Spirit of Daytona on pole for GRAND-AM Laguna Seca

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Going into today’s GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, five teams are within five points of each other in the battle for the Daytona Prototype class championship.

But one of the DP teams not involved in that battle will lead the field to the green flag this afternoon. The No. 90 Spirit of Daytona Corvette DP, driven by Richard Westbrook and Ricky Taylor, took the top spot on the grid yesterday with a lap of 1 minute, 21.557 seconds around the famous California circuit.

The Westbrook/Ricky Taylor combo has had a trying 2013 with just one podium finish to their credit so far, a third at Barber Motorsports Park. Naturally, Spirit of Daytona is itching to have a strong result today.

“We’re not happy with the way this season has gone; it’s been really tough for everyone,” Westbrook told GRAND-AM.com. “I’m proud of the way the team has bounced back. [Today] is very important for us.”

Starting alongside the No. 90 will be the DP-class leading No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette of Max Angelelli and Jordan Taylor. Angelelli narrowly missed out on pole by 21 one-thousandths of a second, but the No. 10 will still have a clear track ahead at the drop of the green.

As for the other DP title contenders, the No. 5 Action Express Racing Corvette of Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa will start fifth; the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing BMW/Riley of defending class champs Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett will start seventh; the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Corvette of Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty will start eighth, and the No. 2 Starworks BMW/Riley of Alex Popow and Ryan Dalziel will start ninth.

A potential wild card is also in the mix at Laguna Seca, as two of Ganassi’s IndyCar drivers – Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti – will start fourth on the grid in a second CGR BMW/Riley, the No. 02.

The GT pole for today’s race went to the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Camaro of John Edwards and Robin Liddell. Edwards threw down a lap of 1 minute, 27.529 seconds to take the honor over the No. 31 Marsh Racing Corvette of Eric Curran and Boris Said.

The Stevenson camp is part of the GT class’ own electric title fight. Alessandro Balzan currently holds a one-point edge over the Magnus Racing duo of John Potter and Andy Lally, while the Edwards/Liddell combo sits three points back.

17-year-old youngster Tristan Nunez took the GX class pole for the No. 00 Speedsource Mazda 6.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.