PREVIEW: INDYCAR Grand Prix from IMS road course

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The INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t necessarily an afterthought but it’s very much the casual, laid-back appetizing atmosphere to kick off May’s proceedings by contrast to the rich, delicate full main course that is the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And as the final dress rehearsal for the Verizon IndyCar Series before the ‘500, it presents one last shot at big points before the massive amount of points – and glory – on offer on the oval.

Here’s some of the nuggets heading into the weekend:

2017 INDYCAR Grand Prix – Talking Points

Pagenaud’s proper, yet quiet, title defense

If it’s possible to have a quiet, yet stealthy title defense, Simon Pagenaud is doing that and then some in 2017.

What was a freakishly fast start in 2016 was punctuated by Pagenaud’s romp to victory at the artist formerly known as the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It capped off his dream run of three wins and two runner-up finishes – and the last time he won three races in a row prior to that, he won an American Le Mans Series championship in 2010.

Now, in 2017, Pagenaud still has four top-five finishes out of the gate, and a career-helping win at Phoenix last time out to prove he can win on an oval as well. He’s also leading the standings by 18 points over Scott Dixon, who also has four top-five finishes in as many races.

Pagenaud has jokingly referred to himself as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard in the past from Will Ferrell’s infamous/famous NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights, but it’s actually the title character of Ricky Bobby whose Pagenaud’s record at the Grand Prix most resembles: If you ain’t first, you’re last.

In the three prior Grands Prix, Pagenaud won in 2014 (led 6 laps), finished 25th and last in 2015 with a gearbox issue, and won last year after leading 57 of 82 laps.

So will it be boom-or-bust again for the driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet this year? Only time will tell.

Dixon looking for a rare first at this race

Rare can you go to a race and not find Scott Dixon having had success, but the Grand Prix is that for the four-time series champion. Finishes of 15th, 10th and seventh are forgettable for Dixon – of course getting hit by Helio Castroneves at the first turn a couple years ago here did him no favors – but this and Gateway, where he’s only competed once (15th in 2003) are the only two tracks on the calendar where the 40-time race winner and driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing does not have a single top-five finish.

Teammate Tony Kanaan is also 0-for-3 in scoring top-fives this race, while another teammate Charlie Kimball is the only driver in the field who’s a perfect 3-for-3 in top-fives at the Grand Prix, having finished fifth each year.

Occasionally unpredictable Firestone Fast Six qualifiers

From the moment Sebastian Saavedra took the 2014 inaugural race’s pole on a wet track for KV/AFS Racing with Jack Hawksworth alongside for Bryan Herta Autosport, it was apparent this race would enter into INDYCAR lore as INDYCAR’s “bizarro world.” And that’s no knock on either driver, but few would have bet on it. Three years later, KV is no longer a team, BHA has partnered with Andretti Autosport, and neither driver is in the series full-time (although Saavedra was announced for a comeback this week at the Indianapolis 500 with Juncos Racing).

Here’s been the Fast Six qualifiers in the three previous Grands Prix:

  • 2014: Saavedra, Hawksworth, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud, Will Power, Dixon
  • 2015: Power, Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan
  • 2016: Pagenaud, Charlie Kimball, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Hawksworth

Some of those names are not shall we say, Fast Six regulars. Last year’s Fast Six was made even more complex by the fact both Rahal and Newgarden were penalized following post-qualifying technical inspection and sent to the rear of the field.

Noteworthy though is that both polesitters have won this race the last two years.

The Juan and only extra entrant

One of the cool parts about this race in its three-year history has been the extra entries added to the full field rundown. But none has been as well-prepared or already well-rounded as Juan Pablo Montoya, who makes his first IndyCar start of the year in the No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet in Team Penske’s first race as a five-car team.

With no disrespect to the other extra one-off entries – Franck Montagny, Martin Plowman, JR Hildebrand, Matthew Brabham and Alex Tagliani – Montoya’s is the first extra car that could be considered a realistic spoiler this weekend.

Four of the previous five drivers were making their return to IndyCar after lengthy stints outside the cockpit. Brabham was making his debut with the KV technically affiliated PIRTEK Team Murray, and actually acquitted himself well in his first weekend in the championship.

Montoya, though, remains recently race sharp, is integrated to his team and has already had two solid tests this year to prepare for the race. Both at Barber Motorsports Park and Gateway Motorsports Park, Montoya’s had a chance to jell with the new fifth car entry. A win may be too much to ask; but a points-stealing podium run is more than possible. Key for him is how he goes on Firestone’s alternate red tires this weekend, as that’s a sticking point for part-season drivers – even ones with Montoya’s staggering level of experience and skill set.

Other pre-race notes

  • There’s been seven podium finishers here in three years. Besides Pagenaud and Power, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Hunter-Reay have also made trips to the podium.
  • Sebastien Bourdais finished fourth here in 2014 and 2015 but got caught up in a first-lap accident here last year, the same problem as applied to him last time out at Phoenix. The Dale Coyne Racing crew has been working overtime repairing the car from Phoenix.
  • Alexander Rossi had one of his most impressive drives of his rookie season here last year. Race pace at Barber was enough to lift from 18th to fifth and if he qualifies better, his first non-Indy 500 win or podium is achievable.
  • Josef Newgarden’s worst finish in four races this season is ninth. His best Grand Prix finish in three races is 17th. Something will have to give there this weekend.
  • Conor Daly’s leading this race last year was a race highlight, following his overtake of Helio Castroneves on a restart. He finished sixth. Daly is one of two drivers (Max Chilton) without a top-10 finish yet this season.
  • Spencer Pigot returns after one race out of the cockpit at Phoenix, and the Pigot/JR Hildebrand road and street course pairing is back together at Ed Carpenter Racing for the first time since Long Beach.

The final word

From Montoya: “I’m so excited to get back on track with the Verizon IndyCar Series. I’ve run a few tests but will run my first race since last season at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. Indianapolis is one of those special places in motorsports. The buzz surrounding the whole city for the month can be felt. I guess I should feel a little behind, but I don’t. The guys on the Fitzgerald Glider Kits team have been in tune and mixed in with the other teams all season, so we have all the data and those tests went really well. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):
Friday, May 12
9:15-10 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
12:25-1:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice 2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:15-1:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
4:20 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, May 13
11-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:30 p.m. – ABC on air
3:43 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines”
3:50 p.m. – INDYCAR Grand Prix (85 laps/207.3 miles), ABC (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Helio Castroneves
3. James Hinchcliffe
4. Graham Rahal
5. Charlie Kimball
6. Conor Daly
7. Scott Dixon
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Ryan Hunter-Reay
10. Alexander Rossi

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Charlie Kimball
3. Graham Rahal*
4. James Hinchcliffe
5. Josef Newgarden*
6. Jack Hawksworth

*Assessed post-qualifying penalty; sent to rear of grid

Daniel Ricciardo to decide soon about moving from Red Bull to another F1 team

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LE CASTELLET, France (AP) Daniel Ricciardo says over the next six weeks he wants to decide between staying at Red Bull or joining another Formula One team for next year.

Ricciardo said on Thursday at the French Grand Prix, “It would be nice to go on the summer break knowing what I am doing.”

F1 is working its way toward its three-week break in August with speculation mounting that Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren are interested in luring Ricciardo away from Red Bull for 2019.

“I will be honest, everyone is talking about Mercedes and Ferrari as potential places for me to go, and I am aware that there will be interest from other teams,” he said.

The Australian driver has won seven races in his four-plus seasons with Red Bull. He is fourth in the standings behind leader Sebastian Vettel heading into the race at the Paul Ricard Circuit near Marseille.

Ricciardo’s stock has risen in recent months after his victories in Shanghai and Monaco. His Monaco win was particularly impressive because Ricciardo had to deploy some masterful defensive driving to protect his lead after losing an estimated 25 percent of his engine power.

Ricciardo said he had not directly spoken to rivals Ferrari and Mercedes, but he hedged when asked if his manager had.

“People talk, have coffees, I will leave that one open-ended,” he said with a laugh.

Ricciardo called the decision on whether to go or stay with Red Bull the biggest choice of his career following his decision to leave his native Australia and continue his racing career in Europe over a decade ago.

“For sure the priority is to get a car to win the world title because I really believe I can,” he said. “I am slightly careful because it is easy to think the grass is greener and maybe it is, but I also have it pretty good where I am.

“People do like a change but just to make change for the sake of making a change is not enough for me. I need to find some substance behind it to jump ship.”

Red Bull announced recently it would be ending its 12-year partnership with engine-maker Renault and switching to Honda motors for next year.

Ricciardo was hesitant to endorse or criticize the change, saying he was going to “try to keep putting the pieces together if it is a good move.”

But with the question of the engine manufacturer out of the way, Ricciardo said Red Bull would likely be looking to resolve its drivers’ lineup for next year.

“I haven’t been pushed yet, but I would say that there will be some movement in the next week,” he said. “Whether that is something that gets put down on paper (or not), for sure the discussions will start to ramp up in the next few days.”