Tony Kanaan leads final practice for 98th Indy 500

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Under a sunny Hoosier sky and in front of a healthy Carb Day crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, defending Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan topped the final practice for Sunday’s 98th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The Brazilian threw down a lap of 227.838 mph in the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to lead the session, which is usually treated more as a dress rehearsal than anything else.

However, with rain washing out a noticeable amount of track time this month at IMS, some teams were looking to make last-minute progress on their race set-up, too.

Kanaan’s teammate and 2008 ‘500’ winner Scott Dixon was close behind with a lap at 227.773 mph in the No. 9 TCGR Chevy. He will start 11th (middle, Row 4) on Sunday’s grid, while Kanaan will start 16th (inside, Row 6).

“We feel good about [the race],” said Kanaan, who is looking to become the first repeat ‘500’ winner since Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002). “I think we worked pretty hard together to make up for our Saturday qualifying.

“We have great people back in the engineering office at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and I think we already showed that a little bit on Monday after qualifying and now today.”

Also breaking the 227-mph mark on Carb Day was NBCSN’s own Townsend Bell in the No. 6 KV Racing Technology Chevy. His best lap of 227.221 mph was third-fastest in the hour-long session.

Three-time ‘500’ winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske was fourth at 226.187 mph, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin was fifth-fastest (226.045) to lead the rookies.

Kurt Busch, in his final IndyCar tuneup before he embarks on the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 ‘Double’ this Sunday, was 15th-quickest at 224.684 mph in his No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

Busch was making his first run in an IndyCar since his hard practice crash on Monday at IMS.

“This morning, I was a bit anxious to get back in the car and see how I was going to feel,” Busch said. “There’s a lot to be said about guys when they hit the wall, they lose their confidence a little bit.

“I didn’t lose my confidence, I just needed to make sure that I didn’t over-adjust the car when I got back in traffic…I need to do a better job reading the traffic and that will help our Sunday.”

The sole incident of the session took place with half an hour to go when ‘500’ rookie Sage Karam got loose on the high line and brushed the Turn 4 wall before getting his No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold-Kingdom Racing Chevrolet under control.

The 19-year-old returned to the pits with minimal outside rear damage to the car, but the team opted to end their practice early. Karam logged 19 laps, with a fast lap of 222.329 mph.

1,441 laps were turned overall in the session, and rookie Carlos Huertas ran the most individually with 65.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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