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Le Mans: Aston Martin, AF Corse win in GTE; Jota Sport in LMP2

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One year ago at Le Mans, Aston Martin Racing endured through a dark day with the tragic death of Danish driver Allan Simonsen (pictured, last year prior to his fatal early crash at Tertre Rouge).

But today, their No. 95 team – the team that Simonsen competed for in last year’s 24 Hours – earned top honors in GTE-Am with the all-Danish driver lineup of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Nicki Thiim.

Poulsen brought the No. 95 to the checkered flag with a two-lap advantage over the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR. The No. 61 AF Corse Ferrari was third.

It marks the second Le Mans win for Poulsen, who picked up an LMP2 victory in the 2009 race while driving the Team Essex Porsche RS Spyder. As for Thiim and DHH, it’s their first Le Mans win.

In the GTE-Pro class, AF Corse chalked up the win with Gianmaria Bruni, Toni Vilander, and Giancarlo Fisichella in their No. 51 Ferrari 458 Italia.

For a time, AF Corse’s fight with the Aston Martin and Corvette Racing camps in GTE-Pro was the highlight of the entire race itself. But they were able to outlast them both, with the No. 73 Corvette finishing second at one lap behind. The No. 92 Porsche Team Manthey 911 RSR completes the Pro podium, two laps down.

And in LMP2, the No. 38 Jota Sport Zytek-Nissan held on by a slim margin after getting a final splash of fuel in the last half-hour of the race.

When Marc Gene was called in to drive for Audi after Loic Duval’s vicious crash, Oliver Turvey stepped in to help the No. 38 team and co-drivers Harry Tincknell and Simon Dolan. It was Turvey that wound up closing out the race for the No. 38.

Chasing them to the bitter end was the No. 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Ligier, which survived an instance of suspension damage with four hours remaining. Third place went to the No. 36 Signatech Alpine/Nissan.

Nobuharu Matsushita to remain in GP2 with ART Grand Prix

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Nobuharu Matsushita (JPN, ART Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _MG_4660
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Nobuharu Matsushita will remain in the GP2 Series for the 2016 season after agreeing a new deal with defending champions ART Grand Prix.

Matsushita made his GP2 debut in 2015 with ART, racing alongside Stoffel Vandoorne who ultimately won the drivers’ title in record-breaking fashion.

Matsushita finished ninth in the final drivers’ standings with one race win to his name, and is now gunning to battle for the championship in his second year with ART.

“I would like to thank Honda and ART Grand Prix for giving me this opportunity to continue racing in GP2 Series,” Matsushita said.

“ART Grand Prix won the championships last year, and I am so honored to be part of such an amazing team again. As a member of HFDP, Honda Formula Dream Project, aiming to be the top-world-class driver, I will give my best to win the drivers and the team championship in my second GP2 season.”

Matsushita will race alongside Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin at ART in 2016, with the Russian driver moving from Rapax for his sophomore year in the series.

“I am truly delighted to start our third year of partnership together with Honda with this reinforcement of our collaboration,” ART team boss Sebastien Philippe said.

“Nobuharu will partner Sergey Sirotkin in the GP2 Series. He had an incredible year in 2015 when he did not know Europe or the championship, the team and the car, but nevertheless he secured one win, several podiums and made massive improvements all year long.

“As a driver and on a personal level, we have no doubt at all that he has all the assets needed to fight for the title in 2016.”

NHRA: Lots of change heading into this weekend’s season-opening Winternationals

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Last season, the National Hot Rod Association adopted a “#BaptismByNitro” theme to attract new fans and attention to the sport.

But as it kicks off the new season with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California,  if the NHRA were to come up with a new theme song for 2016, it’d likely be the old Scorpions ballad “Winds Of Change.”

Change – and positive change at that – seems to be all around in the wind for the NHRA, including:

* Peter Clifford begins his first full season as NHRA president (he replaced the retired Tom Compton last June). Clifford has made a number of dynamic hires in an effort to improve the sanctioning body’s reach and attractiveness to fans.

* The NHRA has embarked upon one of its most ambitious marketing and communications initiatives ever to increase fan attention and attendance at events, including the hiring of veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount late last season as new vice president of communications.

* Another significant hire is Emmy award-winning Ken Adelson as vice president of broadcasting and digital content to supercharge the NHRA’s TV and digital sides.

* Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 has become the official TV partner of the sport, with plans to televise live the majority of the 24 races this season, including expected three-hour presentations of final eliminations on Sundays. In addition, former Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon embarks upon a new career as a NHRA TV analyst.

* New rules in Pro Stock, including the long-awaited implementation of electronic fuel injection and the removal of long-standing monster hood scoops, should inject life into a class that had grown somewhat stagnant to fans in recent years.

* After becoming the first back-to-back female champion in any NHRA pro categories, Pro Stock queen Erica Enders goes for three straight titles this season.

* Fan favorite and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlan returns to the sport on a full-time basis after racing part-time last season.

* After enduring what he called his “worst season in 25 years” in 2015, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force is bound and determined to earn title No. 17 in 2016. The ageless Force (66 years old) told MotorSportsTalk that he feels as invigorated as he’s ever been and looks forward to significantly improve from last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish.

* In addition, Force will have long-time crew chief Austin Coil “helping out” in an unofficial capacity for Force’s Funny Car, as well as those of son-in-law and John Force Racing team president Robert Hight and Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney.

* John Force Racing also scored another coup in the offseason by hiring 11-time Top Fuel champion team owner/crew chief Alan Johnson as a consultant to oversee the Top Fuel efforts of driver Brittany Force. Judging by some of the runs Force had during last weekend’s preseason testing for nitro cars at Phoenix, not only does she seem likely to earn her first career win, she also is an early possible contender for the championship.

* Defending pro class champions are Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

And those changes are just for starters. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the NHRA is poised for increased growth and notoriety in 2016.

While the sanctioning body still has not capitulated to what many fans want – the return of full quarter-mile drag strip racing for Top Fuel and Funny Car competition (the standard remains 1,000 feet for 2016) – the changes that have already occurred for this season definitely hold a lot of promise.

Yes, the winds of change are swirling within the NHRA.

And if Clifford and the rest of the sanctioning body officials have their way and many of the changes prove successful, by season’s end the NHRA may be signing another Scorpions song that deals with wind: “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.”

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Helmut Marko: Modern-day F1 drivers are overpaid

xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on June 19, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.
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Red Bull Racing team advisor Helmut Marko believes that modern-day Formula 1 drivers are overpaid due to the reduced risk and easier driving conditions they experience.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel are two of the highest-paid drivers on the grid in 2016, earning upwards of $30 million per year from their teams.

However, Marko believes that drivers in F1 are overpaid as there is now a reduced risk of suffering a fatal accident, and that with the cars being easier to drive, their worth has decreased.

“Basically, the drivers of today are definitely overpaid for two reasons,” Marko told Sport Bild in Germany.

“Firstly, there is only a small risk that serious accidents can result in injury or even be fatal.

“Secondly, young top talent like [Max] Verstappen or [Pascal] Wehrlein can take the modern car and straight away easily do 100 laps without tiring.

“Previously you had even a Vettel have to take breaks because he was not used to the high centrifugal forces. This means that the cars are easier to drive. The drivers must do less.”

Wolff: Wehrlein, Ocon deserve Formula 1 roles

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 23:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during Formula One testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 23, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Mercedes AMG Petronas team boss Toto Wolff believes that junior talents Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon have both earned their roles in Formula 1 for the 2016 season “on merit”.

Wehrlein will make his grand prix debut in 2016 with Manor Racing after winning the DTM title for Mercedes last year, becoming the youngest champion in the history of the series.

Ocon has been loaned to Renault Sport F1 Racing for its comeback season, and will work as the team’s reserve driver following his GP3 title success last year.

Wolff feels that both drivers deserve their chance in F1 this year, and also said that Mercedes will look to expand its junior program across the course of the season.

“We’re delighted that Pascal and Esteban will tackle a fresh set of challenges in 2016,” Wolff said. “Our aim is to build their experience in the best possible environment and, following positive discussions with our counterparts at Manor and Renault, it became clear that their respective Formula 1 programmes presented ideal opportunities to achieve that.

“It is very pleasing to see young drivers earning their spot in Formula 1 on merit and to see that talent is being rewarded by the system. Pascal and Esteban have proven themselves to be amongst the top young drivers out there – and both come into 2016 as champions of their respective series.

“But they still have plenty to learn and they will be staying humble, with their feet on the ground. This is an important year for them and we will be following their progress with great interest, while also looking to expand our junior program.

“Mercedes-Benz has a strong tradition of developing young racing talent and our eyes are very much open to other promising prospects for the future.”