Vettel strikes back by finishing FP2 quickest

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Sebastian Vettel has answered Mercedes’ sensational pace in FP1 by finishing the second practice session quickest ahead of Nico Rosberg and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.

The defending world champion posted a fastest time of 1:30.416 which saw him finish two-tenths clear of Rosberg and almost nine-tenths clear of Lewis Hamilton who could only finish P8 after topping FP1. Lotus and Ferrari were also showing signs of improvement, albeit off the pace set by the leading two teams.

FP2 began with a flurry of activity after most of the installation and setup work had been completed earlier this morning. Jules Bianchi returned for Marussia after Rodolfo Gonzalez ran for the team in FP1, but it was Max Chilton who was the first driver to set a time. His lap of 1:36.542 remained P1 for a matter of seconds as Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg both surpassed the Marussia. Esteban Gutierrez and Lewis Hamilton both had lock ups into the first corner, with the Sauber repeating this trick just a few minutes later and forcing Kimi Raikkonen to take evasive action. Hamilton moved up into P2 but Mark Webber’s appearance soon saw the one-time German GP winner hit the front followed by teammate Sebastian Vettel, who slotted into P3. As most of the teams decided to pit, Mercedes continued but could not find a way to beat Webber’s time whilst Fernando Alonso racked up the laps to make up for the lack of running this morning.

The second set of runs began with Max Chilton taking on the yellow-ringed soft tire, an example soon followed by the rest of the field. Nico Hulkenberg made another mistake similar to that of his teammate, suggesting that the C32 car could be uncompetitive this weekend, unlike Red Bull and Mercedes. Once again, they turned the timesheets purple with some blistering lap times as Webber enjoyed a 1.1 second advantage at one point. His potential replacement, Daniel Ricciardo, was also impressive, running as high as P2 before Vettel, Rosberg and Hamilton rallied. Ultimately, the two German drivers went quickest, with Vettel leading the field with half of the session to go.

Ferrari looked to bounce back from their disappointing Silverstone pace by impressing during the session, and both Alonso and Massa did show signs of improvement by running as high as P4 and P5, still six-tenths back from the frontrunners though. Also hitting back was Kimi Raikkonen, thought to be running with the ‘device’ that aids straight line speed, and the Finn rose to P4 only for teammate Romain Grosjean to directly displace him. As the heavy fuel runs began, Marussia confirmed that they had ended Jules Bianchi’s programme early due to an upset stomach.

As the drivers focused on putting in consistent lap times and managing their tires, Vettel was not threatened at the top of the timesheets, giving the baying crowd a home hero to cheer on in P1. With Rosberg P2, the chances of a German driver winning his home race for the first time since 2006 look increasingly great.

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.