Villeneuve’s Indy 500 return trumpets the past, not the future IndyCar needs

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For four years, Jacques Villeneuve was one of the world’s best open-wheel drivers.

From 1994 through 1997, the talented and sometimes tempestuous Canadian dazzled on both a North American and international stage.

He was a star in CART for two years, and in 1995 was the young upstart threatening the iconic names of Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi and Rahal.

A year later he was off to Frank Williams’ Formula One team, in 1996. He almost won his first Grand Prix in Melbourne, and he took the title chase down to the last race in Suzuka. He won the championship a year later after surviving a lunge from Michael Schumacher at Dry Sac corner in Jerez, Spain.

From there, Villeneuve’s F1 career was never able to reach the same heights. He worked with Craig Pollock, and was his first driver in the new British American Racing team. But results between 1998 and 2006 with Williams, BAR-Honda, Renault, Sauber-Petronas and BMW Sauber were few and far between.

Eventually he made a few NASCAR starts, where he occasionally upset the establishment. He made a record, to show off his musical stylings.

He’s talked. He’s talked some more. And he’s talked again, most recently expressing doubts about F1’s newest era.

He’s returning to a full-time rally seat in the new FIA World Rallycross Championship, which has 12 rounds from May to November. But one of the rounds is May 24-25 at Lydden Hill in England, which happens to fall on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500.

Assuming he takes the green flag at the ‘500 in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ third car, he’ll set a new record for the longest gap between starts, with 19 years in-between that 505-mile race win and May 25, 2014.

Villeneuve is 42 now – 43 at the time of the ‘500 – and he’ll join a field that will include former ‘500 winners Buddy Lazier, 46, Tony Kanaan, 39, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, both 38. Scott Dixon, 33, is the youngest former ‘500 winner in the field.

All of the above preamble can lead to one of two overriding opinions:

  • It’s great for the sport, and great for Villeneuve, that he’s choosing to come back to the ‘500 after such a long absence. He’s a marquee name, former winner, and still attracts both discussion and sponsors.
  • It’s a joke, a PR stunt, reeks of desperation and denies a spot for a young talent to have a shot.

While social media tends to skew toward either extreme, Villeneuve’s presence really lies in the middle, albeit skewing slightly more to the latter than the former to me.

The good, first: Villeneuve is a big name, no question. The prestige associated with his past accolades is still something commercial partners can hang their hat on.

He seems to think IndyCar, as an organization, has made strides from where it was when he last left (albeit, it’s been through CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League monikers and separate series since 2008’s unification). And he wants in.

“It looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn’t racing. So that got me going again,” he said during today’s teleconference.

He has “villainous” tendencies, because of his handful of NASCAR starts occasionally featured controversial endings. He sometimes used his Team Penske Dodge as a battering ram at the Montreal circuit named after his father, Gilles.

But there are the questions as to either: A: Does he know what he’s getting himself into and B: What is really in this for Jacques?

He’s set himself up for a challenge. He hasn’t driven an open-wheel car since 2006, but he should be able to reacclimate quickly. At least he hopes he will.

“The power levels are the things you get used to the fastest,” he explained. “Possibly downforce and also driving a car that once again will be quite stiff compared to the cars I’ve been driving lately and very reactive. You can’t manhandle as much. When you get sideways at Indy, the chances of you catching it are quite slim compared to most other cars. You can catch it, but it’s not something you want to push.”

As far as expectations go, the word used today multiple times was “opportunity,” that stemmed from the discussions that have taken place quickly over the past few weeks.

But opportunity to do what? Just to start? To throw himself in the middle of the field and hope he can beat the full-timers to be a serious top-five or top-10 contender?

And then here’s a part I found interesting: the mention of kids. Ironically, Villeneuve’s hoping his appearance in this year’s 500 will be proof he’s still got it to his kids, while he’ll be in a seat that some in the IndyCar world hoped would have gone to – you guessed it – a kid.

“I don’t want to be for my kids just the guy that used to race that they can see in books,” he said. “I want them to see and live what I’ve already lived, to see it through my doing it actively. It’s actually a positive effect to have kids.”

Yet it’s IndyCar’s kids – a Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Conor Daly, Stefan Wilson or whoever else – who now have to work even harder to find the funding opportunities to achieve the same opportunity as a guy who starred as a kid in the 1990s.

Go figure.

Without a commercial partner announcement to go with today’s official confirmation, and yes, Schmidt Peterson co-owner Sam Schmidt is confident one will be announced in “not too long of an order,” it all doesn’t particularly add up yet.

You can trumpet the past winner argument all you want, and you can say it puts another car on the grid, and you can say it’s going to be cool to see how someone who raced in another era of open-wheel racing takes to the modern incarnation. All fair points, and yes, they will be interesting to watch.

But when you’re embracing your history books rather than the young students who are reading them, you miss the chance to write some new, fresh chapters with new, fresh characters.

Magnus brings in ‘hired gun’ Spencer Pumpelly for Mid-Ohio

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With Mansfield, Ohio the home of the prison in The Shawshank Redemption in the Ohio State Reformatory (also known as the Mansfield Reformatory) and with Magnus Racing PR ace and “Dinner with Racers” co-creator Sean Heckman one of two who’ve coined the inside joke that Spencer Pumpelly allegedly tried to kill a guy, it was only natural that Pumpelly will play the role of Magnus Racing’s “hired gun” near the prison at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Pirelli World Challenge competition this weekend.

The joke stems from the first season of “DWR” and was a running joke throughout the season. The “hired gun” play-on-words riffs on the fact Pumpelly will be substituting for Pierre Kaffer in the team’s No. 4 Audi R8 LMS this weekend, with Kaffer on duty at the Total 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps for Audi Sport.

Pumpelly has raced alongside Kaffer and Dane Cameron in PWC SprintX competition this season – Pumpelly and Cameron actually won the second race of the weekend at Lime Rock Park – and now the veteran sports car driver and Atlanta native will make his first PWC Sprint starts of the year, and first since his similar fill-in role with Heckman’s “DWR” co-creator, Ryan Eversley, at RealTime Racing last year… which also started at Mid-Ohio.

“It’s great to have Spencer back in the team,” stated Magnus Racing team owner and driver John Potter, who is in the team’s No. 44 Audi in GTA. “Spencer has always fit right in with us, but driving the team to our first series victory of course sealed a very special place for his legacy with us. We’re hoping Mid-Ohio suits both Spencer and the No. 4, and hopefully we can repeat the same feat.”

“It’s great to return to the team,” stated Pumpelly. “Obviously our last race together went extraordinarily well, and we’re hoping that same momentum can continue in to Mid Ohio. It’s always tough to say what to expect, especially in these very frantic sprint races, but we’re optimistic that the circuit should suit us. The entire team at Magnus has done a great job putting this effort together, and we look forward to pushing for additional results.”

Jay Frye expresses positive outlook on 2018 car

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In a teleconference with members of the media on Monday, the prevailing mindset of INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye, who helped oversee the design of the 2018 universal aero kit (pictured above in a Chevrolet livery), was one of positivity following it’s official unveiling, in speedway trim, earlier today.

First and foremost, though he helped head the effort, he was vocal about the input he got from a number of different entities during the process of creating the design.

“This has been a year and a half in the making, and the process has finally come to a point where we can get the car on the track, so we’re quite excited about that,” he revealed. “We certainly appreciate everyone’s help, from Dallara to the teams who have helped to the manufacturers who have helped and certainly the fans. Over the last few months we kept putting out some different things to get reactions from fans to see what they thought of the project. It helped us a lot, because it made us feel like we were going in the right direction, which is great.”

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Honda livery. Photo: IndyCar

The overall timeline of the project dates back to last year, particularly at tests at Phoenix International Raceway and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where the experimentation process began. It was after those tests, as Frye explained, that the 2018 car began to take shape. “From that point (after tests at Phoenix and Mid-Ohio), we took what we thought the car should look like, and that’s where we talked about reverse engineering the car and to aesthetically make it have a historical feel, but in a very forward car, and I think we’ve done that.”

And with the project now open for the public to see, Frye appears confident that people will like how it performs. “The numbers have come back very strong, which we’re quite excited about. And here we are coming up to tomorrow, where we’re going to have our first on-track test. It’s been a long process, but it’s been very methodical,” he added.

Specific to those numbers, two obvious areas stand out the most: cost and downforce. First, as Frye explained, the operating cost of the 2018 aero kit is expected to be considerably less in comparison to the current aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda. Further, the conversion costs, the money the teams will spend in switching their chassis over to the new kits, is less than expected, making the package significantly more economical. As Frye explained, this is a result of negotiations in which it was agreed that this package will be in use for at least three years.

“From a total cost perspective, one of the things we looked at is called a conversion cost. What would it cost to convert the cars now? It’s not as much as we first thought it would be,” Frye detailed. “The annual cost will be 30-40 percent less than what the current car is. One of the things with having a universal car is we were able to negotiate the term, which is for three years, so the teams can plan for it. That was something that was very important: what the conversion cost was going to be and what the annual cost was going to be over this term.”

And, in terms of downforce, there will be reductions in aerodynamic downforce as well as overall downforce. First, most of the car’s grip will be generated from the bottom of the car, whereas currently most of the grip is produced by airflow over the top of the car. As Frye explained, this not only is significant to the overall performance of the car and how it will race, but it also reduces the chance for large debris fields after an accident.

“Sixty to seventy percent of the downforce is generated from the bottom of the car, where as before it was 40-45 percent, so there’s been a big gain in that. Also, another piece to the puzzle, there are less parts and pieces on top of the car, which creates less debris opportunities,” said Frye.

Further, the overall package is expected to produce 20-25 percent less downforce, that estimation even accounting for teams’ ability to develop the chassis to find areas where downforce could be added.

Frye added that this was a key element in the design of the car. “What we tried to do is create a window, so the total potential window of the car’s downforce level has shifted down. Obviously, as the teams start running the car, they’ll get better and better and better, so we wanted to make sure to move it a different direction that, once downforce comes back to a degree, we haven’t exceeded this window we’re looking at,” he revealed.

And, of course, enhanced safety was a big factor as well. Frye discussed a particular emphasis on side impacts, especially in the wake of accidents involving James Hinchcliffe (2015) and Sebastien Bourdais (2017), in which they suffered serious injuries following side-on impacts with the wall.

“The side-impact piece that’s in this car is moved forward, the radiator is moved forward, so it’s also a much more robust protection piece for the side-impact of the drivers,” Frye described.

And, of particular note in the wake of the F1 Strategy Group revealing that a halo will be introduced in 2018, Frye added that cockpit protection remains at the forefront, and while nothing is set in stone at the moment, the new chassis has room for cockpit protection to be added.

“The cars are built and designed around having some sort of application like that,” Frye said of cockpit protections. “At some point, we’ll test something, whatever application we can come up with. We’re definitely conscious of it, we’re conscious of how it will affect aesthetically, we’re conscious of the safety piece.”

The Verizon IndyCar series will test the 2018 car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tomorrow, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia doing the driving, with additional tests scheduled for Iowa Speedway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and Sebring International Raceway later this year.

Soon after series testing is complete, Honda and Chevrolet will begin receiving chassis for their respective teams to test, with all IndyCar teams scheduled to receive their cars beginning in November. Individual team testing will then begin in January of 2018.

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IndyCar takes wraps off 2018 universal aero kit

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After months of renderings, INDYCAR has today revealed in full the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit.

This replaces the manufacturer aero kits that have been in use from Honda and Chevrolet since 2015.

Dallara was selected to build the kit, which comes on top of the existing base Dallara DW12 chassis that has run in the Verizon IndyCar Series since 2012.

Testing begins tomorrow at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Juan Pablo Montoya in the Chevrolet powered car, run by Team Penske and with Oriol Servia in the Honda powered car, run by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

More to follow.

Mercedes to enter Formula E from season six, quit DTM after 2018

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Mercedes will join the FIA Formula E championship from the start of its sixth season in 2019 after taking up its option on an entry.

Mercedes announced last October that it had secured an option to join the grid as a manufacturer from season five (2018/19), but was still evaluating an entry as of last month.

Despite having until October to make a final decision on taking up the entry, Mercedes announced on Monday that it would be going ahead with plans to join Formula E, starting from season six (2019/20).

As part of a realignment of its motorsport interests, Mercedes also confirmed that it would be quitting DTM, Germany’s leading touring car series, at the end of 2018.

“Mercedes Benz has announced a strategic repositioning of its motorsport activities: the company will conclude its participation in DTM at the end of 2018 and enter Formula E in the 2019/20 season,” a statement reads.

“This new approach will see Mercedes-Benz competing at both ends of the motorsport spectrum: in Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport combining high technology and the most demanding competitive challenge; and in Formula E, which embodies the transformation that is underway in the automotive industry.”

“Mercedes-Benz will market future battery powered electric vehicles using the EQ label,” said Dr. Jens Thiemer, Vice President Marketing Mercedes-Benz.

“Formula E is a significant step in order to demonstrate the performance of our attractive battery powered electric vehicles, as well as giving an emotional spin to our EQ technology brand through motorsport and marketing.”

Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff added: “In motorsport like in every other area, we want to be the benchmark in the premium segment and to explore innovative new projects.

“The combination of Formula 1 and Formula E delivers that. Formula E is like an exciting start-up venture: it offers a brand new format, combining racing with a strong event character, in order to promote current and future technologies.

“Electrification is happening in the road car world and Formula E offers manufacturers an interesting platform to bring this technology to a new audience – and to do so with a completely new kind of racing, different to any other series.

“I am pleased that we were able to extend our entry option for one year to the 2019/20 season. This gives us time to properly understand the series and to prepare for our entry in the right way.”

“Today is a great day as we welcome Mercedes to the Formula E family – adding to the increasing number of manufacturers joining the electric revolution,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said.

“This step shows how much the world is changing, not only in motorsport, but the whole automotive industry. We’re witnessing a transformation that will first change our cities, and then our roads.

“Formula E is the championship that embodies that change, and together with all our teams and manufacturers we’ll keep pushing for technologies to have better and more affordable electric cars.”