Preview: Detroit’s doubleheader a crucial weekend for IndyCar championship

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DETROIT – Fatigue is starting to set in, but the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and teams can’t yet lift their feet off the accelerator.

This is the eighth of 10 consecutive weekends on-track for the championship, although the first where most of the Indianapolis-based teams are traveling since the trip to Birmingham, Ala. at the end of April.

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Yet this weekend’s Chevrolet Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans on Belle Isle Park arguably has as big a role on the championship as did last week’s Indianapolis 500, in the second-to-last street course race weekend of the year.

With this being the lone doubleheader weekend of 2015, it by default offers double points. The difference of course is that the points are the combination of two single-race points, rather than one race having twice the amount of points.

There were several movers and shakers in the points after last week – notably Charlie Kimball moving up six spots from 14th to eighth – and there figure to be more to come after this week in Detroit.

How important is it to roll out of the box well?

With only one 75-minute practice session, from 10:35 to 11:50 a.m. ET, teams will have to nail the setup out of the box to ensure they have a good working car in dry conditions.

Alas, it wouldn’t be IndyCar without some sort of curveball, and that comes with Saturday’s 60-70 percent chances of rain.

If you remember the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park, you’ll recall the Chip Ganassi Racing pair of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – the latter of whom is adorned in a Taylor Swift concert tour livery this weekend – were pacesetters in the dry in practice.

However, once the rain came for qualifying, qualifying was washed out and cancelled. And the race turned into a rain-affected yet caution-drenched lottery (the cautions were coming down more than the rain was), won by James Hinchcliffe in what at least was a popular victory.

The injured but now thankfully released Hinchcliffe won’t have a chance to add a second win in what is likely going to be mixed conditions on Saturday but someone will seize the day, be it on staying clean or moving to the front on strategy, and that will kick off the weekend’s winners.

Sunday is expected to be cleaner, drier, and cooler, with ambient temperatures in the mid-to-high ’60s. Consider Thursday was in the high 80s when drivers and teams did a track walk to explore the newly resurfaced Belle Isle Park facility, which has a fair amount of new concrete, and that’s a big difference for what they’ll be facing most of the weekend.

In four past doubleheader races at Detroit there have been four different winners, in the form of surprise winners Mike Conway and Simon Pagenaud in 2013, and dominant forces from Team Penske in Will Power and Helio Castroneves last year.

As ever the Penske quartet will be strong, and we keep writing, and waiting for Pagenaud to get his first win with the team. Detroit is another realistic spot for it to happen.

But first, the remaining three drivers in the Captain’s stable must get past Juan Pablo Montoya. The lone chance I see for the rest of the field is fatigue; while the Indianapolis 500 champion rides the crest of momentum into Detroit, he’s had a busy week of media and now has to maintain his form into a track where he’ll admit he’s not the best of qualifiers.

Montoya is a damn good racer, not only one of the best in the series but one of the best all-time; that said, his qualifying is his weak spot.

And if there’s one thing the Detroit double has done to Indy 500 winners, it’s killed their momentum.

Kanaan came off his 2013 Indianapolis 500 win with finishes of 13th and 12th in Detroit; Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered through a diabolical Detroit last year with 16th and 19th, both failures to finish.

So if Montoya, who leads the points by 25 over Power coming into the weekend, banks one or two top-10s, he’ll have already exceeded his predecessors, and solidified his championship chances.

The Ganassi quartet is also strong – Scott Dixon is a past Detroit winner and either or both of Kanaan or Charlie Kimball looks poised to build upon podiums they achieved here last year. It’s Sage Karam who needs a big, trouble-free weekend and not the Ganassi equivalent of AJ Allmendinger’s 2013 “weekend on Hell Isle” in his last IndyCar street car race for Penske.

If there’s any Honda capable of upstaging the Bowtie brigade on home soil it’s undoubtedly Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, with Rahal saying earlier this week he feels “really good” heading into the weekend. And with good reason.

Considering the team’s comparative lack of cohesion and chemistry each of the last two years, this is still a team that has had podiums both years here – James Jakes was second in race two of 2013, and Rahal second in race one last year. Now that the team’s chemistry is actually firing on all cylinders, I’d fully expect Rahal on the podium at least once, and it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see him finally end his seven-year winless drought.

That hits nine of the 23… others to watch include Conor Daly in his Schmidt Peterson “mulligan” race, and first as Hinchcliffe’s injury replacement, Barber winner Josef Newgarden, as he looks to atone from historical struggles in doubleheaders, and KVSH Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais, who has consistently been a thorn in the Ganassi/Penske sides. Of the other Hondas, Takuma Sato was a pole winner here last year and if the Foyt team’s setup comes in, he is a possible spoiler.

We’ll see how it shakes out in the pair of races, both of which air at 3:30 p.m. ET on both of Saturday and Sunday.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”