Marussia’s Bianchi claws back some of lost time after rough Friday

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With the Formula One field as tightly packed as it is, even at the back of the grid, seeing the Marussia-Cosworths three to six seconds off the pace, or more, on Friday was rather troubling.

The team had a pair of mechanical issues with Rodolfo Gonzalez, the team’s third driver and taking over Jules Bianchi’s chassis, having an engine issue toward the end of free practice one. Then in free practice two, Max Chilton’s session ended early with a right front brake disc failure. Chilton’s car was parked on the entry to Turn 20, and radio chatter was not kind regarding a crane digging his trapped car out of the sand trap.

Marussia was on the back foot entering Saturday as it tries to hold onto 10th in the Constructor’s Championship ahead of Caterham. Given the challenges, Bianchi delivered a very good effort to get within a tenth of Giedo van der Garde’s Caterham for “best in class” unofficial honors. The Dutchman was 19th at 1:40.491, Bianchi just behind at 1:40.528.

“After the problems we have experienced so far this weekend, we absolutely needed to find the right solution in time for qualifying,” said Bianchi. “I’m very happy that we did this and although we haven’t been able to spend the time to tune the car, we made enough progress to split the Caterhams, which is a good result from where we were.

“Had we been fully there with the balance, who knows, it may have been possible to get ahead of van der Garde as we were just a few hundredths away. It was pretty windy in Sector 1 also, so if we look at the overall picture we have to be pretty pleased with the result. My thanks to the Team for all the hard work in resolving our problems and now we can look forward to the race with a little more confidence.”

Chilton was underwhelming at the back, nearly one second in arrears of his teammate at 1:41.401. He didn’t like his car’s balance but still said he was disappointed with his effort. Still, he’ll move up one spot on the grid with van der Garde’s Caterham teammate, Charles Pic, incurring a five-spot grid penalty after the team had to break the seal on his gearbox.

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.

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