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Sebring 12-hour: Class story lines to watch

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All four classes in this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will have some intriguing action. Some of the key storylines to watch may include the following…

P: P2 FAMILIARITY VERSUS DP UPGRADES

After racing at a relative performance disadvantage at Daytona, the P2-spec cars should be on more even footing at Sebring.

The current generation of P2-spec cars has roughly three years of Sebring data to utilize, while DP cars have only properly tested at Sebring within the last five to six months.

The P2s will be back to a higher downforce package and configuration, while DPs make other aero adjustments, including new dive planes.

Action Express Racing’s No. 5 Corvette DP has been the class of Sebring testing and has accumulated more laps than any other DP thus far at the track. Whether any other DP will be able to match the pace shown remains to be seen.

Additionally, although DPs have had no issues with 24 hours at Daytona, 12 at Sebring is an entirely different challenge. The track’s a grinder; it punishes first-timers more often than not. Continental Tire has 12 hours of running on the PC class cars from last year, but this will still be new territory for the DPs.

American Le Mans Series fans are probably hoping – publicly or privately – that one of “their” P2 cars wins, instead of a DP in their Sebring debut. We’ll see whether that actually comes to fruition.

GTLM: PORSCHE VERSUS THE WORLD

What should have been one of the most exciting class battles at Daytona turned into a battle of survival, as the GT Le Mans-class winning No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR was the only GTLM class car without major drama.

The pace of the factory 911s in February’s preseason test, plus the debuting Falken Tire entry, was a disconcerting sign once more.

BoP adjustments have been made in the class, primarily in reducing fuel tank capacity across the board. Still, the last thing I would have expected to start this new season and new era is that one manufacturer could potentially open with back-to-back wins and a pace advantage on such disparate circuits as Daytona and Sebring.

This class has seen incredibly dramatic Sebring finishes; Corvette’s win over Ferrari last year; the Joey Hand-driven BMW over Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari in 2012; the door-banging Ferrari versus Porsche finish in 2007.

For the fans, this year’s GTLM showcase needs not to be a one-horse race, and for all intents and purposes, it probably won’t be.

Porsche may enter as favorites, but all of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari and BMW will be giving chase. The RLL BMWs got results at Daytona by surviving more than outright pace, and should be in with a good shot at a handling track this week.

PC: BATTLE OF THE CHANGING LINEUPS

After PC had a good 2013 battle with five cars competing for the class win down to the wire a year ago, in the class’ first race with Continental tires, there should be more of the same in 2014.

PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports enters as defending race winners but with an overhauled lineup, now featuring Bayshore Racing/Camp Boggy Creek partnerships and Gunnar Jeannette, Frankie Montecalvo and Mike Guasch in the No. 52 driver’s seat.

CORE autosport’s relative stability and track experience should play dividends. Both of RSR’s lineups are strong, as is at least one of Starworks’ and BAR1’s.

The 8Star, Performance Tech and debuting JDC/Miller teams could also enter the picture depending on how reliability or contact affects any of the above eight cars.

GTD: A CALL FOR A CLEAN, NON-CONTROVERSIAL FINISH

The dust has settled, mostly, after the GT Daytona finish at Daytona. Level 5 won when a penalty issued for avoidable contact was rescinded; Flying Lizard, justifiably, felt jobbed.

Yet it’s Level 5, along with three of the top four teams from Daytona that actually won’t be in action at Sebring as they were last month. Third-placed Snow Racing has partnered with Rum Bum Racing for a new No. 13 entry; the fourth-placed SMP Racing Ferrari team was a Daytona-only entry.

Level 5’s pair of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler continues, in the same number and car, but now run by the returning AIM Autosport group.

Elsewhere there’s any of the other Ferraris, Audi R8s, Porsche 911 GT Americas, Aston Martin Vantages and solitary BMW Z4 GT3 and SRT Viper GT3-R that could contend this weekend.

There was good diversity of manufacturers in the top five at February’s test. The key to success in GTD is often how well the leaders manage faster traffic lapping them, and staying out of the way throughout the race. Some cars even have four-driver lineups, which will allow each driver to go close to flat out for their presumably one or maybe two stints.

Chilton says IndyCar test debut went “swimmingly well”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 12:  Max Chilton of Great Britain and Marussia speaks with members of the media during the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom on October 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Along with new Chevrolet aerodynamic components being tried out at the “it’s green in February and it’s never this green the later into the year we get” Sonoma Raceway, the other interesting storyline out of Wednesday’s six-car Verizon IndyCar Series test was that it marked Max Chilton’s testing debut with Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Chevrolet.

Chilton’s made the announcement, addressed the media and had his sponsor confirmed within the last week-plus.

But it was on Wednesday that the talking stopped and the driving restarted, for what was not only the 24-year-old Brit’s first time in an IndyCar but also his first time at Sonoma.

“It’s a bit of a shock today,” Chilton said, via a track-issued release. “I haven’t been in a racing car in six months and that was an Indy Lights car, so I’ve got to learn the track today and the car.

“But I think the morning went swimmingly well. I was quicker than I thought I would be.  It’s a really nice kit and I can’t wait to explore it throughout the season.”

Here’s a few photos on social media, either ones he or the track shared, of his maiden day in an IndyCar.

Chilton’s next test comes later this week, still in California, at Auto Club Speedway for his first oval run in an IndyCar.

Chilton joined his three Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, for the test. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud also tested on Wednesday.

Pabst adds Jordan Lloyd as third USF2000 driver

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Pabst Racing has added a third driver to its Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda lineup, in the form of talented 19-year-old Australian driver Jordan Lloyd.

Lloyd raced the first two weekends of last year’s USF2000 season with John Cummiskey Racing before being sidelined due to financial woes, but he showed quite a bit of promise in those two weekends at St. Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park. He finished second in one of the NOLA races.

For 2016, Lloyd returns to the U.S. after winning the CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 championship last year, and was thus awarded with the ‘Road to the World’ scholarship.

“I only touched the tip of the iceberg when I was here in 2015, so on a personal level there is a lot of unfinished business that needs to be tended to,” Lloyd said in a team release. “I am looking forward to a strong season.”

Lloyd, who will drive the No. 21 car, joins the previously announced pairing of Garth Rickards and Yufeng Luo at Pabst, the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin-based team, as the USF2000 field for 2016 continues to grow both in terms of size and talent.

Luca Ghiotto steps up to GP2 with Trident

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Luca Ghiotto (ITA, Trident) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
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Luca Ghiotto will step up to the GP2 Series with Trident in 2016 after an impressive season in GP3 last year that saw him finish second in the championship standings.

Ghiotto made his GP3 debut at the end of 2014 with a four-race run-out for Trident before remaining with the Italian team for 2015.

It proved to be a memorable year as he won five races – more than any other driver – but fell eight points short of the title as Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon was crowed champion in Abu Dhabi.

Ghiotto will remain with Trident for 2016, stepping up to its GP2 operation after a successful test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

“I can’t wait to line-up for this new adventure,” Ghiotto said. “Last year, it was tough for me to fight so hard and not winning the title. However, it has been an extremely useful experience with the help of the excellent teamwork among the whole Trident stable.

“I want to thank once again Maurizio Salvadori and Giacomo Ricci for their support, and the Italian Federation for believing so much in me. I really look forward to be back on-track.”

Newgarden on Phoenix: “You have to be really committed”

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Phoenix International Raceway replaces The Milwaukee Mile on the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2016 schedule as the lone one-mile oval the series competes on.

And that’s exactly where the similarities between the two end.

While Milwaukee’s nearly all-flat banking nature rewards those who find the setup early, and punishes those who don’t, Phoenix is going to be significantly faster and has a series of rises and falls that might make for a more interesting challenge.

Josef Newgarden, who took his first laps during a Chevrolet manufacturer test Monday at Phoenix aboard his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, had high praise for the commitment level it takes to nail a lap at PIR.

“Phoenix, you don’t need as much courage to be flat,” Newgarden told NBC Sports in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It just seems more crazy. From a commitment standpoint, the commitment level is higher, for different reasons.

“From a speed and physicality standpoint, it seems more of a commitment than Milwaukee. That was interesting to me. You really had to be committed… it was almost hard to breathe. It’s a very tough lap.

“It’s easier to be flat than at Milwaukee, and you’re generally flat out, but it seems higher commitment.”

Newgarden, who won his first career IndyCar pole position and dominated at Milwaukee last year, has lamented the loss of the oldest continually operated track from the schedule.

“I loved Milwaukee. It was a very difficult track. It took a lot more courage at Milwaukee to figure out how to get flat, or to get flat,” he admitted.

Newgarden hadn’t been to Phoenix previously and comments leading in – that the track serves as sort of a roller-coaster featuring the track’s legendary, albeit changed, dogleg in the backstraight – were apt.

“The whole thing is flat all around. The dogleg, there’s actually kind of a bit of a hill,” he said.

“You exit out of (Turn) 2, you run up the banking out of 2, then you get high enough, then run down pretty far and it’s kind of a downhill run into the dogleg, then you climb back up before 3. You’re almost constantly going up and down.

“I saw some NASCAR drivers describe it as a roller coaster, and that’s somewhat true. There’s a lot of elevation changes for an oval.”

How intense is the oval on the drivers, from a G-loading standpoint?

“Easy 4 to 5. I’d say 4.2 or 4.5 depending on downforce levels,” Newgarden said.

And that might be the most interesting thing to monitor for when IndyCar arrives at Phoenix, both for the Grand Prix-view open test February 26 and 27 and the race itself on April 2, is what downforce levels teams will opt to run to try to create better racing.

One of North America’s greatest open-wheel oval drivers, Rick Mears, has long been a proponent of less downforce.

Newgarden said less downforce will certainly create more separation and make the cars harder to drive, but it might not provide as close of racing.

“It’s hard to tell. I think if you want to see the cars racing and passing constantly, you’d need more downforce. If you trim it out and guys have to pedal them, it should separate the field better. I think more downforce would equal more racing around there. But it depends on what you want.

“Take Texas for example. Take the downforce away, it’s hard to drive, and there’s no passing. But it’s difficult on the drivers. There’s not as good racing. Add the downforce back, now everyone’s (sort of) packed up, but you’ll have amazing racing action. It really depends on what you want.”

Newgarden’s test was his first day in a car since he and team principal and teammate, Carpenter, tested at Texas Motor Speedway back in October.

A video from IndyCar featuring Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya from the Phoenix test is below.