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NASCAR Cup Series

SOCIAL TRACKING: Jimmie Johnson and Fernando Alonso Swap Rides

In the early morning hours on Monday while most people slept in North America, Jimmie Johnson made the trip to the Bahrain International Circuit to swap rides with Fernando Alonso.

The seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion got the opportunity to drive a 2013 McLaren MP4-28, while the Spaniard got behind the wheel of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. The pair aren’t the first to swap rides, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon being the first to do so, followed by Lewis Hamilton and Tony Stewart.

Throughout the day, several cameras taped the action on and off the track, with footage to be aired down the road, per Johnson. At the same time, both McLean and Hendrick Motorsports shared clips across social media. Here are some of the best moments from the day.

https://twitter.com/McLarenF1/status/1066936345854205953

https://twitter.com/TeamHendrick/status/1067012338799267841

https://twitter.com/McLarenF1/status/1066952786598916096

https://twitter.com/McLarenF1/status/1066965550302150656

https://twitter.com/McLarenF1/status/1067049769036644353

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Formula One Open Wheel

F1 Silly Season: Sainz to Renault, and More

The Formula 1 silly season volcano erupted into life ahead of this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix as drivers, teams, and engine manufacturers announced their plans for 2018 and beyond.

Realistically, September is the latest anyone could have left their decisions with plans underway for new chassis’ and the next campaign starting in six months’ time.

Sainz Goes to Renault

Carlos Sainz Jr. has been loaned to Renault for 2018 to partner Nico Hulkenberg.

He continues to be associated with Red Bull but will get an experience of how a manufacturer works for the first time. Sainz has only driven for Toro Rosso to date, claiming a career-best sixth four times.

“This choice is well-aligned with our mid-term strategic plans,” managing director Cyril Abiteboul said. “We feel that Nico and Carlos will complement each other on and off track and the combination should help us push forwards on the grid.”

The signing leaves Jolyon Palmer on the sidelines for now after over 35 events with the team. Rumors have also consistently linked Sainz with taking over Palmer’s seat for the next contest in Malaysia.

Palmer denied this in the press conference before the start of the weekend, saying, “I have a contract. I’ve got seven more races this year. There have been suggestions for the past 35 races that I might not be at the next one, or in the next few, so this is nothing new for me, it’s water off a duck’s back now. It’s the same, I think at probably most races this year it’s been the case and nothing has changed.”

McLaren Joins Up With Renault

Renault will power McLaren for the first time in its history in the next three seasons as the former constructors’ champions split with Honda.

It ends its time with the brand after three years. If the MCL32 does not claim a podium by the end of 2017, it will be the first time that McLaren has not finished in the top-three through a period with an engine manufacturer since the M7D Alfa Romeo-powered car in 1970.

The switch could also change the situation around Fernando Alonso’s future. The Renault engine has won in June with Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull, and Alonso has previously said that he wants to be back on the top step. The manufacturer was also the team that Alonso won a title for in 2005 and 2006.

There’s also discussion surrounding his options now being limited, despite previously being linked to a possible  Verizon IndyCar Series ride. However, the seat he was likely to have taken was filled at Andretti Autosport by Zach Veach. As a result, he could be back in F1 with just a possible one-off ride for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso gave an update in Thursday’s press briefing, adding, “There are options everywhere. And they are all very good. You just need to be patient and wait a couple of weeks. The Indy 500 is together with Monaco, as we know, there is another one still to complete, so the triple crown is still ongoing at the maximum speed. I agree with the same thing [McLaren executive director] Zak [Brown] said: if I remain in F1 it’s because I believe I can win next year. So, that will ease the decision a lot because I will be in Monaco because I don’t want to lose any points. The plan is ongoing and very good news is coming.”

Toro Rosso Moves to Honda Power

As a result of McLaren’s switch, Honda is staying in F1 in the back of the Toro Rosso chassis as it moves away from Renault. It has a multi-year agreement to run the Japanese power units.

“It will be a question of adaption of our plans rather than a wholesale change and we are in the process of re-planning our design and production activities in conjunction with Honda to ensure that we both hit all our important deadlines,” technical director James Key said. “We will be working hard not to only re-design the power unit installation but also ensure that this has minimal or no effect on the ongoing development work for 2018.”

Sainz’s vacant seat could allow Toro Rosso to debut a new racer, with several options available. Red Bull reserve Pierre Gasly is winning in the Super Formula championship with a Honda-powered car, Sean Gelael took part in his first practice session for them in Singapore, and F2 and GP3 competitors Nobuharu Matsushita and Nirei Fukuzumi are both Honda-supported and working their way through the ladder system.

Kubica, Rosberg Start Working Together

Retired 2016 champion Nico Rosberg is continuing to be involved in motorsports as he tweeted that he is helping Robert Kubica with his future.

https://twitter.com/nico_rosberg/status/908607081527349248

Kubica was one of the names in the frame for Sainz’s Renault seat after having three test sessions with them but is still waiting for an opportunity for a potential comeback.

The two of them may work perfectly as both have been in similar places before in their careers. The duo both burst onto the scene in 2006 and finished close in seventh and eighth in the drivers’ championship in the last season the Pole competed in in 2010. Kubica was then in the same bracket as Rosberg as someone who could do great things later before his rallying accident affected that.

EMAIL CAMERON AT @cpatersonf1@gmail.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @PatersonCameron

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

EMBURY: Sato Tops Mixed Day For Andretti Squad

In a plot that almost played out exactly like last year’s Indianapolis 500, Andretti Autosport has secured their second-straight win.

The team’s No. 26 entry, which finished second last year with Carlos Munoz at the controls, was able to grab the brass ring on Sunday as Takuma Sato held off a furious charge by Helio Castroneves to cross the finish line first.

“Unbelievable feeling. I cannot thank this whole team (enough),” said Sato in victory circle.

Beginning his quest for glory from the fourth position on the starting grid, the former Formula One veteran ran with his teammates upfront through the first 200 miles, only to drop back near the halfway point following a slow pit stop. Almost out of the top twenty, the Japanese veteran rejoined the fight during the final forty laps, eventually jumping to second place on lap 180.

When Castroneves was finally able to get past a persistent Max Chilton for the lead seven laps from the conclusion, Sato quickly jumped back to the runner-up position and then overtook the Brazilian with four laps to go. The three-time Indy 500 champion would take a final shot at Sato on the penultimate circuit in turn one, but came up short.

Even as triumph was close to reality the aggressive veteran was not taking success for granted.

“You really didn’t know (until the end),” said Sato. “Me and Helio went side-by-side (late in the race). You’ve got to go for it, and we did.”

The win for Sato is his second in Verizon IndyCar Series competition, ending a four-year run without a trip to victory lane.  His last triumph was at the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The performance also avenges a heartbreaking defeat suffered in the 2012 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, when Sato showed the way for most of the event’s second half before a lastlap pass for the win against Dario Franchitti resulted in contact with the turn one SAFER barrier.

His boss Michael Andretti also voiced his approval on his recruit’s showing.

“(Takuma) is awesome!” said Andretti afterwards. “We work really, really hard (on the Indy 500). (The team) got this win as well as Takuma.”

For the rest of the Andretti operation, Sunday was a day of missed opportunities. Defending race winner Alexander Rossi was among the top-three for the opening 130 laps, before a problem with fueling the car on his next-to-last pit stop dropped him to the back of the pack. Despite a major surge in the late stages, the NAPA Auto Parts Honda driver came home in seventh.

“Two years in a row to have fuel problems is pretty tough to swallow,” Rossi admitted following Sunday’s race. “Obviously, it worked last year, but you can’t rely on not fueling the car and getting results.”

Rossi was not alone in his pacesetting duties on Sunday, as two teammates contributed to the early control at the point. For the second straight year, Ryan Hunter-Reay appeared set to win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The DHL Honda chauffeur climbed from tenth to first in just under eighty laps, looking to have the only car capable of breaking free from the main pack. However, scenarios out of his control would deny him once again. On Lap 140, the 2014 Indy victor pulled onto the turn three warm-up lane, with smoke trailing from his machine. Reliability concerns attached to the Honda engines in the days before the green flag proved correct as the veteran was tagged with a 27th-place result.

“It’s frustrating to end your day like that, especially when you have a good car like that,” Hunter-Reay relented after dropping out. “It’s two years in a row that Andretti Autosport has given me a car to win this race, and it’s two years in a row that circumstances outside our control have taken us out. ”

Malfunctioning power plants would also ruin an outstanding debut from ex-World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso. Showing a willingness to complete passes on the outside, the Spaniard was able to quiet any skeptics by running among the frontrunners, until becoming a victim of both iffy pit work and bad luck. The slow stop under caution mired the newcomer in traffic, where a low downforce strategy curbed his early muscle. Eventually the No. 29 Honda ground to a halt twenty laps from the full distance in  24th-place.

“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500,” said Alonso. “One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 on top of it.”

While the Andretti curse was not to blame for his shortcomings on Sunday, Marco Andretti failed to make a significant impact from beginning to end and settled for eighth.

“We definitely missed on it,” the younger Andretti explained. “I had a pretty lucky day; I got through some big wrecks. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the car (to challenge for the win).”

Jack Harvey’s first foray at the Brickyard came to a halt just before the 70-lap mark as he was collected in Conor Daly’s turn three crash and placed 31st.

“There was a whole bunch of debris on the track – I hit some of it and the car spun,” said Harvey. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything, so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”

Using the strength in numbers plan successfully, Andretti leaves the corner of 16th and Georgetown with another assortment of stories but reached its goal: putting another visage from their team on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

Alonso Adapting Well to Indianapolis

Two-time Formula 1 champion, Fernando Alonso, has immersed himself in learning how to drive on the most famous oval in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The incredibly talented Spaniard should be okay – as long as he doesn’t turn right.

For Alonso to compete at the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, something the 35 year-old has had on his bucket list along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans (which he feels will make him a complete driver), some factors had to fall into place.

Bernie Ecclestone (who would likely prevent an F1 driver from switching series), is no longer the head of F1 after Liberty Media recently bought it.

American Zak Brown, now Executive Director of McLaren Technology Group, wants McLaren to return to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Brown was instrumental in finding a ride for Alonso through his connections and is allowing his No. 1 driver to miss F1’s marquee event, the Monaco Grand Prix.

Honda, which has struggled to provide a reliable and competitive engine to McLaren this season, hopes to keep the F1 ace on board during its continued development. For the 500, Alonso is competing with the Honda-powered team of Andretti Autosport, which won the 100th Indianapolis 500 with Alexander Rossi.

In preparation for his first time competing on any oval, Alonso has studied videos of past races and spent time in Honda’s simulator. But there is no substitute to being in the actual race car. Michael Andretti is his race strategist, and Gil de Ferran is acting as his driver coach.

Alonso’s first impression when he saw the Indianapolis track was that it was a lot narrower than he expected. He could not believe that the cars start the race three abreast. The 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway has 50 foot wide straights and 60 foot wide turns. But the Spaniard is in for a big surprise during the race; restarts could be four and five cars wide.

On May 3rd, Alonso had a private test during which time he breezed through his Rookie Orientation program by completing a set number of laps in three increasing speed phases. After Marco Andretti had set the car up for him, Alonso completed 110 circuits with a top speed of 222.548 mph.

“The circuit looks so narrow when you are at that speed,” commented Alonso. “When you watch on television or when you are in the simulator, it seems bigger and easier. When you are in the real car it’s very narrow (the track) so I was trying different lines. 

“I knew that Marco was flat out in Turn 1, so I said, I will do flat out now in Turn 1 because the car is able to do it. So I arrived at Turn 1, and I was convinced 100 percent that I was taking it flat out. But my foot was not flat out. It had its own life and was not connected to my brain. By the second or third lap I was able to do it. It was definitely a very good feeling to be able to feel the respect of this place, the car, and of the speed. It’s something that for any racing driver, it’s just pure adrenaline.

“The Indy car is definitely different to drive. Obviously, if you develop your whole career in Formula One in Europe, you come here to oval racing, the car felt unnatural to drive because the car turns left by itself. That’s a little bit strange when you approach turn one on the first lap. I’ve had good preparation in the simulator and a lot of information from the team.”

What’s so very different about IndyCar racing from F1, is that Alonso has teammates that cooperate by sharing data, compare notes and ideas, and work together as a group to beat the other drivers. And, there are a lot of off-track commitments and fan access to the garages and pit lane that is not allowed in F1.

In addition to navigating four left turns, each different based on wind conditions, Alonso will have to learn how to make adjustments to maintain the balance of the car using his in cockpit controls, weight jackers and sway bars, as the fuel load of over 160 lbs. burns off.

“In this business, at this level, you have to learn by fire,” explained Marco Andretti. “We can only tell him so much. Definitely trusting your butt still sticks out in my mind, especially in places like this. You have to know it’s loose (the car) before it’s loose.”

To be competitive, Alonso will have to figure out how to set up for passes, remember IndyCar procedures such as pit entry rules, and spend three times longer in a pit stop than what he is used to in F1. He cannot practice race restarts and will discover no one has any friends the last 20 laps of the event.

“The most difficult thing will be the race itself,” explained the very methodical Alonso. “All the things that happen in the race such as running in traffic, learning the little tricks to overtake, the place to overtake, how not to lose time in those maneuvers, and how to use the performance of your car in which moment of the race. You feel the car, how it handles behind another car, and how close you can be to the other car in the corners.”

Alonso has been an excellent student methodically learning step by step. But it is possible to have information overload. Landing in the top nine of 33, with a four-lap average (10 miles) in qualifying of 231.300 mph, he placed in the middle of the second row (fifth).

The 2003 Indy 500 winner, Gil de Ferran, who is helping Alonso prepare for his first oval race, had his own lessons to learn when he first competed at Indianapolis.

“It was difficult to really understand, when I first came over (from F1), how complex setting up a car for the oval actually was,” said de Ferran. “I was able to be relatively competitive at the time. But really understanding what I needed out of the car and what changes needed to happen in the car for me to be competitive over a stint (using up the fuel), over a race, and what will happen at the end of the race, was a little more complex. It took me a little bit of time to understand how not to destroy the tires. I’m trying to bring to Alonso awareness of the nuances about what he’s about to encounter so he can think about it ahead of time.”

Alonso is well prepared for this race, but first, he must make it to the final laps without incident to battle for the win.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Indianapolis 500

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is primed for its cornerstone event the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented By PennGrade Motor Oil, the Firestone Fantasy Challenge has gone super-sized.

The race budget has jumped from the standard one hundred dollars to five hundred bucks and instead of drafting only four drivers, one must take a colossal ten for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

While going for the superstar caliber pilots would make the most sense, the values for all drivers has increased likewise. For example, Verizon P1 Award winner Scott Dixon costs 75 dollars to play, while Buddy Lazier is among the least expensive options at only twenty bucks. Looking ahead to how Sunday’s race could play out, the 2015 edition is primarily influencing my selection pattern. On that afternoon, Chevrolet-powered cars had the advantage, and the Hondas failed to get among them. My gut tells me the 2017 running at the Brickyard will see a complete reversal of fortune.

To the above concern, I have totaled ignored the five bow-tie backed cars from Team Penske. I know Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden each have impressive resumes at Indy. However, driving ability is negated if the car beneath one is not at an equal level. So far this month of May, the Captain’s vehicles have not been up to snuff.

Now I have not entirely abandoned the GM camp. Three chefs-de-race were worth drafting against the seven Honda chauffeurs yours truly completed his ten-man squad with. Two come from perhaps the strongest team in the 15-car Chevy roster: Ed Carpenter Racing. The team boss may draw the biggest cheers from the 250,000 strong crowd, and that may motivate a result out of the 36-year old hometown hero. Equally strong is his secondin-command J.R. Hildebrand. The Californian had a great effort at Phoenix last month and has hovered around the top-ten often at IMS. With Chevrolet possibly at a power shortage on the long straightaways, it may take bravery to mix it with the Hondas. One guy that meets that qualification is ex-high school wrestler Sage Karam. The Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has a reputation of overly reckless steering, but such a tactic could be a requirement.

Now onto the meat in my foot-long sandwich. I feel are three drivers who are the favorites entering race day. One is the Iceman mentioned above in Scott Dixon, the second is his partner-in-crime Tony Kanaan, and the third is the rabbit in last year’s event Ryan Hunter-Reay. With all three car-wranglers in the first four rows, none should have any issues getting to the point early. Using the same throw caution to the wind tag mentioned above with Karam, I am taking a chance on Takuma Sato. The Japanese driver has had trouble making the finish; however, he could be more willing to hold his fire with a stronger car and a better grid position.

A big pickup in time trials Sunday encouraged me to snap up Oriol Servia, a solid veteran who placed fourth in 2012. Spots nine and ten will be taken by two impressive rookies. Defending Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion Ed Jones takes one, while the aura of former World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso takes the final place. The Spaniard is having the kind of month that Nigel Mansell had in 1993 when he came within 15 laps of winning. He and his McLaren-Andretti Honda team have exceeded all expectations this month and should continue the trend to the point where a place on the train has my name on it.

Indeed one super team is missing in action, however as witnessed by my roster, two megagroups will fill the vacancy without issue.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

EMBURY: Surprises Among Firestone Fast Nine Advancees

In a day preceded by thunderstorms, Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway produced several surprises.

For instance, all three members of last year’s Indianapolis 500 front row, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, failed to make the Firestone Fast Nine. Four-time pole winner Helio Castroneves was also not fast enough. In their place, was a plethora of Honda-powered entries and some unexpected Chevrolets.

Regaining the form he showed in winning Indy 500 pole awards in 2013 and 2014, Indianapolis-native Ed Carpenter topped the pole shootout list with an impressive four-lap average of 230468 MPH. The local hero will be joined in the final qualifying round by teammate J.R. Hildebrand, who also posted a strong 230 plus effort.

Amazingly, despite entering five cars this month, Team Penske will feature only one entrant in Sunday’s showdown. Will Power, who was the only member of the Captain’s quintet to post a 230 MPH lap this week without a draft, backed up the early returns to make the cut. The rest though, faded, as conditions changed. Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud only managed a 228, as did Josef Newgarden. Juan Pablo Montoya was likewise stuck at 228, while Castroneves’ 229.3 MPH run also was not among the fast nine.

Beyond ECR, the other big winners Saturday were Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Two-thirds of the way through the original order, Ganassi had four cars in the final phase. Despite Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball getting bumped, the team has two excellent shots at the top spot in veterans Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, who have earned a combined three poles at the Brickyard.

Meanwhile, Andretti Autosport stands at an equal level of opportunity with former Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso leading the charge. The Spanish newcomer to IndyCar racing will be joined by reigning Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato, and Marco Andretti, who secured the final spot to advance to the Firestone Fast Nine.

Unfortunately, the shootout will be missing one notable driver as Sebastien Bourdais suffered a serious accident in turn two during his attempt. After running two laps above 231 MPH, the Frenchman made heavy contact with the SAFER barrier sending his Dale Coyne Racing Honda into a flip before coming to a stop right side up. The veteran was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he was awake and alert.

The surprises were not limited to the nine finalists. On a layout where an early draw is viewed as an advantage, the late runners vaulted forward as Saturday’s action went beyond the usual 6 p.m. track closing to allow everyone a chance to perform. Also with only a limited number of drivers taking the track during the Saturday morning warm-up, many competitors were forced to take to the circuit and run at their maximum for the first time in about 24 hours, placing an even greater set of unknowns to the common stack during time trials weekend.

With many curveballs thrown on Saturday, expect more of them to come on Sunday.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology, Final Edition

The purpose of Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology is to give an idea on who’s trending upward in the battle for being Firestone Fast Nine eligible. 

Fast Friday is now in the record books, and changes in the final field projection are rampant. Among those trending upward, Ed Carpenter Racing appears to be regaining the form shown during back-to-back pole position efforts in 2013 and 2014. Entering the opening week of practice, J.R. Hildebrand seemed to be the biggest threat; however, team boss Ed Carpenter was regularly the fastest in laps completed without a draft before the increase in speeds on Friday.

Another team that has unexpectedly made a jump into the conversation is Dale Coyne Racing – the same squad who claimed last month that they could not challenge for high finishes. Fast forward to Friday and out of nowhere, Sebastien Bourdais fired off a draft-aided run over 233 MPH and backed it up with an assist-free lap over 231 MPH. While making the Firestone Fast Nine is still a tall order, the Frenchman at least has flashed what it would take to get there.

As for the rest of the contenders, Penske and Ganassi are still well within range of position number one, while any of the six-member Andretti Autosport club can get there likewise. Meanwhile, the pole position title defense for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is entering long-shot status.

FRONT ROW

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing: Consistent pace from both the New Zealander and Tony Kanaan have solidified the Iceman’s spot on the top line. If the weather does limit action to a Sunday-only affair, it just makes the odds that much more favorable.

Helio Castroneves, Team Penske: Four Indy 500 poles are on his resume, but it has been seven years since Spider Man’s last hurrah. May represent the Captain’s best chance following Newgarden’s accident on Thursday.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport: Honda has the pace to give RHR an edge over most of the Chevrolet runners, but that may not be enough to catch Dixon for first.

ROW 2

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske: Getting used to the spare car was why the Tennessee-native did not make an impact on Fast Friday. Should still find himself somewhere on the first three rows on Sunday.

Will Power, Team Penske: The Aussie has been able to transfer strength in road course time trials to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Do not overlook that reality.

Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing: Qualifying in the first two rows was the standard form for TK early in his Indy 500 career, but not so much over past few editions. Second-fastest clean lap posting Friday entices me to say a return to the previous outputs is in order.

ROW 3

Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing: Two-time pole award earner has quickly climbed the grid based on high placing on draft-free speed charts before Fast Friday. Still, he needs to show more to be a real pole position challenger but should get to the shootout.

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Herta Autosport: If only he had gotten a second run in pre-qualifying last year. Year two should offer a friendlier result.

Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske: The 2016 series champion could face stiff opposition to make shootout if Honda continues to outperform GM-powered cars.

ROW 4

James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Last year’s pole winner has suddenly gotten lost in the shuffle. Will be a battle to reach the final session this time around.

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing: The comments previously made by Craig Hampson, seem like a smokescreen after what the former Champ Car World Series champion put on the board Friday. Will be hard pressed to back that up when it counts, however.

J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing: Can join his boss in the top-nine, but the number of real threats to get there is getting bigger too.

ROW 5:

Fernando Alonso, Andretti Autosport: Has quietly gone about his business this week and was in the 230 MPH club without a draft on Friday. If luck shines on him, he could maybe get into the shootout conversation.

Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport: Is starting to fall behind his teammates regarding getting to the Firestone Fast Nine. This list now includes Alonso.

Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: The Russian continues to stay in the top half of the speed list, but a big boost is necessary to get a realistic look at making the first three rows as he managed in 2016.

 

ROW 6:

Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport: After starting impressively at St. Petersburg, the near- 2012 Indy 500 upset winner returns to familiar territory from when he was with A.J. Foyt Racing. Does not appear able to take advantage of a good car for qualifications.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske: Time trials has been kryptonite for the Colombian, he has been worst among the Captain’s runners each of the past three years.

Oriol Servia, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Servia has been the better of the two RLLR entrants this past week. Nothing on Friday indicates a reversal is in prospect.

ROW 7

Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing: Three top-ten finishes at the Indy 500, but has yet to make an impact in qualifying mode. Should top Chilton to be third in CGR stable, but not much more than that.

Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: DRR’s focus has been more on the race than time trials; 2017 should be no different.

Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Racing: The aggressive veteran does not have the resources to threaten the top nine as he did with Andretti. Dramatic turnaround required before Munoz improves his placing.

ROW 8

Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing: Issues with car and weather prevented the Dubai-resident from testing out qualifying setup on Friday. He could still get near Bourdais at the close of Sunday action, but it will be a more difficult ask.

Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Qualified seventh in his first try with the family-based organization, but has been nowhere near that zip code in the years since.

Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing: Interesting to see how the Englishman fares this month after a Pole Day crash last year derailed the effort. Could see a surprise jump.

ROW 9

Jay Howard, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Has shaken off some of the rust formed by six years of IndyCar inactivity; however, qualifying is a bigger pressure cooker than the run up to it.

Pippa Mann, Dale Coyne Racing: Made history by becoming the first woman to post a lap over 230 MPH at the Brickyard on Friday. Could surprise several this weekend.

Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Racing: Topped Gateway speed chart, but may have only done so as pace may not have been the concern for most of his rivals.

ROW 10

Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing: The Colombian was third-fastest earlier this week, but has steadily dropped down the charts.

Zach Veach, A.J. Foyt Racing: Has been in step with both of his A.J. Foyt Racing teammates this week, but mainly because all three have lacked speed.

Jack Harvey, Andretti Autosport: English rookie has yet to show the pace of his five teammates. Challenge now is to avoid losing out to a majority of the other one-off entries.

ROW 11

Sebastian Saavedra, Juncos Racing: Pace for the Colombian has been lacking so far in practice. Not expected to make a significant impact in qualifications.

Spencer Pigot, Juncos Racing: Friday accident puts the sophomore behind the eight-ball looking ahead to this weekend. Avoiding the back row is now the chief concern.

Buddy Lazier, Lazier Partners Racing: Playing catch-up after taking his first laps this month on Friday. Avoiding 33rd on the starting grid would be a personal victory for the 1996 Indy 500 winner and the team.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

Indy One-Off Entries Pose Threat

In years past, it was typical for a competitor who raced in just the Indianapolis 500 to be able to challenge the full-time regulars.

Although the practice is few and far between recently, the Brickyard has witnessed a few drivers who have shown the potential to make the favorites sweat. While current Formula One regular Fernando Alonso has garnered most of the attention, there are others who appear capable of rattling the cages on race day.

One of them could be Sage Karam, who is looking to return to full-time status in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Last year, in a one-race deal with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, the Pennsylvanian had moved into the top-ten before contact with Townsend Bell put him into the turn one wall. Two years earlier as a rookie, Karam and DRR also joined forces to move from 31st to ninth at the finish. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veteran Kurt Busch won Rookie of the Race honors in 2014; however, many experts felt Karam was also worth a look for the award.

Sebastian Saavedra is also trying to reclaim a spot on the IndyCar circuit. The Colombian is competing for Juncos Racing this month, a regular fixture in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship. The Speedway, Indiana-based operation is looking to move up to IndyCar action full-time next year. A good result could add Saavedra to Ricardo Juncos’ list of potential pilots, maybe alongside Spencer Pigot, who will drive a second car for the Argentinian this month.

Unfortunately, Karam and Saavedra each have a reputation for overaggressive driving in the past. Both have been eliminated in a pair of Indy 500s due to accidents, and controlling the urge will be crucial for success.

This then leads us to the two drivers with F1 experience, Alonso and two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya. The Spaniard proved a quick study during a private at IMS on May 3 and could show legitimacy from the opening of practice. However, he faces the same set of unknowns that others have tackled, perhaps none better than Nigel Mansell, who came within 15 laps of winning in 1993 only to settle for third-place at the conclusion.

Montoya has proven effective at both ends of the grid. As a first-time competitor in 2000, he started second and led 167 laps to become the first newcomer to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966. In 2015, he recovered from early contact with Simona de Silvestro to earn his second Indy win. However, the charges through the field are not always immune from trouble. Last year, Montoya crashed in turn two and wound up 33rd.

The table is stacked against these four men and the other one and done Indy 500 entrants; however, all it takes is a strong performance coupled with a little luck and just maybe one could add their face to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.     

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Andretti Autosport Bounces Back at IndyCar GP

They did not threaten Team Penske’s two rabbits on Saturday; however, Andretti Autosport has momentum entering the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Led by 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, they managed to place two of its entrants in the top-ten in the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

For RHR, Saturday’s third-place result was his best outing since placing fourth in the seasonopener at St. Petersburg.

“We’ve had a pretty tricky beginning of the year I guess you could say,” said Hunter-Reay after the checkered flag. “It’s been one thing or another, really. Some misfortune, bad luck. Some we brought upon ourselves, but it’s been one thing or another.”

Starting eighth, the DHL Honda pilot quietly ran among the top-ten throughout the 85 laps, but was able to avoid the errors that hampered others. Ultimately, the veteran was able to secure a place on the podium overtaking Penske’s Helio Castroneves.

“Helio’s strategy didn’t end up working out for him in the end because he was on primaries at the end; kind of a sitting duck for us that had pace on (optional tires),” explained Hunter-Reay.

Defending Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi also enjoyed a solid weekend at the Brickyard, running as high as sixth, before settling for eighth at the conclusion.

“We had a really good start, but we chose the wrong downforce level,” said Rossi. “We got it balanced out on the last stint, but it was too late to run up the (leaderboard).”

While the NAPA Auto Parts Honda driver was without any significant maladies during Saturday’s action, the former Formula One test driver struggled during the long green flag stints, eventually losing some spots.

Although the results for Hunter-Reay and Rossi were a far cry from the team’s massive breakdowns at Long Beach and Phoenix, Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato proved there are still some kinks in the armor.

Having to start at the back of the grid on Saturday, Sato never had a signficiant impact, but gained twelve positions to come home 12th.

“It was a tough race, but I think we fought back quite strongly,” said Sato. “We’ve got good momentum for the Indianapolis 500, and I’m looking forward to starting practice on Monday.”

Andretti’s hopes were dashed when he came into contact with Tony Kanaan on the opening lap, a move stewards judged as avoidable and the third-generation driver was issued a drive-through penalty. Mired near at the tail of the order from that point, Andretti posted a 16th-place result. The 2006 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, later apologized to Kanaan on Twitter for the shunt, claiming he was more focused on his rear-view mirrors, than he what was ahead of him.

“Wasn’t the way I would have liked to have started the race,” admitted Andretti. “I knocked into TK, and it was an uphill battle from there. I ruined both our races.”

Andretti Autosport’s effort expands from four cars to six when IMS converts to its traditional 2.5mile oval layout on Monday. Joining the regular drivers will be multi-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso and Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires veteran Jack Harvey.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect  those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: Indy 500 Grid-a-tology, Second Edition

The purpose of Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology is to give an idea on who’s trending upward in the battle for being Firestone Fast Nine eligible. The first edition was published pre-Phoenix and can be found by clicking here.

The big question surrounding the second version of Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology was brought into focus at Phoenix International Raceway- is Chevrolet well ahead of Honda? Or will the Japanese marque once again find a way to reverse the trend?

For now, a few adjustments have been made, including J.R. Hildebrand joining the conversation for making the Firestone Fast Nine. A stout performance in the Diamond Desert Grand Prix, plus a quiet one from team boss Ed Carpenter has made the Californian as the best challenger for Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s semi-home team.

Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra have been added to the tote board, as their places with Juncos Racing are all but a lock. The second-year IndyCar driver re-unites with the same squad with which he won the 2015 Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires title. Saavedra also is back at the Brickyard with long-time supporter Gary Peterson.

Fernando Alonso was impressive in completing his rookie test, but how does that affect his value? For now, yours truly needs to see more to be convinced. Matt Embury’s first rule: One performance is never enough; it must be backed up.

NOTE: Drivers yet to be officially confirmed, are listed in parentheses.

 

FRONT ROW

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing: The first Honda across the finish line at Phoenix. The effort more than validates the Iceman’s place as position number one heading to Indianapolis. He dominated time trials en route to securing the pole two years ago.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske: He was only fourth among the Captain’s quartet at Phoenix, but due to a little bad luck late. Since that won’t influence qualifying, Jo Cool stays on the one line.

Helio Castroneves, Team Penske: Back-to-back front row efforts entering the Brickyard is a sign that the determination to succeed may be back for the four-time Indy pole king.

ROW 2

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport: If Honda Performance Development (HPD) is playing possum again, RHR is capable of joining the top three. If not, it will be a tough fight to hold this placing.

James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: The Mayor did well to reach top spot a year ago, but he also took advantage of Honda’s edge to get there. Certainly cannot do it solely on driving effort.

Will Power, Team Penske: The Aussie has been able to transfer strength in road course time trials to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Do not overlook that reality.

ROW 3

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Herta Autosport: If only he had gotten a second run in pre-qualifying last year. Year two should offer a more friendlier result.

Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske: The 2016 series champion made the front row two years ago and could match that if Chevrolet can equalize last year’s deficit to Honda.

Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing: There’s a lot to like about TK in the Indianapolis 500-mile race, but not so much in qualifying since joining Ganassi. Will take some courage to break the current pattern.

ROW 4

Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport: Will be teetering on the cut line concerning the shootout right up to the six-o’clock gun Saturday.

J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing: Makes a big jump based on Phoenix in part, but I also recall the Californian advancing to the final nine in 2014.

Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Nothing at PIR to help or hurt the Russian. For now, he stays puts in P12.

ROW 5:

Fernando Alonso, Andretti Autosport: The private test at IMS went well. While a 222 MPH lap is impressive, how will it stack up against the rest of the challengers? Work to do here.

Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing: Never thought Hildebrand would be the primary source to qualifying success for ECR, but it sure seems that way after the boss’s lackluster run at Phoenix.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske: Qualifying has been kryptonite for the Colombian, he has been worst among the Captain’s runners in time trials each of the past three years.

ROW 6:

Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport: After starting impressively at St. Petersburg, the near- 2012 Indy 500 upset winner returns to familiar territory from when he was with A.J. Foyt Racing. Does not appear able to take advantage of a good car for qualifications.

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing: The comments made by Craig Hampson pre-Phoenix are putting doubt in DCR’s mind at the worst possible moment. Something good must happen during practice. or it could be a disaster.

Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Racing: The aggressive veteran does not have the resources to threaten the top nine as he did with Andretti. Dramatic turnaround required before Munoz improves his placing.

ROW 7

Oriol Servia, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: RLLR is following ECR’s path. Their primary threat is being trumped by the other driver in the camp.

Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing: Three top-ten finishes at the Indy 500, but has yet to make an impact in qualifying mode. Should top Chilton to be third in CGR stable, but not much more than that.

Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: DRR’s focus has been more on the race than time trials; 2017 should be no different.

ROW 8

Jack Harvey, Andretti Autosport: If Alonso can make a move up the list, so can Harvey. Indy Lights veteran should have the same muscle that the Spaniard will have in his arsenal.

Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Qualified seventh in his first try with the family-based organization, but has been nowhere near that zip code in the years since.

Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing: Interesting to see how the Englishman fares this month after a Pole Day crash last year derailed the effort. Could see a surprise jump.

ROW 9

Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing: Could get closer to matching or exceeding the output from semi-teammate Karam in qualifications. Compliacted to say based on a new team, but Indy 500 experience is present in most categories.

Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing: Is in the same way Bourdais did at Phoenix. The situation is unlikely to improve this month.

Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Racing: Topped Gateway speed chart, but may have only done so as pace may not have been the concern for most of his rivals.

ROW 10

Spencer Pigot, Juncos Racing: Reunion of the 2015 Indy Lights champions provides a thought-provoking pairing. Whether it equates to a satisfactory result in time trials and the race is unknown.

Zach Veach, A.J. Foyt Racing: Extra seat time at Barber could boost fortunes for the Ohio-based rookie. Could push Daly for second in the queue for Foyt behind Munoz.

(Sebastian Saavedra), Juncos Racing: Not a great track record at Indy for the Colombian, however Saavedra should be more competitive as opposed to original choice Kyle Kaiser.

ROW 11

Pippa Mann, Dale Coyne Racing: Expectations have lowered following the struggles of DCR at Phoenix last month. The veteran is deserving of better equipment.

Jay Howard, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Six-year layoff will prevent Howard from getting as much out of his car as Hinch and Aleshin will.

Buddy Lazier, Lazier Partners Racing: The Colorado-based group is always having to play catch-up, so topping anyone in qualifying would be a personal victory.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.