PREVIEW: Honda Indy Toronto

Photo: IndyCar

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads north of the border to the streets of Toronto at Exhibition Place for this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, CNBC with re-air 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It’s the series’ final street course race weekend of the year after past trips to St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Detroit. Team Penske has won three of those four races (Juan Pablo Montoya at St. Petersburg, Simon Pagenaud at Long Beach and Will Power at Detroit race two).

Here’s some of the talking points going into the weekend:

2016 Honda Indy Toronto – Talking Points

The new pit lane

The circuit is reconfigured slightly with the pit lane moving from driver’s right entering Turn 10 to now driver’s left, and is almost entirely curved from right to left and then exiting driver’s left onto the track rather than driver’s right. Additionally, the small pit boxes will make it interesting entering and leaving pit stops.

We hope this won’t be a story, but it might be hard for it not to be.

Newgarden, Carpenter, Pigot on Toronto hot streaks

Incidentally more than any of the established “Big Three” teams, it’s Ed Carpenter Racing that is the lead story heading into the weekend. Josef Newgarden is fresh off his beatdown in corn-town at the Iowa Corn 300, while Ed Carpenter’s team – either as ECR in 2014 or as CFH Racing last year – comes into Toronto seeking a three-peat. Mike Conway won in 2014 while Newgarden led home Luca Filippi last year in a 1-2 finish.

For good measure, it’s not just Newgarden and the team with a winning streak entering Toronto, but also Newgarden’s teammate, Spencer Pigot, who won both Indy Lights races here last year.

Newgarden’s not had the best of results on street courses this year, with 22nd (mechanical) at St. Petersburg, 10th at Long Beach, and then 14th and fourth in the Detroit doubleheader. If he’s to maintain his charge, he needs another top-five if not another podium this weekend in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet.

Bourdais looks to throw a spanner in works

Among the drivers who aren’t from the Penske/Ganassi/Andretti triumvirate, Sebastien Bourdais and KVSH Racing are usually solid on street courses. Bourdais had a double podium in Toronto in 2013 and won one of two races in 2014; he was an unrepresentative eighth last year. He also won a second time in the Champ Car days.

Considering he was one of the few cars that could pass in Long Beach and won in Detroit earlier this year, he should be a threat this weekend in the No. 11 Team Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet.

Points battle 

Simon Pagenaud’s points lead is still at 73 points over Newgarden entering the weekend, following a smart drive to fourth in Iowa.

Pagenaud was lucky to not lose more points despite his rough four-race patch earlier this year and will look to continue driving smartly to keep the gap where it’s at.

Meanwhile those behind him – Newgarden, Will Power, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves – will be looking for a way back into the title fight. Power, Dixon and Bourdais have all won twice in Toronto.

The Luca factor

In-season driver changes aren’t as frequent as usual but there’s always something to watch when they do happen. And so an intriguing one this weekend comes with Luca Filippi back again at Dale Coyne Racing for Toronto, a move that makes sense for both parties, in place of Gabby Chaves.

Filippi ran the opening four races of the year with little success but his qualifying actually wasn’t bad at all. Starts of 15th, 16th, 12th and 12th in those four races are four of Coyne’s team’s six best starts this year – sadly they only produced results of 20th, 20th, 17th and 18th. Conor Daly’s ninth at Road America and Chaves’ 15th in Detroit race two are the other best starts.

And considering Filippi has started sixth each of the last two years in Toronto with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and CFH Racing (now ECR), could he pull off the three-peat and get a Coyne Honda into the Firestone Fast Six? He could be the guy to do it at a track he thrives at, and where he scored his first and thus far only podium finish a year ago.

Turn 3

“The notorious T.O.3,” as exactly no one calls it, is Toronto’s signature corner. Turn 3 at the end of Lake Shore Blvd. invites so many passing opportunities, many of which end up in tears.

It’s one of the best hot spots on the entire IndyCar calendar and always provides entertainment year on year.

Toronto at 30

This is not the 30th Toronto Indy race even though this year, the event celebrates it 30th anniversary of its inaugural 1986 race, won by Bobby Rahal. The race was absent in 2008 but this year will be the 32nd running, owing to the two doubleheader years in 2013 and 2014. It also moves back to its standard mid-July date after a one-year bump up to mid-June last year, owing to the Pan Am Games.

While Long Beach is accepted as the gold standard of street courses in North America, and St. Petersburg and Detroit have found their homes, Toronto modern day has felt a slight step behind by comparison – the street course equivalent of a once great rock band that while still good, is better off playing its classics than any new material. The hope is that the return to its normal date and the track enhancements and changes will make for a better Toronto weekend.

The final word

Here’s the last word from the man who leads the points, Pagenaud, who will be back in the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet colors this weekend, a livery he’s won twice with (Long Beach, Barber):

“Toronto is such a vibrant city with a tremendous amount of diversity. I always enjoy my time there. At the track this year, pit road is on the other side of the track, so that will be something to get used to. Changes like that to a racetrack can have a larger effect than meets the eye, so we’ll just have to see how it goes once we get out there.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 15
10 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, (Live)
2:30 – 3:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)

Saturday, July 16
9:45 – 10:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, (Live)
1:30 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (Live)

Sunday, July 17
10:30 – 11 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, (Live)
2:30 p.m. – Driver Introductions
3:08 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
3:15 p.m. – Honda Indy Toronto (85 laps/149.175 miles), CNBC/SportsNet 360 (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Luca Filippi
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Will Power (pole)
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
8. Scott Dixon
9. Graham Rahal
10. Takuma Sato

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
4. Scott Dixon
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Luca Filippi

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

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.”