IndyCar takes quick breather after busy, news-heavy July

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The month of July was a hectic month for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Between three race weekends on tap (the Iowa Corn Indy 300, the Honda Indy Toronto, and the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio), the unveiling and initial testing of the 2018 aero kit, and the annual insanity that is “Silly Season,” the month of July had no shortage of news.

With a three-week break between last Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio and the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (August 20, NBCSN), IndyCar’s teams and drivers have a chance to catch their breath before a stretch of four races over five weeks to end the 2017 season.

A recap of a busy news month is below.

NEWGARDEN PLANTS HIMSELF AT THE FORE

Josef Newgarden has sprayed champagne as a race winner three times in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Expectations will always be high for a driver who signs with Team Penske, and Josef Newgarden was no different. A three-time race winner prior to joining the team, and the highest ranked non-Penske driver at the end of 2016 (he ended the season fourth in the championship for Ed Carpenter Racing), all things pointed to a strong first year with Penske.

However, it isn’t always as easy as some make it look (see Simon Pagenaud’s first season with the team in 2015), so there were some questions about how the 26-year-old Newgarden would adapt to the Penske outfit.

Simply put, he has answered every question emphatically.

With three wins to his name this season, a number that equals his career wins at the start of the year, Newgarden now leads the IndyCar championship and has quickly put his own stamp on the team. And Mid-Ohio serves evidence of his firm place as a big player within the Penske squad.

While his first two wins of the year saw luck on his side (Will Power cut a tire at Barber Motorsports Park and a caution fell perfectly for him at Toronto), nothing out of the ordinary intervened at Mid-Ohio. Newgarden made an authoritative pass on teammate Will Power in the early laps to seize control of the lead and he looked untouchable from there, only losing the lead briefly during exchanges of green-flag pit stops.

The importance of the victory was not lost on Newgarden at all. “I feel like no one can take anything away from this win,” he said after Sunday’s triumph. “With this team on the (No.) 2 car side, I feel like we really did a great job (at Mid-Ohio). There was no luck involved in that. We went out and won the race.”

As for his championship hopes, Newgarden’s confidence is sky high heading into the final four races. “We’ve just got to keep it up. No mistakes. If we don’t have any mistakes, we’ve got plenty enough to win this championship, so we’re going to keep giving what we got for the last four races,” he asserted.

Newgarden currently leads teammate Helio Castroneves by seven points (453-446), though the championship remains incredibly close, with 17 points separating the top four and 58 separating the top six.

HELIO…GOODBYE?

Helio Castroneves is every bit as strong in 2017 as he’s ever been. He’s captured three poles this year, and it would’ve been four if not for a penalty during qualifying for Detroit Race 1. He nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in a car that was damaged after he narrowly avoided Scott Dixon’s frightening airborne crash. And, he snapped a three-year winless streak at the Iowa Corn 300 on July 9.

With Newgarden the only driver so far to have scored more points than Castroneves, it seems that the affable Brazilian still has plenty of IndyCar life left in him, right? Maybe not…

Penske’s July confirmation of it’s Acura DPi program and rumored intentions to scale back to three cars leave Castroneves as possibly the odd man out in the IndyCar program. Rest assured, Castroneves will likely be driving something in 2018, but what it is and which team it will be with remains up in the air.

Helio Castroneves remains a stalwart at the front of the IndyCar field, despite an uncertain future. Photo: IndyCar

At 42 years old, his age indicates that Castroneves is in the twilight of his IndyCar career. Dario Franchitti was forced into a medically advised retirement at 40 years of age in 2013 after a vicious crash in Houston. Paul Tracy’s last IndyCar race came in 2011, when was 42, the same age as Castroneves. Gil de Ferran was a comparatively young 36 when he retired after the 2003 season. And Rick Mears, who has served as a mentor to Castroneves in his time at Penske, retired at 41 after the 1992 season.

Yet, aside from de Ferran, the aforementioned drivers all retired due to injuries or fledgling racing careers. Castroneves remains a regular front-runner and has avoided injury his entire IndyCar career.

When asked at Toronto about his future, Castroneves remained noncommittal and asserted that his sole focus at the moment is securing his first IndyCar championship. “(Penske) is going to make a sports car team, and we all here would love to drive. I mean, no question about it,” he explained. “But at the moment, there is no commitment, no official decision, and I’m just focused — in my case, I’m just focusing on doing my best (for the championship).”

His status for 2018 still uncertain, how he finishes the year off may be the most intriguing storyline to follow.

NOTHING BEATS THAT NEW CAR SMELL

The speedway aero kit for 2018. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar unveiled its long awaited 2018 aero kit to much fanfare earlier this month. The car has been universally praised for a much sleeker, smoother appearance. Gone are the “Kardashians” (aka the rear bumper pods) and the abundance of winglets that currently adorn the Honda and Chevrolet aero kits on the Dallara DW12.

And praise did not stop at its appearance. Test drivers Oriol Servia (piloting a Honda car with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Juan Pablo Montoya (piloting a Chevrolet car with Team Penske) have both spoken very highly of the new aero package and even admit it has surpassed expectations in its early tests.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said Servia following a test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away. I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

The 2018 aero kit in road/street/short oval spec. Photo: IndyCar

Montoya also revealed after this week’s test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course that the downforce levels of the car make it more difficult to drive, and that’s a good thing.

“I think you’re going to be able to see the (driver’s) hands moving a lot more on the steering wheel and I think you’re going to see the cars get out of shape a lot easier,” said Montoya. “The chances of mistakes are higher, so I think it’s going to bring better racing.”

Further tests at Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26) will complete initial development of the 2018 package, and soon there after Honda and Chevrolet will receive chassis for their teams to test, with the individual teams receiving their chassis later in the Fall. Individual team testing with the new aero package is scheduled to begin in January.

OH, NOW YOU’RE JUST BEING SILLY!

Does Helio Castroneves stay in IndyCar or will he move to Penske’s IMSA program? Does Andretti Autosport stick with Honda or move to Chevrolet? If they do, where does that leave Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi? What about Tony Kanaan, who like Castroneves, faces an uncertain IndyCar future at 42 years of age? What about other drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Munoz, Conor Daly, Ed Jones, Esteban Gutierrez, and Spencer Pigot?

And what new teams could be joining the fray? Juncos Racing? Carlin? Harding Racing? All of them?

Yes, the annual Silly Season madness that typically begins during the Mid-Ohio race weekend is upon us (although, Penske’s DPi announcement kicked the rumors into high gear a little earlier than normal this year).

Currently, only nine drivers are locked in or nearly locked in to their current teams heading into next year. That leaves over half of the grid with question marks about their future for 2018 and beyond. My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno offered a roundup of Silly Season rumors this week.

As always, there is much speculation about who will go where and which team will run which manufacturer, but nothing is set in stone as of writing and a lot can change between now and the end of the season, let alone between now and the start of next season.

Still, this year’s Silly Season offers plenty of intrigue, and if any, some, or all of the rumors come true, the off-track news will be just as fast-paced as the on-track news.

Kyle Lavigne.

A viewer’s guide to the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: What to watch in the debut of GTP

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona could put an unbelievable twist on one of motorsports’ most famous adages: Money buys speed, how fast do you want to go?

Money is being burned at an ungodly rate for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, but the correlation between cash and performance might be completely disjointed after 24 hours on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

The debut of a new premier hybrid prototype category has some of the world’s largest automakers flocking to the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP), where annual budgets have been estimated at $15 million per for the new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars.

With nine GTP cars starting the Rolex 24 at Daytona across Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, it’s safe to say the manufacturers have committed at least nine figures to launching what many are calling a new golden age for sports car racing.

But there’s no guarantee that any of the cars will finish the race. In fact, some are predicting it’s inevitable that all will spend at least some significant time in the Daytona garage repairing a high-tech car that never has raced for 24 consecutive hours. And in an era of pandemic-related supply-chain worries, there are major concerns that full repairs will be impossible even if necessary.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

It’s added another layer to the pressure involved with one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“From a manufacturer perspective, this is high-stakes motorsports,” Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Acura driver Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “This is as big as it gets. To debut at the Rolex 24 is such a high-stakes event and puts such a big test on everybody. The pressure all the manufacturers and teams are under is immense. Once we get through it and survive, there’ll be a sigh of relief. But until then, we all feel the eyes of the manufacturers on us.

“It’s going to be a pressure cooker for sure.”

Along with “unpredictability” and “reliability” being buzzwords the past two weeks at Daytona, there also has been some wistful predictions that this year’s Rolex 24 will be a throwback to a bygone era when endurance races truly were a survival of the fittest instead of the fastest.

After turning into a series of 24 one-hour sprint races for many years, no one is predicting that drivers will punish their equipment with so much at stake and so few safety nets.

“This race is going to be like races from the bloody ‘70s and ‘60s,” pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist of defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing told NBC Sports. “So it’ll be like when you watch that ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ and they’re coming into the pits repairing serious things and still going out and coming back. It’s going to be like that, mate.

“Yeah, we don’t know. We are not 100 percent confident that our car is as reliable as it needs to be. We definitely would have liked another year. All season before we came here to this race. But everyone’s in a similar boat. Some manufacturers are further down the line than others in terms of mileage. We’re still finding things popping up here and there that we didn’t see or suspect. It’s going to be a tough race without a doubt. I’m almost certain that we’ll be spending some time in the garage. Hopefully we get lucky, but let’s say we’re not going to be surprised if we are back in the garage at some point. We don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best sort of thing.”

Teammate Simon Pagenaud said the race will be “the 24 Hours of the Mechanics. It’s going to be a team that’s able to repair the car the fastest way possible. It’s a little more like it used to be about reliability and making sure you take care of your equipment.

“We don’t have enough time yet to be able control fully the reliability, and we haven’t done enough laps to be able to say what’s going to break first or second. You’re going into it with a bit of jitters not knowing. It’s going to be definitely a very, very different race, I think.”

Here’s a viewer’s guide of some topics to keep an eye on during the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Testing time: Though announced in January 2020, LMDh cars have been on track since only about a year ago. Porsche was the first to commit and has logged more than 30,000 kilometers of testing. Cadillac also has done significant real-world testing, but Acura admittedly has done little endurance testing, and BMW has tried to play catch up since being the last automaker to commit to the project.

Only Porsche and Cadillac can claim to have simulated the duration that cars will face this weekend. Porsche Penske Motorsport conducted a 36-hour test that managing director Jonathan Diuguid confirmed was “slightly higher” than 24 hours consecutively. Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, confirmed the No. 31 Cadillac ran for a full 24 hours at Sebring International Raceway last November. Acura also had attended the session but cut the test short after mechanical problems.

–Tortoise and hare: Every manufacturer has at least two cars, which creates opportunities for divergent strategies. When his team won the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Nelson said it was pushed hard by Chip Ganassi Racing’s prototypes in this tactic to wear down the competition.

“In old-school endurance racing, they’d call one a rabbit,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “He’d try to run the guts out of everybody to keep up with him, while the other (car) just followed around. There’s potential for something like that. I don’t think it’s in our playbook, but potentially there are people in these corporate offices, these manufacturers coming in, because they advanced through racing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now they are managing these motorsports programs for these corporations. It’s very possible there’s someone from that era will say we’re going to have one rabbit, one tortoise. That’s very likely.

“We see that, I don’t think we take the bait. I think we stay with the plan.”

–LMP2 overall win? If mechanical problems do crop up for the GTP cars, the door will be opened for a victory by a car in the junior LMP2 prototype class. The LMP2 cars lap a few seconds slower and will need to make roughly nine extra pit stops than the GTP cars.

But according to NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish, those factors would leave LMP2 cars about an hour behind GTP. That means if major mechanical problems befall all the GTP cars, an LMP2 likely would be leading. Diuguid said it would take over an hour to change out the major components on the hybrid system.

“If you have to change the gearbox, a suspension component or a hybrid component, your opportunity to win is probably over,” Diuguid said.

Nelson also predicted that teams will be more aggressive with making brake changes. Though his car’s brakes made it 24 hours last year, they generally require at least one swap. Nelson believes that will happen anywhere between the sixth and 18th hour – but probably on the early end in a concept similar to short pitting in NASCAR.

“We’re hoping our brakes make it all the way and haven’t seen anything that told us they won’t,” Nelson said. “A few years ago, we were changing brakes on anything between 6 and 18 hours. If everybody had to change the brakes in past years and you’re the last to do it, you have the least amount of time to gain it back.”

–Electric pit stops: Though it’s not IMSA-mandated, teams are using electric power only to enter and exit the pits for myriad reasons. The practice allows for a more efficient acceleration and deceleration that helps ensure hitting the speed limit. And it puts less strain on gearboxes that will be stressed over 24 hours.

–New tire strategies: With teams restricted to about a dozen fewer sets of tires, teams will be double-stinting for fuel only without opting for fresh rubber.

Nelson said the Action Express Whelen Engineering team was planning to make its tire changes coincide with its driver changes (unlike the normal practice of changing tires on most pit stops).

–Three’s the magic number: More than half the GTP teams are employing a trio of drivers instead of the maximum four that has been popular with many teams in past years. Though Colton Herta is listed as the fourth driver on BMW’s two cars, the IndyCar star might only drive one.

The shift comes as Penske and Porsche plan to field full-time entries in the World Endurance Championship, which allows only three drivers per car.

–GTD battles: Mercedes dominated qualifying, but there have been charges of sandbagging by the Ferrari and Porsche GT favorites.

That isn’t the case with defending GTD Pro class winner Pfaff Motorsports, whose No. 9 Porsche struggled to make laps in practice.

Women in racing: Led by the all-female Iron Dames lineup, there will be several opportunities for women to reach the podium or take a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Sports car ace Katherine Legge is teamed with Sheena Monk on the No. 66 for Gradient Racing.