PREVIEW: Honda Indy Toronto

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The lone event outside the U.S. for the Verizon IndyCar Series takes place this weekend with the annual Honda Indy Toronto, the fifth and final street race of the 2017 season (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

A tight championship and the tight confines of the Exhibition Place street course are the headlines ahead of Round 12 of the season.

Here’s some of the talking points heading into the weekend.

2017 Honda Indy Toronto – Talking Points

Honda goes for street course season sweep

This isn’t something that was forecast at the start of the season but now is something that can occur this weekend: Honda looks for a five-for-five sweep of the street course races this season.

With Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing, St. Petersburg), James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Long Beach) and Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Detroit doubleheader) having won the first four, Honda’s 13 drivers from its five teams will look to complete the sweep this weekend in the second of three Honda-sponsored races this year.

Fittingly in the races where a manufacturer has sponsored the race, it’s been the other manufacturer that’s actually won. Josef Newgarden (Chevrolet) won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama while Rahal (Honda) swept the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear.

Points battle intensifies

Helio Castroneves’ win in Iowa last week means the championship gap between he and leader Scott Dixon is just eight points (403-395).

Simon Pagenaud (372), Will Power (350) and Josef Newgarden (347) have a bit of work to do heading into the weekend but all can afford to be confident. Power (2016) and Newgarden (2015) are the two most recent winners in Toronto, and both Pagenaud and Dixon looked on course for the win last year before being caught out by an ill-timed caution flag, that played to Power (won) and Castroneves’ (finished second) benefit.

Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato are tied for sixth on 337 points but need a big weekend in Toronto to avoid falling too much further out of play, at more than a full race distance behind.

A tenth different winner?

Castroneves was also the ninth winner in 11 races this year, meaning IndyCar is only one away from double digits this year (10) and two away from tying the all-time mark of 11 set in 2000 and 2001 in CART.

With Castroneves breaking through, each of the top seven drivers in points has won, plus Hinchcliffe (12th) and Bourdais (22nd).

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are the only other drivers with top-fives on street courses this year without a win, but both looked potential winners at Long Beach before mechanical issues intervened. Either would make a nice round 10th winner of the season, and Hunter-Reay (2012) is a past Toronto winner.

Additionally in eighth, 10th and 11th in points, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton or Ed Jones could break through this weekend. Toronto isn’t just a pace race but often comes down to strategy, and it wouldn’t surprise to see the Ganassi and/or Dale Coyne teams throw a strategic spanner in the works. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot was a winner here in Indy Lights, and has had good street course races without a major result of note yet this year.

Toronto another strategy special

Toronto has not been a particularly straightforward weekend over the last few years, with Scott Dixon’s doubleheader domination in 2013 about the only races that went to plan. Rain pushed the 2014 doubleheader into a shortened pair of same-day races won by Bourdais and Mike Conway, with Newgarden winning a rain-affected race in 2015 and Power capitalizing on a caution – caused by Newgarden – to leapfrog to the win last year.

As such, timing pit stops to perfection before potential cautions emerge is key. In the last four years since that first doubleheader, Toronto has had 4, 3 (2013), 2, 7 (2014), 2 (2015) and 5 (2016) cautions, so it’s usually one of the busier races for the yellow flag to fly.

The Mayor turns 101 on home soil

After his 100th race start last weekend in Iowa, James Hinchcliffe heads to his home race in Toronto this weekend after ending 10th on the bullring last weekend. Toronto’s never been particularly kind to Hinchcliffe but he finally scored a home race podium here last year.

Given street courses have been where he and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team have excelled most this year – the Long Beach win was huge, he recovered to a podium at Detroit and he was on course to win at St. Petersburg before being caught by a yellow – this is an important weekend for him as he enters 12th in points.

The final word

From points leader Dixon, who will look to keep Honda’s street course win streak alive and win here for the first time since 2013: “Toronto is one of the longest-running street courses around and it’s always a challenging layout to master. It’s similar to Detroit, in that you have a number of surface changes and areas that you really need the car balanced in order to manage the rough downtown roads and streets. We know what it takes to win there and hope to get a quick start and be a contender at race’s end when it counts.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 14
10:40 – 11:25 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 – 3 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:05 – 3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice

Saturday, July 15
10 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live); NBCSN (Same-day delay, 6:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday, July 16
11:30 – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:02 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
3:47 p.m. – Honda Indy Toronto (85 laps/151.81 miles), CNBC/SportsNet 360 (Live)

 

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Will Power
2. Helio Castroneves
3. James Hinchcliffe
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Takuma Sato
6. Mikhail Aleshin
7. Sebastien Bourdais
8. Scott Dixon (pole)
9. Simon Pagenaud
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Will Power
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. James Hinchcliffe

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
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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.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“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.”