GRAND-AM Rolex points battle continues at Indy

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Friday’s Brickyard Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will feature reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan and six other ‘500’ veterans on the grid. But another key storyline will be how the three-hour event impacts the current championship battle in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series.

Two teams find themselves tied at the top of the table – the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing (Corvette/Dallara/Daytona Prototype) duo of Max Angelelli and Jordan Taylor, and the No. 2 Starworks Motorsport (BMW/Riley/Daytona Prototype) team of Alex Popow and Ryan Dalziel. Last year’s inaugural event at IMS saw the Starworks No. 2, driven by Popow and IndyCar pilot Sebastien Bourdais, cross the line first, while WTR’s Angelelli and Ricky Taylor finished third.

Both squads have been preparing diligently for what could be a critical point in the title race. Starworks has announced that starting this weekend, they’ll utilize BMW power for the rest of the season to bolster their bid for a Rolex Series crown.

“We have always had a good relationship with BMW of North America,” team owner Peter Baron said in a statement. “There is a dynamic change coming with the series integrating next year and we are looking for a partner and people we could work with long term. It is mid-season, but we felt that the time was right to add BMW Power.”

“I am really happy about Starworks making this move,” Dalziel added. “…This is the best decision we can make for our championship assault. The latest generation [4.5-liter] BMW engine is a really exciting package and we are ready to get our first win of 2013 and bring home a championship.”

As for WTR, Angelelli said that the team has been going through many different set-up options to see what will be the best one for Indy’s road course, which winds through the infield before putting drivers on a run through Turn 1 and the frontstretch of the track’s famous 2.5-mile oval.

“We never have had so many meetings about car setup, and we realized that, getting closer to the race, there are more variables than we thought we had a few weeks ago,” Angelelli said in a statement. “Now, we are thinking about our different options, setup, gearing, etc. The track has a long, long straight, and an infield section that has fast and slow corners and low grip.

“Sometimes, you get to a race and you have no options, so it’s really kind of boring. At Indy, it’s the kind of racetrack where you have to balance setting up for the long straight with what you want your car to do in the infield.”

WTR and Starworks are far from the only teams in the hunt, though. Christian Fittipaldi, who has won the last two events at Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen with Action Express Racing co-driver Joao Barbosa, sits just four points off the lead. The No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing team of Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty are five points back, and Barbosa himself is down just six points.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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