TUSC: Rolex 24 weekend recap, competition side

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Some general weekend observations from the scene at Daytona International Speedway, site of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The buzz, of course, was a little different this year with this being the opening round of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, new for 2014.

Competition wise…

  • Thank goodness Memo Gidley and Matteo Malucelli are beginning the recovery process after their severe accident in Hour 3. A disastrous accident to witness, but the safety elements and structural integrity of their cars did their jobs.
  • Bravo, CORE autosport. PC class win and GT Le Mans class win with the Porsche 911 RSR in only its second U.S. race. Jon Bennett and Morgan Brady have developed one of the finest organizations currently competing in motorsports.
  • It’s rare to hear the words “Chip Ganassi” and “Double DNF” in the same sentence. But a floor issue took the No. 02 Ford EcoBoost Riley out late, with an accident and other issues striking the defending race champion No. 01 at times.
  • The phrase BoP isn’t going away anytime soon. The most common refrains? The P2 cars were grossly overmatched at Daytona given their aero and limited power meant reduced top speeds. Additionally, the GT Daytona class Ferraris and Audis were rockets, and gaining anywhere from 8 to 15+ mph on the Porsches, Viper, BMW, and Aston Martins.
  • The speed gaps meant some of the talented drivers in the slower cars in GTD didn’t really get a chance to showcase themselves. Dane Cameron did a solid job to finish seventh in the GT3-spec BMW Z4 for Turner Motorsport, ahead of Alex Job’s No. 22 and NGT’s No. 30 Porsches. The latter car had IndyCar Race Director Beaux Barfield moonlighting as a race strategist…
  • On the other hand, several drivers made cracks about slower drivers in good cars. Overall co-winner Sebastien Bourdais went the furthest, calling some of the amateur drivers “terrorists.”
  • Muscle Milk Pickett Racing had arguably one of its best ever races as an organization this weekend. Perhaps under the radar since it wasn’t considered an outright win contender, the ALMS P1 champs stayed consistent and collected over its first 24-hour race since 2008, with a just result of fifth overall best of the P2 bunch in its ORECA 03 Nissan.
  • OAK Racing ran rather well, too, with its Morgan Nissan in terms of pace. But an alternator issue cost it a better result than eighth overall, and sixth in the P class. At one point, the black-and-pink No. 42 ran as high as third overall.
  • BMW had a weekend to remember, even though it had moments to forget after Friday’s Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge BMW Performance 200. In the Conti race, the overall winner and third-placed GS cars were bounced after the race… which meant only a 1-4 sweep in GS and 1-2 in ST. Meanwhile in the Rolex, the BMW Team RLL Z4s used strategy and reliability to finish second and fourth in GTLM – huge points results considering the car’s lack of top end speed meant it was not a match for Daytona.
  • Tough day in GTLM for the two American bruisers, Corvette and Viper. Corvette suffered mechanical issues for both of the debuting C7.Rs at one point or another; same for Viper, but at least one of the grease-covered SRTs made it to the podium after gathering its battle scars.
  • The DeltaWing and SpeedSource Mazda prototypes overachieved compared to expectations. Despite various issues, the DeltaWing pressed on for more than 1,000 miles of racing before retiring, and the Mazda SKYACTIV-D coupes were courteous when being lapped and kept running with both cars for more than 18 hours. Baby steps, perhaps, but the spirit of development and the underdog are alive with these two squads.
  • Overachievers of the race? For my money, the Starworks Motorsport DP with a run from a mid-60s overall starting position into second overall with Brendon Hartley in the first hour, and a consistent presence in the top seven until retiring with a mechanical issue. A genuinely impressive effort from Peter Baron’s squad.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.