PREVIEW: Honda Indy Toronto

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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, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:30 – 3:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, July 16
9:45 – 10:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (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, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (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

Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens later tweeted about the possibility of racing the Indy 500 and said his goal was “always to get back to the top level of motorsport” whether it’s IndyCar or IMSA.

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.