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.
Next up in our list of class previews, the GTLM class.
WHAT IT IS: The lead GT class. All open; no driver limitations, and the only class to allow for open tire competition (incidentally, all GTLM cars at Daytona run on Michelins). It’s the GT class that carried over from the ALMS, which features factory efforts from manufacturers. Still, marks the first time any of these cars will be competing in the 24-hour race. SRT (2013), Porsche (2013) and Ferrari (2011-’13) have competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with their current model cars.
WHO THEY ARE: 11 cars strong, from six different manufacturers, driven by a mix of sports car veterans and IndyCar interlopers.
A QUICK BREAKDOWN: Corvette Racing (No. 3/4 Corvette C7.R), BMW Team RLL (No. 55/56 BMW Z4 GTLM), SRT Motorsports (No. 91/93 SRT Viper GTS-R) and Porsche North America (No. 911/912 Porsche 911 RSR) have two cars apiece. There’s two Ferraris, one apiece from Krohn Racing (No. 57) and Risi Competizione (No. 62), and a single Aston Martin from the Prodrive-run AMR factory squad (No. 97).
Porsche was quick at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test; the manufacturer went 1-2 at Le Mans last year, in a 24-hour race that runs a little different than Daytona. Corvette seeks a debut win with the new C7. SRT made large performance strides in its first full season in 2013; BMW was great on handling circuits but struggled for top end speed; Ferrari and Aston Martin are the under-the-radar wild cards.
WHO TO WATCH: Too many stars to name, to be honest. Any of the drivers has the ability – whether consistently over several stints or for short bursts – to star. The privateer Krohn entry is the only car of the 11 without a realistic shot at winning, and it would not be a surprise to see three different manufacturers on the podium.
FORT WORTH – Rivalries that have lasted for 10 years aren’t supposed to sound like this, right?
“He’s a hell of a driver, a great competitor,” Graham Rahal said of Simon Pagenaud Tuesday during a test at Texas Motor Speedway. “And a great guy. It’s not like I dislike him. I like Simon a lot.”
Pagenaud, the current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader after four races, had even more flattering words for Rahal.
“Graham is a very aggressive driver, he’s exciting to watch. Maybe a lot more exciting than me,” Pagenaud said. “He’s a very good driver. I have a lot of respect for him because he can sometimes outdrive the car, make it better than it actually is. He’s doing a great job.”
This is what it sounded like two weeks after the top drivers for rival manufacturers dueled in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, exchanging the lead four times while combining to lead all 90 of the race’s laps.
After making contact with Rahal on with nine laps left, Pagenaud went off-track, gave up the lead and only took it back three laps later after Rahal suffered wing damage from hitting the lapped car of Jack Hawksworth.
“I know after the race Simon said he thought after we touched he was going to get me back, there was not a chance he would have gotten there,” Rahal said. “I can guarantee that. Cause I was way quicker on old tires than those guys were and if I had gotten clear, I was gone. And I knew that too, which is the frustrating part.”
Pagenaud won his second race in a row. For the second straight year, Rahal placed second at Barber Motorsports Park.
With that, a quiet rivalry that started a decade ago in the Champ Car Atlantic Series was given center stage.
Rahal and Pagenaud first crossed paths in 2006.
“I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is. For sure, it’s in my head, ‘I don’t lose to Simon,'” said Rahal, who earned six wins that year in the Atlantic series.
But it was Pagenaud who won the title as both transitioned into the Champ Car World Series in 2007. Rahal went to IndyCar in 2008 while Pagenaud drove in the American Le Mans Series for three years, making his debut in IndyCar in 2011.
“That’s the way it’s always been and when I see him particularly as the rabbit in front of me I’m going to get him,” said Rahal, who has yet to finish ahead of Pagenaud through four races. “It’s just my mentality. Obviously, he’s in a pretty good place right now.”
In his second year with Team Penske, Pagenaud has finished in the top two in all four races a season after not finishing better than third. Rahal is the flag bearer for Honda with two top-five finishes a season after winning two races – his first victories in seven seasons.
How does Pagenaud, the points leader, compare himself to his friendly rival?
“I’m more like a (Scott) Dixon, you never see me coming, all of a sudden I’m there and everybody’s like ‘what the hell? How the hell did he do that?'” Pagenaud said.
“Rahal is more like a Paul Tracy, which is really cool to watch. To race, it can be stressful, like it was in Barber.”
With the Month of May underway and the 100th Indianapolis 500 looming on May 29, the stress will start to mount for Rahal, who is looking to win the race 30 years after his father, Bobby Rahal, did it.
He goes into May knowing Honda will likely be at a disadvantage to Chevrolet.
“If we’re not on par, we’re not on par,” Rahal said. “Our job is to finish fifth or whatever. I hate saying that because it’s the 100th running, I want to win this race more than anything else, any race, any where, anytime. It’s 30 years after my dad Bobby won the Indy 500, so it’s a big year for me on many fronts.”
“I’m relaxed and confident I can do things I usually wouldn’t do,” said the Frenchman.
The Penske driver heads to the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis looking to recapture the magic of his win in the inaugural running of the race in 2014. But he had few worries about that or anything else during the test day in Texas.
“Because we’ve started so strong, I don’t have to prove anything,” Pagenaud said. “I can work on what I have to work on. I think that’s what makes for a bit of an advantage in my opinion, in my head.”
Meanwhile, Rahal will hope to better his finish in the GP of Indy by one position from last year, when he was the runner-up to Will Power.
And Pagenaud, the rabbit Rahal has chased quietly for a decade, will likely be there to challenge him.
“He’s a guy I like to beat,” Rahal said. “Barber was frustrating, not because I lost to him, but because I defeated myself to lose to him.”
I’m not sure whether Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” plays inside the halls of Brackley and Brixworth, home to Mercedes AMG Petronas, but the pop hit might be the song to best describe the team’s response to criticism over conspiracy theories that the team may be sabotaging Lewis Hamilton’s car this season.
Hamilton, usually a good team player and someone who’s been widely praised by Mercedes-Benz motorsport chief Toto Wolff for how he’s handled his early season adversity, finally had a moment of breakdown post-race in Sochi – where he’d recovered from his latest power unit issue in qualifying and started 10th to recover to second.
“My concern is not about beating Nico… I don’t have a problem with that. It’s more the guys giving me a car to be able to fight equally with him. That’s my concern,” Hamilton told NBCSN’s Will Buxton in the aftermath of the Russian Grand Prix.
Mercedes, meanwhile, took the unusual and bold step Wednesday of penning an open letter in the wake of the result, to address the criticisms levied at it and to explain what’s happened.
It’s a fascinating read and should be read in its entirety, linked here, but here are the highlights:
It’s about the livelihoods of the hundreds in the shop. Mercedes writes: “For those watching at home, a Grand Prix weekend starts on a Thursday morning and ends on Sunday night. A bad result might hurt for a few hours afterwards – but then life moves on. For more than one thousand people at Brackley and Brixworth, however, this is our life.”
One team. “To paraphrase Mr. Toto Wolff, we have worked our a**es off to get where we are today – and we have done so as a team. … There is no ‘A’ or ‘B’ team here.”
Pressing on in wake of Hamilton’s MGU-H failure, and other issues that arose. “We were baffled and gutted by the repeat MGU-H failure on Lewis’ car in qualifying. But we kept calm, gathered our thoughts and sprung into action. … (We could) make sure Lewis could start from P10 on Sunday without having broken parc ferme.” The team also addressed Rosberg’s MGU-K behavior and Hamilton’s water pressure issues in subsequent paragraphs.
We know we could be better. “Ultimately, none of this changes the fact that we have not met our own expectations in terms of reliability thus far this season.”
But haters are gonna hate, and we’re going to keep improving. “To those who stand with us, we thank you. And to the rest – the haters, the naysayers, the conspirators… if we can convince even half of you what we really stand for, we’ll consider that a battle well won.”
There are no full-season five-car teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series although there are a handful of four-car teams, and one of those four (Andretti Autosport) expands to five cars for the Indianapolis 500.
There is, however, a five-driver IndyCar team that’s gonna play the feud later this year – Celebrity Family Feud, that is.
Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, James Hinchcliffe and Conor Daly will be IndyCar’s contingent that goes up against five Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, Nina Agdal, Samantha Hoopes, Tanya Mityushina, Robyn Lawley and Hannah Ferguson.
The season premieres on June 26 at 8 p.m. ET (ABC), with specific episode dates – including the IndyCar and swimsuit model show – to be revealed at a later time.
And yes, lest you think this is merely an excuse to show swimsuit models in a racing post, there is a charitable aspect at play here.
The IndyCar team will play for the Indy Family Foundation, a fund intended to aid those in the motorsports community (regardless of the sanctioning body) who find themselves in financial need due to hardship caused by illness, injury or death.
Castroneves proceeded to make his stance on the 7 millimeter plate and its purpose clear.
“I’m not going to go into a Honda-Chevy dispute, but my thing is (that) I was the one that was upside down last year and no question adding the dome skid, for sure, for safety, that’s what we’re looking for,” Castroneves said during a break in testing.
“It doesn’t matter what car it is … when the car is sideways, (the domed skid) adds at least 500 to 1,000 pounds more downforce when you are sideways – which means you’re going to keep the car on the ground.”
Castroneves and teammate Will Power also don’t believe it’s too late to be bringing the plate into the mix, citing the nearly yearly change in aero packages and the Texas test being the second after one at Indy last month.
“The hype about this dome skid was brought about by Honda,” Power said. “They’re the only ones because it would benefit them massively to have strength in the dome skid because they have a lower downforce package, they have what we run in qualifying, so of course they’re going to politic very hard to say that’s it’s bad and this and that.”
After two hours of morning testing, Castroneves said “it’s too early to say” how the domed skid will impact the racing at Texas, a 1.5-mile track with 24-degree corner banking.
Graham Rahal, the only Honda driver who spoke in the media availability Tuesday, said the addition of the domed skid “definitely hurts us” as the car must be raised 10 millimeters to install the plate, adding to the car’s ride-height.
“The guys that tell you it doesn’t make a difference are lying, to be honest,” Rahal said. “There’s obviously some politics going on, I think the Chevy guys don’t want the side walls to help make up for that, but we need it for sure.”
Rahal has been the top finishing Honda driver in two of the first four races. Heading toward the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Rahal is sixth in points and frustrated that talk of the 7 millimeter plate could be a distraction from the event.
“That’s what I told IndyCar, I don’t even know why we’re doing this because we didn’t need to turn attention to something like this,” Rahal said.
“We should be talking about how great the Indy 500 is. Instead we’re talking about domed skids, which no one even knows what the heck that is other than us. But it does affect the car and we’re going to have work hard to make up for it.”
Juan Pablo Montoya also tested at Indianapolis and said he didn’t have any problems. But the 2015 Indy 500 champion later said driving in qualifying trim added a wrinkle to his test.
“Then it gets interesting really fast,” Montoya said. “It’s either really good or really interesting. In traffic, it’s a different world. It’s tough because the track’s really green so you don’t know how clean is that second groove. You’re not going to win anything by being really good today.”
They will have to be good when it counts, in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 and the Firestone 600 at Texas on June 11.