UPDATED: Mathias Lauda, Niki’s son, wins NASCAR’s first oval race in rain (VIDEO)

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This story didn’t make big news on this side of the pond, so to speak, so we’re just learning about it now.

But make no mistake about it: the ramifications could spell potential major changes on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit in the future.

In an ironic twist of fate, hours before NASCAR called last Sunday’s rain-postponed (from last Saturday night) Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the first-ever NASCAR series oval race was contested under what was described as “torrential rain” at Tours Speedway in Tours, France.

In other words, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series race went the full distance under the wet stuff, unlike the Sprint Cup race in Daytona, which was cut short 48 laps from the scheduled distance due to rain.

According to sanctioning body officials, this is the first time a NASCAR-sanctioned paved oval track race – on any level – has ever been run and completed in rain.

And in almost storybook fashion, Mathias Lauda – son of three-time Formula One champion Niki Lauda – took the checkered flag in a Chevrolet SS.

“I’m very happy for my first win in NASCAR,” Lauda said, according to a Whelan Euro Series media release.

It wasn’t easy for the younger Lauda. With 10 laps left in the “Michelin 75” race, he was forced to twice pass on the outside – not the best of places to do so given the conditions – but his car held true and won by a thin margin of 0.677 seconds.

“I felt good in the rain and I got more and more confident,” Lauda said in a Michelin media release. “I tried to save my tires in the first half of the race, which was a good decision because when I moved to the outside at the end I realized at once that I was faster than the guys ahead of me.”

Lauda beat points leader Ander Vilarino to the checkered flag. And with the win, Lauda moved up from fifth to third place in the Euro Series standings, just 21 points behind Vilarino.

Up to last Sunday’s race at Tours, only the NASCAR Nationwide Series had contested three races in rain, twice in Montreal and the most recent last month at Road America in Wisconsin, won by Brendan Gaughan.

Check out the video interview with Lauda and Vilarino, followed by a highlight reel of the rainy race:

Michelin officials bragged about the feat with a press release issued Friday, calling it a “landmark victory” in “torrential rain” on the half-mile paved Tours oval.

Phillippe Mussati, manager of Michelin’s customer competition programs, was obviously rather proud of both Lauda and the job the Michelin tires on his race car did.

“The win of Mathias Lauda and his team DF1 Racing by 66 was an historic one for a number of reasons,” Mussati said. “In addition to the victory itself, his Michelin P2E tires fulfilled their mission to the letter and contributed to some outstanding lap times. In the rain, the fastest laps on these tires were only 1.5 seconds short of the fastest laps posted in the dry.”

The Whelen Euro Series concludes its regular season at Germany’s famed Nurburgring on July 19-20.

The series’ playoffs begin on Sept. 20-21 at Italy’s Autodromo dell’Umbria di Magione.

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Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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