Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama - Day 1

Castroneves paces Barber Friday practice

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Helio Castroneves, the defending polesitter at Barber Motorsports Park, led practice Friday for the second round of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

The Brazilian was one of 11 drivers who dipped into the 1:08 range in Friday’s second practice session around the 2.3-mile road course. That’s still nearly a second off times set in testing, but teams have not yet run Firestone’s softer, grippier alternate red tires.

“I think it’s better to be lucky than good,” he said. “Obviously with the yellow in the end a lot of guys probably put tires, but the car felt pretty good. The AAA team felt really strong, the morning unfortunately it was a little bit difficult because seeing that the track has lots of grip and when you have an extra set of tires certainly it helps a little bit. In the end of the day, with AJ and Will we’ve been actually doing a lot of different stuff out there and it seems to be working.”

Like several other drivers this weekend, Castroneves’ car features an alternate livery. Castroneves is sporting blue and white AAA colors, with an additional marketing campaign that sees “Turbo,” the upcoming DreamWorks Animation film about a snail who races in the Indianapolis 500.

Although a Chevrolet was quickest, Honda runners took four of the next six spots on the timesheets for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Sam Schmidt’s two cars were third and fourth, rookie Tristan Vautier again getting the better of Simon Pagenaud, while Alex Tagliani leapt to second in the Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosport entry and Scott Dixon ended the day in sixth.

Will Power was fifth once again, as in the morning, with AJ Allmendinger continuing his weekend within a tenth of his Australian Team Penske teammate once again in eighth place.

EJ Viso was seventh, best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet of cars, with James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and St. Petersburg front row starter Takuma Sato completing the top 10. Viso’s session included an off course excursion at Turn 8, but without any damage he was able to return back to the pits.

Dale Coyne Racing made strides with its brakes – both Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz knocked one full second off their morning times – while the rest of the AGR contingent struggled. Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti have not yet been on the pace. KV Racing Technology also dropped to 16th and 17th with Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro – both found some time but not as much as others – and Charlie Kimball was one of only two drivers to fail to improve on his time from practice one. That meant a drop from fourth to 18th on the day.

Through two sessions, 23 of 26 drivers have eclipsed Power’s track record of 1:09.8529, which will almost certainly be broken with official times in qualifying on Saturday. Qualifying airs at 5 p.m. EST Saturday on the NBC Sports Network.

Combined times from Practice 1 and 2 are below:

Rank  Car Driver            Team                C/E/T Time 

1.     3    Helio Castroneves    Penske                 D/C/F 1:08.5440
2.     98   Alex Tagliani        Barracuda/BHA          D/H/F 1:08.6288
3.     55   Tristan Vautier      Schmidt Peterson       D/H/F 1:08.6720
4.     77   Simon Pagenaud       Schmidt Hamilton       D/H/F 1:08.7627
5.     12   Will Power           Penske                 D/C/F 1:08.8066
6.     9    Scott Dixon          Target Chip Ganassi    D/H/F 1:08.8446
7.     5    EJ Viso              Venezuela/Andretti/HVM D/C/F 1:08.8556
8.     2    AJ Allmendinger      Penske                 D/C/F 1:08.9119
9.     16   James Jakes          RLL                    D/H/F 1:08.9479
10.    14   Takuma Sato          Foyt                   D/H/F 1:08.9817
11.    19   Justin Wilson        Coyne                  D/H/F 1:08.9917
12.    1    Ryan Hunter-Reay     Andretti               D/C/F 1:09.0524
13.    22   Oriol Servia         Panther DRR            D/C/F 1:09.1384
14.    10   Dario Franchitti     Target Chip Ganassi    D/H/F 1:09.1492
15.    27   James Hinchcliffe    Andretti               D/C/F 1:09.2602
16.    11   Tony Kanaan          KV                     D/C/F 1:09.2755
17.    78   Simona de Silvestro  KV                     D/C/F 1:09.2779
18.    83   Charlie Kimball      Novo Nordisk Ganassi   D/H/F 1:09.2798*
19.    25   Marco Andretti       Andretti               D/C/F 1:09.3452
20.    7    Sebastien Bourdais   Dragon                 D/C/F 1:09.3480
21.    67   Josef Newgarden      Fisher Hartman         D/H/F 1:09.5084
22.    15   Graham Rahal         RLL                    D/H/F 1:09.6315
23.    4    JR Hildebrand        Panther                D/C/F 1:09.7176
24.    6    Sebastian Saavedra   Dragon                 D/C/F 1:10.1026*
25.    20   Ed Carpenter         Carpenter              D/C/F 1:10.2497
26.    18   Ana Beatriz          Coyne                  D/H/F 1:11.2361

*Fastest time set in Practice 1 instead of Practice 2

Q&A: PFC ready for return as IndyCar’s brake partner

A look at PFC Brakes. Photo: Tony DiZinno
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Announced back at the Watkins Glen weekend in September, Performance Friction Corporation, or PFC, was announced as INDYCAR’s new brake partner for 2017 and beyond, replacing Brembo.

Darrick Dong, Director of Motorsports, Performance Friction Brakes, explained some – but not all – of the “bells and whistles” PFC has coming down the line for INDYCAR, and how they were chosen to be the new partner to begin with.

MotorSportsTalk: For those that may not be familiar with PFC, its reach and its background, can you summarize all that PFC has been involved in?

Darrick Dong: “Don Burgoon was the owner of the company that passed away on Sept. 12, 2015 in a road car accident in Italy. He really was a true visionary about this particular technology we’re using carbon for IndyCar – and it’s unique. It’s made from a single strand and what this does for us is it’s not a laminate that’s needled together or a constructed matrix like the current supplier is. Also, most of the carbon that’s being sold into racing is actually demilitarized carbon. That’s one of the reasons why they can talk about it, whereas we cannot talk about a lot of the details from a technical standpoint because it’s actually a current used material. It’s proprietary.

“So the key to a single strand carbon matrix is it has a very uniform crystalline structure where the temperature goes through the PFC carbon almost as quickly as it’s introduced. Whereas, with the other materials out there, there’s always thermal banding and there’s a lot of differentials in the temperature profiles of those materials. Because, truth be told, they’re 12 plus year-old technologies.

“As you know, the IndyCar community have been fighting some torque variation, erratic wear and erratic behavior, just inconsistencies. So, we did that blind test and essentially there were three suppliers that supplied car sets to three or four different drivers at Mid-Ohio. All the drivers chose us over the other guys.

“We’ve been continuing testing with the series with the two car sets we gave them at Mid-Ohio. We tested at Road America, Watkins Glen and Sears Point (Sonoma). It’s the same two-car sets that we’ve done that. I think we’re up to 11 or 12 drivers now that have actually had chances to put miles on the stuff.

“For all the miles we’ve put on it with all the different drivers, it didn’t pull or do anything unexpected. It may not have as much bite as some would have liked, but then I don’t know any driver that didn’t ask for more bite. But we were working primarily on the premise that they wanted something that was consistent and had better control. These cars are capable of pulling over a 5g stop now and have over 6,000 pounds of downforce when they’re in full aero. So you’re going from high downforce to mechanical grip in really less than two seconds.”

MST: How different is INDYCAR now versus the last time PFC was involved? Certainly the cornering speeds are significantly higher…

DD: “It’s been awhile since I’ve been playing with the IndyCar guys. We have been a primary source for CART, Champ Car and the IRL series when they were on iron brakes. In fact, in those days when it was open, when they could choose anybody from 1986 through 2011, we had won all the championships and I think we won all the races on our products – with the exception of one or two – through all those years. So it’s not like they didn’t know who we were.

Zach Veach locks it up at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Zach Veach locks it up at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“When they came up with the DW12, we were the last of the two guys standing on supplier for that car, but the (ICONIC) group decided to go with Brembo. So for the last six years, I still have been keeping my ear to the ground and because we’re the supplier to the (Mazda) Road to Indy, I’ve got all the USF2000 cars, the Pro Mazda cars, Indy Lights and the new Tatuus USF-17, so it’s not like we don’t have a footprint in the garage area.

“It can truly been said that the Road to Indy has been a road to us, for us in getting the confidence of the series! They were pretty gun-shy, as you can imagine, with the problems they had with the current supplier and apparently the same problems in IndyCar has gone to other markets, other series and championships. So, this is rapidly turning into a unique opportunity for us and we’ll be able to bring some new technologies and some new ways of thinking on how a braking system can work on an IndyCar.”

MST: What do you expect the support system/operations side to look like at the track?

DD: “That’s a great question. The series wants us to deal directly with the teams; that’s what we’ll do. Depending on how the logistics work out, in fact, I’ve been talking to Haas Auto here about renting a couple cabinets for them – because there’s always going to be somebody that needs something. Either way, we’re going to have it. What’s nice is most of the team managers and engineers they know who PFC is, so we’ve been part of the canvas now for quite some time.”

Kanaan at Gateway. Photo: IndyCar
Kanaan at Gateway. Photo: IndyCar

MST: Has the driver feedback you’ve received thus far – Tony Kanaan being a good example of a driver since he’s been around and did the test – been a step in the right direction?

DD: “Particularly with TK, he’s very sensitive to this torque variation. One of the things they were able to do, a lot of drivers with the current brake configuration, they have to use the largest master cylinder made to help reduce the locking. With our product, they’re able to drop a size down, which gives them a lot more feel for the threshold of grip between the tire and braking capacity. The difference is, that particular change, because they’ve done it twice now, it stays with the car. The drivers prefer that because now the way the brake pedal is, they have to jump on it as hard they can and then trail off immediately to keep the thing from locking.”

MST: How much more difficult is it to engineer now than when there were higher braking rates?

DD: “One of the things that’s unique about the PFC Carbon is it’s not as sensitive to temperature as most carbon is. So, its sweet spot is about from 100C (100 degrees Celsius) to about 650C. It’ll easily go up to 800C or greater. It never fades. The only difference is you’ll have higher oxidation or greater wear. But at 100C, it acts very much like an iron brake, so it has more cold bite characteristics, which is one of the reasons the why series liked that characteristic, particularly after they did a dyno simulation between all the different brands, and they realized ours had a smoother, cold, predictable bite.

“So with these high downforce cars, you usually use the brakes primarily to balance the cars. You need to have more drivability, not less, so it’s not like an on-off switch like they’ve got now. Everybody who said it’s modulation, that the cold bite – particularly at an oval – is something that will be a benefit to these guys.”

MST: The longer-term viewpoint is looking ahead to 2018 and the new aero then. Will you be part of that development process?

DD: “Yeah, in 2018, we’ll have calipers on the cars. So we’re not only producing the brake pads, the carbon discs and the brake bells and attachment system for the current caliper. And then in 2018, we’ll be supplying the teams with new hardware and calipers. Also, we hope to have the design approvals for the series on or before the Indy 500 in 2017. So after the Indy 500, we can concentrate on making sure we get the hardware right for them.”

PFC Logo. Photo: Tony DiZinno
PFC Logo. Photo: Tony DiZinno

MST: Will you get extra test days?

DD: “I don’t know how that’s going to work, that’s still down the road. Obviously, one thing that’s been about PFC is we’re one of the few companies that manufacture 100 percent of the hot-end components for the car, including friction components. Because of the complexity, there’s not too many companies that recognize what the braking event really is. We have to understand the tire and the interface between the tire, ground and brake torque better than most.

“So most of these other guys, brake pad suppliers, they typically will design the architecture for the caliper, they go buy a disc from somebody else and then they have three or four pad guys build a brake pad for them. With us, we work from the friction out. So, it’s a whole different philosophy and makes us in a unique position because we understand the grip model or try to understand the grip model as best as anybody out there.

“Our relationship with the teams have been very, very close. They’ve freely talked to us because they know we’re always working on improvements. That traction circle, particularly with the amount of downforce, goes from here to here in a very short period of time. It’s a very small, narrow window.”

MST: You had a funny line when you and I chatted at Watkins Glen, that it’s taken eight years to become an overnight success…

DD: “For us, our motivation is and always has been that open-wheel racing is in our DNA. It’s one of the truest forms of being able to apply all the little nuances that we work on in terms of getting not only the performance and the consistency. We bring quite a bit to the table because even the attachment system for the Indy car will be very unique. I can’t talk about all the little bells and whistles that we’re going to be throwing at this thing, but I can tell you that when the teams have the opportunity to implement the new program, it’ll be a significant moving of the bar.

“For instance, although not too many people know this, PFC is the only North American supplier to Porsche Motorsports. So, going through that Porsche-perfect quality assurance protocols, it’s a big deal. And we’re putting the same philosophies of what we have incorporated over the years into the IndyCar thing, so the only thing they have to worry about is how to make the car better, not chase the brake ghosts.”

DiZinno: Thank you, Audi, for making Le Mans great again

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15:  Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Today’s news that Audi Sport would be withdrawing its LMP1 program at year’s end was not a surprise in that it happened, but only a surprise in terms of when it did.

But the truth of the matter is that for five years, the beginning of the end of the Audi era was always going to end: it was just a question of how it would.

How it ends should not take away from the 18 years of magic that Audi, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, and the team of people assembled, has provided on sports car tracks around the U.S. and around the world, as a brand that has helped to elevate both itself and the sport as a whole to the level it is today.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 11: Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 11: Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport looks on during practice on June 11, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

When I started watching sports car racing on an occasional basis in the late 1990s at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, it was a mix of Riley & Scotts, Ferrari 333 SPs and then a hodgepodge of GT cars – some more stealthy and pioneering, some more low-budget than others. It didn’t really seem to have proper cohesion or, more importantly, a true “star car.”

Daytona was the U.S. 24-hour race of note at the time but then there was this other 24-hour race in France every June that I knew little about but somehow, felt an allure and a draw to once I properly understood what it meant.

And from 2000 onwards, there was one manufacturer whose dominance at the event became a staple of summer, and that was Audi.

Every June, even if I hadn’t yet comprehended the series around which Audi raced – that came later – I knew I’d be tuning in from home the Saturday of Le Mans to watch as many hours as I could to see Audi win again.

17 Jun 2000: Biela, Kristensen and Pirro take their Audi R8 to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race at La Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport
17 Jun 2000: Biela, Kristensen and Pirro take their Audi R8 to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race at La Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

With a mix of promotional efforts, pioneering technology and an all-star group of drivers – none ever rising too high to be much more “a star” than another – Audi established itself as the brand to beat with its incomparable run of form with the R8 those first six years from 2000 to 2005. It was perhaps unlucky its only defeat in that time was in 2003, to the beautiful Bentley Speed 8, was to a car from a sister brand (keep that in mind for the future).

The bar was raised in 2006 with the all-conquering R10 TDI, Audi’s move into diesel shifting the game from a singular petrol focus to a form of new technology. That was 10 years ago. And Audi didn’t just win Le Mans with its new car; they dominated.

Further wins in 2007 and 2008 followed against Audi’s toughest adversary yet, Peugeot, the French carmaker entering with a diesel of its own, the 908 HDi FAP. It’s funny; to me at the time, even though Peugeot was the crowd favorite on home soil in France, I always cast them in a role of the villain up against the good guys from Audi, who we at least knew here a little better in the U.S., and who we’d got to know as fans from their time racing in the American Le Mans Series.

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Tom Kristensen of Denmark drives in the final hour to take victory with Audi Sport North America team mates Allan McNish of Great Britain and Rinaldo Capello of Italy in the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 15, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The 2008 win in mixed conditions served as the impetus and race for the iconic Truth in 24, a movie that inspires chills among the sports car racing world for how good the Audi/Intersport/NFL Films production was. From the singular first line of the film – Jason Statham’s foreboding “It always rains at Le Mans,” – to the buildup to the race from testing and the preliminary races, to Allan McNish’s track lap description, and then to the introduction of Howden “H” Haynes as the engineer, you are so incredibly amped up by the time it gets to the chronicling of the race itself. And you feel as though you’ve become one with the team, as Audi won the 2008 race on smarts and strategy more than outright pace.

This would be a good time to note that when I first had the opportunity to go to Le Mans in 2009 for another website, I was so excited to see Audi win at Le Mans. Naturally, then, it didn’t happen; the new R15 was a rare misstep from Ingolstadt and Peugeot, which needed to win to keep its program going, finally did so in its third crack at the race.

The die cast of Audi’s success in the nine years previous is why Peugeot’s 2009 win was such a big deal at the time; the almighty Audi had finally been toppled. Audi was human.

In truth though, the dominant, unchallenged period of success Audi had at Le Mans was really at an end in 2008, even though they’ve still amassed more wins. The 2010 and 2011 Le Mans wins were fortunate. Audi won in 2010 only after the Peugeots grenaded themselves; with the new R18 in 2011, Audi won only after its first two cars sustained two of the heaviest accidents in recent years at Le Mans, and held on with its single remaining bullet in the gun.

Audi won the first two Le Mans in 2012 and 2013 following the launch of the FIA World Endurance Championship – a championship whose presence was spurred on by LMP1 manufacturers and the creation of hybrid technology, but has since seen the privateers that made up the rest of the class fall by the wayside. Toyota wasn’t ready to win Le Mans either year; frankly no one wanted to win in 2013 after Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident in the opening laps.

But the biggest signs of change for Audi had been revealed in summer, 2011, and it had nothing directly to do with Audi. That summer, Porsche announced it would be returning to Le Mans with an LMP1 entry, targeting a 2014 launch.

Audi, the flagship LMP1 brand that had built its image on Le Mans greatness in the 12 years previous, would have company within the Volkswagen Group as two top tier brands would start competing head-to-head for wins at the most glorious sports car race on the calendar.

Audi had beaten a host of competitors in its run at Le Mans, the privateers, then Peugeot, then Toyota. But it hadn’t yet beat a manufacturer from its same company in a full-season setting.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

The 2014 Le Mans promised great things. In Audi, you had the established heavyweight. In Toyota, you had the relatively younger upstart ready to win in its third year – as Peugeot had done five years earlier. And in Porsche, you had the returning giant, perhaps not ready in its first go-around but ready to fight.

And that was how it played out. Audi’s 2014 win was the third for the Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler trio, but won more on expertise and guile again rather than outright pace. Toyota’s chances came undone just before dawn, and Porsche fell off as the race entered its final stages. It would have been impossible to know at the time this would be Audi’s last of its 13 triumphs at Le Mans, but indeed it is.

Porsche won in 2015 with the famous third car win of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg. They won again this year after Toyota’s final-minute heartbreak; Audi, for the first time in 18 years at Le Mans, was nowhere, and only made the podium thanks to the Toyota non-classification. That these two poor results came following VW’s emissions scandal that emerged last fall was poor timing.

The Le Mans history outlined above is but the flagship venue of Audi’s successes in top-flight prototype racing, but far from the only one.

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 04: The #07 LMP1 Peugeot Sport Total 908 driven by Nicolas Minassian leads Marco Werner in the #2 Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI as the field follows at the start of the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
BRASELTON, GA – OCTOBER 04: The #07 LMP1 Peugeot Sport Total 908 driven by Nicolas Minassian leads Marco Werner in the #2 Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI as the field follows at the start of the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Because of its presence in the U.S. in the American Le Mans Series from 2000 through 2008 – either with the Audi Sport Team Joest or Champion Racing efforts – Audi inspired a generation of sports car fans to start paying attention to what it was doing.

Audi raced hard versus Don Panoz’s team with its weird, wacky and wonderful front-engined LMP1 Roadster, the venerable Dyson Racing Lolas, and then, for those few glorious years from 2006 to 2008, the factory-supported Porsche RS Spyder and Acura LMP2 cars from the Penske, Highcroft, Andretti, de Ferran and Fernandez teams.

It didn’t matter the tracks; it didn’t matter the classes. BoP and driver ratings weren’t buzzwords. It was simply about the racing – and seeing the ways the more powerful Audi raced against the lighter, more nimble LMP2 cars in the ALMS at the time was mesmerizing to watch.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 13: (L-R) Allan McNish of Great Britain, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and seven time race winner Tom Kristensen of Denmark and Audi Sport North America attend the drivers parade in Le Mans town centre prior to the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 13, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 13: (L-R) Allan McNish of Great Britain, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and seven time race winner Tom Kristensen of Denmark and Audi Sport North America attend the drivers parade in Le Mans town centre prior to the 76th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans on June 13, 2008 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The trio of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello became heroes. Kristensen will go down as the greatest of all-time at Le Mans with his nine wins there. McNish’s tenacity and starts were always an incredible sight to watch. Capello was the third tenor, and just as critical to the success by combining the best of both.

These three stood out while others like Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and Marco Werner also were among the winners. The Lotterer/Treluyer/Fassler trio stands as Audi’s next generation, but their time together figures to come to an end in two races.

They all slowly faded away though. Capello, McNish and Kristensen retired each of the last few years. The Pirro/Biela/Werner trio were there through 2008 before the first real changing of the guard in the driver lineup occurred. Leena Gade, an inspiration in her own right, stepped down after Le Mans this year.

Much as my formative years in IndyCar were built by the Target presence with Chip Ganassi Racing in the mid-1990s, my formative years following and appreciating sports car racing – and Le Mans in particular – was crafted by Audi.

So while the business realities and changing demands of what manufacturers want to pursue for their motorsports program to coincide with their automotive interests is changing, so ends Audi’s run of glory at the top level of sports car racing.

This is no doubt a sad day for the sport. But rather than with anger, I’m left only to reflect and say thank you to Audi for making me a fan in the first place.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 15:  Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

Audi announces exit from FIA WEC at end of 2016

during qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 16, 2016 in Le Mans, France.
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Audi Sport will withdraw from the FIA World Endurance Championship at the end of the 2016 season, perhaps sooner than expected but still confirming rumors as suggested and reported on by Sport Auto‘s Marcus Schurig a couple weeks ago.

This is a significant blow to the championship as Audi, arguably the flagship manufacturer in LMP1 since its arrival with the first iteration of the R8R and R8C in 1999 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, before the subsequent run of the R8 starting in 2000, the diesel R10 TDI in 2006, and further cars of the R15 and R18 since 2009, has been the benchmark.

But with Volkswagen Group (VAG) forced to reassess its business strategy and motorsports programs in the wake of the recent diesel emissions scandal, budget cuts were always going to be expected. Reducing entries from three LMP1 cars for Porsche and Audi at Le Mans this year was the first cut.

In a release from Audi on Wednesday, Audi confirmed it will still press on in FIA Formula E – where it can demonstrate electric technology – and also in DTM. No final decision has yet been made concerning a future involvement in the FIA World Rallycross Championship (World RX), although in that series, Mattias Ekstrom won this year’s title.

“We’re going to contest the race for the future on electric power,” said Chairman of the Board of Management Rupert Stadler.

“As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so.”

Over an 18-year run, Audi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 13 times between 2000 and 2014, before sister brand Porsche has won it the last two years.

“After 18 years in prototype racing that were exceptionally successful for Audi, it’s obviously extremely hard to leave,” said Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “Audi Sport Team Joest shaped the WEC during this period like no other team. I would like to express my thanks to our squad, to Reinhold Joest and his team, to the drivers, partners and sponsors for this extremely successful cooperation. It’s been a great time!”

Toyota has also expressed sadness over Audi’s departure:

This is gutting news, but this is when you have to say thanks for the memories and understand the business climate of the decision.

PWC: Flying Lizard’s Darren Law reflects on K-PAX, McLaren GT title

Parente ready for battle. Photo: Bob Chapman/Autosport Images
Photo: Bob Chapman/Autosport Images
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With arguably one of the craziest final laps in Pirelli World Challenge history, the pendulum of who would win this year’s GT championships swung for the final time in the 2016 season.

Alvaro Parente seized his chance at Turn 5 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, when contact between Johnny O’Connell and Patrick Long forced Long off the road, and cost Long a near certain title in the process.

Instead, Parente became the first driver not named Long (2011) or O’Connell (2012 through 2015) to win a PWC GT title since Randy Pobst did so in 2010.

The team was the same between Parente and Pobst – both drove for Jim Haughey’s K-PAX Racing outfit – but the circumstances of the titles could not have been more different.

Parente, the 32-year-old Portuguese ace, is a factory McLaren GT driver, and was new to all the U.S. circuits and the World Challenge series this year. Pobst, by contrast, is one of the most experienced sports car drivers in North America and claimed his fourth World Challenge title in 2010.

In the interim years, the cars in GT have evolved from home-built cars to full-on FIA GT3-spec beasts, and the grid size went up along the way as the influx of manufacturers meant there were a lot more cars. Pobst’s title was in an all-wheel drive Volvo S60; Parente’s in the sinister McLaren 650S GT3.

And the K-PAX team had evolved too. After running the program on its own through 2014, the team added the technical expertise and crew from Flying Lizard Motorsports prior to 2015. Kevin Estre, then a McLaren factory driver, took over as the lead driver with Robert Thorne retained for a second year in the second car. Pobst and Alex Figge, past K-PAX stalwarts, were out of the picture.

This year, there were further changes on the team and driver front. The team expanded to three cars, Parente took over as McLaren’s designated factory ace with Estre having been confirmed as a Porsche factory driver over the winter, while Austin Cindric and Colin Thompson signed on as the two young chargers.

Overseeing all of this from the team standpoint was Flying Lizard program manager Darren Law, whose driving history is long and successful but his managerial history only building over time.

Law, who raced alongside and against Long and then versus O’Connell over his years, reflected on the road the team and series have gone en route to the respective titles. Parente obviously secured his first driver’s title with McLaren having locked up the Manufacturer’s Championship as well.

“As far as the program itself, we took on an extra challenge with adding the third car,” Law told NBC Sports. “Of course I’m impressed with how everything went. I wasn’t too concerned about the engineering and running of the program from that side of it. The team has worked together for many years.

“To be honest, the biggest question mark was Alvaro – and obviously even though he’s a factory McLaren driver, he had never seen a single track in the United States prior to COTA. Factory guys – I’ve been there, driven with them – they’re quick learners. But figuring out new tracks, new systems, and new drivers is lot to get acquainted to.”

Parente inherited PWC win. Photo: PWC
Parente inherited PWC win at Long Beach. Photo: PWC

Parente’s first podium was a runner-up in St. Petersburg race one, while unfortunately for him his first win came following a post-race technical infraction assessed against O’Connell in Long Beach. A dominant weekend at Barber though, where the McLaren’s aero strengths were always going to suit the flowy road course, resulted in his first win on track and a runner-up on Sunday, and thus asserted his place as a title contender.

“Long Beach was kinda bittersweet because you want to win races outright, going away,” Law said. “Barber clarified we knew were on the right path. We had some tough back-to-backs. Alvaro had shown well though early, and Barber was proof that we were there, he’s good, and the car was good.”

As Long swept Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Parente finished off the podium, the mood changed once the series hit Lime Rock Park on Memorial Day weekend. Parente won the Friday race but the Saturday race was marred before it ever got going, owing to a serious accident in warmup that injured rising sports car star Andrew Palmer, who continues to recover in hospital.

Photo: PWC
Parente swept the Lime Rock Park weekend in May. Photo: PWC

The series still had a job to do and a race to run, and with Parente having inherited first on the grid with Palmer’s not starting – but not the seven pole points as was only officially confirmed in Monterey – the team still had to focus on the race.

“We hadn’t had full word on the situation with Andrew and what was going on,” Law said. “Although we knew there was an injury, it was better we didn’t know the full condition. It was an instance where you hoped for the best, and let’s have a good race.”

Parente won it to complete the weekend sweep, and at the time his four wins from the first 11 races easily led the season tally.

But things weren’t so rosy the next few weekends. A pair of sixth-place finishes at Road America were followed by another win, then 14th in Mid-Ohio after Parente was forced off road by a slower GTA class car (Preston Calvert).

The shocker came at Utah Motorsports Campus in August. Contact between Michael Cooper and Parente in race one knocked Parente from the race, and with no lap time to use on backup, Parente would start the second race from the rear of the grid. With an 11th place following the 14th and 18th, suddenly Parente’s 100-plus point lead going into the weekend had evaporated and Long was leading coming out of Utah.

“Those were tough because we had such strong runs going!” Law reflected. “The biggest thing on both of those is that we analyzed it and neither of them were our fault. If we had screwed up, gone off the road, caused it on ourselves, then we’d be upset with ourselves.

“From Mid-Ohio, and I’m not trying to knock Preston, but we had to be more careful. Then the whole thing at Utah with Cooper, that was probably the toughest one. It was a 100-point lead, and we left in second.”

Sonoma saw Parente drive smart to finish fourth and second, and Long ended eighth and fourth. Parente converted a 20-plus point deficit into what at the time appeared a nine-point lead heading into Monterey.

The key word being “appeared” there, because following a night-before-the-finale points audit by series officials, it was caught that Parente had been incorrectly awarded Palmer’s pole points from Lime Rock.

Law, Flying Lizard strategist Thomas Blam and two McLaren GT representatives visited the officials after the ruling to express their displeasure, but then fought on for the rest of the day.

That this revelation only came out at the season finale was an unfortunate black mark for the series, and as Law explained, it drastically changed the approach for how Parente – who was starting sixth – would have to race.

“The tough part is that they brought it up at the last race, the morning of it,” Law recalled. “It was very devastating – it changed the whole complexion of the race. We didn’t have to finish far ahead of him. Now, it’s in front or nothing. It changed the whole strategy. And this may have changed strategy at other events.”

parente-on-car-for-titleAs it was, Parente got a rocket start and launched into third place from sixth, knowing full well how important the start was to make any ground at the track where passing is so difficult.

But following Drew Regitz’s crash, the question was whether the race would restart under green or finish under yellow. Had it stayed yellow, Long, Wright Motorsports and Porsche would have been the champs.

Of course it wasn’t, with Long and O’Connell colliding, O’Connell later being penalized for contact and Parente winning the title on the road, then the race several hours later after the penalty.

Law expressed how crazy of a time it was, particularly as he was set to drive in the following SprintX race which ran afterwards with Flying Lizard customer driver Andy Wilzoch.

“That’s what we needed, was the phenomenal start,” Law said. “Had he not got that start, we wouldn’t have been in that position to get it in the end. He has honestly done such a great great job.

“Seriously watching the start of the final lap, then them going through first set of corners, then you watch it happen. It was a dream come true. I love Patrick, he’s a great guy, and we were teammates at Flying Lizard for many years. But I’m obviously rooting for our team.

“It was fine, but you know what, I’d either have entered (SprintX) depressed because we didn’t win, or relaxed because we did. I missed some of the celebration right after the event, though!”

Law recapped the year on the whole, where Parente seven races and the title, Cindric finished a solid eighth in points with two poles and three podiums, and Thompson had two top-fives in his first full season at this level, with occasional high points.

“Everyone did their jobs so well, from the drivers, every team member,” Law said. “And as far as the drivers went, we had young guys in the seat. They had some pressure. They had a factory McLaren guy to compare against!

Cindric and Flying Lizard program manager Darren Law. Photo: Bob Chapman/Autosport Image
Cindric and Flying Lizard program manager Darren Law. Photo: Bob Chapman/Autosport Image

“Austin really improved from the start of the year. Some things he needed to work on better, starts, race craft, but he’s driven a lot of stuff. I think the second half of the season he showed what he could do. He has a bright future ahead.

“Colin did not have the best season, but he was phenomenal at starts, and he would time it right.

“Both of those guys had tough luck, and some incidents on track. But they showed good speed. Again that shows the equality among our cars and the teams, everything’s open and shared. To be running on Alvaro’s pace says something.”

And Law, who was quick to praise everyone for their contributions to the title except himself, reflected on what a non-Cadillac/O’Connell title means from a big picture perspective.

“I think it’s great for the series. And this is to take nothing away from Johnny and Cadillac. But it’s nice to have another manufacturer in there, such as a boutique as McLaren, who produces a high-end car,” Law said.

“To come in as we did, we’re proud to be the ones to dethrone the Cadillacs after four in a row. This year there were multiple winners, Porsche, McLaren, Cadillac, Acura and more. Everyone had a go. You don’t have to be a big manufacturer to come in and win this. You can be an independent team. Jim’s put so much in with K-PAX and we’re happy to deliver it.

“It’s not singlehandedly. For me, coming in from the position of being a driver, to management, I had no idea what it takes behind the scenes to make this happen. In this role, you achieve such an appreciation for the team members. It’s a team effort. There’s no one person that made this thing go.

“Personally it’s very satisfying, to be in our second year now in World Challenge, bring home a championship for K-PAX.

“That was Jim’s goal when we talked about this – he wants to win championships. So I’m very proud we delivered.”