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fell out of the running, and with the No. 70 Mazda not threatening for the overall win and Muscle Milk Pickett Racing withdrawn entirely, van Overbeek was the lone wolf with six other DPs breathing down his neck.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.

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Friday edition (VIDEO)

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While the drivers may be the stars of Formula 1, their on-track escapades would not be possible without the titanic effort from those behind the scenes at their respective teams, making it key for us to hear from the people who make racing possible from time to time.

Following on from the special Friday edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ in Bahrain, Will Buxton is back with all of the interviews from the team bosses in today’s FIA press conference in Russia.

In part one, we hear from Otmar Szafnauer, COO at Force India, who gives his verdict on the team’s showing in 2017 so far and new driver Esteban Ocon’s start to the season. We also catch up with Renault technical boss Nick Chester and Pirelli’s new F1 chief, Mario Isola.

In part two, Ferrari’s engine boss Luigi Fabroni offers his thoughts on the Italian marque’s strong start to the 2017 season following Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Bahrain. At the other end of the success spectrum, McLaren’s Matt Morris and Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa discuss the ongoing rebuilding project at woking.

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.