The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship premieres this weekend with the Rolex 24 at Daytona. We’ll have sporadic posts and updates for the season opener of the unified series, which brings together the GRAND-AM Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series.
First up in our list of class previews, the P class.
WHAT IT IS: The headlining class. No driver ranking limitations. Open chassis and engine combinations, spec Continental Tires. This combines the P2 cars from ALMS, the Daytona Prototypes from GRAND-AM and the DeltaWing, which ran in ALMS but isn’t homologated to any set of technical regulations as a developmental prototype.
WHO THEY ARE: 18 cars strong. It includes 11 DPs, 6 P2s, and the DeltaWing. The field includes a number of sports car veterans and some IndyCar and NASCAR interlopers.
A QUICK BREAKDOWN: The 11 DPs include two cars apiece from Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (No. 01/02 Ford EcoBoost Rileys), Action Express Racing (No. 5/9 Corvette DPs), and one car apiece from Wayne Taylor Racing (No. 10 Corvette DP), Marsh Racing (No. 31 Corvette DP), Highway to Help (No. 50 Dinan Riley), Michael Shank Racing (No. 60 Ford EcoBoost Riley), Starworks Motorsport (No. 78 Dinan Riley), Spirit of Daytona (No. 90 Corvette DP) and GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing (No. 99 Corvette DP).
Ganassi has won five of the last eight overall Rolex 24s, and a win for Scott Pruett in the No. 01 would be a record sixth overall title. But the team had engine problems at the Roar Before the Rolex 24, and left a day early. Shank (2012), Action Express (2010) and Taylor (2005) also have prior overall wins in the above batch. It feels like a year where a first-timer could break through, and all of the above bar the Marsh (P class debut) and Highway to Help (four gentlemen drivers) could pull it off.
The P2s are two two-car operations, Extreme Speed Motorsports (No. 1/2 HPD ARX-03b) and SpeedSource (No. 70/07 Mazda SKYACTIV-D Coupe) with Muscle Milk Pickett Racing (No. 6 ORECA 03 Nissan) and OAK Racing (No. 42 Morgan Nissan) completing the six open-top P class cars in the field. Reliability may be an issue; pace certainly will for the Mazdas, which are brand new and simply hoping to finish; and the other three teams don’t have the same level of Daytona experience as the DPs. I think a P2 car could score an overall podium – perhaps Muscle Milk – but I doubt one will win overall.
The DeltaWing is a beast unto itself, and in a decently good position compared to its at-times fragmented 2013. There’s a solid driver lineup that includes Caterham F1 reserve Alexander Rossi, Indy Lights runner-up Gabby Chaves and 2013 drivers Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge. Reliability will be the issue, as the team’s Élan powerplant hasn’t lasted anywhere close to a 24-hour race distance. But the pace was very good from testing. Finishing is goal one, and if it’s still running, it could sneak a surprise result with the DWC13 coupe.
WHO TO WATCH: As outlined above, it’s hard to go against a DP, which have the edge on P2 cars in terms of overall lap time and outright speed on the ovals. And of the DPs, the Corvettes have the reliability compared to the premiering Fords and privateer Dinans. But realistically there’s about 10-12 of the 18 cars entered in class that should be battling for the podium at the end of 24 hours.
The drivers of note? Sports car veterans such as Pruett, Ryan Dalziel, Joao Barbosa, the Klaus Graf/Lucas Luhr pairing, the Taylor brothers, and the trio in the Spirit of Daytona Corvette. IndyCar’s Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson, and James Hinchcliffe. NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and AJ Allmendinger.
INDIANAPOLIS – According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department police report, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint at an Indianapolis Taco Bell on Sunday night.
A team spokesperson confirmed the incident to NBC Sports and that both drivers – Dixon, the leading active driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – were OK, but would decline comment.
Dixon, who won the pole for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and Franchitti were at a Taco Bell, located at 3502 W. 16th St., around 10 p.m. on Sunday night.
According to FOX 59 in Indianapolis, which reported the story via reporter Russ McQuaid and online, here, Dixon and Franchitti were in the drive-through lane there – being robbed before the suspects allegedly fled, and were arrested as of Monday morning.
Dixon, who along with wife Emma and their two daughters, Poppy and Tilly were present in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press conference earlier Sunday afternoon, live in Indianapolis.
Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, spoke to Indianapolis TV stations WTHR (Indianapolis NBC affiliate) and WISH-TV on Monday morning from IMS. Video of that is linked below via the Indianapolis Star’s Brody Miller.
Kanaan led off the interview saying, “I was supposed to be with them. I’m from Brazil, so I’m a little bit more accustomed to this stuff (laughter). I’m glad they’re OK, and now I can make fun of them.”
Jenson Button hasn’t yet sat or tested the McLaren Honda he’ll be racing this weekend. But when you’re a past Formula 1 World Champion and Monaco Grand Prix winner (Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBC), as Button is, you should be able to adapt pretty quickly.
Button, who won both titles during the 2009 season, will make his first and thus far only planned start of 2017 this weekend as stand-in for Fernando Alonso, who’s hogged the headlines and embraced the challenge of his maiden run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
With Monaco offering a good chance to score points for McLaren – it’s not power-dependent – Button is keeping expectations low up front as he prepares for his comeback.
“It feels slightly surreal to be back in the cockpit for the Monaco Grand Prix. When the call came from Eric there was no hesitation – it’s a totally unique situation and a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to stepping back behind the wheel for one of the most crazy, unpredictable and exciting races of the year,” he said in the team’s advance release.
“Monaco is truly unique as a track, and requires a lot of work to fine-tune the car and optimize the set-up for the narrow layout. It’s always a challenge – a huge challenge, for any driver – but a really exciting challenge, and has always been up there in my favorite races of the year.”
Button said he’s focused and prepared for the drive, for what will be his 306th career Grand Prix start – one which would draw him level with Michael Schumacher for second on Formula 1’s all-time start list. Button’s old teammate, Rubens Barrichello, holds that mark with 322 starts in 326 Grand Prix weekends.
“Although I haven’t turned a wheel on track yet in the MCL32, I feel well prepared,” he said.
“I know the track well, of course, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in the McLaren simulator already. I’m still fit, and I’ve been training probably more than ever, because I’ve had the time to focus on my triathlon preparation and competitions.
“I’m looking forward to working with the team again, and, as I’ll be on the other side of the garage this time around, I’ll do my best to look after the car for Fernando!”
McLaren Honda racing director Eric Boullier, who has been in Indianapolis with Alonso this week, said Button is up to the task.
“In the famous Monaco paddock, we welcome the return of Jenson, who we are all looking forward to working with again, and who is already doing a sterling job deputizing for Fernando, having already completed stints in our simulator in preparation,” he said.
INDIANAPOLIS – Points are not officially awarded for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil until after the race is completed next Sunday.
But as the Verizon IndyCar Series awards qualifying points for all 33 positions, the standings are different now today than they were 24-plus hours ago.
Pole position for Scott Dixon netted him 42 points in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon was second in points with 181, 10 behind Simon Pagenaud in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet at 191, heading into Indianapolis 500 practice, qualifying and the race.
But with Pagenaud having a frustrating qualifying – he only will start 23rd, scoring only 11 qualifying points – he now falls 21 points behind Dixon as Dixon netted 31 points. The unofficial margin is 21 points as Dixon now goes to 223, with Pagenaud also crossing the 200-point threshold at 202.
INDIANAPOLIS – The awkward but inevitable next step that came Sunday, after Saturday’s accident in qualifying for Sebastien Bourdais, is how do the two teams he drives for move forward with filling their seats in the Verizon IndyCar Series and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip, Bourdais’ recovery time is expected to be at least a couple months, and that presents unintended opportunities at Dale Coyne Racing and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in the weeks and months to come.
That being said, Bourdais already seemed in upbeat spirits, in a statement released Sunday.
“I want to thank everybody for the support and the messages, quite a few drivers have already dropped by,” Bourdais said. “It’s going to take time, but I’m feeling pretty good since the surgery. I’ll be back at some point. Just don’t know when yet!”
INDYCAR: It’s a Davison encore, then back to good ‘ol TBA
On Sunday, James Davison was confirmed as Bourdais’ replacement in the No. 18 Honda for the Indianapolis 500, a move which raised some eyebrows in the paddock, but does make sense from a continuity standpoint within the Coyne team.
This is Davison’s third experience with Coyne, having made his IndyCar debut with the team in a handful of races in 2013, and then again jumping in for the 2015 Indianapolis 500.
At the latter event, he proved he could get up to speed quickly in practice, and was moving forward in the race before contact occurred – bizarrely – with another one-off teammate in Tristan Vautier.
Known for his innate speed and his ability to go all-out – Australian countryman Will Power rates Davison highly – Davison has the potential to bring the car from the back of the field forward to a potential top-15 result. Working with engineers Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson, the latter of whom was an engineer at KV Racing Technology when Davison was a rookie in 2014 as he finished an Indianapolis 500-best 16th place, will also aid his progress and his confidence.
With the Dale Coyne Racing team having built up the backup car and completed a seat fit by late Sunday night, Davison is expected to have his first running on Monday’s practice.
Davison will get through the Indianapolis 500 but then Coyne is, unfortunately, back to the long-running joke of a “TBA situation” from Detroit onwards.
Davison is experienced at Detroit in sports cars, where he’s podiumed before. But he hasn’t ever driven a street course race in IndyCar and his only two road course races were before the manufacturer aero kit introduction, at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma in 2013, also with Coyne.
With a number of hungry young drivers and experienced team veterans to choose from, Coyne will no doubt be busy figuring out the best possible solution from there. It would not be a surprise if Coyne continued down the path of using some drivers he’s worked with before, given the opportunity.
LE MANS: Options wide in some respects, limited in others
The sports car situation for Le Mans, in figuring out Bourdais’ replacement, is a bit more complex – owing to a lack of drivers who have Ford GT experience, or lack Le Mans experience, or some combination of both.
Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports on Sunday in Indianapolis before qualifying it was important to “let the dust settle” following Bourdais’ accident when it comes to discussing the Le Mans open seat, which is a salient point.
Hull and the CGR IndyCar team are locked in on trying to win the Indianapolis 500 first, with the four-car entry here. It’s not that Le Mans is secondary – the team has a victory to defend – but there, the two U.S.-based entries are the extras that join the two primary FIA World Endurance Championship entries.
It’s a shame that Bourdais will not be able to join his stablemates, Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller, in defending their GTE-Pro class victory in the No. 68 Ford GT. It does leave open a rare seat in the winning chariot from 2016, though, with a decision probably set to come within “the days ahead” per Ford Performance Global Director Dave Pericak, to Sportscar365.
The only three drivers available with Ford GT experience are Marino Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Scott Maxwell.
Franchitti’s last start with the program came at Circuit of The Americas last year, with third driver Harry Tincknell moving into a full-season role the final few races of last year driving alongside Andy Priaulx.
Kanaan has car experience – he made his Ford GT debut at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona – but he’d be in the same dilemma Scott Dixon was last year, where he’d miss the Le Mans Test Day on June 4 owing to his IndyCar commitments at Detroit. Rookies at Le Mans have to go through a simulator process as well, so if Kanaan were to be the choice, he’d have to undertake that process barring an unexpected shift or waiver granted.
Maxwell, meanwhile, was an integral part of the Multimatic and Ford development process but has never actually raced the car. He has Le Mans experience, and a 2000 class win in LMP675, but the likable and talented Canadian’s five starts came between 2000 and 2006.
Outside those with Ford GT experience, there’s some intriguing names who could work.
In terms of ready-made plug-and-play solutions, IMSA Prototype drivers Ryan Dalziel, Johannes van Overbeek, Marc Goossens and Jonathan Bomarito have GT class experience at Le Mans. Joao Barbosa or Dane Cameron could be intriguing options – Barbosa is vastly experienced while Cameron would be a rookie – but owing to the fact they race Cadillacs in IMSA, it’s highly unlikely GM would release either to drive for the Blue Oval, even on a one-off. Dalziel has a versatile Le Mans CV in five starts, where he’s raced and won in LMP2 and also raced in GT twice.
In the GT Daytona classes, other veterans with Le Mans experience include Scott Pruett, Bryan Sellers, Gunnar Jeannette, Colin Braun and Jeff Segal. Segal won Le Mans in a mid-engined, normally aspirated Ferrari 458 Italia last year (the new 488 model, which Segal’s co-drivers Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler are in, is a turbocharged one), and as he drives for Ganassi’s manufacturer partner in IndyCar – Honda (via Acura) – so he could be a viable option too. Braun, a CORE autosport Porsche driver now, has Ford experience from his NASCAR days and also via speed runs at Daytona in a Daytona Prototype. He’s currently scheduled to race GRC Lites in Canada that weekend with CORE.
And then there is a crazy, hypothetical situation that came to mind where Hand and Mueller have an old teammate they know well from their old manufacturer, BMW, who has a bunch of Le Mans experience and a similar partner in IHG Rewards Club: Bill Auberlen. Could BMW release Auberlen to Ford, “get the band back together” for one last hurrah, and see the still crazy fast, veteran Californian saddle up to ride with an American manufacturer? Especially as Auberlen could be in the frame for BMW’s 2018 Le Mans lineup on his own, and thus have only one more shot to reunite? This option is a remote one, but it is fascinating to ponder.
Bourdais’ injury is unfortunate for one of the most talented drivers competing in both the open-wheel and sports car worlds, but it does provide one or more drivers with shots in top-level equipment to star from here on out the rest of the 2017 season.