IMSA: Monterey Weekend Observations

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The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s fourth round of the 2014 season took place at historic and picturesque Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey. A few thoughts and observations gleaned from the weekend:

  • P2 gets on the board. Perhaps it wasn’t said publicly by too many people, but from some conversations throughout the paddock before the weekend, the sentiment going in was “win or bust” for P2-spec cars in the combined Prototype class of DPs and P2s. Through three races, DPs had a clear edge at two, but at Sebring the BoP was nailed to where P2s had a shot to win – just not the right timing. Heading into the weekend, Chevrolet (1.0mm) and Ford (0.9mm) received minor power reductions and smaller air restrictors. The balance changed during the race to where the DPs – which with their torque and horsepower advantage at Long Beach could run away down the straights there – were barely able to hold off the P2s, whose aero and cornering advantages played to their strengths this weekend. It was still difficult to overtake – witness Gustavo Yacaman’s heroics that went every which way to try to pass Michael Valiante in the opening 15 minutes – but when it was achieved by Johannes van Overbeek on Jordan Taylor in the final 15, it was satisfying to know it could be done. Put that in the positive category.
  • But JVO was, on May the 4th, the final T.I.E. Fighter left in the galaxy. Star Wars nerds (clearly not one of my good friends, who shall remain nameless, and hasn’t seen any) can correct me if I botched the joke, but if you take the view of DPs as “the death star” and P2s as “the T.I.E. Fighters,” than van Overbeek, like Obi Won Kenobi, was P2’s last hope on unofficial “Star Wars Day.” One-by-one the P2s dropped like flies. The No. 07 Mazda SKYACTIV-D, No. 42 OAK Racing Morgan Nissan and No. 1 ESM HPD ARX-03b fell out of the running, and with the No. 70 Mazda not threatening for the overall win and Muscle Milk Pickett Racing withdrawn entirely, van Overbeek was the lone wolf with six other DPs breathing down his neck. And like Audi versus a trio of Peugeots in the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans, the lone ranger prevailed.
  • Split races? A good call for equitable coverage. In the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, two of the four classes got major ink – the overall winners, and the class where controversy entered the equation. But on Sunday, with PC/GTD and P/GTLM races, we got a pair of two-hour shows that were low on cautions, high on drama and really, to be honest, were easier to cover than all four at one time. I think the fans got a good show, too, and judging by the grounds compared to the last four years, it seemed as though there was an uptick. The weekend schedule needs some massaging – an early week load-in followed by no on-track TUDOR activity until Saturday frustrated many – but it was a promising first start with this format. Light for race photography wasn’t brilliant, though, especially compared to the race’s past six, four, or two-hour and 45-minute formats.
  • About the schedule… Perhaps the biggest question still on the table, format-wise, leaving the weekend was asking why the two one-hour practice sessions on Saturday featured all 50-plus cars, yet qualifying would be run as normal in four segments and the races split in half? Suffice to say there were not a lot of happy campers in the paddock about this, but to give credit to the field, there weren’t the entirely high volume of incidents predicted. Although as one driver told me, “there’s not enough time to have a ton of incidents.”
  • A voice I wish we didn’t need to hear. For the third time in four races, IMSA VP of Competition and Technical Regulations Scot Elkins was a visitor to the media center post-race, after an hour-long review process of the podium in GTLM to determine whether the No. 55 BMW, the No. 911 Porsche, or both, would be penalized for late race On-Track Incidents. Elkins has one of the most thankless tasks in motorsports and, for the most part, has done a very good job of it over the years. But when a series official is called in to explain something post-race this frequently, it’s not beneficial for the series, the media, or the assembled PR reps who all hang on every word.
  • Stars of the weekend. Johannes van Overbeek, Renger van der Zande, Sean Rayhall, Bruno Junqueira, Gustavo Yacaman, Joel Miller, and Ed Brown in the combined P and PC ranks for stellar, clean or exciting drives beyond their usual efforts. Then Dane Cameron, Spencer Pumpelly, Christopher Haase, Pierre Kaffer and Dion von Moltke in the GTLM and GTD ranks. Tip of the hat as well to Ryan Eversley, who didn’t get to race but set impressive practice lap times in PC debut, finished seventh and ahead of fellow Honda runner Michael Valiante in CTSC ST, then snarked during the PC/GTD race from Magnus Racing’s Twitter account.
  • Heartbreak hotel. Pumpelly (again) and Ryan Dalziel had drives worthy of wins but after running out of fuel and having the transmission seize up, their days went begging.
  • Upon further review… When Alex Brundle tried to stick the OAK Racing Morgan Nissan down the inside at the Corkscrew, he speared into Joao Barbosa’s Action Express Corvette and Miller’s Mazda, neither of which could see him coming. It looked ambitious at the time, to put it politely, but made more sense in context after several laps earlier, Westbrook ran Brundle wide off Turn 5. At the Corkscrew, Brundle’s move was versus Westbrook, and took out two other hapless victims. A weird moment for sure, and a shame for Brundle’s co-driver Yacaman, who’d put OAK in position to win early on.
  • To go or not to go? Sean Rayhall’s passing attempt at Turn 10 of slower GTD traffic could also be chalked up to unbridled enthusiasm getting the better of him. But, as he said post-race, he had a gap and went for it. Better to find a guy who’s not afraid to go for the gap and has the pace on hand than to try to teach someone how to go for it. It was an otherwise flawless drive the for 8Star Motorsports rookie.

IMSA’s schedule shifts a bit over the next month. CTSC races next at Lime Rock May 24, with the TUDOR Championship P and GTD classes racing at Detroit May 31. PC races again in Kansas June 7, and the GTLM class does not race again until June 29 at Watkins Glen.

Bottas takes podium on Mercedes debut, eyes room for improvement

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Valtteri Bottas claimed a comfortable podium finish in his first Formula 1 appearance for Mercedes on Sunday in Australia, but has already identified areas for improvement in his display.

Bottas joined Mercedes for 2017 following world champion Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire at the end of last season, making his first race appearance this weekend in Australia from third place on the grid.

Bottas ran a trouble-free race en route to third, catching Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton towards the end but falling 1.2 seconds shy of the Briton. Race winner Sebastian Vettel was a further 10 seconds up the road for Ferrari.

“I think it is a start and there’s always things that could’ve gone better, but you know I think it is a good starting point for the jorney for me driving for Mercedes,” Bottas said.

“I think the main things were obviously yesterday in qualifying I didn’t get everything perfect, but it was the first qualifying with the team and this track hasn’t really been fantastic for me ever in qualifying.

“There’s a long season ahead and today I think the race was good I think we as a team we did a good job with the car we had. I think Ferrari was quicker today, there’s no doubt about that. So they’ve obviously done a great great job as well and a better job for this race.”

Like Hamilton, Bottas struggled in the early part of the race on the ultra-soft tire, but hopes to learn from the difficulties ahead of the next race in China on April 9.

“I struggled a lot with the ultra-soft tires, and it felt like I was sliding around and always missing front grip and rear grip especially after ten laps of the first stint.

“So that wasn’t easy but once we’ve put the soft tires on it was actually quite a good feeling with the car, the car was behaving really nicely. It was really nice to drive. Just a bit too late and still missing a little bit of pace.

“But overall I think not a disaster for a first race weekend with the team, but I do have my points I will take and I will be better next time. Looking forward to that.”

Lewis Hamilton: My decision to make early pit stop in Australian GP

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Lewis Hamilton has revealed it was his call to stop early during Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia, having struggled to hold on to the lead of the race due to his fading tires.

Despite tipping Ferrari to be the team to beat in Australia, Hamilton took the 62nd pole position of his career on Saturday, beating Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton retained his lead in the early part of the race from Ferrari driver Vettel, only for the German to turn in a sequence of quick laps ahead of the first round of pit stops.

Fearful of losing the lead on-track to Vettel, Hamilton opted to pit early at the end of Lap 16 so that he could put his fresh tires to good use and try to get the undercut on his rival.

Ferrari did not react immediately, keeping Vettel out until Hamilton hit traffic, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen holding the Mercedes driver back and creating a bigger gap between the two victory contenders.

Vettel was able to pit and come back out ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, immediately forging a buffer that would sustain until the end of the race.

Hamilton explained after the race that he decided to come in early due to his tire concerns, believing that Vettel would have overtaken him anyway.

“We had a really good start, which is fantastic, it’s great to have a good getaway – but then we were struggling with the grip from the get-go,” Hamilton said.

“Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time and the majority of the time do faster lap times. Towards the end I got a bit in traffic and overheated the tires and was struggling with grip, so it was to the point that I needed to come in.

“The gap was closing up and I was sliding around so it was my call, because otherwise he probably would have come by anyways. I came in and then I obviously got stuck in some traffic, which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”

Hamilton congratulated Vettel on his success, and said the result boded well for a close championship fight between Mercedes and Ferrari.

“A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari, I know it’s been a long time coming to get a result like this,” Hamilton said.

“It shows we’re going to have a race on our hands, which we’re happy to have. I think it’s great for the fans.

“Unfortunately it’s harder than ever to get closer to cars, which is a shame because we can’t have an even closer battle. Who knows, maybe in the future we will.”

Vettel: Australia F1 win ‘a big relief’ to Ferrari after barren 2016

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Sebastian Vettel said his victory in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opening Australian Grand Prix came as “a big relief” to the Ferrari team following a winless year in 2016.

Vettel qualified second in Melbourne before jumping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton through the pit stops when Ferrari opted to keep him out longer on the ultra-soft tires.

Vettel opened up a sizeable lead over Hamilton soon after his pit stop, eventually crossing the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Briton to win the opening race of the year.

The result marked both Ferrari and Vettel’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, showing the work that the team has done over the winter to turn things around after struggling last year.

“If you’re not part of the team it’s difficult to realize, but what this team has done in the last six months has been really tough, rough as well, not easy to manage,” Vettel said.

“Today is fantastic, a big reward and big relief for everyone. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though, the foundation has been laid a long time ago.

“I’m sure we’ll have a great night, create some great memories tonight and take it from there. We enjoy what we do, the spirit is great in the team and it’s up to us to keep it up.”

The result marked Vettel’s first win in Australia since 2011 and Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since 2007. In both years, they went on to win the drivers’ title, Ferrari taking the 2007 crown with Kimi Raikkonen.

History may be on Vettel’s side, but the German is not turning his attention to a fifth world title yet.

“No, I’m not interested in that point to be honest,” Vettel said when reminded of Raikkonen’s Australia win and title success in 2007.

“Obviously I was very fortunate so far in my racing career that I had some very good races and good years, but definitely after the first race is not the time to look at the table. We really have to go step-by-step.

“It’s good to know we have a great car but it’s just the beginning. New regulations, new generation of cars so there will be a lot of progress.

“These guys [Mercedes] have proven to be the ones to beat in the last couple of years more and more. We know they have a great engine but they’ve had a great car the last couple of years and they made good steps forward so we’re the ones who need to catch up.

“For today I’m just very happy and for sure whatever happens this year, the race today doesn’t hurt.”

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”