Sebring 2014 may take some getting used to with new changes

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This weekend marks three major international motorsport events. Formula One kicks off its 2014 campaign with the Australian Grand Prix; NASCAR gets its first short-track racing on at Bristol Motor Speedway.

And in the former airfield of Sebring, Florida, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will run its second race of its 2014 season, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

This one’s going to be a weird one, because it will mark the first “former American Le Mans Series” race in the merged championship. Daytona was all well and good overall, but it was a past GRAND-AM affair, and what was good in the past was taken and amplified by the ALMS additions.

Sebring may well be the opposite. Gone, for the first time in 15 years, are the majestic marvels of technology – the LMP1 cars.

Although the full-season LMP1 grid in North America was less than subscribed over the last four to five years of the ALMS run, Sebring always featured a full LMP1 grid count.

Audi and Peugeot waged some epic bouts over a five-year span; the relative underdog Acura and Rebellion teams could always pull a surprise; and the Muscle Milk and Dyson teams had their chance to go against the world’s best, which for a handful of years included a bumper crop of extras from Europe (either of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup or FIA World Endurance Championship).

There was fan footage captured of the new-for-2014 LMP1-H prototypes from Audi and Porsche testing at Sebring last week. Yet for the first time in 15 years, the German manufacturers won’t be sticking around a couple weeks later to grind it out on the notoriously punishing circuit over 12 hours. Well, not with an LMP1 anyway; there’s plenty of representation in the GT classes.

That’s going to be something we’ll miss.

There’s also the lack of official practice for the TUDOR Championship until Thursday, although some teams have participated in private tests over the weekend. In recent years, ALMS on-track activity ran from Monday through Wednesday before official festivities kicked off Thursday. Now, not.

What Sebring does have going for it this year is a back to almost full field, with 66 cars projected to race on Saturday. The 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the race were down years, owing to the lack of a secondary major championship to produce a full field. But the 2011 and 2012 races, with an ILMC, then WEC presence, were something to behold.

The 2011 race saw the Hughes de Chaunac-led ORECA Peugeot team score the overall upset, ahead of Highcroft Racing in a one-off start of an HPD ARX-01e (the only time a new-for-2011 HPD LMP1 car raced). In 2012, a colossal scrap between Joey Hand’s BMW and Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari ended in favor of the American for top GT honors.

The potential for a surprise overall winner does exist, which is something that has, as mentioned above, only happened a couple of times in the past. The ORECA Peugeot’s 2011 triumph and the Penske LMP2 class Porsche RS Spyder overall win in 2008 were the only non-factory Audi or factory Peugeot wins at Sebring since 2000.

Live TV coverage is limited to just the first three hours, although the balance will be live streamed on IMSA.com. A mixed bag for sure, considering the race’s prestige, history and place within the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

But for the first time in nearly 20 years, Sebring will follow Daytona on the same schedule, and that just feels right.

In total, really, this year’s Sebring will be a radical departure from recent years past, but should offer much of the same good action we’ve been accustomed to in years past.

Just with different cars fighting for the overall win, and a different way of watching if you’re not at the track.

WATCH LIVE and notes: IndyCar at Barber (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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Coverage of the third round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, takes place today starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after INDYCAR: NEXT featuring James Hinchcliffe from Long Beach, which airs at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Leigh Diffey will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 2 to 5 p.m. CT and local time, so 3 to 6 p.m. ET.

The race sets up nicely for Team Penske and Chevrolet to get on the board with Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud starting in the top three positions.

But with the first two race winners, Hinchcliffe (fourth at Long Beach) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st at St. Petersburg) have started significantly further back. One of those trends seems set to continue today.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • With a 90-lap race, the pit windows are fairly open for a three-stop strategy. A two-stop could only be achieved with a significant amount of yellow.
  • With ambient temperatures in the mid-60s, about 20 to 25 degrees cooler than the rest of the weekend and with rain having washed rubber from the 2.3-mile circuit, expect track conditions to be significantly different on Sunday.
  • Scott Dixon starts fourth in pursuit of his elusive first 2017 victory and first Barber victory after six non-win podiums.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay will lead Andretti Autosport’s charge from P5, looking for his first win since Pocono 2015 and for his third Barber win after taking the 2013 and 2014 victories.
  • Josef Newgarden rolls off P7, as he looks for his first win with Team Penske. He won his first career race at his “adopted home track” in 2015 with CFH Racing.
  • Either or both Dale Coyne Racing drivers look to continue their incredible starts. Ed Jones and Sebastien Bourdais share Row 6, Jones having done well to outqualify Bourdais straight-up on Saturday.
  • Zach Veach makes his IndyCar debut from 19th. The 22-year-old has improved by about four or five tenths per session each session thus far for Ed Carpenter Racing, and will look for a clean race on Sunday.
  • Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown have arrived in Alabama and will make the rounds on Sunday as a get-acquainted session with the Andretti Autosport team.
  • ASIMO, Honda’s advanced humanoid robot, is the race’s grand marshal and will give the command to start engines.

The starting lineup with Firestone tire designation is below:

Indy Lights: Colton Herta rolls to win 400th Indy Lights race

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Colton Herta rebounded from a difficult Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park to dominate Race 2 of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the 400th event in the history of Indy Lights. Herta started on pole after qualifying was rained out and immediately shot off into the lead when the green flag waved. He claimed victory over second-place Kyle Kaiser by more than nine seconds to complete a dominant performance.

“I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race,” the young Herta said of his triumph.

Herta was thankful to have pole and the inside line entering turn one, which helped him take the lead off the start, and emphasized he is already think championship. “Having the inside going into Turn One on the first lap was huge, because it’s so hard to pass here,” he explained. “Kyle was close to me on the first lap, but after that I was on my own. I do think that the more experience you have out in front, the better you are at staying calm. I think I’m better at that now because I have been up there in championships in Europe and it hasn’t worked out – and the championship is the focus now.”

Kaiser’s second place mirrors his second-place finish from Saturday, while Nico Jamin backed up his win on Saturday with a third on Sunday.

Race 2 again saw an opening lap caution, this one for contact between Zachary Claman De Melo and Pato O’Ward. Both went off course between turns two and three, with O’Ward spinning and briefly stalling in the gravel trap. Each made it back around to the pits, but both retired after suffering too much damage to continue.

Santi Urrutia also went for a quick spin after the race restarted, even damaging the front wing in the process. However, his incident did not bring out a caution and the race ran green to the end.

Herta now leads Kaiser by 17 points, with Jamin 27 out of the lead in third.

Results are below. The race will air Wednesday 4/26 at midnight on NBCSN.

Fernando Alonso ready to tackle ‘the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure’

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With smiles, humor, wit and determination, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived in the Barber Motorsports Park press conference room and promptly delivered his second win of the season – the first coming when he, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown, Honda and Andretti Autosport combined to stun the racing world in announcing earlier this month that Alonso would be racing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Alonso’s odyssey to come over the next month or so since that announcement has a game plan, a travel schedule and plenty of words to describe the experience. He and Brown arrived in Alabama late Saturday, and the two met the rest of the Andretti Autosport team.

On Sunday, Alonso made his maiden appearance on pit road during the warmup session for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pit for his No. 28 DHL Honda.

The press conference this morning then brought the same spirit of determination Alonso has outlined as his quest for even wanting to run the Indianapolis 500 in the first place, as well as a few jokes along the way.

“It’s true! It’s my first time here, and hopefully not the last. I want to come to see more of Alabama and this circuit,” Alonso led off during the press conference.

“This has been an amazing week to 10 days from the announcement. For any racing driver in the world to compete in this race is the main goal, against the best drivers, in some of the fastest, best cars in the world.

“This is the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure. I need to go through different steps in this learning, I need to do it in a short amount of time. But it’s so exciting. I need to thank McLaren, Honda for this opportunity and all the Andretti Autosport team.”

Alonso promptly outlined the schedule he’s going to be undertaking from here. After watching today’s IndyCar race, he’ll go to Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis shop for a seat fit in preparation for his maiden test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From the shop, he’ll be off to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (TV times on NBCSN here), and then back to the U.S. after that.

“From now on, it’ll be an interesting next couple weeks. There’s a couple of trips to Europe and U.S.A. back and forth. Next weekend, we will race in Russia for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, then the test, then the Spanish Grand Prix, then come back for the Indianapolis 500. I will try to learn as quick as I can.”

Alonso said he’s been thinking about this opportunity for several years in advance.

“Let’s say four to five years ago, I started thinking about how to grow up as a driver and become more complete,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was possible. But it makes me very happy to have this first attempt.

“Winning is something really big. I take it more like an experience. I’m very open. If the race was tomorrow, I’m not ready to do it because I know nothing about it. But I will go step-by-step to do some simulator laps. I have to be as good as I can on simulator, qualifying and running alone, then traffic when it comes time.”

Brown confirmed the support team around Alonso is as solid as ever. Michael Andretti will call Alonso’s race as strategist with Andretti technical director Eric Bretzman serving as engineer. Today he added that Alonso will have Honda consultant, 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion, two-time CART champion and closed course world speed record holder Gil de Ferran there as a driver coach to aid Alonso’s development.

Alonso brought some jokes when asked about Formula 1 drivers’ respective takes on his running Indianapolis and skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, where Jenson Button will make a one-race cameo to come out of retirement to deputize.

“We don’t talk much. It’s a different world!” Alonso laughed. “The only thing I know is probably what you guys have read, which is what I’ve read too.

“Some of them are happy and curious to see how competitive we can be. Others aren’t happy with anything in life … except their own performance. It’s a different world.”

About his former sparring partner in F1, Juan Pablo Montoya: “I don’t know if he’ll be at the front!” Alonso said to more laughter.

Alonso said he’ll look forward to the simulator time ahead, and told NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy that the simulator he is used to in Formula 1 is incredible.

In terms of the best advice he’s received?

“Enjoy,” Alonso reflected.

“It’s something that this race is so unique, so I’m ready to experience these emotions. That race, that day, everything happens so quickly. You tend to forget what you are doing. I’m ready to enjoy everything I’m doing that day.”

Brown, Andretti and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, also joined Alonso on the dais. Stefan Wilson’s contribution to the effort was once again praised.

The most noteworthy piece of news to come out of this trio was that Miles confirmed he’d be going on a European promotional tour after the Phoenix race (April 29) to spread the word about IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Alonso’s attempt.

“The attention we have seen already is incredible,” Miles said. “I will be In London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and we’re going be there while he’s in Indy to tell the IndyCar story.

“I’ve read clippings back from the first race in Indianapolis, and Fernando’s presence will make it even bigger this year.”

Perhaps Brown summed up the announcement best: “This is an outstanding opportunity for the world of motorsports to be able to come to Indianapolis. And I’ve never seen a driver so excited, dedicated and motivated to run in a race.”

More to follow…

Marco Andretti leads a wet Barber warmup

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Mother Nature rolled in overnight and through the early morning at Barber Motorsports Park, dropping a lot of rain on the 2.38-mile road course. Conditions stayed wet during the Verizon IndyCar Series morning warmup, although the rain clouds had moved away by then and the track began drying out.

Marco Andretti led the way after changing to slick tires on his final run, which indicates how quickly the track dried out during the 30-minute session. Marco was the only driver to run slick tires and his quick lap of 1:14.37 was nearly 3.5 seconds quicker than second-place runner Scott Dixon. Alexander Rossi, Spencer Pigot, and Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the top five, while James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin, and Zach Veach did not turn laps during the warmup.

Despite the tricky conditions, the session ran relatively cleanly. Helio Castroneves brought out a brief red flag when he went into the gravel trap in turn five, but he suffered no damage and continued on after getting a tow. Ed Jones also had a quick off-course excursion of his own between turns 12, 13, and 14, but he rejoined the track and continued.

Times are below. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama rolls off at 3:00 p.m. ET (2:00 local time).