Indy 500: Experience is a virtue for former champ Jacques Villeneuve

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After running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for the first time since his 1995 Indy 500 triumph, Jacques Villeneuve needed a moment to get himself together.

But eventually, the experience from all those years ago kicked in.

“The first 20 laps was a big shock to the system because I hadn’t been in an open-wheel car since 2006,” he said of the experience last month. “If I had jumped from F1 directly to Indy, it would’ve been a non-issue. But the first 20 laps – your body, your brain, your eyes – they’re just not used to those speeds anymore and it’s a big shock.

“You just need to do a few laps, get out of the car, take a breather and then when you get back in, it’s business as usual. The muscle memory is there. It’s like riding a bicycle. You start doing a few set-up changes and you settle in.”

19 years later, Villeneuve – who also became a Formula One World Champion in 1997 – is returning to the ‘500’ this year in a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

A lot has changed in 19 years, and Villeneuve doesn’t seem to like some of those changes such as the shift to a “fixed” chassis formula with the Dallara DW12. He says he understands why IndyCar did it, but in his mind, it doesn’t attain the obvious goal of cost-containment for its competitors.

“If you open it up, people will start making cars again,” he said. “It’s never been a bad thing. If you look at every series through history that went to one manufacturer, one engine, one tire, they never made things cheaper.

“It’s supposed to do that but it doesn’t, and it just stops the evolution. When you’re a world series or a top-notch series, it needs to be open to be respected.”

He also believes the level of respect that drivers gave each other on the race track has decreased as well.

“Some younger drivers didn’t even grow up seeing real racing as being dangerous,” he mused. “A lot of drivers, when they break their little finger, they’re surprised. I’m like, ‘Be happy!’

“Sometimes you see things happen that you’d never see in the past, because the drivers back then knew you needed to respect the danger, and they don’t.”

Villeneuve is hoping not to be around those particular drivers if and when they have a problem Sunday. He also hopes to use the first half of Sunday’s race as a chance to gauge his car’s capabilities in the draft.

That could prove to be the biggest challenge of all for the 43-year-old Canadian.

“Once you back out a little bit, it’s similar to throwing a parachute,” he said. “If the guy behind you has managed to stay close to you without backing out of it, you’re done. When one car gets you, the car behind him will get you and so on, and you can never get your rhythm back and that’s what’s tough.

“Early in the race, it shouldn’t be an issue and you can run wide. But as soon as the marbles get on the track, then you really have to be careful in how you let guys pass you if they’re getting a run on you.”

You certainly can’t be passive in a situation like that. But that should be the last problem we’ll expect out of Villeneuve now that he’s re-acquainted himself with the Brickyard oval.

“It feels as if 19 years ago is yesterday and that is weird. 19 years is a long time and suddenly, the speeds felt normal,” he said. “…You get to the point where it doesn’t feel fast anymore and that’s where the danger lies.

“You become too complacent and you get caught out. The good thing is I’ve been here before, I hit the wall here before, so I know not to get caught with that.”

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.