Some of F1’s greats have acted as an emergency replacement

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Following Kimi Raikkonen’s decision to undergo back surgery and subsequently miss the final two rounds of the 2013 Formula One season, a somewhat unexpected race has been sparked to claim the vacant seat at Lotus. The team’s reserve driver, Davide Valsecchi, is widely expected to deputize for the Finn and make his Formula One debut. Although it may be an unconventional way of getting into the sport, many other legends of the sport have come in through the same route – accidental, but incredibly impressive – as well as acting as a replacement in the twilight of their careers.

Mario Andretti – Italy 1982

Andretti’s role as a stand-in is slightly different, as it came at the end of his career. Having won the drivers’ championship in 1978, he  failed to successfully defend his title and entered the 1982 season without a drive. Andretti took part in one race for Williams as a replacement for Carlos Reutemann, but following a career-ending accident for Didier Pironi, He enjoyed one final hurrah with Ferrari. On debut for the Italian team, Andretti scored pole position before going on to finish in third place at Monza in an emotional result for the Italian-American. However, he could not repeat this feat in the season finale at Caesar’s Palace thanks to a suspension failure. Nevertheless, it was a fitting end to an illustrious F1 career.

Michael Schumacher – Belgium 1991

Statistically, Michael Schumacher is the greatest driver in the history of Formula One. However, his debut came under rather strange circumstances. The German driver was drafted in by enigmatic team owner Eddie Jordan after full-time driver Betrand Gachot was jailed for two months. At the tender age of twenty-two, Schumacher immediately impressed to qualify seventh ahead of teammate Andrea de Cesaris. Despite retiring on the first lap of the race due to a clutch problem, Schumacher had done enough to secure himself a drive with Benetton for the rest of the season, with whom he would go on to win his first two championships in 1994 and 1995.

Sebastian Vettel – USA 2007

In the final United States Grand Prix at The Brickyard back in 2007, a young German driver by the name of Sebastian Vettel made his debut. BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica had a huge crash at the Canadian Grand Prix that he was lucky to escape from, but under advice from his doctor, the Pole opted not to race at Indianapolis. Therefore, the team drafted in Vettel – just six days shy of his twentieth birthday – and he immediately proved his credentials as a star for the future. After qualifying in seventh place, Vettel went on to finish the race in eighth just behind future teammate Mark Webber. Four races later, Vettel was given a full-time drive with Toro Rosso after Scott Speed’s exit; six years later, he’s a four time world champion.

Michael Schumacher (almost) – Europe 2009

Eighteen years after standing in to make his debut, the then-retired Schumacher was on the verge of a shock comeback with Ferrari. Felipe Massa had suffered a severe head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix and was unable to take part in the rest of the season. Therefore, Ferrari had to find a replacement, and who better than the most successful driver in the history of the team? Schumacher, who had last raced in 2006, was all set to step in. However, a neck injury that he had suffered on a motorbike flared up and meant that he could not represent the Italian team. Luca Badoer was eventually promoted from his test driver role, but he lasted two races before being replaced by Giancarlo Fisichella.

Memo Gidley’s race comeback confirmed in PWC at Sonoma

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Some fantastic news below as Memo Gidley’s return to top-flight sports car racing has been confirmed. He’ll race a Porsche 911 GT3 R in the upcoming Pirelli World Challenge weekend at Sonoma Raceway in September.

The full release with details is below:

It’s been a long, winding road for race car driver Memo Gidley the past three and a half years. But that road will now take the popular 46-year-old driver from Sauslito, Calif., back to the racetrack next month.

After a devastating crash at Daytona International Speedway in 2014, Gidley has endured nine surgeries and three years of rehabilitation to return to the racing cockpit in the all-new No. 101 TKO Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R sports car.

On September 14-16, Gidley makes his racing return in the Pirelli World Challenge GT Sprint (50-minutes) doubleheader, just a few miles from his Northern California home at the 2.22-mile, 11-turn road circuit at Sonoma Raceway. The Pirelli World Challenge twin bill will be part of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma with the Verizon IndyCar Series finale.

“I have been waiting a long time for this announcement,” said Gidley, who suffered multiple fractures in a vicious crash in 2014 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. “It was a long rehab process but I always wanted to get back into the race car and my friends at TKO Motorsports have given me this opportunity. And I am extremely grateful for this chance in the Pirelli World Challenge.”

Gidley, whose racing resumé includes IndyCars, prototype sports cars, formula cars, go karts and even sail boats, worked through his final back surgery (fusing vertebrae 3 to 4 and 4 to 5) in November, 2015 and was cleared to return to racing activities in November, 2016. Then it was back at the karting track at Sonoma Raceway and looking for a chance to drive with a race team.

“I want to give Dave Traitel and all of the TKO Motorsports team a big thank you for this opportunity to race at Sonoma Raceway in the big Pirelli World Challenge/IndyCar weekend,” said Memo. “They have worked hard to prepare a Porsche 911 GT3 R for me to compete in one of the best GT sports car series in the world. And I can’t wait to race again.”

Gidley’s comeback is one of spirit and determination that he questioned at times. With titanium rods and screws in several parts of his body, Memo fought through nerve pain, scar tissue and various rehab processes with included therapeutic pools, physical therapy and long walks.

“The nerve pain was the worst at times,” admitted Gidley. “It was difficult to deal with as I continued the rehab. I couldn’t even take the bumps on the city streets in the passenger car. But, eventually, that pain went away. Now, I can’t bend down and touch my toes with the fusion in the back. But I was able to continue my training and even karting regularly.”

On May 25, Gidley did jump back into a PWC GT sports car at Sonoma Raceway when former team owner Bob Stallings let Memo drive his GAINSCO “Red Dragon” Porsche 911 GT3 R in testing.

“The team was testing there with Jon Fogarty, an old friend,” said Gidley. “And then they wanted me to take a few laps too. It was awesome to get back in a race car. Now, I’m with the TKO Motorsports team and I have my own race car to compete in at Sonoma in September. To say I’m anxious would be an understatement.”

Last week, Gidley and TKO Motorsports squad tested with the rest of the Pirelli World Challenge GT sports field at Utah Motorsports Campus prior to the Grand Prix of Utah weekend.

“It just felt great to be back in the racing paddock with a team,” he said. “I saw so many old friends and racers and they were so nice to me and the team. Actually, we didn’t get as many laps in testing as we would have liked. But we talked to the PWC officials and other teams to get an idea of the Sonoma races. TKO Motorsports is a growing company but it has not raced in sports cars previously. So, Dave and the crew were gathering a lot of information for the future.”

TKO Motorsports, based in Reno, Nev., was established in 2008 with a racing background in off-shore boat racing, drag racing and off-road racing. And the company has been very successful constructing high-performance road machines. But sports car racing will be new to the group.

“We will test again before the Sonoma race weekend and continue to learn about the Porsche and the track,” said Gidley. “I saw the lineup of top teams and drivers for the Pirelli World Challenge at Utah. It has some of the best in the world. I know it won’t be easy for me and the TKO crew. But we are excited to get our car into the action at Sonoma. It’s been a long road back for me and I believe I’m ready to go.”

While the journey back to the track for Gidley has been difficult, he has been busy with his commercial charter boat business and racing sailing boats in the Bay area. Now, it’s time to get back to the road racing that he loves.

“Hey, racing is in my blood, whether it’s on the water or the track,” said Memo. “I’ve been racing a 35-foot sail boat recently and it is fun. But getting back in the race car is the ultimate for me. And now I get the chance at my hometown track in a world-class GT sports car. It’s the best for me.”

The Pirelli World Challenge weekend at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 14-16 will include doubleheader features in the GT/GTA/GT Cup Sprint series as well as the GTS division. Practice gets underway on Friday (Sept. 14) with racing for the GT and GTS classes on Saturday (Sept. 15) and Sunday (Sept. 16).

Saavedra returns to SPM, again, for upcoming races

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Following the mutual parting of ways between Mikhail Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Sebastian Saavedra will once again be back in the team’s No. 7 Honda for the next two oval races at Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park.

The Colombian impressed in a surprise one-off appearance in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Toronto, as Aleshin was sat down for one race. Saavedra ran as high as seventh and finished 11th after improving from 20th on the grid.

“I am very excited to be back with the SPM organization,” Saavedra said in a release. “It’s another late call to jump in, but I take it with pride after a promising start of our relationship in Toronto. Looking forward to a challenging event as the Tricky Triangle can be, and support (James) Hinchcliffe in his pursuit of championship points. I’m thankful to my sponsors and my continued relationship with AFS Inc.”

“Delighted to have Sebastian back with the SPM team following what was a very encouraging performance at the Toronto event,” added Piers Phillips, General Manager of SPM. “He is experienced and competent, and I have no doubt he will contribute to the overall performance of the team. We’re heading to Pocono full of confidence as a team and we’re looking forward to hopefully seeing Sebastian and James at the front of the pack.”

The likable 27-year-old driver has enjoyed longtime support from Gary Peterson of AFS Racing throughout a stop-start IndyCar career since 2010, with more than 60 career starts and just a handful of top-10 finishes.

It remains to be seen what Saavedra and Peterson put together for 2018; at Mid-Ohio, Peterson indicated he was working towards an IMSA Prototype program next year.

As for the final two road course races this year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, SPM has not yet announced that plan.

Robert Wickens, who filled in for Aleshin temporarily on the Friday of Road America weekend, made his case on Tuesday to “stir the pot” a bit in a social media post.

The Canadian doesn’t have any DTM conflicts either weekend and would be a popular selection if he does get the call.

Two upcoming oval races provide great win chances for ECR

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Ed Carpenter Racing, surprisingly, has only four races left to extend its run of winning at least one race in a Verizon IndyCar Series season to four straight years.

Mike Conway brought Carpenter two wins on the streets of Long Beach and Toronto in 2014, while Carpenter won his most recent race at Texas. Then with Josef Newgarden winning twice at Barber and Toronto in 2015, under the CFH Racing banner, before the team reverted back to ECR last year, Newgarden won again in Iowa last year in dominant, beat-down fashion.

As a team that’s been a consistent thorn in the side of the more established “big three” teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, Carpenter’s team has been close on a couple occasions to continuing its winning pedigree this year but come up short. Short oval races that got away from JR Hildebrand at Iowa and both Hildebrand and Carpenter at Phoenix loom large.

Still, Hildebrand is keen to note how he and new engineer Justin Taylor have meshed this year – and how this two-week break in the schedule has allowed for a full reset.

“The only thing (that’s bad) with the schedule for the series is that it’s pretty rapid fire,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “So sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’ve fully analyzed everything you do on a weekend, before shifting gears to the next thing. You have to look at making ‘base hits’ through the season. You don’t have time to make really dramatic changes without the time between races.

“It’s definitely been fast paced just across the board. You’re going from a couple races and testing to being back in the saddle, full blast is an adjustment. Overall it’s a really good group of guys we have. It’s been fun working with Justin. He’s done a good job, and that makes all the little differences.”

Hildebrand lamented the late-race loss at Iowa; he got balked a bit in traffic but was still happy to finish second, particularly after an accident in practice that forced the ECR team to need to make repairs to his primary No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

“It was obviously frustrating to have a situation like that. The race was so much different from that perspective. That more than anything I what’s irritating. Something like that wouldn’t have happened a year ago with the tire being a little different, track temps being under control,” Hildebrand explained about the changes in temperatures and Firestone’s year-on-year tire difference.

“At the end of the day – particularly given the season we’ve had with the ups and downs – so for me I can kind of look at that and feel some relief we executed at a high level all weekend,” he said. “The Iowa weekend was not super easy with the change in tire; we knew from the test day that the car was different, so we working so hard to find the bit of magic from the previous year. The way it all worked out, I felt like that we got as much out of it as we could.

“We could have won that race. But we came back from an accident in practice to get to the outside front row. I’ll end up looking back at that and felt, ‘Well that could have been my first IndyCar win,’ but over the course of the midst of the season, I felt good about bringing it home on podium. We know that we’ve had cars that are good circumstances play out over time.”

While Pocono could play to ECR’s benefit – Carpenter qualified second and Hildebrand sixth at the Indianapolis 500 before falling back to unrepresentative finishes – it’s Gateway where the team also looks to break through considering its short oval prowess this season.

Said Hildebrand, “St. Louis should be good; we’ve been at our best from a competitiveness standpoint at short ovals. Again it’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of what to expect from the new surface. But with the track grip coming up and us as good as we were at Phoenix, that should bode well.”

Carpenter, who’s finished 12th or better in each of his four starts this season, now has his first and only chance to race consecutive events all season.

“I have always really enjoyed racing an Indy car at Pocono,” Carpenter said heading into the weekend. “It’s such a challenging track that requires a lot of work to get the right setup on the car. While we’ve had good cars there in the past, good results have eluded us. It’s my second-to-last race of the year, so I’m hopeful we can get the finish we have been working towards!”

Newgarden was fourth at Pocono last year; Carpenter’s best finish at Pocono is ninth in 2013 while Hildebrand makes his first Pocono start this weekend.

Dane Cameron’s ‘Penske perfect’ arrival comes at just right time

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A friendly exchange with Dane Cameron yesterday in the immediate aftermath of his confirmation for the Team Penske and Acura Motorsports sports car program centered on the fact that somehow, he’s still only 28 years old.

This seems hard to believe considering all that Cameron has accomplished in the North American sports car landscape, but yet still hasn’t quite received the major notoriety within the national racing consciousness beyond the hardcore followers of the sport.

Cameron could well have been an open-wheel star but like many others in the mid-to-late 2000s, was a victim of terrible timing. After cleaning up in the 2007 Star Mazda championship (now Pro Mazda) with JDC Motorsports, Cameron’s reward was graduating into Formula Atlantic in 2008… the same year Champ Car folded and its assets were absorbed by INDYCAR.

Nonetheless Cameron, the son of longtime winning racing engineer Rick Cameron, was always high on speed and potential and showed it in a variety of sports car outings over the years to come.

He raced primarily the screaming, rotary-powered Mazda RX-8s in GRAND-AM, then raced a variety of prototypes in the following years before landing his first major drive within the merged sports car championship, at Turner Motorsport in 2014 with a BMW Z4 GT3 – and promptly won the GT Daytona class title.

A move to Action Express Racing was the next step in his career growth, joining the established Daytona Prototype championship-winning outfit with Eric Curran and Whelen Engineering in the team’s second car. That team took time to grow but still won quickly and contended for the title in its first year, prior to breaking through and winning last year’s title.

Cameron’s 2017 season has been an exercise in frustration as the landscape of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has changed. Expected to defend the title, Cameron and Curran have instead struggled for the same level of metronomic consistency of the last two years and Cameron, who’s still blindingly quick, has often been playing catchup in the more aero dependent Cadillac as the Action Express team has worked to understand the baseline Dallara chassis that lies underneath the Cadillac DPi bodywork. Coming from a period of success with Coyote, that chassis change for the team shouldn’t be overlooked.

Arguably the flashpoint of Cameron’s 2017 campaign came early on at Long Beach, with a rare unforced error trying to close the gap after going in too deep into the tight, tricky 90-degree right-hander. It wrote off a car and forced the team into a scramble drill prior to the next round at Circuit of The Americas.

Just three races into the season, it also left Cameron and Curran 26 points back of the Taylor brothers – a near insurmountable gap to overcome over seven races given IMSA’s points system makes it difficult to gain more than a handful of points per race. As it sits now, they’re 31 points back, five races later and with only two more to go.

Was a change of scenery inevitable for Cameron? Given the timing and opportunity available here, Cameron was always a natural fit. Although the Cameron/Curran pairing won last year’s title, few seasoned paddock observers will have rated it as the top one on the grid.

Much like Josef Newgarden in IndyCar or Ryan Blaney in NASCAR, Cameron is that 2017 type of “Penske perfect” type of driver – still under 30, with a lot of his future ahead of him, but enough experience built up to add his name to the Penske file now.

He’s business-first, with the clean-cut look, who is all business on the track but does have a sneaky sense of humor beneath the surface. Cameron, who’s married to wife Sarah and has two kids, chooses his words carefully; brevity is one of his skill sets, as he’s always careful of what he says and how he says it. He already lives in North Carolina, so that means he’s already close to the shop.

One of the cool things Penske can provide is a cross-promotional platform between its other series. And sure, you don’t expect to see Cameron racing in NASCAR, IndyCar or V8 Supercars anytime soon – though he’d probably excel in any opportunity if given the chance with the variety of cars he’s already raced – but the brand exposure for him can get built up here in the years to come, especially as he’s paired with a known name in teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who was winning titles in the 1990s when Cameron had only just reached double digits in age. Add him to the “Penske Games” social media video series next year, and it’ll be interesting to see what side of his personality emerges.

For Cameron, while this deal appears to have come together quickly even though as rumors of his name being with Penske have percolated for months, the timing still seems just right.

“It’s all really come together pretty quickly in the last couple days really, to be honest, to get it done,” he said. “That being said, I really only signed the contract last night (Monday). It’s kind of escalated pretty quickly.

“I’m really excited about a tremendous opportunity to represent Acura and to work with everyone here at Team Penske. I haven’t seen much yet so far, but been getting around, shaking a couple hands, been really impressed so far.  Quite excited with what lies ahead.”

Cameron’s experience with Action Express these last three years will be key for Penske, Acura and Montoya to draw upon for 2018. For Cameron, having the stability of a long-term home there was key after the aforementioned five years between 2009 and 2013 when he raced a number of different series and cars but rarely stayed with the same team and/or in the same car for more than two consecutive years.

“It’s been a terrifically successful three‑year stretch, to win a bunch of races, to win a title. I really enjoyed myself there, and I really want to thank everyone at Actions Express and Whelen Engineering for not only the opportunity to go there in the first place, but then for great cars and teams and great results,” he said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision at all to come to this point. It’s been a good home for me there. Yeah, it was not easy, but an opportunity to work closely with Acura and to join Team Penske was a little too good for me to pass up.

“I’m looking forward to the future, but also remaining focused and committed to having a strong couple races here to close out the current IMSA season.”

The testing for Cameron will begin shortly after Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7, when he enters officially into the Acura ARX-05 – which by that point, Montoya will have put through its paces. It will be a busy build-up period over the winter before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but Cameron will be key to getting the car to the starting line, then excelling once 2018 hits.

“It will be fun to be a part of the early stages of the program and try to contribute as best I can,” he said

“Obviously, Team Penske is what it is because of the people that are in place, as well as Acura and the engine that’s going to be part of the program. I think it’s pretty well‑sorted.

“I don’t think anyone who is involved with this program is doing it for any other reason except to win races and championships and pole positions.  I think as a driver you always have that expectation for yourself.

“I don’t think anyone expects more out of ourselves than Juan and I will. I don’t see any reason why we can’t come out of the gate strong at Daytona.”