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

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”


Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”


Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).