Austin does its part, and F1’s on-track product needs to match

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It’s a testament to the fever, passion and commitment of the more than 113,000 fans in attendance Sunday at Circuit of the Americas that they all stuck around for the entirety of the 56-lap, encore edition of the United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Because on pure product alone, there was a clear gap in the excitement department from other races at Austin this year.

I’ll use my past trip to Austin for the combined FIA World Endurance Championship/American Le Mans Series weekend in September as a reference point, although there have been three other major weekends at the track this year besides that.

The ALMS race Saturday featured more than 30 cars in five classes; two of the five class victories were in doubt for the last 30 to 45 minutes of the two-hour, 45 minute race.

The ALMS GT class – which features an open manufacturer grid of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari, BMW and Porsche – had all five marques in contention with a Corvette co-driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia emerging victorious over a Viper and a BMW.

Meanwhile the all-Porsche GT3 Cup GTC class witnessed an intense battle between, and this still sucks to write, the late Sean Edwards and underrated Irishman Damien Faulkner. Faulkner took the win there.

And all this occurred while the faster three prototype classes were slicing through them like butter to overtake.

Sunday for six hours, the WEC event featured a chess match between the stunning Audi and Toyota LMP1 prototypes, a three or four-car battle at any time in the lower cost LMP2 ranks, and Aston Martin sweeping the GTE categories. It wasn’t stunning at all times, certainly, but it packed its action at various points, and at various corners, throughout the day.

But here’s the kicker: more fans attended Friday practice for F1 (58,276) than the entire three-day weekend for the international sports car doubleheader (33,591). F1 may still have a ways to go to achieve more mainstream coverage in the U.S., and sports car racing’s climb is even higher.

Other weekends at COTA – the MotoGP weekend, Australian V8 Supercars/Pirelli World Challenge event and GRAND-AM race – had more moments at any points. There were a number of tweets on Sunday salivating at the idea of an IndyCar race in Austin, given how well that series’ new car races on permanent road courses.

And F1 had but perhaps two or three “moments” on Sunday. What F1 packs in spades – the glamour, the exclusivity, the spectacle of the buildup on the grid, the sheer pinnacle of technology – it cannot overcome by its current on-track product after the lights go out.

Essentially, as soon as Mark Webber lost the pole to teammate Sebastian Vettel on Saturday, the race was good as decided. Vettel’s starts are flawless and Webber, who always seems to struggle off the line, was stuck on the dirty line of the track and couldn’t put the grip down. Vettel did his usual checking out once the safety car period ended and that was that, job done for an eighth straight clinical race-winning performance we’ve come to expect.

The full-time members of the F1 press corps have already lamented how most of the field on Sunday needed to conserve their tires to cope with the unexpected high temperatures, north of 85 degrees ambient. With a one-stop race and a limited window of operation for peak performance, drivers had to either go hard early in the stint on the mediums and risk them going off, or save them for later in the stint. The hards would obviously last longer, but not offer the same pace on potential. And all that made Sunday’s Grand Prix something of a dreary, processional affair at times.

Whether it’s the conservative tire choices, or the DRS (which didn’t even get that much usage on Sunday with many gaps larger than 1 second in the DRS detection zone), or the Red Bull domination at the front of the field, a race like Sunday’s will not have done more to attract the casual American fan given the available choices of viewing (Sunday’s race conflicted with NFL football and the NASCAR season finale in Homestead).

Perhaps the uncertainty of the new 2014 regulations – where reliability may be an issue – will shake things up a bit.

But from my view here, it was only the allure of a once-a-year circus and the attraction of a simply awesome city, Austin, that as many fans have turned up this weekend as did.

The track, and the city, deserve a better show in 2014. And that includes a post-race act other than Pit Bull…

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.