Petit Le Mans preview: GT (GT, GTC)

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This weekend marks the end of an era for the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron.

The last Petit Le Mans to feature the ALMS, before its assets are integrated and merged into the new-for-2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, will take place this Saturday at Road Atlanta.

It will additionally be run with heavy hearts following the loss earlier this week of British rising star Sean Edwards, a Porsche driver killed in a training accident in Australia.

We’ll still take a look through the field in the prototype and GT classes to see who stands the best shot of scoring a win in the ALMS swan song.

GT is wide open after 2012 Petit winners Extreme Speed Motorsports have moved to P2.The 2011 winner was AF Corse, an Italian team that mainly competes in the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Porsche RSR. Neither are in GT this year.

GT (11)

  • Corvette Racing: Swan song for the venerable Corvette C6.R, which surprisingly has only one prior Petit win (2010). Rolex DP champion Jordan Taylor joins ALMS points leaders Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in No. 3 as they seek to close out the title, while Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Richard Westbrook offer ample support in the No. 4.
  • BMW Team RLL: Winless since Lime Rock but you’d expect the Z4 to do better at Road Atlanta, a track where handling plays a greater role than outright power. The car is at a straight line speed disadvantage to some of its rivals. Slightly altered driver lineups with Joey Hand unavailable on DTM duty; the No. 56 of Bill Auberlen, Dirk Mueller and John Edwards is a more likely winner than the sister No. 55 of Maxime Martin, Jorg Mueller and Uwe Alzen.
  • Risi Competizione: Ferrari has this going for it – it’s won Petit two years running – but Risi’s Petit luck has been awful the last three years. A late fuel stop cost them the win and GT title in 2010; in 2011, the team didn’t start due to an accident, and in 2012, they missed the race altogether. The only redemption for Olivier Beretta, Matteo Malucelli and new recruit Robin Liddell will be a win for the No. 62 F458, as they can play spoiler.
  • SRT Motorsports: The factory Vipers made their first significant gains as an organization at Petit a year ago (pictured) and should be considered one of the favorites. Either of the No. 91 (Dominik Farnbacher, Marc Goossens, Ryan Dalziel) or No. 93 (Jonathan Bomarito, Kuno Wittmer, Tommy Kendall). The No. 91 is the pace setter of the two and the No. 93 the sentimental choice, having not yet won a race this year despite two poles from Bomarito.
  • CORE autosport: New to Petit from a GT standpoint but the No. 06 Porsche is a top sleeper in the hands of factory shoe Patrick Long, emerging talent Colin Braun and ALMS debutante/Porsche junior driver Michael Christensen.
  • Team Falken Tire: Resilient squad will run its last race with its 2010-spec Porsche, a new livery, and as solid a lineup as there is in Wolf Henzler, Bryan Sellers and Nick Tandy. Third at Sebring and can achieve a similar result with a bit of luck.
  • Paul Miller Racing: Unlucky Porsche squad of late, but one that always seems to overachieve in the endurance races. A steady lineup with Porsche factory driver Marco Holzer, Bryce Miller and Emmanuel Collard.
  • Team West/AJR/Boardwalk Ferrari: Townsend Bell’s made a handful of miracles on the Yokohama-shod No. 23 F458 and Johnny Mowlem’s as good a shoe to replace him with Bell in Fontana on IndyCar TV duties for NBCSN. Leh Keen and Bill Sweedler are good alongside, but the car will likely need attrition to score a top-six result.

GTC (9)

  • Alex Job Racing: Presumptive favorites in class as Cooper MacNeil seeks another GTC class crown, joined by brothers Jeroen and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen in the No. 22 WeatherTech-sponsored entry.
  • Flying Lizard Motorsports: Spencer Pumpelly seeks a home race victory in the No. 45 with co-drivers Nelson Canache and Madison Snow, while the sister No. 44 is a podium contender in the hands of Dion von Moltke, Seth Neiman and Brett Sandberg.
  • Dempsey Racing: Like Pumpelly, Andy Lally’s an Atlanta-based ace seeking to deliver Patrick Dempsey his first ALMS victory and with Joe Foster back as third driver in the No. 27. Team adds a second car with Charlie Putman, Charles Espenlaub and Darren Law a possible podium finisher in the No. 10.
  • TRG: One car to round out the season but Damien Faulkner, Ben Keating and Craig Stanton seek the third straight win for the No. 66.
  • JDX Racing: A win would be no less than what Jeremy Dale’s No. 11 team deserves for its effort throughout the year, and Jan Heylen, Mike Hedlund and Jon Fogarty are as good a lineup as can be assembled in GTC.
  • NGT Motorsport: Racing with heavy hearts and a revised driver lineup for its two cars. Still, the No. 30 of Henrique Cisneros, Kuba Giermaziak and Mario Farnbacher won its class last year; the No. 31 of Nicolas Armindo, Christina Nielsen and Angel Andres Benitez is an unknown quantity. 

Risi Competizione confirms multiple race absence from IMSA

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The No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE will miss several upcoming IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races, starting at Watkins Glen International next weekend.

The team has plans to return to the GT Le Mans class later this year, but hasn’t said when.

Risi’s absence was first indicated when IMSA released the Watkins Glen entry list earlier this week. It takes the sole Ferrari in class out of it for a handful of races; the pair of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella had a best finish of third so far this season.

“Following an extremely challenging first half of 2017, most recently at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I have decided to withdraw the Risi Competizione race team from part of the 2017 IMSA season in order to consolidate resources and to reflect on future racing programs,” Team Principal Giuseppe Risi said in a release.

Risi’s crash at Le Mans was with a separate 488 GTE chassis, not its full-season one.

But the IMSA full-season one sustained back-to-back hits at Long Beach and Circuit of The Americas. Then, the brand new car took a beating after Matthieu Vaxiviere came over on top of Pierre Kaffer’s No. 82 car going into a chicane on the Mulsanne Straight.

Kaffer was sore but OK and is in Road America this weekend for Pirelli World Challenge GT action, where he competes in the No. 4 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Rossi tops opening practice at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Alexander Rossi led the opening 45-minute practice session for this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America, in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport.

The young American has always liked this track, as this was one of the tracks he had past experience on prior to his debut season in IndyCar.

At the 4.014-mile circuit, Rossi posted a best time of 1:43.3285, clear of three Team Penske Chevrolets of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden. Scott Dixon completed the top five.

“It’s early; it’s a good way to start,” Rossi told IndyCar Radio after the session. “We’ve known we had a fast car. We just haven’t executed. We want our first win under our belt.”

Only the top 10 drivers down to Helio Castroneves in 10th were within one second, at 0.9964 of a second.

Eighth-placed Ryan Hunter-Reay brought out an early end to the session with an off-course excursion, beached at Turn 14. He was OK but the session ended a minute or two early.

Robert Wickens, in his first official Verizon IndyCar Series session filling in for Mikhail Aleshin at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was 20th at 1:45.6823. That was within a tenth of the returning Esteban Gutierrez at 1:45.6257, for Dale Coyne Racing.

Wickens’ teammate James Hinchcliffe was sixth in this session. Meanwhile Gutierrez’s teammate Ed Jones debuted a new Walter Payton tribute helmet; Payton was Dale Coyne’s former business partner and had his first IndyCar race as co-owner here. The late Chicago Bears running back was, of course, one of the best running backs in NFL history. Jones’ decision to wear a Bears helmet in Elkhart Lake, not far from Green Bay, is a brave one!

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports co-owner Sam Schmidt updated Aleshin’s status when speaking to IndyCar Radio during the session.

“Supposedly, he’s on a flight. He got his visa from Paris. He’s supposed to land in Chicago tonight. We’ll see,” he said.

“Yeah up until yesterday morning we thought Mikhail would come in yesterday, and cruise normal fashion. Then his passport didn’t show up. We didn’t know if a day, two or three days. Called half a dozen guys. It was a bit of a scramble. We already had Robert’s seat, so that was convenient. Who could get here the quickest and get in the car. He hasn’t driven here in 10 years. But he’s getting up to speed quickly.”

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Liberty planning evolution, not revolution, with future F1 calendars

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GENEVA, Switzerland – Formula 1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey says that the sport’s owner, Liberty Media, is focusing on evolution instead of revolution when it comes to forming race schedules in the coming years.

Liberty completed its takeover of F1 back in January, with Carey replacing Bernie Ecclestone at the helm of the sport.

Widespread changes have been expected as Liberty looks to increase F1’s footprint and reach in key markets such as the United States, with a number of new races expected as a result.

A first provisional calendar for the 2018 season was published on Monday, featuring the 21 races expected, up one from 2017 after the addition of France and Germany, and the loss of Malaysia.

When asked by NBC Sports if 2019 would be the first F1 calendar that Liberty could put its stamp on, Carey responded by saying he believed it was already clear on the 2018 schedule.

“I think that stamp exists today. I think we’re very proud of the calendar,” Carey said.

“We view this as our calendar. I might expect over time the calendar will evolve a little bit, but most of the races we have are multi-year.

“You’re not going have in any one year, you’re not going to have a dramatic change because most of the agreements are multi-year agreements.

“I think very much this is a calendar we feel good about, and I would say it’s our calendar. It’s not anybody else’s.”

Carey said that a total revamp of the calendar was not realistic given the contracts for races that are already in place, a well as important factors such as the August summer break that gives teams a chance to shut down for a couple of weeks during a busy season.

“There are realities to deals we have in place. Some races are in historical places that are important, and there’s a reason they’re historically there,” Carey said.

“They’re places and races we’re very proud of that want to be in a particular time of the year, and obviously that’s important for us if they’re there. So I think in saying we’re burdened with some construct we inherited, I don’t look at it that way.

“There’s a logic to this calendar. European races are largely clustered in this period from mid May to early September. You’ve got your traditional August break. I think for us, our focus, I said in Montreal, we feeling good about the calendar.

“I think we believe we can continue to improve it, but I think there will be an evolution, not a re-doing. I think our focus is really making the races everything they can be.

“I think this calendar issue probably gets more weight and focus and people try to make more out of it than it is. I think our biggest priority is making these events, we have 21 events we have this year, everything they can and should and we hope they be.”

Alonso, Vandoorne get grid drops in Baku after power unit changes

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McLaren Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne are set to start this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix from the last row of the grid after the FIA confirmed that both will receive a 15-place drop from their qualifying position.

Alonso and Vandoorne are yet to score a single point through the opening seven races of the season amid ongoing difficulties for engine partner Honda, whose power unit has lacked both performance and reliability so far this season.

Alonso’s struggles continued in practice in Baku on Friday as he was forced to park up at the side of the track during FP2 with an apparent engine issue, adding to McLaren’s ongoing plight.

The Spaniard said in McLaren’s race preview that he expected to take a grid penalty for changing a number of parts on his power unit, with the drop being officially confirmed by the FIA on Friday.

Both Alonso and Vandoorne will take a 15-place grid drop from their final qualifying position on Friday, meaning they are likely to start from the final row of the grid.

The only other driver with a grid penalty in Baku is Carlos Sainz Jr., who will drop three places as punishment for causing a collision at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago.