He was 'Incognito' in 2012; now, Josef Newgarden is at Long Beach as a Team Penske driver. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden’s Long Beach career spans ‘Incognito’ to Penske arrival

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In 2012, things were different in the world of the Verizon IndyCar Series when the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach date arrived on the calendar.

Among other notable differences, the series title sponsor was IZOD, not Verizon. Randy Bernard was still at the helm of the series. NBCSN had only just changed to the NBC Sports Network after being Versus prior to that. The Dallara DW12 chassis had only just premiered. Chevrolet and Lotus had entered in as engine manufacturers. Dario Franchitti was in search of his fourth consecutive series title. Rubens Barrichello had arrived from Formula 1, and the series had two full-time female drivers in Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge.

And a then-unheralded 21-year-old rookie out of Hendersonville, Tenn. named Josef Newgarden – the Indy Lights champion whose name was known only to the select few diehard super fans or insiders at the time – was about to make his first stamp on the series. This was five years before the realization he might become a Team Penske driver ever occurred.

A regulation at the time meant that if a car changed engines before the race, it would incur a 10-spot grid penalty. The Chevrolet teams all swapped their engines before the race, creating a grid that was vastly different from the qualifying order.

What that meant was Franchitti, who’d qualified fourth and Newgarden, who’d qualified seventh, would leap frog onto the front row for Sunday’s race.

Franchitti, 38 at the time and Newgarden, 17 years his junior at 21, represented the polar opposites of the birth spectrum on the grid or close. Franchitti was – and still is – one of IndyCar’s biggest stars and a driver that is among the best of his generation. Newgarden has the potential to be there with time, but again, at that time, almost no one knew who he was.

It made for a perfect opportunity to premiere an off-the-wall video called “Newgarden Incognito,” where Newgarden went undercover to talk to fans to ask them who their favorite driver was and if they’d ever heard of a driver named Josef Newgarden.

It was perhaps no surprise that Franchitti got the plaudits as the most commonly mentioned favorite driver while Newgarden received a lot of quizzical looks.

“It’s crazy looking back now and how things have changed,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “The incognito stuff was fun because no one knew who I was… I might be able to get away with it again, now. A lot of folks come to Long Beach race. They’re here to look at race cars. If I wanted, I could probably do another video to rehash it! Now though, being in a Penske car, and having a sixth chance to run at Long Beach, is incredible.”

And then the green flag dropped on Sunday, and Newgarden made one of the ballsier moves in recent memory on a driver who is a historian of the sport and would know how to play the move correctly.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: Josef Newgarden driver of the #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara Honda leads Dario Franchitti of Scotland driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda at the start of the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Newgarden attempted a pass for the lead around the outside of Franchitti on the run to Turn 1. Going into the corner though, Franchitti was cagey enough to have left enough room to tempt Newgarden – the rookie in only his third start – to go for it.

Newgarden promptly got in the marbles and crashed into the wall. He’d finish 26th and last; Franchitti eventually retired with a gearbox failure and ended 15th.

But five years on, as Newgarden is now the widely considered face of IndyCar’s next generation and one of its key drivers in its season-long ‘NEXT’ marketing campaign, the daring attempt performed that day still lives on as a key moment in his career.

“With Dario, I learned that as a rookie, Dario wouldn’t be happy about someone doing that type of move,” Newgarden said. “It was a mistake in how I analyzed it. But that was OK. I have no regrets on doing that move. It was probably the wrong thing.”

So, chalk Long Beach 2012 up as the weekend where Newgarden properly “arrived” on the series, via his first quirky video and his first serious passing attempt of note.

Two years later though, a more refined Newgarden was in the midst of his best weekend yet in the series, in his third year of his rookie contract with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 13: Josef Newgarden driver of the #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara Honda during warm up for the Verizon IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 13, 2014 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He’d qualified fourth and was in the lead battle with Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. Once Newgarden emerged from the pits in front on his last scheduled stop, his potential first win was right there for the taking.

Yet Hunter-Reay saw an opening at a spot on the 1.968-mile street course where passes rarely occur successfully, Turn 4, and promptly speared Newgarden which took them both – and innocent bystander Hinchcliffe – all out of the race. These three drivers had started in the top four; none would see the checkered flag.

“The Hunter-Reay deal was more unfortunate for everyone involved,” Newgarden reflected. “It’s hard to put the blame anywhere. It’s hard racing at the wrong point of the track. It ended up being a bad break. We’ve been close here.”

Those two DNFs stand out more in Newgarden’s Long Beach career more than his other nondescript results of seventh, 10th and 13th.

For a driver who’s been good, if not great on street courses thus far in his career, coming to Long Beach with Team Penske presents him his best chance yet at being the story line here for a different reason.

The magnitude of this race stands out and it’s one Newgarden would like to have a better weekend at in his No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“Once you go for the first time, you gain an appreciation for the atmosphere around Long Beach. Indy we all rave about, but it’s something you have to go and see here,” he explained. “It’s such a spectacle. For street course racing, you get that atmosphere in a different way. It’s kind of rare. The atmosphere draws me in. It’s my favorite street course we go to from a layout standpoint. It has a lot of high-speed corners for street courses.

“It’s been a tough place for me! We’ve always found speed around Long Beach. I know we’ll have that. So this year, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”

And winning here for Penske, or getting a result higher than seventh, will help to avoid the “Incognito” memories from coming back once more.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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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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