MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: Italian GP

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The European leg of the 2013 season comes to a close at Monza this weekend with the Italian Grand Prix, a mainstay on the calendar ever since the first Formula One world championship in 1950. With the loyal Tifosi cheering on Ferrari, the Scuderia will be hoping to win for a third time in 2013 this weekend, but with Sebastian Vettel laying down an ominous pace during practice today, it appears that the German driver could enter his favored Asian leg of the calendar with a lead equivalent to more than two race wins.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Even though he has won here twice previously, Monza isn’t usually a track that favors the Red Bull since so much is about top-end speed. That said, still on fine form after his Belgian win and a win to conclude the European season would surprise almost no one.

Surprising finish: Nico Hulkenberg. Sauber won’t be able to match its surprise podium repeat achieved by Sergio Perez a year ago but Hulkenberg’s due for a good race at a track that will mask the car’s aero deficiencies and is all about power. The Ferrari-engined Sauber could be in the eighth or ninth place range.

Most to prove: Felipe Massa. Job on the line and in front of the tifosi, a must for Massa to have a clean, high-points scoring weekend in Italy.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Fernando Alonso. Monza’s famed “tifosi” demand nothing less than victory from Ferrari, and it’ll likely be up to Alonso to get the job done for them. Considering his strong run last time out at Spa – like Monza, a low-downforce track – he stands a chance of coming through with a critical win for his title hopes.

Surprising finish: Mark Webber. Through eleven starts at Monza in his Formula One career, Webber has yet to hit the podium. It’d be great to see him finally break through at “La Pista Magica” as he continues his farewell tour of F1 before heading off to the sports cars next season.

Most to prove: Jean-Eric Vergne. His Toro Rosso teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, has punched a ticket to the big time with his ascension to Mark Webber’s Red Bull seat for 2014. With that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an extra-motivated “JEV” for the rest of the season starting in Italy.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton. The Briton has been relentless in qualifying so far this season, chasing his fifth in a row at Monza this weekend. Given that five of the past six winners in Italy have started from pole, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him bag P1 on Saturday and simply keep it ahead of Vettel on Sunday, just as he did in Hungary.

Surprising finish: Jenson Button. McLaren appear to be on the cusp of something good in Italy, having also ran well at the Belgian Grand Prix last month. Button could be poised to claim the team’s best result of 2013 so far this weekend.

Most to prove: Daniel Ricciardo. Essentially, he needs to say “here’s why Red Bull hired me” at Monza.

Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine)

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes have usually been handy around Monza. Hamilton’s on a run of four consecutive pole positions and he’s got a good chance of repeating his win from last year.

Surprising finish: Sergio Perez. Something of a Monza specialist – he scored two remarkable wins in his F3 days at this track from 14th on the grid, and took an excellent second here last year.

Most to prove: Pastor Maldonado. He needs to erase memories of the blunder that ended his race at Spa.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne