is the way forward for Montoya now, who’s overseeing son Sebastian’s burgeoning kart career of his own and racing when he wants to rather than when he has to. And given he’s already back on pace in his first day back in an IndyCar in six months, it should come as no surprise given his ability level.

Seeing the fun side of Montoya has been evident on social media; he and Tony Kanaan both posted a pair of Instagram stories last night as they chronicled their flight delays getting out of Birmingham and back to Florida in the wee hours. And yes, Montoya did make it home before sunrise.

Will Power ends Barber test on top

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Team Penske stormed to the front in the second session of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ open test at Barber Motorsports Park, with three Penske drivers in the top five spots at the end of the day. Will Power led the way with a lap of 1:07.7518, which he turned as the checkered flag waved on the session. Power’s time pipped Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton by just under eight thousandths of a second (Chilton’s lap was a 1:07.7591).”It just shows how tight it is between Honda and Chevy now,” Power said of the narrow gap between lap times. “It’s tough, man. We just went through a bunch of stuff to see what it does and I think we got some good answers here. I think we’ve got a good car for here, I feel good about my setup.”

Power’s teammates Josef Newgarden and Juan Pablo Montoya were third and fourth, with Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti breaking into fifth as the session came to an end.

While the first session ran cleanly, the second session was stopped four times. The first red flag came out for simultaneous but separate incidents. Charlie Kimball’s No. 83 Novo Nordisk Honda stopped on course at turn six while Josef Newgarden’s No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet made contact with the barriers in turn one. Both drivers had minimal damage and rejoined the session.

The second and third red flags were for a track inspection, while the fourth and final stoppage was for Tony Kanaan, who made contact in turn 1.

The stoppages combined with the availability of push-to-pass to create a flurry of activity in the final hour, with several drivers taking turns at the top of the speed chart as times dipped into the the 1:07 bracket, with Power’s fastest lap roughly half-a-second faster than Takuma Sato’s quick time from the morning session.

Times from the second session 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.”