AUTO-PRIX-JPN-F1

Webber storms to first pole of the season at Suzuka

7 Comments

Mark Webber has secured his first pole position of the season in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix after putting in an impressive performance in the final session to finish ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Webber, who is racing for the final time at Suzuka this weekend ahead of his retirement at the end of the season, posted a fastest time of 1:30.915 to finish less than two-tenths ahead of Vettel who was hampered by a KERS problem during Q3.

Q1 got off to a quiet start as many of the drivers opted to wait before setting their first times. Esteban Gutierrez was the first driver to set a benchmark time, but Sauber soon had bigger concerns when a fire broke out on the Mexican’s car in the garage. Thankfully, Gutierrez jumped out of the car quickly and the fire was put out, allowing him to get back out a few minutes later. Fernando Alonso bounced back from a disappointing performance in practice to lead for a good part of the session before being beaten by Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton on the hard tire, with Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button completing the top six. Just as the teams prepared to go out on the option tire though, a brake fire on Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso brought out the red flag. As a result, the teams had to scramble their cars back out on track on the restart with time for just one flying lap. Vergne’s earlier time was not enough to get him through, and he was joined in the dropzone by Adrian Sutil who will drop five places on the grid due to a gearbox change. Max Chilton put in a fine lap to outqualify both Caterhams and teammate Jules Bianchi (the latter being for the first time) whilst Romain Grosjean finished fastest of all on the prime tire.

The majority of the teams went straight onto the option tire for Q2 as they looked to secure a place in the top ten shootout early on. However, Red Bull once again opted to leave their runs until later in the session, allowing Alonso to set the early pace along with Hamilton and Button. When Vettel did come out though, he went over half a second quicker than the Ferrari with Webber and Grosjean also moving ahead of Alonso with some impressive times. Another final flurry of times ensued once the checkered flag had fallen, with some good initial times from Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado failing to secure Williams a place in Q3. Esteban Gutierrez’s run of top ten results in qualifying came to an end as the Mexican driver finished fourteenth whilst Sergio Perez joined his compatriot in the drop zone after a late lap time from Felipe Massa edged the McLaren driver out.

Red Bull bucked the trend in Q3 by being the first to send their drivers out and set a time, but champion-elect Vettel ran into problems when he was told by his engineer that his KERS system was not working. This proved to be costly early on as the German driver could not match the pace of teammate Mark Webber, giving the Australian provisional pole after the first set of runs. However, with Vettel improving in the first sector of his final run and Mercedes also in the running, it was by no means a foregone conclusion. Ultimately though, Vettel could not improve with his final time and both Hamilton and Rosberg fell short, whilst Webber improved further to secure his first pole position since the 2012 Korean Grand Prix as well as outqualifying Vettel for the first time this season.

Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa both outqualified their illustrious teammates to line up fourth and fifth respectively ahead of Rosberg, whilst Nico Hulkenberg’s good form continued as the Sauber finished seventh. Both Alonso and Raikkonen struggled late on to finish eighth and ninth and Jenson Button closed out the top ten for McLaren.

Webber will be delighted to have finally finished ahead of his teammate and taken his first pole position of the season in what has been a difficult swansong year for the Australian. However, the ‘team orders’ debate will undoubtedly arise should Vettel be in the position to win the world championship in Japan on Sunday.

IMSA: Kenton Koch goes for another title after a balancing act year

imsa_28614318
Koch with Jim Swintal after his title print last year. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

BRASELTON, Ga. – The driver who once compared himself to “Gumby” can wiggle his way into a fifth consecutive championship in sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans.

If Justin Wilson was considered IndyCar’s “gentle giant,” then Kenton Koch is well on his way to being sports car racing’s version of the man who balances his lanky frame, incredible talent and even more incredible humility, all at the tender age of 22.

Most drivers who would be in Koch’s situation this year would have struggled to comprehend why they aren’t in a full-time ride.

Instead Koch, to his credit, did not let it get him down publicly and has maximized his limited opportunities throughout the 2016 season.

“It’s definitely difficult being in the position I’m in, but, I also have to be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Koch told NBC Sports. “I’m here driving a racecar, and I get to try to have other opportunities like this for a full ride next year.

“Brent (O’Neill, Performance Tech Motorsports team principal) helped me a lot on this. It’s cool to have someone like this in your corner. They just got the ‘Extreme Spirit’ award; he’s a super good dude, and they worked hard to get me in the car.”

He looks to complete the quintet of titles after driving for two different teams this year, JDC/Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports, in the Prototype Challenge class as he goes for a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown.

In 2013, Koch firmly “arrived” on the sports car scene after making selected Mazda MX-5 Cup starts in 2012 and winning the Mazdaspeed Challenge class. He won the Skip Barber/Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge class that year, and for good measure, added an overall win in the rain at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while in the class.

A year later in 2014, Koch advanced into the primary class of MX-5 Cup with Alara Racing and edged the driver who he’d lost the Mazda club racing shootout to in 2012, Patrick Gallagher, for the overall title.

In IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires (then called Cooper Tires Prototype Lites presented by Mazda) in 2015, Koch controlled the season with 11 wins in 14 races en route to his fourth straight title.

Koch seemed a natural, then, to follow in the footsteps of Tristan Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Misha Goikhberg as a full-time Prototype Challenge driver in 2016. Instead, Koch was only confirmed for the opening two races in PC with JDC/Miller Motorsports as a third driver alongside Goikhberg and talented South African teammate Stephen Simpson.

Koch was immediately on pace and despite an incident at the Bus Stop at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was trusted enough with the car to bring it home to the finish in his race, series and class debut.

It was mission accomplished, and his win was one of the most emotional of 2016. It came just more than a year after in 2015 his mom, Karen, had undergone a heart transplant and was on site to witness the achievement. His dad, Chris and girlfriend Dani have also provided support at nearly every race along the way, as well.

Koch’s two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starts since ended fourth with JDC/Miller at the waterlogged Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and then second for Performance Tech with Kyle Marcelli and James French at Watkins Glen International in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09.

Koch leads the PC points standings, 34-32 over the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports trio, heading into the fourth and final round of the Patron Endurance Cup. If he can secure the title, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Cameron Lawrence and Al Carter, who were last year’s GT Daytona Patron Endurance Cup champs while doing an endurance-only schedule.

All the while, Cal State Fullerton business student Koch has maintained a presence at the track in the races he’s not driving, doing a mix of either testing the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, driver coaching, or providing color commentary for the Mazda MX-5 Cup races with IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

“The Mazda ladder system has helped me in that, there are other things than just trying to go fast in a race car,” Koch explained. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye from an outsider perspective. Being a part of that has helped me see things from a different perspective.”

Koch accurately predicted who’d emerge victorious in MX-5’s crazy photo finish at VIRginia International Raceway in the form of Nathanial Sparks, even though Sparks wasn’t leading out of the last turn.

“It’s just what happened in the corner before. ‘Sparky’ was there sitting pretty. There it was! I was like oh, ‘He’s gonna do it!’”

Few drivers pack his combination of pace, poise, maturity and humility at once.

And to be able to be on the verge of a title while driving for two different teams, with two different sets of teammates and setups, speaks to a true talent who’s as adaptable and bendable as his 6’4” frame.

Shank signs off its prototype run with 250th start

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JANUARY 29:  The Drivers of the #60 DP Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley celebrate in Victory lane after winning the  Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 29, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

BRASELTON, Ga. – For more than a decade, Michael Shank Racing has been part of the fabric in the prototype ranks – either with a Daytona Prototype or, for the last two years, an LMP2-spec Ligier JS P2 Honda.

Both cars have been huge for Shank’s business, with the racing “lifer” noting how much his life has changed for the better in sports car racing since joining the Jim France-owned GRAND-AM Rolex Series after coming from a primarily open-wheel background.

Long a DP fan, Shank needed a switch for the business – and for his primary customer John Pew – when Pew and longtime co-driver Ozz Negri saddled up in the Ligier Honda starting with the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 16: The Michael Shank Racing Ligier of Laurens Vanthoor, John Pew and Oswaldi Negri drives during qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 16, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
Shank’s Ligier JS P2 Honda at Le Mans. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

This would lay the groundwork for a potential bow at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, achieved this year, as the small-market American team from outside Columbus then made it to the world’s grandest sports car stage. Finishing 14th overall and ninth in the 23-car LMP2 class was a significantly impressive achievement.

Now, the prototype era for Shank meets its end, as part of a number of “eras” ending this weekend at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

The team makes its 250th prototype start this weekend – full details can be found amidst this smorgasbord of information in the team’s pre-race advance – as Pew makes his final scheduled professional start along with Negri and Olivier Pla.

There’s been several highlights, including the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona – the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 – when Negri, Pew, AJ Allmendinger and the late Justin Wilson won the race in a Riley-Ford DP.

“Looking back on our time in prototypes, it’s hard to even begin. We finished fourth in our very first race – the Rolex 24 – and in the next race Ozz joined us and we were on the podium. We had a few podiums that year with that car and that’s what kind of all kicked things off for us,” Shank said.

“Lot of memories with this team from the very beginning, with Ozz (Negri) and Ian James and Mark Patterson,” Pew added. “Big DP fields, two-car team, it was a lot of fun. As the series changed over time, we kind of changed with it. It’s all been really good.

“I’ve really grown to love these guys at Michael Shank Racing. They’re great guys and when the going gets tough, they just work hard with a smile on their faces. It was a real honor to go with them and take them along to Le Mans. We’ve had some fantastic times including when we won the Rolex 24 with AJ (Allmendinger), Justin (Wilson), and Ozz (Negri). I drove with some great guys and met some great people.”

Next year, Shank moves ahead with the Acura NSX GT3 program in the GT Daytona class.

The two-car effort is expected to feature some additional announcements about that program as early as next week.

Button reflects on ‘great ride’ ahead of 300th Formula 1 start in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 29: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the Drivers Press Conference during previews for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 29, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jenson Button conceded on Thursday that he never expected his Formula 1 career to last so long ahead of his 300th grand prix start in Malaysia this weekend.

Button made his F1 debut back in 2000 with Williams, making him the most experienced active driver in F1.

Former Honda and Brawn teammate Rubens Barrichello holds the record for the most F1 starts at 326, while Michael Schumacher sits second in the all-time list on 306.

Button will move onto 300 this weekend in Malaysia, before finishing up on 305 at the end of the season before taking a sabbatical from F1 in 2017.

“It means I have been around for a hell of a long time,” Button said when asked about his 300th start.

“I remember when Rubens got to 300 – it was unbelievable that he’d reached 300 grands prix. I was like, ‘I’m never going to race for that long’.

“When I started in 2000 I remember speaking to my dad and he said: ‘How long do you think you’re going to race for?’ and I said: ‘I’ll be done by the time I’m 30 years old.’ And here I am at 36 and this weekend I’m starting my 300th grand prix.

“It definitely sucks you in, Formula 1. It doesn’t let go for a long time, as long as you are performing. So it’s been a great ride to 300.

“Lots of ups and downs, as every career will have, and the important thing is that you stay on top of those bad times and you enjoy the good times as much as you can, because you never know how long they are going to last.

“A very exciting career to this point, 300 races, and if any of these guys can achieve it around me, fair play to them, because it’s a long time doing the same thing.”

Panoz’s racing legacy honored as DeltaWing set to run one more race

imsa_28607063
Scott Atherton and Don Panoz. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

BRASELTON, Ga. – The man who helped save professional sports car racing in North America, Dr. Don Panoz, then shook it up in an even bigger way in 2012.

The DeltaWing was born of a desire to create a car with half the weight, half the horsepower and half the fuel load, but still be ridiculously efficient in terms of aerodynamics and downforce.

It would premiere to massive media attention and critical acclaim at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans as a Garage 56 entrant, and Panoz’s vision was achieved with the help of a number of key partners. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, Ben Bowlby, Michelin, Nissan and Highcroft Racing were the five entities most frequently connected with the car when it ran as the experimental entry at both that year’s Le Mans and then Petit Le Mans in the fall.

It nearly died on the vine as a project, however, after taking that checkered flag at Road Atlanta in an incredible fifth place overall, having made fewer pit stops than the competition, and thus proving its point.

A tortuous road followed as the difference in future direction was revealed between Panoz and the partners, and throughout the winter there was a question if the DeltaWing would live on.

Indeed it did, as nearly an entirely new team was born over that winter.

There was new tires in the form of Bridgestone – adopted from the molds made when the DeltaWing was an IndyCar idea, then rejected by that series’ “ICONIC committee” in 2010 when discussing ideas for a new car. The engine was the 4-cylinder Élan turbo, based off an MZR-R block but with almost no Mazda content in it.

There was a new crew, with staff taken from some other Atlanta-region teams, and veteran team manager David Price brought back for another tour of duty in Braselton. The livery changed; it went from sinister black to chrome and red, and the driver lineup changed once more as well. The team even took a flier on a PR rep that had exactly one race experience in that department… and to this day I don’t know why Dr. P thought I was the right person for the job, but I’m eternally grateful he did. Even if it was only a two-race stint.

The DeltaWing didn’t fit, but then again, that was the point. The car ran in the American Le Mans Series’ LMP1 class in 2013 even though it wasn’t homologated for anything, but it was better than LMP2, where it ran closer on lap times to at Le Mans the previous year.

The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The four years since have proven that while the DeltaWing may not have had the outright pace to contend on an every-week basis, it’s had that spirit of innovation that has fueled Panoz throughout his motorsports career, and it’s had a fan following that’s been fervent at nearly every race it runs. It’s polarizing, which is probably its best asset.

Panoz’s 20 years in motorsports since the late 1990s have featured a run of abnormal cars, from the first hybrid dubbed “Sparky,” the stealthy GTR-1, the Panoz LMP1 Roadster with the engine in front, the successful but still off-beat Esperante GT2 (which won Le Mans 10 years ago), to the stillborn, unclassified Abruzzi that disappeared after just two starts. And for good measure, he founded the American Le Mans Series on its own in 1999… after only several months of planning and preparation.

But the DeltaWing has lived on for four years, scoring a number of podiums and leading a number of laps along the way. More importantly, as a true prototype, it may be the last of its era as regulations further define sports car racing and outside-the-box creations rarely last.

The failed Nissan LMP1 experiment of 2015 – despite its crews’ best efforts – shows just how difficult it is to make something completely new “go.”

Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge have served as the primary drivers for the DeltaWing since its 2013 evolution away from the original drivers and crew. Legge has been full-time since her debut at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which was a race the pair and car podiumed for the first time. Meyrick started a race earlier, at the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and ran full-time in 2013 and 2014 while running the endurance races last year and this year.

Memo Rojas (2015) and Sean Rayhall (2016) have been the other full-season drivers, and the list of other drivers who’ve driven it, or were scheduled to, is listed below.

Satoshi Motoyama’s exploits to try to fix the car at Le Mans in 2012 after it broke made him a cult hero, and the team’s rebuild following an accident in practice with a GT Cup car at the 2012 Petit Le Mans was also a memorable moment from that first year.

  • Marino Franchitti (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Satoshi Motoyama (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Michael Krumm (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Gunnar Jeannette (2012 Petit Le Mans)
  • Lucas Ordonez (2012 Petit Le Mans)
  • Johnny O’Connell (2012 and 2013, both spyder iterations, testing only)
  • Olivier Pla (2013 12 Hours of Sebring)
  • Alexander Rossi (2014 24 Hours of Daytona)
  • Gabby Chaves (2014, 2015, 2016 endurance races)
  • Andreas Wirth (2016 24 Hours of Daytona)

At an event Wednesday night at the Panoz Museum, Panoz admitted that the last thing he’s doing is slowing down.

He just launched a new street car – the Panoz Esperante Avezzano, or Avezzano for short – which has a special connection for Panoz.

Panoz’s grandfather’s wife was killed in the 1915 Avezzano earthquake, which killed more than 30,000 people. A new woman that met Panoz’s grandfather to take care of the two children at the time got married to his grandfather, and the rest, as they say, is history. Because that’s Panoz’s grandmother.

“Without that earthquake… without that woman to take care of the kids, I would not be here, you would not be here, and the Panoz name would not be here,” Dr. P said last night.

And, true to form, Panoz had another surprise up his sleeve.

A surprise announcement occurred Wednesday night when Panoz caught many in the room off guard by announcing the DeltaWing will run at the Rolex 24 at Daytona next year.

The car doesn’t comply with the upcoming 2017 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) regulations, but that hasn’t stopped the car before, and its outright speed at Daytona has been on display early each of the last two years before retirements.

It makes that race a one-race extra signoff, for the visionary who continues to amaze depending on the day or situation.