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Vettel identifies room for improvement at Monza

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Despite closing out practice with a commanding lead, Sebastian Vettel believes that there is still room for improvement at Red Bull as the team prepares for this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

The German driver headed up a one-two finish for the team in the second free practice session at Monza today, finishing a full six-tenths clear of his teammate and closest challenger, Mark Webber. However, Vettel still believes that there is more time to be gained.

“It will be very tight this weekend, as we saw in the first practice,” he explained. “It will be close tomorrow in qualifying with quite a few cars separated by only a few hundredths of a second.

“There are a few things we still need to do to optimise the car, as there are two or three corners where we are sliding more than we would like. It’s positive today, but it’s only a Friday.”

Even with these issues, Vettel’s lead is certainly a commanding one. Six-tenths of a second is a sizeable margin at any circuit, but with Monza being the fastest track on the calendar, the German driver’s championship rivals have cause for concern as he looks to extend his forty-six point lead heading into his favored Asian leg of the calendar.

Lamborghini’s long, winding road finally leads to first GTD win at VIR

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Given its pace and pedigree of drivers, it seemed only a matter of time before the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 would win its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

But “only a matter of time” took until Round 9 of 11 this season following a number of unexpected surprises and growing pains that come with the step up into the series and GT Daytona category.

Lamborghini has worked to grow its North American race presence the last few years, particularly with the implementation and rapid growth of the one-make Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America series. Drivers like Kevin Conway, a past NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year, Justin Marks, Corey Lewis, Madison Snow, Andrew Palmer, Richard Antinucci, Edoardo Piscopo and others have passed through that series’ halls along with a number of gentlemen drivers. This year, Trent Hindman and Stefan Wilson have become some of the more known notables, while Shinya Michimi has dominated as the top pro in the primarily pro-am series.

While the Super Trofeo one-make series has been a hit, the Huracán GT3 program debuted this year at Daytona with a big splash.

Yet the splash of talent assembled though drove down a tortuous road to get to Sunday at VIRginia International Raceway.

Lamborghini began the year with three full-time cars: the No. 11 O’Gara Motorsport entry for defending GTD class champions Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, the No. 16 Change Racing entry for sports car ace Spencer Pumpelly and up-and-comer Corey Lewis, and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing car for Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow.

Of those three, only Miller had top-level IMSA experience as a team, but by switching cars (from the Audi R8 LMS) and drivers (Sellers and Snow), they faced a steep learning curve with their new elements. O’Gara and Change, meanwhile, stepped up from Super Trofeo into the significantly deeper series.

Add in two other Konrad Motorsport entries for one-off starts in the opening two rounds of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup – plus all the extra third and fourth drivers – and on paper, the odds for Lamborghini to start strongly looked good.

The problem, of course, was that Lamborghini started too strongly.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona was an exercise in eyebrow-raising once the Lamborghinis showed their full hand in race pace, running significantly faster lap times from most of its drivers throughout the race. A final charge from Fabio Babini in one of the Konrad cars nearly saw that car win before a late splash of fuel was needed and it dropped to fifth.

It caught the eyes of IMSA, the sanctioning body, which imposed the following penalties on February 22:

Following observed performance during Round 1 of the 2016 Championship, IMSA has levied penalties under Sporting Regulation Attachment 2, Paragraph 2.9 against the following GT Daytona (GTD) teams 11, 16, 21, 28 and 48, as well as to the manufacturer, Lamborghini.

Each team was assessed a post-race penalty of a stop plus five (5) minutes which was added to each car’s finishing time.

The manufacturer penalty was assessed as a loss of Championship and North American Endurance Cup points and a $25,000 fine.

The sanctions from IMSA were not the only speed bump Lamborghini hit in this time frame.

O’Gara’s team dissolved in the blink of an eye after one race owing to other unexpected financial straits that hit team principal Tom O’Gara’s other businesses.

It left Sweedler and Bell without a home – let alone the crew – and produced a bit of a domino effect.

O’Gara team manager Shane Senaviratne restarted his US RaceTronics team – originally founded in 2005 – for Super Trofeo in early March. Meanwhile Sweedler and Bell found a last-minute home with Robby Benton’s Change team in a second car, albeit only on a race-by-race basis.

Bell told me in April after the O’Gara effort collapsed, “It’s been a weird first quarter of the year. Last December I would have told you I’d never had a more solid stable situation. Things got out of our hands a bit quickly. It took a while to get things back on track, but now we have.”

Things didn’t get particularly better at Sebring. There were six Lamborghinis – the five from Daytona with the Bell/Sweedler car now under the Change umbrella – plus the debut of the Dream Racing Huracán. Lawrence DeGeorge had a heavy testing accident in Dream’s Huracán debut but the car was repaired in time for Sebring.

The Bell/Sweedler debut saw the car run out of fuel once, then stay out in the rain once the conditions turned miserable and Bell lost control at Sebring’s notorious Turn 17, having aquaplaned. In the second Change car, Lewis got a penalty in-race for an improper pass-around of the pace car. Even though that car led, it triggered a penalty that cost them nearly two laps and took them out of contention.

So two races, one race full of post-race penalties, the second with in-race penalties, and a best finish of sixth (Miller).

Two top-10s followed in the next round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with the Miller car seventh and the No. 16 Change car 10th. After a 15th-place finish, the Bell/Sweedler car was withdrawn, with Bell resuming to focus on his Indianapolis 500 effort with Andretti Autosport and his NBCSN TV commitments, while both he and Sweedler would focus on their 24 Hours of Le Mans encore effort with Scuderia Corsa.

Bell nearly won Indy, and Bell, Sweedler and Jeff Segal did win Le Mans in the GTE-Am class following an incredible effort.

Lamborghini’s plight continued, meanwhile, in GTD. Sellers delivered the manufacturer’s first pole at Detroit, but in an abnormal strategic move, it meant he – and Change, who’d opted to qualify Pumpelly – would be starting their lead pro drivers and finish their lesser experienced pro drivers, Snow and Lewis. Eighth and sixth in the race was hardly what either was looking for.

It took until Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for Lamborghini to get its first podium and top-five results. The Miller car was third, the Change car fifth. Dream Racing came eighth for its best result to date.

Despite a pole at Lime Rock for Change, Pumpelly saw the strategy go awry again and that car ended eighth. Miller was fourth. Road America failed to produce any top-fives on a track with long straightaways.

Snow, Miller and Sellers. Photo: Paul Miller Racing
Snow, Miller and Sellers. Photo: Paul Miller Racing

At VIR this weekend though it all came good – finally – for Miller and Lamborghini.The class of the field all weekend having led every session, Snow never put a wheel wrong while Sellers survived a brief off-course excursion and a last lap restart to secure the manufacturer’s first win in GTD.

Given the number of speed bumps it took to get there, it seemed the victory meant a lot to the Miller team, to Sellers and Snow and to Lamborghini directly.

“As far as Lamborghini’s first win, it’s a huge honor,” Sellers said. “When you think about being a young kid growing up, I think all of us dreamed about driving a Lamborghini. Being able to deliver their first win in IMSA is something pretty special. I’m glad that we at Paul Miller Racing could be the ones to do that for them, and I hope it builds our relationship and makes that stronger.”

“Our relationship with Lamborghini is very strong,” added team owner Paul Miller. “They really appreciate what we’ve done, our level of professionalism, the caliber of drivers in Madison and Bryan. Everything about our team is top drawer, and I think they are starting to recognize that even though we’ve lagged in the championship points. I think they realize we’re delivering a first class effort and finally showing the results that, frankly, should have been here all along.”

For Lamborghini itself, it means it’s finally arrived as a winner along with the other manufacturers in a stacked GTD class.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the Squadra Corse Lamborghini’s first win in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship,” said Lamborghini Squadra Corse’s Chris Ward. “The Paul Miller Racing team has done an outstanding job all season long.

“This has been our foundation year for a good springboard into what we hope will be a really successful 2017 campaign. We’ve formed a fantastic relationship not only with Paul Miller Racing but with all of our Squadra Corse supported teams.”

The best may be yet to come from here, if Lamborghini has ironed out all the first-year challenges that come with such a big step up.

Hinchcliffe gets call to dance on Dancing with the Stars

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda speaks during a media conference before the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Helio Castroneves has won three Indianapolis 500s, but it was his turn on “Dancing with the Stars” that had as much to do with vaulting him into the national consciousness of mainstream Americana – if not more so – as those three victories.

James Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, has the engaging, dynamic personality that has captured the hearts of the North American open-wheel paddock and fan base for nearly a decade. And he’ll get his own mainstream Americana chance on the next season of “DWTS.”

Hinchcliffe was announced Tuesday morning on “Good Morning America” as part of the new season cast for the new season of the ABC show, which premieres September 12. The report was initially identified by the Indianapolis Star.

“Well, I can honestly say this will rank just above the Indy 500 as one of the most nerve-wracking things that I’ve ever agreed to do,” Hinchcliffe said in a team release.

“Normally I’m used to working under pressure in front of a live audience, but I can’t see them, so this should be a totally new experience for me and especially as someone with no ability to dance whatsoever.”

The 29-year-old Canadian follows Castroneves as Verizon IndyCar Series drivers on the show; former NASCAR team owner and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was also on the show a few years ago.

Hinchcliffe sits eighth in points for the 2016 season driving the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. He has three podiums, including a hard-luck runner-up finish Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway by just 0.008 of a second to Graham Rahal, after leading from the restart and after the joke of him leading for 76 straight days in the race’s rain delay.

He also scored a famous pole position for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500, a year after near fatal injuries sustained in an accident in practice in 2015.

Pagenaud, Rahal extoll “unbelievably fast” Watkins Glen

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Rahal (15) and Pagenaud (22). Photo: IndyCar
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The Verizon IndyCar Series points leader and most recent winner are high enough on life anyway following Saturday night’s resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.

But Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal might be even happier headed into this weekend’s Watkins Glen Grand Prix (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), a late add to the 2016 calendar to replace what would have been a first-time street race in Boston.

We caught up with both drivers a few weeks ago before Pocono, while IndyCar was in the midst of a couple off weekends (albeit still with a heavy testing slate).

And both drivers have extolled the 3.4-mile permanent road course in Upstate New York, recently repaved, while noting how “unbelievably fast” it is after testing there.

“It’s really quick man. It was good fun. I was definitely impressed with what we’re experiencing there,” Rahal, who won Saturday night at Texas, told NBC Sports.

“G-load wise, it might be insane. Mid-Ohio was 4.5 Gs in qualifying in Turn 1. There might be some spots at the Glen where it’s that and then some. It’ll be intense.

“For whoever will go and see it, they should enjoy myself. Watching that on-board, which isn’t even at eye-level, because the camera is a little higher up, you can visibly see a lot more… and people are like holy crap!!

“Everyone is blown away by the speeds. If the fans want to go to any race, go to that place, because it looks like unbelievably fast.”

Pagenaud added similar thoughts from an earlier test this year in June, a Firestone tire test.

“Watkins Glen… oh man, it’s absolutely nuts!!” he told NBC Sports. “The tarmac design they have is really grippy. The tires are very consistent. Not much degradation. There’s very high pace and the commitment level is what impresses me the most. So much downforce but also so much grip, it’s doubly what we get! There’s a video game kinda feel!

“You’ll have to brake as little as possible. It’s hard to feel the car. Push those commitment limits, float with the limits. The reaction is really fast.”

Pagenaud, who tested in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet colors but will have a different primary sponsor this go-around, explained how he thinks the race could play out.

“Passing will be difficult… but you can make it happen before the Bus Stop. Push to Pass is awesome for acceleration. It might be more of an advantage uphill. Should be good device. Honestly… there could be a big game of downforce levels. Some might trim out, or put more on.”

Rahal spent his morning session at the August test watching Ed Jones – the Indy Lights driver, not his actual engineer of his No. 15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda Eddie Jones – in the car. And he was blown away with what he witnessed.

“It looks crazy from outside. I was telling [Jake] Query – and I went out and watched – Ed Jones was in my car, and I was like, holy crap!! How am I gonna get up to speed that fast?!?

“It looked insane. I watched from Bus Stop, then the Carousel on down. That left-hander before the pit entry and then the last right-hander onto the front straight is ridiculously, crazy fast. You’re flat through the left, and it’s nuts man. From the outside, there’s the grandstand, and your jaw just drops.

“It’s one of the first times you sit and watch… you legitimately will be blown away.”

Mazda MX-5 VIR photo finish caps busy sports/touring car weekend

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Photo: Mazda Motorsports
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We already touched on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge races from VIRginia International Raceway but this weekend featured quite a bit more sports car and touring car racing action from around the globe.

Here’s some very quick recaps and race winners in events of note:

Also at VIR, the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup ran a pair of races. The second one, Sunday morning, was the highlight of the weekend.

In a crazy five-car deep finish featuring the new Global MX-5 Cup car, series veteran Nathanael Sparks finally secured his first career victory to extend his championship points lead.  The margin of victory from Sparks to Chris Stone was 0.017 seconds, while the margin from first to fifth was just 0.15 seconds. You can watch the finish below, with commentary via the Radio Show Limited team of Shea Adam and past MX-5 Cup series champion Kenton Koch.

Sparks finished runner-up in the first race of the weekend on Saturday to Dean Copeland, with Nikko Reger in third. Sparks, Stone and John Dean II were the podium on Sunday. Sparks leads Ara Malkhassian, 501-432, in the championship with Copeland third on 423.

The $200,000 Mazda Road to 24 scholarship is on the line entering the finale at Road Atlanta next month, although a trip out to Mazda’s spiritual home track, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, beckons next Sept. 9-11 for the non-points Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Invitational.

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Porsche GT3 Cup USA Challenge by Yokohama ran a pair of races at VIR as well. Well, “races” in the academic sense – Montreal’s Jesse Lazare continued his domination at the front of the field in the No. 21 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche. Lazare swept to his eighth and ninth wins of the year in 12 races.

On Saturday, Lazare beat Andrew Longe by 1.296 seconds while on Sunday, he beat Lucas Catania to the finish by 13.761 seconds, a season-high. Lazare padded his points lead over Longe to 213-178. Catania is third with 173.

Saturday’s race included a red flag period of 21 minutes due to a single-car accident involving Platinum Masters competitor Bill Peluchiwski in the No. 74 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche. Peluchiwski is awake and alert and has been admitted to an area hospital for evaluation. Further updates will follow at a later date.

This series heads next to Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 14-17) and finishes at Road Atlanta (Sept. 28-Oct. 1).

Michimi. Photo: Jamey Price/Lamborghini
Michimi. Photo: Jamey Price/Lamborghini

The Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America series joined others in the doubleheader at VIR. And like in Porsche, there was only one overall winner. Shinya Michimi of Prestige Performance (representing Lamborghini Paramus) won his fifth and sixth races in eight overall this year.

Of note, Indianapolis 500 rookie Stefan Wilson scored his first series podium in race two, coming third in the Pro-Am category with co-driver David Seabrooke for Prestige.  Additionally, full-time Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda competitor Yufeng Luo made his series debut and in race one, finishing third overall and first in Pro-Am with teammate Richard Antinucci for Shane Senaviratne’s US RaceTronics team.

Lamborghini’s last U.S. round of the year takes place at Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 14-17) before the World Final in Valencia, Spain in December.

Whincup (left) and Lowndes (right). (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Australia’s Virgin Australia Supercars Championship ran two races at Sydney Motorsport Park this weekend, with Shane van Gisbergen (No. 97 Red Bull Racing Australia Holden Commodore VF) and Jamie Whincup (No. 88 Red Bull Holden) winning the two races. But it milestones for Whincup and Craig Lowndes took over in the spotlight.

Whincup’s win was particularly important; it was his 100th of his career. A fuller breakdown is linked here via the Supercars official website, as is a tribute from series chief James Warburton.

Longtime teammate Lowndes, a legend in his own right and the only other driver to have 100 races, celebrated a milestone of his own by hitting the 600-start mark. Fuller stories on that is linked here and here as well, while it appears a new deal for him to stay with Triple Eight boss Roland Dane is looming on the horizon. This year, Lowndes drives the TeamVortex Holden Commodore VF.

Supercars is next up at Sandown Sept. 16-18 and then runs its premier race of the year, the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, Oct. 7-9.

Toyota Gazoo Racing FIA WEC driver and past IndyCar race winner Mike Conway made a cameo in the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan and helped that team’s No. 46 entry with co-drivers Pierre Thiriet and Mathias Beche to its third win in a row at the European Le Mans Series‘ race in Paul Ricard (LMP2 class). Conway filled in for Ryo Hirakawa, who was on Super GT duty.

Others of note… ex-IndyCar and GP2 veteran Stefano Coletti was second in the SMP car he shares with Julian Leal and Andreas Wirth, Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed entry was third, Graff won LMP3 with its No. 9 car but the No. 10 car that features Americans Sean Rayhall and John Falb failed to finish, and Mike Hedlund’s Proton Competition Porsche he shared with Wolf Henzler and Marco Seefried was sixth in GTE, a class won by JMW Motorsport.

ELMS is next up at Spa on Sept. 25, with the season finale at Estoril on Oct. 23.

The Japanese Autobacs Super GT Series was in Suzuka this weekend for a 1000 km race. Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura won overall in the GT500 class in the No. 38 Zent Cerumo Lexus RC F. Hirakawa and James Rossiter failed to finish. Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi won in GT300 in the No. 61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport Subaru BRZ GT300.

Next up for them is Thailand Oct. 8-9.