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PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The Verizon IndyCar Series concludes its April stretch this weekend with its third race (plus a Texas Motor Speedway test) in four weeks this month. Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) provides the first glimpse at an all-left-hand turn race this year.

However, the downforce levels applied to both the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits have been locked in from 2016, which will make passing difficult if not outright impossible under the lights.

Here’s what to look for on Saturday night:

2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix – Talking Points

Wide-open points race

What enters as a 15-point spread between points leader Sebastien Bourdais, ahead of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe figures to increase after Saturday night’s race. If the Chevrolets are as strong as they were in testing and last year, it’d tend to favor Newgarden and Pagenaud on paper of those top five. Of course, Dixon won here last year, thanks in large part to his Ganassi crew. It’s a big test for the Bourdais and Coyne package.

Helio Castroneves (sixth, 33 points back) sits nicely positioned if he can end his near three-year winless drought. Meanwhile for Chevrolet’s other drivers, Phoenix could present an opportunity for Will Power (14th, 67 off the lead), Carlos Munoz (15th, 69) and Conor Daly (19th, 76) to make inroads. JR Hildebrand returns and Ed Carpenter makes his first start of 2017, but both had speed in the test here in February.

Late days at the office

It’s an interesting schedule for IndyCar and a tight turnaround from racing in Birmingham this past weekend, then driving back to the West Coast for all teams and drivers. There’s only one two-hour practice from 4 to 6 p.m. PT on Friday afternoon, a two-hour gap, and then night qualifying from 8 to 9 p.m. This will certainly be closer to race temperatures rather than qualifying during the day, as was originally projected for this race and was done last year – and perhaps helps the Hondas, which struggled in the heat of the day both last year and in this year’s test, but were better at night.

It’ll make for a lot of hurry-up-and-wait though, with none of the Mazda Road to Indy series joining on the weekend. The only support action are USAC Silver Crown cars and vintage IndyCars.

Fortunately, the field had two full test days here in February so they’re not short on track time. But it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, translates from them because it will be hotter and the track has been through a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend since.

Short ovals hard to project, outside of one three-letter acronym – RHR

There’s not really been a rhyme or reason to recent IndyCar winners on oval tracks one mile or less. Here’s a recent rundown in the Dallara DW12 era, with aero kits the last two years and the base chassis from 2012 to 2014:

  • 2016: Scott Dixon at Phoenix (started sixth), Josef Newgarden at Iowa (started second)
  • 2015: Sebastien Bourdais at Milwaukee (started 11th), Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started ninth)
  • 2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started 13th), Will Power at Milwaukee (started first)
  • 2013: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started fourth), James Hinchcliffe at Iowa (started second)
  • 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started second) and at Iowa (started seventh)

By recent history, short ovals have largely been the domain of Ryan Hunter-Reay – that’s a run of five wins in the last 10 short oval races in IndyCar, with five other drivers splitting the rest one apiece.

“RHR” was about worth the price of admission on his own here last year, but got caught out twice by ill-timed caution flags that negated a potential podium finish. If he can get track position nailed down, he could finally be in to break his own winless run of races.

As ever though, if your car is hooked up, it could be a long night for everyone else. That was Newgarden at Iowa last year, when he led 282 of 300 laps. And at Phoenix, once Dixon’s team got him to the lead on pit stops, no one else was able to beat him as he led 155 of 250 laps on the series’ return.

Firestone’s tire note

From Cara Adams, Chief Engineer of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports in Firestone’s pre-race advance: “Our team of engineers and compounders selected several constructions and compounds to test at PIR last October based on driver feedback, vehicle data from every race held at PIR along with tire analysis. Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter assisted us in the evaluation of our test tires. We ultimately selected a superspeedway right side construction with a softer short oval compound along with the race-proven 2016 PIR left side tires. We then brought this tire package to the April 11th open test at PIR, and look forward to racing at this unique mile oval racetrack this weekend.”

Lingering questions

  • Do we get a fourth winner in as many races to kick off the new year?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing make it through Phoenix into May, still as points leaders?
  • Can Josef Newgarden carry the momentum from his first Team Penske win to the short oval?
  • Does Will Power snap his career-worst run of five consecutive finishes outside the top-10?
  • Similarly, does Power – or the other drivers without a top-10 this season, Max Chilton (pictured above), Charlie Kimball and Conor Daly – break into the top-10 for the first time?

The final word

From the defending race winner, Scott Dixon: “I’m excited to be going back to Phoenix again. We obviously had a great result here last year, and hopefully, we can duplicate that again with a strong run. It’s a tough track and I know it’s changed a bit over the years with some resurfacing, and we learned a lot last year in terms of how the cars handle now. I love the area and Arizona is a great part of the world. There are a lot of fans in the area and I hope they are as excited as we are to go racing Saturday night under the lights.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times PT and local):

Friday, April 28
4-6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
8 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE online; airs NBCSN 7:30 p.m., April 29

Saturday, April 29
5-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
6 p.m. – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Will Power
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Graham Rahal
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Max Chilton
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Ryan Hunter-Reay
11. Helio Castroneves (pole)

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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