Photo via Sutton Images

Sunday morning Austin notebook: Big crowd already

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Here’s several Sunday morning news and notes from the Circuit of the Americas leading up to today’s United States Grand Prix (LIVE on NBC at 1 p.m. ET, also on NBC Sports Live Extra).

GATE OPENING DELAYED A HALF HOUR

The opening of the gates was delayed slightly due to what track officials deemed a “suspicious incident.” But after a check, it was alleviated and the gates opened a half hour after the intended 7:30 a.m. opening, with fans already filing in in droves.

Here is the official release text from the track:

Circuit of The Americas™ in conjunction with local law enforcement officials today investigated a suspicious incident in the Turn 1 area of the racetrack. During routine security checks prior to the venue’s opening, public safety officials, including representatives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), responded to the incident and found nothing wrong.

As a precaution, Circuit of The Americas delayed opening the entire facility to patrons until 8 a.m. CT while follow-up security checks were completed.  Patrons are now entering the facility and operations are proceeding as normal.

WBC PROTESTING

So that marked the “official interruption” of the morning. But there was an unofficial interruption, as well.

The Westboro Baptist Church, who picket against what they consider any “homosexual activity,” are doing likewise here to Formula One in Austin.

On my ride in to the track via shuttle, a fellow media member noticed them on the side of the road with signs that read “Formula 1” and a word very similar to flags. It won’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

BUT A BIG CROWD EXPECTED NONETHELESS…

Track officials announced 78,886 fans on Saturday after 58,276 on Friday, thus providing a two-day total thus far of 137,162. A number anywhere in the 110,000 to 120,000 range today – and it will be possible with one-day ticket sales available, unlike in 2012 – will give track officials the 250,000-plus weekend total they are anticipated. There’s already a huge crowd on the hillside in Turn 1.

OBLIGATORY GRID GIRL MENTION

Austin-based Rae Cosmetics, with CEO and founder Rochelle Rae, was announced as Official Cosmetic Partner for F1 and the circuit earlier this year. They are playing a major role with the Grid Girls for this weekend’s race.

“We were reflecting on last year’s Grand Prix and realized the culture of the Grid Girl globally was something that we were working toward, but hadn’t reached,” Rae said. “It’s surreal to be a part of a team that is shaping a tradition and concept that represents the United States and Texas to the rest of the world.”

More information is available at VeritasAustin.com. In the meantime, the lead photo to this notebook piece should suffice…

HAT TIP TO KATHY MALECK

A hat tip for one of the stars of the event behind the scenes, race F&C (Flagging & Communication) Chief Kathy Maleck. Her contributions were recognized by the FIA and Charlie Whiting in a surprise ceremony in race control, Saturday morning.

This weekend marks her 80th grand prix weekend, most for anyone from the U.S. in the role. She has also worked U.S. races at Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and Phoenix – just not Watkins Glen.

Her CV includes working F1 races in 12 countries on four continents, with the topper a 1985 ‘World Tour’ to Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, US, Canada, Australia and The Netherlands. Aside of F1, among her roles is Operations Coordinator for the Pirelli World Challenge Championship and Field Staff Manager for SCCA Pro Racing.

It’s an unpaid position and a volunteer assignment, but one where Maleck has earned much respect from her peers. To that, we say thanks.

IMSA: Rolex 24 Team Preview – GTLM

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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MotorSportsTalk’s Kyle Lavigne continues the team preview of entries for the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. At nine entries, it is the smallest of the three classes entered in this weekend’s Rolex 24 and down from last year’s 11 entries, but past events indicate it may be the event’s most competitive class.

The 2017 Rolex 24 saw four different marques from four different teams battling for the GTLM win late in the race, with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing taking the win with Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais. And in 2016, Corvette Racing saw its No. 3 and 4 entries duel to the checkered flag, with Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Marcel Fassler victorious in the No. 4 machine.

Below is a breakdown of the teams entered in the GTLM class.

Corvette Racing
Car: Corvette C7.R
No. 3 (Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, Mike Rockenfeller)
No. 4 (Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler)

Outlook: Corvette Racing has been a perennial powerhouse in GT racing over the entirety of the 21st century, and that isn’t something that’s likely to change. Coming off their 13th championship last year – Garcia and Magnussen took home last year’s GTLM driver’s crown – Corvette Racing now hunts for its fourth Rolex 24 triumph.

With an unchanged package that is proven to be both fast and reliable, Corvette Racing looks set to again feature prominently in the GTLM battle. Barring problems, both cars should be battling up front for the win.

BMW Team RLL
Car: BMW M8 GTLM
No. 24 (Jesse Krohn, John Edwards, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus)
No. 25 (Alexander Sims, Connor De Phillippi, Bill Auberlen, Philipp Eng)

Outlook: Of all the GTLM entries, BMW Team RLL sees by far the most change to its program. Out is the M6 GTLM and in is the brand new M8 GTLM. Jesse Krohn, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus, Philipp Eng and Connor De Phillippi are all new drivers to the team, while veteran Bill Auberlen will only contest the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018.

At the Roar Before the 24, the program appeared to lack speed. Sunday qualifying, to decide pit stall and garage selection, saw the No. 25 qualify the better of the two BMWs, but one second slower than the next quickest car – the BMW set a 1:45.056 for seventh in GTLM, behind the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, which set a 1:44.037.

It remains to be seen if there is more speed in the BMW machines, but they remain the most unproven of the GTLM entries. A victory seems out of reach at the moment, but that could change if the package improves.

Risi Competizione
Car: Ferrari 488 GTE
No. 62 (Toni Vilander, Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Davide Rigon)

Outlook: Risi Competizione came excruciatingly close to winning last year’s Rolex, but a late-race battle between James Calado and Dirk Mueller, of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, saw Mueller come out on top, while Calado was shuffled back to third by the time the checkered flag fell.

They did not win an event last year, but this is a team that knows how to win big races – they have previously won the Motul Petit Le Mans – and should once again prove to be a major player in the GTLM battle.

The only major change comes in their driver lineup, with Alessandro Pier Guidi and David Rigon joining the lineup and Giancarlo Fisichella departing. But, with Calado and Toni Vilander returning to anchor the driving team, this change is not expected to slow the team down. Expect them to battle at the front all race long.

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing
Car: Ford GT
No. 66 (Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Sebastien Bourdais)
No. 67 (Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon)

Outlook: Ford Chip Ganassi Racing returns to the Rolex 24 as defending race winners – Hand, Mueller, and Bourdais delivered the victory in 2017. Further, they return with the same driver lineups and car they used. In short, every indication is that they enter this year’s event as favorites to repeat.

The Roar Before the 24 gave further evidence of this. Both of the cars were among the quickest in every session at the Roar, and Sunday qualifying saw its No. 66 end up at the top of the board, with the No. 67 in third.

The GTLM field is strong all the way around, but this team is likely the favorite entering the event.

Porsche GT Team
Car: Porsche 911 RSR

No. 911 (Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, Frederic Makowiecki)
No. 912 (Laurens Vanthoor, Earl Bamber, Gianmaria Bruni)

Outlook: Porsche GT Team brings with it a star-studded driver lineup that features former class winners of the Rolex 24, former overall winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and a ton of all-around talent.

The team finished a close second at last year’s Rolex 24, with the No. 911 entry, behind the race-winning Ford from Chip Ganassi’s stable. Later that year, they visited victory lane – Porsche finished 1-2 at Lime Rock Park, with the No. 911 taking the victory – proving that the mid-engine 911 RSR is more than up to the task and gives the team everything they need to be contenders.

Porsche will have a fight on their hands, but this is a team that expects to compete for a victory, and they did win this event in 2014. They round out a titanic GTLM grid and should be a fixture throughout the day.

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