MotorSportsTalk’s exclusive interview with John Surtees

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As he prepares to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his Formula One world championship win, British racing legend John Surtees took some time to speak to MotorSportsTalk about his life and career in motorsport as well as his views on the modern sport – and of course, that double points rule…

Let’s start off at the beginning of your career. What was it that sparked your love for motorsport and got you into racing in the first place? 

JOHN SURTEES: Well of course motorsport for me encompasses two, three and four wheels. My car racing career didn’t start until somewhat later in that I saw my first car race from the cockpit of a car in which I was competing in, which is going back to as far as 1960. My road racing career on motorcycles started in 1950 at Brands Hatch. My career then started and I became British champion and world champion on a number of occasions, right up until I retired at the end of 1960 from motorcycle racing. I had had the idea sewn in my head about possibly trying a car in 1958 when I met up with Mike Hawthorn who had just been crowned world champion in Formula One, and Tony Vandervell who won the championship with his Vanwall cars in the constructors, and they suggested it. My first drive in a race car came testing an Aston Martin DBR1 car which was a car that won Le Mans and also won at the Nurburgring and like Stirling [Moss] had driven and Tony Brooks. I tested that at Goodwood and they asked me to drive for them, I said “no, I’m a motorcyclist”, but then I decided at the end of 1960 to actually try cars, so that year I drove cars and motorcycles – different weekends obviously. My first drive was in a Formula Junior for Ken Tyrell, my second drive was in a Formula 2 car which I had bought. My third one was again Formula 2 and then Colin Chapman said “drive Formula One!”. I said “no, I’m a motorcyclist!” “Well drive Formula One when you’re not motorcycling.” And so that’s how my year developed!

After so many years on bikes, was the transition into a Formula One car easy or was it quite difficult?

JS: I had to obviously learn to deal with all sorts of different conditions and a bit of track craft was different, but the actual ability to relate to the car and communicate with it – which is what you have to do, it’s just as you’re racing a bike – that came along quite well. You have to get all those experiences about how you cope with different weather conditions with a car, which of course was somewhat different with a bike. And the biggest single thing of course was that you had to know the other competitors, because I had never seen any racing at all. I knew nothing about any of the other people who I was racing against, whereas in motorcycling I knew intimately how you would treat different riders etc. I had to build up all that data log on the environment in which I was racing.

How did you get into contact with Enzo Ferrari and end up driving for him in Formula One?

JS: They called me at the end of my first year in Formula One, and said “would you come to Maranello and have a look.” So I went there and had a look and everything else and I listened to their plans and thought that frankly I needed to have more experience, so I said no. I did a year then when I worked with the building of a Formula One car which was a Lola, and that gave me a lot of ground work. They asked me again at the end of that year. In fact, with our new car, we had beaten the Ferrari team in the world championship and finished fourth with the new car. They asked me again and I went out and I joined them.

It must have been very humbling. What was it like working with Enzo as a man?

JS: It was different times to nowadays of course. It was very much a situation where he ruled the whole thing, and so you were never quite sure what was happening necessarily. He tended to be changeable and he was trying to keep a lot of things going which was very difficult, because he didn’t concentrate just on Formula One like they do today. He had a big programme which held back the Formula One programme in sportscars. They were very good to drive, the prototype cars, and I had the job of doing the development work on them, because they introduced a new range in 1963 when I joined them. Very enjoyable working with them and racing them. But it did detract from the Formula One programme and made it that much difficult to win Formula One races.

Was it quite frustrating racing and knowing that you’re in a car that could be so much better if they concentrated solely on Formula One? 

JS: It was disconcerting at the beginning of the year. The first three races or so, you were struggling against teams who had been working strenuously all through the winter and doing all this testing and preparing themselves and frankly you didn’t do any of that work really until the Le Mans race.

Your association with Ferrari then came to an end in 1966. Could you talk us through your decision to quit?

JS: In the middle of the year when I was leading the world championship, a political scene all came up involved with Fiat and things which… if one looked back, just the same as he [Enzo] said to me some years later, we would have perhaps sorted it out other ways. As it was, I was quite impetuous in those days and also very targeted on trying to get things done and the rest of it. That time, this made me fall foul of certain elements within the Ferrari company and I changed sides. I was unfortunate not to still win the world championship, because we got the Cooper-Maserati which I transferred to be quite competitive, apart from a couple of silly incidents, we were there.

You raced in a golden era of Formula One against the likes of Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. Who would you say was your greatest competitor?

JS: Well basically when I first started of course in 1960, we had Stirling Moss around who was driving a similar car to what I was driving, so he was the yardstick. He was always a great competitor. You had my first teammate, Jimmy Clark, in Lotus, we were together there. In fact Colin Chapman offered me the number one position in the team, but again for political reasons and things like this, it didn’t come about. Jimmy was a great driver. You had Graham and you had Dan Gurney who you could never underestimate, and Jack Brabham. They were all there. The latter part we came across Stewart of course, but I look upon the others as being of my period.

One of the races you never entered was the Indy 500. Was this through choice or was it something you wanted to win?

JS: I did all the testing on the Indianapolis car for the 1966 season, and then I had a very bad accident at the end of ’65 in a Lola sportscar in which I broke part of my back and a number of other injuries which were touch and go for a while. So I wasn’t able to commit myself, I didn’t know whether I would be fit. And in any case, I had to commit myself first and foremost to Ferrari who I was contracted to and who had been very supportive during my accident. So I had to tell them that I wouldn’t be able to race the Indy car which I had tested. They said “well who do you pass it over to?” So I arranged with them that they would pass it over to Graham Hill, and of course he actually won with that car!

So what racing did you do in North America?

JS: Racing in America I enjoyed very much. We went with our own team and went with the Lola cars and fitted Chevrolet engines into them and won the first Can-Am Series which was very prestigious. That was very heartening and very good, with very good competitors. Those big sportscars were very enjoyable cars. Different, but again enjoyable. The prototype cars, like your racing Ferrari, were good, the circuits you did, the 1000km etc, and the out and out sportscar races using the five litre and seven litre engines were also different but nice.

You spoke earlier about your junior career and getting into Formula One. Nowadays, funding is such an important thing. You do work with Racing Steps, so how important do you think it is that this group helps fund young drivers and how difficult do you think it is for young drivers to get into the sport? 

JS: Well I think it’s vital, things like Racing Steps. Racing Steps is fairly unique. You know it doesn’t have a race team like Red Bull. Red Bull have also been fantastic for developing drivers and giving opportunities, but Racing Steps has certainly on the British scene gone along and given the drivers the ability to display their skills etc. Unfortunately, you come to a scene where that’s not necessarily enough if you’re going to follow a Formula One career. Nowadays, that dreaded thing of ‘bought drives’ comes in and they’re highly financed. I think the structure of motorsport is wrong, and there needs to be a system that allows talent to be able to progress without having mega bucks to support it. So I think that in many ways, like Racing Steps is doing at this moment, they’ve got to look at perhaps feeding drivers perhaps into the American scene. One of our drivers will in fact be in America next year, and that is good from a point of view of taking the British challenge over there. But it’s sad that in a way Formula One does not necessarily, except in rare examples, take the very best drivers.

For next season, there’s the idea of introducing the double points round for the final race. What do you make of this idea?

JS: (sighs) It must be purely a commercial gimmick. I think it’s totally and utterly wrong. This means of trying to artificially change the results of championships or races is something which is not in the true spirit of what we should be trying to achieve.

Finally, would you be willing to make a prediction for this year’s world championship?

JS: Very difficult to say. It would depend largely how the engine side develops. When you go along and see the complete way that the Red Bull team is operated and its structure, and you have a driver like Sebastian Vettel who has been superb in every area and the way he attacks his racing is something which is an example to all these young drivers I think, they must have a chance to be right at the top. Ferrari, with the opportunity to develop the new engines and going back to V6s, there’s a chance for them. I’m not quite so sure how the relationship with Alonso and Raikkonen will work. It’s not the one I would necessarily have chosen, but just the same, they’ll be there. Mercedes, also. I don’t like what I’ve seen happening at Mercedes, this juggle that’s taking place and people like Ross Brawn going. But just the same, they have immense resources and some very good people, and two very capable drivers. McLaren’s last year with Mercedes will be trying to lift up their game. It’s going to be very interesting, and the first race everyone will eagerly watch how things develop.

Memo Gidley’s race comeback confirmed in PWC at Sonoma

Photo: TKO Motorsports
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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.”