The Swiss sports car angle de Silvestro isn’t taking part in… for now

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With what appeared to be a full lineup at Sauber’s Formula One squad, the news Simona de Silvestro will be joining the team this year as an affiliated driver was a bit of a surprise.

She didn’t seem likely for any of the four remaining full-season IndyCar seats – the second seats at Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Dale Coyne Racing, and the lone seats at Panther Racing or Bryan Herta Autosport.

What made a lot of sense on paper – and something I attempted to project on Twitter last night – was de Silvestro moving ahead with a 2014 sports car program in either the FIA World Endurance Championship or the European Le Mans Series.

Both championships’ entry lists were revealed on Thursday. The timing of her announcement coming today, in Switzerland, on the heels of the presentation in Paris would connect some dots.

It’s served some other ex-open-wheelers, like 2013 Le Mans and WEC LMP2 champs Martin Plowman and Bertrand Baguette for instance, quite well.

Three teams in Rebellion Racing, Newblood by Morand Racing and Race Performance, are Swiss teams confirmed for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Rebellion will compete in the full WEC season with its two new ORECA-designed Rebellion R-One Toyotas in the LMP1-L class; Morand’s Morgan Judd and Race Performance’s ORECA 03 Judd will compete in the ELMS full season in LMP2, and were granted a Le Mans entry in the same class.

There was also Kessel Racing, a Swiss team competing in the GTE class of ELMS with two Ferrari F458 Italias, but without a Le Mans entry for this year.

Because inquiring minds want to know, 9 Sixty Two Media’s Declan Brennan inquired to Rebellion about the potential of de Silvestro racing for the team at Le Mans, and the team responded.

Sports car racing is becoming a more popular avenue for drivers to get paid to race if suitable opportunities in single-seaters fail to present themselves.

In any of these teams, de Silvestro would have been committed to a full season of racing, and in three of them, she would have had a shot to race at the most prestigious 24-hour race in the world.

She still could if Sauber is OK with it, now that she’ll be European-based for 2014. It’s an avenue she could explore with great effect.

Three Ferrari F458 Italias are entered in the Le Mans GTE Pro class, and another eight (all 2013-spec or older) are in the GTE Am class.

Where de Silvestro could be hurt is with her FIA driver ranking; as a full-time IndyCar driver, she should be a Platinum-ranked driver, and that would limit her options. The GTE Am class requires at least one Bronze and a second Silver or Bronze-rated driver for two of the three seats.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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