Friday Sonoma notebook: Schmidt and Honda, JR, Briscoe return and more

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This morning at Sonoma Raceway, three IndyCar press conferences were held. Here’s a few bits and pieces from those and other news and notes from around the paddock at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (4 p.m. EST, Sunday, NBCSN):

  • Sam Schmidt’s team is the first to announce it will continue with Honda powerplants into the 2014 season, as Honda switches from single to twin turbochargers, for the Schmidt Hamilton and Schmidt Peterson teams. Schmidt is likely to retain Simon Pagenaud in the No. 77 HP SHM entry; HPD vp and COO Steve Eriksen and the rest of the manufacturer rate Pagenaud highly. Interesting to me here is that Schmidt’s group is ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing in confirming; CGR was Honda’s anchor team when engine competition was reintroduced in 2012. I spoke to team co-owner Ric Peterson, who said rookie Tristan Vautier has an option for two further years, and he also hopes his team’s three Indy Lights drivers will continue for a second year. The only way that changes is if either Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam or Jack Hawksworth wins the title, and is awarded the champion’s incentive from IndyCar to move up.
  • Ryan Briscoe returns to action this weekend for Panther Racing, with a brace on his right wrist. He has gotten several days of testing in, first with Panther at Sonoma last week and again on Wednesday, and also in his Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b P2 class car at Austin earlier this week. Asked if a Panther/Level 5 weekend double-dip at Baltimore was possible, Briscoe said, “I wanted to and I pushed hard for it. But it came down to whether Level 5 would let me do it. It’s funny because earlier this year, when I said I’d do some Indy races, I said, ‘Come on, nothing will happen.’ And then I broke my wrist – so I lost that argument!”
  • For JR Hildebrand, there isn’t so much any extra “motivation” or anything to prove on his return to the series with Barracuda Racing. “I don’t look at it like that,” he said. “It’s more about me coming out here, doing a good job and collectively putting together a good weekend.” He said the situation differs from his last one-off outing for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, also at Sonoma, in 2010, because now he has 2.5 years of experience to draw on that has made him more prepared. He said he seriously enjoys working with team boss Bryan Herta, and seems fairly relaxed. The irony for JR this time around though is that his Barracuda team is parked right next to his old squad, Panther Racing, in both the paddock and pit lane.
  • Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Will Power have had two interesting media events with a Hitachi technology event at a Penske Nissan Infiniti dealership in downtown San Francisco on Thursday night, and a Google+ Hangout through Verizon Wireless this morning. A full replay of the Hangout is linked here on YouTube.
  • Josef Newgarden showed off a new “Power Nap Pillow” a fan gave him in the paddock before first practice, linked in the below tweet. Newgarden was one of six drivers who took a tour of Twitter’s headquarters Thursday in San Francisco, an event Tristan Vautier raved about. Meanwhile as to the business of Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team, which fields a second car this weekend for Lucas Luhr, team co-owner Fisher told IMS Radio during first practice that expansion to a second full-time entry is the goal. “We need to be in a second car situation to be in the premier elite and help him grow,” she said. Luhr, for what it’s worth, is in a new RW/SFHR firesuit and now his usual one he wears in the ALMS for Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.