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IndyCar: Franck Montagny enjoying return with Andretti

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Andretti Autosport’s fifth Verizon IndyCar – the No. 26 Suretone Honda – is getting a ton of press for the Indianapolis 500, with Kurt Busch in the seat and set for the double run between Indy and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend.

But the car is getting something of a test run this weekend in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, with Franck Montagny back in North American open-wheel racing for the first time in five years.

Montagny hasn’t raced since a one-off appearance in the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans in OAK Racing’s P1 Oak Pescarolo Judd (with ex-open-wheeler Bertrand Baguette and Dominik Kraihamer), and his last start in North America came in a one-off in Level 5 Motorsports’ HPD P2 car at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May of that year. Prior to that, he’d been a factory Peugeot LMP1 driver before the program ended at the end of 2011.

Now he returns to an IndyCar for his first start since the 2009 race at Sonoma, in what was also a fifth Andretti Autosport entry. He also finished second in the Champ Car series finale at Long Beach 2008, driving for Gerry Forsythe.

“The thing is I haven’t driven in two years. I’ve been off working television in France, following the Formula One circus,” he told MotorSportsTalk. “It’s been since 2008 and 2009 over here… but when Andretti had the opportunity to put together the fifth car, they called me, and here I am. Easy as that.”

Montagny was seriously impressed with the depth of the field, and despite wanting to be fastest said it spoke better of the series that as a one-off entry, he isn’t able to come in and be immediately on the pace.

“Compared to anything else in the world, nowhere else there’d be seven tenths between the first guy and the last guy. Nowhere else,” he said. “I’m seven tenths off and it feels not too bad, then I look at the times and I’m almost last! But in F1 I’d be second!

“It’s very tough because one tiny mistake screws it up. The car is what is what is, but the level of the championship speaks for itself.”

The Frenchman ended Thursday 22nd on the charts, but as mentioned, only 0.7783 of a second off pace setter Scott Dixon.

Montagny is one of 11 drivers with past IMS road course experience, although since it’s been since 2006 when he raced with Super Aguri’s Formula One team. Unlike others who have called the track changes an upgrade for the better, Montagny said there isn’t that much different.

“It’s a bit different, but not really that much,” he said. “The sections on the infield are different but close to the same. Still can have quite a lot of fun on it.”

The Andretti Autosport Montagny is working with now is also much different than in 2009. Then, the team’s quartet of drivers was Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh. While Andretti remains, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz represent a collective upgrade – although with Andretti’s strength of depth in engineering.

The No. 26 car, for example, has Hinchcliffe’s old engineer – Craig Hampson – this race and the Indianapolis 500, and should feature most of the crew that helped take Munoz to second in last year’s ‘500.

“Sharing the information, from the inside you can see how the team is very strong, and outside, they’re all champions,” he said.

There could be other opportunities for Montagny down the road within the team, but for the moment, he’s focused on just this race. Montagny also didn’t seem thrilled with the worldwide direction of sports car racing, and said he’s not keen on getting back into that anytime soon.

The weekend is a reunion for Montagny, Honda, and Andretti, who also worked together besides 2009 with the team’s Acura LMP2 sports car program in 2008. Montagny and James Rossiter won overall in Detroit that year.

IMSA Prototype title battle pits AXR teammates against each other

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The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype standings couldn’t be tighter heading into Saturday’s season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

Dane Cameron and Eric Curran currently lead the standings in their No. 31 Whelen/Team Fox Corvette DP, holding a razor-thin 286 to 285 point lead over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP.

“It will certainly be business as usual – that’s the best way to put it, for sure,” Cameron said in the team’s advance release. “We can’t afford to race any differently or be conservative.

“We need to be on attack to try to win the championship. We’re going to be putting it all on the line to try to get this championship. We’re taking on our teammates – the two-time defending champions – and you can’t leave any stone unturned.

“In the big picture, it’s a great accomplishment for the whole Action Express Racing organization to have both cars first and second in the points. That’s something to be really proud of, two great seasons from our race cars.”

Whichever team accumulates more points in Saturday’s race will be the 2016 Prototype champion. And besides the one-point difference, things have been tight in other ways, as well.

In the last IMSA race for Prototypes, Sept. 17 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Cameron and Curran finished second, with Barbosa and Fittipaldi right behind in third.

What’s more, prior to that the Action Express pairs have recorded three consecutive one-two finishes: Cameron/Curran and Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 at both Road America (Aug. 7) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (July 10), while Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 ahead of Cameron/Curran at Watkins Glen International (July 3).

“We had a great test in Atlanta,” said Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson.  “There were other Corvettes that we ran against so we were able to evaluate our cars against others that we’re going to be racing this weekend.

“We ran over 700 miles per car, over the two days, and we made a lot of long runs. We really feel a lot of confidence and we’re excited about the race coming up at Road Atlanta.”

As if things weren’t interesting enough, Cameron and Curran are pulling out all stops by adding brand new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud to their team for the 10-hour endurance race.

Pagenaud raced with Cameron and Curran (and Johnny Adam) in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the team finishing sixth in class.

Pagenaud competed full-time in the American Le Mans Series from 2008 to 2010, earning eight wins in that period and the 2010 series title, before moving full-time to the IndyCar circuit.

In this race last year, Barbosa and Fittipaldi, along with another IndyCar driver, Sebastien Bourdais, captured the championship, while Cameron, Curran and Max Papis finished third.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi have their own ringer of sorts, Filipe Albuquerque, who was part of their team that wound up with respective fourth place finishes in each of the first two races of this season: Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

“Doing Petit Le Mans with three drivers is almost the same as doing it with two drivers at the Glen, maybe a little bit longer,” Fittipaldi said. “It’s pretty straight forward and we won’t need to make any adjustments.

“In the series you have to be prepared no matter what, and ‘be on’ all the time.  We only have 10 races and it doesn’t matter if it’s Daytona or Sebring or Road Atlanta — you just have to be on it all the time.”

Added Barbosa, “Everything in the race really comes down to preparation in the shop. Our race cars are very strong and very reliable and we can push the car all the time for the whole 10 hours.

“This is going to be the last race for this Corvette Prototype, so hopefully we’ll be able to give it a last win and retire the car in the best possible way.”

Albuquerque this season has also earned two wins in the LMP2 class of the WEC (Six Hours of Silverstone and Six Hours of Mexico), along with two other runner-up finishes (Six Hours of Nurburgring and Circuit Of The Americas).

In addition to going for their overall Prototype championship, Barbosa/Fittipaldi are also in the hunt for their third consecutive Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup title, a four-race competition based upon overall outcomes at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta.

Barbosa/Fittipaldi have earned 35 points to lead the competition, with Cameron/Curran a close third with 29 points.

“Last year, we were in a pretty good championship battle with our teammates in the No. 5 car, as well as the Wayne Taylor car,” Curran said. “It really came down to the wire last year at Petit Le Mans, on basically who finished ahead of the others was going to win the championship – and we came really close.

“We ended up third last year, but only a few points behind our teammates. It’s even closer this year. We’re one point ahead, but anything can happen. All the guys on the team have been great. Our pit stops have been spot on, the performance of the car has been phenomenal and my teammate Dane Cameron has been top-notch.

“We’re closer to the championship than a year ago and it’s an amazing feeling to be so close.  The pressure is on now.  It would be huge for us to win a championship in the top class of the IMSA series.”

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Dragon Racing loses Vergne penalty appeal from London

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 2: In this handout image supplied by Formula E, Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01 during the London Formula E race on July 2, 2016 in Battersea Park, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Andrew Ferraro/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
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Dragon Racing’s appeal following Jean-Eric Vergne’s post-race time penalties at the season finale of the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship has been lost. Dragon was hoping to finish ahead of DS Virgin Racing for third in the team’s championship.

A decision was released today by the FIA International Court of Appeal, which heard the appeal on Friday, Sept. 16, which called the appeal “inadmissable.” Dragon appealed the penalties on July 6.

Vergne was assessed two post-race time penalties – 50 seconds for hitting 0 percent battery life on the final lap, and an additional second when leaving the pit lane. The first penalty dropped him from third on the road down to seventh, with an additional position lost on the second penalty.

Nonetheless, even though Dragon’s pair of Jerome d’Ambrosio and Loic Duval were promoted up to third and fourth in the London race at Battersea Park, Vergne was still classified eighth in the finale. That four-point net was enough to ensure DS Virgin finished one point ahead of Dragon for third place.

Vergne has since shifted from DS Virgin to Techeetah Formula E for season three. The new season kicks off Oct. 9 in Hong Kong.

Soft tire preference revealed in Japanese GP picks

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 27, 2015 in Suzuka, Japan.
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Formula 1’s two-week Asian swing is ahead with the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend and the Japanese Grand Prix next week.

The Japanese Grand Prix tire picks were revealed on Tuesday, per usual, and most drivers and teams have selected more of Pirelli’s sets of soft tires, the softest on offer. As in Malaysia, teams can select between the soft, medium and hard compounds.

All drivers have between six and nine sets of softs selected.

Both Red Bull drivers are opting for four sets of hards, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel three sets of hards and Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen two sets of hards.

The full breakdown is below:

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BMW announces FIA WEC entry from 2018, Formula E partnership with Andretti

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BMW has announced that it will return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2018 after seven years away.

BMW last raced at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2011, but will now make its comeback as part of a realignment of its motorsport program.

This also includes a technical partnership with the MS Amlin Andretti team in Formula E from season three with a view to a works entry in the series from its fifth season.

“The strong pillars of the programme for the coming years will be the DTM, the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC), the cooperation with Andretti Formula E in the FIA Formula E Championship, the customer racing programme in the GT3 and GT4 categories, the promotion of talented young drivers, and the extremely challenging Dakar Rally,” a statement from BMW reads.

“The plan is for BMW to enter the FIA World Endurance Championship in the 2018 season. The highlight of this championship is the 24-hour race in Le Mans.

“BMW claimed overall victory there in 1999 with the open prototype BMW V12 LMR. The last time a BMW took its place on the grid at the endurance classic near the river Sarthe was in 2011: back then, the BMW M3 GT finished third in the LM GTE class.

“Since it was launched in 2012, the championship has enjoyed a positive development, forged new paths in many regards, and won a lot of fans.

“Further details, such as the model of car to be used and the team responsible for the car, will be confirmed and announced over the coming months.”

BMW motorsport director Jens Marquardt added: “Starting with the 2018 season, we want to further expand our activities in GT racing and compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“This obviously also includes our return to Le Mans, which we are particularly looking forward to. The way the WEC has developed so well makes us confident that there is a big future for GT racing.”

Of its involvement in Formula E with Andretti, BMW confirmed a long-rumored technical partnership that has already begun ahead of the all-electric series’ third season.

“The cooperation with Andretti Formula E is initially set to run for two seasons. It incorporates, for example, cooperation at engineer level and the mutual use of resources.

“Depending on the general development of the racing series, a works involvement is envisaged as of the series’ season five, 2018/2019, provided the conditions and circumstances are right.

“As part of this commitment, BMW Motorsport will provide its works driver António Félix da Costa as a driver for Andretti Formula E. The Portuguese, who has featured on the top step of the DTM podium with BMW and has already tasted victory in Formula E, will contest the entire 2016/17 FIA Formula E Championship.

“As well as the new partnership, BMW i will remain the “Official Vehicle Partner” of Formula E. This partnership allows BMW i to present the plug-in hybrid BMW i8, as the Safety Car, and the fully-electric BMW i3, as the Medical Car, in some of the largest cities in the world.”

You can read the entire statement from BMW by clicking here.