IndyCar iRacing newcomers Castroneves, Dixon preview Motegi

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IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge continues this Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with its largest field to date.

Thirty-three cars and drivers are entered in this weekend’s virtual race at Twin Ring Motegi, highlighted by the addition of defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.

Also joining Busch are former Indy 500 winners Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves, both of whom are making their first starts in the virtual series.

ENTRY LISTWho will be racing in round four

In real life, Castroneves is a two-time winner at Motegi, having taken the checkered flag in the 2006 and 2010 editions of the Indy Japan 300.

Despite not being as experienced with virtual racing as some of his competitors, Castroneves looks forward to this weekend’s 113-lap race.

“This opportunity for me is very unique. I’m probably the old-timer here,” Castroneves said during Friday’s IndyCar conference call. “For me to join, the sim that I’m normally used to go was in Charlotte. However when it was myself, Josef, Will, Simon, they were so much faster than me. I wasn’t very much into video games.

“In this situation, I’m excited because we’re not doing anything, so why not try something? Hopefully, the oval is still challenging, don’t get me wrong, but it looks like I’m hustling just like a racecar. Very interesting.”

Scott Dixon is also a two-time winner at Motegi, having won in 2009 and 2011 (though his final victory took place on the track’s 2.983-mile road course as the oval was damaged in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake).

Like Castroneves, Dixon is still learning the ropes of virtual racing. The five-time champion finished 16th in his iRacing Challenge debut at Barber two weeks ago and finished 30th last week in Michigan after being involved in a massive crash at the start of the race.

“Hopefully I’ll make it past the start line this week. Last week was pretty rough,” Dixon said. “So was Alabama. Some of these teams have taken it next level.

“It’s tough. It’s really challenging. I think definitely put into perspective being at home with kids E-learning, then trying to get on a simulator throughout the day when you can, try and keep up the normal training levels that we try to once we get back to proper racing, has been interesting.”

Despite the rough start, Dixon said that he’s still enjoyed the iRacing experience so far.

I’ve found it a lot of fun,” Dixon said. “It’s been a little bit frustrating in some ways because you’re trying to get up to speed and catch up as quickly as possible. Some people have been racing on these things for more than 10 years. Kudos to the IndyCar Series for bringing us online, iRacing as well.”

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Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.