TUSC: Saturday Roar News and Notes

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There have been more driver confirmations on a much warmer Saturday in Daytona for the Roar Before the Rolex 24. Here’s Friday’s morning news and notes, then end-of-day wrap. Meanwhile, here’s the latest round of updates:

  • Mazda has confirmed the same four full season drivers as were in its GX class Mazda6s last year. Sylvain Tremblay and Tom Long (No. 70) and youngsters Tristan Nunez and Joel Miller (No. 07) will be in the manufacturer’s two SKYACTIV-D P2 prototypes this year. The SpeedSource-run team is yet to confirm additional drivers for the endurance races.
  • Michael Shank Racing, unsurprisingly, has confirmed AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson alongside its usual pairing of Ozz Negri and John Pew in the team’s No. 60 Ford EcoBoost Riley Daytona Prototype for the Rolex 24. ‘Dinger and Wilson, former Champ Car teammates at RuSPORT, have driven together at Shank four times previously (2006, 2011-‘13), and the quartet won overall in 2012. Additionally, the team has confirmed commercial partnerships with Roberts Service Group and CRC Industries.
  • The above prototype signings mean that only four teams: Marsh Racing (No. 31 Corvette DP), OAK Racing (No. 42 Morgan Nissan P2), Highway to Help (No. 50 Riley DP) and SpeedSource (Nos. 07/70 Mazda SKYACTIV-D P2s) are yet to announce their full, finalized lineups. The DeltaWing team may add a fourth driver as well.
  • Dempsey Racing confirmed Porsche factory pilot Marc Lieb as its fourth and final driver for the Rolex 24, in the team’s No. 27 Porsche 911 GT America in the GT Daytona class.

Updates will follow with any further news or notes.

F1 Preview: 2017 Russian Grand Prix

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Before the bulk of the European season begins with the Spanish Grand Prix in a little over two wees’ time, the Formula 1 paddock is gearing up for one final flyaway in Russia this weekend.

The Russian Grand Prix has become a key part of the post-Winter Olympic legacy for the seaside resort of Sochi, which hosted the games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom winds throughout the Olympic Village, offering a happy medium between street and road course that makes it a challenge to drivers.

In all three of the world championship races that have been held in Russia, Mercedes has been untouchable. Lewis Hamilton and now-retired Nico Rosberg have led every single racing lap in the history of the Sochi Autodrom, making the Silver Arrows the cars to beat this weekend.

However, 2017 has been a year for surprises, with Ferrari enjoying a revival thanks to Sebastian Vettel. The German has won two of the first three races this season, the latest coming in Bahrain two weeks ago to give him the championship lead.

In the city that offered us so many international battles three years ago, another is set to play out on Sunday: but will it be a Briton, a German, or even a Finn that strikes gold in Sochi?

Here are the key talking points for the Russian Grand Prix.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Vettel, Ferrari bask in best start since Schumacher

Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari back in 2015 was always seen as a nod to his hero, Michael Schumacher, whose career trajectory took a similar turn in 1996. The links are only continuing this year, with Vettel’s start to the season being the best by any Ferrari driver since Schumacher back in 2004.

It’s been a surprising purple patch of form for Ferrari, which hasn’t looked as strong as it is now since – truthfully – 2008 when it went head-to-head with McLaren for the title. It bodes well for Vettel, who is in the final year of his Ferrari contract and desperate for a fifth world title that would justify his decision to move to Maranello two years ago.

Russia could be a more challenging race for Ferrari, given temperatures won’t be as high as they were in Australia or Bahrain, playing into Mercedes’ favor. But should Vettel overcome this and bag a third win, it would surely signal to a title bid that is still only being whispered about by the Prancing Horse for fear of tempting fate.

Hamilton, Bottas seek responses to Bahrain disappointment

Mercedes hasn’t spent much time on the back foot in recent years, but it arrives in Sochi looking for a response to a disappointing defeat in Bahrain. After locking out the front row in style, a number of small factors conspired to hand victory to Ferrari, leaving Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to settle for P2 and P3 respectively.

Hamilton’s track record in Sochi is impressive, having won the 2014 and 2015 races before fighting from an issue in qualifying that left him 10th on the grid to finish second. Bottas has also finished on the podium before (2014), and will want to run the leading duo close after a generator issue spurned his hopes of a maiden win in Bahrain last time out.

Bottas could be a dark horse for victory here. The Finn has been growing in confidence through his first three races in a Mercedes, with his charge to pole in Bahrain surprising even Hamilton. So don’t rule him out of a maiden victory in Russia to kick-start his season.

Kvyat returns home, one year after career-changing race

There is no better place for Daniil Kvyat to celebrate his 23rd birthday than his home race, even if returning to Sochi will bring back memories of a disastrous 2016 race that changed his career trajectory.

Then racing for Red Bull, Kvyat headed to Sochi with his tail up after scoring his second F1 podium at the last race in China. However, two crashes with Vettel on the first lap in Russia ruined his race and gave Red Bull the excuse it needed to promote Max Verstappen into a race seat, sending Kvyat back to Toro Rosso.

The incident had a profound effect on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the season trying to regather himself, something he struggled to do until after the summer break. Red Bull backed him to respond and kept him at Toro Rosso in 2017 when it could have easily dropped him, and Kvyat has looked content so far this season.

The ghosts of Sochi may still linger for Kvyat, but this weekend, he will be the crowd favorite. How he charges this positive pressure will be of particular interest.

Has Haas found the answer to its brake issues?

Since joining the grid at the start of 2016, one of Haas’ biggest issues has been brakes. Repeated failures and problems hindered the American team’s form through the backend of last year, and with more issues arising in the early part of 2017, a change in supplier was actively pursued.

Having used Brembo for its racing commitments, Haas tested Carbon Industrie brakes in Bahrain and noted an improvement in performance, much to Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen’s pleasure. Although there will still be lots of work to do to map the brakes and fine-tune the settings, the switch for this weekend’s race in Russia could give the team a much-needed boost.

The Haas VF-17 car itself is strong. That much is clear. But if the brake issue is truly resolved, then we could see the team get a march on its midfield rivals.

One stop race on the cards

Tire degradation at the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, but with the extra-conservative tires that have been provided to F1 by Pireli this year, it is a near-certainty that this year’s Russian Grand Prix will be a one-stopper.

The cooler temperatures should play into Mercedes’ hands, but we saw in both Bahrain and Australia that Hamilton and Bottas found it difficult to stretch out their tires at points. These struggles cost Hamilton victory in Australia, and if Ferrari can get close once again this weekend, Vettel may have more confidence in the ultra-softs and be able to force another mistake.

Either way, don’t expect to see a strategic masterclass on Sunday in Sochi. It’ll be one stop and one stop only.

2017 Russian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Sochi Autodrom
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:39.094 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:35.417
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:39.094
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T10 to T13

2017 Russian Grand Prix – TV Times

Castroneves remains on top of his game even if results don’t shown it

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Sixth, ninth and fourth are results that seem typical for Helio Castroneves of late. The Brazilian, now 41 and in his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, remain in that good-but-not-great department but prove the Team Penske driver is still among the best in the series.

And typical of his luck the last few years, circumstances outside his control continue to extend a winless drought that is at 46 races and counting since winning Detroit race two in 2014. Interestingly, Castroneves won his 46th career start back in 2000 – also at Detroit – and until this recent run of form, he’d never had a winless run anywhere that long anywhere close the rest of his career.

He won races every year from 2000 through 2014, with the exception of 2011. Even without gracing the top step of the podium, Castroneves has still finished fifth and third in points the last two years, extending his incredible run of form to 13 top-five finishes in the standings in 17 full seasons with Team Penske.

So to start his 18th year with Penske, 20th overall, missed opportunities have again stuck out. But at sixth in points, it’s not been a brutal start to the year.

“The first race, Honda came out really strong, then at Long Beach we had a phenomenal opportunity, but had a little issue with the engine, and last week as a team at Team Penske we were able to capitalize, but not my team with the No. 3 car,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.

“Finishing top four, it felt like we were a little better than that. But when you have three other great teammates. One day it’s someone’s day – and for us as a team, we were happy Josef (Newgarden) got his first win and gave us more points.”

Castroneves sustained a minor over boost penalty coming out of the hairpin on the rough Long Beach circuit, and that was enough to drop him first to sixth by the first corner. Having later been issued a pit speed violation, Castroneves was left to take the ninth place finish there.

“To put a great lap together and make it happen, I was then so sad to have the boost penalty to go from first to sixth first corner,” he said.

But the fact he still got the pole – his third straight at Long Beach as the only Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six and the 52nd of his illustrious career – shows how good he still is.

“It’s such a great feeling. At a place like Long Beach, straightaway, we knew we didn’t have any advantage in those circumstances,” he said. “It was up to us to not find an excuse, and note we have to find other ways to face those challenges.”

Castroneves heads to this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where he’s already got a pole to defend in his No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet.

But he isn’t a fan of INDYCAR moving the qualifying back to nighttime conditions (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App and airs Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), as he says it doesn’t reward drivers who can afford to trim the car out more on edge in the heat of the day.

“It’s a shame we’re doing qualifying at night,” Castroneves said. “I think it separates it from who can do more in the difficult conditions to more where everyone can do it. That’ll be different from last year. But you still have to have a very good car to go around at Phoenix.

“In warmer conditions, say the track temp is 120, air of 80, it makes it very hard to go flat out unless you have good car. At night, it’ll be under 100 if not less, so that’s 20-30 degrees difference before. Everyone’s car gains about 100-200 pounds of downforce. That helps the car stick better.”

Phoenix has been an integral part of Castroneves’ career, dating to the mid-1990s when he and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan tested for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, ahead of their eventual battle for the 1997 championship.

For Castroneves, it holds a special place. It was the first oval he tested on. It was where he made his first start under the IRL banner (when CART and IRL were still separated) in 2001, as a warm-up act for that year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first of three ‘500s he’s won.

And it was where, in February, Castroneves singlehandedly was involved in the first step of the future planning for the new Phoenix Raceway, scheduled for completion in fall of 2018. He took the wheel and control of a Caterpillar excavator as part of the groundbreaking ceremony at the series’ open test here in February.

“I thought man if I made a mistake, there was a car around there!” he laughed. “It would be on ESPN’s Top 10 most bizarre moments!

“But the person who was guiding me talked about the moves, and I got this. It was so cool to be part of it with how much the track would change. We’re just hoping it will be a great renovation.”

And if Castroneves’ career continues to roll on, he’ll be part of the next generation track here as well.

Williams to auction Russian GP race-worn gear for Billy Monger

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Williams Martini Racing will make a difference in trying to support Billy Monger, the young driver who lost his legs in an F4 accident earlier this month but who has already received several hundred thousand pounds of funding to help pay for his medical costs.

The team announced Wednesday it would auction off Felipe Massa’s firesuit and Lance Stroll’s boots from this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix via eBay. A link to bid is here. Funds will go to Monger’s JustGiving page.

It’s an excellent gesture from the team and perhaps the start of even more stakeholders in the racing community to support the young teenager.

MRTI: Barber weekend digest

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Here’s some thoughts following the second weekend of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires this season, at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend (additional notes from Tony DiZinno in his post-weekend column here).

Askew-se me While I Play Through?

It was not a perfect weekend for Oliver Askew. Calvin Ming did pip him for fastest lap during practice.

Okay, that line was entirely sarcastic. Simply put: Askew crushed the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda field at Barber Motorsports Park. He claimed pole in both races, led every lap in both races, and won both races.

Askew was dominant at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In the grand scheme of things, it is not surprising that Askew swept the weekend and has claimed three victories in a row, dating back to Race 2 in St. Petersburg (for reference he was second in Race 1 that weekend, making his average finishing position a staggering 1.25 through four races). Cape Motorsports has won every USF2000 championship since 2011. With Askew, a 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipient and winner of the inaugural USF2000 Scholarship Shootout in December at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, joining the fray, everything on paper indicated another championship run was likely.

But, a new chassis, in this case the Tatuus USF-17, often provides a reset button, allowing other teams a chance to close the gap. And while the likes of Team Pelfrey, Pabst Racing Services, and Exclusive Autosport have all been featured on the podium, Cape Motorsports and Askew have distinguished themselves as title favorites four races into the season.

My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno called the weekend’s performance an “Ask-kicking,” and there can be no arguing the dominance of Askew and Cape Motorsports at the moment.

Kaylen Frederick a “Baby Face” on the Rise

Outside of Askew, 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, the youngest driver on the circuit, was the shining star at Barber Motorsports Park. The young Frederick pushed Askew in the final laps of Race 1 to finish second and backed it up with a consistent Race 2 to again finish second.

Frederick (right) finished second in both USF2000 races at Barber. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

While winning is the ultimate goal, Frederick was more than happy with the weekend’s results. “I took advantage of what I could today – the Cooper tires wore well so I could just keep my head down and focus,” he said following Race 1. “It took a while to get comfortable with all the high-speed corners and the compressions. It was hard for me to get the confidence to go into those corners with that much speed but it’s all clicked now.”

Along with Rinus Van Kalmthout, with whom Frederick is currently tied for second in the championship, Frederick may be emerging as the biggest threat to Askew in the championship chase. It’s early days for the season, but Frederick is beginning to establish himself as a title contender.

Hertamania 2.0 Weathers the Barber Storms

The rain wasn’t the only storm the drivers of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series had to weather at Barber. A chaotic start to Race 1 saw officials wave it off, and carnage ensued. Perhaps the most notable driver impacted was points leader Colton Herta.

The 17-year-old clipped the left-rear of polesitter Kyle Kaiser after the aborted start, damaging his front wing and forcing an emergency pit stop. He then suffered a penalty after failing to maintain pace car speed, which put him at the back of the field when the race restarted.

However, his quiet though impressive charge to tenth helped limit the damage. Further, he caught a lucky break when Race 2 qualifying was rained out on Sunday morning. The rule book dictates the field is set by points in such circumstances, which put championship leader Herta on the pole. He immediately rocketed away when the race started and led all 35 laps on his way to winning by more than nine seconds.

What’s more, his win was marked with historic significance, as it was the 400th event in Indy Lights history. “I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race,” Herta said following his Sunday triumph.

All told, he took a weekend that looked to be going badly and completely turned it around. He now leads Kyle Kaiser by 16 points ahead of another double-header at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.

The Unlucky Pato O’Ward

The 2017 season got off to a dream start for the soon-to-be 18-year-old Pato O’Ward. Class wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring were buoyed by a strong opening Indy Lights weekend at St. Petersburg, where he recorded finishes of fifth and third.

However, Lady Luck was not on his side at Barber. O’Ward was one of several drivers to suffer damage after the Race 1 start was aborted, as he actually drove over the back of Santi Urrutia’s machine. O’Ward pitted to replace the front wing, but was able to climb back up to eighth at race’s end.

Sunday’s Race 2, however, was a different story. A first-lap collision with Zachary Claman De Melo sent him spinning into the gravel. Though he was able to return to the pits, damage was too severe to continue, relegating to a 15th-place finish.

For a driver who has enjoyed a memorable 2017 so far, O’Ward’s weekend at Barber Motorsports Park was one to forget.

The Mazda Road to Indy now takes a three-week break before all three series resume action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on May 12-13.