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.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Racing facing big challenges ahead

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After a few months off writing, Stefan Johansson’s back with his latest blog after a whirlwind month-plus of news across various forms of racing.

The F1 and IndyCar veteran turned driver manager and seasoned observer of all things motorsports has touched on a number of the challenges all of racing faces in the upcoming months and years in this entry, his latest conversation with Jan Tegler.

Johansson first hits on a fundamental problem within racing: a tight regulatory box thanks to crazy amounts of technology, coupled with escalating costs.

“The fundamental problem in general for pretty much every level of racing is that technology has taken over. Everything is driven by technology,” he writes. “Every racing series is driven by the engineering side instead of the drivers and the sporting side. The cars are far too expensive to run. All of the electronics, all of the aerodynamic development, all of the extra stuff which has become part of the cars today makes them massively more expensive to operate. Then we have all the various methods of simulation which effectively have replaced on track testing, this again is driving up the costs as all this equipment is constantly evolving, and anything involving R&D is never cheap.

“Not only are they more expensive as a whole, components are more expensive and the cars require three to four times the amount of people to run compared to what they used to. In the end, there’s nothing left over due to the costs. The money’s got to come from somewhere. Teams are operating more and more in survival mode, and as such they have to rely more and more on drivers bringing money.”

The next fundamental question is whether race cars and road cars should have similar levels of relevance, or instead be completely separate. Hybrid technology has been en vogue for the last few years, for instance.

“Race cars are made to go fast as they always have been,” Johansson writes. “Nowadays the main emphasis seems to be that road cars are supposed to save the planet, whether that’s valid or not but that’s the argument. Racing and road cars ought to be heading in two completely separate directions, if there is anything to be learned from Racing that could benefit the road car industry, great, but I don’t think the focus should be on that.

“The whole concept with this technology – the philosophy of what race cars are meant to be now – is going completely in the wrong direction in my opinion. This insanely complicated and expensive hybrid technology really doesn’t benefit anyone in racing. The development of the technology for road cars is already as advanced if not more than what we see in the F1 or LMP1 cars. So there’s really no gain. Then you can look at the whole aerodynamic thing on top of it – useless for a road car.

“Part of the problem is the PR the manufacturers produce. Their PR departments have an agenda and of course there’s the political side and that’s another agenda. There are all of these marketing efforts and the racing is just the tiny little bit at the bottom of it. Everything has to conform to all of the non-racing agendas.”

The visual, visceral appeal of driving is another point that Johansson worries has been lost in this era of engineering-driven machines.

“Anyone, even a layman with no knowledge of racing, can appreciate the effort and skill of a driver wrestling a car to make it perform as well as possible at the limit,” he writes. “But a car that does almost everything for a driver, that’s stuck to the road on a track with so much run off area that is virtually impossible to hit anything if you try too hard and go off, that any driver with a small amount of skill can jump in and get within half a second of a three-times world champion – that doesn’t excite people. It doesn’t have the same appeal.”

MONZA, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 02: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing sits in his car fitted with the halo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 2, 2016 in Monza, Italy. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

On the Halo coming to F1? Johansson offers this: “It’s now also been confirmed that the Halo head protection will be mandated. It was an inevitable decision in my opinion, once the knowledge is there and it’s for safety there’s no turning back. It’s a knee jerk reaction to something that should have never happened in the first place if any level of common sense had been applied at Suzuka when Jules Bianchi had his accident. But it happened, it was a freak accident and will in most likelihood never ever happen again, halo or no halo.”

On IndyCar’s new universal kit coming for 2018, he writes, “Aesthetically the new car certainly looks a lot better than the previous ones, it would have been nearly impossible to design one that could look any worse though. I guess this also fixes the disparity between the Chevy and Honda aero but what a pointless exercise the manufacturer aero kits were.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, exits his car after his engine expired during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While noting the manufacturer spend, Johansson also notes how much buzz Fernando Alonso generated from his Indianapolis 500 bow: “If the penny hasn’t dropped that maybe it’s not new car designs we need, but instead a much bigger focus on the drivers, who are the heroes that people want to watch. The value of Fernando Alonso racing at Indy this year is probably the best marketing IndyCar has had for the last 20 years.”

And on LMP1’s demise within the FIA WEC as three of the four manufacturers from 2015 have all pulled out? “I can’t see the WEC surviving. If Toyota follows Porsche what is there? What they should do is a pan-American/European championship of some kind. They should create some kind of hybrid series that brings IMSA and the ELMS together, spanning both continents.

“Look at Le Mans this year. The race was almost won by an LMP2 car at almost exactly 100 times less than the budget of the P1 teams – 100 times less! That should tell you something. Sports car racing has to be much more reasonable in terms of the costs. Look at the LMP3 class.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

2017 columns:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Acura ARX-05 formally revealed at The Quail (PHOTOS)

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After a teaser video was released a couple weeks ago, the formal, full unveil of Acura’s new ARX-05 prototype for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, to be fielded by Team Penske, took place today at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, in Monterey.

A photo from a private, VIP event emerged on social media on Thursday night ahead of the proper unveil, but now the car is officially out in the open for all to see.

A striking nose assembly section to the ARX-05, on top of the base Oreca 07 chassis, is perhaps the most notable visual identifier on the car.

The full release and a handful of photos are below.

Acura today unveiled the new Acura ARX-05 prototype race car at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering. Acura Motorsports will join forces with the legendary Team Penske organization to field a pair of the new Daytona Prototype International (DPi) entries in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.  

The Acura ARX-05 (Acura Racing eXperimental, generation 5) is the latest in a line of endurance prototypes to be fielded by the brand dating to 1991, just five years after the 1986 launch of the Acura marque. Based on the very successful ORECA 07 chassis, the new ARX-05 prototype showcases Acura-specific bodywork and design features, including Acura’s signature Jewel Eye™ headlights, and utilizes the race-proven AR35TT twin-turbocharged engine, based on the production 3.5-liter V-6 that powers the Acura MDX, RDX, TLX and RLX models.

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

“At Acura, Precision Crafted Performance is at the heart of everything we do.” said Jon Ikeda, Acura vice-president and general manager. “Whether it is our production cars or a prototype race car, if you want to be a performance brand you need to perform.”

The multi-year DPi program will be administered by Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for both Acura Motorsports and Honda Racing in North America. The competition debut of the Team Penske Acura prototypes will take place at the season-opening Rolex 24 in January, 2018. One of the team’s two ARX-05 entries will be piloted by the legendary Juan Pablo Montoya along with sports car champion Dane Cameron. The second driver pairing will be announced at a later date.

“Right from the start, Acura has raced – and done so successfully,” said Art St. Cyr, President of HPD and Acura Motorsports. “We’ve won with the Acura Integra Type R, the RSX, the first-generation NSX and with the Le Mans prototypes. Most recently, we’ve won with the new Acura NSX GT3. The ARX-05 is our fifth-generation prototype, and we expect great things from our partnership with Team Penske.”

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

DPi rules require manufacturers to use one of four approved prototype chassis, fitted with IMSA-homologated, manufacturer-designed and branded bodywork and engines. In the case of the ARX-05, the bodywork was developed by a team led by Acura Global Creative Director Dave Marek.

“We created a variety of initial sketches, then pared those down a handful of potential designs. Next came aero and wind tunnel model testing, and time for the engineers to have their say,” Marek recounted. “The design continued to be refined throughout the testing and evaluation process, until we came up with a final treatment that met our performance goals while maintaining Acura styling cues. It’s been an exciting process.”

Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) race car to be campaigned by Team Penske in 2018

The Acura ARX-05 will add to a rich legacy of Acura sports car racing successes, including the 1991-93 IMSA Camel Lights manufacturer and driver championships; 50 IMSA and American Le Mans Series class or overall race victories (through Watkins Glen 2017); and the 2009 American Le Mans Series manufacturer, driver and team championships, in both the LMP1 and LMP2 classes.

Based on the “J35” family of engines found in Acura MDX, RDX, TLX and RLX production vehicles, the Acura AR35TT engine has powered class winners at the 12 Hours of Sebring (2011-13); the 24 Hours of Le Mans and LMP2 World Endurance Championship (2012).  The engine also powered entries to American Le Mans Series LMP2 titles in 2012-13; and the overall winners at the Rolex 24, 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans in 2016.

Acura Motorsports currently campaigns the Acura NSX GT3 in the IMSA GTD category with Michael Shank Racing – where it has already won at Detroit and Watkins Glen this season – as well as with Real Time Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge GT division.

Following today’s official unveiling, the Acura ARX-05 will also be on display at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion (August 19) and on the Concept Lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance (August 20).

Manor alters No. 24 crew line-up for WEC Mexico

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Manor’s Jean-Eric Vergne will be joined by two new drivers in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson for the upcoming FIA World Endurance Championship round in Mexico following a revision of the team’s line-up.

Manor fielded ex-Toro Rosso Formula 1 and current Formula E racer Vergne alongside Jonathan Hirschi and Tor Graves in the No. 24 Oreca through the opening three rounds of the season, the trio recording a best finish of fourth in the LMP2 class at Le Mans.

Vergne was replaced by Roberto Merhi for the last round at the Nürburgring due to Formula E’s clashing commitments in New York, but will be joined by an all-new line-up for the next race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City on September 3.

Matt Rao returns to Manor’s LMP2 line-up after featuring last season ahead of a move to Signatech Alpine for 2017, acting as its silver-rated driver.

Vergne and Rao will be joined by British racer Ben Hanley, who moves onto his third team of the WEC season after featuring for TDS Racing, DragonSpeed and G-Drive Racing so far this season at Spa, Le Mans and the Nürburgring respectively.

Manor’s No. 25 Oreca line-up remains unchanged, with Vitaly Petrov being joined by Simon Trummer and Roberto Gonzalez for Mexico City.

Click here to see the full entry list of the 6 Hours of Mexico.

Porsche staying coy on Formula 1 engine rumors

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Porsche has remained coy on rumors it could be set to enter Formula 1 as an engine supplier in the near future despite confirming that it is in the process of developing a “high-performance, high-efficiency engine”.

Porsche rocked the motorsport world last month by announcing it would be closing its LMP1 program at the end of the season in order to prepare for an entry to Formula E in 2019.

The realignment of its motorsport strategy came following Porsche’s attendance of meetings regarding F1’s future power options, set to come into play for the 2021 season.

The German marque had been rumored to be considering entering F1 as an engine supplier alongside its Formula E commitments, with member of the executive board research and development Michael Steiner responding to the speculation.

“Like other manufacturers, we participate in discussions on the future Formula 1 powertrain at the invitation of the FIA,” Steiner said.

“At the moment, the team in Weissach is not working on an F1 engine, but it is working on a high-performance, high-efficiency engine, specifically at the design level.

“So far, we have not decided what we will do with this engine, or in other words whether we will use it in series production or in motorsport. If the LMP1 programme had continued, we would have worked on efficient high-performance engines, and we are now pushing ahead with this development.

“The development contract with the engineers will run for the next 18 months.”

When asked directly if Porsche would be entering F1 in 2021, Steiner said: “I am not working on that assumption, but there is no statement to be made about this.”

F1 currently boasts four engine manufacturers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault – but is known to be discussing its future regulations with a number of parties both inside and outside of the sport.

Porsche last featured in F1 as an engine supplier in 1991, powering the Footwork team for six races before its switch to Ford engines for the remainder of the season.