MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: United States GP

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It’s the big one, folks; the race that we have all been waiting for is finally upon us. Formula One returns to the United States this weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX, and it follows a bizarre week in the sport. There have been five driver announcements, two sackings and a great amount of rumors regarding next year’s grid. We have a 21-year-old Dane joining the proceedings next year, a 23-year-old Mexican who is now looking to revive his career and a Finn replacing another Finn as Heikki Kovalainen is drafted in for Kimi Raikkonen.

At the front though, will it be business as usual? Can Sebastian Vettel win an unprecedented eighth straight race? Our experts give their judgements in the penultimate set of predictions of the season.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Why not make it 8 in a row at one of the few tracks he hasn’t won at.

Surprising finish: Felipe Massa. With his future officially sorted he can help Alonso two final times for Ferrari in the constructor’s championship and score a top-five.

Most to prove: Sergio Perez. Well this one’s become obvious with the late move by McLaren to dump him. Time to step up in a big way to prove his worth to potential 2014 suitors.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. All I’ll say is that I’ve learned my lesson after Abu Dhabi. A win Stateside would give Vettel eight in a row and set him up to match Alberto Ascari’s record of nine consecutive wins in the season finale at Interlagos.

Surprising finish: Esteban Gutierrez. After taking six points in Japan, Sauber’s rookie has gone scoreless in his last two events. But I expect he’ll be more than a little motivated to perform well in front of what should be a sizable contingent of Mexican fans in Austin.

Most to prove: Sergio Perez. With Perez on his way out at McLaren after just one season, Perez needs good results in these final two races to help him secure a 2014 seat. Additionally, he too will have lots of support from his fellow Mexicans in Austin, so there’s another layer of pressure to deal with.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. I tried kidding myself that Seb would retire in Abu Dhabi, yet by the end of the first lap he already had the race won. So why fight it? He’ll complete his figure eight here in the US, and then gun for nine at the final race of the year. A remarkable run of form.

Surprising finish: Sergio Perez. Checo is now fighting for his future in the sport, but the McLaren appeared to be working better in Abu Dhabi. Let’s see if he can use the support from the Mexican fans to produce a fine display in Austin.

Most to prove: Pastor Maldonado. After being jilted by Williams and then bad-mouthing the team, Pastor has to prove that his hostility is worth dealing with by performing. He’s shot himself in the foot too many times in F1.

Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel, for a record-breaking eighth race in a row. Reliability aside, there are no weaknesses in the Vettel-Red Bull package at the moment.

Surprising finish: Felipe Massa. He had good form at this track last year before Ferrari decided to handicap him at the start. With no need for any such dubious tactics this year, and a freshly minted Williams contract in his pocket, I can see him going well this weekend.

Most to prove: Pastor Maldonado. His ties with Williams have been severed but he needs to find a place on the grid next year. His wedge of PDVSA cash will do some of the talking for him but he could really do with capitalising on the improving pace of the Williams to take another points finish.

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.