Hulkenberg: 2014 start has “probably gone better than we were expecting”

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A solid start to the 2014 Formula One World Championship has Sahara Force India heading toward surpassing its overall points total from last year.

In 2013, Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil netted 77 points and a sixth-place result in the Constructors’ Championship for the Silverstone squad.

But in just four races in 2014, Force India’s new pairing of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez have already bagged 54 points and the team’s currently third in the Constructors’ – and smack in the middle of a tight battle between themselves, Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren for “best of the rest” status behind Mercedes.

Perez has the team’s lone podium of the year at Bahrain, but Hulkenberg’s been the more consistent of the duo. He’s one of just four competitors to score points in every race with results of sixth, fifth, fifth, and sixth to his credit.

Going into this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix (Sun., 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra), Hulkenberg indicated that he and his team’s consistent run to open the calendar may have been more than he’d initially hoped for.

“I’ve enjoyed the first part of the year,” he said. “It’s probably gone better than we were expecting after winter testing and it’s good to keep picking up the points.

“I’m fourth [in the Drivers’ Championship] with 36 points and I think that’s a big achievement. The car has worked well everywhere and we’ve made the most of the opportunities. Consistency is surely one of our strengths at the moment.”

But the development beat always goes on in Formula One, and Hulkenberg knows that his team can not let up on that front as the European rounds get underway.

“We’re up in third in the [Constructors’] championship and we want to stay there,” he said. “The hard work over the winter is paying off, but we know that Formula One is always a development race and things can change from one weekend to the next. So we need to keep working hard to maintain our good position.”

As for his boss, Vijay Mallya, he is “optimistic” that the consistency from his team will continue.

“China has never been an especially strong track for us, so to come away with ten points was a very good effort,” he said. “We also expect our car to perform better in warmer conditions and there are some upcoming races that will play more to our strengths.”

FIA WEC: Toyota third car, Signatech Alpine lineups revealed

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A couple more lineups for the FIA World Endurance Championship season have been announced this morning.

Toyota Gazoo Racing has welcomed back Nicolas Lapierre and added new driver Yuji Kunimoto to the lineup of its third car for the races at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans, alongside Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid.

Since Toyota didn’t retain him after 2014, Lapierre responded with class wins at Le Mans in LMP2 for KCMG and Signatech Alpine the last two years in the Oreca 05 (and rebadged Alpine A460) chassis, and swept to the LMP2 driver’s title last year with Gustavo Menezes and Stephane Richelmi.

“It’s great to be back with Toyota and I would like to thank the team for this opportunity,” Lapierre said in a release. “I’m really looking forward to racing an LMP1 car again because the cars have developed a lot since I drove the TS040 Hybrid in 2014. The Spa race is coming around very quickly so I am fully focused on preparing myself for the new season. I have stood on the podium before at Le Mans with Toyota so my target is clearly to do that again this year.”

Kunimoto is a Super GT and Super Formula veteran and is another young driver who will look to impress in his opportunity.

Lapierre will continue with Signatech Alpine Matmut for the rest of the season as part of a restructured lineup there for the Philippe Sinault-led team.

He’ll drive with Menezes and Matt Rao in the No. 36 Alpine A470 (the rebadged Oreca 07) Gibson for the other seven races of the year, with Porsche GT factory driver Romain Dumas stepping into the car while Lapierre is at Toyota.

A restructured No. 35 car sees Nelson Panciatici, Pierre Ragues and ex-Indy Lights driver Andre Negrao in that entry. Per Sportscar365, it will miss the Silverstone season opener and pick up its season at Spa.

Lest those be the only moves of late, ex-DTM shoe Miguel Molina will make his FIA WEC debut as part of a GTE-Am Ferrari entry, sharing the No. 54 Spirit of Race 488 GTE with Thomas Flohr and Francesco Castellacci.

Nick Foster replaces Adam Carroll in Gulf Racing’s No. 86 Porsche 911 RSR in the category as well, alongside Ben Barker and Michael Wainwright.

This all but completes the FIA WEC grid, with the only remaining vacancies the sixth and final driver at CEFC Manor TRS Racing in LMP2 and third driver alongside Robert Kubica and Oliver Webb at ByKolles in LMP1.

The grid then, as it stands for WEC:

LMP1

1-Porsche 919 Hybrid-Jani/Tandy/Lotterer
2-Porsche 919 Hybrid-Bernhard/Hartley/Bamber
4-ByKolles CLM P1/01 Nissan-Kubica/Webb/TBA
7-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Conway/Kobayashi/Lopez
8-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Buemi/Davidson/Nakajima
9-Toyota TS050 Hybrid-Sarrazin/Lapierre/Kunimoto (Spa & Le Mans only)

LMP2 (all Oreca 07s, except Signatech Alpine with Alpine A470s)

13-Valliante Rebellion-Piquet Jr./Beche/DHH
31-Valliante Rebellion-Prost/Senna/Canal
24-CEFC Manor TRS Racing-Graves/Trummer/Vergne
25-CEFC Manor TRS Racing-Rob.Gonzalez/Hirschi/TBA
26-G-Drive Racing (TDS Racing operated)-Rusinov/Thiriet/Lynn
28-TDS Racing-Collard/Perrodo/Vaxviere
35-Signatech Alpine Matmut-Panciatici/Ragues/Negrao
36-Signatech Alpine Matmut-Lapierre (7 races)/Dumas (Spa & Le Mans only)/Menezes/Rao
37-Jackie Chan DC Racing-Cheng/Gommendy/Brundle
38-Jackie Chan DC Racing-Tung/Jarvis/Laurent

GTE-Pro

51-AF Corse-Ferrari 488 GTE-Calado/Pier Guidi
71-AF Corse-Ferrari 488 GTE-Bird/Rigon
66-Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK-Ford GT-Pla/Mucke/B.Johnson
67-Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK-Ford GT-Priaulx/Tincknell/Derani
91-Porsche GT Team-Porsche 911 RSR-Lietz/Makowiecki
92-Porsche GT Team-Porsche 911 RSR-Christensen/Estre
95-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Thiim/Sorensen
97-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Turner/J.Adam

GTE-Am

54-Spirit of Race-Ferrari 488 GTE-Flohr/Castellacci/Molina
61-Clearwater Racing-Ferrari 488 GTE-Sun/Sawa/Griffin
77-Dempsey-Proton Racing-Porsche 911 RSR-Ried/Dienst/Cairoli
86-Gulf Racing-Porsche 911 RSR-Wainwright/Barker/Foster
98-Aston Martin Racing-Aston Martin Vantage V8-Dalla Lana/Lamy/Lauda

Performance Tech home for Kyle Masson to flourish, star early in 2017

Kyle Masson. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Cadillac and Wayne Taylor Racing will get a lot of the accolades for completing the “36 Hours of Florida” sweep to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

But another team did so as well, with a less likely cast of characters and after two flawless runs of their own: Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech Motorsports.

O’Neill took a stab at young talent, all of whom have full pro level potential but not full pro level experience yet at the top flight of endurance sports car racing. In James French (24 years old), Pato O’Ward (17), Kyle Masson (19) and Nick Boulle (27), O’Neill had a quartet of young drivers with a combined three Rolex 24 at Daytona starts. What followed was a flawless drive under the miserable conditions en route to deserved win in the Prototype Challenge class.

What better way to follow it up, then, with a second straight star turn at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring? French, O’Ward and Masson pulled off the back-to-back effort themselves after a second successive brilliant run, this time finishing fifth overall.

French, O’Ward, Masson and O’Neill. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Of the trio, Masson was the busiest at Sebring, and for good reason. The 19-year-old out of Windermere, Fla. was also starting his season in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series competition this weekend, also with Performance Tech, in the formerly L1 but now MPC class with the venerable, Elan DP02 open-top prototype (we’re trying to make this as least confusing as possible).

This meant he had three races to run at Sebring in one weekend, in two entirely different open-top cars, in two different multi-class series.

And all Masson did was go three-for-three in winning them all, sweeping the pair of MPC races before joining his teammates in the PC class in the big show to complete the Daytona to Sebring double.

As the younger Masson explained, keeping both cars straight was a challenge he had to master.

“Because everything was under the same tent, the time management wasn’t that difficult,” Masson told NBC Sports. “We entered with the focus of me winning the (MPC) races. The PC car, I could figure out in the race. The Lites was more on edge, and I had to push and figure it out.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The biggest difficulty I had was going back and forth from the Lites (MPC) to the PC car, totally different styles. They don’t drive similarly at all. The (Lites) car is so planted, it’s so physical, you have the muscle it. The PC car is delicate, twitchy, with power steering. When you’re going back and forth, it becomes tainted with elements of the other! I was learning how to re-drive the car in middle of the (Lites) races.”

There was another element that made the MPC races difficult to master. IMSA has adjusted the former Prototype Lites series to now add LMP3 chassis, which is a separate class from the MPC class, the former top class of the prototype development series when it was called L1. Because the cars have speed in different areas, Masson had to figure out how to race the new cars without them compromising his own race.

“The P3 cars had more speed on the straights and that made it more difficult to pass,” he explained. “A P3 car had held me off for a couple laps, would block in the corners and pull away on the straight. That pushed me into the JDC entry in MPC and kept us together to battle and fight. The two classes combined are a bit hectic, but we’ll learn how it goes.”

Masson had to learn Daytona from the Roar Before the Rolex 24 while at Sebring, he estimated he had more than 1,000 laps at the track a couple hours south of Orlando. For a driver who’s only been competing for two and a half years since graduating from Skip Barber, it’s already become a track he’s learned to master. That track experience made it easier, if not outright easy, to switch between the two cars.

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The weather differences between Daytona and Sebring’s races could not have been wider apart, either. Daytona was rain-drenched with ambient temperatures barely above 40 degrees; Sebring, sunny in the 70s on race day, actually made it a bonus to be in the venerable open-top cars rather than a hindrance as it was in Daytona.

“Daytona was absolutely miserable. I was freezing… I think I got out with hypothermia!” Masson laughed. “But Sebring, with the cooler air, the open-top and dry weather, allowed us to stay cool in the car.”

Masson and O’Ward were the two young proteges under French, the 24-year-old out of Sheboygan, Wis. who has evolved into Performance Tech’s undisputed team leader and lead driver the last couple seasons.

Masson and O’Ward gelled from the off having been teammates with Performance Tech in the Elan MPC cars last year at Sebring, and reconnected at the all-Mazda combined Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last September. It became natural to be paired up with French, who Masson said has been an invaluable coach and resource.

“It was a daunting task stepping up. I was extremely nervous,” Masson admitted. “I know how to drive a car and use the clutch, but hopping into the PC car felt foreign. I knew almost nothing at the Roar. It was such a big jump that it felt like something I hadn’t done before.

“But James was a mentor. I always looked up to him. He was like an idol to me! He’s helping coach me along. He helps stay calm, cool and collected. He has the experience but we’re really close friends.”

Kyle and Robert Masson. Photos courtesy of IMSA

Family is a big word around both the Masson name and the Performance Tech team. Masson’s dad, Robert, is a neurosurgeon… who is also Kyle’s teammate with Performance Tech in the MPC class this season.

Meanwhile O’Neill’s team is a true privateer effort; the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-squad has a family atmosphere that drivers who’ve been there have hailed before going onto other programs. Prior to his graduation to Mazda’s factory prototype team, Tristan Nunez raced here.

“They are an amazing group of guys,” Masson said. “I only got into racing 2.5 years ago, fresh out of Skip Barber, and there’s so many paths and roads to go down. I could have gone down the Road to Indy or the Road to 24, because there’s so many teams and options. I was so lucky to meet up with Brent and Performance Tech.

“They will always be family to me now. They will be always my first family. They’re always there for me. They care so much. They want to win races so badly. The performance matters.. it’s so serious and you know they won’t sacrifice an ounce. It’s a great environment.”

At 19, there’s no knowing how high Masson’s career might rise. He’s already got a Rolex watch and a Sebring trophy under his belt… and this is in the off time when he’s not studying for a double major in business and finance at the University of Central Florida.

But there’s already a confidence there that this is just the start of great things to come for the rest of his burgeoning career.

“I had a feeling signing up for this that if everything went well, we could dominate,” he said. “We’re so consistent. Realistically, we are a team without any ‘am’ drivers, lap-time wise. We’re all running ‘pro’ times. We’re all up there on the sheet. Having that as a cushion, we don’t need to push to our limit, which keeps the car to its limit. Having that as a team in endurance racing is a big advantage.

“Since it’s my second year in these cars, my confidence has skyrocketed. Now I know how to push myself to my limit and get the most out of the car. Last year, for the JDC guys (Austin Versteeg, Clark Toppe) it was their second year and my first year in any real car on slicks.

“Now it’s a completely different story. I picked up a lot of new skills. I’m able to translate that and put it all together as best I can, thanks to the people around me.”

Ricky Brabec wins 2017 Sonora Rally (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Ricky Brabec wins Sonora Rally. Photo: Sonora Rally
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Honda rider Ricky Brabec, who won a stage at this year’s Dakar Rally, has captured the victory in last week’s Sonora Rally, held March 21-24 in Sonora, Mexico.

He led all four of the special stages in a start-to-finish romp for victory.

Despite Joan Barreda and Steve Hengeveld’s injuries that ruled them out of the rally, Brabec still had to focus on the job at hand.

“You are really racing against yourself out here, against the terrain,” he said in a release.  “I’m much more familiar now with open up a course than I was back in January at Dakar when I had to do it for the first time.”

Fellow Honda riders Mark Samuels and Andrew Short completed the podium. Samuels won the Sonora Rally’s Dakar Challenge, which presents a free opportunity for a rider to enter the 2018 Dakar Rally.

“The hard work of getting to Dakar is still ahead of me, but I will do everything in my power to make America proud,” Samuels said.

Polaris ATR rider Dave Sykes won the UTV class, with Eric Pucelik and Mike Shirley winning the Cars class.

On background, the Sonora Rally is the only event of its kind in North America. The rally raid format requires street legal vehicles to transit along untimed “liaison” sections and timed “special stages” over multiple days, with the lowest combined time winning the event. Now in its third year, the Sonora Rally realizes the vision of founders Scott Whitney and Darren Skilton to bring a world class rally raid event to these shores (2016 recap).

Brabec’s winning ride is captured in the below video, via Race-Dezert.

Meanwhile, because photos do this event more justice than words do, those are below (All Photos: Sonora Rally)

Webber: Alonso may not see out the season with McLaren

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Mark Webber never had the easiest time in Formula 1, particularly his latter years as the number two driver at Red Bull Racing to Sebastian Vettel.

That being said, he was never on the verge of leaving it directly until he announced his plans to move to Porsche’s LMP1 Team, where he raced for three years from 2014 to 2016 before retiring at the end of last season.

But the Australian pondered whether Fernando Alonso might not be able to see out the season with McLaren Honda, if the team and manufacturer’s woes continue.

“Alonso may not stay with the team,” Webber told Belgian outlet Sporza. “Maybe Stoffel (Vandoorne) soon will have a new teammate.”

“I could see it happen that Alonso does not drive out the season. He is very frustrated. Fernando doesn’t start for a sixth or seventh place; he wants to fight for the podium.”

Webber added that for Vandoorne’s sake, starting in a team with lower expectations might not be the worst thing for him. It may allow the Belgian rookie to learn without extra pressure, since the onus is focused on the team.

For Alonso though, time is of the essence for what’s left of his career in F1. This is his last season under contract with McLaren Honda and he made no secret of his frustration for how well he drove at Melbourne, yet the car wasn’t up for it.

“Well the race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN post-race. “The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. It was good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to keep it in the points. A suspension (issue) stopped us from getting this point.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.”