bottas lede

bottas ledeAt the end of Sunday's post-race news conference with the three podium finishers, I asked Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton if they were looking forward to going head-to-head with each other in relatively equal machinery for the championship.

Both drivers were effusive in their praise for the other, each using the phrase "the best" as they sat beside one another. It is a fight so many have been waiting to see, with 2010 their closest fight to date as each has won the majority of their titles in dominant machinery. But there was a "baby elephant" in the room.

While Kimi Raikkonen's start to the year suggests he might struggle to find the consistency required to mount a title assault against Hamilton and Vettel, his countryman produced a drive that showed quite the opposite.

Valtteri Bottas has been on a very steep learning curve at Mercedes, having only been confirmed as Nico Rosberg's replacement in late January. Throughout pre-season testing he admitted he wasn't as comfortable with the car as Hamilton, and still felt there was a clear gap between the two when arriving in Melbourne for the opening round.

Albert Park has not traditionally been a strong circuit for Bottas, who has especially struggled over one lap around the street circuit. It showed on Friday, when Hamilton was 0.5s quicker than his new teammate and appearing to be in a league of his own. The gap highlighted one of Hamilton's standout traits: the ability to be immensely fast straight out of the box, immediately taking the car close to the limit from the first lap of the weekend.

That strength – if you view it as one – limits Hamilton's margin for improvement to a degree. The race weekend is a three-day event and there's no shame in opting for a different approach. Bottas did exactly that, and by the end of qualifying he had already closed the gap to less than 0.3s compared to the man widely regarded as the fastest over one lap.

bottas2Even so, a race distance is a different matter, and Bottas quickly dropped back from the leading pair in the opening stint. Toto Wolff later said it was a ploy to look after his tires behind Vettel, but the gap continued to grow as the Finn struggled on the ultrasoft tire, much like his teammate, with Bottas just shy of 10 seconds adrift of Hamilton by the time the leader stopped on lap 17.

Despite struggling on the softest compound, Bottas continued to push the tire life and reached lap 25 – two laps farther than Vettel, who had used all of the tread – before finally pitting. Given how difficult Hamilton had found the opening stint, it was a solid start.

Once on the soft tire, Bottas made another clear step forward. Quicker than Hamilton over the final stint as the latter stopped earlier and needed to conserve his tires, the new Mercedes recruit closed up to cross the line just 1.2 seconds behind his new teammate. Unlike the opening stint, on the soft tire Bottas was at least as strong as Hamilton, and it didn't go unnoticed by one of the men who hired him.

"Bottas did an incredible job," Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda told Sky Sports. "First time in the car, finished third, close up to Lewis. He could not have done a better job ... We have the right choice.

"I expected Bottas, in a new car with a new team, with the help of the team to get quicker. He did all that. So the whole weekend he was a sensation.

"I don't think he would have been worse than Nico if Nico would have raced here. It could have been exactly the same result but he was the first time in the car, which I think was outstanding."

Bottas DaimlerLauda is notoriously straight-talking and his words should be taken at face value. It’s the subtle things that add up to the impressiveness of the former Williams driver’s performance, one of which is the knowledge that of the top three teams he is the only driver not to have the opportunity to conduct tire testing with Pirelli during 2016. (As an aside, Hamilton only did 30 miles during the test program, while race winner Vettel amassed close to 1,400. While Vettel pushed his tires to the end of their lives, Hamilton still had 30 percent of tread left at the end of his opening stint in Melbourne).

The encouraging thing from a Mercedes point of view – and from that of a fan who wants to see as many drivers battling for wins as possible – is that Bottas is still far from reaching his full potential. One paddock figure who has worked extensively with both drivers at different times during their careers says it is Bottas’ huge capacity to improve that makes him such an exciting prospect.

Granted, there’s no guarantee he will do so, but the rate of progress in Melbourne only served to cement that belief. After the race, that same figure admitted even they were massively impressed with what Bottas had delivered over the 57 racing laps.

Bottas champagneOne team boss even felt Bottas held something back as he closed in on Hamilton in the second half of the race, with the understated 27-year-old not feeling the need to send a message by getting involved in an unnecessary scrap.

“I thought he did a great job,” Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley told RACER. “I think he was very measured, he did what he needed to do and I don’t think you can really expect any more from Valtteri on that one. He drove it right up to a close finish with Lewis; you can’t really ask any more of him.

“Realistically he’s not going to go and challenge Lewis, why would he want to go and do that? His opportunity will come if everything works in place for him. He probably had the pace in the final stint but chose not to, and I think that was wise and good thinking on his part just to keep it stable. You don’t need to have a big off anywhere – it’s the first race of the year, get yourself settled in.”

The more telling quotes came from the man himself. Rarely one for an eye-catching comment, Bottas was typically reserved in describing his own performance and talking about areas to improve. But he revealed just how much stronger he expects to be as the year goes on when he said: “There’s a lot more to come from me, it’s only the first race. I’m going to improve massively.”

These are new cars and every driver will have room for improvement, but in watching Vettel and Hamilton push each other hard you didn’t get the sense either man has a huge margin. Bottas believes he does.

If he delivers on that promise, he will be a huge factor in this year’s championship.


Ford drivers meet ledeThe Rolex 24 at Daytona class-winning Ford Chip Ganassi Racing drivers got together on Wednesday with Kurt Busch, the Blue Oval's Daytona 500 winner, to celebrate the grand achievements with employees at Ford's Product Design Center in Michigan.

The big wins, taken in the No. 66 Ford GT by FCGR's Joey Hand, Dirk Muller and Sebastien Bourdais at IMSA's season-opening endurance race on Jan. 29, and by Busch in the No. 41 Stewart/Haas Racing Ford Fusion on Feb. 26 at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series curtain raiser, gave the brand two major victories in less than a month.

Fords meet2Positioned between their respective Daytona-winning cars and trophies, the four drivers spent the day speaking with Ford employees, signing autographs and posing with Ford executive vice president Joe Hinrichs (pictured) as part of the festivities.

"It's great to be back," said Hand, who made the trip last year after he and the No. 66 team won their class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. "When you get to come for a big Ford celebration and it's your second time here in eight months, it's a good thing. We got a little taste of it after the Le Mans 24 win, and now with winning Daytona, to be able to come back and celebrate again is a big deal.

"For me, knowing how many people have worked on this program, from the beginning until now, to be able to be here and do this little thing, just visiting and signing autographs, just being seen by everyone who's done so much work, we get so much appreciation from this, you wouldn't believe it. People pick up an autograph card and say 'thank you for driving the car to the win.' To me, you're thinking 'thanks for all the long hours, for making a car we can win with!'

For Busch, the trip became possible after finally achieving his Daytona 500 dream after 15 previous tries in a variety of machinery.

"This is a fun day," the 2004 NASCAR Cup champion said. "It's really neat to have the support from Ford, to have such a big manufacturer throw a huge celebration for the employees. This is what it's about – going out, winning and bringing home trophies, and to have a Daytona 500 win and a Rolex 24 At Daytona win with the Ford GT in the same year is pretty special. It's so cool to have everyone's passion for racing at Ford Performance behind us, and here we are, celebrating and taking pictures.

"Edsel [B. Ford II]'s here today to greet everyone. It's really a dream come true. To be able to win in my first race back with Ford, the homecoming was exciting and now it's stamped in concrete to have this type of win. I'm just really enjoying it all. A Daytona 500 win doesn't happen all the time."

hamlin clockWalking through the tunnel at Martinsville Speedway each year brings a certain swagger to Denny Hamlin.

"I'm more confident when I come here than I am even at tracks like Richmond," Hamlin said during a promotional event at the speedway. "This is a very confident racetrack for me and with that confidence comes sometimes a lot of anxiety because if I don't win, it's not a successful weekend."

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A seven-time winner at the famed half-mile, Hamlin knows what he's looking for at Martinsville. He's gone to Victory Lane five times in the Cup Series and twice in the Truck Series, which ironically are the only two wins in trucks Hamlin has in 16 starts.

Martinsville is also home, with Hamlin being a native Virginian.

"That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, especially in today's competition, to go out there and expect to win because all the drivers are good," Hamlin said.

"The few drivers that have perfected this place don't have as big of an advantage that I feel like that we used to have many years ago with all the data sharing and all that goes on. The advantages that you had have been whittled down, so to continue to put the expectations of coming here and winning no matter what, is probably a little unrealistic but it's a goal we always set."

In fact, Hamlin admits when it comes to Martinsville the only thing acceptable is winning. The track's two annual Cup races are always circled on his calendar. Hamlin admits his Joe Gibbs Racing team typically look at Martinsville as a place to get their first, if not second, win of the season.

Entering the STP 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), Hamlin is winless and sits 12th in points. A year ago, Hamlin wheel-hopped going into Turn 1 and crashed just past the halfway point, resulting in a 39th-place finish. It was a rare mistake for Hamlin, who unequivocally knows what line he needs to run and what he wants in a car.

hamlin martinsville"It's the feel in the racecar," Hamlin said when asked what makes him so comfortable at Martinsville. "This is one of the very few racetracks I never look at lap times; lap times mean nothing to me here. Whether we're first in practice or 20th, it really doesn't matter to me because I know the feel in the race car I've got to have to win."

With five Cup wins at Martinsville, Hamlin is second on the active drivers win list behind Jimmie Johnson, who has nine victories. Another Martinsville great, Jeff Gordon, also has nine victories, and Hamlin is often mentioned in the same breath as Johnson and Gordon when it comes to the track.

Hamlin considers that pressure he enjoys, and a mark he wants to beat.

"When I finish up I'd like to have more wins than Gordon, that would be a big goal for me," Hamlin said. "I think it's very feasible. I've been in contention here many, many times. Jeff's won here a bunch. But there's no reason why I shouldn't come out of here with a record as equal to his, and that's something that's hard to do. He is the master at this racetrack, and he could get in a Cup car one time a year, and it only be at this racetrack, and he could contend for a win."

That's what Hamlin has come to expect of himself.

SNE15622Ross Brawn is putting together a team to investigate ways to facilitate closer racing while keeping high levels of aerodynamic performance in Formula 1.

The opening race of the 2017 season saw few overtaking maneuvers as a number of drivers complained it is harder to follow another car due to the aerodynamic sensitivity produced by the new regulations. While many team bosses are keen to reserve judgement, Brawn – who is managing director of motorsport for new F1 owners Liberty Media – revealed he has already started assembling a team to see if it's possible to lessen the impact on a following car.

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"We talk about aerodynamics, I think we have to recognize these cars are incredibly quick because they use aerodynamics and if we want cars as quick as this and as spectacular as this then we can't just turn the aerodynamics off," Brawn said.

"I think there's a view that we should get rid of the aerodynamics and have big, wide tires and then get the grip mechanically and then we can go back to cars racing each other. We can, but they will be a lot slower than most of the single seater cars that are out there.

"So I think we should embrace aerodynamics, but in a different way. We should work out how we can make the aerodynamics as benign as possible so cars can still race each other. That's never truly been done. I think if you look at the configuration of the aerodynamics we have, we've got cars now with very complicated bodywork structures which create very sensitive flow regimes around the structures which as soon as they are disturbed by the car in front, suffer.

"So can we come up with a set of regulations and a concept where we can still use the power of aerodynamics to give us the speed and the spectacle of the cars, but in a more benign way so that they can at least race each other more closely without having that impact. So that's my ambition, that's my objective and as I've said we're putting a team together within FOM to look at those ideas, with some substance."

And Brawn acknowledges it is the sport's regulator – the FIA – who will have to come up with any final rule changes. But he believes he is in a position to bring the required parties together to work on future improvements.

"We want to work with the FIA and we want to work with the teams and use the resources of the teams and use the support of the FIA and the direction of the FIA to try and achieve that. So just talking about that relatively narrow topic of aerodynamics I don't think we should view it as something we've got to get rid of, because we won't, we never will.

"Can we turn it on its head and say we need it because we want fast cars, but can we structure it in a way where it's much less damaging for cars to race each other? I've heard it said that some of the cars out there do race each other quite well with large aerodynamic performances – the sports cars for instance and IndyCars at the moment are not suffering so badly – so I think a proper campaign, concerted campaign would definitely take us in the right direction on that, I'm convinced of that."

design ledeThe Verizon IndyCar Series has produced the first look of its 2018 universal superspeedway bodywork with an overlay of the current car's shape. Smaller detail images of possible road course aerodynamics were also released. The new renderings follow sketches produced by the series earlier this year.

"While this remains a work in progress, we are encouraged with where the development of the 2018 car stands," said IndyCar president of competition Jay Frye. "The look of the car is bold, the performance data from simulations is meeting targeted goals and safety enhancements built into the design will be substantial."

In Speedway trim, the universal bodywork confirms a number of initiatives Frye's competition team has implemented that differ from the base 2012 Dallara DW12. The move to a low engine cover has been known for some time, but detail items like reconfigured front tire anti-interlocking devices – often referred to as the "sponsor blockers" (pictured below) by some team owners – that obscured the sidepods will come as a welcome change. In the rendering, the smaller floor-mounted anti-interlocking fins have been rotated 180 degrees and taper toward the rear, giving a clear view of the sidepods and sponsor logos. The fins are also being considered for complete removal once the 2018 bodywork is finalized.

blockerThe removal of the boxy rear wheel guards – the "Kardashians," as they were quickly dubbed – is another drastic alteration that will help the DW12 to present itself as a more traditional open-wheel design.


"We've been working on the aerodynamics to suit the look, rather than the other way around," said Tino Belli, the former IndyCar race engineer who serves as the series' director of aerodynamic development.

Other interesting items have been confirmed, such as the re-routing of the air inlets for the twin-turbo Chevy and Honda engines from the roll hoop to inside the sidepods. A big decision has also been made by IndyCar to fill the large holes in the leading edge of the floor for road/street courses and short ovals.
That change, which will return a significant amount of downforce to the underwing, will help the series in its quest to reduce the DW12's reliance on topside aerodynamic devices to make downforce by making more downforce beneath the cars.

"We're working on creating more of the downforce from the underwing," Belli added. "The hole in the floor will be sealed for the road courses and short ovals, but will still be open for the superspeedways."
Belli has also led the design of new front and rear wing main planes, and in high-downforce specification, the multi-element rear wing package will be wider and lower.

roll hoop

A new roll hoop faring, slightly repositioned mirrors, and integrated rear tire ramps are also visible in the new rendering. Noticeably absent from the 2018 rendering is the cockpit aeroscreen developed by IndyCar.


500 Green flagThe race to complete the grid for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 is following a familiar trend.

Take a limited number of ready and available Dallara DW12s, a growing desire by some teams to yank extra entries to have a spare DW12 ready in case of emergency, and a tight control over the number of engine leases Chevy and Honda are willing to provide, and the forecasted entry list is a tight 33 to 34 entries.

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The price to participate in this year's Indy 500 has also seen a steep cost increase with some teams. Where some of the final deals to drive in the 2016 event went for something in the $500,000 range, the sum of $800,000 has been reported as the number needed to fill some of the vacant seats. And in a few cases, that $800,000 is not all-inclusive. Another $400,000 is also required as a crash deposit to cover the loss of the car, bringing the total buy-in to $1.2 million.

Elsewhere in the paddock, Indy 500 pricing in the $600,000-$750,000 range – without a stiff crash deposit – has been reported.

Looking at the available seats, the impact of KV Racing's closure on the ride-for-hire market has been considerable after the team fielded three cars in the 100th Indy 500. Drivers accustomed to striking deals for proven KV entries have been forced to look deeper into the paddock for alternatives, and in many cases, the only options are attached to new or unproven programs. It means the process of completing the field of 33 could take longer than desired as drivers explore their remaining options.

With less than 50 days to go until the opening day of practice starts at the Speedway, here's where the grid stands (listed by car count, driver and engine):

Count, Driver, Engine
1. Conor Daly, Chevy
2. Carlos Munoz, Chevy
3. TBD, Chevy

Among the list of drivers searching for Indy-only seats this year, James Davison, Stefan Wilson, Jack Harvey, Matthew Brabham, Gustavo Yacaman and Zach Veach are known, and a few others, including Jeff Simmons, who last raced at Indy in 2008, are said to be sniffing around behind the scenes. Of those listed here, it would not be a surprise to see Veach wind up in Foyt's third entry.

4. Marco Andretti, Honda
5. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda
6. Alexander Rossi, Honda
7. Takuma Sato, Honda
8. TBD, Honda

Harvey IMS photoTownsend Bell had the pace to win last year's 500 in the fifth Andretti entry and would be a natural to return, but he might spend the month of May in the NBCSN commentary booth. Barring a good deal at Andretti (or elsewhere) that would have a serious shot at winning, the veteran could be ready to step away from making his annual run at the 500.

Veach was considered the front-runner for the fifth Andretti seat until that recently changed, and according to recent chatter, Carlin Racing Indy Lights driver Zachary Claman De Melo, Andretti Lights driver Dalton Kellett and former Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Indy Lights driver Jack Harvey (pictured) are among the options to claim the Indy 500's most coveted vacancy.

9. Max Chilton, Honda
10. Scott Dixon, Honda
11. Tony Kanaan, Honda
12. Charlie Kimball, Honda

The powerhouse team is expected to stick with its four full-time entries for the 500. It last ran five cars in a partnership with Gary Peterson in 2015 with Sebastian Saavedra behind the wheel of Peterson's Chevy-powered car.

13. Sebastien Bourdais, Honda
14. Ed Jones, Honda
15. Pippa Mann, Honda

With the confirmation of Mann, who has become the closest thing to a permanent fixture at Indy with Coyne, the race to fill a fourth seat – provided Honda can supply an engine – is on.

16. Gabby Chaves, Chevy

Former Menard Racing team manager and Tri-Star Racing co-owner Larry Curry is back with a new a team funded by the Harding Group which, among other notable jobs, performed the latest paving of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile oval. With two new Dallara DW12s purchased for the program, 2014 Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves slotted into its primary seat, and an affiliation with Dennis Reinbold's Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team (Curry's effort is also based out of DRR's shop), the new Chevy-powered program should be a solid addition to the Indy 500 field.

karamTalk of possibly using the second DW12 to field two entries has been discussed, but a heavy proviso has been attached: If Chaves were to crash and need the second chassis, his teammate would be pulled from the cockpit. Barring the acquisition of a third DW12 to use as a spare for Chaves, it's hard to imagine any driver or sponsor agreeing to a situation where their seat could be taken away at any time.

17. Sage Karam, Chevy

Karam is a fixture at DRR, and despite his lack of steady open-wheel activity, the 22-year-old has kept busy with the Lexus sports car program in IMSA. Compared to some Indy-only drivers who will hit the track with almost a year of rust to clear, Karam will be one of few to step right in and get down to business. Despite being in separate single-car entries, the link between DRR and Curry brings two strong drivers together in a collaborative effort that should reduce some of the known limitations that come with fielding a solo program.

18. Ed Carpenter, Chevy
19. JR Hildebrand, Chevy

Early indicators suggest ECR's recent three-car Indy assault will be trimmed to two. Citing the limited number of spare cars, Carpenter is said to have turned down a number of offers to put a third DW12 in the field to safeguard ECR's interests. Rumors regarding Spencer Pigot being given a shot in the spare ECR Chevy have been floated, and if the series struggles to fill the last position on the grid, this would be the logical place to look for a solution, but still stands as an extremely remote possibility.

kaiser ims photoJUNCOS RACING
20. Kyle Kaiser, Chevy

The 2015 Indy Lights champions are stepping up with an IndyCar program to debut at Indy with two potential Chevy-powered DW12 entries. One could be for Kyle Kaiser, but owner Ricardo Juncos doesn't want to rush his 21-year-old Lights driver and is also talking with several others about the ride.

21. Buddy Lazier, Chevy

The Laziers are in the same place they've been in recent 500s with not enough money and a need to update their DW12 with new parts, but they always manage to come through. It made including LPR as an expected entry rather easy, and until we hear otherwise, LPR will remain on the list. The former presence of Larry Curry brought increased organization and structure to the team, but with his focus elsewhere this year, the team will want to find another veteran to bring similar management skills. If Bob Lazier's estimates are correct, Buddy's son Flynn could be the family's choice to drive their Chevy-powered entry in the future.

22. Graham Rahal, Honda
23. Oriol Servia, Honda

RLLR vowed to keep its Indy 500 program focused on quality rather than quantity, which leaves the pairing of Rahal and Servia a smart move after they worked well together in 2015.

24. Helio Castroneves, Chevy
25. Juan Pabo Montoya, Chevy
26. Josef Newgarden, Chevy
27. Simon Pagenaud, Chevy
28. Will Power, Chevy

With the most impressive driver rotation in the event, Roger Penske has five winning options, and in Castroneves and Monotya, five combined Indy 500 victories. The stretch to run Montoya at the Indy GP and go beyond the recent limit of four cars at the 500 would suggest how much the Captain wants to win the biggest race on the calendar.

29. Mikhail Aleshin, Honda
30. James Hinchcliffe, Honda
31. Jay Howard, Honda

SPM has its terrible twosome of Hinch and Aleshin to rely on and Howard is certainly an interesting choice for the third Tony Stewart-sponsored entry. The question is whether SPM would run a fourth car. A number of drivers have inquired about the possibility, and like Coyne's potential fourth, a fourth SPM entry hinges on receiving the 18th and final Honda lease.

James Davison IMSAbove: James Davison has two Indy 500 starts (2014-15)


32. Dale Coyne Racing/Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Honda

If we go by how Honda's decision-making process has worked in the past, it placed an emphasis on siding with teams that offer the best odds of turning its final lease into something positive for the brand.

Look for Honda to evaluate what's being proposed before routing an engine to Coyne or SPM, as simply being able to foot the bill for the lease is rarely enough to sway its choice. Steady speculation suggests Coyne, which ran four cars last year (SPM fielded three) could be the winner in the 18th Honda sweepstakes.

Stef Wilson IMSAlthough the fifth Andretti seat is certainly prized, Coyne's potential fourth seat is the one almost every driver has targeted as something that could be a softer hit to the bank account. James Davison, who drove for Coyne at Indy in 2015, is said to be among the deeper candidates for the ride, and with the obvious ties to Stefan Wilson, who made his IndyCar debut with Coyne in 2013, the team has plenty of talent to choose from.

Throw in the names of the other drivers wanting to race at Indy, and most are chasing this engine, rather than the specific team where it might be used. Whether it's with Coyne or SPM, the fate of the 18th Honda and its provisioning or dismissal could be known by early April.

33. Juncos Racing, Chevy
Indy veteran Sebastian Saavedra and aspiring rookie Gustavo Yacaman, among others, have been mentioned as options for the second Juncos Chevy. Although the car is not considered to be a sure thing right now in late March, the urgency to use the DW12 could change if the field is stuck at 32 entries by the time May arrives. IndyCar has been instrumental in helping Juncos prepare for its series debut, which could make it easier to place a funded driver in a second car here than to have ECR wheel out its spare to run a third entry in order to complete the grid. The asking price for Juncos' second car is said to be somewhat high, but that could also change if IndyCar's aforementioned need for a 33rd car becomes a reality.

34. A.J. Foyt Racing, Chevy
A new option emerged on Monday when the Foyt team won the auction for the KV Racing DW12 chassis Wilson used at Indy in 2016. The Chevy-powered car, dressed in its Bowtie superspeedway aero kit, would give the Foyts a quality spare chassis to have as a backup if anything happens to one of its three entries, and also affords A.J. the chance to expand to four cars.

Although he lacks an engine lease and a team, pastor Will Marotti could end up as a co-entrant if his efforts to raise enough sponsorship to be involved in a second consecutive Indy 500 are fruitful.

After Marotti Racing, the list of known participants – in any capacity –comes to an end. Grace Autosport, which announced its intentions to participate in the 100th race, has been silent, and unless a new entrant emerges from the unknown with DW12s that were secretly produced, the main players have been defined.

Thirty-one cars are currently in place (although some of the drivers and entries have yet to be publically confirmed), and the path to 33 and possibly 34 cars exists.

With Pippa Mann's confirmation at Coyne, Honda is in with 17 leases and Chevy has 14. If an 18th Honda gets the green light, the field is at 32 with a Coyne or SPM, and if a Juncos or Foyt steps forward with one of its cars, Chevy would be at 15 motors and Indy's 11 rows of three would be set.
This is all predicated, of course, on each of the 31 we've identified showing up as anticipated and at least two of the other three seats being filled. If the Lazier entry falls through or a chassis is destroyed between Long Beach and the Indy GP, an 18th Honda along with two Chevys from Juncos and Foyt would be needed to hit 33.

Provided everything goes according to plan, Indy has its full field and maybe one more to bring some modest drama to time trials.

Alonso melbourne LATHonda was relieved to see its work on reliability pay off at the Australian Grand Prix but is still concerned by performance, according to its head of F1 project Yusuke Hasegawa.

Pre-season testing saw Honda struggle with an uncompetitive power unit, but of more concern was its inability to complete significant mileage due to poor reliability. McLaren's longest run during testing was 12 consecutive laps, but Honda managed to implement fixes that allowed Fernando Alonso to run in 10th place for the majority of the race in Melbourne before a suspension problem forced his retirement.

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Asked if he is encouraged by the step forward at the opening race of the season, Hasegawa told RACER, "Yeah, it's very difficult to say encouraging but as a matter of fact we were about to finish the race without any PU issues. But we didn't get a point because we couldn't finish the race as a team so this is very unfortunate.

Admitting there were nerves ahead of the race weekend, Hasegawa added: "From that point of view it's much better than expected and I'm very relieved we could finish the event without big issues."

While he says the fact that that hard work on reliability since testing has paid off is "very encouraging," Hasegawa's relief is tempered by an acknowledgment that "results are very important for this activity."

Explaining the work Honda undertook after Barcelona, Hasegawa said there was not a single problem faced during testing that was not addressed.

"For every single issue we had to add some countermeasures. Of course we had not had the chance to check with some circuit running after that so I was not completely confident about that [until Australia] but we didn't leave any issues as they were, so that is what we did."

Dec98 lead.001This is the ninth installment in RACER's ongoing 25th anniversary celebration during which we share the 25 most important issues from our first quarter century.

Earnhardt. Schumacher. Zanardi.

As the holiday season approached, the thread of family – and racing bloodlines – weaved throughout RACER's December 1998 issue.

Leaving home took center stage in David Phillips' cover story, "Zanardi's Choice," as two-time champion Alex Zanardi made the decision to leave his adopted Chip Ganassi Racing family to return home, with his growing family, for a second shot at Formula 1.

Dec98 3Zanardi told Phillips: "With Chip, I always had a great relationship; a very straightforward relationship. Chip was aware that my mind was divided between an opportunity with Williams and an opportunity to remain in the United States and race with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing – because I wouldn't have considered anything else."

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Phillips wrote: "The family matter was a contributing – but not a decisive – factor. What it all comes down to is that undefinable but valiant quality that separates every great achiever from the merely good: an insatiable desire to reach for the stars." Revered by his Ganassi team, his place in Americans' hearts would only grow as he faced tragic lows and unimaginable highs as he reached higher and higher in the decades to follow.

As for the team he left behind, Rick Graves went "In Focus" to probe the secrets of the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard 981/Honda.
"The Family Way" led Zanardi to Williams – "a racing family if ever there was one, RACER editor John Zimmernan noted – and a partner in Ralf Schumacher, whose bloodline "surely seems to have gifted him with the same kind of raw talent that's made brother Michael a double World Champion." Maurice Hamilton's "Sting in the Tail" profiled the young Jordan team driver's intent on establishing his own F1 credentials, independent of his star brother.

Another family business played a prominent role: Honda, which powered both Zanardi and Schumacher and was celebrating its 50th anniversary. In October, RACER contributor Pete Lyons saw Honda mark its golden anniversary with a gala celebration at Twin Ring Motegi. "Going Golden" told the tale of a birthday party extraordinaire and a weekend's adventure in Japan.

The year 1998 was a monumental year for one of the biggest family names in NASCAR: Earnhardt. Gerald Martin's "Into the Blood" observed the father-son relationship between seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was in the midst of his first full-time season with his dad's team in the NASCAR Busch Series.

Dec98 2Martin's narrative would turn out to be prophetic.

Just as Dale Sr., 47, followed in the tire tracks of his father, the late sportsman champion Ralph, Dale Jr. is also expected to follow. The difference? Ralph was taken from Dale Sr. before the young driver, then just 22, was afforded the opportunity to work hand in hand, year after year, with his mentor.

God willing, Junior, 23, and Senior will be afforded that opportunity, and almost all is in place. In September, the Earnhardts, along with Anheuser-Busch, announced that Dale Jr., after a five-race Winston Cup debut in 1999 — will join the Winston Cup tour, driving full-time for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Phillips also profiled a young Adrian Fernandez in "Overnight Sensation," a look at a driver who left family and friends and was coming into his own in CART's FedEx Championship Series.Dec98 4And Bill Oursler's "Time Capsule" went behind the scenes with Josef Hoppen, a man who played several roles in promoting Porsche's racing heritage in the United States.

As the days ticked down to 1999, big milestones were on the horizon as RACER neared its 100th issue ...

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