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Exclusive Q&A with GP2’s Conor Daly

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After speaking to Alexander Rossi in Canada, MotorSportsTalk got the chance to speak with the other young American forging a path towards Formula 1 – Conor Daly – in England yesterday.

The son of former F1 driver Derek, Conor rose through the junior ranks in America before moving to Europe to race in GP2 and GP3. Having finished third in GP3 last year, he endured a tough winter as he went in search of a seat, but finally secured a place in GP2 with Venezuela GP Lazarus for 2014.

After a difficult winter and beginning to the year, we sat down with Conor to talk about his season so far, his career, his thoughts on F1’s revival in the USA and the role that his father played in getting him racing.

It’s been a difficult start to the season, but how do you think things have progressed since the beginning of the year and since last winter? 

Conor Daly: I knew it would be a big challenge coming in as a rookie. Fortunately I got to do the first race last year which was kind of cool, and it went really well, so I didn’t think that it would be going as badly as it has gone so far. But you know every team is different and every situation is different so it’s definitely been a challenge, but I feel like we’re definitely improving. To finish 10th in Monaco after qualifying at the back again; to make up so many positions there, I felt, as a driver, satisfied with the racing and the same again in Austria. I got good starts and passed a lot of people, and ended up 11th and right near the top ten again. It’s tough because last year having went so well and being so close to getting a championship and now we’re fighting again just to score points. It’s different but we can only do what we can do so we’re gonna keep trying to work at it and improve.

And you felt that the GP2 race you did in 2013 helped? You sort of knew what you were coming into when you stepped in the car this year?

CD: Well it did help because I knew I could get in the car immediately and be competitive and fight for the top five, so now, as difficult as it has been and as much as we’ve struggled with the car, I’m very confident in the way I’m driving these cars because of that first race. We have to do a lot of work with the car to get it in the game and get it in the zone, get it where we need to be competitive. It’s been a good kind of benchmark, that’s for sure.

How did the deal with Lazarus come about, because you had a really tough winter trying to find seats and it was quite a last minute thing…

CD: Yeah that’s kind of one of the biggest mysteries. It was the worst winter ever. A lot of things I thought I had never happened. This deal with Lazarus came up when they called me up to do the test, and I informed them of our situation, sponsorship-wise and all of that which is basically the main thing that anyone wants to know about. They were passionate to have me in the car and they wanted to get me in and after the first test they wanted to continue to have me there so we just tried to work with their partners, what they have and the Venezuelan partners that they’ve got and some business in America. Obviously Powerful Yogurt is on our car now, which is a business based out of Miami.

I’ve never really been with a European team that’s really worked on the business side to keep a driver in because for me, I still don’t have the sponsorship from my end. There’s a situation where I obviously still have to bring a portion of the budget, combined with what we’ve put together business-wise, and I don’t have what I need. But we’re all still working together constantly, and that’s great, but it’s kind of a shame at the same time because I wish that there was one year in my career where I could have total security. But it is what it is – that’s racing. I’m not fortunate enough to have governments behind me or oil companies, so it is what it is and I’m happy to be here and we’ve done every race so far so all is well. I can’t be more thankful to these guys for the opportunity.

So over the winter, what other avenues did you look at? Did you look at IndyCar or WEC? 

CD: I was actually totally ready for IndyCar. I was focusing on IndyCar because for GP2, I lost my funding, I lost everything. All the teams I’d spoken to are like “here’s how much it is, you have that, or we’re not going racing”. There was no team that was like “well we’ve got a little bit of sponsorship, we could maybe help you out”. It’s like money or nothing. In IndyCar, at least all of the teams know who I am and they’re really helpful in trying to put things together. However, I still didn’t have enough money for there either.

It was just a really sad situation to see rides that I’d been working on going to other people, just because of a money number. It was a difficult winter only because of seeing things that you’re close to going away, but then all of a sudden, a chance came up and I’m in GP2, which of course overall that was my goal. I just kind of put it on the side because I didn’t know exactly where I could find however many millions of dollars that I needed to get here. The right opportunity that I really wanted eventually came up.

So if I right now put an IndyCar contract on the table, would you take it? 

CD: That’s a difficult question. I get a lot of tweets about that. I can’t say yes or no right now, because I’m in the middle of the GP2 season and that’s my focus, and I don’t know what’s happening in Formula 1. Obviously Formula 1 is the dream for anyone, and still for me as an American because we need an American in the sport, but we also need someone to help an American get to the sport, so that’s the difficult thing. I love IndyCar, but right now, my focus is to get through the GP2 season and to finish that and see where that takes me, but I definitely have a love for IndyCar, for sure.

Of course you did the Indy 500 back in 2013, you couldn’t do it this year though. Was it something you were trying to work out? It clashed with Monaco GP2 of course, so was that the only thing in your way?

CD: Monaco was the only thing in the way, but it would have been good to just focus on GP2 as well. I could have got in the 500 at some 33rd entry, but I don’t want to do that again, I already did that with Foyt. That was an interesting deal, and it was awesome, but I’d like to go back there in a position where I’ve got the experience, I’ve got the testing going in, the right way. It was good to just focus on GP2.

Really looking ahead, is the next chance you’re going to have at the 500 going to be if you’re in IndyCar? 

CD: Yeah for sure. The only chance I’d do the 500 is if I’m in there full-time.

Between GP2 and IndyCar, what kind of differences are there between the two cars when you’re behind the wheel? Is there a big change?

CD: Not really actually. The cars are quite similar on road courses. A lot of people say that GP2 cars would be faster around a road course, but I’m not sure I believe that. I know that IndyCars are constantly getting a little bit quicker with a little bit more horsepower. They’re definitely very close. IndyCar is a little bit heavier, GP2 is a little bit lighter and nimbler but the tires are obviously completely different animals. I’d say they’re quite close which is helpful for me if I were to go either way.

Now the big thing everyone is talking about at the moment is Haas Formula coming into F1 as an American team. You must be excited as an American to see this possibly going ahead? 

CD: Yeah it will be really cool. Gene Haas has obviously done a lot in NASCAR which is really cool, and I like the guys that he’s got in NASCAR. Tony Stewart is a good friend of mine, he’s awesome. Kurt Busch is obviously very cool and him doing the 500 was awesome. I didn’t really get to talk to him much but I introduced myself at the banquet and that was cool for me because I’m a racing fan. We’ll see how it plays out.

Obviously it’s a big challenge, it’s a big thing to do, and it was unfortunate to see what happened with USF1 when they obviously tried to do it. I have a lot of confidence in him because he seems to be fairly gung-ho about going after it, so we’ll just see how it plays out. I would love to be a part of it as an American.

Have you spoken to Gene about it?

CD: I haven’t spoken to him personally, no, he’s very hard to get a hold of! I know my Dad met him in Montreal, but it’s gonna take someone else other than my Dad because he doesn’t want to be the one who’s just like “oh he’s just his Dad”, so we’ll have to kind of get in touch with them a different way. At least my Dad met him and said hello. I have to say he’s aware of both me and [Alexander] Rossi.

Yes of course, he has said he wants American drivers involved with the team, that must fill you with confidence?

CD: You know it does, but racing is a weird animal so I just never know what will happen. 

So say in 2016 if they offered you a role as a test driver and you could do that in tandem with GP2, would that work?

CD: That would be something for sure, depending on how it worked out, absolutely. You can be affiliated with a Formula 1 team and have a legitimate shot, not just being a reserve driver but having a legitimate shot at a race seat, that’s alright. But again, we’ll just have to see how it plays out. I’m ready for it if it comes, that’s for sure.

Being an American youngster at this time must be pretty fantastic. We’ve had Austin come back, New Jersey, Long Beach, they all get thrown around. You must be pretty pleased that you’re the ‘right’  nationality at the moment?

CD: People keep saying that but me and Rossi are still here in GP2, and we’re not getting those calls to jump up. I love being American, I happy being American, but we can’t keep seem to generate the support that other nationalities get from their pure countries – not moral support, financial support. I get so many people who are so passionate about seeing us there, it’s so cool, I love seeing all the tweets and messages I get because I love it too, I love what I do, I’m pretty thankful, and I would love to represent the USA in F1 or on a world level, but it’s gonna take a lot to get there.

It’s awesome that we’re in Austin because Austin’s a great race and the possibilities of more races, fantastic. We’ll just have to continue to see how it plays out, and even if it’s Alex and not me, that’s awesome, I’d love to see Alex there. I was just staying at his house over the weekend, so it’s gonna be cool to see how it plays out, but we cannot stress enough that we need help to get there for sure.

On your way up the ladder with racing, was it just a matter of karting and knowing this is what you wanted to do?

CD: Yeah. Through karting, it was like this was just something I was like “yeah we’re doing it”. But then when we got to the really high levels of karting, and then I started getting into cars and I was like “okay this is definitely what I want to do”.

Your Dad, Derek, must have been a huge influence. Were you pushed into racing at all or was it something you found on your own?

CD: Never pushed, that was one thing my Dad never wanted to do is never push me into something I didn’t want to do. It was actually one of our neighbors who wanted to start go kart racing and they obviously called upon the help of my Dad because they knew about him. So I was like “I wanna go too!” and sure enough I got in and I was like “wow!”. Sure enough, I went for it and the rest is history.

And even to this day he must be a huge influence and a huge help?

CD: Yeah, as soon as I got into it, he was a huge supporter, really enjoyed it, but he was very tough on me all the time, making sure this is what I wanted to do. He almost tried to talk me out of it because of how difficult it is, but that was to make sure that this was what I really wanted to do. As difficult as it was growing up, I’m glad I went through it because of how much I love the sport now and how much I love what I do.

If you’ve got a message for the American fans and people watching you race, what would it be?

CD: Just keep waving the flags, keep supporting us. All the tweets, all the messages, and any form of social media, we appreciate everything.

Exclusive: Austin Coil returns to ‘help’ John Force in 2016

Austin Coil is coming back to 'help out' at John Force Racing in 2016.
(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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The man most responsible for John Force’s career success – other than Force himself – is coming back to John Force Racing.

Force exclusively confirmed to NBCSports.com that former crew chief Austin Coil is coming out of retirement and returning to the JFR fold for 2016.

“Coil said to me, ‘You’ve managed to screw this up, but I can help you’,” Force said with a laugh during a phone interview from NHRA preseason testing in Phoenix. “He’s helping me, to help the people with me, to look at the things we need to get this thing right.”

First joining forces in 1986, Force and Coil went on to become the winningest driver-crew chief combination in NHRA history, earning 15 Funny Car championships and 132 national event wins together.

Coil abruptly retired one day after leading Force to his 15th NHRA Funny Car championship in 2010.

Since the breakup, Force has won just one additional Funny Car championship (2013) and 11 national event victories. The veteran driver is coming off an especially tough 2015 season, one he calls “my worst season in 25 years,” finishing seventh in the standings and recording just two wins (Las Vegas 1 and Epping, New Hampshire).

And even though Force is now 66 and Coil is 70, they believe they can regain some of their old magic together. Force has also brought back former tech whiz Ron Armstrong into the JFR fold.

“We’re putting the old band back together,” Force said with a laugh.

As for what Coil’s role will be exactly, Force was quick to point out Coil will not return to his old crew chief role, nor will he be considered a “consultant” or “advisor.”

Rather, Coil simply wants to be “help out,” Force said.

“Coil, I want to be clear, is not going to come out here on the road, he doesn’t want to do that,” Force said. “But he’s helping us with stuff.”

Coil will not have an office at JFR and will work at his own pace, Force said. But given that Coil called the shots for 24 years before, Force is more than happy to let his old buddy “help out” in any way he sees fit.

“I’m really excited to have him on board,” Force said. “Just talking to Coil, for me, we’ve only had three or four lunches together, but just talking helps get my heart back right. He made me who I am and I’m never going to forget that.

“I asked Coil what did I do wrong? He said, ‘You’ve been on overload. You had good people and you lost some. What you have to do is get back on track.

“He told me to split the team in half, start building the dragster side (with 11-time Top Fuel champion Alan Johnson overseeing the team with Force’s daughter, Brittany, behind the wheel), and on the other side, build the Funny Car side, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Coil had resisted prior efforts to return to the JFR fold. But when Force came calling over the winter, Coil apparently had a change of heart.

“Over the winter, Robert (JFR president and Force’s son-in-law Robert Hight) and I got together (with Coil) and said, ‘Let’s talk about things,’” Force said. “We knew there were issues. He quit, he walked away, he said he just didn’t want to do this anymore. I thought he might be going to Schumacher (arch-rival Don Schumacher Racing), but that’s not where he went.

“He said, ‘I’ve done my thing, I’ve won’ and we really were best of friends. He said to my face, ‘I love you, Force, I always have. But I’m in a different mode in my life of what I want to do. I’m in retirement, I can’t run to the airports like I used to.’

“He’s the one that put me here 25 years ago. Thirty years ago, we started building it. People give me the credit for it, but no, it’s the people I put around me like Coil, Armstrong, Mike Neff (crew chief for Hight and director of operations for JFR) and with AJ (Alan Johnson) coming in here and Brian Husen (as Brittany Force’s crew chief).”

With Johnson now running the Top Fuel side of JFR, and with Coil’s return, Force is very optimistic about his four-car organization’s chances in 2016.

“I always listen to Austin Coil,” Force said. “He says let Alan Johnson run that dragster, he’ll put your kid in the winner’s circle, and let Mike Neff run that Funny Car. He’s won championships for you and he’s going to build those Funny Car teams to where they need to be.

“So, I’m excited about it. We’re going to be okay. We’re going racing now.”

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Bird: Buenos Aires Formula E win ranks among career best

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - FEBRUARY 06:  Sam Bird of DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team celebrates at the podium after winning the Buenos Aires ePrix as part of 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship at Puerto Madero Street Race Track on February 06, 2016 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images for TAG Heuer)
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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird believes that his victory in Saturday’s Buenos Aires ePrix ranks among the very best in his racing career after he fended off championship leader Sebastien Buemi in the final stages of the race.

Bird led the majority of the race from pole position, but came under intense pressure late on from Buemi who was bidding to complete a last-to-first comeback.

A mistake in qualifying had resigned the Swiss driver to the back of the grid, yet he was crawling all over the back of Bird’s DS Virgin Racing car with a few laps to go.

However, Bird managed to produce a superb defensive display to keep Buemi back and secure his third win in Formula E, which he believes ranks among the best in his career.

“I think it’s up there, I think it’s really good,” Bird told MotorSportsTalk. “I enjoy all the victories. I look back on all of them with fondness but considering we were fighting with two cars that are really good at the moment, to come out and beat them hands down feels very nice.

“We’ve learned a lot from Punta del Este, like I’ve told everbody and we put that into good practice and we did the best we could. We maximized everything and we’ve come away with 28 points so really happy.”

Despite sitting third in the championship standings, Bird does not believe that he is in a position to mount a challenge for the title this year.

“Hare and the tortoise and all that, that’s what I’ve said, hare and the tortoise,” Bird said. “It’s way too early. There are two guys out there that are just so fast. If I can take it to the end, great. I’m not even thinking about it to be honest.

“There are so many decent drivers in this championship that one minute you might win, the next minute you might be P10. So we need to wait and see. Consistency is the key. The two guys ahead of me, they’re relentless, so beating them will be tough.”

Sam Bird takes memorable Formula E victory in Buenos Aires

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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird emerged victorious from one of the most thrilling Formula E races in the short history of the series after fending off a charging Sebastien Buemi in the closing stages to bag his third win.

Championship leader Buemi started the race from the back of the grid after making a mistake in qualifying, leaving him with a mountain to climb to even score points, let alone win the race.

However, the Swiss driver produced a driving masterclass and was aided by a safety car period to come into contention late on, only for Bird to produce an equally-excellent display and keep his cool to win in Buenos Aires.

Bird led all but one lap of the race, dropping down to second when Nelson Piquet Jr. went one lap longer during the pit window, and managed to see off challenges from Nicolas Prost and Antonio Felix da Costa in the first half of the race.

Da Costa’s hopes of repeating his victory in Buenos Aires from 2015 were ended just before pitting when his car came to a halt, prompting the stewards to send out the safety car which bunched the field.

Buemi had fought his way up into the points from 18th on the grid by the time he came in to swap cars, and made light work of Stephane Sarrazin before setting his sights on perennial title rival Lucas di Grassi in second place.

An exquisite move into the hairpin saw Buemi move into P2, and despite appearing to have a pace advantage over Bird in the closing stages, the Briton put up an impenetrable defence to keep the Renault e.dams driver back on the final two laps.

Low on power, Buemi had to drop back at the final few corners, giving Bird the breathing room to take his third Formula E win and the first since the start of the DS Virgin partnership.

Di Grassi was unable to join the leading pair at the front for the last fight, dropping back to save power, but managed to finish third. Sarrazin finished fourth for Venturi ahead of Prost and Loic Duval, while Nick Heidfeld’s return from injury went well as he finished seventh.

Robin Frijns enjoyed a good start in the Andretti, running as high as fourth early on, but ultimately dropped back to finish seventh. Oliver Turvey and Bruno Senna rounded out the points in P9 and P10 respectively.

Jean-Eric Vergne bounced back from food poisoning overnight to finish 11th, narrowly missing out on points, while Nelson Piquet Jr. ended the race P13. Daniel Abt and Simona de Silvestro enjoyed quiet races en route to 13th and 14th, while Mike Conway blew his chance of points on debut with a late spin, dropping him to P15 at the end. Jerome d’Ambrosio was the last classified finisher in 16th place.

Manor WEC program launched

Photo: Manor
Photo: Manor
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One of the intriguing elements to come out of yesterday’s entry list reveal for the FIA World Endurance Championship and 24 Hours of Le Mans was the confirmation of Manor in LMP2.

Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth hinted something new was up not long after the final Grand Prix of the season, when the pair took their bows from what had been the Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

That “something” was revealed on Friday as an Oreca 05 Nissan in the stacked LMP2 class – a 10-car class – with Tor Graves, a past Manor driver, confirmed as the first new driver for the effort.

“We are delighted to be joining the World Endurance Championship. It is a fantastic series that visits iconic tracks all over the world. The level of competition is very high and we are really looking forward to racing again,” Booth said.

“The LMP2 class is specifically designed for teams independent of manufacturers and/or engine suppliers which places the focus firmly on how the team performs.

“I can’t wait to see the car running now. We have lots to do but we have a great team of people to get it all done.”

The team might be out before the Prologue test at Paul Ricard end of March, but it’s likely that test will mark the team’s first significant running. It should have its driver lineup settled by then, as well.

Lowdon, who’s been bit by the sports car racing bug, expanded on the announcement.

“It’s really great to be racing again and the FIA World Endurance Championship provides a fantastic challenge for us,” he said

“Preseason testing starts soon and there is a lot to do but we have never been afraid of a bit of hard work.

“There is a real buzz within the team at the moment, we have enjoyed great support from the fans over the last few months and we are very keen for them to get fully involved in what we are doing. We all have a great passion for motorsport and we are keen to share that passion.”