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Trio of Indy 500 sophomores look to build off 2017 rookie efforts

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The rookie battle at last year’s Indianapolis 500 was one for the ages, with Ed Jones, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey, and a certain two-time Formula 1 world champion named Fernando Alonso all embarking on their first Indy 500 efforts last year.

In the end, it was Alonso who took Rookie of the Year honors. But, as he returns to the Monaco Grand Prix this year – an event he skipped to run last year’s Indy 500 – it leaves Jones, Veach, and Harvey as the returning sophomores looking to build on their efforts from last year.

While Alonso was ROTY, Jones was actually the highest finishing rookie, coming home third behind Helio Castroneves and race winner Takuma Sato. And, a number of circles felt that Jones was more deserving of “Top Rookie” honors.

Indeed, it’s hard to argue against it. Thrust into the role of “lead driver” in the wake of Sebastien Bourdais’ qualifying accident and subsequent injuries, Jones turned in a performance nothing short of outstanding.

He qualified a very solid 11th, and drove an even stronger race to finish third, even overcoming a hole in the nose of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda to do so.

He returns in 2018 with higher expectations as a part of the powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing team. He has shown flashes of the potential he showed last year – finishes of eighth in St. Petersburg and third at Long Beach are highlights, and he was running a strong second at ISM Raceway before a late crash – but three finishes of 20th or worse (20th, 22nd, and 22nd) leave him 14th in the standings.

But, a strong “500” effort will do wonders for negating those struggles.

“So far, so good here over our first few runs today,” said Jones, who was 18th at the end of Day 1 of practice. “Of course, qualifying is important, but you need to have a really good race car for the following week. This car drafts up very well to the other cars, maybe even better than the car we had last year. Over the next few days, we’ll work on how that plays out with the NTT DATA car, and have things ready to go when it’s time for the race.”

Elsewhere, Veach and Harvey will look to improve on 2017 efforts that were about learning. For Veach, he qualified 32nd in a third effort for A.J. Foyt Racing, but dropped out after 155 laps due to a mechanical failure.

His early races with Andretti Autosport have shown promise – he finished fourth at Long Beach and was running in the Top 6 early on at Barber Motorsports Park before losing the ability to make adjustments inside the car, and he ultimately faded to 13th.

Zach Veach looks to . Photo: IndyCar

A strong “500” effort will be a boon for Veach moving forward in his debut IndyCar season.

“I think for our first day, we couldn’t have asked for more,” said Veach, who was 10th fastest on Day 1. “The car is in a pretty good window, so now it’s just tweaking the balance for each individual driver on the team. It’s a high contrast between my first Indy 500 (2017) and starting my second already. I’m just excited to see what we can do the rest of the week with Andretti Autosport. So far things have been great, and I think they’ll keep progressing that way.”

Harvey, too, will look for a better go-round in his second “500” attempt. Last year, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport and Meyer Shank Racing (they called Michael Shank Racing), Harvey qualified 27th, but crashed out on Lap 65 trying to avoid a similarly crashing Conor Daly.

Jack Harvey. Photo: IndyCar

Harvey and the Meyer Shank squad, now in a joint effort with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – with whom Harvey contested the final two races of 2017 – have run two races together in 2018 – at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. While they crashed after suffering a cut tire in St. Pete, the Long Beach event was a solid rebound, as they finished 12th.

The “500” presents them with a chance to break into the Top 10, and when combined with a partnership with an SPM squad that has been strong at the Indy 500 in the past, the tools are there for a nice effort from this bunch.

Day 1 of practice saw Harvey 28th on the board, though he completed the most laps – 107 –  of anyone.

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Formula One: Haas fighting for ‘best of the rest’ in Year 3

Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The third season for Haas F1 has been its best, even if it’s been a bit bizarre.

Formula One’s only U.S.-based team has scored the most points in its young history and overcome some serious bumbles early to compete with – and beat – some of the legacy team names in F1.

Haas heads into this week’s U.S. Grand Prix in a tough season-ending fight with Renault for the “best of the rest” title among the teams outside of the Big Three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

“It’s the best battle of the field. It’s very tight. It’s going to go to the last lap of the race in Abu Dhabi, while I think the world championship is probably going to go this weekend,” said Haas’ French driver Romain Grosjean, who signed with the team before their first season.

“To rise as quickly as we’ve done hasn’t been seen in Formula One, I don’t think,” said his Danish teammate Kevin Magnussen.

Haas launched with a surprise in 2016 and has been rising ever since.

Haas scored points in its first race in 2016, and in 2017 had both cars finish in the top 10 for the first time at Monte Carlo, the biggest race on the annual calendar. A strong run over the last 10 races of this season has Haas just eight points behind Renault in the race for fourth place with four races left.

The 2018 season looks to finish better than it started.

After Haas scored the team’s best-ever qualifying at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, neither car finished the race. Magnussen and Grosjean both left pit stops on consecutive laps with unsecured wheels and had to stop. The team was fined for sending the cars out in unsafe conditions.

“That was extremely, extremely disappointing” Magnussen said “We are still showing signs of immaturity at certain moments.”

Other problems followed. A month later in Azerbaijan, Grosjean fought his way from the back row into sixth before he drove straight into the wall while following a safety car. Grosjean felt horrible, but blamed one of the season’s most bizarre incidents on an errant flip of a steering wheel switch that he said upset the car’s brake balance and sent him spinning into the barrier.

More valuable points were lost in Italy when the floor of Grosjean’s car was deemed illegal and he was disqualified from sixth place. Haas appealed and is awaiting a decision on points that would close the gap with Renault with a stroke of a pen. Despite the gaffes, Grosjean has finished in the top 10 four times in the last seven races.

“I got eight points stolen in Monza,” Grosjean said. “The results are coming with the kind of performance Haas signed me for in the first place.”

After the problems, Grosjean admitted it was a relief to extend his contract with Haas for 2019. He and Magnussen will be teammates again.

“When I joined, I didn’t know what Haas was going to be. I think they gave me some credit for that when I had a tough time earlier this year and turned things around, Grosjean said.

Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner said he and team owner Gene Haas saw value in staying with drivers who knew the Haas cars.

“Just to change a driver for the same level of skill, you go backward,” Steiner said. “There’s not a lot of better drivers out there, so why should we change them? Stay the same and mature quicker.”

The question now is how high can Haas go?

The Haas business model – which has drawn complaints from its middle-of-the-pack rivals – has it buying parts and engines, most notably from Ferrari. It keeps costs down but creates a performance ceiling that Haas is unlikely to break through.

“We are not developing parts for our car,” Grosjean said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem. If one day we start to beat Ferrari, it’s not going to work.”

Steiner said a top three finish isn’t realistic, not against teams with much bigger budgets, development and staff.

“The first year we didn’t finish last, the second year we didn’t finish last and now we are fighting for fourth. We must be doing something right,” Steiner said. “How do we get to that next step? Where do we go from here? Right now, there is no answer.”

That can be the frustrating part of an otherwise very good season.

A taste of success begs for more. For the 26-year-old Magnussen, he can be good with Haas, maybe even the “best of the rest.” But that’s a career definition no driver wants.

“It’s been six years since I won a race in motorsport,” Magnussen said. “I miss winning. Badly.”