Rookie watch: how have the newbies fared?

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A Formula One debut is usually labelled as being a “baptism of fire” as young drivers step up from the feeder series to challenge the very best. 2013 has seen five new drivers join the sport, all of whom have considerable racing experience, but their first two races have differed in terms of success.

Esteban Gutierrez

Gutierrez has done a solid job so far for Sauber, but nothing out of the ordinary. In Australia, he represented the team alone following Nico Hulkenberg’s fuel system failure, and he finished a good 13th ahead of Valtteri Bottas. Malaysia was a difficult weekend, and he came close to scoring his first points, only to drop off at the end. It has been a good start for the Mexican, but nothing that will worry the front runners.

Valtteri Bottas

The Bottas revolution has been stunted greatly by the Williams FW35. It is unfortunate that the Finn’s long-anticipated debut has been hindered by a troublesome car, although this could in fact make his P11 in Malaysia a huge achievement. He outraced the backmarkers and Gutierrez to finish just outside the points, but his qualifying has lacked the spark that Maldonado gave the team last season. Regardless, outpeforming his race-winning teammate in both of the opening two races shows that Bottas is certainly quick.

Giedo van der Garde

At 27, van der Garde is by far the oldest rookie on the grid, yet his experience has failed to produce any inspired performances. It is true that both he and Charles Pic are struggling with the CT-02.5 (i.e. a lot of the 2012 car is in the CT03), but the Dutch driver looks set to be racing Max Chilton for last place this season unless his fortunes change.

Max Chilton

It is essentially the same story as van der Garde for Max Chilton, but his lack of experience compared to the Caterham driver could explain this. What will be worrying Chilton’s backers is the ease with which Jules Bianchi has outpaced him, but this yields the question: is Bianchi brilliant in a poor car, or is Chilton underperforming?

Jules Bianchi

Bianchi is undoubtedly the star of the ‘class of 2013’. In two races, he has already made a bigger impression than any of the Caterham or Marussia drivers since 2010, and comparisons are already being drawn to Fernando Alonso’s debut season with Minardi in 2001. The points drought for the backmarkers could soon end courtesy of Jules Bianchi. There is no doubt this kid is special.

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.